by David Fazekas
The Holocaust also known as the Shoah, was the mass murder or genocide of approximately six million Jews during World War II, a programme of systematic state-sponsored murder by Nazi Germany, led by Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party, throughout German-occupied territory.
Of the nine million Jews who had resided in Europe before the Holocaust, approximately two-thirds were killed. Over one million Jewish children were killed in the Holocaust, as were approximately two million Jewish women and three million Jewish men. A network of over 40,000 facilities in Germany and German-occupied territory were used to concentrate, hold, and kill Jews and other victims.
Some scholars argue that the mass murder of the Romani and people with disabilities should be included in the definition, and some use the common noun “holocaust” to describe other Nazi mass murders, including those of Soviet prisoners of war, Polish and Soviet civilians, and homosexuals. Recent estimates based on figures obtained since the fall of the Soviet Union indicates some ten to eleven million civilians and prisoners of war were intentionally murdered by the Nazi regime.
The persecution and genocide were carried out in stages. Various laws to remove the Jews from civil society, most prominently the Nuremberg Laws, were enacted in Germany years before the outbreak of World War II. Concentration camps were established in which inmates were subjected to slave labor until they died of exhaustion or disease. Where Germany conquered new territory in Eastern Europe, specialized units called Einsatzgruppen murdered Jews and political opponents in mass shootings.
The occupiers required Jews and Romani to be confined in overcrowded ghettos before being transported by freight train to extermination camps where, if they survived the journey, most were systematically killed in gas chambers. Every arm of Germany’s bureaucracy was involved in the logistics that led to the genocides, turning the Third Reich into what one Holocaust scholar has called “a genocidal state”.
Michael Berenbaum writes that Germany became a “genocidal state.” “Every arm of the country’s sophisticated bureaucracy was involved in the killing process. Parish churches and the Interior Ministry supplied birth records showing who was Jewish; the Post Office delivered the deportation and denaturalization orders; the Finance Ministry confiscated Jewish property; German firms fired Jewish workers and disenfranchised Jewish stockholders.” The universities refused to admit Jews, denied degrees to those already studying, and fired Jewish academics; government transport offices arranged the trains for deportation to the camps; German pharmaceutical companies tested drugs on camp prisoners; companies bid for the contracts to build the crematoria; detailed lists of victims were drawn up using the Dehomag (IBM Germany) company’s punch card machines, producing meticulous records of the killings. As prisoners entered the death camps, they were made to surrender all personal property, which was catalogued and tagged before being sent to Germany to be reused or recycled. Berenbaum writes that the Final Solution of the Jewish question was “in the eyes of the perpetrators … Germany’s greatest achievement.” Through a concealed account, the German national bank helped launder valuables stolen from the victims.
Saul Friedländer writes that: “Not one social group, not one religious community, not one scholarly institution or professional association in Germany and throughout Europe declared its solidarity with the Jews.” He writes that some Christian churches declared that converted Jews should be regarded as part of the flock, but even then only up to a point. Friedländer argues that this makes the Holocaust distinctive because antisemitic policies were able to unfold without the interference of countervailing forces of the kind normally found in advanced societies, such as industry, small businesses, churches, and other vested interests and lobby groups.
The use of camps equipped with gas chambers for the purpose of systematic mass extermination of peoples was a unique feature of the Holocaust and unprecedented in history. Never before had there existed places with the express purpose of killing people en masse. These were established at Auschwitz, Belzec, Chelmno, Jasenovac, Majdanek, Maly Trostenets, Sobibor, and Treblinka.
A distinctive feature of Nazi genocide was the extensive use of human subjects in “medical” experiments. According to Raul Hilberg, “German physicians were highly Nazified, compared to other professionals, in terms of party membership,” and some carried out experiments at Auschwitz, Dachau, Buchenwald, Ravensbrück, Sachsenhausen, and Natzweiler concentration camps.
The most notorious of these physicians was Dr. Josef Mengele, who worked in Auschwitz. His experiments included placing subjects in pressure chambers, testing drugs on them, freezing them, attempting to change eye color by injecting chemicals into children’s eyes, and various amputations and other surgeries. The full extent of his work will never be known because the truckload of records he sent to Dr. Otmar von Verschuer at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute was destroyed by von Verschuer. Subjects who survived Mengele’s experiments were almost always killed and dissected shortly afterwards.
He worked extensively with Romani children. He would bring them sweets and toys, and personally take them to the gas chamber. They would call him “Onkel (Uncle) Mengele”. Vera Alexander was a Jewish inmate at Auschwitz who looked after 50 sets of Romani twins:
I remember one set of twins in particular: Guido and Ina, aged about four. One day, Mengele took them away. When they returned, they were in a terrible state: they had been sewn together, back to back, like Siamese twins. Their wounds were infected and oozing pus. They screamed day and night. Then their parents—I remember the mother’s name was Stella—managed to get some morphine and they killed the children in order to end their suffering.
Yehuda Bauer, Raul Hilberg, and Lucy Dawidowicz maintained that from the Middle Ages onward, German society and culture were suffused with antisemitism, and that there was a direct ideological link from medieval pogroms to the Nazi death camps.
The second half of the 19th century saw the emergence in Germany and Austria-Hungary of the Völkisch movement, developed by such thinkers as Houston Stewart Chamberlain and Paul de Lagarde. The movement presented a pseudoscientific, biologically based racism that viewed Jews as a race locked in mortal combat with the Aryan race for world domination. Völkisch antisemitism drew upon stereotypes from Christian antisemitism, but differed in that Jews were considered to be a race rather than a religion. In a speech before the Reichstag in 1895, völkisch leader Hermann Ahlwardt called Jews “predators” and “cholera bacilli” who should be “exterminated” for the good of the German people. In his best-selling 1912 book Wenn ich der Kaiser wär (If I were the Kaiser), Heinrich Class, leader of the völkisch group Alldeutscher Verband, urged that all German Jews be stripped of their German citizenship and be reduced to Fremdenrecht (alien status). Class also urged that Jews be excluded from all aspects of German life, forbidden to own land, hold public office, or participate in journalism, banking, and the liberal professions.
Class defined a Jew as anyone who was a member of the Jewish religion on the day the German Empire was proclaimed in 1871, or anyone with at least one Jewish grandparent. During the German Empire, völkisch notions and pseudoscientific racism had become common and accepted throughout Germany, with the educated professional classes of the country, in particular, adopting an ideology of human inequality. Though the völkisch parties were defeated in the 1912 Reichstag elections, being all but wiped out, antisemitism was incorporated into the platforms of the mainstream political parties. The National Socialist German Workers’ Party (Nazi Party; NSDAP) was founded in 1920 as an offshoot of the völkisch movement, and adopted their antisemitism. In a 1986 essay, German historian Hans Mommsen wrote about the situation in post–World War I Germany that:
If one emphasizes the indisputably important connection in isolation, one should not then force a connection with Hitler’s weltanschauung [worldview], which was in no ways original itself, in order to derive from it the existence of Auschwitz … Thoughts about the extermination of the Jews had long been current, and not only for Hitler and his satraps. Many of these found their way to the NSDAP from the Deutschvölkisch Schutz-und Trutzbund [German Racial Union for Protection and Defiance], which itself had been called into life by the Pan-German Union.
Tremendous scientific and technological changes in Germany during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, together with the growth of the welfare state, created widespread hopes that utopia was at hand and that soon all social problems could be solved. At the same time a racist, social Darwinist, and eugenicist world-view which declared some people to be more biologically valuable than others was common. Historian Detlev Peukert states that the Shoah did not result solely from antisemitism, but was a product of the “cumulative radicalization” in which “numerous smaller currents” fed into the “broad current” that led to genocide. After the First World War, the pre-war mood of optimism gave way to disillusionment as German bureaucrats found social problems to be more insoluble than previously thought, which in turn led them to place increasing emphasis on saving the biologically “fit” while the biologically “unfit” were to be written off. The economic strains of the Great Depression led many in the German medical establishment to advocate the idea of euthanisation of the “incurable” mentally and physically disabled as a cost-saving measure to free up money to care for the curable. By the time the Nazis came to power in 1933, a tendency already existed in German social policy to save the racially “valuable” while seeking to rid society of the racially “undesirable”.
Hitler was open about his hatred of Jews. In his book Mein Kampf, he gave warning of his intention to drive them from Germany’s political, intellectual, and cultural life. He did not write that he would attempt to exterminate them, but he is reported to have been more explicit in private. As early as 1922, he allegedly told Major Joseph Hell, at the time a journalist:
Once I really am in power, my first and foremost task will be the annihilation of the Jews. As soon as I have the power to do so, I will have gallows built in rows—at the Marienplatz in Munich, for example—as many as traffic allows. Then the Jews will be hanged indiscriminately, and they will remain hanging until they stink; they will hang there as long as the principles of hygiene permit. As soon as they have been untied, the next batch will be strung up, and so on down the line, until the last Jew in Munich has been exterminated. Other cities will follow suit, precisely in this fashion, until all Germany has been completely cleansed of Jews.
The German historian Hans Mommsen claimed that there were three types of antisemitism in Germany:
One should differentiate between the cultural antisemitism symptomatic of the German conservatives – found especially in the German officer corps and the high civil administration – and mainly directed against the Eastern Jews on the one hand, and völkisch antisemitism on the other. The conservative variety functions, as Shulamit Volkov has pointed out, as something of a “cultural code.” This variety of German antisemitism later on played a significant role insofar as it prevented the functional elite from distancing itself from the repercussions of racial antisemitism. Thus, there was almost no relevant protest against the Jewish persecution on the part of the generals or the leading groups within the Reich government. This is especially true with respect to Hitler’s proclamation of the “racial annihilation war” against the Soviet Union.
Besides conservative antisemitism, there existed in Germany a rather silent anti-Judaism within the Catholic Church, which had a certain impact on immunising the Catholic population against the escalating persecution. The famous protest of the Catholic Church against the euthanasia program was, therefore, not accompanied by any protest against the Holocaust.
The third and most vitriolic variety of antisemitism in Germany (and elsewhere) is the so-called völkisch antisemitism or racism, and this is the foremost advocate of using violence. Anyhow, one has to be aware that even Hitler until 1938 and possibly 1939 still relied on enforced emigration to get rid of German Jewry; and there did not yet exist any clear-cut concept of killing them. This, however, does not mean that the Nazis elsewhere on all levels did not hesitate to use violent methods, and the inroads against Jews, Jewish shops, and institutions show that very clearly. But there did not exist any formal annihilation program until the second year of the war. It came into being after the “reservation” projects had failed. That, however, does not mean that those methods did not include a lethal component.
Dr. Shimon Samuels, director for International Liaison of the Simon Wiesenthal Centre, describes the acrimonious debate that exists between “specifists” and “universalists”. The former fear debasement of the Holocaust by invidious comparisons, while the latter places the Holocaust alongside non-Jewish experiences of mass extermination as part and parcel of the global context of genocide. Dr. Samuels considers the debate, ipso facto, to dishonour the memory of the respective victims of each genocide. In his words, “Each case is specific as a threshold phenomenon, while each also adds its unique memory as signposts along an incremental continuum of horror.” Peter Novick argued: “A moment’s reflection makes clear that the notion of uniqueness is quite vacuous . . . [and], in practice, deeply offensive. What else can all of this possibly mean except ‘your catastrophe, unlike ours, is ordinary'”. Adam Jones, professor at the University of British Columbia Okanagan, believes that claims of uniqueness for the Holocaust have become less common since the 1994 Rwandan genocide. In 1997, the publication of The Black Book of Communism led to further debate on the comparison between Soviet and Nazi crimes; the book argued that Nazi crimes were not very different from the Soviet ones, and that Nazi methods were to a significant extent adopted from Soviet methods; in the course of the debate, the term “Red Holocaust” appeared in discourse. In The Holocaust Industry, Norman Finkelstein writes that the uniqueness theory first appeared in public discourse in 1967, but that it does not figure in scholarship of the Nazi Holocaust. Steven Katz of Boston University has argued that the Holocaust is the only genocide that has occurred in history, and defines “Holocaust” to include only “the travail of European Jewry” and not other victims of the Nazis.