The Holocaust (1939-1945)



  • Identify the long term causes of the Holocaust
  • Outline the steps taken by the Nazi government that led to the Holocaust
  • Describe the issues raised by the Holocaust and attempts that have been made to deal with them

Europe has had a long history of anti-Antisemitism, or hatred of Jews. This is due, in part, because since the Diaspora, Jews have been a minority in every country. Because of this they often faced discrimination and persecution. They were also blamed whenever something bad happened (like the Black Plague, for example).

Throughout European history, pogroms—rioting against a specific group resulting killings and destruction of property owned by members of the group—would erupt against Jews. Some people believed that Jews—because of their strong presence in banking, business and law—conspired to control the world through economics and politics. While most people didn’t hate Jews to the point of wanted to murder them, there was a general distrust and a degree of jealousy that caused most Europeans to dislike Jews.

These feeling existed in Germany before Adolf Hitler and the NAZIs. Playing on these existing prejudices, the NAZIs blamed the Jews for Germany’s defeat in World War I and inflamed German anti-Semitism. Hitler gained a following by denouncing the Treaty of Versailles. Hitler claimed that Germany lost the war because it was “stabbed in the back” by German Jews and Communists (to Hitler and the NAZIs the two words were synonymous) who wanted to surrender and created the new democratic government in post-war Germany, the Weimar Republic. To Hitler, Communism was a Jewish plot to ruin the world. In his mind, all Jews were communists and all communists Jews. Hatred and fear of Communism was also widespread. Because of the Russian Revolution that took place during the war, everyone in Europe was scared that it would spread to their country.

When the Nazi’s took over Germany in 1933, they immediately started to discriminate against the Jews. Anti-Semitism was official policy under the Nazi Regime—or the Third Reich, or empire, as they called it. Most historians believe that the Nazi’s instituted their harsh policies against the Jews to make them want to leave Germany.

The first act that the Nazis took against the Jews was the boycott of Jewish businesses in 1933. The Nazis had to back off their anti-Semitic policies because the boycott was unpopular with the German people. This indicated that the NAZIs needed to increase people’s anti-Semitic prejudices, which they did through the government’s control of the media by manufacturing anti-Jewish propaganda.

In 1935, the NAZI’s passed the first of what are remembered as the Nuremberg Laws. These laws deprived Jews of German citizenship (which means that the government no longer has an obligation to protect their rights). They also took away other rights, such as outlawing marriage of Jews to non-Jews, eliminating Jews from the professions (education, law, medicine, etc.; they had already been eliminated from the civil service by previous legislation). In 1938, more laws were passed, further stripping Jews of basic civil rights, forcing them to wear the Star of David on their clothes and carry passbooks. These passbooks were like passports, but had to be carried at all times within the country. The authorities were constantly harassing German Jews for their “papers”—since they were identifiable by sight with the yellow star—as part of their campaign to force Jews to emigrate.

The situation got worse in 1938. On November 10, a pogrom called Kristallacht (“Night of the Broken Glass”) happened. It was a state-sponsored attack on Jewish people and their property. 91 Jews were murdered and 25,000 to 30,000 were arrested and placed in concentration camps. 267 synagogues were destroyed, and thousands of homes and businesses were ransacked. This event clearly communicated that it was unsafe for Jews in NAZI Germany. Many tried to flee, but with the world dealing with the Great Depression, there were few opportunities to leave. Others thought they could “weather the storm,” just as Jews had to do during other hard times in European history. Unfortunately for all, escape was not a viable option for enough.

Once the war started with the invasion of Poland, German added so many Jews to their empire that it was impossible to get them all to leave the country. The Nazi government stated to consolidate the population of Jews by forcing all Jews to move into confined ghettos in Polish cities. Jews from other areas controlled by Germany were deported to these Polish cities until the government could figure out what to do with them.

In 1942, Nazi leaders had a conference to decide how to solve “the Jewish Question.” The question was how to get rid of all the Jews in German-controlled land. It was decided that the “Final Solution to the Jewish Question” was to kill all European Jews in special killing centers. Jews were sent to concentration camps to work as slave labor (rented out to local factories) until they were too unhealthy to work and then got sent to death camps at which they were executed in gas chambers. In three years, some 6 million Jews were executed with shocking efficiency. As the war was ending and Germany was being invaded by the Allies, the Nazis tried to speed up the executions. Only 300,000 Jews survived to be liberated from concentration camps.


Examples of efforts to deal with the Holocaust:

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