World History 2 225 - 13.2.4 The Holocaust

Jewish people had been deeply assimilated into German society and culture since the Enlightenment. But anti-Semitism had been an undercurrent in European history for centuries, and anti-Jewish propaganda and scapegoating began to surface after Germany’s defeat in World War I. It continued through the encouragement of the Nazis in the 1920s and 1930s. Joseph Goebbels was the master of Nazi propaganda, charged with convincing Germans that Jewish people were an existential threat. A constant drumbeat in all forms of media began, persuading Germans to accept three propositions meant to morally justify anti-Jewish actions. First, Jewish people were a problem. Second, they were like vermin (a tactic of dehumanization). Third, eliminating them would make for a better Germany and a better world.

When the Wehrmacht streamed into Poland in 1939 and encountered the largest Jewish population in the world, the Nazis had the opportunity to begin the genocide known as the Holocaust on a huge scale. Special execution squads called the Einsatzgruppen (“operational groups”) followed the advancing German troops, killing enemies and undesirables—largely Jewish people. Jewish people were gathered in ghettoes for better control and subjected to forced labor. The largest was the Warsaw ghetto, which by 1941 housed 441,000 people. That same year, six major concentration camps were established, and railroad lines were built specifically to transport prisoners to them. There had been anti-Jewish pogroms (massacres) in Poland before the war, and some Polish citizens joined these German extermination activities.

In Their Own Words


Following Germany’s surrender in May 1945, a military court was convened in the city of Nuremberg to try Germans accused of war crimes. During questioning by Colonel John Harlan Amen, a U.S. Army intelligence officer and lawyer, Otto Ohlendorf described the work of Einsatzgruppen in the Soviet Union. (Ohlendorf, thirty-eight years of age, who was head of the Nazi agency in charge of intelligence and security, was found guilty of war crimes and executed.)

COL. AMEN: What were [the] instructions with respect to the Jews and the Communist functionaries?

OHLENDORF: The instructions were that in the Russian operational areas of the Einsatzgruppen the Jews, as well as the Soviet political commissars, were to be liquidated.

COL. AMEN: And when you say “liquidated” do you mean “killed?”

OHLENDORF: Yes, I mean “killed.”

. . .

COL. AMEN: Do you know how many persons were liquidated by Einsatz Group D under your direction?

OHLENDORF: In the year between June 1941 to June 1942 the Einsatzkommandos [men working for the Einsatzgruppen] reported ninety thousand people liquidated.

COL. AMEN: Did that include men, women, and children?


. . .

COL. AMEN: Will you explain to the Tribunal in detail how an individual mass execution was carried out?

OHLENDORF: A local Einsatzkommando attempted to collect all the Jews in its area by registering them. This registration was performed by the Jews themselves.

COL. AMEN: On what pretext, if any, were they rounded up?

OHLENDORF: On the pretext that they were to be resettled.

COL. AMEN: Will you continue?

OHLENDORF: After the registration the Jews were collected at one place; and from there they were later transported to the place of execution, which was, as a rule an antitank ditch or a natural excavation. The executions were carried out in a military manner, by firing squads under command.

COL. AMEN: In what way were they transported to the place of execution?

OHLENDORF: They were transported to the place of execution in trucks, always only as many as could be executed immediately. In this way it was attempted to keep the span of time from the moment in which the victims knew what was about to happen to them until the time of their actual execution as short as possible.

COL. AMEN: Was that your idea?


. . .

OHLENDORF: Some of the unit leaders did not carry out the liquidation in the military manner, but killed the victims singly by shooting them in the back of the neck.

COL. AMEN: And you objected to that procedure?

OHLENDORF: I was against that procedure, yes.

COL. AMEN: For what reason?

OHLENDORF: Because both for the victims and for those who carried out the executions, it was, psychologically, an immense burden to bear.

Nuremberg Trial Proceedings, Volume 4

  • How well organized do the mobile death squads seem to have been?
  • What tactics were adopted to prevent the prisoners from resisting their fate?
  • Does Ohlendorf seem to show any remorse for his actions? Explain your answer.

The concentration camps were simultaneously labor and death camps. In 1941, Adolf Eichmann, a leader of the German SS (the Nazi Party’s elite paramilitary corps), noted the challenges of the coming winter: “the Jews can no longer be fed. It is to be seriously considered whether the most humane solution might not be to finish off those Jews not capable of labour by some sort of fast-working preparation.” In January 1942 at the Wannsee Conference, the Final Solution to the “Jewish question” was discussed. It was decided that German state policy would be to eliminate European Jewish people by working them to death, starving them, or otherwise exterminating them. They were persecuted in place or sent to death camps.

Auschwitz in western Poland was the largest of the death camps, originally constructed in 1940 to hold Polish political prisoners. It became a death camp in 1941 when Polish and Soviet prisoners were executed there. That same year, a new camp (known as Auschwitz II or Birkenau) was built nearby. Its main purpose was to kill Jewish people who were brought on freight trains from all over Europe. Other camps also existed at Auschwitz, including labor camps where prisoners worked for the chemical company I.G. Farben. Some 1.3 million people were sent to Auschwitz-Birkenau before Heinrich Himmler, the leader of the SS, ordered the camp closed and evacuated in January 1945 as the Soviet army rapidly advanced on it. Of these 1.3 million, 1.1 million would die there. The vast majority, nearly one million, were Jewish. Most were murdered with poisonous gas, usually immediately upon arrival. Others were shot or beaten to death or died from disease, starvation, or exhaustion caused by hard labor.

Link to Learning

You can take a virtual tour of Auschwitz and its sub-camps. At the bottom of the page, select one of the sub-camps within Auschwitz; clicking on “map” will give you an aerial overview of each camp.

Other gas chambers were constructed at Belzec, Sobibor, and Treblinka in 1942, and arriving prisoners deemed unsuitable for work were usually sent almost directly to the “showers,” actually gas chambers. The systematic implementation of these policies required the collaboration of tens of thousands of people from across Europe, which culminated in the murder of more than six million Jewish people and at least three million members of other minority groups, including gay and Roma people, communists, socialists, and Jehovah’s Witnesses, before the war was over. Historians disagree about how many died in the camps, and the true number will likely never be known.

There were many instances of resistance, such as the Warsaw ghetto uprising in 1943. This was ruthlessly crushed by the Germans, however, resulting in the deaths of thirteen thousand Jewish people. Unsuccessful uprisings also took place in three of the concentration camps, one of which, in Sobibor, perhaps saved some lives by forcing the closure of the camp. Beginning in 1942, Irena Sendler, a member of the Polish Underground Resistance, participated in the Great Action in the Warsaw ghetto to smuggle out Jewish children. She is credited with saving some 2,500 children before she was discovered. Oskar Schindler, a member of the Nazi Party, ran a factory in Poland and worked to shield his Jewish workers from the Nazis, saving the lives of thousands. Loukas Karrer, the mayor of the Greek island Zakynthos, saved the island’s entire Jewish population of 275 by refusing to surrender them and then hiding them. In Bulgaria, Dimitar Peshev, the deputy speaker of the National Assembly, had supported anti-Semitic legislation, but he refused to accept the German request to deport forty-eight thousand Jews and got the government to rescind the order. Still, the Nazis sent millions to their deaths.

The content of this course has been taken from the free World History, Volume 2: from 1400 textbook by Openstax