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The Holocaust

Perhaps the saddest and most disturbing chapter in all of human history was written during World War II. While the Allies worked to put down the Axis Powers’ political aggressions, the Germans quietly worked to eliminate as many Jews, eastern Europeans, and “impure breeds” of humans as they could. The word Holocaust derives from a Latin word the Romans used to describe a sacrifice completely consumed by fire in ancient Judaism. The word has come to be associated with the atrocities and mass executions of the Jews and others between about 1938 and 1945.

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Jews have suffered persecution time and time again throughout European history. The Crusaders attacked Jews en route to the Holy Land, people blamed the Black Death on a Jewish conspiracy, and Jews were not allowed in England for centuries prior to Cromwell's protectorate. The Holocaust was, by far, the worst persecution of Jews not just in European history but in human history.

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The Gypsies, or Roma, who also suffered terribly at the hands of the Nazis, use their language to describe the atrocities as “The Devouring."

The Holocaust resulted from the deep antiSemitism Hitler developed as a youth and the intense German nationalism he felt. German nationalism prior to World War II promoted a sense of German superiority that suggested other ethnicities were somehow less human. Hitler used this anti-Semitism and nationalism as part of his master plan to depopulate as much of eastern Europe as possible to create “living space” for his superior race. He targeted not only Jews but also Poles, Ukrainians, Gypsies or Roma, and homosexuals. Sadly, few heeded his warnings—and there were warnings.

He Said It in Mein Kampf

Adolf Hitler began dictating Mein Kampf, which translates to “My Struggle,” while in jail in the early 1920s. In his book, which is somewhat autobiographical, Hitler tells of early experiences that contributed to his anti-Semitism. He even presented himself as the “superman” or “superhuman” of which Nietzsche wrote. Hitler rambled on about “the Jewish peril” and the conspiracy among Jews to take over Europe and the world. He spoke of Jews as “parasites” and questioned the value of Jewish life. He used convoluted logic to divide up all of humanity into different races with the blonde-haired, blue-eyed Aryans at the top of the order. The Jews and Gypsies or Roma were at the bottom of the order.

According to Hitler, the Jews were hurting the Aryans by holding them back in lives of mediocre equality rather than their natural superiority. He even mentioned the use of gas on the Jews, but not in the context of concentration camps. He hated the Communists, too, and hoped to one day eliminate them. The best estimates show that some 10 million copies of the book circulated through Germany by the end of the war, even though many people purchased the book just to show support of the Nazi party.

The Jewish Problem

In 1942, a group of Nazi officials met at the Wannsee Conference to discuss the so- called “Jewish question” or “Jewish problem.” The leaders of the conference wanted to realize Hitler’s dream of living space for Germany. To do so, however, meant removing the inferior races like Gypsies and Jews from Germany, Poland, and other eastern European lands. The talk focused on physically moving the Jews and sterilizing those who could not be moved. The conference then dealt with who exactly the Jews were and how to determine which people would and could be classified as Jews. The transcripts of the conference revealed that the delegates discussed a “final solution,” a target of 11 million; they did not specifically address how, other than deportation, this number was to be reached. The transcripts made it clear, though, that the deportation of the Jews had become more tedious and expensive than the Nazis had hoped. That, perhaps, served as motivation for the use of the death camps and concentration camps in Poland.

Concentration Camps

Persecution of the Jews by the Nazi party began in 1938 with the Kristallnacht, or Night of the Broken Glass, when Nazis ruthlessly destroyed Jewish synagogues, businesses, and homes. Thereafter, Nazis moved the Jews to ghettos. In the invasions of Poland and the Soviet Union, the Nazis shot Jews on sight and then moved on to mass executions, which gradually became more and more organized and planned.

As the numbers of Jews who had to be “dealt with” increased, the Nazis in 1940 began constructing camps where mass executions could be carried out on a regular basis. Almost all such camps were in Poland and were supervised by Heinrich Himmler’s SS troops. Although some prisoners of these camps did hard labor, most prisoners arrived and faced execution almost right away. The camps used large gas chambers and incinerators to kill those who arrived daily. German scientists and “doctors” also performed gruesome and torturous experiments on countless prisoners. All told, some six million Jews and perhaps that many Slavs, Gypsies, and homosexuals died in the concentration camps. The worst of the concentration camps was located at Auschwitz, where a million or more died.

The Nuremburg Trials

After World War II, a series of trials were held at the Nuremburg Palace of Justice in Nuremburg, Germany. As Allied troops made their way through Poland and discovered the horrors of the extermination camps, word spread quickly. After the war, the Allies rounded up as many “war criminals” as could be located, including those responsible for the concentration camps.

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The Nuremburg Trials were bound by no rules of evidence. The tribunal was allowed to hear and consider any evidence it deemed useful.

The most famous of the trials at Nuremburg was the International Military Tribunal from 1945 to 1946. The Tribunal tried the Nazis for crimes against peace, war crimes, and crimes against humanity. Among those on trial were Hermann Goring, commander of the Luftwaffe; Rudolph Hess; Joachim von Ribbentrop; and Alfred Rosenberg, mastermind behind many racial and ethnic Nazi policies. Though Hess was sentenced to life in prison, the others mentioned here received the death penalty. The trials resulted in the Nuremburg Principles and the Nuremburg Code, which strictly prohibit crimes against humanity, such as those performed by the Nazis.

The Least You Need to Know

During the interwar years, European nations faced economic and political uncertainty. As a result, many Europeans looked for strong, confident leaders.

The nations of Europe wanted so badly to remain at peace after World War I that they allowed Hitler to ignore the Treaty of Versailles, build his armies, and conquer territories.

Finally, after the invasion of Poland in 1939, Britain and France declared war on Germany. The Soviet Union joined the Allies against the Germans after Hitler invaded Russia and the United States joined after Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor.

Germany finally succumbed to the Allies after the Allies invaded France via Operation Overlord and pushed through France toward Germany. The Allied and Soviet forces met in Berlin.

Japan surrendered only after the United States dropped two atomic bombs on Japan, one at Hiroshima and one at Nagasaki.

The war cost humanity some 50 million or more lives, including 10 million or more victims of Nazi genocide.

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