War Crimes: The Holocaust

War Crimes: The Holocaust

The Holocaust


The Holocaust also known as the Shoah (Hebrew for “the catastrophe”), was a genocide in which Adolf Hitler’s Nazi Germany and its collaborators killed approximately six million Jews, as well as six million other people, including communists, Poles, homosexuals, the handicapped, and the Roma and Sinti peoples. However, the Jews alone were targeted for complete extermination; therefore, the term “Holocaust” is most closely associated with the Jewish people. Mass murders took place throughout Nazi Germany, German-occupied territories, and territories held by allies of Nazi Germany. While the Nazi killing squads initiated many of these executions, populations across Europe aided Nazi Germany in their intentional murder of Jewish people. The Jewish victims included 1.5 million children and represented about two-thirds of the nine million Jews who resided in Europe.


Learning Objectives

  • Examine the causes, origins, and events of the Holocaust

  • Analyze the legacies of the Holocaust


Key Terms / Key Concepts

Aryan: in Nazi ideology, this refers to people with “Nordic” heritage, who usually possess blond hair and blue eyes

Auschwitz: largest extermination camp of the Holocaust

Babi Yar: the site outside of present-day Kyiv, Ukraine in which the largest mass-execution of Jews, over 33,000, occurred in September 1941

collaboration: the act of people, towns, or countries willingly and unwillingly working with the Nazis to carry-out the murder of Europe’s Jewish population

concentration camp: a place where large numbers of people, especially political prisoners or members of persecuted minorities, are deliberately imprisoned in a relatively small area with inadequate facilities

Dachau: the first concentration camp created by Nazi Germany in 1933; originally intended for political prisoners

diaspora: the dispersion of the Jewish people beyond Israel

extermination camp: a camp created with the primary goal of exterminating the Jews

“Final Solution”: the Nazi decision to exterminate the Jews

forced labor: unpaid, often physically difficult labor undertaken for the Nazis by the Jews and other ethnic groups inside the concentration camps

ghetto: a designated section of a city usually consisting of a few neighborhood blocks where Jews were forced to live and work

Holocaust: the mass-murder of six million of Europe’s Jews and six million other ethnic and political groups between 1939 and 1945

Kristallnacht: the “Night of Broken Glass” on November 9, 1938 where thousands of Jewish businesses, homes, and synagogues were destroyed by the German SA and Hitler Youth

liberation: the freeing of Jews from concentration and death camps by the Soviet Red Army and the British and American armies between the summer of 1944 and spring 1945.

liquidation: the physical destruction of a ghetto, and the round-up of its inhabitants where often a large portion of the Jewish inhabitants were murdered, the survivors sent to concentration or extermination camps

Madagascar Plan: plan to resettle Europe’s Jews in Madagascar that was shelved in favor of the Final Solution by Nazis in 1941 – 1942

Nuremberg Laws: a set of 1935 laws passed in Nazi Germany that determined who was Jewish and prohibited the marriage of Jews and non-Jews

Righteous among the Nations: over 27,000 individuals across the world who risked their lives to rescue (successfully or unsuccessfully) Jews from the Holocaust

Roma and Sinti: two ethnic groups of European descent who were formerly referred to as “gypsies,” which is now accepted as a derogatory term

Schutzstaffel (SS): special branch of the German forces tasked with organizing and carrying out the Holocaust

Torah Ark: chamber inside a synagogue that houses the Torah scrolls, based on the “the Ark of the Covenant”

Wannsee Conference: meeting in January 1942 between fifteen top-ranking Nazi officials where the “Final Solution” to the “Jewish Question” was determined

yellow badge: a symbol used during the Middle Ages to identify Jews that was worn on clothing and typically in the shape of a Torah Ark

Zyklon-B: poison gas used widely in death camps to exterminate the Jews


Background: The Long History of Antisemitism in Europe


Antisemitism did not begin or end with Adolf Hitler and the Nazis. Instead, Jews have been discriminated against and persecuted for thousands of years. During the time of the Roman Empire, Jews were the targets of wars, sold into slavery, and in some cases, entire communities were destroyed; during this era the Diaspora occurred, which is the act of forcing people to move from their homeland. During the First Crusade in 1096, European Christian armies massacred entire communities of Jews on their way to fight the Muslims at Jerusalem, most famously in the Rhineland massacres. In 1350s, the Black Death swept over Europe; Christians blamed it on many factors, but among them was the idea that Jews had poisoned wells. In response, thousands of Jews were rounded-up across Western Europe and murdered. And in the 1540s, a new wave of antisemitism spread through Europe after the publication of Martin Luther’s work, The Jews and their Lies. Even in the midst of the Protestant Reformation, Christian Europeans found room to persecute the Jews.

Throughout their presence in Europe, Jews have also been discriminated against through humiliation and sequestering. In the Middle Ages, the Pope and various European monarchs forced Jews to be identified by wearing the yellow badge; this badge was often in the shape of two rounded stones, crudely reflecting the Torah Ark. Jews in Western Europe were frequently forced to live in ghettoes, where conditions could be atrocious. And many rules were made about how Jewish people could live their lives, including what forms of employment they may have and if they may own land or not.


1000 year old painting
Depiction of the Expulsion of Jews from England, 1290 CE. Notice that the Jews are wearing the “yellow badge” in the shape of the Torah Ark on their clothing. Jews would not be allowed to return to England for over three-hundred years when Oliver Cromwell allowed for their return.


In the 19th and 20th centuries, pogroms were carried out frequently in parts of central and Eastern Europe in territory that belonged to the Russian empire. Jewish communities were destroyed, Jews killed, businesses ruined, families uprooted, divided, and forced to move. Perhaps the most famous of these pogroms occurred from 1903 – 1906 under Tsar Nicholas II. The event served as the inspiration for the musical, Fiddler on the Roof.

The reasons for European antisemitism are complex. Historically, Christians blamed Jews for the death of Jesus—a notion often disseminated by the Catholic, and later Protestant, Church during the Middle Ages and Early Modern Era. More practically, Jews were targeted for their different customs and beliefs by Christian Europeans who were envious of their financial successes (real or imagined). In times of historical crises such as epidemics, crop failures, and famines, the Jews became scapegoats on which to place blame, most likely just because they were different.


Antisemitism and the Leadup to World War II


Antisemitism was evident in Nazi Germany because race was at the heart of Hitler’s ideology. From the outset, he established a precedent of labeling and identifying “us” versus “them” to explain the struggles Germany faced. From 1933 to 1945, Hitler introduced measures that targeted the Jews as “internal enemies” of the German people. Famously, he blamed the Jews for the German defeat in World War I by claiming that the Jews had secretly worked to undermine the war effort. In his speeches, they were stateless, homeless people who were quick to adapt and prosper, as well as an ally with communists and socials—people who Hitler saw as corruptive and subversive.

Even today the world still struggles with understanding why millions of Germans chose to believe Hitler’s racist propaganda. One accepted reason is the fact that Hitler helped the German people recover from a horrible, economic depression in the early 1930s. Like Franklin Roosevelt, Hitler created public works programs that gave Germans a job and salary; ensuring that starving people could eat again allowed him to be perceived as a savior-type figure. Another accepted reason is that antisemitism was not new in Germany, nor indeed, in Europe. Very importantly, much of Europe was antisemitic during the interwar era. Tensions existed between Jews and non-Jews across Europe, from France to Russia. Antisemitism in these countries looked very different, and was more sporadic, than in Nazi Germany; but, as one Holocaust survivor reported, “They [the Germans] had a lot of help.” And a third accepted reason for Germans supporting or not stopping Hitler’s antisemitic measures is that the initial measures introduced against Jews during this time were not uncommon and comparatively mild to what the war years would later bring. For instance, in 1933 the Nazis introduced boycotts of Jewish businesses and Jewish children were limited in German schools; both of these were not uncommon measures at the time for antisemitic societies. The Nuremberg Laws, passed in 1935, did not contain novel treatment of the Jewish population either. They defined who was a Jew and stated that those people meeting the definition could (or would) be ostracized from German society—socially and physically. The laws also restricted marriages between Jews and non-Jews in the name of “preserving pure German blood.”

Unquestionably the most violent act against the Jewish people prior to the outbreak of war was on November 9, 1938. Kristallnacht (“The Night of Broken Glass”) was a nationwide, organized pogrom perpetrated by the German SA (Brown-Shirts) and Hitler Youth. The event resulted in the destruction of thousands of Jewish businesses, hundreds of synagogues, and nearly a hundred murders. The acts of violence were carried out in plain sight of authorities and the German public. From that moment forward, it was clear to nearly everyone that the Jews would not be safe in Germany. Immigration was the safest course of action for anyone who could get out. But leaving Germany proved exceptionally difficult. With immigration quotas set very low by many Western nations, many Jews discovered they simply had nowhere to go.


The day after Kristallnacht, Nov. 10, 1938.


The First Phase of the Holocaust: 1939-1941


The Holocaust, as the destruction of the Jewish communities in Europe is often called, could not have occurred on the scale that it did without the larger World War occupying nations around the globe. Indeed, it was not even (most) Nazis’ intention to completely exterminate the Jews of Europe when World War II broke out. Ideas of deportation from German lands, and resettlement in Africa were cited as “solutions” during the first few years of the war. Famously, the Germans endorsed the Madagascar Plan—a plan originally constructed by several European nations in the early 1900s for the resettlement of Jews on the island of Madagascar, located in the Indian Ocean off the east coast of Mozambique. However, the plan was officially shelved by the Nazis in 1941.

With the outbreak of war, though, life for the Jewish people in Germany and occupied Poland became increasingly difficult. Many Jews went into hiding. Thousands more were rounded-up and sent by train to concentration camps. The Nazis had first built labor camps such as Dachau in the early 1930s for political prisoners. With the war underway, and the goal to rid Germany of “impure blood,” the camps were quickly filled with Jews. Camp conditions were generally deplorable and entirely dehumanizing.

Prisoners were given minimal food, forced to work, and had to contend with rampant disease, malnutrition, and exposure to environmental elements. Although extermination was not the initial goal of the concentration camps, it was not uncommon for prisoners to be shot for any number of reasons, as the prisoners were seen as labor needed to help produce goods for Germany’s war effort.


Mauthausen concentration camp, Austria.  Among many other tasks, prisoners were forced to undertake excruciating work in a quarry.


Over 1,000 concentration camps were established between 1933 – 1945  across Germany and German-occupied territory. They were overseen by the Schutzstaffel (SS). A camp was typically established were it could be the most useful. That meant either on the outskirts of a large city that was home to large populations of Jews and other political enemies; or it was built close to quarries, forests, and other sites where natural resources could be harvested that were essential to creating products to help Germany’s war effort. During the first two years of the war, hundreds of thousands of Jews were sent to concentration camps. Men were separated from women and performed different types of work. Many Holocaust survivors explain that their familiarity with a specific skill or service often helped them survive life in the camps because the Germans viewed them as more valuable to their goals.

While thousands of Jews were sent to the concentration camps to engage in forced labor, thousands more were stripped of their homes and possessions and forced to live in a ghetto. A ghetto refers to a designated set of neighborhoods within a city. In the case of the ghettoes of World War II, they were designated as “Jewish” portions of cities in Poland and other parts of Eastern Europe. The largest ghetto was the Warsaw Ghetto where nearly half-a-million Jews lived in less than two square miles.


Round-up of Jews inside the Warsaw ghetto.


Conditions within the ghettoes were scarcely imaginable. Frequently, four or six families shared a single room. Electricity was often non-existent, food scarce, work mandatory for all people, including the elderly and children. Disease flourished because basic sanitation was impossible to maintain due to lack of resources. Little did families know, though, that many times, their lives would become significantly worse outside of the ghetto. Most of the ghettoes would be liquidated before the war’s end. Those Jews who survived the liquidation of the ghetto often perished at one of the six extermination camps.


The Holocaust and the Eastern Front: 1941


In June 1941, Germany invaded the Soviet Union. That event had enormous repercussions for the Jews of Eastern Europe. While persecution was well underway in Western Poland and Germany during the first two years of the war, the violence against Jews soared exponentially with the invasion of the Soviet Union. At the core of Hitler’s ideology was that the German Volk needed “living space.” In short, he wanted to conqueror lands in Eastern Europe for the glory of Germany, as well as fill those lands with "Aryan" children. Standing in his way were the Jews and Slavs of Eastern Europe. Tragically, the world’s highest concentration of Jews lived in Central and Eastern Europe.

As the German army advanced through Poland, Belarus, Lithuania, Latvia, Ukraine, and Romania, special units of the SS followed. These units were tasked with the purpose of rounding-up and “cleansing” the occupied lands of Jews and other “enemies of the Reich.” These units would round-up a village’s Jews, take them to the outskirts of town (often to a ravine or forest) and execute them. Almost always, the victims were thrown callously into mass-graves. The number of victims ranged anywhere from a mass-killing of 20 people to over 33,000 at a time, such as the case of the massacre at Babi Yar in present-day Ukraine.


Murder of a Jew by the SS. Below him is a mass-grave piled high with victims.


The Second Phase of the Holocaust: 1942-1945


Reports circulated to the Nazis that the executioners found their work so psychologically stressful that they often had to be intoxicated to carry out their work. In 1941, Heinrich Himmler, the chief of the SS, witnessed a mass execution of Jews. Afterward, he threw up. After regaining his composure, he argued that a more efficient way of killing the Jews must be found. In late 1941 the search for more efficiency in killing the Jews began in earnest. By 1942, a solution was reached.


The Final Solution: 1942-1945


In January 1942, fifteen top-ranking Nazis met in Wannsee, outside of Berlin. Their meeting was to discuss the “Final Solution” to the “Jewish Problem.” Chaired by Reinhard Heydrich, the Wannsee Conference investigated how the German Reich would handle the estimated eleven million Jews living across Europe.

There is no written record of Hitler, or anyone else directly ordering the extermination of the Jews. Instead, surviving documents filled with euphemisms point to the decision to exterminate the Jews. There is no record to indicate that any of the men who met that day had opposed the decision to eradicate the Jews through purposeful genocide.


Arrival of columns of men and women at Auschwitz-Birkenau. Men and women were separated, most going straight to the gas chambers. Children, elderly, pregnant women, ill or injured people, or anyone deemed “unfit for work” were immediately sent to their deaths. Nearly two-million people perished at Auschwitz. Over 1 million of them were Jews, with roughly 70-75,000 Poles. Other groups targeted included Roma and Sinti peoples, Soviet POWs, and peoples from across Eastern Europe, and even France.


Across Poland, six extermination camps were built by the Nazis. Unlike concentration camps, these camps were built with the intention of killing most, or all, of the inmates. The extermination camps used a variety of means to kill their inmates, including the use of poison gases such as carbon monoxide and Zyklon B. Additionally, prisoners were often shot, beaten to death, or perished from the elements. The largest camp, located west of Krakow, was Auschwitz. At this camp, nearly two million prisoners perished, including over one million Jews who were murdered, Poles, Roma, Sinti, and Soviet POWs. Most of the Jews and other groups who died during the Holocaust died inside one of the six extermination camps between 1942 and early 1945.


Collaborators and Rescuers


It is undeniable that the Nazis spearheaded the Holocaust. Their antisemitic beliefs and practices culminated in the murder of six-million Jews, as well as the collapse of Jewish communities that had existed in Europe for over a thousand years. And yet, equally undeniable is that the Germans had a lot of help in carrying out the “Final Solution.”

Collaborators across Europe helped the Nazis. Some were willing executioners; others were ordinary men and women who felt pressured to persecute their neighbors. As the Germans advanced into the Soviet Union, they often received willing aid in the persecution of the Jews from Latvians, Lithuanians, and Ukrainians. Even the government of Vichy France collaborated with the Nazis by rounding up nearly 13,000 French Jews at the Velodrome in Paris, roughly half of them were children; they were deported in waves to Auschwitz, where nearly all of them perished. Throughout the succeeding months, roundups continued in France. And the Germans even found collaborators in Holland, who would also help round-up the Jews. Those who did not actively participate in violence toward the Jews frequently collaborated with the Nazis by informing. Even the people who stayed silent and did nothing to aid the Jewish people during this time are considered collaborators by many.

While claims have been made that the Nazis forced occupied countries to collaborate in the murder of the Jews, historians remained divided. Some cases of collaboration resulted from Nazi pressure, but other cases of collaboration resulted from long-standing antisemitic views fueled by racism, bigotry, frustration, envy, anger, and resentment.

It is important to remember that people across Europe also risked their lives to save Jews. These rescuers are referred to as the Righteous among the Nation; Yad Vashem—the World Holocaust Remembrance Center—recognizes more than 27,000 people as righteous. Most of the Righteous among the Nations were simple, ordinary people who risked their lives to save another when the moment mattered most. Some of the rescuers are famous for the large number of Jews they rescued, such as Oskar Schindler and Irene Sendler. 


Irena Sendler, a Polish nurse and social worker in Warsaw.
Sendler, with her assistants helped rescue hundreds of Jewish children from the Warsaw ghetto.




The Allies participated in liberating Jews from camps toward the end of WWII. The Soviet Red Army was the first to liberate both concentration and extermination camps in the summer of 1944. In January 1945, Auschwitz was liberated by the Red Army during the Vistula–Oder Offensive. From the west, American and British forces liberated camps inside Germany. In all cases, the people who the liberators discovered were nearer to death than life, and many of those who had survived were initially perceived as corpses by their liberators, as they were indescribably thin, malnourished, and sick. Many prisoners were so ill that they did not survive long past their liberation. For others, the journey to physical and mental recovery lasted a lifetime.


Jewish men upon their liberation by the American army at Buchenwald concentration camp, April 1945.  Internationally acclaimed Holocaust author, and Nobel Peace Prize winner, Elie Wiesel (author of Night) is on the second-row, seventh from the left near the bunk post.


The Holocaust resulted in the deaths of six million Jews, and six million other people across Europe ranging from Poles, Roma and Sinti Peoples, homosexuals, Soviet POWs, communists, socialists, anarchists, the mentally handicapped, and other social and political enemies of the Nazis and their allies. After the war, top Nazis were pursued and sometimes successfully apprehended for their participation in war crimes. Many of these leaders were placed on trial for their crimes, the most famous set of trials being the Nuremberg Trials. The scope of the Holocaust facilitated the development of the Declaration of Human Rights in 1947. Since 1945, Holocaust awareness and education has continued around the world. Millions of people have learned about and continue to learn about the event in order to uphold the promise made to the victims, “Never again!

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