Ruth Bettina Birn. Encyclopedia of Race, Ethnicity, and Society. Editor: Richard T Schaefer. Sage Publications, 2008.

Although the word has a more generalized meaning, the term Holocaust is commonly used today to denote the systematic persecution and mass murder that Nazi Germany perpetrated against European Jewry during World War II. Based on an ideology of racial superiority, the Nazi leadership under Adolf Hitler launched a program of mass killings aimed at a variety of people considered to be undesirable but focused on the extermination of European Jews. This entry summarizes the facts of the Holocaust and briefly examines issues related to the events, including the ensuing debates and lasting moral and political influence.

Political and Ideological Background

Nazi ideology rejected the values of egalitarianism and the Enlightenment, replacing them with a hierarchy based on “racial value.” The Nazis saw the world populated by various races with greater or lesser value. At the top was the “Nordic” or “Aryan” race (blond hair and blue eyes), embodied in the German people, which was alleged to have been the most creative and politically and militarily capable throughout history. Individual people also possessed higher or lower racial value measurable by their bodily features. Consequently, the Nazis sought to increase procreation of those of the “highest value.” A mix of the “races” through intermarriage was considered to be detrimental, leading to a nation’s decadence and decline. The pronounced Nazi belief in the inequality among people led to the justification of suppressing “lower races” and forcing them into perpetual servitude. According to the Nazis, eternal struggle between races and peoples, resulting in a “survival of the fittest,” was a law of nature. Non-nation-state-based groups, such as Jews and so-called “Gypsies,” were considered to be particularly pernicious. Indeed, the Jewish people were seen as the antipode and eternal enemy of the Aryans. Heinrich Himmler, chief of Nazi Germany’s police, the Nazi Party vanguard SS, and one of the major perpetrators of the Holocaust, described “world Jewry” as intrinsically opposed to a racial hierarchy and, thus, having inspired Christianity, Freemasonry, the Enlightenment, the French Revolution, liberal capitalism, and Bolshevism—all based on some concept of equality among people.

Within the state, the Nazis said that individual rights had no importance; only the overall interest of the “people” was important. What this consisted of was decided by a nation’s leader, Hitler in the case of Nazi Germany. Linked to the concept of an overarching common good was the notion of the “health” of a nation, which was considered to be endangered by people with hereditary diseases or with disabilities and “nonproductive elements” such as criminals, prostitutes, and people refusing to work. Politically, Nazi ideology was antidemocratic, authoritarian, and violently opposed to the political working-class movement. Industrialization was considered to be dangerous because of the attendant social problems; in its stead, a return to a romanticized agrarian life was proposed. Because Germany did not possess the amount of land needed for a return to agrarianism, Hitler proposed the conquest of land in Eastern Europe (the quest for Lebensraum), which implied an attack on neighboring countries.

Both the racist and political convictions of the Nazis were based on views discussed since the late 19th century in Europe and even outside of it. During the period between the two world wars, fascist movements and regimes sprang up all over Europe and a number of countries turned from democracies to authoritarian systems. Thus, the Nazis were part of a larger political trend within Europe. In Germany, resentment over the sanctions imposed by the Versailles Treaty at the end of World War I, along with mass unemployment and massive economic problems, increased the antagonism toward the democratic system of the interwar Weimar Republic that was already prevalent among right-wing circles. The right wing was pitted against a strong left-wing movement (socialist and communist), which led to increasing political violence and further instability. The Nazi political platform appealed to Germans by its promises of stability, strong rule by a strong leader, and economic recovery, whereas the extent of the appeal of anti-Semitism is debatable.

History of the Holocaust: 1933 to 1939

After Hitler was appointed German chancellor by President Paul von Hindenburg on January 30, 1933 (contrary to an often-held belief, the Nazi Party never won a majority in an open election), his government started to implement the Nazis’ political and ideological aims. One of the most important legal tools allowed police to arrest and incarcerate anybody without legal recourse (so-called “protective custody”). Using this power, the Nazis filled newly created concentration camps, initially mainly with members of the Communist and Social Democrat parties.

A boycott of Jewish businesses in Berlin in 1933 gave a first signal to the German Jewish community that the Nazis were determined to put their racist ideology into practice. Acts of anti-Jewish violence were committed throughout Germany during the following years. The population of Germany was systematically segregated. Germans needed to provide proof of Aryan descent (interestingly, this shows that it was not self-evident to which race a person belonged). Two laws passed in 1935—called “Nuremberg Laws” because they were issued at the Nuremberg Nazi Party rally—further cemented the segregation of Germans from Jewish Germans. Marriage and sexual relationships were banned, and Jews and members of other “alien races,” such as Gypsies, lost their citizenship. An avalanche of laws and decrees (roughly 2,000) forced Jewish Germans out of most jobs and severely limited their ability to earn a living and live a normal life.

Nazi policy during this period aimed at forcing Jewish Germans out of Germany. However, those willing to emigrate had great difficulty in finding countries that would admit them. The government also stripped them of their assets before they could leave. But the majority of German Jews, and Austrian Jews after the annexation of Austria in 1938, managed to flee. Apogrom in November 1938 (often referred to as Reichskristallnachi) showed the imminent danger to those who had been reluctant to emigrate. Exploiting the murder of a German diplomat by a young Jewish man in Paris, the Nazis organized the burning of synagogues as well as attacks on Jewish-businesses and homes, and they sent a large number of Jewish Germans into concentration camps.

History of the Holocaust: World War II Period

Germany’s attack on Poland on September 1, 1939, triggered the outbreak of World War II. The war marked a new stage. During the war, and especially in Eastern Europe, Nazi Germany implemented the full range of its radical ideological aims. The first scene of atrocities was Poland. Mass executions decimated Polish elites, large-scale ethnic cleansing occurred, and population transfers took place between the western part of Poland, annexed to Germany, and the eastern part under German administration. Discriminatory laws against Poles and Jews were issued; here, for the first time, Jews needed to wear the “Yellow Star” of David. In Germany proper, wearing a star became mandatory two years later in 1941. In Poland, the first ghettos were established and the Jewish population was forced into them.

In Germany, the Nazis also moved to mass murder. The targeted victim group was disabled inmates of mental institutions (mainly not Jewish), who were “without value,” according to Nazi ideology. From 1939 to 1941, at six mental institutions in Germany and Austria, patients were killed with gas. This is the first example of mass gassing; many of the perpetrators of this crime later staffed the death camps in Poland.

The attack on the Soviet Union in 1941 marked the pinnacle of Hitler’s ideological aims—a total war against “Judeo-Bolshevism” that he hoped would lead to the destruction of this main ideological opponent and to the conquest of land for future German settlement. The Slavic population was considered to be expendable or consigned to a life of serfdom. The Jewish population was targeted for mass murder. On the heels of the German army, mobile task forces consisting of members of the “Security Police and SD” advanced. At first, they conducted large-scale executions of the Communist leadership and the male Jewish population. This soon escalated into the mass murder of the Jewish population in total.

No direct order exists, but according to the majority of scholars, this shift to full-blown genocide took place during the summer or fall of 1941. The lack of a final order cannot be interpreted as proof that Hitler was not aware of what was happening or that the genocide itself did not happen, as revisionists sometimes suggest. There is ample indication in contemporary documents that Hitler was at the center of Holocaust decision making, even as local power holders showed considerable initiative in implementing the mass murder as speedily and efficiently as they could. Mass murder was first committed by shooting. Later, the Security Police developed mobile gas vans as a more efficient way. As in Germany before, the mentally ill were included in the murder actions. In the occupied territories, the Nazis implemented the full range of measures to create a “racially and socially cleansed” country; apart from Jews, Roma (Gypsies), and Communists, so-called “asocials” (e.g., common criminals, prostitutes, “work-shy elements”), who in Germany had been sent to camps, were simply killed in the East. The Holocaust in the Soviet Union was perpetrated by killing actions on-site, although much of the Jewish population was forced into ghettos until several waves of murder actions had been completed. How the war radicalized matters became apparent in 1941 in Serbia, where the German army command murdered the male Jewish population as an act of retaliation against partisan activities. In most countries occupied by Germany or allied with it, the genocide unfolded in a set manner: The Jewish population was segregated from others, marked, forced into ghettos of constantly diminishing size, robbed of their valuables, subjected to forced labor, and finally deported into death camps.

The protocol of the so-called Wannsee Konferenz (taking place on January 20, 1942, and aimed at organizing cooperation among various German government departments participating in the genocide) shows that the Jewish population of all European countries was the final target of the genocide. The success of the genocidal plan depended on the local political situation, the extent of local collaboration with the Germans, the strength of resistance movements, and the possibility that persecuted Jews could hide.

Around 1942, labor shortages led to a shift in German policies; additional laborers were required for the German war effort. Whereas in 1941–1942 the majority of an estimated 3.3 million Soviet prisoners of war (POWs) were starved to death in POW camps, during the following years roughly 7.5 million people (mainly Poles, Ukrainians, and Russians, including POWs) were deported to Germany to perform forced labor. Concentration camp inmates, including Jews, were slave laborers at production sites. However, this did not mean that the goal of the destruction of European Jewry had been abandoned; it only meant that their work capacity should be exploited before their death. For this purpose, deportees into camps were subjected to “selections”; stronger people were selected for work, whereas the weak, the old, and children went straight to the gas chambers.

Of the six death camps, four (Chelmno, Belzec, Sobibor, and Treblinka) were just killing facilities, whereas Auschwitz and Majdanek served the dual purposes of incarcerating and killing victims. Auschwitz, for instance, contained three complexes: Auschwitz-Stammlager, where opponents from all ethnic backgrounds were imprisoned; Auschwitz-Birkenau, where Jewish victims and a large number of Gypsies were routinely killed in gas chambers; and Auschwitz-Buna, which was a slave labor site for the chemical industry.

The headquarters of the Security Police (RSHA) played a leading role in the overall organization of the genocide, including the deportations into death camps. In addition, the police, other German government departments, the civil occupation administration, and the German army participated in the Holocaust; indeed, all parts of German government and society were involved. The priority that the Nazi leadership gave to the destruction of European Jewry is illustrated by the fact that, in 1944, resources that would have been crucial for the war effort were instead used to deport Jews from Greece and Hungary to their deaths in Auschwitz. At the same time, the Security Police attempted to cover their tracks by disinterring corpses from mass graves and burning them. The surviving Jewish camp inmates were forced to retreat with the German forces. The horrendous conditions during these “death marches” took another high toll in Jewish lives—just as liberation seemed to be close.

Historical Debates

The total number of victims of the Holocaust is estimated to range between 5 million and 6 million. Scholars have estimated that 100,000 to 300,000 Jews survived camps and ghettos. However, in the recent discussions about compensation for slave labor, much higher numbers of survivors have been suggested. A scholarly assessment of these figures has not yet taken place.

An ongoing debate concerns the extent of involvement and culpability of Germans in the Holocaust.

Over the past two decades, detailed studies have shown the participation of a widening range of German organizations in the mass murder. However, no consensus has been reached about the degree of involvement, ideological commitment, and overall contribution of, for instance, the German army. Also under discussion is how to evaluate the culpability of participation—collaborators in the Holocaust can range from police officers with command responsibilities to engine drivers of deportation trains—and to what extent the German population, or the non-German population in occupied countries, supported the mass murder or simply knew about it. Although the Holocaust was declared “top secret,” a lot of information was publicly available.

Another hotly debated issue concerns whether the Holocaust should be considered a “unique” event. One side argues that this was an unprecedented event in world history and that Jewish suffering was unique. On the other side, it is said that “uniqueness” is not a useful category because all historical events are unique by themselves but also comparable to others. In addition, it is said that the assumption of uniqueness all too often leads to the denigration of the suffering of other victims of Nazi Germany.

The Holocaust had an enormous moral and political impact on the second half of the 20th century, leading to the establishment of legal principles and standards in the protection of human rights. To begin, the International Tribunal in Nuremberg sat in judgment of the Nazi leadership and developed notions of “crimes against humanity” and war crimes. This led to the 1948 “Genocide Convention,” which introduced the term genocide and its definition, and (most recently) to the 1998 “Rome Statute,” which established an international criminal court.

The Holocaust and Nazi history have also been used to justify political crimes. Communist leaders, for instance, used the struggle against Nazi Germany to legitimize Soviet rule and expansionism. In the Western world, where references to the Nazis and the Holocaust abound, Holocaust imagery has been pressed into the service of nearly any imaginable concern, from abortion to animal rights. Nazism and the Holocaust are also used to support power politics that is not in agreement with international and humanitarian law, as has been noticeable, for instance, in the United States during recent years.