The systematic policy of racial extermination carried out against Jews by the Nazis in Europe duringWorld War II stands out as one of history’s most horrifying events. This assault upon Europe’s Jewry began when Hitler came to power in 1933 and culminated in the terrible orchestration of the ‘Final Solution to the Jewish Question in Europe’, in which six million Jews were killed.
The Nazis targeted many groups for extermination, including Gypsies, Slavs, the disabled and homosexuals, all of whom were labelled as ‘undesirables’ with no future in the Nazi state. However the scale of persecution and murder of Jews – presented in Nazi ideology as an insidious, lethal enemy of the Aryan ‘master race’ – was on a scale without comparison. The Nazis drew on a deeply ingrained tradition of anti-Semitism which permeated much of Europe in the 1930s. And although the Nazis adapted their rhetoric to meet the times, those who collaborated in the extermination of Jews across Europe were often responding to much older prejudices.
From 1933 onwards, the Nazis implemented discriminatory policies against German Jews, most infamously under the 1935 Nuremburg Laws, which stripped them of German citizenship. In November 1938, Kristallnacht (the Night of Broken Glass) – an attack on Jewish property engineered by Propaganda Minister Josef Goebbels – resulted in the murder of 91 Jews, and the deportation to camps of more than 20,000.
After Germany conquered Poland in 1939, the persecution reached terrifying new levels. Polish Jews were rounded up and forced to live in ghettoes, where disease and starvation were constant threats. In Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, the Einsatzgruppen (‘special operations groups’) followed in the wake of advancing German forces. These paramilitary death squads under SS command were made up of Nazi security forces and local volunteers. They orchestrated mass killings of defenceless civilians: Communists, intellectuals, gypsies, and above all Jews. At the ravine of Babi Yar near Kiev,Einsatzgruppe C organised the war’s most notorious massacre, killing 33,771 Jews on 29 and 30 September 1941.
The implementation of ‘Death Camp Operations’ began in December 1941, at Semlin in Serbia and Chelmno in Poland, where a total of over 400,000 Jews were killed by the exhaust fumes of specially adapted vans. On 20 January 1942, at a conference in the Berlin suburb of Wannsee, the ‘Final Solution’ – the annihilation of European Jews - was set up as a systematic operation headed by Reinhard Heydrich. The Nazis began transporting Jews to a network of concentration and extermination camps including Belzec, Sobibor, Treblinka, and the largest and most notorious, Auschwitz II-Birkenau, where Jews would be either instantly killed or worked to death. A total of 1.1 million people (a million of them Jews) were murdered in the gas chambers of Auschwitz.
The horrific scenes of decaying corpses and emaciated prisoners which Allied troops found as they liberated Nazi camps led to difficult questions about Allied wartime policy towards Nazi genocide. Many felt that British and US politicians, aware of what was occurring in Nazi German concentration camps in German-occupied Poland, failed to act decisively for motives of political expediency.
In the aftermath of the Holocaust, many of the leading officials who manned the camps were tried and executed, including Rudolf Hoess, commandant of Auschwitz, hanged in 1947. In addition, the term ‘genocide’ became part of international law, due to the 1948 UN Convention on Genocide. Yet as events in Yugoslavia and Rwanda have demonstrated, these steps failed to extinguish the tragic shadow of genocide from the world.