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The scope of the tragedy known as the Holocaust is immense. The systematic
execution of 11 million people by the Nazi regime during World War II
is a stomach-churning, yet important topic of study and it should forever
remain so. How did the Holocaust occur, and how can a similar tragedy
be prevented in the future? The lessons learned from World War II and
the Holocaust are invaluable to the advancement of every society on Earth.
Nazi rise to power
to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM), on November 9th,
1918, two days before World War I is to end, the Emperor of Germany, William
II, gives up the German throne. On the same day, a delegate from the Social
Democratic Party of Germany declares Germany a republic. A democratic
government is set up and led by Friedrich Ebert. On November 11th, 1918,
after 21 million men had been wounded in combat, fighting ceases and World
War I is over (World War I).
World War I ends with a series treaties imposed upon the defeated powers
by the Western victors. In the article “World War I: Treaties and Reparations”,
USHMM states that the most notable among these treaties is known as the
Treaty of Versailles. The Treaty of Versailles is offered up for German
leaders to sign on May 7th, 1919. This treaty forces Germany to limit
its military to 100,000 men. In addition to this, Germany is to give up
various territories to Belgium, Czechoslovakia, and Poland. Also, Alsace
and Lorraine, which were won by Germany in the Franco-Prussian War, are
given back to France. While these aspects of the treaty are unwelcome
by Germany, the most devastating condition of the Treaty of Versailles
will prove to be Article 231.
USHMM goes on to explain that Article 231 of the Treaty of Versailles
is more commonly known as the “War Guilt Clause”. This is because Article
231 forces Germany to concede that they are responsible for initiating
World War I and are therefore liable for all the material destruction.
The Western Powers impose large reparation payments on Germany and its
World War I allies. France, fearing a German recovery and renewed aggression,
imposes particularly harsh reparation payments (World War I: Treaties
According to USHMM, the reparation payments imposed upon Germany by the
Western powers in the aftermath of World War I coincide with a general
inflationary period, also caused by World War I, in Europe in the 1920’s.
As a consequence of this, hyperinflation spins out of control in Germany
by 1923. This economic uncertainty coupled with social unrest destabilizes
the newly-formed democratic government in Germany. At this time, the desperate
German population looks for strong leaders who are in favor of restoring
German prestige through remilitarization and expansion. This gives rise
to various radical right wing political parties, one of which is the Nazi
In November of 1923, Adolf Hitler, the leader of the Nazi Party, leads
the Nazi party to the German State of Bavariaand attempts to overthrow
the government and start a national revolution. This failed attempt at
a governmental coup is known as the Beer Hall Putsch. Hitler serves only
nine months in prison for it, during which time he writes his political
manifesto “Mein Kampf”(World War I: Aftermath).
The article “Hitler Comes to Power” explains that after Hitler’s release
from prison, he continues to lead the Nazi party. His party gradually
gainsfavor in Germany because of its promises to overturn certain aspects
of the Treaty of Versailles viewed as unfair by the German public. However,
the Nazi party doesn’t gain any significant support in Germany until the
elections following the stock market crash of 1929. By June, 1932, six
million Germans are unemployed and many are desperate enough to overlook
some of the more radical parts of the Nazi platform; so many, in fact,
that the Nazi party becomes the majority party in the German parliament
in July of 1932.
Furthermore, the article explains that in the following November elections,
the Nazi party loses a majority in the German parliament and Adolf Hitler
agrees to a coalition with the rival conservative party. After many months
of negotiations, Paul von Hindenburg, the distressed president of Germany,
appoints Adolf Hitler as the chancellor. Finally, on August 2nd, 1934,
Paul von Hindenburg dies and Hitler becomes the absolute dictator of Germany
under the title of “Fuhrer”. Hitler disassembles the remnants of Germany’s
short-lived democracy to make way for his Third Reich (USHMM).
Anti-Semitism — Nazi views on Jews
According to an article by Yad Vashem, the concept of Anti-Semitism can
trace its roots back to the earliest Christians - their belief being that
the Jews deserve punishment because they are the ones who killed Jesus,
or because they had failed in their role as the Chosen People of God (Antisemitism).
USHMM explains that throughout history there are spurts of Anti-Semitic
rhetoric which usually coincide with economic or political strife. During
the period after the crusades in Europe, Jews are often accused of “poisoning
the well” or “ritual murder” - these accusations sometimes leading to
massacres of Jews.
Furthermore, USHMM states that when the Nazis come to power, Germany is
populated with more Jews than any other country in Europe. It is also
plagued by severe economic and political hardships. Some of the wealthier
Jews and Gentiles are able to escape these problems, but thanks to rhetoric
from radical political parties such as the Nazis,the public eyes of blame
are fixed solely on the Jews (Christian Persecution of Jews over the Centuries).
The article “Hitler’s Views on Jews” explains that Adolf Hitler and the
Nazis view the Jewish race as inferior.In a letter written by Hitler to
Herr Gemlich in 1919, which is quoted in the article, he describes the
Jews as greedy inbreds and likens them to leeches on society. These are
views that Adolf Hitler spouts in many political speeches during his rise
to power and which slowly permeate through the minds of the German public
who are desperate to blame someone for their misfortune (The Propagander).
According to the ThinkQuest Education Foundation, the Nazisfavor a race
known as the Aryans.The perfect Aryan in the mind of Hitler is tall and
has blonde hair and blue eyes. During the reign of Hitler’s Third Reich,
the Nazis attempt to breed an entire population of Aryans. It is for this
reason that Hitler puts in to place various policies to segregate the
more Aryan-like people from undesirables; most namely, the Jews(German
Following the total governmental takeover of the Nazis and the implementation
of Hitler’s Third Reich, a series of anti-Semitic laws are enacted. According
to the Jewish Virtual Library, these laws are known as the Nuremberg Laws
and, “…by their generalnature formalized the unofficial and particular
measures taken against Jews up to 1935” (The Nuremberg Laws).
Furthermore, the article explains how the first Nuremberg Law is called
the "Law for the Protection of German Blood and Honor". This
outlaws marriages and extramarital relations between Jews and German citizens,
the raising of the German flag by Jews, and the employment of German maids
under the age of 45 in Jewish households.
Moreover, the second of these laws is entitled the "Reich Citizenship
Law". This law states that only Aryans can be citizens of the Third
Reich. It effectively strips Jews of their German citizenship and reduces
them to mere subjects of the State. Any person who breaks these laws is
subject to a prison sentence and/or fines(The Nuremberg Laws).
According to Yad Vashem, during the next eight years, thirteen more decrees
are added to the Nuremberg Laws which prove to be the final nail in the
coffin for Jewish status in Germany (Nuremberg Laws).
The German people under Hitler’s Third Reich are bombarded with propaganda
at every turn. The large sum of this propaganda is aimed at cultivating
a chauvinistic, anti-Jewish civilian population. According to the article
“Culture in the Third Reich: Overview” by The USHMM, in 1933,Joseph Goebbels,
the minister forPopular Enlightenment and Propaganda, begins a process
known as synchronization of culture, by which German arts are brought
in line with Nazi ideologies.
Additionally, as part of the synchronization of culture, the Nazis create
a Reich Culture Chamber. This chamber consists of a combination of the
Reich Film Chamber, Reich Music Chamber, Reich Theater Chamber, Reich
Press Chamber, Reich Writing Chamber, Reich Chamber for Fine Arts, and
the Reich Radio Chamber. The purpose of this new chamber is to control
every single aspect of the German culture.
The article describes further that the Nazis in the Reich Culture Chamber
value all forms of artwork simply for their propagandistic merits and
endorse only artists who fall in line with their political beliefs, such
as Hitler Youth poet Hans Baumann and Adolf Bartels. The Nazi regime subsidizes
films and theater productions which glorify Hitler and the Third Reich
or perpetuate negative Jewish stereotypes.Contrarily, the works of authors
such as Bertolt Brecht, Lion Feuchtwanger, and others like them who cannot
meet the standards of the Reich Culture Chamber are deemed “un-German”,
removed from libraries, and burned.
In addition to libraries and theaters, the Nazi’s control all news media
and are constantly promoting their agenda in newspapers and on radio waves
throughout Germany. For the German citizen, Nazi propaganda is impossible
to escape(Culture in the Third Reich: Overview).
The term “Kristallnacht” refers to a single event in history also known
as the “night of broken glass”. According toan article about this incident
by PBS (Public Broadcasting Service), Kristallnacht takes place on the
night of November 9th 1938. Throughout that night, the sound of shattering
glass fills the air in cities all over Germany while fires are being set
to Jewish synagogues. By the end of the riot, gangs of Nazi storm troopers
had killed 91 Jews, destroyed 7,000 Jewish businesses, burned more than
900 synagogues and deported about 30,000 Jewish men to concentration camps.
In the article PBS wrote about Kristallnacht, a U.S. official who was
stationed in Germany at the time is quoted, saying “…the insatiably sadistic
perpetrators threw many of (the Jews) into a small stream that flows through
the zoological park, commanding horrified spectators to spit at them,
defile them with mud, and jeer at their plight” (Kristallnacht).
Furthermore, the article explains how several days before the “night of
broken glass”, on November 7th, a Jewish student named Hershel Grynszpan
shoots Ernst vom Rath, the Third Secretary of the German Embassy in the
capital of France. Grynszpan is angered by the deportation of his parents
from Germany, where they had lived their whole lives, to Poland. He hopes
that by shooting the Third Secretary of the German Embassy he will alert
the entire world of the plight of the Jews. When the French police arrest
Grynszpan, he cries, “Being a Jew is not a crime. I am not a dog. I have
the right to live and the Jewish people have the right to exist on Earth.
Wherever I have been, I have been chased like an animal” (Kristallnacht).
Ernst vom Rath dies two days later.
Additionally, PBS’s article says that itdoes not take long for news of
Ernst vom Rath’s death to reach the ears of Nazi officials in Germany.
On the evening of vom Rath’s death, the minister for Popular Enlightenment
and Propaganda, Joseph Goebbels, at a dinner in Munich, gives aprovocative
speech about the assassination. In his speech, he urges the assembled
crowd to take to the streets and make the Jews pay for the death of Ernst
vom Rath. A series of orders sent by the head of the Secretary Service,
Reinhard Heydrich, gives all Police State offices the authority to destroy
Jewish business and homes, and arrest as many Jews as would fit in the
local jails. The “night of broken glass” ensues.
In the month following Kristallnacht, a series of decrees are issued by
the Third Reich which totally eliminate Jews from German public life.
The “night of broken glass” produces outrage in the United States and
Western Europe, but little action is taken to help the Jews (Kristallnacht).
Rounding up the Jews – ghettos
During WWII, as Hitler’s army invades and occupies various territories,
they round up as many Jews as possible and place them in walled off municipalities
known as ghettos. According to USHMM in the article “Ghettos”, the Germans
establish at least 1,000 ghettos in the Soviet Union and in Poland from
The same article by USHMM explains that the Nazis view the ghettos as
temporary establishments meant to control and segregate the Jews while
they debate on how best to eliminate them. Thelargest of the ghettos established
in Poland is called the Warsaw Ghetto. It at one time holds over 400,000
Jews, gypsies and homosexuals. Other major ghettos are set up in the cities
of Lodz, Krakow, Bialystok, Lvov, Lublin, Vilna, Kovno, Czestochowa, and
Minsk. In addition to these ghettos, tens of thousands of western European
Jews are also deported to ghettos in the east.
Furthermore, the article states that a ghetto is run much like a normal
city, complete with a Jewish police force, Jewish firefighters, and a
Jewish city council, except nobody is allowed to leave. The city council
of a ghetto exists under the direct control of the Nazis for the purpose
of conveying their orders to the population of the ghetto and making sure
they are carried out. This sometimes includes deportations of Jews to
killing facilities. The Nazis do not hesitate to kill anyone caught disobeying
Daily life for a Jew in a ghetto is horrible. The ghettos are over-crowded,
riddled with disease, and affected by extreme poverty. According to an
article about the Kovno Ghetto by USHMM, in the Kovno ghetto, all Jews
over the age of 16 are forced to work twelve hours days of manual labor
for the German war machine with little or no compensation (Inside the
With a lack of basic sanitation and sufficient food and water, a sense
of hopelessness often prevails in the ghettos. Holocaust survivor, Yosef
Charny in a Holocaust survivor testimony, describes sifting through the
garbage for food in a ghetto and being excited when he finds half of a
loaf of moldy bread. He runs home with it in his coat, but is too late
to save his father from starvation (YouTube). Another Holocaust survivor,Irving
Barowsky, on the other hand, reminisces about getting together with his
friends at school in the ghetto to play card games (YouTube).
According to USHMM, on the morning of January 18th, 1943, a group of
Jewish resistance fighters in the Warsaw Ghetto secretly infiltrate a
column of Jews being forced out of their homes and to a transfer point
from which they will be taken to killing facilities. At a predetermined
signal, they break ranks and fight their German captors. Most of the fighters
die in this battle, but it allows time for the Jews who were about to
be deported the chance to escape. Encouraged by this success, the remaining
ghetto population starts to create bunkers and shelters in what will mark
the beginning of a month-long resistance known as the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising
(Warsaw Ghetto Uprising).
Similar rebellions occur in other camps and ghettos, but not all resistance
takes place in the form of armed uprisings. According to Yad Vashem in
an article about resistance,within ghettos and camps, unarmed resistance
is widespread and a part of everyday life. In the ghettos, the Jews resisted
the Nazis’ intolerable economic restrictions by smuggling in food, medicine
and clothing. They founded Jewish newspapers, schools, theaters, and orchestras
to sustain their spiritual and metal strength. In some cases, they even
buried archives of journals and documents to preserve history. In camps,
they kept themselves clean in the face of unsanitary conditions. They
also continued to pray, despite the fact that if they were caught it would
mean certain death. The Jewish people call this attempt to maintain their
humanity “Kiddush ha-Hayyim”, which means "Sanctification of Life."
Moreover, the article goes on to explain how resistance against the Nazis
occurs outside of the realm of camps and ghettos as well. Numerous rescue
organizations are created throughout Europe. The specific aims of these
organizations vary, but they are all basically created to help the Jews
escape capture and deportation (Resistance, Jewish).
Wannsee Conference – The Final Solution
On January 20th, 1941, a conference of Nazi leaders is held in Berlin
for the purpose of discussing the “Jewish question”. This conference is
known as the Wannsee Conference. According to the Center for Programs
in Contemporary Writing at the University of Pennsylvania, who quotes
the transcript of this conference, the Nazis plan to evacuate the Jews
from the German Reich by various means, mostly to Russia(The Wansee Protocol).
Six months later, as Yad Vashem explains in the article “The Beginning
of the Final Solution -The Wannsee Conference”, shortly after theGerman
invasion of Russia,an order comes down to make preparations for the “Final
Solution of the Jewish problem in the German sphere of influence in Europe.”
This means the total inhalation of the Jews. Yad Vashem states that they
currently have no documentation that indicates who makes the order, in
what way, and at what time. They believe it may be given orally by Hitler
himself. Shortly after the Final Solution is ordered, the mass deportation
of Jews from the ghettos to death camps begins(The Beginning of the Final
Solution -The Wannsee Conference).
The term “death camps”
refers to the sites where Jews are systematically deported to and murdered
by the Nazis after the Final Solution is ordered by the Third Reich. They
are sometimes referred to as “extermination camps” or “extermination sites”.
According to Yad Vashem, during the Holocaust, there are more than 56
death camps in Europe alone (Main Nazi Camps and Killing Sites).
PBS explains that the most notorious death camp is known as Auschwitz.
At the height of Auschwitz’s efficiency, it takes in and executes more
than 4,400 people per day (Auschwitz: Inside the Nazi State).
Selection – selektion
Nearly every group of Jews being deported from a ghetto goes through
a process known as “selection” or “selektion”. In an ABC News article,
Christel Kucharz writes about how the term “selektion” is used by the
Nazis to refer to the death camp practice of “selecting” those to be executed
(Beware of Nazi Words).
The Teachers’ Guide to the Holocaust states that, starting in 1942, there
is no selection process in the death camps of Auschwitz, Treblinka, Belzec,
and Sobibór, where all Jews are sent immediately to their deaths (The
According to PBS, in the fall of 1941, after the Final Solution had been
ordered, Nazi General Erich von dem Bach-Zelewski tells his superior Heinrich
Himmler that the German soldiers had been shooting Jews at close range,
including women and children all summer. This method
of killing is known as “death by firing squad.” Soon after its implementation,
it proves to bepsychologically straining on the German soldiers. The Nazi
commanders know that they must think of a more effective way to kill all
of the Jews.
Furthermore, PBS states that over the next several months, the Nazis experiment
with various different methods of extermination. One of those methods
is known as carbon monoxide poisoning. The Nazis lead the Jews to large
shower facilities, lock them in, and trick them into thinking they are
about to take a shower; but instead of water coming out of the showerhead,
carbon monoxide gas pours out. Another way that Nazis poison the Jews
with carbon monoxide gas is a method known as “Hell Vans”. Jews are led
from the ghetto through a basement corridor and then up a ramp to a small,
windowless room, which turns out to be the carriage of a large van. The
exhaust from this van is routed back into itself so the Jews are exposed
to the fumes. A driver takes the van to a nearby forest and dumps the
deceased bodies into a giant hole, or burns them. These procedures prove
to be much more effective than firing squads, and they save the Nazi soldiers
the psychological trouble of killing human beings at close range.
PBS goes on to explain that the most efficient technique for killing Jews,
however, is Zyklon B gas. Zyklon B gas is derived from the pesticide used
to kill lice in prisoners clothing, so it is in plentiful supply. Exposed
to the right temperature of air, the Zyklon crystals produce a highly
lethal gas(Auschwitz: Inside the Nazi State).
According to a timeline on jewishgen.org, beginning in 1945, the Allied
forces of WWII are advancing on rapidly and liberating previously German-held
territories. These include territories where death camps and ghettos are
located. As the Allied forces move in on death camps, the Nazis stationed
at a death camps retreat and take with them as many Jews as they can in
what are known as a Death Marches. Additionally, the timeline on jewishgen.org
shows that as the Allied forces approached closer, Hitler commits suicide.
Then finally, on May 8th, Germany surrenders and the Third Reich collapses.
Four months later, WWII comes to an end (A Timeline of the Holocaust 1939-1945).
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"Auschwitz: Inside the Nazi State." Pbs.org. Public Broadcasting
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"The Beginning of the Final Solution The Wannsee Conference."
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"The Camps." A Teachers Guide to the Holocaust. Florida Center
for Instructional Technology, 2005. Web. 12 Apr. 2013.
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