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According to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM), the country's official memorial to the Holocaust, "The Holocaust was the murder of six million Jews and millions of others by the Nazis and their collaborators during World War II." Of the those murdered for being Jewish, more than half were Ashkenazi Polish Jews.
Scope of usage
While the term Holocaust generally refers to the systematic mass murder of the Jewish people in Nazi-occupied Europe, the Nazis also murdered a large number of non-Jewish people who were considered subhuman (Untermenschen) or undesirable. Some victims belonged to several categories targeted for extermination, e.g. an assimilated Jew who was a member of a communist party or someone of Jewish ancestry who was a member of a Jehovah's Witnesses congregation.
Non-Jewish Victims of Nazism included Slavs (e.g. Russians, Poles, Ukrainians and Serbs), Romanis (gypsies), LGBT people (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender); the mentally or physically disabled; Soviet POWs, Roman Catholics, Jehovah's Witnesses, Spanish Republicans, Freemasons, people of color (especially the Afro-German Mischlinge, called "Rhineland Bastards" by Hitler and the Nazi regime); the Deaf, leftists, communists, trade unionists, social democrats, socialists, anarchists, and every other minority or dissident not considered Aryan (Herrenvolk, or part of the "master race").
Taking into account all of the victims of persecution, the Nazis systematically killed an estimated six million Jews and an additional 11 million people during the war. Donald Niewyk suggests that the broadest definition, including Soviet civilian deaths, would produce a death toll of 17 million.
Despite widely varying treatment (some groups were actively targeted for genocide, while others were not), some died in concentration camps such as Dachau and others from various forms of Nazi brutality. According to extensive documentation (written and photographic) left by the Nazis, eyewitness testimony by survivors, perpetrators and bystanders and records of the occupied countries, most perished in death camps such as Auschwitz-Birkenau.
- See also Names of the Holocaust
The military campaign to remove certain classes of persons (above all, Jews) from Germany and other German-held territories during World War II, often with extreme brutality, is known as the Holocaust. It was carried out primarily by German forces and collaborators, German and non-German. Early in the war, millions of Jews were concentrated in urban ghettos. In 1941 Jews were massacred, and by December Hitler had decided to exterminate all Jews living in Europe at that time. In all, more than 30 percent of the Jews in Europe were murdered in the Holocaust; the world's Jewish population was reduced by one-third, from roughly 16.6 million in 1939 to about 11 million in 1946.
In January 1942, during the Wannsee Conference, several Nazi leaders discussed the details of the "Final Solution to the Jewish Question" (Endlösung der Judenfrage) and German State Secretary Josef Bühler urged conference chairman Reinhard Heydrich to proceed with the Final Solution in the General Government. Jewish populations were systematically deported from the ghettos and the occupied territories to the seven camps designated as Vernichtungslager (extermination camps): Auschwitz-Birkenau, Belzec, Chelmno, Majdanek, Maly Trostenets, Sobibór and Treblinka. In 1978 Sebastian Haffner wrote that in December 1941 Hitler began to accept the failure of his primary goal (to dominate Europe) after his declaration of war against the United States, and his withdrawal was compensated for by his secondary goal: the extermination of the Jews. As the Nazi war machine faltered during the war's final years, military resources such as fuel, transport, munitions, soldiers and industrial resources were still diverted from the fronts to the death camps.
Poland, home of the world's largest Jewish community before the war, lost 3,300,000 (90 percent) of its Jewish population. Although the Germans rigorously imposed the death penalty for hiding Jews, some Poles hid Jews (saving their lives) despite the risk to themselves and their families. Although reports of the Holocaust had reached Western leaders, public awareness in the United States and other democracies of the mass murder of Jews in Poland was low at the time; the first references in The New York Times, in 1942, were unconfirmed reports rather than front-page news.
Greece, Yugoslavia, Hungary, Lithuania, Bohemia, the Netherlands, Slovakia and Latvia lost over 70 percent of their Jewish population; in Belgium, Romania, Luxembourg, Norway, and Estonia the figure was about 50 percent. Over one-third of the Soviet Union's Jews were killed; France and Italy lost about 25 percent of their Jewish population. Denmark evacuated nearly all its Jews to nearby, neutral Sweden; the Danish resistance movement, with the assistance of many Danish citizens, evacuated 7,220 of the country's 7,800 Jews by sea to Sweden in vessels ranging from fishing boats to private yachts. The rescue allowed the vast majority of Denmark's Jewish population to avoid capture by the Nazis. Jews outside Europe under Axis occupation were also affected by the Holocaust in Italian Libya, Algeria, Tunisia, Morocco, Iraq, Japan, and China.
Although Jews are an ethnoreligious group, they were defined by the Nazis on purely racial grounds. The Nazi Party viewed the Jewish religion as irrelevant, persecuting Jews in accordance with antisemitic stereotypes of an alleged biologically determined heritage. Defining Jews as the chief enemy, Nazi racial ideology was also used to persecute other minorities.
The Nazi genocide of the Romani people was ignored by scholars until the 1980s, and opinions continue to differ on its details. According to historians Donald Niewyk and Francis Nicosia, the genocide of the Romani began later than that of the Jews and a smaller percentage was killed. Hitler's genocidal campaign against Europe's Romani population involved the application of Nazi "racial hygiene" (selective breeding applied to humans). Although despite discriminatory measures some Romani (including some of Germany's Sinti and Lalleri) were spared deportation and death, the remaining Romani groups suffered a fate similar to that of the Jews. Romani were deported to the Jewish ghettos, shot by SS Einsatzgruppen in their villages, or deported and gassed in Auschwitz-Birkenau and Treblinka.
The Slavs were one of the most widely persecuted groups during the war, with many Poles, Russians, Ukrainians, Serbs and others killed by the Nazis. According to British historian Ian Kershaw, the Nazis' genocide and brutality was their way of ensuring Lebensraum ("living space") for those who met Hitler's narrow racial requirements; this necessitated the elimination of Bolsheviks and Slavs:
The Nazi revolution was broader than just the Holocaust. Its second goal was to eliminate Slavs from central and eastern Europe and to create a Lebensraum for Aryans ... As Bartov (The Eastern Front; Hitler's Army) shows, it barbarised the German armies on the eastern front. Most of their three million men, from generals to ordinary soldiers, helped exterminate captured Slav soldiers and civilians. This was sometimes cold and deliberate murder of individuals (as with Jews), sometimes generalised brutality and neglect ... German soldiers' letters and memoirs reveal their terrible reasoning: Slavs were 'the Asiatic-Bolshevik' horde, an inferior but threatening race. Only a minority of officers and men were Nazi members.
Between 1941 and 1945, approximately three million Ukrainian and other gentiles were killed as part of Nazi extermination policies in present-day Ukraine. More Ukrainians were killed fighting the Wehrmacht in the Red Army than American, British and French soldiers combined. Original Nazi plans called for the extermination of 65 percent of the nation's 23.2 million Ukrainians, with the survivors treated as slaves. Over two million Ukrainians were deported to Germany as slave labor. The ten-year plan would have exterminated, expelled, Germanized or enslaved most (or all) Ukrainians.
The Nazi occupation of Poland was among the most brutal of the war, resulting in more than three million gentile deaths and the deaths of about three million Polish Jews. The six million Jewish, Roman Catholic and Orthodox Poles represented nearly 17 percent of the country's population. Poles were one of Hitler's first extermination targets, as he outlined in an August 22, 1939 speech to Wehrmacht commanders before the invasion. Intelligentsia, socially prominent and influential people were primarily targeted, although ethnic Poles and other Slavic groups were also killed en masse. Hundreds of thousands of Roman Catholic and Orthodox Poles were sent to Auschwitz-Birkenau and other concentration camps, and the intelligentsia were the first targets of the Einsatzgruppen death squads. The anti-Polish campaign culminated in the near-complete destruction of Warsaw, ordered by Hitler and Himmler in 1944.
Soviet Slavs and POWs
During Operation Barbarossa (the Axis invasion of the Soviet Union), millions of Red Army prisoners of war were summarily executed in the field by German armies (the Waffen SS in particular), died under inhumane conditions in German prisoner of war camps and death marches or were shipped to concentration camps for execution. The Germans killed an estimated 2.8 million Soviet POWs by starvation, exposure and execution over an eight-month period in 1941–42. According to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, by the winter of 1941 "starvation and disease resulted in mass death of unimaginable proportions". As many as 500,000 people were killed in the concentration camps.
Soviet civilian populations in the occupied areas were severely persecuted and endured the treacherous conditions of the Eastern Front, which spawned atrocities such as the siege of Leningrad (when more than 1.2 million civilians died). Thousands of peasant villages across Russia, Belarus and Ukraine were annihilated by German troops. During the occupation the Leningrad, Pskov and Novgorod region lost about a quarter of its population. An estimated one-quarter of Soviet civilian deaths at the hands of the Nazis and their allies (five million Russians, three million Ukrainians and 1.5 million Belarusians) were racially motivated. In 1995 the Russian Academy of Sciences reported that civilian deaths in the occupied USSR, including Jews, at the hands of the Germans totaled 13.7 million dead (20 percent of the population of 68 million). The figure includes 7.4 million victims of Nazi genocide and reprisals; 2.2 million deaths of persons deported to Germany as forced labour, and 4.1 million famine and disease deaths. An estimated three million people also died of starvation in unoccupied territory. The losses occurred within the 1946–1991 borders of the USSR, and include territories annexed in 1939–40. The deaths of 8.2 million Soviet civilians, including Jews, were documented by the Soviet Extraordinary State Commission.
People with disabilities
According to their eugenics policy, the Nazis believed that the disabled were a burden to society because they needed care and were considered an affront to their notion of a society composed of a perfect race. About 375,000 people were sterilized against their will due to their disabilities.
Those with disabilities were among the first to be killed by the Nazis; according to the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM), the T-4 Program (established in 1939) was the model for future Nazi exterminations and set a precedent for the genocide of what they described as the Jewish race. The program attempted to maintain the "purity" of the Aryan race by systematically killing children and adults with physical deformities or suffering from mental illness, using gas chambers for the first time. Although Hitler formally halted the program in late August 1941, the killings secretly continued until the end of the war and an estimated 275,000 people with congenital disabilities died.
The Nazis promoted xenophobia and racism against all "non-Aryan" races. African (black sub-Saharan or North African) and Asian (East and South Asian) residents of Germany and black prisoners of war, such as the French colonial troops captured in the Battle of France, were also victims of Nazi racial policy. When the Nazis came to power hundreds of African-German children, the offspring of German mothers and African soldiers brought in during the French occupation, lived in the Rhineland. In Mein Kampf, Hitler described the children of marriages to African occupation troops as a contamination of the white race "by Negro blood on the Rhine in the heart of Europe" who were "bastardising the European continent at its core". According to Hitler, "Jews were responsible for bringing Negroes into the Rhineland, with the ultimate idea of bastardising the white race which they hate and thus lowering its cultural and political level so that the Jew might dominate".
Japan signed the Tripartite Pact with Germany and Italy on September 27, 1940, and was part of the Axis. No Japanese people were known to be deliberately imprisoned or killed, since they were considered "honorary Aryans". In The Political Testament of Adolf Hitler, he wrote:
I have never regarded the Chinese or the Japanese as being inferior to ourselves ... and I admit freely that their past history is superior to our own. They have the right to be proud of their past, just as we have the right to be proud of the civilisation to which we belong.
Gays and lesbians
Non-heterosexual people were also targets of the Holocaust, since male homosexuality was deemed incompatible with Nazism. The Nazis believed that gay men were weak, effeminate and unable to fight for the German nation; homosexuals were unlikely to produce children and increase the German birthrate. According to the Nazis, "inferior races" produced more children than Aryans, so anything which diminished Germany's reproductive potential was considered a racial danger. Homosexuality was also thought to be contagious by the Nazis. By 1936, Heinrich Himmler was leading efforts to persecute gay men under existing and new anti-homosexual laws. More than one million gay Germans were targeted, of whom at least 100,000 were arrested and 50,000 were convicted and imprisoned. An unknown number were institutionalized in state-run mental hospitals. Hundreds of European gay men living under Nazi occupation were chemically castrated by court order. Although an estimated 5,000 to 15,000 gay men were imprisoned in concentration camps, the number who died is uncertain. According to Austrian survivor Heinz Heger, gay men "suffered a higher mortality rate than other relatively small victim groups, such as Jehovah's Witnesses and political prisoners". Gay men in Nazi concentration camps were identified by a pink triangle on their shirts, along with men convicted of sexually assaulting children and bestiality. Lesbians were not usually treated as harshly as gay men; although they were labelled "asocial", they were rarely imprisoned on sexual-orientation charges. In the concentration camps, they usually wore a black triangle. According to the USHMM website, "Nazi Germany did not seek to kill all homosexuals. Nevertheless, the Nazi state, through active persecution, attempted to terrorise German homosexuals into sexual and social conformity, leaving thousands dead and shattering the lives of many more."
Many homosexuals who were liberated from the concentration camps were persecuted in postwar Germany. Survivors were subject to prosecution under Paragraph 175 (which forbade "lewdness between men"), with time served in the concentration camps deducted from their sentences. This contrasted with the treatment of other Holocaust victims, who were compensated for the loss of family members and educational opportunities.
Another large group of victims was composed of German and foreign civilian activists across the political spectrum who opposed the Nazi regime, captured resistance fighters (many of whom were executed during—or immediately after—their interrogation, particularly in occupied Poland and France) and, sometimes, their families. German political prisoners were a substantial proportion of the first inmates at Dachau (the prototypical Nazi concentration camp). The political People's Court was notorious for the number of its death sentences.
German Communists were among the first to be imprisoned in concentration camps. Their ties to the USSR concerned Hitler, and the Nazi Party was intractably opposed to communism. Rumors of communist violence were spread by the Nazis to justify the Enabling Act of 1933, which gave Hitler his first dictatorial powers. Hermann Göring testified at Nuremberg that Nazi willingness to repress German Communists prompted Hindenburg and the old elite to cooperate with them. Hitler and the Nazis also despised German leftists because of their resistance to Nazi racism. Many German leftist leaders were Jews who had been prominent in the 1919 Spartacist uprising. Hitler referred to Marxism and "Bolshevism" as means for "the international Jew" to undermine "racial purity", stir up class tension and mobilize trade unions against the government and business. When the Nazis occupied a territory, communists, socialists and anarchists were usually among the first to be repressed; this included summary executions. An example is Hitler's Commissar Order, in which he demanded the summary execution of all captured Soviet troops who were political commissars.
Thousands of people, primarily diplomats, of nationalities associated with the Allies (China and Mexico, for example) and Spanish Civil War refugees in occupied France were interned or executed. After Italy's 1943 surrender, many Italian nationals (including partisans and Italian soldiers disarmed by the Germans) were sent to concentration camps.
Other religious persecution
The Nazis also targeted religious groups for political and ideological reasons. Thousands of Christian clergy were killed, including some with a Jewish background (Edith Stein, for example). The Nazis considered Jews a racial group; secular people and those of other religions who had Jewish ancestry were, therefore, Jews (a belief shared by some Jews).
Historian Detlef Garbe, director of the Neuengamme Memorial in Hamburg, wrote about Jehovah's Witnesses: "No other religious movement resisted the pressure to conform to National Socialism [Nazism] with comparable unanimity and steadfastness". Between 2,500 and 5,000 Witnesses died in the concentration camps; unwilling to fight for any cause, they refused to serve in the army.
The Catholic Church was persecuted under the Third Reich, with the Nazi leadership hoping to gradually de-Christianize Germany. Political Catholicism was a target of Hitler's 1934 Night of the Long Knives. German clergy, nuns and lay leaders were also targeted after the Nazi takeover, leading to thousands of arrests over the following years. Priests who were part of the Catholic resistance were killed. Hitler's invasion of Catholic Poland in 1939 began World War II, and the Nazis targeted clergy, monks and nuns in their campaign to destroy Polish culture.
In 1940, the Priest Barracks of Dachau Concentration Camp was established. Of 2,720 clergy imprisoned at Dachau, the overwhelming majority (94.88 percent) were Catholic. According to Ian Kershaw, about 400 German priests were sent to the camp. Although the Holy See concluded a 1933 concordat with Germany to protect Catholicism in the Third Reich, the Nazis frequently violated the pact in their Kirchenkampf ("struggle with the churches"). They shut down the Catholic press, schools, political parties and youth groups in Germany amid murder and mass arrests. In March 1937, Pope Pius XI issued his Mit brennender Sorge encyclical accusing the Nazi government of violating the 1933 concordat and sowing the "tares of suspicion, discord, hatred, calumny, of secret and open fundamental hostility to Christ and His Church".
The church was especially harshly treated in annexed regions, such as Austria. Viennese Gauleiter Odilo Globocnik confiscated property, closed Catholic organizations and sent many priests to Dachau. In the Czech lands, religious orders were suppressed, schools closed, religious instruction forbidden and priests sent to concentration camps. Catholic bishops, clergy, nuns and laypeople protested and attacked Nazi policies in occupied territories; in 1942, the Dutch bishops protested the mistreatment of Jews. When Archbishop Johannes de Jong refused to yield to Nazi threats, the Gestapo rounded up Catholic "Jews" and sent 92 to Auschwitz. One Dutch Catholic abducted in this manner was nun Edith Stein, who died at Auschwitz along with Poland's Maximilian Kolbe. Other Catholic victims of the Holocaust have been beatified, including Poland's 108 Martyrs of World War II, the Martyrs of Nowogródek, Dutch theologian Titus Brandsma and Germany's Lübeck martyrs and Bernhard Lichtenberg.
According to Norman Davies, the Nazi terror was "much fiercer and more protracted in Poland than anywhere in Europe." Polish Catholic victims of the Third Reich numbered in the millions. Nazi ideology viewed ethnic Poles—the mainly Catholic ethnic majority of Poland—as subhuman. After their 1939 invasion of Poland, the Nazis instituted a policy of murdering (or suppressing) the ethnic-Polish elite (including Catholic religious leaders). The Nazi plan for Poland was the nation's destruction, which necessitated attacking the Polish Church (particularly in areas annexed by Germany). About the brief period of military control from September 1 to October 25, 1939, Davies wrote: "According to one source, 714 mass executions were carried out, and 6,376 people, mainly Catholics, were shot. Other put the death toll in one town alone at 20,000. It was a taste of things to come."
In Polish areas annexed by Nazi Germany, severe persecution began. The Nazis systematically dismantled the church, arresting its leaders, exiling its clergy and closing its churches, monasteries and convents. Germanization of the annexed regions began in December 1939 with deportations of men, women and children. According to Richard J. Evans, in the Reichsgau Wartheland "numerous clergy, monks, diocesan administrators and officials of the Church were arrested, deported to the General Government, taken off to a concentration camp in the Reich, or simply shot. Altogether some 1700 Polish priests ended up at Dachau: half of them did not survive their imprisonment." Among the clergy who died at Dachau were many of the 108 Polish Martyrs of World War II.
Hitler said in 1940, "Poles may have only one master—a German. Two masters cannot exist side by side, and this is why all members of the Polish intelligentsia must be killed." Thomas J. Craughwell wrote that from 1939 to 1945, an estimated 3,000 members of the Polish clergy (18 percent) were murdered; of these, 1,992 died in concentration camps. According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, 1,811 Polish priests died in Nazi concentration camps. Among the persecuted resisters was Irena Sendlerowa, head of the children's section of Żegota, who placed more than 2,500 Jewish children in convents, orphanages, schools, hospitals and homes. Captured by the Gestapo in 1943, Sendlerowa was crippled by torture.
The Nazis attempted to deal with Protestant dissent with their ideology by creating the Reich Church, a union of 28 existing Protestant groups espousing Positive Christianity (a doctrine compatible with Nazism). Non-Aryan ministers were suspended and church members called themselves German Christians, with "the swastika on their chest and the cross in their heart." The Protestant opposition to the Nazis established the Confessing Church, a rival umbrella organization of independent German regional churches which was persecuted.
The Bahá'í Faith was formally banned in the Third Reich. Heinrich Himmler signed a 1937 order disbanding Bahá'í institutions in Germany because of their "international and pacifist tendencies". In 1939 and 1942, there were sweeping arrests of former members of the German Spiritual Assembly. May 1944 saw a public trial in Darmstadt; although Hermann Grossmann defended the faith, the Bahá'ís were steeply fined and their institutions continued to be disbanded.
The Nazis claimed that high-degree Masons were willing members of "the Jewish conspiracy" and Freemasonry was a cause of Germany's defeat in World War I. Reich Main Security Office (Reichssicherheitshauptamt, or RSHA) records indicate the persecution of Freemasons during the Holocaust. RSHA Amt VII (written records), overseen by Franz Six, was responsible for "ideological" tasks: the creation of antisemitic and anti-Masonic propaganda. Although the exact number is unknown, an estimated 80,000 to 200,000 Freemasons were killed as a result of Hitler's December 1941 Nacht und Nebel directive. Masonic concentration-camp inmates, considered political prisoners, wore an inverted red triangle.
Small blue forget-me-nots were first used by the Zur Sonne Grand Lodge in 1926 as a Masonic emblem at its annual convention in Bremen. In 1938 a forget-me-not badge made by the factory which produced the Masonic badge was chosen for the annual Nazi Winterhilfswerk, the charity drive of the National Socialist People's Welfare (the party's welfare branch). The coincidence enabled Freemasons to wear the forget-me-not badge as a secret sign of Masonic membership.
After the war, the forget-me-not was again used as a Masonic emblem at the first annual United Grand Lodges of Germany convention in 1948. The badge is worn on the lapels of Masons worldwide in remembrance of those who have suffered in the name of Freemasonry, particularly during the Nazi era.
Speakers of Esperanto, an international auxiliary language, were viewed with suspicion by the Nazis. Hitler considered it a language of the "Jewish conspiracy" because its creator, L. L. Zamenhof, was Jewish.
The SS and police conducted mass actions against civilians with alleged links to resistance movements, their families, and villages or city districts. Notorious killings occurred in Lidice, Khatyn, Sant'Anna and Oradour-sur-Glane, and a district of Warsaw was obliterated. In occupied Poland, Nazi Germany imposed the death penalty on those found sheltering (or aiding) Jews. "Social deviants"—prostitutes, vagrants, alcoholics, drug addicts, open dissidents, pacifists, draft resisters and common criminals—were also imprisoned in concentration camps. The common criminals frequently became Kapos, inmate guards of fellow prisoners.
Some Germans and Austrians who lived abroad for much of their lives were considered to have too much exposure to foreign ideas, and were sent to concentration camps. These prisoners, known as "emigrants", each wore a blue triangle.
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The Munich Chief of Police, Himmler, has issued the following press announcement: On Wednesday the first concentration camp is to be opened in Dachau with an accommodation for 5000 persons. 'All Communists and—where necessary—Reichsbanner and Social Democratic functionaries who endanger state security are to be concentrated here, as in the long run it is not possible to keep individual functionaries in the state prisons without overburdening these prisons, and on the other hand these people cannot be released because attempts have shown that they persist in their efforts to agitate and organise as soon as they are released.'
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"Hitler specifically attacked Esperanto as a threat in a speech in Munich (1922) and in Mein Kampf itself (1925). The Nazi Minister for Education banned the teaching of Esperanto on 17 May 1935 ... all Esperantists were essentially enemies of the state, serving through their language Jewish-internationalist aims" (pages 161–162)
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