When looking back at how the holocaust could have even happened, it is important to note that antisemitism had already been in place in Europe, even before World War I. With the losses that Germany and Austria incurred at the end of WW I, Jews and Communists, particularly those in Russia, were signaled out for persecution as having been the cause for any financial and political losses, even though there was little to no tangible evidence for such thinking.
It was this general viewpoint about the Jews that Adolf Hitler promoted and expanded upon, as he moved into power in the 1930s. He planned to build a pure, super race of humans, to be known as “Aryans” and to make room for this new race, any “inferior” races would need to be removed or exterminated. This included the Jews, Gypsies, and homosexuals, to name a few. In 1934, after President Paul von Hindenburg’s death, Hitler declared himself Germany’s “Fuhrer” and began instituting his plans of removing and exterminating the Jews and other “undesirables.”
The Death Camps
The first concentration camp to open was Dachau, close to Munich, in March of 1933, and the first residents were Communists and the Socialist Democrats, although that would change quickly to add in Jews as well. Between 1933 and 1939, the beginning of World War II, the German Jews began losing their jobs, their businesses, and became targets for terrible abuse, including the burning down of their synagogues. Thousands of Jews left Germany in the early days, but for those Jews who stayed, it would not be long before they were rounded up and sent to one of several camps, either in Germany or Poland.
The Germans also developed the “Euthanasia Program” in 1939, designed to end some 70,000 mentally ill or disabled Germans by gassing them to death. After a huge uproar from German religious leaders, the program was publicly shelved, although privately, it continued to exist on a much smaller scale.
As Germany expanded its reach during World War II through Denmark, Norway, Belgium, Luxembourg, and France, the need for implementing a “final solution” to the Jewish problem was given to Reinhard Heydrich, Chief of Security of the Schutzstaffel (SS), the most feared organization in Germany. By 1941, Auschwitz had been built in Poland and would become the prime location for implementation of the final solution using gas chambers.
Meanwhile, pogroms were conducted against Jews across Europe, killing 10,000+ Jews in Jassy, Romania, and 3,800 Jews in Kovno, Lithuania. As Germany began Operation Barbarossa into Russia in 1941, 23,000 Jews were killed at Kamenets-Podolsk, Ukraine, and 33,771 Jews were slaughtered at Babi Yar, close to Kiev. A further 35,000 Jews from Odessa were shot in early October of 1941.
Reports of the atrocities being committed by the Germans at the death camps began to filter through to the Allied governments around 1942 who, at first, did not believe or understand the size of what was being done, and who were more focused on winning the war. The events of what happened to the Jews (and others) who were systematically exterminated over the four years, from 1941 to 1945, were only brought to full view upon the liberation of the concentration camps, and those death camps that were uncovered at the end of the war. Even as Allied Forces were closing in on Germany and Berlin, German and Polish death camps were being emptied out, with inmates marched for miles under guard, away from the front lines. Between 250,000 to 375,000 prisoners died on these marches , never getting to experience freedom at the last.
|The Jewish Populations of Europe at the Beginning of WW II|
|List of Concentration Camps/Deaths
D = Death Camp / C = Concentration Camp
|Auschwitz-Birkenau (D) gas chambers using Zyklon B gas||2 million exterminated, including 1,500,000 Jews|
|Belzec (D) closed 12/1942||600,000 exterminated|
|Bergen Belsen (C)||Between 36,400 and 37,600 died. 13,000 died after liberation as well.|
|Buchenwald (C)||34,375 prisoners died out of 238,980|
|Chelmno (D) gas vans||Between 152,000 to 180,000. Suspected of 340,000|
|Dachau (C)||31,951 died out of 206,206 prisoners|
|Flossenbürg (C)||30,000 died|
|Gross Rosen (C)||40,000 died out of 125,000 inmates|
|Majdanek (D)||360,000 exterminated|
|Mauthausen (C)||34,000 gassed at Hartheim Castle|
|Neuengamme (C)||40,000 estimated as dying, out of 106,000 total inmates|
|Ravensbruck (C)||50,000 women died, some in medical experiments.|
|Sachsenhausen (C)||Between 30,000 to 50,000 deaths|
|Sobibor (D)||250,000 exterminated|
|Stutthof (C)||25,000 estimated deaths, occurring mainly during camp evacuations|
|Theresienstadt (C)||33,000 died|
|Treblinka (D)||870,000 exterminated|
|Vught (C)||749 died out of 31,000|