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The Holocaust (from the Greek holokauton, "burnt offering" or "sacrifice") is the term now most commonly used to describe the attempted Nazi genocide of European Jews. Between 1939 and 1945 mass shootings, gassings in specially constructed extermination camps, murderous labor, and other means resulted in the deaths of between 5.1 and 6.2 million Jews. The Nazis themselves referred to the extermination program as the "Final Solution of the Jewish Question." This portmanteau phrase began life before Hitler had definitively resolved on mass murder but soon became a euphemism for genocide. During World War II contemporary Jewish observers and scholars used the Hebrew terms Churban (traditionally denoting the destruction of the temple) or Shoah (meaning devastation) to describe the Nazi program, and the latter word is still commonly used, particularly by those who reject the "Holocaust's" connotation of sacrifice. In the immediate postwar period, murders of Jews were subsumed under the more general rubric of "War Crimes," the official terminology for Axis misdeeds deployed at the Nuremberg and Tokyo Trials. Historical literature in 1950s and 1960s, when it dealt with the subject at all, tended to refer to the "Final Solution."

Since the 1960s, the designation Holocaust has predominated. The term is normally reserved for the Jewish genocide, the most comprehensive, systematic, and unrelenting part of Nazi racially based extermination policies. Yet the Nazis targeted many other groups too, killing directly or through neglect many millions of Polish and Soviet civilians, Soviet prisoners of war (POWs), Roma, the mentally and physically handicapped, and homosexuals. Nazi policies adopted toward Jews often intersected and dovetailed with other racial and resettlement measures.


The Holocaust has provoked deep disagreements among historians as to its causes and meaning. Many see in it the culmination of a long European tradition of Christian anti-Semitism, accompanied since the Middle Ages by intermittent savage violence. The Enlightenment introduced the idea of civil toleration of Jews but also gave rise to new secular critiques of Judaism. In an era of growing legal equality, nineteenth-century opposition to Jews aimed increasingly not to achieve their Christian conversion but to dissimilate them. From the 1870s on, particularly in German-speaking lands, racial anti-Semitism emerged (and with it the coining of the term anti-Semitism itself), condemning Jews for prescriptive biological flaws that had little to do with their failure to endorse Christianity. The most extreme late-nineteenth-century texts by writers such as Eugen Dühring talked of the need to exterminate Jewry, though it is not clear whether physical killing was meant. Anti-Semitism became a cultural code for a large part of the nationalist-minded community in Germany and Austria.

While there are clear similarities between Dühring's language and that of Hitler, the strength, homogeneity, or violent character of pre–World War I anti-Semitic traditions should not be overemphasized. There was relatively little anti-Semitic violence in Germany before 1914, by which time Germany's few anti-Semitic political parties had dwindled to nothing. Contemporary observers around 1900, if they had predicted anti-Semitic atrocities in the future, would have anticipated them in the Russia of the pogroms, not in Germany.

Some scholars locate the Holocaust's roots less in anti-Semitism than in the modern world's search to control and order society. From the nineteenth century a growing cohort of medical and welfare professionals embarked on projects for improving the health of the population, which often involved controlling and segregating those seen as injurious to social peace. Social Darwinism and eugenics encouraged states to limit the reproduction of unhealthy elements while promoting the fertility of more valuable community members. In the early twentieth century, several world states carried out forced sterilizations of the mentally ill and others. Nazi sterilization, euthanasia, and exclusionary policies undoubtedly drew on these trends. There are parallels between these measures and the lethal modern rationality that can be seen in Germany's wartime plans for the racial resettlement and economic regeneration of eastern Europe, above all in Heinrich Himmler's notorious "Generalplan Ost." It is difficult, however, to see the single-minded and unrelenting commitment to eliminating Jewry as responding to any obvious societal logic.

The rise of modern nationalism was undoubtedly another important prerequisite, not just for the Holocaust but also for other twentieth-century genocides and ethnic cleansings. Modern nationalism, with its ethnic and populist conceptions of what it was that defined the people, created the logic for expunging from the nation those seen as alien. In the decades before World War I, the rise of nationalism in eastern Europe and the Balkan wars saw many acts of murderous ethnic cleansing, acts in turn eclipsed by the Turkish genocide of the Armenians in World War I. One million Armenians were murdered as part of a gigantic and violent resettlement program involving more than five million people. What distinguishes the Nazi campaign from most ethnic-nationalist rivalries, however, is that the German Jews were not competing for power on any kind of ethnic basis; they were highly acculturated, regarded themselves as Germans, and were not seeking a collective position within the German state.

Beyond ethnic nationalism, the Holocaust drew also on the European powers' recent experience of imperialism. "What India was for England," Hitler said in August 1941, "the eastern territories will be for us" (Traveso, p. 71). Hitler's notion of "living space," which described the Russian and eastern European territory to be cleansed and prepared for German settlement, had its origins in pre–World War I writing about colonial settlement in Africa. Among nineteenth-century European anthropologists the view was widely shared that the extinction of inferior races as a result of contact with superior ones was a law of nature. In Algeria, the Congo, the Ivory Coast, the Sudan, and elsewhere colonialism led to reductions among indigenous populations of genocidal proportions. In South West Africa, the imperial German administration carried out a genocide of the Herero in 1904 that has been seen by some scholars as a direct antecedent of the Holocaust.

World War I was in many ways as significant an experience as all the above. It introduced European nations to technological mass slaughter, exercising a terrible hold on the European imagination. The image of men gassed at the front would reappear in Hitler's rhetoric against the Jews. At home, states became used to taking a direct interest in the nation's health and efficiency. In Germany, concern with "wastage" of scarce resources led to a starvation regime in many mental hospitals that anticipated later Nazi policies. Growing hardship and disillusionment on the German home front exacerbated internal divisions and led to a radicalization of anti-Semitism. The outbreak of revolution, first in Russia, then in Germany and eastern European countries, fomented widespread belief that Jewish circles were sowing discord in Europe's capitals. In this context, Germany's wartime social tensions and defeat could be blamed by the Right on the Jews. It used to be thought that Adolf Hitler had learned his radical anti-Semitism in Vienna, where he spent his later youth, but it seems that it was in the atmosphere of Germany's defeat and in the fevered postwar political climate in Munich that Hitler fixed his hatred. All across Europe, the postwar era saw the spread of virulent anti-Semitism, particularly in states that had lost the war or felt mistreated by the postwar settlements.

In Germany, the 1918–1919 revolution and civil war carried the violence of war onto domestic streets and ushered in a new paramilitary style of politics. Radical splinter groups on the left and right sprang up out of nowhere; the early years of the new republic were dominated by fear and conflict. The respectable classes were open to violence, if it assured stability. Virulent right-wing politics dominated the student unions, though until 1932 not the national polls.


It has long been debated when and with what clarity Adolf Hitler formulated the idea of exterminating the Jews. By the mid-1920s he was virulently anti-Semitic. His two-volume autobiography Mein Kampf, dictated in prison in 1924, and his second unpublished book, written in 1928, were obsessed with Jewry. Other groups too fell foul of Hitler's racial vision, but only the Jews were seen as conspiring against the nation. Hitler's language is extraordinarily violent and bloodthirsty, redolent with metaphors of plague and parasite. The Jew was variously a maggot, a blood-sucking spider, a rat, a harmful bacillus, or a vampire. His followers expected a brutal reckoning with the Jews, but it seems that Hitler's main aim was to force German Jews to leave the country. The violent rhetoric may not have been a plan for genocide—nevertheless, the language of pests and parasites would give the later genocidal decisions a retrospective claim to consistency. Looking back in 1941 and again at the end of the war, Hitler would say that he had followed a straight path.

Hitler's racial anti-Semitism enjoyed wide resonance in Germany but was arguably not the reason millions of voters turned to the Nazis in Weimar's final crisis years. Indeed, from 1930 the party toned down the anti-Semitic content of its electoral materials in order to increase its appeal.

After Hitler's accession to power on 30 January 1933, Germany's Jews were targeted almost immediately. A government-sponsored boycott of Jewish businesses in April was followed by a purge of the civil service. Between 1933 and 1934 Jews were removed almost completely from German public life. After a brief lull, the period 1935–1937 saw a raft of further measures: in the so-called Nuremberg Laws of September 1935, Jews lost their citizenship and were forbidden to have sexual relations with Aryans. Toward the end of 1937, Jews were denied any possibility of earning an independent living. The regime massively increased the pressure to emigrate. After the Anschluss in March 1938, Austria with its particularly widespread anti-Semitism stepped into the vanguard for a while. But on Kristallnacht (Night of Broken Glass), 9–10 November 1938, Nazi brutality smashed through the doors and windows of almost every remaining Jewish home and business in Germany. By the outbreak of World War II, two-thirds of the Jews in Germany and Austria had managed to emigrate, while those left behind formed a huddled, terrified, and aging remnant.

As part of wider debates about the nature of the Nazi system, historians were long divided over the reasons for this rapid radicalization. While the "intentionalists" emphasized Hitler's purposeful drive to exclude the Jews, the "functionalists" believed that what took the regime into uncharted waters was competition between subordinates seeking to make their mark in an unregulated power jungle. It is now known that Hitler probably did send the decisive signals, but the energy of the program depended on the willing compliance of a large number of players, who often shared the idea that Jewish influence should be removed from Germany. In the early years, state officials at national and local levels vied with Nazi Party members to be the torchbearers. When Jewish businesses and property were up for grabs, popular greed added further energy. Toward the end of the 1930s, the influence of the Heinrich Himmler's SS (Schutzstaffel) and police empire grew; during the war it would be the dominant force.

The tide of discriminatory measures was aimed toward the goal of a Jew-free society, not murder. In 1938 and 1939, special centers were established in Vienna and Berlin to "facilitate" Jewish emigration. As late as April 1940, the hardliners in the Reich Security Main Office (RSHA) laid down that Jewish emigration should be pursued with increased emphasis. Toward the end of the 1930s, however, the growing suspicion of Nazi expansionism by the rest of the world confirmed Hitler's view that an international Jewish conspiracy was manipulating world events. His pronouncements and warnings grew more threatening in an effort to intimidate the "Jewish-controlled" foreign powers from interfering with German ambitions. In a speech to the Reichstag on 30 January 1939, Hitler "wished to make a prophecy: if international Jewry in and outside Europe once again forced the nations into a world war the result would not be the Bolshevization of the earth and victory for the Jews but the annihilation of the Jewish race in Europe."

A sign of the relatively unplanned way in which the Nazis edged toward genocide of the Jews is that the drift toward using murder as a tool of racial policy began not with Jews and not as the result of anti-Semitism but out of the desire to remove the "burden" of the mentally and physically handicapped. Earlier in the 1930s the Nazis had implemented draconian measures of racial health, introducing compulsory sterilization for the mentally ill. By the outbreak of war 350,000 to 400,000 people, or more than 1 percent of the German childbearing population, would be forcibly sterilized. These measures did not initially target Jews and, indeed, much of the impetus came from medical and scientific proponents of eugenics, who until the early 1930s were not necessarily advocates of more völkisch racial thought. The enforced sterilization of the so-called Rhineland bastards in 1934 marked a first crossover toward combining eugenic and ethnic categories that, however, still did not target Jews.

In 1938 Hitler approved the killing of a handicapped child and in 1939 a nationwide program (dubbed "T4" after the Berlin address, Tiergarten 4, whence it was administered) for administering such killings. Hitler was acting in keeping with the attitude of an influential minority in the medical profession who regarded such "lives unworthy of living" as an exorbitant burden on the state. A program to eliminate mentally handicapped adults began in the same year. These operations claimed the lives of seventy thousand people over the following two years. The program also created precedent and expertise for the gassing of Jews. In summer 1940, a sign of the slippage, all mentally ill Jews in German psychiatric institutions were murdered.

In the longer view, the decisive event in unleashing the Nazis' full murderous potential was the outbreak of war. The war encouraged new radicalism and presented new challenges. Britain and its commonwealth were now closed as emigration destinations. The Nazis had acquired a huge Jewish population in occupied Poland. It was clear that for this group emigration was out of the question. The Nazis were stuck with millions of Jews.

Over the next eighteen months, the SS and other authorities would experiment with enforced resettlement of Jews onto a series of special reservations, first in eastern Poland, whither many thousands were dispatched under appalling conditions, then in Madagascar, though no Jews were ever sent there, and then in some distant part of Russia. These projects were much more lethal in intent than the drive to force emigration. The reservations would be policed and controlled—proposals included separating the sexes—and it was not assumed or desired that the deportees would thrive. Each of these projects failed to materialize, however. In the case of Madagascar and Russia implementation was predicated on military victories that did not transpire.

The problems in Poland revealed that Nazi attempts at Jewish resettlement were intersecting with far-reaching plans for the reorganization, ethnic cleansing, and partial Germanization of eastern Europe. It was Himmler's efforts to repatriate several hundred thousand ethnic Germans from the Soviet Union and elsewhere into German-held territory in western Poland that helped to stymie the Jewish reservation plan. To make way for the German settlers, western Polish farms were needed, and to clear the occupants, all available capacities were taken up bringing in ethnic Germans into western Poland and transferring almost half a million Poles (some Jewish, the majority not) out of that area and dumping them in the General Government, the rump Polish territory to the east. At this stage, then, Germanization and plans for Jews collided with each other. Later, they would reinforce each other in disastrous ways, as the Nazis own planning created problems and shortages that led them to look at the Jews as a surplus and unnecessary population.

In 1939–1940, the German authorities in Poland, anticipating the Jews' eventual removal to a reservation, acted with enormous brutality to isolate and concentrate Polish Jews and remove them from the economy. Several thousands of Jewish leaders were killed as part of a wider program of decimating the Polish intelligentsia to crush any national revival. Jews were forced to wear special armbands and were subject to confiscations and special taxes. Jews throughout Poland, except those performing protected tasks for the Wehrmacht, were pushed out of gainful employment. As hopes of speedy deportations crumbled, Nazi leaders sealed up Jewish ghettos. Horribly overcrowded and underresourced, the ghettos were at the whim of local officials' willingness to allow them to earn their keep. In Warsaw, the largest ghetto, presiding authorities systematically starved the occupants, sending death rates soaring in 1940 and 1941. According to official German figures, by the end of 1942 three quarters of a million Jews had died in the ghettos of "natural causes," quite apart from the killing programs that were by then well under way. In many parts of Poland, Jews were conscripted for forced labor under such unbearable conditions—as for example in building fortifications along the Bug River—that many died.


It was the war against the Soviet Union that sent the German authorities over the edge to mass murder. As in previous campaigns, special task squads (Einsatzgruppen) prepared to eliminate security threats behind the front lines. But because of the Nazi conception of the Bolshevik system, the scale and the character of the task was defined very differently. This was not an ordinary war, Hitler told his generals, but a fight to the death between two ideologies. The communist officials were all criminals and must be treated as such. Since Hitler believed Jews were at the heart of the communist system, his aim was the elimination of the "Judeo-Bolshevik intelligentsia." In Russia, therefore, the campaign against the elites was to be from the beginning also a campaign against the Jews, with the limits of the Jewish culpability and participation very poorly defined.

The climate for killing was further heated up by economics. Hitler's military strategy and longer-term plans depended on ruthless commandeering of Soviet resources, above all its foodstuffs. Civilian deaths in seven figures were a deliberate and integral part of the campaign. The German high command made no provision to feed the anticipated large numbers of Soviet prisoners. The result would be an astonishingly high death toll—two million by the end of 1941—making Soviet POWs the first group in German hands to die in the millions.

When the German troops swept in to the Soviet Union on 22 June 1941, four motorized Einsatzgruppen of six hundred to one thousand men each followed behind, with additional manpower supplied by police battalions and Waffen SS units. In close cooperation with the German army, these units carried out mass shootings of leading Bolsheviks, Soviet army political officers, state officials, intellectuals, and Jews. Very rapidly, the task squads moved to target all Jewish men of armsbearing age, and in late summer extended their remit to women and children. The shootings took place at mass graves away from towns and cities, to which the Jews were marched or driven. In the Baby Yar valley in Ukraine, 33,771 Jews were murdered in just two days in September 1941. It is clear that the expansion of the scale of murder coincided with high level meetings between Hitler and Himmler in July. In August, Himmler instituted experiments on the effectiveness of using gas as a means of killing, though shooting would remain the preferred option in the Soviet Union. Where demand for Jewish labor was low, and particularly where the male Jews had already been killed, the surviving Jewish populations were simply deemed "useless eaters." In this way the original racial-security concept shifted to a racial-economic one, with only a few skilled male workers enjoying temporary reprieve. By the end of the year more than three quarters of a million Soviet Jews had been killed, a number that eventually would reach two million.

The summer 1941 onslaught against Soviet Jews marked the single most significant step in the descent into genocide, yet it is not clear if the Nazis had yet resolved to murder all European Jews. Rather than a single moment of decision, a number of parallel developments took place in the months after July 1941 as the climate created by the Soviet killings progressively altered policy assumptions.

In September 1941, Hitler agreed that even before the end of the Soviet campaign German Jews could be deported to relieve pressure on housing stock depleted by bombing. By early fall the Nazis had clearly resolved that all Jews should be subject to some kind of territorial or more directly murderous solution. Emigration even of German Jews was now barred for all but a few exceptions. In readiness for deportations, all German Jews had to be clearly marked with the yellow star and were concentrated in special houses. Mass deportations from Germany to Lodz began in October and would be followed by transports to Minsk, Kovno, and Riga in November and December.

It is not clear that the deportees were slated for certain death, though Reinhard Heydrich's planning for the Lodz ghetto condemned nonworkers to overcrowding on a scale that suggested that death through disease would be most welcome. The knock-on effect of the planned deportations, however, was to incur the protest of the receiving authorities, particularly in Lodz. As a result Himmler and the local gauleiter, Artur Greiser, agreed on the construction of an extermination center at Chelmno to eliminate Polish Jews as a way of "making space" for the German deportees. The Chelmno gas camp would begin killing on 8 December 1941.

In September and October, it became clear to Nazi authorities in the General Government that the slow advance in the Soviet Union would not allow the Polish territories to off-load their Jews in the near future and thus that yet another reservation project had failed. Having excluded Jews from almost any way of earning a living, Nazi officials began discussing what to do with their "useless" subjects. The SS leader in the Lublin district, Odilo Globocnik, had been authorized to prepare his region for a German settlement program. In October, after a meeting with Himmler, he began preparations for the Belzec extermination facility, where killing would start in March 1942.

The available records do not allow historians to reconstruct Hitler's precise role in these developments, which seem to have arisen from regional initiatives, though always in coordination with Himmler. Hitler's own recorded pronouncements are seldom unambiguous. What is clear, however, is that by the end of 1941 Nazi leaders were assuming all Jews would be killed—and that such an assumption would have required Hitler's imprimatur. The infamous Wannsee Protocol reveals that by January 1942 at the latest Nazi leaders knew that all Jews would die through exhaustive labor or direct killing, though the final details of the program may not have been fully worked out even then.

The implementation of murder developed in stages in spring 1942, as Himmler and Heydrich progressively expanded the killing process. After Heydrich's assassination in June 1942, Himmler radically stepped up the pace of killings in Poland, in July calling for the entire General Government to be cleared of Jews by the end of the year. By December 1942 just over a quarter of a million Jews in the region remained alive. German Jews began to be killed in large numbers beginning in May 1942 and even those ostensibly reprieved to live out their days in the "old-age ghetto" of Theresienstadt would for the most part be sent on to Auschwitz. Large-scale transports of Jews from western Europe began to roll in June, most of them to Auschwitz. Though the Holocaust was a protracted affair, it is a macabre fact that more than half of all its Jewish victims were dispatched within eleven months. The period from mid-March 1942 to mid-February 1943 marks probably the most intensive period of murder in the history of mankind.


Half the Jews murdered in the Holocaust did not die in the gas chambers. The majority of these were shot on the plains of Russia. Others were worked or mistreated to death on labor sites throughout Europe. Tens of thousands more were shot near the end of the war. The view of the Holocaust as an almost automated affair, taking place with industrial precision in hidden death factories, is thus inaccurate. This was mass killing at close quarters and on open view, though much of it away from German soil.

But the Nazis' most radical innovation was indeed the creation of death factories in which the technology and efficiency of industrial production was transferred to the killing, processing, and destruction of human bodies. The camps themselves varied considerably in character. Because there were so few survivors, the Chelmno camp near Lodz, and the three extermination camps in the General Government—Belzec, Sobibor, and Treblinka—are less well known than Auschwitz, though together they accounted for twice as many deaths. Like the regular concentration camps they were ultimately under Himmler's control, but they stood outside the main camp system and were run locally, with the "Action Reinhardt" camps of Belzec, Sobibor, and Treblinka under the command of SS Major General Odilo Globocnik in Lublin. Within the camps, security police personnel and transferees from the euthanasia program were in charge while Ukrainian auxiliaries did much of the day-to-day guard duty. There were no selections at the camps: with the exception of the small Jewish labor force temporarily required to keep the machine running, all Jews brought there were murdered. The Chelmno camp near Lodz eliminated its inmates in specially constructed mobile gas vans, whose carbon monoxide fumes were pumped back into the sealed holds. The bulk of the camp's work was done between December 1941 and April 1943, but it was restarted in summer 1944 to eliminate the remnants of the Lodz ghetto. The Action Reinhardt camps used fixed installations into which motor engines pumped carbon monoxide. New arrivals were rushed into the extermination process. Under pretext of being prepared for delousing baths, they were made to undress, have their hair cut, and were sent into the gas chambers all within a couple of hours of exiting the often horrifically overcrowded trains. In the first five weeks of its operation, Treblinka, the most efficient of the three, "processed" three hundred thousand people, predominantly Jews from Warsaw. Overall, as many as nine hundred thousand Jews may have died there—almost as many as in Auschwitz. Between spring 1942 and fall 1943, the Chelmno and Action Reinhardt camps together were responsible for the deaths of perhaps two million Jews. Successful camp uprisings in 1943 allowed a few hundred inmates to escape Treblinka and Sobibor, but from Chelmno and Belzec together there were only three or four survivors.

For many of those Jews sent to Majdanek near Lublin and Auschwitz near Kraków, the experience was similar—death came a few hours after arrival and took place in camouflaged shower rooms, this time with prussic acid (Zyklon B). The corpses were searched for valuables and gold teeth before being cremated. These camps began their existence not as killing centers, however, but as part of the Nazi concentration camp empire, and even in their killing phase continued to hold a sizable working population—including many non-Jews. Jews arriving in these camps were subject to a selection, so that of the 1.3 million people taken to Auschwitz, four hundred thousand were initially selected for labor and given numbers. Because it was the largest complex, the size of a small town, and because it saw the most survivors, it is Auschwitz that has gripped our imagination. Whereas the pure extermination camps had all been shut down by the end of 1943 (though Chelmno would briefly be reopened), Auschwitz's peak murder period came in summer 1944, when 430,000 Hungarian Jews were dispatched in just seven weeks. By the time of its liberation, around 1 million Jews and perhaps 150,000 others had died there. Auschwitz is also noteworthy, though not unique, for the extensive and horrific medical experiments carried out on living patients there, causing many patients to die excruciating deaths in the name of dubious science.

Although a substantial minority of the concentration camp arrivals were selected for labor, the camp regime militated against their being deployed productively. The Nazi goal of "extermination through labor" was inherently contradictory, and the work remained senseless and brutal, designed to eliminate the worker as much as produce anything useful. An IG Farben plant attached to Auschwitz (Auschwitz III or Monowitz), and intended to manufacture artificial rubber, achieved no usable output throughout the war. Even Jews sent to concentration camps that were not formally extermination sites were often subject to such appalling working and living conditions that the camps were de facto killing centers. By 1944, however, German labor shortages were such that Jews began to be deployed more productively, including in factories on German soil. Auschwitz became a giant sieve, to which Jews from all over Europe were brought, subject to selection, and survivors sent on to subcamps in Germany and elsewhere to contribute to the German war effort. While conditions for many were appalling, being involved in useful factory work offered more chance of survival than remaining in the main camp.

Himmler forbade camp commanders from allowing inmates to fall into enemy hands. From January 1945, as foreign troops closed in on Auschwitz and other concentration camp sites, the prisoners were dispatched on senseless, grueling journeys inland, sometimes in open train cars in winter, often on foot, and often without food. Those who fell by the wayside were shot. Between one-third and one-half of all concentration camp inmates still alive in January 1945 perished in these so-called death marches (among Jewish prisoners the proportion was more like 50 percent).


For much of the postwar period, the picture painted of the Jewish response to the Holocaust was one of passivity. The oft-used phrase "like sheep to the slaughter" not only conveyed the similarity between abattoirs and death factories but also implied that Jewish communities put up no resistance to their fate. In the 1960s, Hannah Arendt and Raul Hilberg added to this general picture their influential and very critical judgment of the role played by the Judenräte or Jewish councils.

What is undoubtedly true is that only a small number of active Nazi personnel were required to achieve very large numbers of deaths. One of the Holocaust's most insidious features was that the Nazis incorporated Jewish involvement into the machinery of extermination. In the 1930s Jewish community leaders in Germany and Austria were made responsible for drawing up lists of names, passing on instructions, later even for assembling deportation lists. In September 1939 Heydrich ordered the creation for Poland of Jewish councils responsible for enforcing German orders. The ghettos were self-administered by these so-called Judenräte, who found themselves having to make ever more excruciating choices. In July 1942, for example, the Vilna ghetto leadership handed over the elderly and ill to the Nazis, and in September 1942 the Lodz ghetto council handed over all children under ten and elderly over sixty-five, in both cases to what they knew was certain death. It was the ghetto leaders, most notoriously Jacob Gens of Vilna and Chaim Rumkowski of Lodz (both of whom were eventually murdered by the Nazis), of whom Hilberg and Arendt were particularly critical. Even in the extermination camps, much of the dirty work was done by Jewish prisoners themselves. In Auschwitz, so-called Jewish Sonderkommandos greeted the arriving prisoners, collected and sorted their belongings, ushered them into the fake showers, searched the corpses for valuables, and burned the corpses.

Research over the last several decades has placed many of the Jewish leaders in a more sympathetic light. For one thing, the genocidal character of Nazi policy was often not immediately visible. After the outbreak of war, Polish communities hoped that traditional responses to hostile authorities of paying fees, fines, and bribes could deflect the worst. Local Jewish leaders often stepped in of their own initiative to provide labor for Nazi conscription, hoping to avert the wild press-ganging of passers-by. In doing so, they found themselves caught up in a pattern of compliance to alleviate the worst, from which it was hard to withdraw. Nazi policy was initially inconsistent, giving hope of survival, particularly where communities could offer skilled labor to the German war effort. Even when evidence of Nazi murderousness was objectively overwhelming, it was understandable that Jewish leaders found it hard to believe the signs. Reprisals against refractory Jewish councils were utterly ruthless. In Stanislau in Ukraine, for example, the entire council was shot for failing to provide conscript labor. Confronted with such dilemmas, the head of the Warsaw ghetto, Adam Czerniakow, chose in July 1942 to commit suicide rather than superintend or actively resist imminent mass deportations to Treblinka.

The Jewish response was in any case far from passive. The most common and most successful stratagem was evasion—through emigration, escape, and hiding. As many as one million Jews survived by these means, including the majority of the Austrian and German Jewish communities, who managed to emigrate abroad, three hundred thousand Polish Jews who fled into the Soviet part of occupied Poland when the Nazis took over the western part, and some two hundred thousand Jews across Europe who survived in hiding. In the ghettos, for the most part unable to escape, Jewish communities worked hard to maintain educational, spiritual, and cultural life. The early years of Nazi occupation in Warsaw, Lodz, and the Theresienstadt old-age ghetto in the Czech protectorate saw remarkable cultural activity. In Warsaw, Kovno, and other ghettos, organized groups made great efforts to record events for posterity, leaving behind rich and telling chronicles for the postwar world. The lack of arms and outside support made armed resistance extremely difficult—and Nazi reprisals against nonparticipants made it a morally agonizing choice. Full-scale uprisings, as in the Warsaw ghetto in April 1942 and in Bialystok in August of that year, took place only when it was clear that death was inevitable. Even so, there were many incidents of armed opposition. Perhaps as many as one hundred thousand Jews fought with partisans in Poland, Russia, and elsewhere. Ten percent of the French Maquis (resistance) were Jewish. There were armed uprisings in several camps, leading to successful breakouts in Sobibor and Treblinka in 1943 and the destruction of one of the crematoria in Auschwitz in 1944.


If historical research has in recent years been kinder to Jewish leaders and stressed the activism of Jewish responses, treatment of those not in the Holocaust's firing line has taken an opposite trend, widening the circle of those directly involved in the killing process, blurring the dividing line between bystanders and perpetrators, and drawing attention to the large number of European collaborators.

In the early postwar years, the extermination of the Jews was seen as the work of a small circle of SS men, conducted in secret in camps far away from public view. As scholars became aware of the huge bureaucratic apparatus required to identify the circle of victims, brand mark, expropriate, segregate, and transport them, the image of the perpetrator shifted from the secretive uniformed psychopath to the paper-pushing everyman with no vision beyond his or her immediate task. By the late twentieth century the diverse range of institutions and players involved actually in killing Jews became more clear. In the occupied territories in Russia and eastern Europe, the killing was carried out by a heterogeneous array of German institutions—including the army, civilian administrations, and regular police forces as well as the SS. Even generals who would later join the plot against Hitler willingly cooperated with the extermination process. Postwar trials proved that participants had not acted under duress. The wide involvement was a sign that the war against the Jews proved surprisingly consensual. In both state and party institutions, and particularly in the RSHA, high-powered young men could be found who had already demonstrated strong commitment to Völkisch politics and right-wing activism in the 1920s. Anti-Semitism was far from the only motive—as the willing involvement of Nazi units in the mass murder of gypsies (of whom perhaps a quarter of a million were killed) of non-Jewish Poles and of Soviet POWs and conscripts revealed. Most participants, even those with strong ideological credentials or prehistories of violent activism, had been carried along by the regime's radicalization process to a point very far from what they would have regarded as thinkable and right just a few years earlier.

For the German population as a whole, concrete information about the killings in the Soviet Union was widely available in 1941, as soldiers on leave shared firsthand experiences from the front. Rumors of extermination camps circulated in 1942, though not with the same clarity or universality. The German public reacted with passivity and indifference, and with a certain degree of acceptance of the need for radical measures. In the course of the war, the German population grew increasingly frightened at the possibility of reprisals, and some interpreted the Allied air attacks as divine retribution for what was happening in the east.

Since the end of the Cold War there has been growing recognition of the extensive role of collaboration among foreign countries and nationals. In some cases, the collaboration took place at government level. In 1941–1942 Romania murdered or indirectly caused the death of more than a quarter of million Jews in territories it acquired from the Soviet Union. At different points in the war, Slovakia, Croatia, and Hungary all proved enthusiastic participants in the Final Solution, deporting all or most of their Jewish subjects. Of German allies, Italy and Bulgaria were the least willing to accede to anti-Semitic policies, and most of their Jewish populations survived. Some governments were happy to deport foreign Jews, but saw it as an infringement on their prestige to deport Jews with national citizenship; this was true of Bulgaria, which handed over Macedonian and Thracian Jews; of Romania, which, despite its earlier savagery, persecuted but did not deport most of its own Jews; and of Vichy France, which volunteered sending even children of stateless Jews to the death camps rather than include French citizens in the deportations.

National motives for collaboration varied. Anti-Semitism played a part, but so did the desire to gain German recognition or support. Targeting of foreign Jews was particularly attractive in newly acquired territories, where sharing out the vacated spoils and positions could be used to carve out jobs for the boys or win over local elites—a motive for Romania, Hungary, and Bulgaria. As the German star waned, some nations switched policies. Below government level, the Nazis were able to mobilize or foment local pogroms against Jews, as in Latvia, Ukraine, and briefly in parts of Poland in 1941. They also formed militias from indigenous elements, and most of the Action Reinhardt camp guards were so called "Trawniki" men, recruited in Ukraine. Material inducements were an important element in such recruitment. Some of the Ukrainians bought their way out of horrible conditions as POWs by serving in the camps.

For a long time, accounts of the Holocaust presented the Allies simply as liberators and read contemporary horror at the Holocaust on the faces of the Allied soldiers' and journalists who uncovered the nightmare of the camps. The critical mood occasioned by the Vietnam War and the resulting revisionist wave of American historiography, however, triggered a second look at Allied wartime policy, one that has been further refined as classified materials have become available. More evident now is the way government anti-Semitism, or government sensitivity to the limits of public tolerance of Jews, straitjacketed British and American efforts on behalf of refugees at a time when emigration was still possible. Franklin Delano Roosevelt's calling of the Evian conference in July 1938 to assist the refugees, a conference he did not himself attend, was as depressing as it was ineffectual. For the United States, the state department's assistant secretary in charge of the visa division, Breckinridge Long, has emerged as a particular villain, using administrative means in 1940–1941 to prevent even the modest immigration quotas from being fully exploited. Both British and U.S. governments and parliaments were, it must be said, understandably wary of admitting large numbers of foreigners at a time of continued mass unemployment. Once the Nazis moved to extermination, the Allies rapidly gained knowledge of the shootings through decoding German coded telegrams. Jewish and Polish sources gave them clear insight into genocide in summer 1942. Again, anti-Semitism in official circles or sensitivity to public opinion may have restrained Allied governments from mounting serious rescue operations. In 1943 they sought to limit domestic reporting on Nazi atrocities so as not to create pressure to act; the April 1943 Bermuda conference on the refugee problem was, according to the head of the British delegation, explicitly designed as a "façade for inaction." In 1944 the U.S. Air Force did not amend its bombing targets despite pressure from some quarters to destroy the railway lines to Auschwitz (the efficacy of so doing remains open to debate). There were, however, very obvious limits to what was achievable in wartime, other than defeating Germany as soon as possible. Moreover, behind the scenes in 1944 the U.S. War Refugee Board, acting in conjunction with American Jewish Joint Distribution Agency, did provide considerable financial and other relief where it could and even succeeded in negotiating for the release of a small number of Hungarian Jews.

The Holocaust thus found a great many people wanting, yet there were also rescue attempts to be found in every European country, again ranging from government measures to individual actions. The most spectacular was the Danish rescue of its Jews in October 1943, following a tip-off from German government circles that deportation was imminent. More than seven thousand Danish Jews were ferried to Sweden by boat. In many western European countries semiorganized religious and political networks provided hiding places for Jews. In Poland, despite the brutal German occupation, informal underground networks in "Aryan" Warsaw hid almost thirty thousand Jews, some twelve thousand of whom survived the war. Overall, somewhere between fifty thousand and five hundred thousand individuals risked their lives to provide assistance to Jews in danger. Rescue actions were prompted by a broad spectrum of motives from idealistic humanitarianism, to simple friendship, to material incentives, to crude calculation of the need to show the Allies that German measures had been resisted.


One third of world Jewry was eliminated by the Holocaust. Judaism's traditional spiritual centers in eastern Europe were almost completely destroyed, with 90 percent of Polish Jews murdered. The only other group targeted with anything like this comprehensiveness was the gypsies, perhaps one quarter of whose European population was killed. Almost 90 percent of German gypsies died.

At the end of the war between fifty thousand and ninety thousand Jews were on German soil along with seven to ten million other displaced persons (DPs), mostly conscript laborers from the German war machine. Whereas the non-Jews generally had homes to go to (though many Soviet citizens were sent home against their will), most Jews had nothing left behind them. Following the 1946 Kielce pogrom, Polish Jews who had survived the war in Russia and returned home to Poland in 1945 fled westward to the DP camps in Austria and Germany. By 1948 there were 250,000 Jewish DPs in Germany. Jewish leaders in Palestine with American support used the DP's plight effectively as an argument for the creation of an Israeli state, and by the early 1950s the DP problem had been solved through emigration to Israel, the United States, and other countries.

Allied discoveries of the horrors in the concentration camps added to the pressure for postwar trials, and the Holocaust was dealt with as part of the International War Crimes Tribunal at Nuremberg. Allied and former occupied countries also carried out their own trials in the postwar years. From the late 1950s the Federal Republic of Germany took up the issue with vigor and the 1963 Auschwitz trials in Frankfurt were the most high profile of a series of large legal cases that continued into the 1970s and 1980s. Of biggest international impact, however, was the Israeli trial of Adolf Eichmann in 1961–1962 following Eichmann's capture and abduction from Argentina. Though these diverse legal actions left many perpetrators without or with only light punishment, and showed how hard it was to target individuals when the whole system had been criminal, they nevertheless collected huge amounts of valuable records and testimony about the Holocaust. The Eichmann trial and Hannah Arendt's book about it created huge international awareness of the Holocaust for the first time.

As the Kielce pogroms and other postwar violence demonstrated, the Holocaust did not eliminate anti-Semitism from the world. In the 1950s, for example, U.S. holiday resorts were still more likely to be closed to Jews than German ones had been in the 1920s. But over time, the Holocaust impelled both Protestant and Catholic churches to rethink their historic attitudes and contributed more widely to greater Western sensitivity to the perils of racial hatred.

Indeed, it took time in general for the Holocaust's scale and implications to sink in. In the early years survivors found few listeners for their experiences and were themselves often keen to put the horrors behind them. In Israel, the United States, and elsewhere, however, the 1960s—with the Eichmann trial, a more confident Israeli state, and a greater tendency in general to celebrate one's ethnic differences and roots—was a watershed in public consciousness. In the work of writers such as Michel Foucault and postmodern theorists, the experience of the Holocaust seeped into the Western world's sense of the modern, helping to create greater unease at the negative potentials of the enlightenment, rationality, and technical progress. The 1980s saw an explosion of fictional and nonfictional writing on the subject. Novelists, poets, and artists, many of them survivors, turned to the Holocaust as a theme, or found their earlier works now enjoying global recognition. Museums sprang up across the Western world, and a number of countries introduced Holocaust remembrance days. The subject of representing and remembering the Holocaust itself became a major academic field.

The result is that the Holocaust is the best documented act of violence in human history. Even so, since the 1970s a number of individuals have sought to deny that the Holocaust took place. The growth of the Internet has made it easier to disseminate such claims, despite a number of highprofile legal cases that have established their fraudulent character. In the Arab world, old forgeries, such as the Protocols of Zion, and new denial claims are widely disseminated.

Partly by dint of its special character, partly by dint of the enormous interest it has received, the Holocaust continues to pose particular challenges of understanding and representation. It is almost impossible for survivors to convey the reality of the experience, but by repeatedly emphasizing the Holocaust's unrepresentability, scholars have attached to the event a sacredness, which equally belies its reality. The Holocaust is without doubt one of the most momentous events of the twentieth century, yet the enormous and understandable focus on it is in danger of creating something too abstracted from other Nazi policies and other acts of genocide and violence in the world. The thrust of the most recent scholarship, therefore, has been to place the Holocaust within broader comparative contexts. Even within the broader framework of the bloody twentieth century, the Holocaust will always stand out for its bureaucratic thoroughness, its search for continent-wide comprehensiveness, and its industrialization of murder.

See alsoAuschwitz-Birkenau; Concentration Camps; Germany; Israel; Jews; Wannsee Conference; World War II.


Aly, Götz. "Final Solution": Nazi Population Policy and the Murder of the European Jews. Translated from the German by Belinda Cooper and Allison Brown. London, 1999.

Arendt, Hannah. The Origins of Totalitarianism. New York, 1951.

——. Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil. New York, 1963.

Browning, Christopher. Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Batallion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland. New York, 1992.

Browning, Christopher, and Jürgen Matthäus. The Origins of the Final Solution: The Evolution of Nazi Jewish Policy, September 1939–March 1942. Lincoln, Neb., 2004.

Burleigh, Michael. Death and Deliverance: Euthanasia in Germany, 1900–1945. Cambridge, U.K., 1994.

Corni, Gustavo. Hitler's Ghettos: Voices from a Beleaguered Society, 1939–1944. Translated from the Italian by Nicola Rudge Iannelli. Oxford, U.K., 2002.

Delbo, Charlotte. Auschwitz and After. Translated from the French by Rosette C. Lamont. New Haven, Conn., 1995.

Friedländer, Saul, ed. Probing the Limits of Representation: Nazism and the "Final Solution." Cambridge, Mass., 1992.

——. Nazi Germany and the Jews. Vol. 1: The Years of Persecution, 1933–1939. New York, 1997.

Gerlach, Christian. "The Wannsee Conference, the Fate of German Jews, and Hitler's Decision in Principle to Eliminate All European Jews." In The Holocaust: Origins, Implementation, Aftermath, edited by Omer Bartov, 106–161. New York, 2000.

Gross, Jan T. Neighbors: The Destruction of the Jewish Community in Jedwabne, Poland. Princeton, N.J., 2001.

Herbert, Ulrich, ed. National Socialist Extermination Policies: Contemporary German Perspectives and Controversies. New York, 2000.

Hilberg, Raul. The Destruction of the European Jews. Chicago, 1961.

Ioanid, Radu. The Holocaust in Romania: The Destruction of Jews and Gypsies under the Antonescu Regime, 1940–1944. Chicago, 2000.

Kaplan, Marion. Between Dignity and Despair: Jewish Life in Nazi Germany. New York, 1998.

Kershaw, Ian. Hitler. Vol. 1: 1889–1936: Hubris. Vol. 2.: 1936–1945: Nemesis. London, 1999–2000.

Klee, Ernst, Willi Dressen, and Volker Riess, ed. "The Good Old Days": The Holocaust As Seen by Its Perpetrators and Bystanders. Foreword by Hugh Trevor-Roper. Translated by Deborah Burnstone. New York, 1991.

Klüger, Ruth. Still Alive: A Holocaust Girlhood Remembered. New York, 2001.

Levi, Primo. The Drowned and the Saved. Translated from the Italian by Raymond Rosenthal. New York, 1988.

Lewy, Guenter. The Nazi Persecution of the Gypsie s . New York, 2000.

Longerich, Peter. Politik der Vernichtung: Eine Gesamtdarstellung der nationalsozialistischen Judenverfolgung. Munich, Germany, 1998.

Mann, Michael. The Dark Side of Democracy: Explaining Ethnic Cleansing. New York, 2005.

Mommsen, Hans. "The Realization of the Unthinkable: The Final Solution of the Jewish Question." In From Weimar to Auschwitz: Essays on German History. Translated by Philip O'Connor. Princeton, N.J., 2000.

Peukert, Detlev. Inside Nazi Germany: Conformity, Opposition, and Racism in Everyday Life. Translated by Richard Deveson. New Haven, Conn., 1987.

Roseman, Mark. The Villa, the Lake, the Meeting: Wannsee and the Final Solution. London, 2002.

Sereny, Gita. Into That Darkness: From Mercy Killing to Mass Murder. London, 1974.

Traverso, Enzo. The Origins of Nazi Violence. New York, 2003.

Trunk, Isaiah. Judenrat: The Jewish Councils in Eastern Europe under Nazi Occupation. New York, 1972.

Wildt, Michael. Generation des Unbedingten: Das Führungskorps des Reichssicherheitshauptamtes. Hamburg, Germany, 2002.

Zimmermann, Michael. Rassenutopie und Genozid: Die Nationalsozialistische "Lösung der Zigeunerfrage." Hamburg, Germany, 1996.

Mark Roseman

Holocaust, The

views updated Jun 11 2018

Holocaust, The





The Holocaust is the most common name for the systematic destruction of almost 6 million European Jews under German National Socialism between 1933 and 1945. Holocaust, from the Greek holokauston, means a burnt sacrifice or offering. Because the events of the Holocaust were no such thing, however, many prefer other terms, including the Hebrew Shoah (calamity) or genocide of the European Jews. The term genocide (murder of an entire ethnic group) was coined during World War II (19391945) by the Polish exile lawyer Raphael Lemkin to describe the murderous program Germany was carrying out, particularly in occupied central and eastern Europe; since then genocide has been used to refer to numerous other historical programs of mass ethnic-based extermination.


The Nazi regime never made a secret of its anti-Semitism, if there is nevertheless substantial debate about how early, public, and explicitly murderous were its intentions to make Europe Judenrein (free of Jews). Vilification and scapegoating of Jews was certainly a central feature of Nazi rhetoric throughout the 1920s. Following the Nazi seizure of power in Germany in January 1933, the regime instituted a boycott of Jewish businesses. Soon thereafter Jews were dismissed from the civil service, and strict quotas were placed on Jewish presence in schools. In May 1933 libraries were purged of decadent materials, Jewish and otherwise, which were burned in great pyres in public squares.

As discrimination against Jews escalated in the following years, authorities felt the need for a more precise legal definition of Jew, which they produced in the September 15, 1935, Nuremberg Laws for the Protection of German Blood and German Honor and the Law of the Reich Citizen. The Nuremberg Laws defined Jews as those having at least three Jewish grandparents; those with one or two Jewish grandparents were defined as Mischlinge (mixed breeds). The laws prohibited marriage between Jews and Aryans and declared civil and political rights only for Germans. Despite many generations of patriotic commitment and a high degree of social integration, including often enthusiastic participation in the German military during World War I (19141918), Jews were no longer considered German.

A more vigorous stage of persecution began on November 9, 1938. Following the murder of a German diplomat in Paris by a Jew, the Nazi regime sponsored an enormous nationwide pogrom against Jews often referred to as Kristallnacht (Night of Broken Glass). In two days more than 7,000 Jewish-owned shops and businesses were destroyed, more than 1,500 synagogues (almost every synagogue in the country) were burned, more than 100 Jews were killed, and more than 30,000 other Jews were imprisoned in the so-called concentration camps that had been set up since the first days of the regime for holding political opponents and others.

World War II began on September 1, 1939, when the German army invaded Poland. With the progress of war and the occupation of vast portions of eastern Europe, the Nazis murderous programs entered a new phase. Chancellor Adolf Hitler explicitly endorsed a large program of euthanasia for undesirables, mainly the mentally and physically handicapped, though the definition of undesirable extended to include homosexuals, prostitutes, Jehovahs Witnesses, and Sinti and Roma peoples (Gypsies), among others. In July 1941 Hitler also explicitly discussed the so-called Einsatzgruppen (operational forces). These special units engaged in systematic, though cumbersome, mass murder of Jews and partisans in the occupied territories, often by machine-gunning large groups of people gathered to dig their own graves.

Nevertheless, given the stresses and expenses of such a program, Nazi planners sought other, more efficient means for killing large numbers of Jews as well as for disposing of their bodies in a more sanitary way. Experimentation thus continued with various forms of mobile death squads and subsequently with specially designed gas chambers as well as large-scale crematoria. The regime built and expanded camps to carry out these latter innovations. The extent of these practices was systematized and expanded following the Wannsee Conference of January 20, 1942, where Nazi leaders met and empowered such functionaries as Adolf Eichmann to coordinate the vast transport of Jews to the death camps, defining what they euphemistically called the final solution to the Jewish problem. In July 1942 SS leader Heinrich Himmler ordered the evacuation of the many ghettos the Nazis had set up in eastern European cities to segregate and control Jewish populations. Most of these evacuationsmost notoriously of the Warsaw ghettoinvolved transport to extermination camps (Vernichtungslager ) in such places as Auschwitz-Birkenau, Treblinka, Belzec, and Majdanek. Best estimates are that approximately three million Jews died in the death camps, in addition to the millions of others who died in concentration camps, by mass killings, and of disease, hunger, desperation, and murder.


Most accounts from a social sciences perspective emphasize how sociologists, psychologists, and others have sought to explain the Holocaust as well as how social science was necessarily influenced and challenged by the ramifications of the Holocaust. In focusing on the role the Holocaust has played in social science, however, we overlook the role social science played in the Holocaust. For indeed social theory and research of various kinds was an important part of the intellectual milieu from which National Socialism arose. National Socialist ideologues drew explicitly on social Darwinism and eugenics, which were prominent themes across the political spectrum both in Germany and elsewhere in the first decades of the twentieth century. In Germany in particular social theory helped define a climate of radical conservatism. Prominent thinkers, such as Oswald Spengler, Werner Sombart, Arnold Gehlen, and others, helped define a mood of cultural discontent and suspicion of liberalism, which contributed to the failure of the Weimer Republic. Indeed many such figures remained in Germany throughout the Nazi years, somefor instance, Hans Freyereven assuming positions of power in Nazi academe and beyond. Many of these intellectuals, as well as those trained under them during the Nazi period, were rehabilitated after the war and became prominent figures in postwar thought (e.g., Helmut Schelsky).

Given the predominance of both Marxism and Jews in German sociology during the 1920s, moreover, many falsely assume that the Nazis rejected the social sciences. That was not entirely the case. The Nazi regime used the social sciences for a variety of purposes, drawing great power from the advanced state, for instance, of German managerial science. In the early years of the regime, the Swiss psychoanalyst Carl Jung collaborated with Matthias Goering, brother of the Nazi propaganda minister and Hitler confidante Hermann Goering, on the formation of a German Psychoanalytic Society free of Jewish influence. The sociologist Theodor Geigers work was part of the discussion of Nazi sterilization and euthanasia programs. Social scientific work on regional planning was useful to the formation of occupation policy in the East, as were area specialists, who drew on and contributed to German Ostforschung (research on the East), which incorporated geographical, economic, and sociological approaches. Freyer, director of the German Scientific Institute in Budapest, and his assistant Schelsky contributed to cultural propaganda aimed at the Hungarian intelligentsia. The so-called Inlandsnachrichtendienst (Domestic Information Service) employed large numbers of social scientists to gather public opinion and other data. While the regime had chased large numbers of leading scholars into exile, remaining Nazi scholars sought to combine traditional social theory (Gesellschaftslehre ) with a new racist anthropology (Volkskundelehre ) into a unified theory (Gesamtheitslehre ). As in law, medicine, literature, and other institutional spheres, then, portions of the social sciences as well as some of their members were associated with, were used by, and supported the Nazi regime, and the contemporary disciplines neglect examination of this legacy at their peril.


Social scientific efforts to explain the Holocaust directly have been few and far between. In the first place, the unprecedented scale of industrial killing the Nazis undertook as well as the unfathomable mass of cruelty they sponsored in some sense defy explanation and are grasped more readily in the philosophical vocabulary of radical evil. Indeed cultural theorists have often described the Holocaust as an event beyond the limits, which include those of comprehensibility as well as representability. In the second place, sociology and political science, some have argued, are better suited to explaining conditions and structures rather than events, particularly events considered unique in a sense beyond the usual one in which all historical events are unique. But part of the reason is that the contemporary association of National Socialism and World War II with the Holocaust was not always as central as it is in the early twenty-first century. For at least twenty years after 1945, most social scientific and historical accounts saw the Judeocide as a consequence of rather than as the centerpiece of National Socialism.

To be sure, a wide variety of theory has sought to explain the rise of National Socialism in Germany and the extreme violence it produced. Two major axes of argument characterize most of this literature. The first is between theories that see National Socialism as a variety of fascism, an extreme outgrowth of capitalism, milder versions of which can be found in all capitalist societies, and totalitarianism, a form of radical authoritarianism characterizing both Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. The second is between intentionalists, who see Nazi aggression and the destruction of the Jews as the result of a master plan, and functionalists, who see it as a sort of industrial accident, the conditions for which could be found almost anywhere but combined in unusual ways in Germany. Intentionalists emphasize both the evil machinations of leaders as well as unique desires inherent in German culture, while functionalists emphasize Germanys delayed modernization, absent middle class, and polycratic (dis) organization. The social scientific and historical literatures thus range over a variety of causes and characteristics of the Nazi regime, including massification, secularism, nihilism, consumerism, militarism, imperialism, evolutionism, and modernity itself. In most such accounts, however, the dependent variable is National Socialism, not the Holocaust. Theories associating radical Nazi anti-Semitism and the Holocaust with modernity generallysuch as Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adornos Dialectic of Enlightenment (written before the era of extermination camps, though it did not appear until 1944) and Zygmunt Baumans Modernity and the Holocaust (1989)are perhaps the most successful because they seek to draw meaning rather than determine causation.

Beyond the more macrohistorical efforts to explain National Socialism (which, again, confound the Judeocide with political authoritarianism and militarism), a number of sociological and social-psychological studies have sought to confront the cruelty and evil of National Socialism and the extermination camps as general problems of deviant behavior and social psychology, thus approaching the question equally as obliquely as the macrohistorical theorists. Adorno and colleagues conducted research into what they called the Authoritarian Personality. During the war the psychiatrist Richard Brickner diagnosed a collective paranoia, as did Jung after the war, both arguing for an occupation policy modeled on therapy for a neurotic patient. The sociologist Everett Hughes framed Nazi brutality as a matter of good people and dirty work. Similar to Hannah Arendt, who most famously described Nazi brutality as banal, not in the sense of being trivial but in the sense of being ordinary, the work of desk-chair perpetrators (Schreibtischtaeter ), Hughes sought to understand the social processes that made ordinary people capable of extraordinary cruelty, just as theories of differential association and socialization explain other kinds of deviance. In a similar vein Christopher Brownings studies of police officers who served in death squads underscore the universal capacity of every person for brutality in the right circumstances. Most famously the psychologist Stanley Milgram designed a series of experiments in which ordinary people were led, under a variety of conditions, to administer increasingly painful and finally lethal electrical charges to fictional test subjects, illustrating the general tendency for human beings to be obedient to authority.

Debates about the causes of National Socialism and of the centrality of the murder of the Jews are ongoing and frequently occasion public controversy. For instance, the political scientist Daniel Goldhagens 1996 book Hitlers Willing Executioners attracted a great deal of public attention for its thesis that Germany exhibited a unique form of eliminationist anti-Semitism and that as a result ordinary Germans supported the extermination of the Jews. The consensus is that Goldhagen failed to establish the existence and operation of a uniquely eliminationist political culture. Goldhagens charge that macrohistorical and macrosociological accounts have not adequately conceptualized the centrality of Jew hatred has received less attention.

From about the 1980s on a particularly interesting strand of social scientific work focusing directly on the Holocaust developed concepts of collective memory and cultural trauma to understand the aftereffects of the Holocaust in contemporary culture. In the first place, collective memory scholars have studied how nations have confronted and commemorated both their victimhood and their complicity in the crimes. For Germany, the question has been what kind of an identity a nation held responsible for what many consider to be the worst crime in human history can have after such knowledge.

Elsewhere the questions have centered on the fluid boundaries between complicity and resistance; in Poland and Israel questions of the centrality of victimhood to contemporary identity have been key, and sociologists of memory have sought to understand the complex comparative dynamics of the different national cases. In the second place, theorists of trauma, both individual and cultural, have studied the problems of cultural and social transmission. For both survivors and perpetrators, scholars have identified unique legacies for the second and third generations, identifying both substantive problems from this particular history and general processes of intergenerational transmission. Finally, political sociologists have described the Holocaust as an interesting model for the globalization of memory, arguing that the civilizational dimensions of the Holocaust and its implied indictment of modernity are diagnostic of the present condition and serve as a model for commemorative forms elsewhere as well as for the pursuit of redress claims in a variety of cases.

SEE ALSO Anti-Semitism; Arendt, Hannah; Concentration Camps; Eugenics; Genocide; Hitler, Adolf; Jews; Milgram, Stanley; Nazism; Neumann, Franz; World War II


Adorno, Theodor, and Max Horkheimer. 2002. Dialectic of Enlightenment: Philosophical Fragments. Ed. Gunzelin Schmid Noerr, trans. Edmund Jephcott. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Arendt, Hannah. 1963. Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil. New York: Viking.

Arendt, Hannah. 2004. The Origins of Totalitarianism. New York: Schocken Books.

Bauman, Zygmunt. 1989. Holocaust and Modernity. Cambridge, U.K.: Polity.

Browning, Christopher. 1992. Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Batallion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland. New York: HarperCollins.

Derks, Hans. 1999. Social Science in Germany, 19331945. Germany History 17 (2): 177219.

Friedlaender, Saul, ed. 1992. Probing the Limits of Representation: Nazism and the Final Solution. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Gerson, Judith M., and Diane L. Wolf, eds. 2007. Sociology Confronts the Holocaust: Memories and Identities in Jewish Diasporas. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Hilberg, Raul. 1961. The Destruction of the European Jews. Chicago: Quadrangle Books.

Levy, Daniel, and Natan Sznaider. 2006. The Holocaust and Memory in the Global Age. Trans. Assenka Oksiloff. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.

Milgram, Stanley. 1974. Obedience to Authority: An Experimental View. New York: Harper and Row.

Muller, Jerry Z. 1987. The Other God That Failed: Hans Freyer and the Deradicalization of German Conservatism. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Neumann, Franz. 1944. Behemoth: The Structure and Practice of National Socialism, 19331944. Toronto and New York: Oxford University Press.

Jeffrey K. Olick

Shannon Latkin Anderson


views updated May 11 2018











Winston Churchill described the mass murder of European Jewry by Nazi Germany and its allies as “a crime without a name.” The perpetrators, the National Socialist (Nazi) regime in Germany called it Die Endlösung der Judenfrage (the Final Solution of the Jewish Question). The number of Jewish victims is generally regarded to be between 5.8 and 6 million. Later, this extermination policy became known as the Holocaust, or “Shoah” in Hebrew. In a more generic and legalistic formula, the Holocaust was an example of genocide, a word invented by Raphael Lemkin in 1943. The word holocaust is derived from the Greek holokaustos, meaning a “burnt offering,” as used in a religious sacrifice.

Since the end of World War II and the development of more critical studies of this event, other racial, religious, asocial and political groups have been identified and included as victims of the Holocaust. These include the Roma and Sinti (Gypsies), victims of the T-4 program (killings carried out because of genetic disorders), Jehovah’s Witnesses, political prisoners, Poles, and homosexuals. The use of the word “Shoah” tends to limit the issue to Jews only, as is the case with the commemorative day on the Jewish calendar, the 27th day of the month of Nisan. In 2006, the United Nations adopted January 27 (the date on which the Auschwitz death camp was liberated in 1945 by troops of the Soviet Army) as an International Day of Commemoration in Memory of the Victims of the Holocaust.


Racism played a key role in defining the victims of Nazi persecution, and it became lethal when it was mixed with German nationalism, folk concepts of blood and soil that helped define insiders and outsiders, issues of degeneracy, fear of chaos and outside enemies, a world war, and the application of modern scientific and medical technologies to mass killing. In the case of the extermination of the Jews, race was also indistinguishable from Jewish religious practice. In 1931 the National Socialist Party established the Race and Resettlement Office (Rasse-und Siedlungshauptamt, or RuSHA), which became a Schutz-staffel (SS) Main Office in 1935. Ultimately, this office was concerned with population transfer policies and the extermination of the Jews and other undesirable groups.

However, while race was the defining issue in the Holocaust, other factors were also present, including economic motivations that involved German medical doctors, lawyers, and businesses getting rid of their Jewish competitors in order to improve wage conditions; the seizure or sale of property during a process called “Aryanization,” in which the Jewish owners received only a small percentage of the property value; the seizure and sale in other countries of “degenerate art” from museum collections, and, later, the massive pilfering of private Jewish art collections. Aryanization and the subsequent ethnic cleansing of Jews in occupied countries made it easy to justify property transfers from Jews to members of the local nation, such as Poles, Slovaks, Croatians, and Hungarians. The seizure of property was all done with legal decrees. Hence, a long paper trail was left by the German bureaucracy, which later provided the basis for material claims against the postwar German government. In parts of Eastern Europe, especially those states created after 1918, local individuals saw the Germans and Jews as controlling industry. This was especially true in those sections of Poland that were formerly part of the German Empire. The historian Raul Hilberg has also pointed out that once the Holocaust commenced, there was no authorized budget for it. It was, therefore, the sale of Jewish assets that paid for the killing.

In the eyes of both perpetrators and bystanders, however (with variations from country to country), there were collateral factors that had developed during the long presence of the Jews within European Christendom. Among these were biblical allegations of responsibility for the crucifixion of Christ (particularly Acts 5:30, “The God of our fathers raised up Jesus whom you murdered by hanging on a tree.”) and the multigenerational responsibility for this crime (Matthew 27:25, “His blood be on us and on our children.”). Another factor was the fear of vertical social and political mobility by a formerly tolerated minority, the Jews, who had a generally supportive attitude on issues of democratization. In Claude Lanzmann’s film SHOAH (1985), a Polish peasant woman remarks that Jewish women were seen as rivals for their “beauty,” owing to the fact that they did not work and hence were sought after by Polish men. Whether this testimony is true remains conjectural.

All of these factors pointed to the Jew as “other” or “stranger,” despite long residencies in the countries where the Holocaust would play itself out. Nevertheless, it is important to point out that Jews were often killed not by German killing squads but by local populations. The most notorious cases, perhaps, were in Kaunas (Kovno), Lithuania, and the Polish town of Jedwabne. In the latter massacre, which took place on July 10, 1941, approximately 1,#0 Jews were killed by Poles. However, despite a 2001 apology for the massacre by President Aleksander Kwasniewski, both the facts and interpretation of this event remain contentious because of the nationalist view that the Poles were also victims of Nazism.


Race and cognate terms in Greek and Latin have been used for 2,000 years to describe the existence of social or ethnic groups of various kinds. However, in the late nineteenth century, the word race was applied to European Jews in a novel manner, combining a mixture of the new pseudoscience of eugenics, romantic ideas from the arts, and religious ideas to construct the idea of “the Jewish race.” While Nazi theorists had constructed the idea of the “Aryan” along racial lines as having white skin, blond hair, blue eyes, and a right to rule because of natural selection, the Jews were constructed in an opposite light. Jews were often described as having Middle Eastern origins, no matter how long they had lived in Germany. According to Nazi propaganda, as indicated in the notorious 1940 film Der ewige Jude (The Eternal Jew), Jews were considered a mixed race “with negro admixture.” In addition, racists considered the Jewish Diaspora to be a potential threat because Jews were situated in many places and hence difficult to defeat at once. Jews were also described as both inbred (unlike the “Aryans’’) and having a cunning power because of their intelligence. It was also held that the specific occupations that they held in society (bankers, intellectuals, etc.) put them in a position to dominate the modern world of the twentieth century. However, Jews were also said to be “feminized” because of their lack of a country and an army. They needed protection from others, and they were therefore vulnerable when policies of toleration broke down.

As Nazi racism developed, the issue of what constituted race became more complex. Religion entered the discourse not for Jews, but rather for Jews who had converted to Christianity but were still considered Jews by Nazi law. For example, the 1935 Nuremberg Laws imposed a state-defined racial definition on Jews based on grand parentage, irrespective of current religion. This was a negation of the Christian concept of religious conversion: After the Nuremberg Laws, Christian mission to the Jews was prohibited. In the long run, despite race theory being based on “blood,” the racial attack on the Jews also necessitated attacks on synagogues and Jewish books, as well as on the Jews themselves.

Adolf Hitler attacked the Jews in his writings from 1920 onwards. However, the Nazi Party (officially, the National Socialist German Workers’ Party) did not attempt to define Jews with specificity until 1935. Hitler’s landmark book, Mein Kampf (1925), became the source of the essential ideology of Nazi Germany. In the book, a series of struggles of opposites were laid out: light against darkness, health against sickness, the visible against invisible, form against formlessness in the arts and thought, culture against decadence, and Aryan against Jew. Deviations from the worldview found in Hitler’s thought were viewed as forms of sickness, which could be changed through surgery. For the Nazi state, that surgery took the form of genocide.

Under German National Socialism, the führer was viewed as a charismatic and authoritarian leader who emerged from the chaotic conditions in Germany at the end of World War I. While his rise was also linked to Germanic nationalism and folklore, Hitler positioned himself as a new Siegfried prepared to avenge a betrayed nation and restore equilibrium. What followed in the Nazi program was a form of salvation that was both romantic and artistic: It was interested in a memory of the past, especially as it concerned race and spirit of a people. Using myths of the German past, Hitler and his cohorts constructed the new myth that no German hero could be defeated except by a “stab in the back,” a phrase popularized by General Eric Ludendorff.

It was through this logic that the explanation of the German defeat of 1918 was revealed through two critical events. The first was the Russian Revolution of November 1917, described by its enemies as “Jewish Bolshevism.” The second was the questioning within the nation-state of who was a true German and who was a stranger. The latter proved to be the Jews, who had a long history in Europe as being the “other,” and who were often linked erroneously to the outbreak of chaotic situations. This included Christian myths of deicide in the Bible, accusations about the defiling of culture, and ultimately race mixing through conversion to Christianity. Thus, anti-Semitism, which minimally might be simply a dislike of Jews because of religious or cultural reasons, became infested with racism based on biological concepts.

Nazi rhetoric also had within it a strong relationship to Christian rhetoric. In November 1934 at Nuremberg, Deputy Führer Rudolph Hess stated: “The party is Hitler, but Hitler is also Germany, just as Germany is Hitler.” This extravagant claim was derived from the language of the Gospel of St. John, which reads, “I am in the Father and the Father is in me.” (John 14:10) The general propaganda of the era suggested that Hitler had been chosen to put the German universe back in order and that Nazism was a Christian movement.


Art and public health programs were also a part of Nazi race theory and biology, known as Rassenkunde (Race Science). The concept was sufficiently simple. It meant that good breeding creates a sense of race in a people. Race was a myth linked to art, bodily aesthetics, and racial hygiene, and it was an ideal to be accomplished. Any intrusion by aliens, such as Jews, threatened this process. Such eugenic ideas were not new, nor were they specifically German. Hitler’s attacks on the Jews as a race, however, necessitated an attack both on Jewish art and creativity and on the physical characteristics of the Jews. Hitler believed that the idea of creative work had to be anti-Semitic. Thus, the Jewish presence in Germany, and later Europe, was seen as evil not only because of the threat of interbreeding, but also because of the infiltration of “inferior” Jewish art and music. The German word entarte (degenerate) was applied to modern art, swing music, people who had nontraditional life styles, and individuals with mental disorders and physical handicaps, as well as to Jews, Afro-Germans, and the Sinti and Roma (Gypsies). Many applications of “degeneracy” were made to the works of non-Jews, but ultimately all Jewish influences on culture were to be eliminated.

Once Hitler came into power on January 30, 1933, the Jews were the main focus of exclusionary laws based upon state-authored racism. Those laws were similar to the “Jim Crow” laws that established the segregation of races in the United States, although Jews in Germany were Caucasian, spoke German, and often had German family names. Some had in fact been Christians for generations, and were therefore not Jews according to the religious precepts of the Jewish community. More than 2,000 anti-Jewish laws were passed between 1933 and 1945 creating a wall of separation between newly defined “Jews” and “Aryans.” The initial laws were more general in nature, including the Law for Restitution of the German Civil Service (April 1933), the Law to Prevent the Overcrowding of German Schools (April 1933), the Law for the Protection of Hereditary Health of the German People (July 1933), and the Editorial Law (October 1933). Later laws of exclusion grew more and more specific.

For the Nazis, the Jews were the group that caused fear and anomie. The solution, at first, was separation and a push for them to emigrate. Only later did the issue become one of extermination. The German laws that removed Jews from professions and left them without a livelihood were an invitation for them to leave the country. A decree of February 10, 1935, authorized the Secret State Police (or Gestapo) to forbid all Jewish meetings that propagandized for the continuing residence of Jews in Germany. On February 8, 1936, the Gestapo applied a ban on the Association of Jews Faithful to the Torah, because such an organization “cannot promote the emigration of Jews and is likely to impede the supervision of Jews.” Other laws made it more and more difficult for Jews to live in Germany. Thus, through the “First Supplemental Decree” of the Nuremberg Laws, which was passed on November 14, 1935, the civil rights of Jews were cancelled, their voting rights were abolished, and those Jewish civil servants who were still working were retired (this process of removal began in April 1933). On December 21, 1935, the “Second Supplemental Decree” led to the dismissal of all professors, teachers, physicians, lawyers, and notaries who were state employees.

Other laws created racial and social separation between Aryans and Jews. This included a prohibition

on marriages between Jews and citizens of “German or kindred blood.” In addition, sexual relations outside of marriage between Jews and nationals of “German or kindred blood” were forbidden, and Jews were not permitted to employ female citizens of “German or kindred blood” as domestic servants. A decree of August 17, 1938, required Jews to have a red “J” stamped in their passports, while Jewish men had to take the middle name “Israel” and women the middle name “Sara.” These were clear identifiers of “Jewish race.”

If any law is useful for understanding the political construction of “race” in Nazi Germany, it is the law of August 31, 1936, when the Reich Finance Ministry announced that religious affiliation had to be indicated on tax forms. Soon thereafter, on October 4, 1936, another decree indicated that the “conversion of Jews to Christianity has no relevance with respect to the question of race. The possibility to hide one’s origin by changing one’s religious affiliation will entirely vanish as soon as the offices for racial research begin their work.”


A major problem with the “Jewish Question,’’inGermany, as it was termed, was that there were no clear statistics about the number of Jews living among the German population of approximately 66 million people. The general belief was that the Jewish population in Germany was 530,000, or about eight-tenths of one percent of the total population. Statistics released in April 1935 indicated there were 75,000 half-Jews (Mischlinge, or “half-breeds’’) and 475,000 full Jews, totaling more than a million Jews. Other sources placed the total number of Jews and half-Jews at no more than 600,000. Certainly many German Jews were so assimilated they could not be differentiated from Germans by any objective criteria.

Thus, the dilemma of determining the number of Jews and half-Jews (who were also half-German) produced the necessity of a more precise law in order to enforce prior and future decrees. This discussion led, in September 1935, to the Law for the Protection of German Blood and German Honor (the first Nuremberg Law), and to the subsequent decrees of November 14, 1935, which attempted to perfect the definition of a Jew. However, these laws led to many anomalies over the question of half-Jews, or Mischlinge.

According to the Nuremberg Laws, a Jew was a person descended from three or four Jewish grandparents, regardless of their current religious affiliation. A “Mischling, First-Degree” was a person with two Jewish grandparents who fell into one of the following categories: he or she belonged to the Jewish community religiously; was married to a Jew; or was the offspring of legal or nonlegal sexual intercourse with a Jew. A “Mischling, Second-Degree” was a person with one Jewish grandparent. Thus, theoretically, an Aryan was someone with no Jewish grandparents. However, the law revealed some of the artificiality of the construction of race in the definition of a first-degree Mischling, which included membership in the religious community as a determinant of race. In Poland, which was occupied by Germany during World War II, a change in the law permitted children born to a Mischling family before May 31, 1941, to be regarded as Aryans, while those born after May 31, 1941, were considered Jews.


These decrees and laws took away German citizenship and made Jews technically “stateless,” suggesting that the race policy of Germany between 1933 and the beginning of World War II was designed to promote the emigration of Jews rather than their extermination. The July 1938 Evian Conference was convened by thirty-two countries in an effort to solve the growing refugee problem, but little was decided and the conference had only a minor impact. The hypocrisy of the Western nations in criticizing the German policies on Jews but being unwilling to accept an extensive number of the refugees only encouraged and emboldened Hitler. However, the issue of accepting refugees was never popular among the populations of democratic countries and leaders often reflected that they were following democratic opinion on this question. Nonetheless, before the end of 1938, while hundreds of separation laws were being decreed, the violence against Jews was often lethal, but hardly genocidal.

Kristallnacht, or the “Night of Broken Glass” (November 9–10, 1938), was the first German nationwide outburst against the Jews. It was allegedly caused by the murder of a German official in Paris by a Jew upset with his parents’ deportation to a “no-man’s land” on the Polish border. On Kristallnacht, mobs throughout Germany, Austria, and the Sudetenland attacked Jews and Jewish property, including places of worship. Ninety-six Jews were killed and hundreds were injured, and hundreds of synagogues were subjected to arson and destroyed, as were 7,#0 businesses. Cemeteries and schools were also vandalized. In the immediate aftermath, between 26,000 and 30,000 Jews, mostly men, were arrested and sent to concentration camps. Most were eventually released on the assumption that they would leave Germany. The difficulty, however, was finding a country of refuge. A heavy fine was levied on the Jewish community for their responsibility for the event. Most significantly, Kristallnacht marked the transfer of Jewish policies to the Schutzstaffel, or SS, headed by Reichsführer Heinrich Himmler.

Emigration did pick up after Kristallnacht. However, a major problem in successful emigration was the world economic depression, which limited entry visas into other countries. In addition, even the world’s democracies had varying levels of anti-Semitism, which affected their immigration policies.

Some of the prohibitive laws that were passed before and after Kristallnacht limiting Jewish rights were dazzling in their specificity and emphasis on things usually considered trivial. For example, an April 1933 decree forbad the use of Yiddish in the State of Baden’s cattle markets. A law passed on December 1, 1933, proclaimed: “The Association of Retail Traders in Frankfurt forbids Jewish shops from using Christian symbols during Christmas season sales.” On June 21, 1934, the Hessian Education Ministry excluded the Old Testament from the Protestant religious educational curriculum, replacing it with additional passages from the New Testament. On September 28, 1935, the Mayor of Königsdorf, a village in Bavaria, decreed that cows purchased directly or indirectly from Jews could not be inseminated by the common village bull. However, it was not until September 3, 1941, that a decree mandated that Jews remaining in Germany had to wear the Yellow Star identification on their outer clothing. It is of note that this requirement was imposed on Jews in the occupied territories even earlier, after the beginning of World War II and occupation policies of 1939.

The T-4 Euthanasia Program that led to the killing of Germans who were physically and mentally impaired began officially on September 1, 1939. It included gassing operations, and an estimated 100,000 patients were killed. Others were killed through starvation or injections of phenol directly into the heart. The numbers killed by each method are imprecise, and more natural causes of death were often written into death certificates. Doctors who served in the T-4 program also aided in the selection process for arriving inmates at German death camps in occupied Poland after 1941.


Alongside the various decrees separating the Jews from “Aryans” was a constant barrage of racial epithets that came from the Ministry of Propaganda and the notorious anti-Semitic newspaper Der Stürmer, edited by Julius Streicher. Der Stürmer began publication in 1923, ten years before the Nazis achieved power. It was a perfect example of a “rag” newspaper, with stories that were sensationalist and anti-Semitic (and pornographic, in their own way). The stories were drawn often from standard anti-Semitic mythologies of the past, and from the Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion, a notorious forgery from the turn of the twentieth century that purported to reveal a Jewish plot of world domination. There were exaggerated stories about alleged “ritual murders” of Christian children and about the alleged predatory nature of Jewish men seeking out pure Aryan women for sexual relations (a myth that Hitler obsessed about). Jewish men were almost always depicted in what would be considered a “racial” type of imagery—long hooked noses, rounded bodies, large ears, thick glasses, and long devilish fingernails—and these images were linked to images of capitalist as well as communist domination. The offensiveness of Der Stürmer was so intense that Streicher was sentenced to be hanged at the 1945 International Tribunal at Nuremberg, although he had never personally ordered or carried out a murder.

By the autumn of 1938, after five and a half years of National Socialist rule, the living conditions of the German Jews had worsened dramatically as the result of the discriminatory measures planned and executed by the state. Many were unable to believe that things could get worse. Others, however, were convinced that the openly declared threat of a “solution to the Jewish question” would be carried out.

Concurrent with the persecution of the Jews was the reclassification of the Gypsy population from “asocial” to a “race.” After 1936, the Nuremberg Laws were applied to them, even though they were not mentioned in the decree. In 1937, German law classified Gypsies as “asocials,” but in May 1938 they were reclassified as a racial group by the Central Office for Fighting the Gypsy Menace. The racial classification created some contradictions in strict Nazi racial policy, as the Roma were from India, thereby placing them in the structure of Indo-European peoples, and hence Aryans. Nevertheless, the Gypsies, already the subject of social ostracism because of their perceived lifestyle, became the subject of eugenic studies using the same pseudoscientific methods of bodily measurements as those used on the Jews. This included measurement of nose and skull size and descriptions of hair and eye color.

An SS decree of December 16, 1942 (referred to in other German documents, though the original has not been found), ordered the deportation of Gypsies to concentration camps. At Auschwitz, the Nazi medical researcher and eugenicist Dr. Joseph Mengele took particular interest in Gypsies. The artist and former Auschwitz prisoner Dina Gottlieb has testified about a series of paintings and drawings of Gypsy women she did on Mengele’s order, emphasizing the structure of the ear. At least half a million Gypsies perished in concentration camps and killing centers, including Babi Yar near Kiev, Auschwitz, and a killing site called Lety in the Bohemian Protectorate.


The steps toward genocide, toward a “racial purification program” of mass killing, started with the German attack on Poland on September 1, 1939. While no written order apparently exists for what became the “final solution of the Jewish question,” the general consensus of historians is that a written order should not be expected in a modern bureaucratic state such as Nazi Germany. However, the general idea of the removal of the German Jews had been in the air for a long time and is found frequently in Hitler’s speeches. For example, in Hitler’s speech given on January 30, 1939, he indicated that war would bring some sort of extermination program. He stated, “Today I will be once more a prophet: If the international Jewish financiers in and outside Europe should succeed in plunging the nations once more into a world war, then the result will not be the Bolshevizing of the earth and thus the victory of Jewry, but the annihilation of the Jewish race in Europe.” The speech may be said to have paved the way to a further radicalization of anti-Jewish policies, although it was not until 1940 that extermination appeared to be a realistic goal.

In 1940 the highly propagandistic and racist film, Der ewige Jude was shown in German movie theaters. Produced by Minister of Propaganda Joseph Goebbels and filmed by Fritz Hippler in the Lodz ghetto, the film conjures up images of Jews as both a public health menace

and a group racially inferior to the Aryans (they are ultimately compared with an infestation of rats). The film ends with Hitler’s speech of January 30, 1939. Hitler repeated the threat of the destruction of the Jews in later speeches, including those given on January 30, 1941; February 24, September 30, and November 8, 1942; and February 24, 1943. Parallel to Hitler’s pronouncements at this time were additional directives within the Nazi Party by Joseph Goebbels, Reichmarshall Hermann Goering, and Heinrich Himmler, the commander of the SS. Reinhard Heydrich, the head of the SS Main Office and the second-ranking officer in the SS, approached Hermann Goering in July 1941 and asked him to authorize his department to begin plans for a “total solution” of the “Jewish question.” A return letter from Goering to Heydrich, dated July 31, 1941, seems to establish bureaucratic approval for the extermination of the Jews on a racial basis. In this document, Goering wrote: “I hereby commission you to carry out all necessary preparations … for a total solution of the Jewish question in the German sphere of influence in Europe.”

Early Executions . Heydrich had convened a conference on September 21, 1939, to discuss racial policy in Poland. A decision was made to evacuate up to 1.5 million Jews into the Lublin district, into what would be called, for the time being, a “reservation.” The first Nazi ghettos were established for Jews in October 1939. The Star of David, in white and yellow colors, was introduced as an insignia for Polish Jews on November 23, 1939. Executions of Jewish male leaders in towns and cities followed. On December 10, 1942, the London-based Polish government in exile made the following request: “The Polish Government asks that the United Nations shall take effective measures to help the Jews not only of Poland but of the whole of Europe, three to four millions of whom are in peril of ruthless extermination.”

The most well-known study of shooting units is Christopher Browning’s 1992 book Ordinary Men, in which he examines Ordnungspolizei (Order Police) Reserve Police Unit 101, based in Hamburg. This unit killed over 38,000 Jews by shooting, beginning in July 1942 in the village of Jozefow, and it was later involved in the deportation of 45,000 others to Treblinka. Later, when the ghettos were better organized, they became the vehicle for a slower but consistent method of deportation to the death camps. Beginning in the summer of 1942, for example, more than 300,000 Jews were deported from the Warsaw Ghetto to Treblinka, a process that prompted the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising that began on April 19, 1943.

The beginning of the war against the Soviet Union on June 22, 1941, clearly mixed the territorial ambitions of the Reich with a policy of racial annihilation. Four mobile killing squads, the Einsatzgruppen, followed the regular army onto the territory of the USSR and began the liquidation of the Jewish population, and of anyone linked to the Soviet political class. Mass murder was carried out mainly by shooting the victims in pits, though there was some experimentation with killing people in gas vans. While the local population killed Jews in some of the Eastern countries under occupation, the SS preferred “organized killing” rather than spontaneous pogroms. Slovakia solved its Jewish problem in an interesting way: It paid the Germans 500 Reichmarks for the removal of each Jew.

The mechanism for killing the Jews had also been put in process early in 1941. Auschwitz, a Polish army camp, was taken over on June 14, 1940, and turned into a concentration camp. In October 1941, the SS leader Heinrich Himmler authorized the construction of the Auschwitz II-Birkenau camp for Soviet prisoners of war. After the first test gassings of prisoners at Auschwitz I in September 1941, the first selections and gassings took place in May 1942 at Birkenau, which had been converted from a place of incarceration for Soviet prisoners to the principal destination for the mass murder of the Jews. Eventually, the six major death camps were established on the territory of the former Polish state: Auschwitz, Majdanek, Belzec, Chelmno, Sobibor, and Treblinka.

While the death camps were being built on the territory of the prewar Polish Republic, which was now divided into occupation zones, on October 23, 1941, the Security Police forbade the emigration of Jews from Nazi-controlled territories for the duration of the war. This ended all emigration solutions, including the one most talked about in inner Nazi circles, that of sending the Jews to the island of Madagascar.

Wannsee and the Final Solution . The Wannsee Conference, convened at a lakeside resort south of Berlin on January 20, 1942, is best interpreted as a bureaucratic evaluation of extermination policy to date. Debates took place on strategies such as the immediate need for the Final Solution versus the labor needs of the Reich. The minutes from this conference taken, by Obersturmbannführer Adolph Eichmann, indicate the advanced plans to murder all of European Jewry and suggest the entire German bureaucracy was becoming involved in the process. They also suggest that the participants discussed creating a mood for compliance in mass murder among the diverse branches of the SS and the bureaucracy.

The Wannsee Conference also raised the question of race through a discussion of the fate of the Mischlinge, or the half-Jews. The discussion at Wannsee, as revealed in the minutes of the meeting, indicated the imprecision in the Nuremberg Laws of 1935, especially when related to the labor needs of the Third Reich. For example, it was decided at the conference that persons of mixed blood of the second degree were to be treated “essentially as Germans,” probably because of the labor shortage in the country. There were some bizarre exceptions, however. For example, this policy did not apply to any person who, from a racial viewpoint, had an “especially undesirable appearance that marks him outwardly as a Jew,” nor did it apply to anyone who had a “particularly bad police and political record that shows that he feels and behaves like a Jew.”

The discussion on first-degree Mischlinge (those with two Jewish grandparents) indicated that many exemptions had already been made and that cases should be reexamined based on “personal merit.” This pattern of reinterpretation indicates that racial definitions, so critical in 1935, were now being rethought. However, in order to prevent any additional mixed offspring, first-degree Mischlinge were to be sterilized. Other very precise situations of marriages between Jews and Aryans, with or without children, were discussed, and remedies advanced for the deportation of Jews to what was called “the old-age ghetto” of Theresienstadt.

Reinhard Heydrich became the effective leader of early plans to implement the Final Solution. He and his subordinate, Adolf Eichmann, controlled the bureaucratic apparatus to implement this policy In addition, Heydrich also controlled the operations of the Einsatzgruppen and the work of SS-Obergruppenführer Odilo Globocnik in the Lublin district of the General-Government (the central part of occupied Poland). According to what is regarded as the “functionalist” model of the Holocaust, Heydrich created a coherent and systematic plan for the extermination of European Jews by merging a series of diffuse internal systems. After Heydrich’s assassination in April 1942 near Prague, this phase of the destruction process adopted the name “Operation Reinhard.” The death camps at Belzec, Sobibor, and Treblinka were associated with this destruction process. By the end of 1942, approximately 4 million Jews had been killed in the various extermination processes.

As German control of Europe expanded into military occupations, the extermination of Jews intensified. The killing process was more ruthless in the East, featuring mass shootings by Einsatzgruppen on Soviet territory; the use of gas vans; and two forms of gas chambers, using carbon monoxide and Zyklon B gas (prussic acid), at the Auschwitz and Majdanek extermination camps.

Poland, the Ghettos, and Forced Labor . The implementation of the Holocaust in Poland included a rapid identification and isolation of the Jews. On November 23, 1939, all Jews over the age of ten years were required to wear the Star of David as an identification mark. The Nazi occupation authorities would eventually establish 400 ghettos in occupied Eastern Europe. The two largest were in Warsaw and Lodz, Poland. The Warsaw Ghetto was created on November 23, 1939. From both a racial and a supposed public health point of view, the ghettos were designed to separate the Jews from the rest of the local populations.

However, a debate existed among the Nazi elite about the purpose of the ghettos. On one hand, because of a shortage of labor, the ghettos could provide, theoretically, a reserve of slave labor. On the other hand, the poor and dismal living conditions, combined with poor diet and the absence of health care created conditions for what would appear to be a natural decline of the Jewish community through an increased death rate. A third interpretation was that the ghettos were way stations to the death camps. Ghettos were subject to frequent raids

by the SS, who often removed the very people who might be part of a useful slave labor force. German capitalist enterprises also benefited from the slave labor potential. Virtually every German company used some form of slave labor. Perhaps the most well-known case is that of I.G. Farben, which ran Auschwitz Camp III-Buna with slave labor supplied by the SS. Eventually, all of the ghettos were liquidated, with the remaining populations sent to death camps or other slave labor facilities, or else sent on death marches into Germany itself.

The ghettos began to be emptied in 1942 during “Operation Reinhard.” As the war progressed and defeat became probable for the Germans after the loss at Stalin-grad on February 2, 1943, the attempt to exterminate the remainder of European Jews under German control intensified. This is best documented in the deportation of Hungarian Jews, who had previously been protected by the Hungarian regent, Admiral Miklos Horthy. However, the Germans occupied Hungary in mid-March 1943, and the deportation of Hungarian Jews to Auschwitz began in May. Within a short time, 440,000 Jews were deported from Hungary.


By the time the Holocaust ended in the East, Jewish losses were severe: 2.8 million from Poland were killed; 1.5 million on the territory of the Soviet Union; 277,000 from Czechoslovakia; 0,000 from Hungary; and 270,000 from Romania, plus other losses in Greece (60,000) and Yugoslavia (65,000). However, the war between Germany and the Soviet Union has to be assessed as being a war not only between competing ideologies but also as a conflict that involved racial ideas.

In Western Europe, Jews were identified for deportation to the East and annihilation. The imposition of “Race Laws” or registration laws helped in defining Jews, especially by the wearing of a yellow star, and this was a prelude to isolation and deportation. In the Netherlands, the Jewish population was 159,000 at the outset of war. Registration was mandated there by the German occupation authorities in January 1941. Eventually, 107,000 were deported and 102,000 died. Up to 30,000 Dutch Jews were hidden, two-thirds of whom survived. Belgium’s Jewish population was 66,000 at outset of the war, of whom 28,500 were deported, beginning in September 1942. France’s Jewish population was approximately 225,000, and 77,000 of them were deported. Of Norway’s approximately 1,500 Jews, 770 escaped to Sweden, while 761 were deported by ship to Stettin and on to Auschwitz. Jews were also deported from the British Channel Islands, which were occupied by the Germans.

Under Mussolini, Italy was generally reluctant to give up its Jews, despite imposition of the race law in 1938. However, after the initial fall of fascism, Mussolini established the Northern Italian Republic of Salo on September 23, 1943, with German support. This led to the beginning of the deportation of 8,000 Italian Jews (about 20% of Italy’s Jewish population) in October 1943, and 95 percent of those who were deported died. About 40,000 Italian Jews survived the war without deportation.

The last phase of the Holocaust was defined by death marches and the liberation of the Western concentration camps in April and May 1945. As territory under German control contracted, the SS began to march inmates from the camps in the East to concentration camps in Germany. During these marches, stragglers who fell by the wayside were beaten and killed. The sadism of the guards during the death marches has been recalled with particular detail by many survivors, raising the question of whether they were obeying the orders of the SS guards, or whether this was a reflection of their own racism toward the prisoners. The survivors of the death marches and transports wound up in concentration camps at Bergen-Belsen, Dachau, Flossenburg, Buchenwald, Mauthausen, and other places inside pre-1938 German borders.

The Holocaust ended with the end of World War II on May 7, 1945. The Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Elie Wiesel has suggested that without Hitler, there would have been no Holocaust. However, the period before the Holocaust witnessed an intense development of race theory, anti-Semitism and racial hygiene in the realm of public health policies that demonized the “others” who lived in Germany. The whole issue of how non-Europeans, as the Jews and Roma/Sinti were defined, fit into the nation-state idea of the 1930s, when race became a political factor, suggests the explosive aspects of policies based on tolerance of “others” and “strangers.”

The postwar International Military Tribunals (IMT) at Nuremberg, and the later zonal trials, clearly established the nature of the Nazi criminal offenses, not only in conspiracy and aggressive war, but also in war crimes and crimes against humanity that were racist and genocidal in nature. For those anti-Semitic states, individuals, and organizations that deny the event happened, the trials, the huge amount of documents from the event, and Germany’s own admission of guilt are the most effective rebuttals. In addition, there is extensive documentation of the testimony of victims, particularly through such video projects as the Fortunoff Archive at Yale University, the University of Southern California’s Shoah Foundation Institute for Visual History and Education, and the work done within research divisions of Holocaust museums, such as the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. and Yad Vashem, the Holocaust Martyrs’ and Heroes’ Remembrance Authority in Jerusalem.

Since 1945 the study of the Holocaust has become a template for understanding acts of genocide that came before and after the Nazi era. The intensity of racism, especially as authored by a modern state, and the technological aspects of the German killing machine, as well as the extended time frame and the attempts to kill Jewish victims outside German borders (but in occupation zones) provide a certain uniqueness to the plan of the perpetrators. However, this assessment is not to suggest that the Holocaust is so different that it excludes comparisons with other genocides. On the contrary, the study of the genocide of the Herero, the Armenian genocide, and the genocides in Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge, in Bosnia-Herzegovina, in Rwanda, and in Darfur have been more identifiable and better understood because of the legacy and historiography of the Holocaust.

SEE ALSO Anti-Semitism; Ethnic Cleansing; Genocide; Roma.


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Bauer, Yehuda. 2001. A History of the Holocaust, rev. ed. Danbury, CT: Franklin Watts.

Berenbaum, Michael, and Abraham J. Peck. 1998. The Holocaust and History. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Browning, Christopher R. 1992. Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland. New York: Harper Perennial.

_____. 2004. The Origins of the Final Solution. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.

Bytwerk, Randall L. 2001. Julius Streicher: Nazi Editor of the Notorious Anti-Semitic Newspaper Der Sturmer. New York: Cooper Square Press.

Cecil, Robert. 1972. The Myth of the Master Race: Alfred Rosenberg and Nazi Ideology. New York: Dodd, Mead.

Deichmann, Ute. 1996. Biologists under Hitler. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Fischer, Klaus P. 1998. The History of an Obsession: German Judeophobia and the Holocaust. New York: Continuum.

Friedlander, Henry. 1995. The Origins of Nazi Genocide: From Euthanasia to the Final Solution. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.

Gilman, Sander L. 1991. The Jew’s Body. New York: Routledge.

_____. 1998. Creating Beauty to Cure the Soul: Race and Psychology in the Shaping of Aesthetic Surgery. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

_____. 2001. Making the Body Beautiful: A Cultural History of Aesthetic Surgery. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Gobineau, Arthur Comte de. 1970. Selected Political Writings. Edited by Michael D. Biddiss. New York: Harper & Row.

Goldensohn, Leon. 2004. The Nuremberg Interviews. New York: Knopf.

Goodrick-Clarke, Nicholas. 1998. Hitler’s Priestess: Savitri Devi, the Hindu-Aryan Myth, and Neo-Nazism. New York: New York University Press.

Issac, Benjamin. 2004. The Invention of Racism in Classical Antiquity. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Levi, Neil, and Michael Rothberg, eds. 2003. The Holocaust: Theoretical Readings. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.

Lifton, Robert Jay. 1986. The Nazi Doctors: Medical Killing and the Psychology of Genocide. New York: Basic Books.

Michaud, Eric. 2004. The Cult of Art in Nazi Germany. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Muller-Hill, Benno. 1988. Murderous Science: Elimination by Scientific Selection of Jews, Gypsies, and Others, Germany 1933–1945. New York: Oxford University Press.

Proctor, Robert N. 1988. Racial Hygiene: Medicine under the Nazis. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Rosenberg, Alfred. 1970. Race and Race History, and Other Essays. Edited by Robert Pois. New York, Harper & Row.

Schreckenberg, Heinz. 1996. The Jews in Christian Art: An Illustrated History. New York: Continuum.

Weinreich, Max. 1946. Hitler’s Professors: The Part of Scholarship in Germany’s Crimes against the Jewish People. New York: Yiddish Scientific Institute-YIVO.

Weitz, Eric. 2003. A Century of Genocide: Utopias of Race and Nation. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Stephen C. Feinstein


views updated May 18 2018


The term holocaust, with origins in the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible, translates the Hebrew expression olah as holokauston, meaning "a burnt sacrifice" (Berenbaum 2000, p. 31). Deeply imbued with religious meaning, the expression is presently most closely associated with the Nazi policy of mass murder directed against European Jewry. In a century when over 140 million people died in wars, the Holocaust may long be the ultimate symbol of inhumanity.

The meaning of Holocaust is itself fraught with great controversy. Some, like the historian Walter Lacquer, insist that the expression is "singularly inappropriate" because of its religious connotations (Lacquer 1980, p. 7). Elie Wiesel, a survivor of Auschwitz and the Nobel Prizewinning author ofNight (1960), is often credited with introducing the word into popular usage. In the face of this religious qualification, the term remains widely used by academics, the media, and the larger community. Wiesel has since expressed great concern over the abuse of the term applied to situations beyond the historical context of the Third Reich and the experience of mass destruction experienced by the Jews. Just as important, Wiesel reminds readers that the term Holocaust, like any expression from human language, invariably falls far short in encompassing the sheer horror and depth of tragedy behind the persecution and mass death inside and outside Nazi concentration and death camps. Poets and historians still search for words to explain the unfathomable atrocity.

The history of the Holocaust reflects the reality that Adolph Hitler and the Nazi movement did not invent anti-Semitic hatred against the Jews. What was unique in the Nazi experience was that the Third Reich was the first and only regime in modern history to define anti-Semitism in racial terms and, upon this basis, to use the full weight of the state to legitimize the Ausrottung, or eradication of the Jews. Racial bloodlines defined the essential difference between Aryan Germans and Jews. This distinction, in the words of Victor Klemperer, a philologist and shrewd observer of Nazi language, was everything. What set National Socialism apart from other forms of fascism "is a concept of race reduced solely to anti-Semitism and fired exclusively by it" (Klemperer 2000, p. 135). The racial state conceived by the Nazis as a foundation stone for the Holocaust defined citizenship in biological terms. As one prominent Nazi race eugenicist argued, "National Socialism is nothing but applied biology" (Baur, Fischer, and Lenz 1931, p. 417).

Part of the Nazi success in rising to power in 1933 was the union of racial science from the late nineteenth century with traditional religious and economic forms of anti-Semitism rooted in the Middle Ages. From its inception racial science took on an international character. Appearing only about six months into the regime, the Nazi Law on the Prevention of Hereditarily Ill Progeny, which legalized compulsory sterilization, drew from a notable legislative model in the numerous compulsory sterilization measures passed by twenty-four of the states of America under the aegis of the American eugenics movement, beginning with Indiana in 1907 (Kühl 1994, p. 17). The Nazi policy of destroying "life unworthy of life" under the banner of "scientific objectivity," of which sterilization was an early manifestation, would hold profound implications for others deemed racially undesirable, including Jews and Gypsies.

Furthermore, Nazi propagandists exploited the long tradition of religious anti-Semitism in the Lutheran and Catholic churches. Jews were considered outcasts by both religious communities because of their refusal to convert to Christianity and for the charge of deicide in killing Christ. Martin Luther became an especially popular historical reference for Nazi propagandists who liberally quoted the religious reformer's incendiary pamphlet, "The Jews and Their Lies" (1543). Luther vented his rage against the Jews by drawing on old economic stereotypes depicting Jews as greedy moneylenders with an aversion to physical labor. The negative connotation of usury and lust for money, part of both Christian traditions, remained alive and well under the Third Reich. As vital as Jews were to the emerging market economy of Europe, they were still held as parasites and criminals. The social and economic power of anti-Semitic stereotypes like these was central to William Shakespeare's play The Merchant of Venice (1596), which portrays the rejection and suffering of Shylock, the Jewish merchant. Under the Third Reich, the new anti-Semitism, steeped in the language of race biology and yet connected to traditional hatred for Jews in the marketplace and church, provided an even more powerful ideological justification for persecution of a distinct minority.

Anti-Semitism alone does not explain German Nazism and the Holocaust. Yet any serious consideration of what caused the Third Reich must take into account the dynamics of anti-Semitic thinking and their influence in shaping the formation and administration of Nazi social and political policies. Hitler's anti-Semitic agenda and the reality of the Holocaust did not assume definite policy directions overnight. Other contemporary factors played a significant role in bringing Hitler to dictatorial rule. Buoyed by the social and political malaise engendered by the Great Depression and skyrocketing unemployment and inflation rates, Hitler ridiculed democratic institutions and the lack of political unity under the Weimar Republic. Hitler also exploited the legacy of the Treaty of Versailles, which strippedGermany of pride and territories, and added the heavy weight of war guilt and reparations. All of these elements from World War I left a great deal of resentment among various elements in the German population. Here again, the Jews suffered from scapegoating and received blame for Germany's misfortunes. In what became known as the "stab in the back," Jews were even accused of causing Germany's defeat in World War I by working behind the scenes as betrayers on the home front.

Historians and social scientists still struggle to understand how a country with one of the highest literacy rates in the world and a culture which nurtured great scientists, musicians, and theologians could administer one of the biggest mass murders in history, carried out with the complicity of millions and with the aid of the most modern technological means available. Indeed, the Germans were to industrialize mass death and the disposal of their remains. Germany was not the only country with a culture marked by deep-seated anti-Semitic resentments, but it was the only one to transform this resentment into a policy directed toward annihilating the entire Jewish people.

Neither were the Jews the only group identified for total destruction because of racial reasons. The infamous "T-4" killings of the handicapped, the mentally ill, and those suffering from hereditary illness conducted by medical doctors under Hitler's orders preceded the formation of the death camps in the East. These were the first victims of mass murder. Under the guise of "euthanasia" and supported by the legal apparatus of the state, as many as 6,000 children and 70,273 adults met their deaths at the hands of medical professionals in asylums across the Reich. The vast majority of the victims died in gas chambers. The choice of method for this kind of murder was critically important for the future. The early Nazi elimination of "life unworthy of life" through the "T-4" killings foreshadowed the use of gas chambers in Auschwitz and other camps as well. Both the technology and many of the former medical personnel from this sordid experiment in mass murder would re-emerge with the SS, or schutztaffel, in helping to run the machinery of the death camps after 1941. The story did not end here. The intent to racially cleanse Germany of undesirable racial elements also extended to Sinti and Roma, called Zigeuner by the Germans and known traditionally as "Gypsies." Classified by the Nazis as "criminal"

Jewish casualties from the Final Solution
German Reich (boundaries of 1938) 130,000
Austria 58,000
Belgium 26,000
Bulgaria 7,000
Czechoslovakia (boundaries of 1938) 245,000
France 64,000
Greece 58,000
Hungary and Carpatho-Ukraine 300,000
Italy 8,000
Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia 200,000
Luxembourg 3,000
Netherlands 101,800
Norway 677
Poland (boundaries of 1939) 2,700,000
Romania (boundaries prior to 1940) 220,000
USSR (boundaries prior to 1939) 800,000
Yugoslavia 54,000
Note: The numbers under discussion cannot embrace the full depth and scope of human loss which was the Holocaust. Controversy undoubtedly continues among scholars over the statistics representing the loss, of which Gerald Fleming's research is an important part.
SOURCE: Fleming, Gerald. Hitler and the Final Solution. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984.

or "asocials" and forced to wear the black triangle on prisoner clothing, at least 250,000 Sinti and Roma died under Nazi rule. Whether the Nazis fully intended to wipe out the entire population of Sinti and Roma remains an issue of some dispute among scholars.

The Road to Auschwitz

There existed no doubt among Nazi policymakers regarding the scope of mass murder and the massive destruction of Jews in the wake of the attack on Russia in the summer of 1941. The Nazi intention was to kill every single Jewish man, woman, and child. Hitler vented his obsessive hatred for Jews in Mein Kampf, (My Struggle ) originally written in Landsberg prison in 1924. The Jewish community stood in diametric opposition to his racial vision for a New Germany. Judeophobia, as the scholar Klaus Fischer calls it, reflected a paranoid distortion of reality and delusionary thinking. After rising to power in 1933, Hitler wasted little time before moving against the Jews and other avowed enemies of the state. Dachau, the first of many concentration camps originally created to incarcerate political enemies of the regime, opened less than two months after Hitler came to office. The SA, or sturmabteilung, brown-shirted storm troopers, rounded up Social Democrats and Communists. The Nazis followed on April 1, 1933, by boycotting all Jewish businesses. Even more devastating to the Jewish community was the dismissal of all Jews from civil service and the legal practice six days later.

The mass murder of Jews and others declared unworthy of citizenship did not take place overnight. State violence and terror, in order to be more fully institutionalized, required the legitimacy of a legal framework. Early on the perpetrators created a series of laws to legalize the oppressive actions taken against their victims. Compulsory sterilization laws appeared in July 1933 leading to the forced sterilization of over 320,000 people suffering from hereditary illnesses. Forced to wear the pink triangle and condemned under Paragraph 175 of the 1871 Reich Criminal Code, which made homosexual relations a criminal offense, at least 10,000 gays suffered imprisonment and deplorable treatment in at least eleven concentration camps.

The legal noose continued to tighten around the Jews. A public book-burning of works by Jewish authors like Heinrich Heine and Sigmund Freud along with other opponents of Nazism took place in May 1933. Signs declaring "No Jews" sprung up all over the country during the summer of 1935 outside restaurants, stores, and villages forbidding Jewish entry. A critically important racial development emerged in September of that year under the anti-Semitic Nuremberg Laws. These laws virtually stripped Jews of citizenship, legitimizing the huge social chasm between Jews and Aryan Germans. With the intent of preserving blood purity, Jews could not marry and have sexual relations with Germans or employ female employees under the age of forty-five in their households.

An equally ominous but perhaps lesser known aspect of the Holocaust regarded early reactions of the global community to the treatment of the Jews. At an international conference staged at Evian in France during early July 1938, diplomats representing thirty-two nations met to discuss solutions in answer to a growing refugee problem. The mounting number of Jewish refugees from Austria and Germany created pressure on the United States and other countries to raise immigration quotas. Little more than expressions of sympathy for the Jews came out of the conference. In short, the conference results convinced Hitler that "no one wanted the Jews" and, moreover, implied that he had a free hand in dealing with the Jews without international interference.

Agrowing escalation of violence against the Jews occurred during Kristallnacht, or the Night of the Broken Glass, on November 9, 1938. That evening, over 1,000 synagogues across Austria and Germany were burned and many Jewish businesses looted and destroyed. Ninety-six Jews were murdered and 30,000 were arrested and sent to concentration camps in Dachau, Sachsenhausen, and Buchenwald. Eight days later, Jewish children were expelled from German schools. Economic pressures increased; the isolation of the Jews continued with the compulsory expropriation of their businesses, industries, and shops with the "Aryanization" of the economy in December of that year.

The Final Solution, the Nazi answer to the Jewish question, did not follow a direct path from Hitler's obsessive hatred of Jews, as expressed in Mein Kampf, to the killing fields of the death camps. A major focus of Nazi policy from 1933 to 1941 was to use forced emigration to clear Germany of all Jews. At least as late as the closing days of 1938, the Nazi regime explored the possibility of organizing a wholesale migration of Jews to either Madagascar or Palestine. Some historians, like Gerald Fleming and Eberhard Jäckel, known in some quarters as intentionalists, claim a direct connection between Hitler's anti-Semitic ideology and anti-Semitic practices. Karl Schleunes, representing a more functionalist point of view, argues that the Nazi leadership from the top down had not defined the scope and substance of the Final Solution.

Conditions of the war on the eastern front marked a critical phase in the Holocaust. Vast tracts of territory, along with huge numbers of Russian prisoners of war and Jews, fell under German control during the early phase of Hitler's war with Russia. Christopher Browning's research argues convincingly that Hitler gave the go ahead for the mass murder of the Jews in the fall of 1941, some four months after Germany attacked Russia. This distinction is important since it sheds new light on the old and misguided assumption that plans for the Final Solution were first instituted months later as part of the Wannsee Conference on January 20, 1942. Knowing when Hitler and his circle passed the point of no return in regard to killing Jews remains important for students of the Holocaust for several reasons. As Browning reminds readers, this extreme case of genocide was different from other genocides in that the goal was to eliminate every single Jewish person in the entire Reich and occupied territories. This genocide remains unique as a turning point in history for another reason. The Nazi regime exploited the latest technology as well as considerable bureaucratic and scientific resources to achieve the most thorough and efficient killing process possible.

The Dynamics of Nazi Mass Murder

An important distinction existed between the formation of concentration as opposed to death camps within the Nazi racial state. Concentration camps originally imprisoned political opponents. Eventually, as racial enemies of the regime, Jews also became part of the prison population in the concentration camps. Death camps, of which there were six in number, were located in Poland. Their sole purpose was to kill as many Jews as quickly as possible. Auschwitz, Chelmo, Treblinka, Sobibor, Maidanek, and Belzec are places that will forever live in the memory of the Holocaust. Of these, Auschwitz was by far the largest. From at least 1.3 million deportees to Auschwitz, about 900,000 met their end very soon after arrival. Another 400,000 entered as camp prisoners and given identification numbers. About half of these people died of disease, hunger, or slave labor. Many of the remainder met their end by injection, medical experiments, or the gas chambers. Ninety percent of the victims in Auschwitz were Jews. Poles constituted the second largest group followed by Gypsies and Soviet prisoners of war.

The geographical location of the death camps in the East afforded a certain level of official secrecy and deceit in the administration of mass murder. The six camps were located close to the highest concentration of Jews in all of Europe. Prewar Poland had a Jewish population of just less than 3 million. Auschwitz, which opened its gates as a death camp in 1942, was favorably situated because of its location at a confluence of major railroad lines. The railroads acted as major arteries to the death camps running from all parts of occupied Europe. Day and night Jews from twenty countries were shipped to their deaths.

The railroads, in order to operate as efficiently as possible, relied on armies of trusted bureaucrats who, with the stroke of their pens, determined the fate of hundreds of thousands of people. These same faceless figures rarely witnessed the lethal results of their orders. SS Officer Adolf Eichmann, as master bureaucrat, was a central figure in this process since he designed and administered the entire transportation system for the purpose of speeding up the process of mass murder. The memoirs of Rudolf Höss, SS commandant of Auschwitz, reveal a kind and dedicated family man who felt no hatred for Jews. In the banal language of the brutally efficient bureaucrat, he simply had a job to do.

The power of Nazi propaganda to work a language of deceit was an important factor in efficiently moving large groups of people to their unknown destinations. Victims were packed into cattle cars under the most inhumane conditions without food, water, or basic sanitation. To quell the threat of riots, Nazi officials informed passengers that they were part of a resettlement project. Showers, clean clothing, and hot soup were among those things promised at journey's end. Jewish musicians were pressed into service to play classical music at the gate of Auschwitz to soothe the anxieties of incoming prisoners. The real truth of the matter was hidden in an intricate language of deception. To make the situation even more precarious, Jews were required by law to wear the yellow star in September 1941. The Nazis developed no less than twenty-five expressions to mask the real meaning behind mass murder. Sonderbehandlung conveyed a literal meaning of special treatment. The expression really meant taking Jews through the death process in the camp. Arriving prisoners saw a welcome sign for Badeanstalten, or bath houses, which really were gas chambers.

Not all Jews were killed in the camps. To facilitate the killing operations, the Germans initiated the Einsatzgruppen, or mobile killing squads under the direction of the SS. This newly formed "police army" swept through areas newly conquered by the German army in Poland and Russia. Thousands of Jewish women and children were hunted down and shot on the spot. Males were either executed or deported. This massive killing campaign, carried out primarily in 1942, demonstrated the highly concentrated methods used by the SS to eliminate as many people as possible within a relatively short timeframe. This was another face of the Holocaust which reflected the serious Nazi intent and purpose to carry out a war against the Jews.

The Voice of Survivors

Several years would pass after the horrific experience of the Holocaust before survivors began to write about and discuss the meaning of their experiences. Survivor literature teems with many volumes of memories and poignant observations about the problem of being human under Nazi persecution. The writing of Elie Wiesel and Primo Levi, both Jewish survivors of Auschwitz, remain among the most popular authors from this literary genre. Wiesel's Night continues to be the most widely read recollection of the Holocaust. He captures his own adolescent struggle with his father while offering poignant observations about the problem of retaining some kind of humanity in Auschwitz. Perhaps one of the most excruciating theological questions raised by Wiesel concerns the existence of God. For him, the question about the presence or absence of God in Auschwitz remains unanswered to this very day.

The sheer struggle for survival, also a powerful theme in Wiesel's writing, returned to Levi's experience in a most powerful way. His If This Is a Man (1986) recounts with great insight the culture of Auschwitz and the behavior of both perpetrators and victims. Under the shadow of hunger, disease, and fear, Levi describes the extent to which human beings regressed to the level of animal instinct to survive. There was for this man a larger lesson to be learned: "The story of the death camps should be understood by everyone as a sinister alarm-signal" (Wiesel 1986, p. 4).

The importance of the survivors as teachers of succeeding generations cannot be overstated. The late existential psychologist Viktor Frankl, a survivor of four camps, influenced many readers with his theory about the nature of meaning and its relationship to suffering. Art symbolized another legacy from the survivors, including Alfred Kantor's 1987 collection of drawings depicting his experiences as a survivor in Auschwitz and Theresienstadt. Szyman Laks takes readers into the world of a musician in the orchestra at Auschwitz. His writing defies those who insist on finding a message of hope in the death camps. In Music from Another World (2000), Laks describes how the experience of being a musician, steeped in the classics and the daily smell of death, led some to despair. Until the 1980s the voices of women survivors were overlooked. A rich literature in poetry and verse relating the experiences of women in the camps by Carol Rittner (1993) and Ruth Schwertfeger (1989) offers readers new perspectives on the oppression of female populations. Another way of preserving the voices of survivors for future generations is being led by the pioneering work of the filmmaker Steven Spielberg and the Shoah Foundation. The group digitally recorded and indexed interviews with over 50,000 survivors. The realization is that, in only a few years, all survivors will pass into history.

The Accounting of Death

Exactly how many victims died in the Holocaust will never be known with great exactitude. Six million Jews lost their lives under the Nazi regime, a figure most commonly cited over the years by historians and social scientists. This statistical assumption continues to come under scrutiny. The historian Gerald Fleming argues with certainty that the figure reaches the 5 million mark (see Table 1). Raoul Hilberg proposes a slightly higher number of Jewish victims at 5.1 million. One important basis for determining the scope of human destruction in the death camps are the railroad passenger numbers and points of departure with dates carefully documented by the SS. While the toll of other twentieth-century disasters are often known to the single person, the loss of life from the Holocaust can only be estimated to within hundreds of thousands and millions. In some cases, entire Jewish communities in eastern Europe were wiped off the face of the earth.

More Competing Views

Noted earlier were the competing views of scholars regarding the intentional versus the functional nature of Nazi ideology and the Holocaust. Another voice, which emerged in the mid-1990s, sparked a firestorm of debate. Daniel Goldhagen's Hitler's Willing Executioners (1996) claims that anti-Semitic hatred, nurtured in the soil of Christianity, was the central cause for the Holocaust and that such hatred was imbedded in German culture. Goldhagen attacks the cherished assumption that Germans were guilty only of obedience to authority. Like many other institutions under the fascist process of centralization, the churches participated in an already deeply rooted German tendency toward "eliminationist anti-Semitism" (Goldhagen 1996, p. 23).

Goldhagen's thesis came under withering criticism by a host of historians. The prominent German historian Eberhard Jäckel accused Goldhagen of advancing "primitive stereotypes" while making wholly inaccurate contrasts between anti-Semitism in Germany and developments in Italy and Denmark. Christopher Browning's scholarship emphasizes obedience to authority as a critical development leading to the Holocaust. He carefully contends that the demonization of an entire people with the charge of anti-Semitism explains nothing. Goldhagen's reductionist argument did not sit well among many historians. The controversial nature of the Holocaust, deeply embroiled in the causes and motivations for mass murder, promises new and expanded debates in the future.

Appearing in the late twentieth century, certain revisionist historians like David Irving and Arthur Butz, members of the infamous Institute for Historical Review, exploited historical ignorance and nascent anti-Semitic prejudices by denying the Holocaust. Irving had long argued that Hitler remained ignorant of the Holocaust and Butz insisted that gas chambers did not exist at Auschwitz. The emergence of Holocaust denial as a cultural phenomenon, often reflecting an anti-Semitic agenda from elements of the Far Right, is not one to be overlooked or easily dismissed. A legal confrontation was inevitable. In 2000 a civil trial in London, where Irving sued the scholar Deborah Lipstadt for calling him a Holocaust denier, ended in disgrace for the plaintiff and a resounding public condemnation of Irving's historical claims about Hitler and the Jews by the judge. The controversy is not over. The language of anti-Semitic hatred continues to find audiences on the Internet under a growing number of web sites. In the Federal Republic of Germany and Canada, public denials of the Holocaust are considered expressions of hate language, incitements to violence, and insults to the dead. As such, these actions are considered serious violations of federal law in both nations.

The long shadow of the Holocaust continues to shape world affairs. The tremendous sorrow, grief, and sense of betrayal from the Holocaust provided a powerful emotional and political thrust for Jews to create the state of Israel in 1948. Research protocols ensuring the protection of research subjects, growing out of the revelations of the Nuremberg trials, influences the way research is conducted today. Millions each year visit the extensive exhibits in the Holocaust and Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. A new memorial in the center of Berlin, finalized after a protracted debate in the Federal Republic, will memorialize millions of Jews whose lives were lost in one of the most horrendous genocides in human history. The legal settlements over Swiss gold, which began in 1998 and continue into the twenty-first century, as well as reparations paid by German corporations who employed forced laborers raised a new awareness about the complicity of economic interests in the Nazi exploitation of minority populations. A deeper understanding about the human capacity for evil is an inescapable part of this legacy.

See also: Black Stork; Genocide; Grief and Mourning in Cross-Cultural Perspective; Judaism; Mass Killers


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Burleigh, Michael. Death and Deliverance: Euthanasia in Germany, 19001945. New York: Cambridge University Press, 1995.

Carroll, James. Constantine's Sword: The Church and the Jews. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2001.

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Lautmann, Rüdiger. "The Pink Triangle: Homosexuals as Enemies of the State." In Michael Berenbaum and Abraham Peck eds., The Holocaust and History: The Known, the Unknown and the Reexamined. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1998.

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views updated May 23 2018


The term Holocaust refers to the Nazi German policy that sought the annihilation of European and North African Jews. It comes from the Greek, holókauton, meaning "burnt sacrifice." More rarely, the term is also used to describe Nazi German violence in general. The persecution and mass murder of Europe's Jewry evolved out of a shift from religious to racial or ethnic anti-Semitism during the Industrial Revolution and the rise of liberal capitalism and the nation state in Europe during the second half of the nineteenth century. Prominent in many countries, including Russia and France, the new blend of anti-Semitism combined traditional and modern elements and became especially popular among many of Germany's intellectuals and elites. With the growing importance of the workers' movement and Marxism, anti-Semitism increased further after the Russian October revolution of 1917. Anti-Jewish conspiracy theories emerged, particularly in the states that lost World War I, that were established as its consequence, or that suffered badly in the worldwide economic crisis of 1929 to 1939. Most right-wing, authoritarian regimes that came to power in Europe in the 1920s and 1930s were anti-Semitic. Many adopted anti-Jewish laws. Chief among these, however, was Germany after Hitler's rise to power in 1933.

From 1933 to 1939, National Socialist (i.e., Nazi) Germany pursued a policy of enforced emigration. Out of 700,000 Jews in Germany and Austria, two-thirds left these countries before World War II, mostly the younger and more wealthy. Immigration restrictions abroad and Nazi "fees" for emigration permits hampered this process. Jews were dismissed from civil service in 1933. They faced economic ruin and the gradual expropriation of their property. They were routinely harrassed, attacked by Nazi activists and youths, denied social services, and excluded from public education. Central as well as municipal institutions contributed to such policies. Sexual relations with non-Jews ("Aryans") were prohibited under the "Law for the Protection of the German Blood and Honor" in 1935. With the annexation of Austria in March 1938—where anti-Semitism was particularly widespread—and a nationwide pogrom ("Kristallnacht," or Crystal Night) on November 9 and 10, 1938, the persecution of Jews was intensified. Nearly 30,000 Jews were temporarily imprisoned in concentration camps after Kristallnacht, during which more than 1,000 synagogues were destroyed and Jewish shops were looted. At least 91 Jews died in the pogrom, and hundreds more committed suicide.

Beginning in late 1938, the influence of the SS and the police under Heinrich Himmler grew increasingly influential in setting Germany's anti-Jewish policy, although SS and police never gained exclusive control over it. After Germany successfully invaded Poland in September 1939, more than 2.5 million Polish Jews came under German rule. By May 1941, Germany occupied another eight European countries, further increasing this number. Anti-Semitic regulations aimed at the isolation, deprivation, and humiliation of Jews throughout Germany's vastly expanded territory were gradually adopted. Jews were forced to wear identifying insignia, their access to means of communication and transportation was limited, and their food rations were reduced. Local German authorities in Poland individually ordered the creation of Jewish ghettos wherein Jews were permitted extremely few resources and were assigned one room (or less) per family. The overcrowding led to increased mortality and the spread of diseases.

Beginning in 1939, German authorities developed plans for the enforced resettlement of the Jews to specially designated territories, where it was expected that harsh living conditions and an adverse climate would lead to their slow destruction. The first of these territories were eastern Poland, then Madagascar; later on, northern Russia or Siberia were considered. These plans called for the inmates to be separated according to sexes and kept under German "police supervision." Initially intended as postwar projects, these plans indicated a radicalization of anti-Semitic thinking under the Nazi regime. They were never implemented in their original form, but they fit into a larger framework of Nazi schemes for restructuring, ethnic cleansing, and resettlement in Eastern Europe. From 1939 to 1941, the SS tried to settle several hundred thousands of ethnic Germans from Eastern Europe in Western Poland. To make room for these newcomers, nearly 500,000 local inhabitants—including up to 200,000 Jews—were deported to the German-occupied General Government of Poland. Such actions increased the warrelated scarcity of housing, sanitation, employment and food, particularly as a large proportion of the ethnic Germans had to stay in camps for months or years. The occupational authorities diverted the resulting shortages to the Jews and intensified the search for other "solutions."

Mass Murder of Soviet Jews

The German war against the Soviet Union was planned as a war of extermination jointly by Hitler, the SS, and military and economic authorities. The attack aimed at destroying "world communism," forcing "racially inferior" Slavs to submit to German colonial rule, eliminating the USSR as a military power, improving Germany's strategic position, and achieving self-sufficiency in food and raw materials such as oil. Schemes for large-scale German settlements had little influence on the actual occupation policy. While the majority of the Soviet population was to remain alive to provide cheap labor for the Germans, large groups of them were to be killed. Tens of millions were intended to die of starvation, particularly those who lived in the cities and the populations of certain northern and central areas. Also slated for death were millions of "commissars," communists, intellectuals, state officials, and Jews. This violence was considered vital for the long-term German appropriation of Soviet resources, which, in the short run, were needed for the militarily critical supplies of German troops fighting on the eastern front. The violence would also allow Germany to control a vast territory with a much smaller number of occupation troops than would otherwise be needed. Soviet Jews became a special target, because the racially charged propaganda blamed them for having designed the communist system, and they were expected to put up a fierce resistance.

Germany's military leaders wished to assign special units of the SS and the police the job of securing part of Soviet rear areas, thus reducing the need for using army troops to handle this task. These units included a total of 3,000 men in four Einsatzgruppen (Operation Units), deployed by the Security Police and Security Service under Reinhard Heydrich; mobile Police Batallions, deployed by the Order Police under Kurt Daluege; and Waffen-SS Brigades. These units started mass killings in the rear immediately after the German attack on June 22, 1941, and during that year more than 90 percent of their victims were Jewish.

The total extermination of Soviet Jews was not officially ordered at the outset. Instead, the SS and police targetted only those men considered to belong to the "Jewish intelligentsia": a group that included state officials, teachers, and lawyers, and others of the professional class. Between late July and early October 1941, this target group was enlarged—in different areas at different times—first by including women and children, and then by annihilating entire Jewish communities. This expansion began in Lithuania and Latvia, where the local, non-German, anti-Soviet police and administrators cooperated in acts of persecution and violence. By the end of 1941, 800,000 Jews had been killed throughout the German-occupied Soviet territories. Most victims were marched to remote locations near their home towns or cities and shot at previously prepared mass graves.

Cooperation went especially smoothly between SS and police and the military, with army officers calling for mass executions or giving logistic and manpower support. Military and civil administrations handled the first measures, such as making the Jews wear yellow badges, concentrating them in ghettos or special districts, assigning them to forced labor, and seizing their assets. In territories under German military administration, such as northern and central Russia, eastern Byelorussia, and eastern Ukraine, nearly all the indigenous Jews had been killed by December 1941. Demand for Jewish forced labor was low because the urban centers were largely destroyed and the German occupiers pursued a general policy of de-industrialization. The drive to violence was aggravated by food and housing shortages. The destruction experienced in the western territories of Byelorussia and Ukraine (Polish territory until 1939) was less intense because the economies of these regions were more dependent on Jewish artisans. Here, the civil administrations were more apt to spare the Jews, and as many as 75 percent survived until 1942. Direct orders and inspections by Himmler, Heydrich, and Daluege coordinated the killing actions. Of particular importance was the chain of command that extended downward from Himmler to his regional plenipotentiaries, the Higher SS and Police Leaders. Yet local officers were given some autonomy as well. Massacres and the selection of target groups were based on continuous negotiations between regional and local SS and police, civil, and military authorities. In the spring of 1942, such negotiations resulted first in the extermination of those Jews deemed unable to work. The killings were stepped up in the second half of the year to a policy of almost total annihilation, and by March 1943, at least another 650,000 Jews (excluding eastern Galicia) were killed.

Toward a Continent-Wide Program of Annihilation

The killing of the Soviet Jews marked the beginning of the extermination. Mass killings soon took place in other areas as well. Eastern Galicia had been declared part of the General Government, and was ruled under a German civil administration. By the end of 1941, 70,000 Jews from this region were killed. In Serbia, which was under military occupation, the German army killed the entire adult male Jewish population—7,000 in all—as reprisals against partisan resistance in the fall of 1941. The women and children were murdered by the SS and Police in 1942. In Poland, food rationing was intentionally unequal, with Jews receiving less than their non-Jewish fellow citizens, and much less than Germans. More than 40,000 Jews died of starvation and diseases related to overcrowding in the ghetto of Warsaw in 1941. In the German-annexed Reichsgau Wartheland (in Western Poland) and in the General Government, the civil administrations together with SS and the police developed plans for extermination camps to kill a portion of the Jewish population. The first killing center went into operation in Chelmno, Wartheland, on December 8, 1941, and the second was opened in Belzec, in the General Government's territory, on March 17, 1942.

It is unclear how much of this policy was ordered by the German central government and how much might have resulted from local initiatives. There were several parallel developments in German anti-Jewish policy in the fall of 1941, and Nazi leaders issued a number of declarations of intent (of which there remain only fragmented records). Beginning in mid-1941, experiments in new mass killing techniques, including gassing, were carried out by different branches of the SS and the police and in several concentration camps. Under pressure from the SS and regional Nazi Party leaders, Hitler permitted the deportation of Jews from the German Reich into the East in September 1941. By December, 50,000 had been deported to Lodz, Minsk, Kaunas, and Riga. Six thousand of these deportees were killed in Kaunas and Riga in late November 1941, after which Himmler called a temporary halt to the mass murders. However, they were resumed in Lodz and Minsk in May 1942.

Hitler announced his intention to exterminate all European Jews during World War II in a meeting of Nazi Party leaders on December 12, 1941, after declaring war on the United States. On January 20, 1942, in a high-level meeting in Berlin with government and Nazi Party officials plus SS officers, Heydrich claimed responsibilty for "the solution to the Jewish question in Europe," and especially the definition of who was declared a "Jew" was discussed. He set out his plans for mass murder, which were probably still only vaguely developed at that time. In this meeting, called the Wannsee Conference, the governmental bureaucrats raised no objections to Heydrich's plans for the extermination of Europe's Jews, but they could not reach full agreement on how to proceed nor on a complete centralization of the measures against the Jews. Many scholars of the era argue that the extermination of European Jewry was ordered by Hitler no later than the autumn of 1941 (some saying that the order was issued early in the year), but others suggest that such a decision was not reached before December 1941 or in the spring of 1942. Some hold that the Holocaust simply "evolved," without the need for any explicit command decision issued by Hitler.

It has been argued that Himmler preferred using gas to kill Jews because he wanted to protect his firing squads in the east from mental stress. However, only a small proportion of the Soviet Jews were gassed in 1942 (in mobile gas vans). The majority, numbering some 500,000 in total, were shot. Killing techniques were never standardized. Only two of six major death camps (Auschwitz and Majdanek) employed prussic acid (also called Zyklon B) in gas chambers. In the Belzec, Sobibor, and Treblinka camps in the General Government, Jews were killed in stationary gas chambers into which engine exhaust fumes were vented. In Chelmno, the murders were performed in mobile gas vans. These killings differed from the mass murder of approximately 100,000 disabled patients. In that case, the patients were suffocated using bottled carbon monoxide, administered in stationary gas chambers or gas vans between September 1939 and August 1941. The killing of the disabled was organized by Hitler's chancellery in his capacity as the leader of the Nazi Party, known as the Kanzlei des Führers, or was carried out by regional civil administrations in annexed Western Poland, with the assistance of the SS. Personnel who had gained experience through participating in this "euthanasia" program (code named "T-4") were transferred to Belzec, Sobibor, and Treblinka in late 1941 and 1942.

In Poland, the mass killings were expanded and accelerated in 1942 in two stages, similar to the way the policies were pursued in the German-occupied Soviet territories. General Governor Hans Frank argued that a policy of extermination could reduce food problems, health risks, and black market activities. Jews deemed unfit for work in the districts of Lublin, Galicia, and Krakow were deported on trains to Belzec, beginning on March 17, 1942 and to Sobibor beginning on May 6, 1942, while other victims were rounded up and killed in mass shootings. The second phase of the mass killings in the region began in July, with the establishment of a third death camp at Treblinka, near Warsaw. Construction on the camp had started in May, and murders began there on July 22, 1942. At the same time, new and bigger gas chambers were installed in Belzec, with Sobibor and Treblinka following suit during September and October of that year. On Himmler's orders (and with the support of the head of the German Four-Year Planning Office, Hermann Göring), the demand for forced labor was largely ignored during the period from July to October 1942, and many Jewish workers summarily killed. Approximately 1.15 million Jews from the General Government were thus killed in the second half of 1942, and only 297,000 remained alive.

The deportations of French and Slovakian Jews to Auschwitz began in March 1942, although most of the first deportees were not killed upon arrival. Auschwitz had been founded in 1940 as a concentration camp, but by 1942 it was gradually being transformed into a death center. Large-scale gassings began in early May 1942—the first victims were Jews from German-annexed East Upper Silesia in Poland—and the extermination of prisoners reached full scale in July 1942, handling transports of Jews arriving from Poland and Western and Central Europe. Between 10 and 35 percent of the new arrivals were selected for forced labor, the rest were killed. The first two permanent, if improvised, gas chambers in the main camp of Auschwitz went into operation in May and on June 30, 1942. Planning for bigger gas chambers and crematoria to be built in the subcamp of Auschwitz-Birkenau began in August, but they only became operational in March 1943. More than half of all the Jews who were killed in the Holocaust died between March 1942 and March 1943.

Massive transports of Jews from Western and Central Europe began to arrive in Auschwitz in June 1942. Deportations of Jews from the Netherlands progressed smoothly, but in Belgium and France the deportees were primarily, if not exclusively, limited to foreign Jews (the authorities in these two states were reluctant to cooperate in the deportation of their own citizens). Many Jews from Germany, particularly the elderly, were sent at first to a "show" camp in the Czech town of Terezín (Theresienstadt), allegedly as a place for convenient long-term settlement, but most were later sent to Auschwitz to be killed. Deportations to Auschwitz continued throughout 1943, and the later transports included Greek and (beginning in autumn, 1943) Italian Jews. To a certain extent, the definition of "Jew" was kept vague. Outside of the eastern territories, however, Jews married to gentiles and so-called half-Jews were usually not murdered, even though they were required to register. Some German officials, and Hitler himself, objected to killing Jews of mixed heritage because they were afraid of protests by non-Jewish relatives.

The extermination of European Jews reached a new peak in the summer of 1944, after Germany invaded Hungary, and the new (but not yet fully fascist) Hungarian government fully cooperated in the deportation of 430,000 Jews to Auschwitz in only seven weeks, from May 15 to July 9. About 100,000 of the Hungarian Jews were selected for forced labor—they were assigned to work in the construction of factories for German fighter planes and other tasks. Another 80,000 Jews were exempted from deportation and consigned instead to the Hungarian Army's forced Labor Service. Deportations were temporarily stopped by the Hungarian leader, Admiral Miklos Horthy, on July 9. He balked at transporting the more "useful" urban Jews of Budapest. After Horthy was ousted from office by the fascist Arrow-Cross Party on October 15, 1944, the transports were resumed on a limited scale. In total, nearly 500,000 of Hungary's approximately 730,000 Jews were killed.

Deportation transports from outside the General Government and the Soviet Union were organized by the office for Jewish affairs (IV B 4) in the Head Office of Reich Security under Adolf Eichmann. Because they usually deployed only several hundred men for each occupied country, the security police and security service required the cooperation of the German military and civil administrators, foreign office occupation personnel, the local national police and administrations, and German and foreign railway authorities. As a result, deportations were not only based on complex bureaucratic procedures but depended also on negotiations at a political level.

By the fall of 1943, virtually all remaining Jews in German-ruled Central and Eastern Europe had been interned within the concentration camp system of the SS. In 1944, Himmler gave orders not to let prisoners fall into enemy hands during military retreats. In the last months of World War II, this led to murderous death marches, in which columns of concentration camp inmates were forced to walk hundreds of kilometers, on often circuitous routes, with few supplies, and under brutal treatment by their guards, by German Nazi Party organizations, by home defense units, and by individuals. Estimates of the mortality in these marches range from less than a third to half of the participants.

The Jewish Response

The Jewish response to this qualitatively new threat took various forms. These included traditional solutions, such as the payment of tributes, renewed spirituality, and emigration. This latter option proved to be the most effective response. Once World War II began, however, emigration was an option only open to a small minority, primarily young adults and single people, especially because of the stringent immigration restrictions imposed by potential recipient countries. For most people, other survival strategies were needed.

The German resolve to kill all Jews became clear only gradually so, at first, Jewish leaders attempted to make the members of their communities indispensable through employment in war-related industries. This strategy largely failed, due to the low demand for industrial labor in Poland and the German-occupied Soviet territories, where most of Europe's Jews lived. To meet the increasing demand for such labor in Germany after the intensification of war production in 1942, other sources, such as Soviet civilians, were given preference. The SS also increasingly turned to the principle of "selection" to counter Jewish labor schemes, separating Jewish workers from those not employed, and targetting the latter group to be killed first. Sometimes the organizers of the Holocaust gave priority to annihilation over any labor considerations, and many Jewish workers died of starvation and brutal treatment. With little access to arms, often isolated from non-Jewish resistance groups, and facing overwhelming German power, Jews turned to armed resistance only as a last resort, most prominently in the ghetto uprisings in Warsaw (April and May 1943) and Bialystok (August 1943), and through service in Soviet partisan units. Such uprisings usually could not rescue large groups. Instead, uprisings served as a final, symbolic signal of defiance and resistance.

Cooperation and Resistance of Non-Germans

A number of countries allied with or occupied by Germany, as well as non-German social groups and individuals, participated in the Holocaust, supported it, or (in the case of states) even ran their own extermination programs. Others resisted or obstructed German demands. In many places, however, Jews who could not claim citizenship were at a distinct disadvantage. This contributed to a considerable variation in the proportion of Jews killed during the Holocaust, with less than 1 percent mortality of Finland's Jews, 20 percent in Denmark, 25 percent in France, 40 percent in Belgium, 67 percent in Hungary, and more than 80 percent in the Netherlands.

Romania organized its own program of mass killings of Jews in 1941 and 1942, working in parallel with the German Einsatzgruppen murders. At least 250,000 Jews living in, or deported to, the Romanian-occupied Soviet territories were massacred by Romanians or died of deprivation. However, Romania refused to allow the Jews from their mainland to be deported to German death camps in the fall of 1942. Although most of these Jews survived, they nonetheless suffered from persecution. Half of Croatia's 40,000 Jews were killed by their fellow, non-Jewish citizens in 1941; the rest were deported to Germany in 1942, where they were all killed. Approximately 30,000 Jews from Hungary were killed or died under the authority of Hungarian nationals in the army's forced Labor Service from 1941 to 1943, and during the chaotic Budapest ghetto violence between October 1944 and early 1945.

Germany demanded that all its European allies surrender their Jews in September 1942. The Slovak and Hungarian governments were eager to deport most of their Jews, with Slovakia complying in 1941 and 1942. Hungary refused at first, but began sending its own shipments in 1944. Finland, although a German ally, refused to deport its Jews, and Bulgaria vetoed deportations from its home territory. However, the Bulgarian government handed over the Jews who lived in the annexed territories of Macedonia and Thracia. Fascist Italy protected its Jews as well as those in Italian-occupied French, Yugoslav, Greek, and Albanian territories until September 1943. Then a new government took power in Italy and switched sides—German troops occupied most of the country. The fascist states of Spain and Portugal maintained neutrality, and diplomatically protected their Jewish subjects in the German sphere of influence. Some of their diplomats made limited attempts to rescue Hungarian Jews in 1944. Swiss and Swedish envoys did the same, but on a larger scale. Such options were unavailable in countries such as Poland and in the Soviet territories, which were denied any central government by the Germans.

The cooperation of administrators, elites, professional organizations, and individual citizens was crucial to the outcome of the Holocaust. It is difficult to accurately gauge popular attitudes toward the persecution and murder of Jews, because the Germans threatened harsh reprisals for anyone who helped Jews escape deportation or death in their occupied territories. In many countries, especially in Eastern Europe, local anti-Semitic propaganda, denunciations, and even manhunts made the survival of Jews nearly impossible. In the first weeks of the German attack on the USSR, a wave of bloody pogroms swept through the western Soviet territories from Latvia to Moldova. In many occupied countries, local police officers participated or were forced to participate in anti-Jewish measures and violence. Most of the guards in the four death camps in the General Government of Poland were actually Soviet auxiliaries, mostly Ukrainians, under German supervision. Lithuanian, Latvian, and Ukrainian police units under German command took part in the mass execution of Jews inside and outside their countries. Some local administrations created ghettos and many confiscated Jewish assets for redistribution to non-Jews.

In all European countries, including Germany, individuals and small groups made attempts to rescue Jews, especially in the Netherlands, Poland, and the Soviet Union, although these efforts were overshadowed by widespread administrative cooperation and popular anti-Semitism. A number of Jews escaped capture with the help of the clergy. The most prominent nongovernmental collective rescue action took place in German-occupied Denmark in October 1943. The German representatives in Denmark wanted to avoid a political confrontation, and non-Jewish citizens were able to help 7,200 Jews escape to Sweden by boat. Another 500 Danish Jews were nonetheless deported to the German Reich.

The readiness of foreign governments, civil administrators, and the general public to support anti-Jewish violence depended less on their attitude towards the Germans, than on domestic political considerations, and on their own attitudes regarding Jews. Local authorities, rather than German troops, seized Jewish property in most of these areas (the exception was in Poland) and sold it to finance their costs of war or German occupation, or used it to solve social and economic problems like housing, land scarcity, or a shortage of consumer goods. The deportation of Jews also facilitated the redistribution of professional positions and the building of new, allegedly more loyal elites. This helps to explain why Eastern European states such as Romania, Hungary, and Bulgaria were more willing to remove Jews from newly annexed territories. For some time, Lithuanian nationalists and the Hungarian government cooperated in the killing and deportation of Jews as a foreign policy strategy, in exchange for more political independence from the Germans. Conversely, protecting Jews earned the favor of the Anti-Hitler Coalition and the Vatican, which was important to Romania and Slovakia, and to Hungary before March and after July of 1944. During 1942, the United States, Great Britain, and the Soviet Union recognized Germany's comprehensive extermination program against the Jews and threatened punishment in a joint public declaration on December 17, of that year. However, they concentrated on achieving a military victory over Nazi Germany instead of mounting major rescue operations, in part to deny domestic anti-Semitic propaganda claims that the Allies were fighting to protect Jewish interests.


Reliable statistics document that between 5.5 and 6.1 million Jews were killed in the Holocaust. Between 2.2 and 2.5 million of these deaths came from the Soviet Union, 1.9 million from Poland (both within the borders of 1945), 500,000 from "Greater Hungary" of 1944, 165,000 from Germany, 100,000 from the Netherlands, and 80,000 from France. Three million victims were killed by gassing, nearly two million were shot, the others were killed by other methods, died of starvation, exhaustion, forced labor, or the extreme living conditions imposed on them.

Among long-range consequences of the Holocaust was the loss of much of Europe's Jewish cultural heritage. This loss was further exacerbated by the postwar emigration of survivors to Israel and other countries. The Holocaust also led to the traumatization of generations of Europe's Jews, suffered not only by the survivors but also by many of their descendants. The Holocaust has been understood as an expression of a moral crisis either of European civilization, or the modern industrial society in general. Together with the enforced resettlements, population exchanges, and border adjustments during and after World War II, the Holocaust contributed to the emergence of ethnically and culturally far more homogeneous nation states after 1945.

Juridicial trials and investigations against the perpetrators of the Holocaust took part in two phases, first during the immediate postwar era and then after 1957. Initially seen as one crime among others (there was no separate treatment of the Holocaust among the thirteen Nuremberg Trials), a special awareness developed over time, and was evident in cases like the Einsatzgruppen and Auschwitz trials in West Germany (1957-58, 1963) and the Eichmann trial in Israel in 1961. Although nearly 100,000 persons were under investigation for Nazi violence in the two German states, an equal number in the Soviet Union, and many in the rest of Europe, few (except in the USSR under Stalin) received substantial punishment, and the trials raised doubts as to whether legal systems can adequately respond to modern mass violence, given a general lack of documentation and the division of labor and state-level participation of the crime. However, the trials did succeed in educating the public, and in the accumulation and dissemination of knowledge about the Holocaust. Further, they provided the opportunity for symbolic atonement.

Interpretations and Controversies

Increasingly, the Holocaust has been viewed as the most important result of World War II—it is even viewed by some to be the central event of the twentieth century, though both views are confined to North America and Western Europe. Several schools of interpretation have evolved. The "intentionalists" represent the dominant approach in teaching, arguing that the extermination of European Jewry was primarily based on Nazi ideology, Hitler's anti-Semitism, ordered by a central authority at a relatively early time, conducted within a hierarchical and homogenous system, and based on long-term, covert plans. Competing theorists, called "functionalists" or "structuralists," place less emphasis on ideology and central leadership. Instead, they suggest that the Holocaust emerged out of a political system that contained various, competing power centers with unclear or overlapping authority. They view the violence against Jews as arising out of a struggle among leaders for Hitler's favor or in anticipation of Hitler's will, which resulted in a radicalization of anti-Jewish policies. In such a view, the issuance of Holocaust orders from the central authority came late. Other scholars have pointed out the importance of a bureaucratic division of labor, or insisted that the Holocaust remains inexplicable.

Research in the 1990s and early 2000s has shown that broad intentionalist and structuralist interpretations are outdated, overly theoretical, and poorly documented. Newer studies have tried to combine elements of different approaches, acknowledging a variety of initiatives from outside the center, and offering multicausal explanations. Scholars try to link anti-Semitism with contemporary political issues such as ethnic cleansing, food policy, or the generation of political collaboration. The research of specialists has remained widely detached from comparative genocide research, although the intentionalist understanding of the term "Holocaust" often serves as the model for the notion of genocide. Interconnections between the Holocaust and other mass violence in Nazi Germany remain a matter for further research. Major areas of debate include the question of the uniqueness of the Holocaust in comparison to other cases of mass violence; the decisionmaking process and the degree of centralization in the Holocaust; the explanatory weight put on ideology, state organization, or popular participation in Germany; the role of non-German cooperation; the motives of perpetrators and organizers (including economic motives); and the significance of Jewish armed resistance as opposed to other survival strategies.

SEE ALSO Concentration Camps; Einsatzgruppen; Extermination Centers; Germany; Ghetto; Jehovah's Witnesses; SS; Statistical Analysis; Wannsee Conference


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Christian Gerlach


views updated May 23 2018


A number of philosophical issues arise relating to the destruction of most of the Jewish community in Europe in the twentieth century by the Nazis and their allies. This event has been labeled the Holocaustor Shoah in Hebrewin order to indicate its unique status.


Was the Holocaust unique? There has been an extended debate on this issue. The obvious response is that it was not unique, because other ethnic groups have also been singled out for destructionand have been destroyedby powerful enemies. Hitler famously referred to the massacres of the Armenians in Turkey in the early part of the twentieth century when the question arose as to whether people would object to the Holocaust. Because few were interested in the fate of the Armenianswho had so recently been massacredwho would care about the Jews? Throughout human history groups of people who were in some way distinctive have been singled out for persecution and death, and the Jews are hardly the only target. Nor was the Holocaust the only large-scale act of genocide to occur; even in the same century there were several other instances of attempts to destroy an ethnic group.

It has been argued that the Holocaust is unique because never before, or since, have the entire technological resources of the state been directed in such a protracted manner against an indigenous community. The Holocaust took place over many years, against a group of people who could not be realistically regarded as any sort of threat to the state, and was in many ways carried out in opposition to the main aims of the war. For example, when the German army was short of railway stock in order to transport troops, the organizers of the Holocaust increased their efforts to direct stock away from the military in order to continue with the policy of annihilation. Even when the war was clearly lost the policy continued to be pursued until almost the last moment of practicability.

Why does the issue of uniqueness matter? It matters because if the Holocaust was unique, then it may call for new answers and directions. For example, it may give some validation to the creation of the State of Israel as a home for the Jewish people who survived. It may also call for new responses because it would then represent a break in history, and in particular in Jewish history. After all, Jewish history is replete with disasters of one kind and another, and the large-scale destruction of Jewish communities is a familiar feature of that history over the millennia. Is the Holocaust just another disaster among many similaralbeit more limiteddisasters? Or does it represent a change in quality, not just quantity?

Radical Responses

One of the most radical responses to the Holocaust is provided by Richard Rubenstein (1966), who argues that the events of the Holocaust rule out the traditional God of the Jewish Bible. The traditional God participated in Jewish history; were such a God to exist he would surely have participated in the Holocaust, and prevented it. Because he did not, it follows that the concept of God has to change. What is needed is a concept of God that takes people closer to nature rather than away from it. Thus the traditional Jewish laws and rituals that emphasize the denial of nature are to be transcended and replaced with a far more hedonistic form of practice. For Rubenstein the return of the Jews to Israel typifies this, to a degree, because it represents a return to the land and to a more rooted and organic form of existence. By forging a new relationship with nature, Jews can transcend the negativity of historywhose paradigm is the Holocaustand change Judaism itself.

Irving Greenberg (1981) also takes the Holocaust to compel radical stepsan end to the idea of a covenant between the Jews and God. Whereas to begin with the Jews were the junior partner in the covenantand later on became equal partnersafter the Holocaust the Jews are the senior partner, because God has to show himself prepared to act on behalf of the survivors if he is to play any role in their continuing lives at all. The whole idea of an agreement implies that both parties to it will uphold their side of the agreement, and God has clearly not held up his side because he allowed the Holocaust to occur. While Greenberg does see the hand of God in some events after the Holocaustin particular in relationship to the State of Israelhe clearly holds God in dereliction of his duty, and calls therefore for a new relationship with him.

Arthur Cohen (2002) derives from the Holocaust the silence of God, and his distance from human affairs. To a degree this is not a new factor, because God has always been remote; he has to be if he is to allow people to be free and make their own decisions. Yet the God who emerges is clearly not the ordinary God of religion, but rather a deity who often hides his face and leaves his creatures to get on with their lives by themselves. Clearly such a God cannot be implicated readily in the State of Israel either, and Cohen is skeptical of the point of such a state, reflecting the doubts of Franz Rosenzweig on Zionism. It is the role of the Jewish people to typify a long and difficult relationship with God, not to live in a state of their own like everyone else.

Clearly these responses to the Holocaust call for a new definition of the relationship between God and the world. They also call for a new understanding of what constitutes religious practice, because the old prayers and rituals of Judaism may seem to be irrelevant given this new concept of God. What is worth noting is the crucial significance of the Holocaust to the propounders of these views. The Holocaust is not taken to be one disaster coming after many other disasters, but as an event with an existential meaning all its own. It is a unique event and so calls for unique responses. If those responses demand an entirely new understanding of Judaism, then it would be intellectually dishonest not to establish such an understanding.

Art and the Uniqueness Doctrine

There are important implications of the uniqueness doctrine for art. Adorno famously is supposed to have said that after Auschwitz there could be no art. As a factual claim this is problematic, because not only has there been art subsequently, there was even art during the Holocaust. However grim the conditions are under which artists work, they always manage to operatesome even believe that the harder the conditions the more important it is to respond aesthetically. What Adorno may be suggesting is that the whole context within which art takes place has changed irrevocably due to the Holocaust, and so art that does get done no longer has the character that it appears to have. For example, it may be that the German language has been so corrupted by its use in Nazi Germany that it can never be used again in a fresh and creative way. Although this may be plausible about German, it hardly would extend to other languagesand in fact does not even seem to describe German. Indeed, there has been no shortage of successful German prose and verse since the Holocaust, and in fact that event has often been its subject. It is difficult to make sweeping claims about art, of course, but it does not seem to have been noticeably altered by the Holocaust, nor has art changed much since the Holocaust.

Adorno probably means something a bit less obvious by his claim. Art rests on a whole range of human practices and expectations, and the Holocaust seriously threatened many of these. A defenseless and inoffensive minority were ruthlessly murdered by their fellow citizens, not as a random act of violence but through the machinery of the state and with little evidence of anyone outside of the minority disapproving. The scientific and rational forces of society were used for this purpose, occurring in what had until then been widely regarded as one of the most civilized and advanced societies in the world.

Adorno is pointing to the end of what is sometimes known as the Enlightenment Project, the idea that over time the world would progress as a result of the growing reliance on rationality and science. During the Holocaust, rationality and science were put entirely at the disposal of the murderers, and those techniques were revealed to be mere tools to be employed without reference to moral restrictions. The optimism of the Enlightenment was thereby undone and should be replaced to by a thoroughgoing realism about the possibility of human progress.

The implications for art are clear. Whereas in the past it was thought that art has a civilizing impact, the Holocaust taught people that it may be enjoyed just as much by the morally corrupt as by anyone else. Thus its status changes from being an aspect of human nobility and cultural progress to becoming a morally neutral means of distraction. Hence Adorno's claim that art has irretrievably changed after the Holocaust.

Other Responses to the Uniqueness Thesis

Emil Fackenheim (1982) presents a powerful defense of the uniqueness thesis, deriving from it what he calls the 614th commandment (there are traditionally held to be 613 commandments applicable to the Jews) that Hitler is awarded no posthumous victories. Such victories include assimilation and the destruction of the State of Israel, but Fackenheim does not see the Holocaust as calling for a radically new approach to Judaism itself or to the relationship between Jews and God.

Another important thinker is Elie Wiesel (1969), who wrote powerfully on his experiences and those of others during the Holocaust. He also sees it as not calling for a new understanding of faith. In particular, to the question of where was God at Auschwitz, he replies with the question where was humanity? The Holocaust represents an event carried out by human beings against other human beings and it is squarely on the shoulders of the murderers that the responsibility should be placed. One cannot expect God to rescue people from the evil decisions and actions of others, because were he to do so their capacity to act freely would be severely constrained.

This latter point is drawn on extensively by Eliezer Berkovits (1973) and Ignaz Maybaum (1965), different thinkers who agree that the Holocaust can be put within a normal Jewish theological context. The Holocaust does not represent a break in history, it is just one more disaster undergone by the Jewish people, and these disasters do have a point to them. God has a role in mind for the Jews, and this is to represent the divine role in history. That the Jews are never entirely destroyed reveals God's actions on behalf of the Jews. For Berkovits the Jews have to undergo suffering in order to sanctify the Holy Name, the traditional interpretation of Jewish suffering. For Maybaum the Holocaust represents an important stage in human history, and the sufferings of the Jews are supposed to lead the gentile world to reflect on the direction that their actions are leading them to pursue. Both thinkers discuss the difficult balancing act that God undertakes. He has to separate himself sufficiently from his creation in order to allow people to be free, whereas at the same time he has to enter into the human world in order to play a part in history.

The Holocaust from a Christian Point of View

A theme of many Christian views calls for some introspection into the responsibility of various churches for antiSemitism and its eventual outcome in the Holocaust. There have also been more positive analyses, in particular the argument that only Christianity can properly explain human suffering, because only Christianity has at its heart the notion of a suffering deity, in the person of Jesus Christ. The normal conception of God in Judaism is abstract, and many leading Jewish thinkerssuch as Maimonideshave strenuously fought against any anthropomorphizing of the concept of the deity. This rather distant notion of a deity is said to be unhelpful during events such as the Holocaust.

It is certainly true that if people are in pain it is good to be comforted by someone who knows precisely what it is like to share in that condition. However, it may be argued that if such a person were in a position to relieve the pain, and does nothing, then the comfort is somewhat reduced. People may be more interested in pain relief than in sympathy, and indeed the latter may be valued largely as a stage on the route to the former. The Christian approach to the Holocaust does, however, raise the important question that runs through the debatenamely, what concept of God can survive the Holocaust experience? The more radical responses insist that a new concept of God is needed, whereas the less radical approaches defend the continuation of the traditional notion of God, and see the Holocaust as just another stage in Jewish history.

The Indescribability Thesis

Fackenheim (1982) and others have declared that the Holocaust is indescribable. This follows to a degree from its uniqueness. If it is, as an event, really unique, then it could be argued that it escapes the normal categories of description. The indescribability of the Holocaust also explains to a degree why it has been little discussed by philosophers. The indescribability thesis does not appear to be plausible, because there have been many accounts of the Holocaust, and there seems to be little difficulty in describing it. Around the world there are museums, memorials, and libraries designed to ensure that the world does not forget the Holocaust. In order not to forget the event itself must be described.

The indescribability thesis is rather like the uniqueness thesis in that it is intended not to literally make a claim about the Holocaust, but instead is a metaphorical indication of the extraordinary nature of the attempted extermination of the Jews in Europe as carried out by Germany and its allies. To say that this is easy to describe and that it is just one example of mass murder among many others has seemed to many commentators to diminish the enormity of the Holocaust.


As noted earlier, one of the effects of the Holocaust is taken to be the creation of the State of Israel. Fackenheim suggests that the Holocaust represented the breakdown of Christian-Jewish relations, and the State of Israel is a tikkun, a repair of those relations. In the same way that the Holocaust is a break in history, so is the creation of Israel. It may well be that there is a factual link between the Holocaust and the State of Israel, but from a philosophical point of view it is difficult to see the logical link. Could God not have brought about a state for the Jews in a less costly manner? Was it really necessary for so many innocent people to die? And what about the rights of the people displaced from Palestine to make room for a Jewish state? These people played no part in the Holocaust, and yet were uprooted from the land by Zionism. The opposition to Zionism frequently compares it as a doctrine with Nazism in order to try to weaken the idea that Israel's existence is justified by the occurrence of the Holocaust.

Related Moral Issues

An event of the stature of the Holocaust brings out sharply some interesting moral topics, such as the responsibility of the bystander for what goes on in his or her country, and the possibility of forgiveness for a crime of such enormity. During the Holocaust a large number of civilians apparently could have helped the victims, but did not, or could have expressed their views on what was happening, but declined to do so. Of course, there would have been a cost involved, yet the attitude of many was that the events of the Holocaust were not their responsibility because they were not actually the perpetrators and they had not troubled to find out precisely what was going on.

Since the Holocaust, the responsibility of the bystanderas opposed to the actual criminal actorhas become much more of an issue. For the criminal actor, the excuse of only following orders has become less defensible. Agents are expected to be able to consider the moral acceptability of the orders they are given and not carry them out if they are immoral. Finally, the issue of forgiveness and national responsibility arises. Who if anyone is entitled to forgive the agents of the Holocaust? Under what circumstances should they be forgivenif they should be forgiven at all? What responsibility do their descendents have for the well-being of the survivors, or the Jews in general, or the State of Israel? Is it appropriate to blame a countryGermanywhen most of its citizens were born after the Holocaust? How far can a country be held to be guilty at any time?

See also Jewish Philosophy.


Berkovits, Eliezer. Faith after the Holocaust. New York: Ktav, 1973.

Cohen, Arthur. The Tremendum: A Theological Interpretation of the Holocaust. New York: Crossroad, 1981.

Cohn-Sherbok, Dan, ed. Holocaust Theology: A Reader. New York: New York University Press, 2002.

Fackenheim, Emil. To Mend the World. New York: Schocken, 1982.

Garrard, Eve, and Geoffrey Scarre, eds. Moral Philosophy and the Holocaust. Aldershot: Ashgate, 2003.

Greenberg, Irving. The Third Great Cycle in Jewish History. New York: CLAL Resource Center, 1981.

Katz, Steven. "The Holocaust." In History of Jewish Philosophy, edited by Daniel Frank and Oliver Leaman, pp. 854874. London: Routledge, 1997.

Leaman, Oliver. "The Holocaust." Chap. 10 in Evil and Suffering in Jewish Philosophy. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1985.

Maybaum, Ignaz. The Face of God after Auschwitz. Amsterdam: Polak & Van Gennep, 1965.

Rubenstein, Richard. After Aushwitz: Radical Theology and Contemporary Judaism. New York: Bobbs-Merill, 1966.

Wiesel, Elie. Night. Translated by Stella Rodway. New York: Avon Books, 1969.

Oliver Leaman (2005)


views updated May 09 2018



Bioethics is a type of discourse, defined as "any collective activity that orders its concerns through language" (Zito). As members of a discourse community, bioethicists use rhetorical strategies to make arguments, define terms, and influence the direction of the discourse as a whole. One of those strategies is to invoke the Holocaust as a way to warn, cajole, criticize, or silence those who have opposing or divergent views. The use of the Holocaust as a rhetorical instrument raises important ethical and strategic questions for bioethics.

The Holocaust

The Holocaust lies like a specter behind modern bioethics. Contemporary bioethical discourse derives much of its moral legitimacy from the legacy of the Holocaust. The unfathomable cruelty of the Holocaust is paradigmatic of the degree to which the unfettered power of the majority over despised minorities can distort human relationships. The eugenic philosophy that undergirded social engineering and extermination campaigns informs all current debate about genetic engineering and population genetics. The genocidal strategy of the Nazis, coupled with the complicity of large segments of the German public, including medical professionals, showed the depths to which human beings could go in the pursuit of misguided philosophies of science and in-group politics. The atrocities committed in the name of medical research revealed individual subject vulnerability in the hands of investigators so starkly that virtually all modern standards for protecting human research subjects originated in the aftermath of the Holocaust.

The events that occurred in Germany under National Socialism have come to represent evil in pure form, without caveat or ambiguity. The Holocaust thus has come to signify the ultimately evil act; the Nazi enterprise, the ultimately evil political and social movement; and Hitler, the ultimately evil leader. By extension, those who were inactive in the face of evil are invoked as the paradigm of complicity and those who did not speak out are emblems of culpable silence. It thus is not surprising that evoking the Holocaust as a rhetorical strategy has enormous symbolic power.

However, such power cannot be wielded without risk. Drawing on symbols of ultimate evil to buttress arguments about the undesirability of lesser evils may be emotionally satisfying, but it is rarely a persuasive rhetorical strategy. If the analogy is seen as inapt, it tends to weaken rather than strengthen the case being made. Still, the temptation to employ the Holocaust is strong, and it has become a central metaphor for a variety of social movements (Stein), special interests (Novick), and political actors (Lin and Gur-Ze'ev) as well as in popular culture (Hungerford, Mintz, Zelizer).

The use of the Holocaust in bioethics has taken on a particular character. Bioethics is a normative discourse, and the Holocaust is a signifier with great normative power. The Holocaust frequently is invoked in bioethical discourse to draw analogies, suggest threats to vulnerable groups, or warn against perceived slippery slopes. After a brief historical summary, some of those strategies will be examined in this entry to explore their impact on bioethical discourse.

Rhetoric and the Holocaust

The term holocaust is derived from the Greek holokauston, meaning "burnt whole," which was a derivation of the Greek translation of the Hebrew olah, a biblical term for a burnt sacrifice. Historically, the term was used to denote great destruction of human life, especially through conflagration. For that reason it was employed often by journalists in World War II to refer not only to the destruction perpetrated by the Nazis on Jews and others but also to Allied acts such as the bombing firestorms that destroyed much of Hamburg and Dresden. It is ironic that the German press used the term first to refer to the bombing of German cities.

The use of holocaust in reference to the destruction of the European Jewish community at the hands of the Nazis gained currency by being the preferred English translation of the Hebrew word shoah. The 1948 Israeli Declaration of Independence, for example, makes reference to the shoah, which is rendered as "the Nazi holocaust" in official English translations (Novick). However, in the decades after World War II the destruction of European Jewry was rarely part of American public discourse. It was only during the 1960s, particularly with the advent of the trial of the Nazi official Adolf Eichmann, that the term holocaust began to be used in common discourse to refer to World War II. At first the term often was used to refer to the death of all the millions of people who were killed by the Nazis. By the late 1960s, however, the Holocaust (capitalized and usually preceded with the word the) was defined in dictionaries as the genocidal killing of millions of Jews by the Nazis during World War II.

The lowercased term holocaust, however, still is used commonly to describe great loss of human life at the hands of others, as occurred in Biafra in the 1960s, Cambodia in the late 1970s, Afghanistan in the 1980s, and Rwanda and Serbia/Bosnia in the 1990s. Over 2,000 books in print include the word holocaust in their titles, many of which do not refer to World War II: The Real Holocaust depicts the African slave trade, The Silent Holocaust describes victims of famine, and two books titled The Forgotten Holocaust discuss South American Indians and the rape of Nanking; Holocaust Island is a book of poetry about Australia by an aboriginal poet.

Despite the widespread and diverse use of the term, controversy over its proper usage outside the Nazi context remains. The American Heritage Book of English Usage reports that 99 percent of its Usage Panel, composed of over 180 experts who determine the correct employment of terms, accept the term nuclear holocaust. However, only 60 percent accept its use for the 1 million to 2 million victims of the Khmer Rouge, only 31 percent for the millions of victims of drought in Africa, and a mere 11 percent in reference to the AIDS epidemic.

The use of the term holocaust in other contexts is confounded by the fact that the rhetorical power of the word largely has been taken over by its single exemplar; every use of the term, even in lowercase or in other contexts, inevitably becomes a referent. Another complication is that the penetration of the term into the American consciousness has been astonishing. Ninety-seven percent of the public in one poll knew what the Holocaust was, a higher percentage than could identify Pearl Harbor or knew that the United States had dropped an atomic bomb on Japan. The majority in a second poll said that the Holocaust "was the worst tragedy in history" (Novick, p. 232). The casual use of the term outside the Nazi experience can provoke the sensitivities and strong voice of the Jewish community, which was affected singularly by the Nazi campaign of eugenic eradication and for which the Holocaust remains a powerful and personalized event. Such factors complicate the term's use in contexts other than the Nazis' actions in World War II.

The Uniqueness of the Holocaust

The controversy surrounding the use of the Holocaust as a metaphor revolves in part on claims of the Holocaust's uniqueness. The targeting of one ethnic group said to be singularly evil; the use of medical and public health justification for the destruction of that group; the relentless and single-minded searching out and destruction of all men, women, and children in that group as an end in itself; the widespread collaboration of the public in each new country conquered; the dedication of enormous economic, military, and social resources to that end; and the systematic technological extermination of the group are said to set the Holocaust apart from all other cases of genocide in human history.

Lucy Dawidowicz (Hastings Center Report) has argued that the Nazi experience cannot be used to gain insight or help resolve the conflicts of other eras. If the Holocaust is unique and thus is a singular, exceptional, disjunctive moment in the course of human history, it lies outside the flow of normal events and cannot serve as a historical lesson. It therefore cannot be used to understand normal evil or even the periodic emergence of extraordinary evil. Conversely, if the Holocaust is just one, however singularly tragic, example of many historical examples of genocide or hatred, what is to keep its particularities intact when it is used constantly as the referent for the killing of the Armenians, African slaves, or embryos? The Nobel Prize winner Elie Wiesel, who is known for his advocacy of the uniqueness of the Holocaust, has tried to resolve the dilemma by arguing that the Holocaust was "a unique Jewish tragedy with universal implications" (quoted in Novick, p. 239). However, it is difficult to maintain that an event is both absolutely unique and universally applicable.

Arguments against the use of the Holocaust as an analogy to other cases of suffering take two major forms. One suggests that the Holocaust had a uniquely Jewish context and that to use the term as a referent cheapens and discounts the Jewish experience of suffering and loss. Edward Alexander in an article titled "Stealing the Holocaust" indicts those who use the Holocaust to call attention to other instances of injustice, arguing that they use up something accumulated by Jews through their suffering. A second argument suggests that use of the referent blunts the true horror and extremism of the event. Discussing the related use of the label Nazi in a Hastings Center Report Conference on bioethics and the Holocaust, Milton Himmelfarb lamented the "overly hasty invocation of 'Nazism' and the rather free and easy use of Nazism to brand practices with which we disagree.… By universalizing Nazism, one makes it shallow, and one removes the actual reality of Nazism. If everything is Nazi, then nothing is Nazi, and even Nazism wasn't Nazi" (Hastings Center Report, p. 7).

Insisting that the Holocaust lies outside history and has no role in creating an understanding of other cases of mass killing is also problematic. The argument for the incomparability of the Holocaust trivializes other crimes and can lead to discussions such as the reported argument about whether the Bosnian slaughter was "truly holocaustal or merely genocidal" (Novick, p. 14). Some analogies are clearly apt. The discussion of the Rwandan holocaust in a medical journal, indicating with the lowercase h that the term is used as a noun and not explicitly as a reference to the Jewish Holocaust, seems a proper usage (Decosas). The tragic events in Rwanda are well described as a holocaust.

The Holocaust in Bioethical Discourse

In bioethical contexts the Holocaust often is invoked as a form of moral approbation. The development of the Nuremberg Code in the wake of the Holocaust was the clear precursor to the emergence of modern protection measures for human subjects and therefore often is referenced legitimately (Caplan). However, the Holocaust-Nazi analogy also is invoked regularly to condemn a wide range of practices (e.g., abortion, physician-assisted suicide), healthcare strategies (e.g., managed care, age rationing), and even people (e.g., by opponents of the work of philosopher Peter Singer). Sometimes the analogies are so overblown as to be easily dismissed, for example, when the breast implant controversy was referred to at an Institute of Medicine meeting as the "silicone holocaust" (Ault). However, it is instructive to look at a number of cases in which the use of Holocaust metaphor or imagery is employed to make a bioethical argument in a professional or public forum.

ANIMAL RIGHTS. Animal rights activists have called fur farms Buchenwalds for animals and have likened animal experimentation to the human medical experiments of the Nazi doctor Josef Mengele. A best-selling book in the animal rights movement called Eternal Treblinka (Patterson) argues that there are many parallels between animal exploitation and the Nazi exploitation of people and points out that the slaughterhouse was the model for the death camps. In 2003 People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) mounted a graphic campaign and exhibit called Holocaust on Your Plate, which placed 60-square-foot panels displaying gruesome scenes from Nazi death camps side by side with disturbing photographs from factory farms and slaughterhouses. One exhibit shows a starving man in a concentration camp next to a starving cow. The campaign, which highlighted medical research using animals along with other forms of animal exploitation, used the slogan "To animals, all people are Nazis" (Specter). Jewish leaders, as well as many others, objected strongly to the exhibition.

AIDS. AIDS activists often use the slogan "silence equals death" to liken the purported indifference among bystanders in the face of the epidemic to the inaction of those who let the Holocaust occur. It also has become common for activists to refer to AIDS as the "Gay Holocaust" (Bamforth). At the 2000 AIDS summit in South Africa delegates accused drug companies of a "holocaust against the poor" for refusing to provide Africans with inexpensive AIDS drugs (Smith). Used in tandem with the slogan about silence, that phrase is an implicit rebuke of the claimed unwillingness of the drug companies and others to dedicate the resources and attention to its eradication that the activists believe AIDS deserves.

ABORTION AND EMBRYONIC STEM CELLS. In the abortion debate and more recently in the human embryonic stem cell (hES) debate both sides have made use of Holocaust metaphors to defend their positions. The pro-life and anti-hES movements commonly refer to the destruction of embryos as "the American Holocaust" and use symbols and images from the Holocaust as a primary metaphor in their literature (Neustadter). When he was surgeon general of the United States C. Everett Koop warned of a progression "from liberalized abortion … to active euthanasia … to the very beginnings of the political climate that led to Auschwitz, Dachau, and Belsen" (quoted in Novick, p. 241). At a Senate Labor and Health and Human Services Appropriations Subcommittee meeting in April 2003 Senator Sam Brownback of Kansas likened embryo research to Nazi research on Holocaust victims.

Conversely, the pro-choice side often argues that state control of women's bodies is the first step toward state ownership of people and ultimately toward genocide. The Holocaust thus is also used to argue against state involvement in reproductive freedom. Pro-choice advocates point out that abortion was illegal in Nazi Germany and that the state prominently expressed an interest in controlling women's reproduction through antimiscegenation and compulsory sterilization laws.

END-OF-LIFE ISSUES. Public discussions about end-of-life options, from disconnecting life supports to physician-assisted suicide, inevitably raise comparisons to the euthanasia campaign in World War II, especially in Germany (Kottow, Spannaus et al.). In a Hastings Center Report commentary, the Village Voice columnist Nat Hentoff compared Dan Callahan's argument in Setting Limits (in which Callahan argued that some categories of people, notably the elderly, should not be entitled to the same access to healthcare as others) to the Nazi policy of lebensunwertes leben, "life unworthy of life." Hentoff also stated that the Hastings Center's 1987 Guidelines on the Termination of Life-Sustaining Treatment and the Care of the Dying would have been welcomed by defense attorneys for Nazi doctors. Although the respondents, including Callahan, addressed some of Hentoff's arguments against Callahan's points, the responses focused predominantly on the appropriateness of the Nazi analogy. Ironically, the epithet also was hurled from the other side of the issue as Jack Kevorkian assailed doctors who were not willing to help patients die as Nazis (New York Times).

THE HOLOCAUST AS AN IMPEDIMENT TO PROGRESS. Some people argue that the focus on the Holocaust has become an impediment to medical progress. In a keynote speech to molecular biologists in Berlin in 2002 the Nobel laureate James D. Watson, the codiscoverer of the structure of DNA and the first director of the Human Genome Project, told his German audience that the time had come to "put Hitler behind us" and embrace the good that genetic science can do (Koenig).

Rhetorical Strategies

The uses of the Holocaust in bioethical argumentation tend to follow a number of rhetorical strategies. The Holocaust may be used comparatively to suggest that a targeted act or position is morally equivalent: "What is happening here is no different from (or no better than) what was done during the Holocaust." Others use the Holocaust as a referent for a slippery slope argument: "Actions like these, if they continue, will lead to a Holocaust." Some use the term to chastise their colleagues or adversaries: "Your actions are no different from those of the Nazis or those who stood silent in the face of the Nazis." Conversely, the Holocaust can be used to justify an action by arguing that a criticism is misplaced: "After all, this is not like the Holocaust."


The cautions enumerated above are not meant to suggest that there are not appropriate and thoughtful attempts to use the Holocaust in bioethical argumentation. The Holocaust stands as a signal moment in the human encounter with euthanasia, unconscionable medical experimentation, victimization of the marginalized and powerless, relentless bureaucracy, eugenic extremism, and other acts and philosophies that bioethics forgets at its peril. Clearly, the considered use of the Holocaust can illuminate and strengthen a moral position. For example, many antiabortion and anti–embryo research scholars have tried to use the Holocaust as a thoughtful and nonsensational analogy to explore issues of vulnerability and medical justification (Neuhaus).

Bioethics is most effective when it pursues reasoned moral discourse, and the use of hyperbole and rhetorical strategies that depend on shock and insult cheapens the enterprise as a whole. In such cases the Holocaust does not inform bioethical debate but instead erodes it. The lessons of the Holocaust have profound meaning for modern bioethics, and the atrocities committed must stand as a bellwether against moral recidivism. Invoking the Holocaust to score rhetorical points, however, fails as a rhetorical strategy and degrades the genuine lessons that the Holocaust offers to bioethical discourse.

paul root wolpe

SEE ALSO: Bioterrorism; Eugenics: Historical Aspects; Genetic Discrimination; Harm; Homicide; Life Sustaining Treatment and Euthanasia: Historical Aspects of; Medical Codes and Oaths; Metaphor and Analogy; Minorities as Research Subjects; Moral Status; Race and Racism; Research, Unethical; Warfare: Medicine and War


Alexander, Edward. 1980. "Stealing the Holocaust." Midstream 26(9): 47–51.

The American Heritage Book of English Usage. 1996. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Ault, Alicia. 1998. "U.S. Institute of Medicine Panel Deliberates on Breast-Implant Safety." Lancet 352(9125): 380.

Bamforth, Iain. 2001. "Literature, Medicine, and the Culture Wars." Lancet 58: 1361–1364.

Caplan, Arthur., ed. 1992. When Medicine Went Mad: Bioethics and the Holocaust. Totowa, NJ: Humana Press.

Decosas, Josef. 1999. "Developing Health in Africa." Lancet 353: 143–44.

Hastings Center Report, Supplement. 1976. "The Nazi Experience: Origins and Aftermath." August, pp. 3–19.

Hentoff, Nat. 1988. "The Nazi Analogy in Bioethics." Hastings Center Report, August/September, pp. 29–30.

Hungerford, Amy. 2003. The Holocaust of Texts. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Koenig, Robert. 2002. "Watson Urges 'Put Hitler Behind Us.'" Science 276(5314): 892.

Kottow, M. H. 1988. "Euthanasia after the Holocaust—Is it Possible? A Report from the Federal Republic of Germany." Bioethics 2(1): 58–59.

Linn, Ruth, and Gur-Ze'ev, Ilan. 1996. "Holocaust as Metaphor: Arab and Israeli Use of the Same Symbol." Metaphor and Symbolic Activity 11(3): 195–206.

Mintz, A. 2001. Popular Culture and the Shaping of Holocaust Memory in America. Seattle: University of Washington Press.

Neuhaus, Richard John. 1990. "The Way They Were, the Way We Are: Bioethics and the Holocaust." First Things 1: 31–37.

Neustadter, Roger. 1990. "'Killing Babies': The Use of Image and Metaphor in the Right-to-Life Movement." Michigan Sociological Review 4: 76–83.

New York Times. 1991. "Doctor in Suicides Assails U.S. Ethics." November 3, p. 14.

Novick, P. 1999. The Holocaust in American Life. Boston: Houghton Mifflin.

Patterson, Charles. 2002. Eternal Treblinka: Our Treatment of Animals and the Holocaust. New York: Lantern Books.

Smith, A. D. 2000. "AIDS Summit: Drug Companies 'Inflicting Holocaust on the Poor.'" The Independent (London), July 10, p. 11.

Spannaus, N. B.; Kronberg, M. H.; and Everett, L., eds. 1988. How to Stop the Resurgence of Nazi Euthanasia Today. Washington, D.C.: EIR News Services.

Specter, M. 2003 "The Extremist: The Woman behind the Most Successful Radical Group in America." New Yorker, April 14, p. 52.

Stein, A. 1998. "Whose Memories? Whose Victimhood? Contests for the Holocaust Frame in Recent Social Movement Discourse." Sociological Perspectives 41(3): 519–540.

Zelizer, Barbie., ed. 2001. Visual Culture and the Holocaust. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.

Zito, George. V. 1983. "Toward a Sociology of Heresy." Sociological Analysis 44: 123–130.


views updated Jun 11 2018


The murder of Jewish children comported with the ideology of racial nationalism on which the Third Reich rested. Rooted in mythic notions of German national superiority, racial conflict as the key to history, and a vast empire ruled by a master race, this ideology identified Jews in particular as parasites in need of elimination. This anti-Semitism did not allow for distinctions according to religious commitment, social position, gender, or age: all Jews fit beneath a blanket condemnation. Adolf Hitler's central obsession was the removal of Jews from German lands, as well as from lands taken from "subhuman" Slavs and other Europeans by military conquest. A spirited debate continues about the sequence of decisions leading to the implementation of the "Final Solution to the Jewish Question," the Nazi plan not merely to remove but to kill every Jew in Europe. It is clear that by the beginning of World War II, in September 1939, however, the Nazis had already crossed the moral threshold with respect to murdering children. At least 6,000 children up to sixteen years of age with serious congenital or hereditary illnesses or physical deformities were killed in the Third Reich's euthanasia program, which began at this time. Some of these children were subjected to painful experiments. Increasingly inured to the suffering of the young, the Nazis waged a war of extermination against their racial enemies. One should not be surprised that Jewish children were, in the words of Elie Wieselhimself a youth of fifteen when he entered Auschwitz"the first to suffer, the first to perish."

The Ghettos

The successes of the German military during the first three years of the war significantly increased the number of individuals under German control who could be exploited or tyrannized according to Nazi racial doctrines. Among these individuals were millions of Jews, who were subjected to the same kinds of persecutions that had led to the social death of Jews living in Germany in the 1930s: revocation of citizenship, reduction of food rations, confiscations, deprivation of schooling, restricted access to public institutions. Anti-Semitic propaganda was given free rein; Jews were ordered to display the yellow Star of David on their clothes. Condemned virtually to remain at home, Jews in occupied areas became isolated from their neighbors, who, with Nazi encouragement, withheld their sympathy or expelled Jews entirely from their orbit of moral responsibility. From Poland to France, from Holland to Greece, a regime of diatribe and harassment descended on Jewish communities. In the east, Nazi measures to render Jews vulnerable and contemptible included forcible removal from their homes to designated urban areas called ghettos. Isolating them in ghettos facilitated the seizure of their property. The policy also concentrated Jews for forced labor in the production of war supplies.

Jewish children experienced these persecutions in emotional and spiritual distress. Entries in children's diaries indicate a general inability among children to integrate ghetto life with their pre-ghetto existence and confusion about the moral reordering of their world. Many diarists could not understand why they were hated, why they had to be prisoners, why their fathers had been arrested, why their mothers had been beaten. In the ghettos, children confronted grave responsibilities. Every day, children were orphaned, as adults perished from hunger, disease, or execution, or were taken away for forced labor. Orphans begged for bread and potatoes or smuggled food by squeezing through gaps in the ghetto walls. Older children cared for younger siblings in this way. Some provided for their entire families. This harried existence had dreadful consequences. Children in particular suffered from overcrowding, hunger, improper sanitation, lack of medical care, and exposure to cold. In winter, thousands of children froze to death.

Social welfare organizations in the ghettos attempted to meet children's special needs. Children's kitchens were opened, as were children's libraries, and some children had access to schooling and cultural activities. In the ghetto at Theresienstadt, northwest of Prague, for example, children expressed themselves artistically. Some four thousand of their paintings and drawings were recovered. These included depictions of flowers and butterflies but also of executions, deportations at the railhead to Auschwitz, and queues for a ladle of broth. Most Jewish children, particularly those in large ghettos at places like Lodz, Warsaw, Minsk, and Riga, had little or no access to social welfare or cultural out-reach programs. Their lives were consumed with meeting the everyday requirements of bare subsistence.

Hiding Children, Hunting Children

Tens of thousands of Jewish parents attempted to hide their children from the Nazis. When the ghettos were liquidated, parents hid them in pantries, coal boxes, toilets, walls, chimneys, floorboardsanyplace they might escape the Germans and their local collaborators. Forced laborers often hid their children in factories. Partisan bands fighting behind German lines ensconced children in woods, caves, bunkers, or family camps in the forests. Underground organizations tried to find refuge for Jewish children, too. Few non-Jewish individuals, however, were willing to endanger themselves or their families by hiding them. Those who agreed to help acted more from impulse than careful calculation. Girls found greater acceptance than boys did. Boys' Jewishness manifested itself physically through circumcision, and it was not uncommon for the German police to demand that boys pull down their pants and expose their "race." Rescuers might conceal children around the clock in cellars, barns, even cupboards, or assign them false names and try to pass them off as non-Jews. Hundreds of children from across Europe found refuge in Christian children's homes and convents. Female religious orders in Poland, for example, especially if they ran orphanages or residential schools for girls, could be persuaded to hide Jews, sometimes on the understanding that the girls would be introduced to Christianity, other times to satisfy altruistic principles. An unusual episode of Christian heroism occurred at Le Chambon-sur-Lignon, France. Here the largely Protestant community concealed some four hundred Jewish children from German authorities, saving them from deportation and almost certain death. For all these hidden children of the Holocaust, privation and the trauma of losing parents and siblings were accompanied by loneliness and the mortal terror of being hunted.

The Nazis allowed precious few to escape. With their invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941, they unleashed the full criminal power of the Third Reich against Jewish children. Hitler wanted the newly won territories in the east to be completely Judenfrei, free of Jews. All traces of Jewish existence were to be wiped out. Before the invasion commenced, Heinrich Himmler, the head of the SS and chief of the genocidal cohort, transmitted spoken orders to German military and SS commanders, which were interpreted broadly to authorize the extermination of Russian Jewry. Four mobile killing squads, or Einsatzgruppen, were organized to execute this task. Elements of the German military, reserve police battalions, and local auxiliaries, whose violence towards Jews was historic, assisted these units.

Although Jewish children were shot along with their parents as early as late July 1941, in many towns and villages only adult males were killed. Adult males were also the principle targets of pogroms (organized massacres of Jews), which local inhabitants in Belorussia and the Baltics initiated under German auspices. This evidence suggests that initially German killers were uncertain what to do with children. After shooting their parents, they often removed children to a nearby town or interned them in local buildings. They quickly abandoned this practice, however. Multitudes of screaming, starving, soiled small children with no one to care for them became a nuisance, and commanders began shooting them en masse. Some worried that allowing children to suffer in plain view was psychologically disruptive to their troops and thought it better to liquidate them on "humanitarian" grounds. Others acted on what they understood to be legitimate orders. Still others took their cue from Himmler, who justified the murder of children to avoid creating a generation of anti-German avengers. In any case, despite the initial hesitation, the mass murder of Jewish children rapidly became an integral part of the genocidal plan. By October 1941, at some execution sites, such as one outside Smolensk in the Soviet Union, the first to be shot were children, along with the sick, aged, and those who could not perform manual labor. Only later were their parents killed. The shooting of children at close range was particularly gruesome. Some killers shot children right next to their parents, who refused to abandon their boys and girls to face death alone. Spattered with blood and the brain matter of their victims, a handful of killers refused to continue. The great majority, however, became callused executioners, for whom the murder of children was routine activity. Before the death camps for gassing had even been constructed, almost a million Jews on the Eastern Front had been shot. Tens of thousands of these victims were defenseless children.

At the Wannsee Conference outside of Berlin in January 1942, Nazi officials met to systematize the genocide that was already underway. The Final Solution ordained that Jews from all over Europe be rounded up and evacuated to the east. Here they would be concentrated in transit ghettos before their murder at work camps or death camps. With extreme brutality, Jewish children were taken with the surviving members of their families to rail depots for deportation. Infants were shot on the spot, as were children found hiding or attempting to escape. Some children were snatched from their parents at deportation sites and were left to perish from hunger and the elements. Others were separated from their families and had to face the trials of deportation alone. From the fall of 1941 to the spring of 1945, more than 400 transport trains rolled to the work and death camps in the east. Jammed into sealed cattle cars, many children were crushed to death or suffocated. Others starved or died of thirst.

Children in the Camps

When they disembarked, Jewish children encountered deadly peril. Those judged suitable for work were interned. Children as young as seven undertook heavy labor, such as carrying building materials or pushing overloaded carts. Some camp guards took Jewish boys for personal servants or for the traffic in children among pedophiles. Death visited young internees in numerous forms. Chronic malnutrition and exposure rendered children susceptible to infectious diseases. Many babies conceived in camps were forcibly aborted or had their heads smashed at birth by SS guards. At Auschwitz, some 3,000 twins underwent experiments conducted by the SS doctor Josef Mengele. These experiments included exposure to cholera and tuberculosis, operations without anesthetic, sterilization, and murder by phenol injection to the heart for the purpose of examining internal organs. In an attempt to create perfect "Aryans" from "inferior" racial stock, Mengele injected the eyes of some twins with chemicals in the hope of turning them blue. Few Jewish twins survived these horrific experiments. Few Jewish children survived internment at all. Those who did survive had generally been orphaned and continued to suffer after the war from penetrating psychological wounds and emotional disorders.

Most Jewish children, of course, were not interned in camps but were slaughtered upon arrival. All pregnant women, infants, and children deemed incapable of forced labor were sent for immediate gassing. As the commandant of Auschwitz explained, "Children of tender years were invariably exterminated, since by reason of their youth they were unable to work." Pressed against their mother's chests, some children did not die in the gas chamber and were burned alive in the crematoria. At Majdanek in 1943, the SS made sport of machine-gunning Jewish children in front of their parents. At Birkenau in 1944, Hungarian children, some of them still alive, were incinerated in great pits. Children were not always unaware of their imminent death. In October 1944, an eyewitness at Birkenau recorded the behavior of a large group of Lithuanian Jewish boys as they were herded into the gas chamber by SS guards: "Crazed with fright, they started running around the yard, back and forth, clutching their heads. Many of them broke into frightful crying. Their wailing was terrible to hear."

Between 1.2 to 1.5 million Jewish children died in the Final Solution89 percent of all Jewish children living in German-occupied lands. They glimpsed the world, and then they were gone.

See also: Frank, Anne; Holocaust, Jewish Ghetto Education and the; War in the Twentieth Century.


Dwork, Deborah. 1991. Children with a Star: Jewish Youth in Nazi Europe. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Eisenberg, Azriel, ed. 1982. The Lost Generation: Children in the Holocaust. New York: Pilgrim.

Frank, Anne. 1995. The Diary of a Young Girl: The Definitive Edition. Trans. Susan Massotty. New York: Doubleday.

Holliday, Laurel. 1995. Children in the Holocaust and World War II: Their Secret Diaries. New York: Pocket Books.

Lagnado, Lucette Matalon, and Sheila Cohn Dekel. 1991. Children of the Flames: Dr. Josef Mengele and the Untold Story of the Twins of Auschwitz. New York: Morrow.

Marks, Jane. 1993. The Hidden Children: The Secret Survivors of the Holocaust. New York: Fawcett Columbine.

Sliwowska, Wiktoria, ed. 1998. The Last Eyewitnesses: Children of the Holocaust Speak. Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press.

Valent, Paul. 2002. Child Survivors of the Holocaust. New York: Brunner-Routledge.

Volavková, Hana. 1993. I Never Saw Another Butterfly: Children's Drawings and Poems from Terezin Concentration Camp, 19421944. New York: Schocken.

Wiesel, Elie. 1982. Night. New York: Bantam.

Jeffrey T. Zalar


views updated Jun 11 2018



Holocaust films narrate or document the persecution and genocide of Jews and others under the Nazi Third Reich of Adolf Hitler (1933–1945). From the 1935 Nuremberg Laws that excluded Jews from citizenship of the Reich, to the 9 November 1938 Kristellnacht attacks on Jews, their synagogues, and their businesses, to the 1941 Wannsee meeting at which Nazis planned the final solution, to the rounding up of Jews not only in Germany but in all German occupied territory, to the operation of the Nazi death camps and other acts of mass murder, these most tragic and traumatic events in modern history constitute the Holocaust, or as it is also called, the Shoah.


Ever since the appearance of Steven Spielberg's (b. 1946) Schindler's List (1993), only eight years after Claude Lanzmann's (b. 1925) Shoah (1985), these two films have come to represent the polarities in a debate on how cinema should tell stories about the Holocaust. Lanzmann's film gathers first-person reports that center on the process of systematic arrest, transport, internment, and annihilation of Europe's Jewish population; it eschews dramatization in favor of the setting of these interviews against the contemporary landscapes at the sites in which the tragic events took place. It strategically refuses to recreate past horrors except through verbal tellings, so that the visual in this film rests only on the speakers and on landscapes that are otherwise silent about the events that once occurred there.

These contemporary landscapes mark the terrain of a refusal to fill an absence, a refusal to take us back to a history that in its magnitude exceeds any examples that would partially serve to represent it. The Shoah must be unrepresentable, beyond figuration, beyond parable, or even symbolization. Yet Shoah is a documentary concerned with documents, and with oral history as a form of documentation. Its goal is to highlight the alibis that can distort historical memory, that can allow populations to deny the Shoah. Lanzmann's interviews cover some material already recorded in histories, such as Vrba's testimony. To hear such testimony directly, presented with all its emotional weight for the victims, is newly compelling. The secretly recorded interviews with former Nazis need to be heard in the context of the victims' interviews, to hear in contrast the emotional withdrawal and denial that occurred, especially vivid when the former Nazis report facts that coincide with the victims' accounts. The interviews with Polish peasants and workers reveal not only anti-Semitism and complicity in the past, but lingering anti-Semitism embedded within their narratives. Chillingly, the brunt of this anti-Semitism is steeped in Christian references; the cultural framework through which they view Jews has not changed.

Schindler's List, by contrast, fictionally amplifies a fragment of Holocaust history for emotional affect. In flamboyant mise-en-scène and camerawork often reminiscent of Orson Welles's Citizen Kane (1941), Spielberg employs the tropes of Hollywood filmmaking to frame an individual act of resistance on the part of one-time Nazi sympathizer Oskar Schindler (Liam Neeson) to save the Jewish slave laborers he employed at his armament factory. However late in the war and perhaps self-interested his acts might have been, the film highlights his conversion into hero. Enfolded within this story, images of deportation and a death camp give us the backdrop of the cataclysmic events that surrounded Schindler's Jews, yet even this aspect remains controversial for certain misleading representations. One such instance is a concentration camp shower sequence that the prisoners fear will be a gassing, but it turns out in this case to be only a shower. The sequence is disturbing for how it conforms, however temporarily, to Holocaust denials. Schindler's List met with some critical disdain not only for such narrative moments, but also for the melodramatic style used to connect to a mass audience.

These cornerstones of recent Holocaust representation follow many other documentaries and fiction films that have told various aspects of Holocaust history. The long history of both documentaries and fiction films has a cumulative resonance. The Holocaust as historical trauma that took place at so many different locales and created so many specific and individual tragedies, has not one story to tell, but many.

Alain Resnais's (b. 1922) Nuit et brouillard (Night and Fog, 1955), filmed at Auschwitz, features a voice-over essay by survivor Jean Cayrol in montage with black-and-white documentary images (both those the Germans took to document their atrocities and those liberators took as evidence) and Resnais's evocative color footage of the deserted remains of the camp. Some of the documentary footage was first shown at the Nuremburg trials and would later be featured in Judgment at Nuremburg (1961) by Stanley Kramer (1913–2001). In Resnais's film, it is presented with bitter irony as the film strives for both a poetic discourse and reflexively addresses the dynamic of witnessing itself. Controversially, it does not focus on Jewish annihilation (Cayrol was a Catholic victim), but it is haunting philosophical commentary on evil and responsibility.

Die Mörder sind unter uns (Murderers Among Us, 1946), a German film made in the Soviet-controlled sector of Berlin, may be the first fiction film about the Holocaust. A survivor of the camps, again a Catholic, returns to her apartment only to find that she must share it with the former Nazi soldier who now occupies it. The film's title accuses the guilty, but its narrative works to expiate guilt and offer redemption, strategies that fit a communist agenda for the construction of what would become the German Democratic Republic.

In contrast, it was not until The Diary of Anne Frank (1959), directed by George Stevens, that a US filmmaker produced a major feature about the Holocaust. Adapted from the Broadway hit, the film garnered three Academy Awards® and was nominated for five others, including Best Picture and Best Director. Capturing the tension of hiding from the Nazis in an Amsterdam attic, the film also works as a serious family drama about intergenerational conflicts and coming of age, although this aspect, found in Anne Frank's original diary, led some to argue that American filmmakers could only approach the Holocaust in terms that were familiar to families of the 1950s.

East European Jewish survivors were able to write and to film Holocaust narratives for their State industries, with Poland and Czechoslovakia providing particularly stunning works. For example, Obchod na korze (The Shop on Main Street, JánKadár, 1965) employs a surrealist sensibility to present Slovak townspeople welcoming the Nazis. A microcosmic look at how economic gain can combine with prejudice to engender a Holocaust, the film is set in a dry goods store run by an aged Jewish widow, played by Yiddish theater star Ida Kaminska (1899–1980). Pasazenka (The Passenger, Andrzej Munk) is another superb film, completed in Poland in 1963, after the filmmaker's untimely death. When a Polish Auschwitz-Birkinau survivor recognizes a German woman on a passenger ship as her former captor, the film's main story enfolds in flashbacks to the camp. Through its calm, complicit witnessing, similar to that of Shoah, this film effectively portrays mass murder in the banal guise of a day's work.

Perhaps influenced by some of this fine European work, Sidney Lumet (b. 1924) made The Pawnbroker (1964) from a novel by Edward Lewis Wallant. This film takes a stunning look at the Holocaust trauma of survivor Sol Nazerman (Rod Steiger), once a professor of history in Germany (Poland in the novel), now a pawnbroker in New York, whose memories intersperse the narrative. He recalls an incident from the camp in which an escaped prisoner, Nazerman's friend, who has been tracked down by the German guards and their dogs, is tortured and killed in front of the other prisoners. Another flashback memory shows Nazerman's wife being forced to service Nazi soldiers, a memory evoked by a black prostitute's offering her services to him at his pawnshop. Such associative montages set up a metaphoric parallel between the concentration camp and urban poverty, as well as explore the nature of a survivor's guilt and trauma.

American television has played an important role in representing the Holocaust, notably with the mini-series Holocaust (1978) and Playing for Time (Daniel Mann, 1980). Melodramatic tropes structure Holocaust, as they do Schindler's List, but the earlier television serial tries to give a more extensive view of different localities of the Holocaust. By following various members of a Jewish family named Weiss and interweaving their stories with a German lawyer, Eric Dorf, who eventually joins the SS, throughout Hitler's reign in Germany, the serial inter-weaves victims' and perpetrators' perspectives. Only one of the Weiss's sons survives World War II, while the fate of the other family members allows the multi-part drama to portray the Warsaw ghetto and three different camps: Auschwitz, Buchenwald, and Terezienstadt. Such multiple-perspective mechanisms are repeated in another television serial, The Winds of War (1983), directed by Dan Curtis (1927–2006) and adapted by Herman Wouk from his novel, as well as by its sequel, War and Remembrance (1988), again by Curtis and Wouk. Across the two serial works (1,600 minutes in total), we follow Jewish characters who become Holocaust victims, Natalie Jastrow-Henry and her uncle Aaron Jastrow (both played by different actors in the second series—Ali McGraw then Jane Seymour, John Houseman then John Gielgud). Later films, such as Sunshine (Istva Szabóń, 1999), used a family melodrama to narrate different perspectives on a sweep of history. Arthur Miller (1915–2005) adapted the autobiography of Fania Fénelon, a member of the Auschwitz prisoners' orchestra, for the TV movie Playing for Time. Scenes of an orchestra also appear in The Passenger; both films use the existence of the orchestra to underscore the horrendous cultural contradictions in Nazi ideology and practice. These films highlight the ways appreciation of classical music (the Nazis established five orchestras in Auschwitz alone, and each camp had its performing ensembles) coexisted with the ability to commit atrocities, thus underscoring that Western cultural values did not foreclose barbarism. They also highlight the dilemma of the cultural Kapo, the performers who, like the Jewish concentration camp workers, were allowed to live while others died. Against their will, the Kapo were forced to contribute to the running of the camp, to become complicit in genocide. Playing for Time dramatizes the anguish of this treacherous position.

Many documentaries, including numerous Academy award winners, have chronicled many aspects of the Holocaust. Let My People Go (John Krish, 1961) treats the liberation of the camps, as does Ihr zent frei (Dea Brokman and Ilene Landis, 1983). Genocide (Arnold Schwartzman, 1981) attempts a comprehensive overview by combining still images and clips with letters and memoirs read as voice-over. The Long Way Home (1997) by Mark Jonathan Harris (b. 1941) looks at postwar Jewish refugees. His Into the Arms of Strangers: Stories of the Kinder transport (2000) joins a more personal retelling in Melissa Hacker's My Knees Were Jumping: Remembering the Kindertransports (1996), about the Jewish children sent to Britain in order to survive.


With all the controversy surrounding Holocaust dramas, it is no wonder that a Holocaust comedy whose second half is set in a concentration camp, Roberto Benigni's (b. 1952) La Vita è bella (Life is Beautiful, 1997), evoked bitter criticism. The film has been likened to the satire in Charlie Chaplin's The Great Dictator (1940), although the context through which Chaplin's deflation of Hitler earned its acclaim differs. A scene early in the film in which the hero, Guido (Benigni), comically disrupts a fascist classroom in particular merits the comparison. Like Schindler's List, Life is Beautiful tries to wrench from the Holocaust context an uplifting narrative of survival and redemption, here specifically by focusing on the extended conceit of a father shielding his son from the horrors of their exportation from Ferrara and internment in a concentration camp by spinning innocent fantasy explanations for horrible events. The film works best as a fantasy because such a shielding would never have been possible, and the truth of the Shoah is that even young children in the camps knew the pain of their existence all too well. To follow this film, one must grant it its moment-to-moment ironies, as each new atrocious aspect becomes a comic fantasy. Whether or not one finds such irony compelling, a fascinating image appears at the end of the film, after the liberation: father and son rejoin the wife on a hill, symbolically reclaiming the land.

In an Italian cultural context, the film can be seen as celebrating Italian Jewish survivors. For Italy, like France, offers a different setting for Holocaust films, one with questions specific to national cultural history. American audiences embraced, but sometimes misunderstood aspects of an earlier Italian film about the Holocaust, Vittorio De Sica's (1901–1974) Il Giardino dei Finzi-Contini (The Garden of the Finzi Continis, 1970), adapted for the screen by Giorgio Bassani from his important novel, set in his hometown, Ferrara, Italy. The film focuses on an upper-class family in Ferrara, who under the rise of Italian fascism retreat to their enclosed villa, yet where they entertain a few close friends with tennis and social gatherings. Many wondered about the depiction of Jews as upper-class blonds, ignoring the specificity that the film and the novel before it address Jewish assimilation in Northern Italy. The film traces the arrest and deportation of the family along with other Jews. The garden of the title represents the passivity of this family of means, living too long in denial.

Roman Polanski's (b. 1933) The Pianist (2002), adapted by Ronald Harwood from Wladyslaw Szpilman's autobiography, masterfully witnesses the Holocaust from hiding. It tells the story of an accomplished musician who becomes subject to the Nazi anti-Jewish laws. Szpilman (Adrien Brody) and his family are forced to move to the Jewishghet to of Warsaw, and when his family is deported to a death camp, Szpilman is sent to a German forced labor compound. He witnesses the Warsaw ghetto uprising in 1943, followed by the revolt throughout the city begun in August 1944. In an encounter between Szpilman and a Nazi officer among the ruins of one of his hideouts shortly before the Nazi defeat in Poland, the officer begs him to play once more—and lets him live—a sign of the officer's own alienation.

The return of music at the end of The Pianist is an example of a trend in some recent Holocaust films to emphasize the return to decency after the depraved onslaught of barbarity. These recent endings contrast with those especially of earlier East European Holocaust films, such as Andrzej Wajda's (b. 1926) Kanal (1957), about Warsaw's resistance. This shift cannot just be assumed to come from the passage of time alone, for the pressure of commercial distribution to a contemporary world market weighed on Polanski in ways that were not a factor for his compatriot Wajda. It is striking that Polanski, himself a Holocaust survivor as a child, returned to Poland to tell this story, finally, at this late stage in his career, thus releasing his survivor pain.



Baer, Elizabeth Roberts, and Myrna Goldenberg, eds. Experience and Expression: Women, the Nazis, and the Holocaust. Detroit, MI: Wayne State University Press, 2003.

Colombat, André. The Holocaust in French Film. Metuchen, NJ: Scarecrow Press, 1993.

Doneson, Judith E. The Holocaust in American Film. Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1987.

Eisenstein, Paul. Traumatic Encounters: Holocaust Representation and the Hegelian Subject. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2003.

Fensch, Thomas, and Herbert Steinhouse. Oskar Schindler and His List: The Man, the Book, the Film, the Holocaust and Its Survivors. Forest Dale, VT: Paul S. Eriksson, 1995.

Grobman, Alex, Daniel Landes, and Sybil Milton. Genocide, Critical Issues of the Holocaust: A Companion to the Film, "Genocide." Los Angeles: Simon Weisenthal Center, 1983.

Hoberman, J., and Jeffrey Shandler, eds. Entertaining America: Jews, Movies, and Broadcasting. New York and Princeton: Jewish Museum and Princeton University Press, 2003.

Insdorf, Annette. Indelible Shadows: Film and the Holocaust, 3rd ed. Cambridge, UK and New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003.

Lanzmann, Claude. Shoah: An Oral History of the Holocaust: The Complete Text of the Film. New York: Pantheon Books, 1985.

Lewis, Stephen, and Aron Appelfeld. Art Out of Agony: The Holocaust Theme in Literature, Sculpture and Film. Montreal and New York: CBC Enterprises/Les Enterprises Radio-Canada, 1984.

Loshitzky, Yosefa, ed. Spielberg's Holocaust: Critical Perspectives on "Schindler's List." Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1997.

Mintz, Alan. Popular Culture and the Shaping of Holocaust Memory in America. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2001.

Sobchack, Vivian, ed. The Persistence of History: Cinema, Television, and the Modern Event. New York: Routledge, 1996.

Turim, Maureen. Flashbacks in Film: Memory and History. New York: Routledge, 1989.

——. "The Trauma of History: Flashbacks upon Flashbacks." Screen 42, no. 2 (Summer 2001): 205–210.

Maureen Turim


views updated Jun 27 2018


Term commonly used in English (Hebrew, Shoah) to denote anti-Jewish policies conducted by the Third Reich (Nazi Germany, 19331945), resulting in the systematic and bureaucratically organized genocide of approximately 6 million Jews.

Exploiting anti-Jewish themes present in Christian theology and culture, but going far beyond them by incorporating them onto a racist worldview, Nazi ideology presented the Jews as a satanic and corrupting element and demanded their "total removal" (the formulation of Germany's dictator, Adolf Hitler: "Entfernung der Juden überhaupt" ) from human society. They held a special place among a variety of undesirable elements (Gypsies, homosexuals, people deemed genetically defective or incurable) that had to be eliminated.


During the 1930s, Nazi policies gradually crystallized: German Jews were legally defined, humiliated through propaganda and education, and disenfranchised. Many were deprived of their livelihoods and property and openly encouraged to emigrate. These policies became harsher and more brutal after Nazi Germany's annexations and conquests of 1938 and 1939. After September 1939, the more than 2 million Jews living in Nazi-occupied Poland were herded into ghettos, where they were exposed to death by hunger and disease on a massive scale. The occupation of western, central, and southern Europe resulted in the legal, political, economic, and social disempowerment of the Jews, causing harsh living conditions, followed by their deportation to camps in eastern Europe beginning in 1942.

In January 1939, Hitler foreshadowed a more radical policy when announcing that, if the nations would be plunged "once more into a world war, then the result will not be the bolshevization of the earth, and thus the victory of Jewry, but the annihilation (Vernichtung) of the Jewish race in Europe." It took, however, more than two years for this vision to begin to be implemented. Germany's mass murder of Jews began in mid-1941 with mass executions, led by special death squads (Einsatzgruppen) accompanying the advancing troops that invaded the Soviet Union; it was supported and aided by other German units, including the German army; by local collaborators; as well as by Germany's ally, Romania. During the summer and fall of 1941, the shape of a Europe-wide "Final Solution" crystallized both in theory and practice, and in November and December Hitler's final decision became known to his entourage. On 20 January 1942, a meeting of senior Nazi bureaucrats in Berlin (the Wannsee Conference) coordinated plans for the systematic murder of the rest of European Jewry, stage by stage. The method of choice was gassing, administered in specially designed or adapted annihilation camps in Poland: Chelmno, Belzec, Majdanek, Sobibor, and Treblinka. By far the greatest number of Jews and Gypsies perished at a sixth location: the Auschwitz-Birkenau complex, to which Jews from all over Europe were shipped aboard freight trains for immediate death in gas chambers. Many Jews also died while on the way to the annihilation camps or as a result of being worked to death in forced labor camps.

The Holocaust cast its shadow over the Middle East and North Africa as well as over Europe. For several months during 1942, the Jews of Palestine feared the prospect of annihilation at the hands of the German armies under the command of General Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, which threatened to overrun Palestine. The threat was lifted following the Allied victory at the battle of al-Alamayn (23 October2 November 1942) in Egypt. Jews in German-occupied Tunisia and Libya were not so fortunate. They suffered humiliation and persecutionsome were deported to Italy and others were brought to the Bergen-Belsen campbut they were spared the full force of the Final Solution.

From the end of 1944, when the Allied advance moved toward Germany and Poland, hundreds of thousands of Jewish and non-Jewish inmates of concentration camps were marched away from the front lines; more than half of the evacuated inmates died in these death marches. Some 200,000 European Jews probably survived the camps; a smaller number survived in hiding or as partisan fighters against the Germans.

The Jews of Europe received little help from the Allied powers or from the local population of the countries where they lived. Yet a small number of non-Jews, subsequently honored as "righteous Gentiles," endangered their lives to hide or help rescue Jews. The most significant example of Jewish armed resistance, lasting several weeks, took place in the Warsaw Ghetto in 1943. Elsewhere, there were instances of Jewish escape, rebellion, and participation in underground and partisan resistance, but with little tangible result against overwhelming odds and in inauspicious conditions. Prominent among the resisters were Jewish youth who had been members of various Zionist and non-Zionist youth movements.

Repercussions for the Middle East

The impact of the Holocaust on the Middle East has been felt in several ways. German-Jewish emigration

to Palestine increased shortly after the Nazi rise to power, aided by the August 1933 ha-Avara (property transfer) agreement between the Jewish Agency for Palestine and the German government. The desperation of European Jews also contributed to illegal immigration to Palestine (Aliyah Bet) in the late 1930s, during World War II, and in the wake of the Holocaust (19451948).

The responses of the Yishuv (the organized Jewish community in Palestine) and Zionist leadership toward Nazi policies were the cause of much controversy within Jewish circles. Did the leadership emphasize the building up of a Jewish national home in Palestine at the expense of wider international efforts to rescue European Jewry? After the outbreak of World War II, the plight of the European Jews was used, unsuccessfully, as a major argument against the 1939 White Paper's limitations on Jewish immigration. Arab and Palestinian spokesmen countered that the two issues should not be linked. Later on, the Holocaust served as a motive for establishing the Jewish Brigade within, and the recruitment of Jews from Palestine into, the British army.

The real extent of the mass murder campaign in Europe penetrated only in November 1942. Afterwards, Zionist and Yishuv organizations contributed moral and financial aid to European Jews, some of it via a delegation based in Istanbul. In a few cases, missions were sent out (e.g., the dropping of some Palestine Jewish paratroopers into Slovakia and Hungary in 1944, in cooperation with the Royal Air Force) in attempts to rescue and support European Jews.

On the Palestinian side, the mufti of Jerusalem, Amin al-Husayni, tried to establish contacts with the Italians and the Germans in the mid-1930s, viewing them as potential allies for his goal of removing British and Zionist influence from Palestine. Cooperation on several issues lasted until the downfall of Nazi Germany. The peak was on 28 November 1941, when the mufti met with Adolf Hitler; Hitler alluded to the Nazi Final Solution, while alHusayni emphasized common German-Arab interests. There is no evidence to support claims that it was the mufti who inspired Hitler to initiate the Final Solution.

The extent to which the Holocaust was a factor in the establishment of the state of Israel remains a question in both historiography and nonacademic polemics. One stream of Zionist historiographers and religious Zionist thinkers, along with many Arab and post-Zionist commentators, view the Holocaust as the single decisive factor in the creation of Israel. Careful historical research, however, undermines such a simple causal connection.

On the other hand, it is undeniable that the Holocaust helped Zionism become the dominant political stream within world Jewry. The immediate post-Holocaust trauma and disillusion of Jews everywhere were so extreme that many Jews in the United States and Western Europe became committed to promoting a Jewish state. Yet the Holocaust had decimated European Jewry so drastically that the very foundations of the Zionist solution for the so-called Jewish problem in Europe were undermined.

From 1944 onwards, many Holocaust survivors made their way to Palestine on their own initiative, even before Yishuv emissaries came to convince them to do so. The Zionist movement became active in directing people to Palestine, and the struggle of the ha Apala (overcrowded illegal immigration boats crossing the Mediterranean Sea) served as a major tool in Zionist propaganda for open immigration and an end to British restrictions. The link between the plight of the Holocaust survivors in the Displaced Persons (DP) camps in Germany and the creation of a Jewish state was accepted by the United Nations Special Committee on Palestine (1947), thereby strengthening the Zionist case.

Recent research suggests that guilt about the Holocaust had little effect on the UN decision to partition Palestine. Britain wanted the Jews to stay in Europe, and the United States considered the direction of DPs to Palestine a humanitarian issue and did not at first see it leading to adverse political consequences. Latin American states supported the 1947 partition plan because of Christian pro-Zionist feelings, while communist states cast their vote with the intention of weakening Britain and advancing the decolonization process.

After the establishment of Israel, the Holocaust became a central issue in the building of national identity. An annual Holocaust Remembrance Day, memorials, the trial of Rudolph Kasztner (1954) and its repercussions, the kidnapping and trial of Adolf Eichmann (19601961), literature and theater, and more recently journeys of youngsters to extermination sites in Europe all contributed to keeping this topic center stage. Holocaust imagery also deeply penetrates Israeli discourse. On several occasions, it has been politically linked to the IsraeliArab conflict. For example, Prime Minister Menachem Begin justified the Israeli bombing of Iraq's Osirak nuclear facility in 1981 by vowing that Israel would not allow anyone to prepare a "second Holocaust" in his lifetime.

The Arab world has done little or nothing to deal directly with the issue of the Holocaust dissociated from the conflict with Israel. Arabs often claim that the establishment of Israel would not have occurred without the Holocaust to justify it; they accuse Jews and Israelis of manipulating the Holocaust to bolster Zionist claims to Palestine. Since the mid-1990s a few Arab and Palestinian intellectuals have displayed greater awareness of the gravity of the Holocaust, partially disconnecting it from the polemics of the ArabIsrael conflict. Reconciliation groups among Israeli Arabs (and Jews) have created courses and activities to sensitize Arab educators to the impact of the Holocaust on Jewish and Israeli thinking; one such activity was a joint ArabJewish pilgrimage to Auschwitz in summer 2003, led by a Palestinian priest from Nazareth. Yet, hardened by their own feelings of victimization and defeat at the hands of Israel's army, many Arabs find it difficult to empathize with Jewish suffering. A number of Arab authors and politicians have gone so far as to openly associate themselves with Holocaust deniers, while others downplay the extent of the Nazi genocide.

See also alamayn, al-; jewish agency for palestine; kasztner affair; rommel, erwin; united nations special committee on palestine, 1947 (unscop); world war ii; yishuv.


Arnow, David. "The Holocaust and the Birth of Israel: Reassessing the Causal Relationship." Journal of Israeli History 15, no. 3 (autumn 1994): 257281.

Caplan, Neil. "The Holocaust and the Arab-Israeli Conflict." In So Others Will Remember: Holocaust History and Survivor Testimony, edited by Ronald Headland. Montreal: Véhicule Press, 1999.

Laqueur, Walter, and Tydor Baumel, Judith, eds. The Holocaust Encyclopedia. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2001.

Michman, Dan. Holocaust Historiography: A Jewish Perspective: Conceptualizations, Terminology, Approaches, and Fundamental Issues. London: Vallentine Mitchell, 2003.

Nicosia, Francis R. The Third Reich and the Palestine Question. London: I.B. Tauris, 1985.

Yahil, Leni. The Holocaust: The Fate of European Jewry, 19321945. New York: Oxford University Press, 1990.

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