The Holocaust

Through the Ages – Holocaust – Germany

Anti-Semitism is an ancient prejudice, dating at least to the time of Christ. Jews were made the scapegoat for the death of Jesus, although in fact it was probably Romans who executed him.

Because of this, many years of religious persecution of Jews in Europe followed. This reached a climax in the years after World War One, when anti-Semites were able to link Jews with Communism, owing to the fact that many of the leaders of Russia’s October Revolution were Jewish, as was Karl Marx himself. This period, of course, was also the time when history’s most infamous anti-Semite, Adolf Hitler, was gaining a national following in his native Germany. Hitler blamed Jews for Germany’s defeat in World War One, and for Germany’s economic crisis and national disgrace in the following years. Hitler said that there would be a struggle to the death between Jews and ‘Aryans’, making his brand of anti-Semitism the most virulent and vicious in all history.

Hitler’s followers and political power steadily increased until finally, in 1933, he became Chancellor of Germany. Hitler pledged to restore Germany’s greatness by removing threats to Germany’s racial purity. The Nazis immediately instigated anti-Semitic riots and boycotts of Jewish businesses. Any ‘Aryan’ Germans who continued to buy from Jewish businesses themselves became targets of bullying and intimidation. This marked the start of the complete exclusion of Jews from German life. Later in 1933, the Nazi government passed a law that allowed Jews to be arbitrarily dismissed from the civil service. Jews would also be barred from practicing law and medicine, from appearing in stage productions, and from owning farms. In 1935, the harshest blow occurred. The Nuremberg Laws were passed, banning citizenship for non-Aryan Germans and forbade intermarriage between Jews and Aryans. ‘Jew’ was very widely defined, even including anyone who was married to a Jew. The Nuremberg Laws were cruel as well as immoral, for they ignored the many centuries of history Jews had had in Germany. Of Germany’s 600,000 Jews (less than one percent of the total population) 100,000 had served Germany during World War One. Fourteen of Germany’s 38 Nobel Prize winners had been Jewish. The Nuremberg Laws forced many Jews to flee Germany, despite their strong historical and sentimental attachments to the country. But most remained – some were too poor to emigrate, or had problems being accepted into another country. In the wake of the Great Depression, most countries did not want an influx of refugees. An international conference on Germany’s treatment of the Jews in Evian, France, in 1938 failed to reach any agreement to take action to help Germany’s Jews. The Catholic Church also failed to take a stand against the Nazis anti-Semitic actions, believing that the Nazis would protect Christianity from the Communists.

On 9 November 1938, anti-Semitic riots broke out all over Germany, resulting in the deaths of 90 Jews, as well as the destruction of thousands of synagogues, shops and businesses. This day became known as Kristallnacht, because of all the broken glass, and was almost certainly organised and sanctioned by the Nazi government.

As 1939 began, World War Two began to appear inevitable. In a speech in the Reichstag (German parliament) Hitler delivered an ominous warning, saying that if the war started, it would be the fault of the Jews, and they would be annihilated. The Nazis were well prepared to carry out this threat. Ever since 1933, they had been establishing concentration camps all over Germany. The aim of these was to suppress political dissent and to terrorise the Jewish population, and all their inmates were eventually released. Concentration camps did not become places of extermination until later.

By 1941, the Nazis had conquered almost all of continental Europe. This created the problem of how to deal with the Jews in the countries that were now Nazi territory. The Nazis removed all Jewish rights and private property, and forced them into ghettoes (enclosed neighbourhoods) with terrible living conditions caused by overcrowding, lack of food, and poor sanitation. Jews were also forbidden from appearing in public without a ‘Jewish star’ (six-pointed, yellow with black borders) attached to their clothing. The treatment of Jews in Soviet countries was especially brutal – thirty thousand Ukrainian Jews were killed in a mass execution over two days at the Babi Yar, outside Kiev.

In January 1942, the Nazi leaders held a conference on the ‘final solution’ in Wannsee, Berlin. After this, the Secret Service began to supervise the rounding up of Jews, who were then transported by rail to concentration camps, mostly in Poland and Germany. There, literally millions of them died – over one million in Auschwitz alone. Belzac, Sobibor, Treblinka and Birkenau were also particularly dreaded for their brutality. Those who did not die from cold, disease, starvation or overwork were herded into the gas chambers.

It is generally estimated that six million Jews died in the Holocaust, perhaps the single most brutal episode in history. However, some good did emerge from it. All over Europe, brave individuals agreed to help Jews to escape from the Nazis, despite immense personal danger.

Anne Frank, her family, and four others went into hiding in 1942 after Anne’s sister received a letter ordering her to report to a concentration camp. For more than two years, Miep Gies, Bep Voskuijl, Victor Kugler and Johannes Klieman brought them food, supplies and news of the war while they were in hiding. This is just the most famous of many cases. Raoul Wallenberg, a Swedish diplomat, helped 30 000 Hungarian Jews escape by providing them with false Swedish passports.

Apart from these individual acts of heroism, the Holocaust serves to teach us that people are capable of monstrous cruelty. Incredibly, in spite of the six million dead, some continue to admire Hitler or deny the Holocaust, the worst of his many crimes.

A more in depth article about Anne Frank can be found in the Life Issues section.

Another Through the Ages article coming soon…