With the start of the second World War and a swift succession of German victories, the Nazi regime began realizing its longstanding goal of territorial expansion. Under conditions of war and military occupation, they could pursue racial goals with more radical measures. The German Army, military, SS, and German police units took an active part in authorized mass murders of Jews in the Soviet Union. The Germans and their collaborators deported roughly 2.7 million Jews and others from occupied Europe to killing centers in German-occupied Poland. At the largest of the camps, Auschwitz-Birkenau, transports arrived from all across Europe. The camps of Majdanek and Auschwitz were the first liberated, as Soviet troops reached Poland. As more Allied soldiers saw the camps with their own eyes, the truth was undeniable.
- How did the Nazis lead Germany to war in Europe and, with their collaborators, kill millions—including systematically murdering six million Jewish people?
- Why is learning about the Holocaust important?
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World War II and the Holocaust, 1939-1945
As the Nazi regime implemented its long-standing goal of territorial expansion, aggression against Germany’s neighbors initially succeeded without encountering armed resistance. Hitler counted on the reluctance of Britain and Europe to intervene, for fear of another war. The German occupation of Prague, capital of Czechoslovakia, left no doubt as to Germany’s intent on military conquest in Eastern Europe. On September 1, 1939, a massive German force invaded and conquered Poland within a month. It was the start of the Second World War. In April 1940, Germany occupied Denmark and Norway. In May, the German armed forces attacked France, the Netherlands, Luxembourg and Belgium. In June, Paris fell and France surrendered. The swift and unexpected victory over France avenged Germany’s defeat and humiliation in the First World War. It propelled Hitler to a new level of popularity and trust among the German people. In June 1941, the German Army, with more than three million soldiers, invaded the Soviet Union to wage a war of annihilation that targeted tens of millions of civilians. Under conditions of war and military occupation, the Nazi regime could pursue its political and racial goals with more radical measures. As German troops advanced into eastern Europe, Germany’s power extended over millions more Jewish inhabitants in the occupied lands, where German authorities could exploit existing anti-Jewish attitudes among local populations.
Across eastern Europe, German authorities forced those identified as Jews into tightly packed areas called ghettos. Separated from the non-Jewish population, Jews in the larger ghettos were imprisoned behind brick walls and barbed wire. The German drive eastward was cast as a crusade against Judaism and Communism—in the Nazi view, two aspects of the same evil. German soldiers and police officials treated Soviet prisoners of war as sub-humans, either shooting them or deliberately causing their deaths by exposure to the elements and by starvation. Millions died in German captivity. On the eastern front, racial political instruction was part of regular training for all types of German occupation forces. SS chief Heinrich Himmler referred to the war against the Soviet Union in an address to his men: “This invasion is an ideological battle and a struggle of races. Here in this struggle stands National Socialism—an ideology based on the value of our Germanic, Nordic blood… On the other side stands a population of 180 million, a mixture of races whose very names are unpronounceable, and whose physique is such that one can shoot them down without pity and compassion…” In July 1941, Hermann Göring—Hitler’s second–in–command—authorized all necessary preparations for the “final solution of the Jewish question” in the European territory under German control.
As German military forces advanced, mobile killing squads advanced with them. The German Army, military SS and German police units took an active part in authorized mass murders. The Germans and their accomplices rounded up the victims, drove them on foot or in trucks to a killing site, often made them remove their clothes, and shot them. Participants in the murders included local collaborators—especially police—in Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, Ukraine and Belarus. The German killing squads and their auxiliaries murdered at least two million Jewish men, women and children in mass shooting operations.
Back in Germany, SS and police deported the remaining Jews to the occupied eastern territories. In German-occupied Warsaw, the walled ghetto that German Jews entered as newcomers in 1942 was already a place of mass suffering due to terrible overcrowding, lack of sanitation, disease and starvation imposed by the Germans. Despite all efforts of the imprisoned Jews to find ways of surviving and sustaining their communities, those conditions increasingly led to death for scores of thousands. Most vulnerable were the orphaned children.
Originally, German occupation authorities established ghettos to concentrate Jews and separate them from the non-Jewish population. Later in the war, many ghettos served as staging grounds for the transportation of Jews to the east, euphemistically called “resettlement” by the Germans, who promised their captives better conditions and opportunities to work. People endured unimaginable suffering on journeys that lasted days, without food, water, or toilet facilities. Many of the weak, the young, and the elderly died before reaching the destination.
The Germans and their collaborators deported roughly 2.7 million Jews and others to killing centers in German-occupied Poland. At the largest of the camps, Auschwitz-Birkenau, transports arrived from all across Europe.
LILLY MALNIK, Auschwitz Survivor:
Transports were coming in every day, people with all kinds of different languages—Hungarian, Poles, Czechoslovakians, from Holland, from France, from Belgium, from Germany, from Italy, Russians. They were from everywhere.
NORBERT WOLLHEIM, Auschwitz Survivor:
My wife was somehow waving to me, and that’s the last I’ve seen of her.
FRITZIE FRITZSHALL, Auschwitz Survivor:
The smell, gas chambers. When I asked, “When will I see my mother?”—I was shown the smoke. This is how I found out where she went.
ERNEST KOENIG, Auschwitz Survivor:
It took a long time until I started to realize that we are condemned to die. All Jews are condemned to die.
Those whom the SS judged unable to work were killed, often within two or three hours of arrival. Those who could work would be used for forced labor, under punishing conditions. When they could no longer work, they, too, would be put to death. In several killing facilities, exclusively designed to kill human beings on an industrial scale, camp authorities used poison gas to murder children, women and men. At these killing centers, nearly half of all Holocaust victims died.
The camps of Majdanek and Auschwitz were the first liberated, as Soviet troops reached Poland. News of Majdanek’s liberation in summer 1944 was met with disbelief. The New York Herald Tribunesaid, “Maybe…we should wait for further corroboration…this…sounds inconceivable...” In April 1945, US troops in Germany and Austria came upon concentration camps at Buchenwald, Dachau, Nordhausen, Mauthausen and Ohrdruf. The soldiers saw the camps with their own eyes, and the truth was undeniable. General Dwight Eisenhower, Commander of the Allied liberating forces, wrote: “The things I saw beggar description…. The visual evidence and the verbal testimony of starvation, cruelty and bestiality were…overpowering…” In American movie theaters, newsreels made witnesses of thousands more. One commentator said, “To future generations it must be told: Once man did this to his brothers. In the 20th century there existed a civilization which for twelve years returned to barbarism.”
Shock permeated the camps as liberating troops tried to grasp what they had found. Soldiers did all they could to attend to the dead and to support the living. Those who survived faced the slow task of reclaiming their dignity and returning—somehow—to life.
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The Holocaust darkened the world’s view of humanity and our future. As the world struggled to understand what had happened, a new word, genocide, was needed for these crimes—crimes committed by ordinary people from a society not unlike our own.