The word ‘holocaust’ comes from ancient Greek and means ‘burnt offering’. Even before the Second World War, the word was sometimes used to describe the death of a large group of people, but since 1945, it has become almost synonymous with the murder of the European Jews during the Second World War. That's why we use the term 'the Holocaust'. Jews also refer to it with the word ‘Shoah’, which is Hebrew for 'catastrophe'.
The Holocaust has a number of causes. Its direct cause is the fact that the Nazis wanted to exterminate the Jews and that they were able to do so. But their lust for murder didn't come out of nowhere. The antisemitic Nazi ideology must be considered in the broader context of the age-old hostility towards Jews, modern racism, and nationalism.
The main goal of the Nazis was to remove the Jews from Germany by allowing them to emigrate. To encourage them to do so, they took away their livelihoods. Jews were no longer allowed to work in certain professions. They were no longer allowed in some pubs or public parks. In 1935, the Nuremberg Racial Laws came into force. Jews were forbidden to marry non-Jews. Jews also lost their citizenship, which officially turned them into second-class citizens with fewer rights than non-Jews.
In 1938, the Nazis organised pogroms all over Germany: the Kristallnacht (Crystal Night). Jewish houses, synagogues, and shops were destroyed and thousands of Jewish people were imprisoned in concentration camps. When the war broke out in September 1939, about 250,000 Jews fled Germany because of the violence and discrimination.
The Jews in the Occupied Territories were usually ordered to report to a central point, often on the pretext of deportation, or they were rounded up during raids. Then the Nazis would then take them to a remote place where they were executed. In 1941 alone, close to 900,000 Soviet Jews were murdered in this way.
Mass murder seems an extreme alternative to the previous plans for deportation. The war made it impossible to deport Jews to Madagascar, and the plan to push the Jews back further to the east could not be carried out because the victory over the Soviet Union was not forthcoming. And so, the 'final solution to the Jewish question’ took the form of genocide. During the Wannsee Conference, on 20 January 1942, Nazi officials discussed the execution of the planned murder of the eleven million Jews living in Europe.
In late 1941, the Nazis began preparing for the murder of more than two million Jews living in the General Government, the occupied part of Poland. The Nazis also experimented with mass murder in other occupied and annexed areas of Eastern Europe. In Chelmno, they introduced the use of gas to kill Polish Jews. This method was faster and considered less ‘aggravating' for the SS officers involved than shooting people.Under the code name Aktion Reinhard, the Nazis built several extermination camps: Belzec, Sobibor, and Treblinka. Here, the victims were murdered in gas chambers with diesel engine exhaust fumes immediately upon arrival.
The only purpose of the extermination camps was to kill people. Only a small number of Jews were kept alive to help with the killing process. In November 1943, Aktion Reinhard was terminated. The camps were disassembled and the bodies of the victims were excavated and burned. The Nazis then planted trees on the grounds to wipe out their crimes. At least 1.75 million Jews were murdered during Aktion Reinhard.
In the middle of 1942, the Germans began deporting Jews from the occupied territories in Western Europe. The decision-making process and dynamics differed from one country to the next, as did the numbers of victims. 104,000 Jews were deported.
Jews were brought in from other occupied parts of Europe. In 1943 and 1944, deportations started from the occupied regions in Italy, Hungary, Greece, and the Balkans. Only when the Allies were drawing near, by end of 1944, did the persecution of the Jews slowly come to a halt. In the last months of the war, thousands of Jews died during the 'death marches' after the Germans had evacuated the concentration camps to prevent the prisoners from falling into the hands of the Allied troops. Even after liberation, people still died of malnutrition, disease, and exhaustion.
The main perpetrators of the Holocaust were the Nazis who planned and carried out the mass murder. Still, they could never have done this without the support and help of millions of Germans and others.
Throughout the occupied territories, there were numerous collaborators, who reported Jews to the Germans or helped the Germans to find Jews in hiding. Government agencies often followed the orders of the Germans and cooperated in the arrest and deportation of Jews. Sometimes they did so in order to prevent worse from happening, but their actions often had fatal consequences for the Jews. In Eastern Europe, some people sided with the Germans to join them in the fight against the hated Soviet regime. The Germans sometimes recruited personnel for the extermination camps among Soviet prisoners of war, for whom this was their only chance to escape death.
Reports on the murder of Jews reached the Allied countries from 1942 onwards, but the effect was limited, partly because they were often based on ‘hearsay’ and they reached the other side of the ocean with great delay. Besides, the Nazi crimes were so inconceivable that few could believe that the reports were not exaggerated. Only when the Allies liberated the concentration and extermination camps did the world fully realise the extent of the crime that had taken place.