The Holocaust was the systematic murder of an estimated six million Jews by Adolf Hitler and his Nazi regime during the second world war. As a result, nearly two-thirds of all European Jews were exterminated by the end of the war, making Hitler’s “Final Solution of the Jewish Question” the most widely documented case of genocide in the history of mankind.
The persecution and genocide were carried out in methodical stages. Even before World War 2 started, various legislation to remove Jews from German society had begun. After Hitler took power in 1933, anti-Semitic legislation was soon to follow. The first measure taken by the Nazis was to make the lives of Jewish citizens as miserable as possible. The Nuremberg Laws of 1935 were a great example of this; they were the initial steps to taken to exclude Jewish citizens from German society. Further legislation would eventually remove Jews from public and professional positions, as well as alienate them from the arts and sciences. At the end of 1938, the Reich supported what came to be known as Kristallnacht or Night of Broken Glass. During the Kristallnacht, Jewish homes and businesses were ransacked by German Storm troopers and civilians, leaving the streets covered in pieces of smashed glass and utter chaos. An estimated 30,000 Jewish citizens were also rounded up and taken to concentration camps. Many historians agree that the Night of Broken Glass was the beginning of the Holocaust.
As the Nazis conquered more of Europe, so did the number of Jews under its control grow. Between 1939 and 1941, all the Jews that resided in Poland, France, Italy and the Ukraine were rounded up and put into concentration camps. Life in these camps was deplorable. Hard labor, starvation, disease, torture and random killings were all part of the daily life in these camps. The Ghettos set up in Poland, Ukraine, and the Baltic states were not much better. Very few Jews escaped the Nazi grip had on them. Between Hitler’s brutal police force known as The Gestapo and the mandate that harboring Jews would result in a death sentence for any citizen that was caught, sadly there was no escape.
As the war dragged on, so did the annihilation of the Jewish people. Many concentration camps became death camps. Special task forces known as Einsatzgruppen began wiping out entire Jewish communities in newly conquered lands. Many concentration camps began using gas chambers as a more “efficient” method to carry out Hitler’s Final Solution. Some of the more well known of these camps were Auschwitz-Birkenau, Chelmno, Bergen-Belsen, Sobibor, Treblinka, Majdanek and Belzec.
Even with the German war effort winding down, the Nazis continued their destruction of the Jewish population. In fact, as the Soviets closed in from the east and coalition Allied forces closed in from the west, Hitler ordered a more hastened approach to his genocidal plan. As occupied Nazi lands began to fall to the Allies, the gas chambers and incinerators were working day and night. Not only were the Nazis eliminating what was left of the population of these camps, but they were trying to eliminate evidence of their heinous crimes. Many of these camp sites were reduced to rubble or hastily converted to farmland in an attempt to cover up years of mass murder.
With the fall of the Third Reich and Hitler’s subsequent death, years of horror came to an end. The liberation of each of these camps revealed a glimpse of the pure hatred of the Nazis. Amongst its victims were 6 million Jews and an estimated 5 to 8 million non-Jews. These victims were made up of Slavs, Ethnic Poles, Serbs, Soviet POWs, Romani, disabled and mentally ill, homosexuals, left wing politicians, Freemasons, and Jehovah Witnesses. The exact number of victims will never be known. Many German political figures and SS members were charged with crimes against humanity and put on trial after the war. A large number of them were found guilty and hanged for their crimes. There are still many unanswered questions surrounding the Holocaust; mainly:
Who knew about it?
When did they know?
How could this happen?
The first two questions we may never know the answer to; the last one we must find an answer for so history does not ever repeat itself.