When speaking about the Holocaust, what time period are we referring to?
The Holocaust was the systemic, state sponsored murder of six million European Jews by Nazi Germany and their collaborators between 1933-1945. Though WWII occurred from 1939-1945, a study of the Holocaust should include the period from 1933, when Adolf Hitler became Chancellor of Germany, through 1945 with the end of the implementation of the Final Solution. Throughout these years, the Nazis targeted European Jewry as part of a larger system of racial persecution and war. Germany and its collaborators persecuted and murdered millions more, including their political opponents, persons with disabilities, Roma and Sinti, Poles and Slavs, Soviet prisoners of the war, gay men, Afro-Germans, and others.
How many people were murdered during the Holocaust?
The exact number of those who perished during the Holocaust is unknown and historians may never know the precise number of victims. However, based on wartime records and demographic studies, it is estimated that approximately six million Jewish people and millions of others (including Roma, Sinti, gay men, Afro-Germans, person with disabilities, political opponents, Soviet prisoners of war, and numerous other targeted groups) were murdered during the Holocaust.
How many camps were there? Were they all the same?
Between 1933 and 1945, Nazi Germany and its allies established more than 44,000 camps and other incarceration sites (including ghettos). There were various types of camps, and they were not all the same: concentration camps were for the detention of civilians seen as real or perceived “enemies of the Reich,”; forced-labor camps exploited the labor of prisoners for economic gain and to meet labor shortages in the Reich; transit camps served as temporary holding facilities for prisoners awaiting deportation; prisoner-of-war camps held Allied POWs, including Poles and Soviet soldiers; and killing centers were established primarily and/or exclusively for the murder of large numbers of people immediately upon arrival to the site. Of those 44,000 camps created, six camps were designated as “killing centers” and they were: Chelmo, Belzec, Sobibor, Treblinka (II), Auschwitz-Birkenau, and Majdanek.
Why did the Nazis target Jewish people?
Antisemitism, the fear or hatred of Jews, existed in Europe for centuries before the Holocaust. During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the core of antisemitism turned towards the theory that Jews were not a religious group but a separate “race.” The culmination of older anti-Jewish stereotypes and rising antisemitic racial theory led the Nazi Party and its leader, Adolf Hitler, to accuse Jews of being dangerous and threatening to the “superior Aryan-race.” Therefore, Nazis and their supporters sought to eliminate the Jews. Moreover, in their eyes, the Jews’ racial origin made them habitual criminals who could never be rehabilitated and were, therefore, corrupt and inferior. This was completely false, but when the Nazi Party took power in Germany in 1933, their antisemitic racism became official government policy and made Jewish people a target for persecution.
How did the Nazis define who was Jewish?
On November 14, 1935, Germany defined a “Jew” as anyone with three or more Jewish grandparents. Those with one or two Jewish grandparents were considered a Mischling (an insult for someone of “mixed race”). These definitions had nothing to do with the individuals’ current religious practice, demonstrating how the Germans viewed Jewish people as a different “race,” and not necessarily those with a religious affiliation. Those identified as Jews experienced the Holocaust differently than those identified as Mischlings, but all were excluded or ostracized in some fashion and subject to murder.
What was the difference between the persecution of the Jews and the persecution of other groups by the Nazis?
Due to the Nazi Party’s antisemitism, which was deeply rooted in a racist ideology that Jewish people were of a separate, inferior race that was dangerous and threatening to the “superior Aryan-race,” Jewish people were targeted for complete systemic annihilation. Other targeted groups—such as political opponents, persons with disabilities, Roma and Sinti, Poles and Slavs, Soviet prisoners of the war, gay men, Afro-Germans, etc.—were deemed as “inferior” according to various social, political, and racial ideals of the Nazi party. Therefore, they received similar persecution, but the intensity of such varied depending upon location, timeframe, and group.
What is the “Final Solution”?
The “Final Solution” was the deliberate and systematic mass murder of European Jews. It took place from 1941 to 1945. Though many Jewish people were killed prior to the implementation of the “Final Solution”, most Jewish victims were murdered during this period.
Did all German citizens (and citizens from other nations who fell under the Third Reich during the Holocaust) know about the mass murder? Did they support it?
While information on the camps was not publicized, a great deal of information was available to the German public, and the treatment of the inmates was generally known. As the Holocaust progressed, the murder and mistreatment of Jews became more well know and understood by occupied and collaborator nations and their citizens. The Nazis often attempted to keep the murders of Jews secret and took precautionary measures to ensure they would not be publicized. Their efforts were only partially successful.
Although the entire German population was not in agreement with Hitler’s persecution of the Jews, there is no evidence of any large-scale protest regarding their treatment. Small-scale protest took the form of Germans who defied the boycott of Jewish businesses and purposely bought in Jewish stores, university students (such as the White Rose Movement) who spoke out, and a number of individuals who helped Jews escape and hide. Similarly, the attitude of the local population towards the persecution and destruction of the Jews varied from supportive collaboration with the Nazis to some active assistance to Jews. The Nazis found many locals who were willing to cooperate fully in the murder of the Jews, but there were also courageous individuals who risked their lives to save Jews. Due to the situation varying from country to country, it is difficult to make generalizations.
In what ways did Jewish people, and other persecuted groups, resist the Nazi regime?
Resistance took many forms during the Holocaust. Some individuals found a way to escape the Reich despite the dangers associated with doing so. Others continued to preserve Jewish culture by creating community in the ghettos and documenting personal or community experiences (such as Anne Frank or Emanuel Ringelblum). Some chose to engage in armed resistance through ghetto revolts, resistance in camps, and partisan warfare. The Warsaw Ghetto Uprising is the best-known example of armed Jewish resistance, but there were many ghetto revolts in which Jews fought against the Nazis. Despite the terrible conditions in the camps, inmates fought back at the following sites: Treblinka (August 2, 1943); Sobibór (October 14, 1943); Janówska (November 19,1943); and Auschwitz-Birkenau (October 7, 1944). Jewish partisan units were active in many areas, including Baranovich, Misk, Naliboki forest, and Vilna. While the total number of resistance efforts may seem small, they played a significant role and led to the rescue of an undetermined number of Jewish people.
What was the response of the Allies to the persecution of the Jews? Could they have done anything to help?
The Allies consisted of numerous countries, all of whom experienced and responded to the Holocaust differently. Regarding the American experience, it is important to understand the context surrounding the nation’s involvement when looking at their action and inaction in the Holocaust. The United States alone could not have prevented the Holocaust, but more could have been done to save the millions murdered.
Many in America were aware of the atrocities occurring abroad. American newspapers often reported on Hitler and Nazi Germany throughout the entire timeline of the Holocaust. Some in the nation pushed for action; for example, American Jewish leaders tried to persuade the government to condemn Nazi persecution. Others, such as the German American Bund, a pro-Nazi organization for Americans of German descent, demonized Jews and pushed Nazi ideology in the states. Despite such conflicting reactions, the responses of Americans at large were still limited as WWII approached. Following Kristallnacht, national polls showed that Americans overwhelmingly disagreed with Nazi actions, but most did not want more Jewish refugees to immigrate to the United States. After WWII began, other national polls revealed that many Americans opposed entering war. When trying to understand this viewpoint, it is also important to note that the United States was dealing with its own forms of racism, segregation, and oppression at this time. The nation was also dealing with the repercussions of the Great Depression, which affected its involvement in the war as well.
The US Government learned about the Final Solution and systematic killing of Jews almost as soon as it began in 1941. However, it wasn’t until Japan attacked Pearl Harbor on December 7th that the nation entered the war. Throughout the war, however, the Allied governments prioritized defeating Nazism and Axis operations, not saving Jews.
In retrospect, there are things could have been done to help the Jews. The US government could have publicized more information about Nazi atrocities, enlarged immigration quotas, assisted resistance groups, and pressured other national to help. These acts may have saved lives, but they would not have prevented the Holocaust. For more information on American action and inaction, please see “American and the Holocaust” on the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum’s website.