Th destruction of six million Western and Eastern European Jews occurred steadily over the course of the Second World War. Concrete evidence of any annihilation order written by Adolf Hitler has never been found. As such, the assumption is that the decision to commit genocide was made gradually.
At the start of the Second World War, the ideological views of the Nazis became even more radicalised. The Jews were held responsible for Germany’s defeat in the First World War and were viewed as enemies in their own country. Soon the Nazis were no longer satisfied with banishing the Jews from the German Reich – their destruction was declared the war goal.
The so-called “Jewish problem” assumed new proportions after the invasion of Poland, since it was home to more Jews than any other European country in 1939. The Wehrmacht and SS troops, alongside various other military units, started to humiliate and torture the local Jewish population. There synagogues and residential areas were destroyed and they were cramped into ghettos.
#Living space in the East
Another one of Hitler’s aims for the war was to make more living space accessible in the East, and to restructure it ethnically. Alongside the Jews, homosexuals, disabled people, Sinti and Roma, Slavic peoples were also considered “subhuman beings”. In accordance with the so-called Generalplan Ost, approximately 31 million people were supposed to be relocated or destroyed in order to provide the German Reich with enough food and living space for the Aryan. Based on that plan, the German Reich attacked the Soviet Union on the 22nd June 1941. This campaign was designed to be a war of conquest and extermination from the very beginning. Mobile SS forces and members of the Wehrmacht shot men, women and children in the woods and fields, and buried them in mass graves, some of which were dug by the victims themselves. In 1941-42 alone more than one million Jews, Soviets, Sinti and Roma were killed in this manner.
As it became more and more apparent that the planned blitzkrieg against the Soviet Union couldn’t be won before winter, the Nazi leadership’s willingness to persecute and exterminate grew. The Nazis realised that, by creating the ghettos, they had also created problems of monitoring and supply, and were determined to solve it as quickly as possible.
Photo: Theresienstadt by N. Eisold
After the victory over France, there were debates about deporting the Jews to Madagascar and leave them to themselves in concentration camps there. The Nazis were convinced the Jews would die from the climatic conditions in Africa. However, the French colonies never entered Germany’s area of control, and so the Madagascar plans had to be discarded.
From that time onwards, the SS officially considered the option of liquidating Jews who were unfit to work. The “Jewish question” had to be answered once and for all.
In the summer of 1941, Heinrich Himmler ordered the SS-Obergruppenführer and leader of the Reich Main Security Office Reinhard Heydrich to administratively prepare the “final solution to the Jewish question”. The aim was to destroy all 11 million European Jews. The infamous Wannsee Conference was held in Potsdam on the 20th January 1942 to discuss the administrative and organisational implementation with various authorities and ministries, not as often assumed to find a final solution to the Jewish question. The Referat IV B 4 and its chairman, Adolf Eichmann, were assigned the task of organising deportations. Nazi politics were now ultimately aligned to the assassination of the Jews.
The Jewish genocide, however, began before that. Since the start of the war, Polish Jews had been cramped into various ghettos since October 1941. To make room in the ghettos, many Jews were shot or killed in so-called gas vans: vans into which carbon monoxide was piped to suffocate them.
The shooting of the Jews proved to be too strenuous and onerous, so the Nazis began to test other means of execution. There were experiments with explosives, but it was quickly decided to initiate the euthanasia programme with which all “lives not worth living” (mainly physically or mentally disabled people) were to be killed with poison gas.
After successfully having tested the pesticide Zyklon B on Soviet prisoners of war in Auschwitz, the concentration and extermination camp was expanded in the summer of 1942 to include several large gas chambers and crematoria. Nearly all deportation trains from the German Reich, Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, the Netherlands, France, the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia, Greece, Italy, Belgium and Norway went to Auschwitz. Once there, the people were not only gassed, but also forced into hard labour, starved, slain or used for medical experiments by Josef Mengele and his team.
Up to 1.1 million Jews, Sinti and Roma, as well as prisoners of war, died in Auschwitz. The extermination was industrial: right after their arrival, the people were selected. Ill and elderly people, exhausted or pregnant women and mothers with children were usually sent straight to the gas chambers.
People who were still fit to work had their heads shaved, were disinfected, and were marked with a number – they were ultimately dehumanised and robbed of their identity.
“Then for the first time we became aware that our language lacks words to express this offence, the demolition of a man. In a moment, with almost prophetic intuition, the reality was revealed to us: we had reached the bottom. It is not possible to sink lower than this; no human condition is more miserable than this, nor could it conceivably be so. Nothing belongs to us any more; they have taken away our clothes, our shoes, even our hair; if we speak, they will not listen to us, and if they listen, they will not understand. They will even take away our name: and if we want to keep it, we ill have to find ourselves the strength to do so, to manage somehow so that behind the name something of us, of us as we were, still remains.” – Primo Levi, Holocaust Survivor
Photo: Sachsenhausen by Thomas Matthias
The German Reich’s euthanasia experts also set up extermination camps in Chelmno, Belzec, Sobibor and Treblinka. All people from “Government-General Poland” who were brought to these camps were immediately gassed. In the camps in Belzec, Sobibor and Treblinka, which were part of the “Aktion Reinhardt”, 1.75 million Jews died between March 1942 and October 1943 alone. In addition to the most well-known concentration camps Sachsenhausen, Dachau, Buchenwald, Theresienstadt and Mauthausen, the Nazis set up various camps and ghettos in the conquered and occupied areas.
# Deutsches Historisches Museum (2014) „Der Zweite Weltkrieg – der NS-Völkermord“ Available in German at: https://www.dhm.de/lemo/kapitel/der-zweite-weltkrieg/voelkermord.html (Accessed 04.07.17)
# Bundeszentrale für politische Bildung “Informationen zur politischen Bildung”.
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# Yad Vashem – The World Holocaust Remembrance Center: „The Implementation of the Final Solution“. Available at: http://www.yadvashem.org/holocaust/about/final-solution (Accessed 04.07.17)
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