An Introduction to the Holocaust
By Adam Mudman Bezecny
This document seeks to serve as an introduction to the basic details of the historical event known as the Holocaust, so that people can understand why it is at risk of being repeated and why that should not come to pass.
What was it?
The Holocaust was a genocide perpetuated against the Jewish people and other minority groups by Nazi Germany, with the help of its allies. It lasted from 1941 to 1945 but began as early as 1933, when Adolf Hitler first rose to power in Germany. The Holocaust, also called the Shoah (“Destruction” in Hebrew) by Jewish folk and the “Final Solution” by the Nazis, killed over six million Jews, roughly two-thirds of the Jewish population of Europe. The Holocaust is historically notable among other genocides not only for the sheer number of victims murdered but for the intensity of the atrocities committed against its victims, as well as the intensive degree of systemic and political participation by both the German government and the private companies of Germany. It is, along with the two World Wars, one of the most devastating historical events of the 20th Century.
How did it happen?
To discuss how the Holocaust happened, one has to look at historical roots behind antisemitism in Europe, and the environmental and systemic factors that influenced and enabled the genocide's primary architect, Adolf Hitler.
Antisemitism had been an aspect of Christianity since the medieval era, wherein the popular belief arose that Jesus was killed by Jews; Christians in these times also believed that Jews killed Christian children as part of their religious celebrations (“blood libel”). Governments often made these and other religious arguments to justify genocides of Jewish folk, called pogroms. This was done in the name of establishing Christian supremacy as many royal leaders believed was their sacred duty. By the 19th Century, these sentiments caused academic communities of Europe to misapply Charles Darwin's theories of evolution and natural selection to the human species—they believed that Jews and other “inferior,” non-white races could now be scientifically proven to have biological differences that proved their inferiority. This caused them to divide humanity into the “superior” European “Aryans”—often linked to the German word “ubermensch” or “over-man,” the archetypical blond-haired, blue-haired, able-bodied European—and “inferior” “non-Aryans.” Such theories on racial superiority/inferiority have been debunked in the modern day by many studies; this is addressed in the 1950 UNESCO document The Race Question as well as Stephen Jay Gould's 1981 book The Mismeasure of Man. These same academics believed in degeneration theory or social degeneration, or the erosion of Western civilization, tradition, and values due to influences by “inferior” races. This was tied to the fear of a possible “devolution” that existed in contrast to evolution: after all, if mankind had once arisen from an animal state, as science now showed, then it was possible they could return to such. Western elites viewed non-white cultures, disabled people, and poverty as signs of the coming destruction of Western civilization, which influenced belief in the anti-Asian “Yellow Peril” theory of a planned Asian world conquest, as well as the 1903 publication of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, which claimed to be a Jewish-penned document leaking the existence of a planned Jewish overthrow of Europe. Belief in these conspiracies and the sentiments that accompanied them were tremendously influential on European culture and politics in the years leading up to 1933.
Hitler was shaped by these beliefs and influences, but the unique troubles which Germany faced after World War I were what allowed him to popularize his beliefs and rise to power. Germany was severely financially imperiled by the conditions of the treaties it signed upon its defeat at the end of the War, and inflation and poverty dramatically spiked in post-War German society. Economic concerns at the time made it easy for media sources to manipulate people, blaming populist conspiracies for the ongoing conditions and proposing euthanasia of the disabled and “racially impure” to free up finances. Hitler and his allies played on these feelings and others, including the “stab-in-the-back” myth, which blamed internal sabotage by Jews and other “enemies from within” for forcing or manipulating the German government into surrendering during the War. They also built on fears of what had been unleashed during the Russian Revolution to fuel opposition to Communism, which they claimed was a conspiracy constructed by the Jews (creating the phrase “Jewish Bolshevism”). In their desperation to find meaning and salvation from their suffering, the German people bought into these myths and made Hitler first Chancellor and later Fuhrer (“Leader”) of Germany. By the time Hitler consolidated his power as dictator, any opposition to his racial and social policies became irrelevant, as he was now able to make them a reality with military force. This encouraged private citizens to collaborate with and help the Nazis. Germany's laws were changed to impose more systemic oppression on Germany's supposed enemies and make the Holocaust legal.
So that's the origin. But how was it carried out?
Discrimination against Jewish people intensified as soon as the Nazis took power, with the first concentration camps opening in 1933, operating extrajudicially at first. Jews were banned from civil service, law, farming, medicine, and journalism. Jewish businesses were attacked, boycotted, destroyed, or forcibly sold to “Aryan” Germans. By the end of 1933, 400,000 German citizens were scheduled for involuntary sterilization, and that same number of people were successfully sterilized by 1945. In 1935 Germany passed laws stripping all persons within three generations of Jewish descent of German citizenship, and banned marriage between Germans and non-citizens. Around this time, many Jewish people began leaving Germany, encouraged by the Nazis. 1938 saw the attacks of Kristallnacht (Night of Broken Glass), wherein hundreds of Jews were assaulted, raped, robbed, and murdered by the SS and SA. Thousands were sent to concentration camps. Shortly thereafter Jewish folk were legally barred from almost all jobs. Following the Nazi occupation of Poland more Jews fell into German territory and were subjected to harsh punishments, including forced labor. Many Jews were forced into ghettoes, where they were subjected to conditions of starvation and disease. Further laws forced Jews to wear yellow stars, shaped like the Star of David, to mark them, and banned them from owning cars, bicycles, phones, and radios.
When World War II broke out, the number of Jewish prisoners in the concentration camps only increased. Sometime around late 1941 or early 1942, Hitler and his closest advisers decided to initiate what they called the Final Solution—the extermination of the Jewish race on a global scale. Not only were the camps used for this, but military and militia forces in the countries Germany occupied and was allied with hunted down, arrested, and murdered Jews as well. The concentration camps, such as Dachau and Auschwitz, used “extermination by labor” to work their prisoners to death. Eventually the camps began gassing their victims to death with Zyklon-B gas, while others used mass shootings and other forms of execution. During this time prisoners were subjected to torture, sexual assault, and unethical medical experiments and vivisection at the hands of Joseph Mengele and others. The remains of executed prisoners were unceremoniously destroyed or else supposedly made into goods—Ilse Koch, for example, reportedly had furniture made from the bones and skin of victims, including children and babies. Fat from the corpses was used to make soap. The Nazi froze, burned, poisoned, asphyxiated, dissected, disabled, infected, mutilated, exploded, irradiated, boiled, and maimed their victims. This was all under the pretense that the Jews were truly less than human—vermin worthy of complete destruction.
The end of World War II saw the end of the Holocaust and the liberation of the camps, but in the end, the murders included 5.93 million Jews (including 1 million children), 3.3 million Soviet prisoners, 2 million ethnic Poles, 220,000-1,500,000 Roma, 150,000 disabled people, 1,400 to 2,500 Jehovah's Witnesses, and an unknown number of gay men and “transvestites,” meaning gender-nonconforming or trans individuals (of 5,000-15,000 sent to the camps). Political enemies of the state, including Marxists, liberals, and Christians were also targets for imprisonment and extermination. It is notable that lesbian and bisexual women were able to survive with comparatively minor hardships in Nazi Germany due to the Nazis believing that all women were inherently passive, and thus that queer women were not threatening to their Reich; though that should not be taken to imply that they could be open about their sexuality and that they did not have their rights taken away in certain social areas.
Why didn't the German people stop this?
Many people tried, but because many Europeans already had antisemitic attitudes, they were indifferent to the suffering of their Jewish neighbors. The emergence of a new World War had people scared more for themselves and their families than for people of a different race and/or religion than them (which built on similar fears from the era of post-War poverty). Hitler and the German military also had such a rigid control over their own people that those who wanted to resist would have killed or arrested if they tried. But some people did help, from Germany and all over the world, even before World War II started; Wikipedia has a list of “Individuals and groups that assisted Jews during the Holocaust” which notes their efforts. It is unknown how many more people would have been murdered were it not for these parties. Still more tried to bring the killers to justice, though not every Nazi who participated in the Holocaust was arrested and tried before their death. Some of the original Nazis are still alive, and some of those still try to finish what was started decades ago.
Despite the heroic efforts of many, it is extremely notable that compliance of so many German civilians greatly facilitated the processes of the Holocaust. There may be an inclination to forgive these citizens of their bias as being “products of their time” or “motivated by fear,” but this passage by writer Julius Goat perhaps has it best: “Historians have a word for Germans who joined the Nazi Party, not because they hated Jews, but out of a hope for restored patriotism, or a sense of economic anxiety, or a hope to preserve their religious values, or dislike of their opponents, or raw political opportunism, or convenience, or ignorance, or greed. That word is Nazi. Nobody cares about their motives anymore.”
Why is the Holocaust important?
One could argue that the Holocaust is “just another genocide” and that by ascribing it importance above other atrocities, it dishonors the victims of those killings. At the same time, the cultural impact left by the Holocaust cannot be ignored. It is the largest mass genocide ever committed, due in part to the number of Soviet citizens and military killed as part of it. There are disasters which claimed more lives, such as the Chinese Great Leap Forward of the 1950s and 1960s, which created famines and crises that wiped out anywhere from 18 million to 56 million people. Additionally, some have said that the Stalinist crimes against humanity were worse, having killed upwards of 22 million through murder, starvation, and the Gulag prisons. Yet, it is the Holocaust which led Raphael Lemkin to coin the word “genocide” in 1944, and without the Holocaust and the discussion it spawned, it would not be possible to discuss genocide in such explicit terms as we can today. The Holocaust presented, to a global media and history, one of the closest looks at the mechanisms and consequences of fascism, authoritarianism, and totalitarianism the world had and has ever seen, to say nothing of how those ideologies play a role in genocide. For a world then settling into the fruits of the Industrial Revolution, there was now more of a chance than ever for people of the time to study these sorts of mass killings, and it is this placement within the context of technological development that enabled the Holocaust become the archetype of genocide which it is today.
But the Holocaust is not merely a “famous first” or “the biggest,” and to call it such severely undermines its complexity. The Holocaust was a peaking moment in an ongoing history of oppression against various racial and social groups, which had never before been systematized and industrialized in such a comprehensive way. The Holocaust relied on the often-willing cooperation of scientists, industrialists, businessmen, bankers, military officials, and law enforcement, including those from other countries. American companies such as Ford, Coca-Cola, and IBM colluded with the Nazis, enabling their crimes. School systems and youth programs were changed to make children complicit with the attacks. Racial and social prejudice influenced the decisions of those who caused the Holocaust, and that that prejudice manifested through so many facets of German society shocked post-War scholars. Though racial justice movements had existed in many countries for centuries (including the Abolitionist movement of the United States), the Holocaust was resounding proof of a correlation between racist hate and inhuman violence. The social justice and minority rights movements of the 20th and 21st Centuries are rooted in this cultural shift, this mass recognition of the existence and criminality of systemic oppression and prejudice. It reminds people to this day that in many parts of the world, people born of certain races face obstacles and deterrents built into their societies which are violent in and of themselves, even if they don't resemble tradition forms of violence...and these systemic obstacles can open the gates to mass murder if hatred is left unchecked. In contrast to the deaths which occurred under Stalin's attempts to collectivize the Soviet Union and Mao Zedong's social changes in China, the Holocaust was a directed attack on a specific group of people, for traits which their killers viewed as related to the eventual degeneration of society, and the seeming newness of this influenced the cultural conception of the Holocaust.
With the election of Donald Trump and many like him around the world, a resurgence and renewed openness of fascist and white supremacist beliefs has appeared in the United States and Europe, including by groups who seek to replicate the Nazi atrocities. Let it be clear that Nazism, the platform that Hitler used to commit the Holocaust, cannot be dissociated from the Holocaust. The platform which Hitler ran on both before and after his election involved, at best, the mass displacement of millions of people from their homes into conditions which would worsen their quality of life, as its primary goal. The Nazis of the present have tried to normalize this belief by linking it to the deportation of illegal immigrants, claiming legal justification and duty to transplant immigrants out of the country. They play upon populist fears just as Hitler did, of immigrants (or Jews) stealing jobs; immigrants (or Jews) destroying the culture of the West by both idle presence and active choice; and immigrants (or Jews) bringing with them theft, rape, sex trafficking, disease, and drugs. Present-day Nazis also play on newer populist fears, like the movement against feminism. White supremacists claim feminism is a conspiracy to deny men sex, feminize men, and destroy traditionally male-dominated media like adventure movies and video games, when feminism is about dealing with the equality of gender by investigating and deconstructing toxic masculinity. What matters in all this is that knowledge of the Holocaust will prevent it from happening again, despite this Nazi resurgence. Because of the infringement on life and human rights that it was, the Holocaust must not reoccur. Recognition of the reality and horror of the Holocaust is inherently bound to a rejection of white supremacism and Nazism. Rejecting these ideals on every front will prevent the consolidation of power that allowed Hitler to prevent intervention in his genocide. As the eternal words caution: “Those who forget history are doomed to repeat it.”
Why didn't I know all this before?
I can only speak for Americans on this, but the Holocaust is not very well taught in the United States school system. While it is certainly talked about, and talked about at length at that, its historical and cultural relevance is often overlooked, and American parents often desire to censor their children from violent narratives, which means a reduction of examination of the Holocaust. I am unsure if whether conscious antisemitism has influenced schools in this way, but the rising trends of antisemitism in the present only reveal that such sentiments did not fade away in America after World War II, and the American school system, with its history of segregation, has definitely had poor race relations historically. If you're an American and you didn't know most of these details about the Holocaust, call your school and tell them how you feel about it. If cultural pressure exists to not teach the Holocaust, it's our duty to create counter-pressure to inform students about how important it really is.
But someone told me the Holocaust was fake...?
Ultimately, there is simply much more evidence (photos, government documents, legal papers, eyewitness accounts, etc.) that the Holocaust did happen than there is that it did not. If you read any of the hundreds or thousands of books written about the reality of the Holocaust, you will find they are much, much easier to corroborate with real life than the much smaller and much less literate pool of books written about how the Holocaust was a hoax. Basically you could only believe that the Holocaust was made up if you believed that there was a Jewish conspiracy out there not only capable of faking thousands of photographs, but an entire government worth of documentation and millions of bodies worth of human remains, on top of hiding all of this fraud with virtually complete success. As a rational person who believes in evidence, I am completely unimpressed by Holocaust denial rhetoric. To be frank, the Holocaust happened, and to say otherwise is at the very least an insult to all those who died in it, as well as those who survived its horrors. Those who insist otherwise in the face of education and evidence are looking to continue its violence.
What do you recommend reading to learn about the Holocaust?
Admittedly, I am not the best authority on this and thus I am willing to amend this section on an ongoing basis as people send me suggestions. What I wrote here was based on my knowledge from my undergrad studies, with statistics and details from sources which my online readings sourced and led me to: chiefly, Lucy Dawidowicz's The War Against the Jews: 1933-1945 (1975); Francis R. Nicosia and Donald L. Niewyck's The Columbia Guide to the Holocaust (2000); Michael Berenbaum's The World Must Know: The History of the Holocaust as Told in the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (2006); and of course, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and their website. The document “Understanding Antisemitism: An Offering to Our Movement” from Jews For Racial and Economic Justice is available online and is an infinitely useful in-depth history and study of anti-Semitic phenomena. Umberto Eco’s essay “Ur-Fascism,” also available online, is an invaluable resource in understanding the complicated mechanics of fascism. My personal interest in the Holocaust, aside from my own queerness, was sparked by reading Art Spiegelman's Maus (1980-1991), which tells the story of Spieglman's father's Holocaust experiences in graphic novel format. As a comic book fan I can say that Maus is truly one of the best comics of all time, being not merely a story of a traumatic historical event but a great personal story as well which, like the Holocaust itself, is hardly confined to the 1940s. I think Maus is a good jumping-on place for a lot of people, because the visual nature of the comic book medium helps communicate some things which are challenging to put in words.
Above all else, when you try to learn, prioritize listening to and boosting the voices of the communities who were victimized by the atrocities. And similarly, prioritize rejecting and refuting Nazism in all its forms.