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The Holocaust

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 inmates during the Holocaust
Concentration camp inmates during the Holocaust

The Holocaust refers to Nazi Germany's systematic genocide (ethnic cleansing) of various ethnic, religious, national, and secular groups during World War II starting in 1941 and continuing through 1945.

The Jews of Europe were the main targets of the Holocaust, in what the Nazis called the "Final Solution of the Jewish Question." The commonly used figure for the number of Jewish victims is six million, so much so that the phrase 'six million' is now almost universally interpreted as referring to the Jewish victims of the Holocaust, though mainstream estimates by historians of the exact number range from five million to over six million. Other groups deemed "undesirable," especially Slavs (Poles, Russians and others), Rroma (or Roma), Sinti, the mentally or physically disabled, gay men, Jehovah's Witnesses, and political dissidents, were also persecuted and murdered. Taking all these other groups into account, the total death toll rises considerably. The estimates for these victims are unclear, due to the lack of records and the politicized questions around including or excluding non-Jewish victims. Estimates place the total number of Holocaust victims at up to 26 million.


Etymology and usage of the term

The word holocaust originally derived from the Greek word holokauston, meaning "a completely (holos) burnt (kaustos) sacrificial offering", or "a burnt sacrifice offered to God". In Greek and Roman pagan rites, Gods of the earth and underworld received dark animals, which were offered by night and burnt in full. Holocaust was later used to refer to a sacrifice Jews were required to make by the Torah. But since the mid nineteenth century the word has been used by a large variety of authors to reference large catastrophes and massacres.

The biblical word Shoa (השואה), also spelled Shoah and Sho'ah, meaning "calamity" in Hebrew (and also used to refer to "destruction" since the Middle Ages), became the standard Hebrew term for the Holocaust as early as the early 1940s [1]. Churban Europa, meaning "European Destruction" in Hebrew (as opposed to simply Churban, the destruction of the Second Temple), is also used. Many Rroma (or 'Gypsy') people, who were also targetted during the Holocaust, use the word Porajmos, meaning "Devouring".

Shoa is preferred by many Jews and a growing number of Christians and other people due to the theologically offensive nature of the original meaning of the word holocaust as a reference to a sacrifice to God and also due to scholarly insistence that this largely archaic meaning somehow tilts the present meanings. There is also concern that the particular significance of The Holocaust would be lessened as it becomes increasingly popular in the latter half of the 20th century to refer generically to any mass killings such as the Rwandan Genocide and the actions of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia as 'holocausts'. The Armenians have long used the term in reference to their persecution by the Ottoman empire during WWI. This can be viewed as a political question, with non-Jewish groups that were victims of genocide attempting to ride the success of Jews in popularizing knowledge of the Holocaust as a Jewish event, and Jewish groups conversely attempting to preserve a version of history that views the Holocaust as a uniquely Jewish event.

The term has been frequently used to reference nuclear war and in the US of the early 1960s this sense was much more prevalent than its current meanings.

Features of the Nazi Holocaust

There were several characteristics to the Nazi Holocaust which taken together distinguish it from other genocides in history.


The Holocaust was an intentional and meticulously planned attempt to entirely eradicate the target groups based on ethnicity.

It is estimated that die Endlösung der Judenfrage (the Final Solution of the Jewish Question), as the Nazis called it during the Wannsee conference of January 1942, saw the murder of 60 percent of all the Jews in Europe, and 35 per cent of the world's Jewish population. In a speech in October 1943, Heinrich Himmler, the Reichsführer of the Schutzstaffel (SS), told a group of senior SS men and Nazi party leaders: "What about the women and children? I decided to find an absolutely clear solution here too. I regard myself as having no right to exterminate (ausrotten) the men—in other words, to kill them or have them killed—and to let the avengers in the form of the children grow up for our sons and grandsons to deal with. The difficult decision had to be taken to make these people disappear from the earth."

It was justified by claiming that the victims were Untermenschen, i.e. 'underlings' or 'subhumans', who were seen as both biologically inferior and (in the case of Jews) a potential challenge to the superiority of the 'Aryans'. Its perpetrators saw it as a form of eugenics—the creation of a better race by eliminating the designated "unfit"—along the same lines as their programs of compulsory sterilization, compulsory euthanasia, and "racial hygiene".


The Holocaust was characterized by the efficient and systematic attempt on an industrial scale to assemble and murder as many victims as possible, using all of the resources and technology available to the Nazi Germany state.

For example, detailed lists of potential victims were made and maintained using Dehomag statistical machinery, and meticulous records of the killings were produced. As prisoners entered the death camps, they were made to surrender all personal property to the Nazis, which was then precisely catalogued and tagged, and for which receipts were issued. In addition, considerable effort was expended over the course of the Holocaust to find increasingly efficient means of killing more people; for example, by switching from carbon monoxide poisoning in the Aktion Reinhard death camps of Belzec, Sobibór, and Treblinka to the use of Zyklon B at Majdanek and Auschwitz.

In his book Russia's War, British historian Richard Overy describes how the Germans sought more efficient ways to kill people. In 1941, after occupying Belarus, they used mental patients from Minsk asylums as guinea pigs. Initially, they tried shooting them by having them stand one behind the other, so that several people could be killed with one bullet, but it was too slow. Then they tried dynamite, but few were killed and many were left wounded with hands and legs missing, so that the Germans had to finish them off with machine guns. In October 1941, in Mogilev, they tried the Gaswagen or "gas car". First they used a light military car, and it took more than 30 minutes for people to die. Then they used a larger truck exhaust and it took only eight minutes to kill all the people inside.

Alleged corporate involvement in the Holocaust has created significant controversy in recent years. Rudolf Hoess, Auschwitz camp commandant, said that far from having to advertise their slave labour services, the concentration camps were actually approached by various large German businesses, some of which are still in existence.


The Holocaust was geographically widespread and methodically conducted in virtually all areas of Nazi-occupied territory, where Jews and other victims were targeted in what are now 35 separate European nations, and sent to labor camps in some nations or extermination camps in others.

Documented evidence suggests that the Nazis planned to carry out their 'final solution' in Britain, North America, and Palestine if these regions were conquered. The murders continued in different parts of Nazi controlled territory until the end of World War II, only completely ending when the Allies entered Germany itself and forced the Nazis to surrender in May 1945.


The Nazis carried out cruel and deadly medical experiments on prisoners, including children. Dr. Josef Mengele, medical officer at Auschwitz and chief medical officer at Birkenau, was known as the "Angel of Death" for his sadistic and bizarre medical and eugenics experiments. Many of these experiments were intended to produce 'racially pure' babies and as research into weapons and techniques of war. Day to day life in the concentration camps was also brutal, with the Nazis regularly carrying out beatings and acts of torture.


The victims of the Holocaust were primarily Jews, who were the targets of the Final Solution. However, other groups regarded as undesirable were also persecuted and murdered, including Communists, gay men, Rroma and Sinti (also known as gypsies), the mentally ill and the physically disabled, Soviet prisoners of war, Polish, Russian, and other Slavic intelligentsia, political activists, Jehovah's Witnesses, some Catholic and Protestant clergy, trade unionists, psychiatric patients, common criminals and people labeled as "enemies of the state". These victims all perished alongside one another in the camps, according to the extensive documentation left behind by the Nazis themselves (written and photographed), eye-witness testimony (by survivors, perpetrators, and bystanders), and the statistical records of the various countries under occupation.


Nazis in uniform in Vienna, Austria 1938 mock Jewish men scrubbing streets
Nazis in uniform in Vienna, Austria 1938 mock Jewish men scrubbing streets

Anti-Semitism was common in Europe in the 1920s and 1930s (though its history extends far back throughout many centuries during the course of Judaism). Adolf Hitler's fanatical anti-Semitism was laid out in his 1925 book Mein Kampf, which, though largely ignored when it was first printed, became popular in Germany once Hitler acquired political power.

On April 1, 1933 the recently elected Nazis, under Julius Streicher, organized a one-day boycott of all Jewish-owned businesses in Germany. This policy helped to usher in a series of anti-Semitic acts that would eventually culminate in the Holocaust. The last remaining Jewish enterprises in Germany were closed on July 6, 1939. In many cities throughout Europe, Jews had been living in concentrated areas. During the first years of World War II, the Nazis formalized the borders of these areas and restricted movement, creating modern ghettos to which Jews were confined. The ghettos were, in effect, prisons in which many Jews died from hunger and disease; others were executed by the Nazis and their collaborators. Concentration camps for Jews existed in Germany itself. During the invasion of the Soviet Union, over 3,000 special killing units (Einsatzgruppen) followed the Wehrmacht, conducting mass killings of Communist officials and of the Jewish population that lived on Soviet territory. Entire communities were wiped out by being rounded up, robbed of their possessions and clothing, and shot at the edges of ditches.

 (left), leader of the (responsible for rounding up Jews), with (right).
Heinrich Himmler (left), leader of the SS (responsible for rounding up Jews), with Adolf Hitler (right).

In December 1941, Hitler finally decided to exterminate European Jews. In January 1942, during the Wannsee conference, several Nazi leaders discussed the details of the "Final Solution of the Jewish question" (Endlösung der Judenfrage). Dr. Josef Buhler urged Reinhard Heydrich to proceed with the Final Solution in the General Government. They began to systematically deport Jewish populations from the ghettos and all occupied territories to the seven camps designated as Vernichtungslager, or extermination camps: Auschwitz, Belzec, Chelmno, Majdanek, Maly Trostenets, Sobibór and Treblinka II.


Poles were one of the first targets of extermination by Hitler, as outlined in the speech he gave the Wehrmacht commanders before the invasion of Poland in 1939. The intelligentsia and socially prominent or powerful people were primarily targeted, although there were some mass murders and instances of genocide (notoriously, the Croatian Ustashe). The Nazi occupation of Poland (General Government, Reichsgau Wartheland) was one of the most brutal episodes of World War II, resulting in over 6 million Polish deaths (over 20% of country's inhabitants), including the mass murder of 3 million Polish Jews in extermination camps like Auschwitz.

During Operation Barbarossa, the Axis invasion of the Soviet Union, hundreds of thousands (if not millions) of Red Army POWs were arbitrarily executed in the field by the invading German armies (in particular by the notorious Waffen SS), or were shipped to extermination camps for execution simply because they were of Slavic extraction. Thousands of Soviet peasant villages were annihilated by German troops for more or less the same reason. During World War II, every fourth person was killed in Belarus (and according to latest data, some reasearchers say up to 30%). The Jewish population of Belarus was almost totally exterminated.

The Nazis provided various gradations of Slavs, e.g. it was thought that Russians were inferior to Ukrainians and Belarusians, and that the latter were inferior to Poles.

Romany ('Gypsies')

Main article: Porajmos

Hitler's campaign of genocide against the Rroma people of Europe was seen by many as a particularly bizarre application of Nazi "racial hygiene". German anthropologists were forced to contend with the fact that Romany were descendants of the original Aryan invaders of India, who made their way back to Europe. Ironically, this made them no less Aryan than the German people itself, in practice if not in theory. This dilemma was resolved by Professor Hans Gunther , a leading racial scientist, who wrote:

"The Gypsies have indeed retained some elements from their Nordic home, but they are descended from the lowest classes of the population in that region. In the course of their migration, they absorbed the blood of the surrounding peoples, thus becoming an Oriental, West-Asiatic racial mixture with an addition of Indian, mid-Asiatic, and European strains."

As a result, however, and despite discriminatory measures, some groups of Roma, including the Sinti and Lalleri tribes of Germany, were spared deportation and death. Remaining Romany groups suffered much like the Jews (and in some instances, were degraded even more than Jews). In Eastern Europe, Gypsies were deported to the Jewish ghettoes, shot by SS Einsatzgruppen in their villages, and deported and gassed in Auschwitz and Treblinka.

Gay Men and Lesbians

Gay men and lesbians were another of the groups targeted during the time of the Holocaust. Some leaders clearly wanted gays exterminated, while others wanted enforcement of laws banning sex between gay men or lesbians. More than one million gay German men were targeted, of whom at least 100,000 were arrested and 50,000 were serving prison terms as convicted gay men. An additional unknown number were institutionalized in state-run mental hospitals. Hundreds of European gay men living under Nazi occupation were castrated under court order.

The deaths of at least an estimated 15,000 gay men in concentration camps were officially documented. Larger numbers include those who were Jewish and gay, or even Jewish, gay and Communist. In addition, records as to the specific reasons for internment are non-existent in many areas, making it hard to put an exact number on just how many gay men perished in death camps. See History of Gays during the Holocaust for more information.

Conditions for gay men in the camps were especially rough. They faced persecution not only from German soldiers but also from other prisoners, and many gay men were simply beaten to death. Additionally, gay men in forced labor camps routinely received more grueling and dangerous work assignments than other non-Jewish inmates, under the policy of "Extermination Through Work." German soldiers were also known to use gay men as fodder for target practice, aiming their weapons at the pink triangles their targets were forced to wear.

Lesbians were not treated as harshly as gay men. They were labeled as "anti-social" but not sent to camps.


Around 2000 Jehovah's Witnesses perished in concentration camps, where they were held for political and ideological reasons. They refused involvement in politics, would not say "Heil Hitler", and did not serve in the German army. See Jehovah's Witnesses and the Holocaust.

Several hundred thousand mentally and physically disabled people were exterminated. The Nazis believed that the disabled were a burden to society because they needed to be cared for by others. Around 400,000 individuals were sterilized against their will for having mental deficiencies or illnesses deemed as hereditary in nature.

The T-4 Euthanasia Program was established in 1939 in order to maintain the supposed purity of the so-called Aryan race by systematically killing children and adults born with physical deformities or suffering from mental illness.

On August 18, 1941, Hitler ordered a temporary halt to T-4. Graduates of the Aktion T4 program were then transferred to the concentration camps, where they continued in their trade.

Euthanasia did not end in 1941, however; it still took place in hospitals around Germany and Austria, and crept East into a few of the occupied territories.

Death toll

General (later US President) inspecting prisoners' corpses at a liberated concentration camp, 1945
General (later US President) Dwight Eisenhower inspecting prisoners' corpses at a liberated concentration camp, 1945

The exact number of people killed by the Nazi regime is still subject to further research. Recently declassified British and Soviet documents have indicated the total may be somewhat higher than previously believed [2](this is now in the Paid Archives. To access this article go Here). However, the following estimates are considered to be highly reliable.

The Nazis persecuted many groups of people deemed inferior to the Nazi Aryan ideal. The following estimates refer to groups that were actively singled out in Nazi ideology as being 'unfit for life' and were part of the Nazi's planned and systematic genocide.

  • 5 – 6 million Jews, including 3.0 – 3.5 million Polish Jews [3]
  • 2.5 – 3.5 million Gentile Poles
  • 200,000 – 800,000 Roma & Sinti
  • 200,000 – 300,000 people with disabilities
  • 10,000 – 25,000 gay men
  • 2,000 Jehovah's Witnesses

Lucy Davidowicz used prewar census figures to estimate that 5.85 million Jews died. Using official census counts may cause an underestimate since many births and deaths were not recorded in small towns and villages. Another reason some consider her estimate too low is that many records were destroyed during the war. (Her book, The War Against the Jews, has detailed listings by country of the number of Jews killed.)

The following groups of people were also killed by the Nazi regime, but there is little evidence that the Nazis planned to systematically target them for genocide as was the case for the groups above.

  • 3.5 – 6 million other Slavic civilians
  • 2.5 – 4 million Soviet POWs
  • 1 – 1.5 million political dissidents


Most European countries allied with or occupied by the Axis Powers collaborated with the Nazis in the Holocaust. Collaboration took form of either rounding up of the local Jews for deportation to the German extermination camps or a direct participation in the killings.

Bulgaria deported 11,000 Jews from occupied Greece and Yugoslavia territories. Vichy French government and French police in the Germany-occupied France, participated in the roundups of 75,000 Jews. Netherlands civilian administration and police participated in the roundups of 100,000 Jews. A Dutch group, Henneicke Column , hunted and "delivered" 9,000 Jews for deportation. Norwegian police rounded up 750 Jews. Slovakia's Tiso regime deported approximately 60,000 Jews.

Hungary Horthy regime deported 20,000 Jews from annexed Transcarpathian Ukraine in 1941 to Kamianets-Podilskyi, in the German-occupied Ukraine, where they were shot by the German Einsatzgruppen detachments. Hungarian army and police units killed several thousand Jews and Serbs in Novi Sad in January 1942. In 1944, during the Arrow Cross regime, 20,000 Budapest Jews were shot at the banks of Danube by Hungarian forces. 70,000 Jews were forced on a death march to Austria — thousands were shot and thousands more died of starvation and exposure. Hungarian police participated fully with SS in the roundups of 440,000 Jews for deportation to the extermination camps.

Croatia Ustase regime killed 20,000 Jews (mostly in 1942) in Jasenovac concentration camp, near Zagreb. Deported 7,000 more to the German extermination camps. Romanian Iron Guard regime, in cooperation with German Einsatzgruppen and Ukrainian auxiliaries, killed hundreds of thousands of Jews in Bessarabia, northern Bukovina, and Transnistria. 50,000 Jews were killed in Bogdanovka , a Romanian concentration camp along the Bug River in Transnistria, 39,000 in occupied Odessa, 8,000 in Iasi. The Romanians also massacred Jews in the Domanevka and Akhmetchetka concentration camps.

Ukrainian nationalists killed 4,000 Lviv Jews in July 1941, and additional 2,000 in late July 1941 during, so-called, Petliura Days pogrom. German Einsatzgruppen, together with Ukrainian auxiliary units, killed 33,000 Kiev Jews in Babi Yar in September 1941. Ukrainian auxiliaries participated in a number of killings of Jews, among them in Romanian concentration camp in Bogdanovka and in Latvia.

Estonian, Latvian, and Lithuanian auxiliary military units with German Einsatzgruppen detachments participated in the extermination of the Jewish population in their countries (4,500 in Estonia, 94,000 in Latvia).


Due to the careful organization and overwhelming military might of the Nazi German state and its supporters, few Jews and other Holocaust victims were able to resist the killings. There are, however, many documented eyewitness reports and published books about passive and active resistance, which led local partisan groups to join forces with former Ghetto fighters. The most famous instance of organized resistance was the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising.

Witold Pilecki, member of Armia Krajowa (Home Army), organised resistance movement in Auschwitz concentration camp from 1940. Pilecki organized an underground Union of Military Organizations (Związek Organizacji Wojskowych , ZOW). ZOW's tasks were to improve inmates' morale, provide them news from outside, distribute extra food and clothing to members, set up intelligence networks, and train detachments to take over the camp in the event of a relief attack by the Home Army, arms airdrops, or an airborne landing.

In August 1943 an uprising also took place at the Treblinka extermination camp. Many buildings were burnt to the ground, and seventy inmates escaped to freedom, but 1,500 were killed. Gassing operations were interrupted for a month. In October 1943 another uprising took place at Sobibór extermination camp. This uprising was more successful; 11 SS guards were killed, and roughly 300 of the 600 inmates in the camp escaped, with about 50 surviving the war. The escape forced the Nazis to close the camp.

On October 7, 1944, the Jewish Sonderkommandos (those prisoners kept separate from the main camp and involved in the operation of the gas chambers and crematoria) staged an uprising. Female prisoners had smuggled in explosives from a weapons factory, and crematorium IV was partly destroyed by an explosion. The prisoners then attempted a mass escape, but all 250 were killed soon after.

Some Gentiles like members of Zegota took drastic and dangerous steps to rescue Jews and other potential victims from the Nazis. Since 1963, a commission headed by an Israeli Supreme Court justice has been charged with the duty of awarding such people the honorary title Righteous Among the Nations.

Searching for records of victims

Initially after WWII, there were millions of members of families broken up by the war or the Holocaust searching for some record of the fate and/or whereabouts of their missing friends and relatives. These efforts became much less intense as the years went by. More recently, however, there has a been a resurgence of interest by descendants of Holocaust survivors in researching the fates of their lost relatives. Yad Vashem provides a searchable database of three million names, about half of the known direct Jewish victims. Yad Vashem's Central Database of Shoah Victims Names is searchable over the Internet at [4] or in person at the Yad Vashem complex in Israel.

Other databases and lists of victims' names, some searchable over the Web, are listed in Holocaust (resources) - external links.

Concentration and extermination camps

Main articles: Concentration camp, Extermination camp.

Mass grave at Bergen Belsen concentration camp 1945
Mass grave at Bergen Belsen concentration camp 1945

Concentration camps for "undesirables" were spread throughout Europe, with new camps being created near centers of dense "undesirable" populations, often focusing on heavily Jewish, Polish intelligentsia, communists, or Roma groups. Most of the camps were located in the area of General Government. The transportion of prisoners was often carried out under horrifying conditions using rail freight cars, in which many died before their destination.

Concentration camps for Jews and other "undesirables" also existed in Germany itself, and, while not specifically designed for systematic extermination, many concentration camp prisoners died because of harsh conditions or were executed.

Some camps, such as Auschwitz-Birkenau, combined slave labour with systematic extermination. Upon arrival in these camps, prisoners were divided into two groups: those too weak for work were immediately executed in gas chambers (which were sometimes disguised as showers) and their bodies burned, while others were first used for slave labor in factories or industrial enterprises located in the camp or nearby. The Nazis also forced some prisoners to work in the collection and disposal of corpses, and to mutilate them when required. Gold teeth were extracted from the corpses, and women's hair (shaved from the heads of victims before they entered the gas chambers) was recycled for use in products such as rugs and socks.

Four camps — Belzec, Chelmno, Sobibór, and Treblinka II — were used exclusively for extermination. Only a small number of prisoners were kept alive to work at the task of disposing of the bodies of people murdered in the gas chambers.

The triangles

Main article: Inverted triangle

To identify prisoners in the camps according to their "offense", they were required to wear colored triangles on their clothing. Although the colors used differed from camp to camp, the colors most commonly used were:

Yellow inscribed with the word "Jude" (Jew)
Yellow Star of David inscribed with the word "Jude" (Jew)
  • Yellow: Jews -- two triangles overlaid to form a Star of David, with the word "Jude" (Jew) inscribed; mischlings, (half-breeds) i.e., those who were deemed to be only part Jewish, often wore a single yellow triangle
  • Red: Political dissidents, including Communists
  • Green: Common criminals. Criminals of Aryan descent were frequently given special privileges at the camps, and power over other prisoners.
  • Purple: Religious fundamentalists (defined as persons belonging to Christian sects whose teachings forbid fighting in wars), most notably Jehovah's Witnesses
  • Blue: Immigrants.
  • Brown: Roma and Sinti (Gypsies)
  • Black: Lesbians and "anti-socials" (alcoholics and the "work-shy")
  • Pink: Gay men

Historical interpretations

As with any historical event, scholars continue to argue over what exactly happened, and why.

Who was directly involved in the killings?

Who authorized the killings?

While no specific order from Hitler authorizing the mass killing of the Jews has surfaced, a mass of evidence suggests that sometime in the fall of 1941, Himmler and he agreed in principle on mass murder by gassing. To make for smoother intra-governmental cooperation in the implementation of this "Final Solution," to the "Jewish Question," the Wannsee conference was held near Berlin on January 20 1942 with the participation of fifteen senior officials, led by Reinhard Heydrich and Adolf Eichmann, the records of which provide the best evidence of the central planning of the Holocaust. Just five weeks later, on February 22 Hitler was recorded saying "We shall regain our health only by eliminating the Jews" to his closest associates.

There is no known document in which Hitler explicitly ordered the Holocaust, although there is documentation that he approved of the Einsatzgruppen, where Jews throughout Russia were shot naked in front of ditches. Most historians believe he not only knew of the Holocaust and the gas chambers but ordered Himmler to carry it out — certainly it was entirely consistent with his lifelong beliefs.

Who knew about the killings?

The full extent of what was happening in German-controlled areas was not known until after the war. However, numerous rumors and eye-witness accounts from escapees and others did give some indication that Jews were being killed in large numbers. Some protests were held. For example, on October 29/30, 1942, in the United Kingdom, leading clergymen and political figures held a public meeting to register outrage over Germany's persecution of Jews. It has also been suggested that the Reichbahn (German Rail Company used for deportations and transit to the various concentration camps) who had over one million employees was far more aware of the Holocaust than previously known, and that Germans working on the rails must have known of the reality of life in the camps.

In 1943, only 43% of Americans polled believed that Hitler was systematically murdering the Jews.

Why did people participate in, authorize, or tacitly accept the killing?

Functionalism versus intentionalism

A major issue in contemporary Holocaust studies is the question of functionalism versus intentionalism. Intentionalists like Lucy Davidowicz argue that the Holocaust was planned by Hitler from the very beginning. More moderate recent intentionalist historians like Eberhard Jäckel continue to emphasize the relative earliness of the decision to murder the Jews, although they are not willing to claim that Hitler planned the Holocaust from the beginning. Functionalists like Hans Mommsen hold that the Holocaust was started in 1942 as a result of the failure of the Nazi deportation policy and the impending military losses in Russia. They claim that extermination fantasies outlined in Hitler's Mein Kampf and other Nazi literature were mere propaganda and did not constitute concrete plans.

Another controversy was started by the historian Daniel Goldhagen, who argues that ordinary Germans were knowing and willing participants in the Holocaust, which he claims had its roots in a deep eliminationist German anti-Semitism. Most other historians have disagreed with Goldhagen's thesis, arguing that while anti-Semitism undeniably existed in Germany, Goldhagen's idea of a uniquely German "eliminationist" anti-Semitism is untenable, and that the extermination was unknown to many and had to be enforced by the dictatorial Nazi apparatus.

Revisionists and deniers

Holocaust denial, also called Holocaust revisionism, is the belief that far fewer than the 6 million Jews were killed by the Nazis (numbers below 1 million, most often around 300,000 are typically cited). Adherents of this position claim that there never was a Nazi attempt to exterminate the Jews, and that many other minorities were persecuted as severely or worse than the Jews, particularly Ukrainians under Stalin (the latter persecutions are often attributed to Jews). Many people who hold this position further claim that Jews and/or Zionists know that the Holocaust never occurred, yet that they nonetheless disingenuously use the Holocaust to further their political agenda. These views are not accepted as credible by mainstream historians.

Holocaust deniers almost always prefer to be called Holocaust revisionists. However, many people contend that the latter term is misleading. Historical revisionism is a well-accepted and mainstream part of the study of history; it is the reexamination of accepted history, with an eye towards updating it with newly discovered, more accurate, and/or less biased information, or viewing known information from a new perspective.

Holocaust deniers maintain that they apply proper revisionist principles to Holocaust history, and therefore the term Holocaust revisionism is appropriate for their point of view. However, mainstream historians strongly disagree. Gordon McFee writes in his essay "Why Revisionism isn't" that

"Revisionists" depart from the conclusion that the Holocaust did not occur and work backwards through the facts to adapt them to that preordained conclusion. Put another way, they reverse the proper methodology [...], thus turning the proper historical method of investigation and analysis on its head." [5]

New historical studies of the Holocaust may in theory be referred to as Holocaust revisionism. However, because the latter term has become associated with Holocaust deniers, mainstream historians today now avoid using it to describe such work.

Holocaust denial, aka Holocaust revisionism, is most commonly associated with neo-Nazis or anti-Semites, and has become popular among the Palestinian national movement and many Islamic fundamentalists. Abu Mazen, the President of the Palestinian national authority, asserted in his doctoral thesis (i) that no more than a million Jews were actually killed—the rest is Jewish exaggeration and (ii) that the Holocaust itself was the result of a conspiracy between the Nazis and the Zionists.

The public advocacy of theories denying the Holocaust is a crime in some European countries (including France, Poland and Germany).

Holocaust theology

On account of the magnitude of the Holocaust, many people have re-examined the classical theological views on God's goodness and actions in the world. Some believers and apostates question whether people can still have any faith after the Holocaust, and some of the theological responses to these questions are explored in Holocaust theology. Others, particularly Open Theists, argue that horrors such as the holocaust are the result of too little faith and obedience to God, rather than too much. They conclude that it is non-sequitur to blame or doubt God for humanity's steadfast refusal to "Do unto others as you would have them do unto you," because we have no one but ourselves to blame.

, Holocaust survivor, writer and spokesman on Holocaust issues, addressing the US Congress
Elie Wiesel, Holocaust survivor, writer and spokesman on Holocaust issues, addressing the US Congress

Political ramifications

The Holocaust has had a number of political and social ramifications which reach to the present.

State of Israel

The Holocaust and its aftermath left millions of refugees, including many Jews who had lost most or all of their family members and posessions, and often faced persistent anti-Semitism in their home countries. The need to find a homeland for the Jewish refugees led to many of them fervently joining the Zionist movement. Many Zionists, pointing to the fact that Jewish refugees from Germany and Nazi-occupied lands had been turned away by other countries, argued that if a Jewish state had existed at the time, the Holocaust could not have occurred on the scale it did. The sudden rapid growth of Zionism and the post-Holocaust displacement resulted in the emigration of a great many Jews to Palestine, about 25% of which became the modern State of Israel soon after. This immigration had a direct effect on the regional Arabs, many of whom firmly opposed a Jewish state in the Middle East. The ongoing unrest between Jews and Arabs is perhaps the most tragic legacy of the Holocaust, further discussed in the articles on the Arab-Israeli conflict, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and in other related articles linked to them.

While the Holocaust stands as a reminder that modern, "civilized" nations can engage in the most horrific of organized group behavior, it is also important to remember that during the Holocaust, many Gentiles risked (and often lost) their lives attempting to aid Jews and other victims of Nazi persecution, for no conceivable gain other than to satisfy their own consciences. In order to recognize these examples of the most noble of human behaviors among the most debased, the Israeli government through the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial set up a Righteous gentiles program to honor and memorialize as many of these heroic individuals as can be found.

Other events of WWII

The Final Solution has largely overshadowed all other atrocities in World War II. The military and paramilitary forces of the other members of the Axis were notorious for regularly and methodically committing all manner of atrocities against both combatants and civilian populations, including extensive use of slave labour and large scale massacres (to name but a few instances, refer to the Death Railway and the Nanjing massacre). For example, the Japanese expansionist regime of the time treated Manchukuo, its puppet state in Manchuria as a kind of lebensraum, and worked much of the local population to death. Although it is unclear to what extent such atrocities were influenced by the Holocaust in Europe, they too were comparable in scale. Also, though it is rarely documented, in Malaya and Singapore, which Japan had occupied from 1942 until the end of the Pacific War, the Japanese forces systematically exterminated ethnic Chinese in what is known as the Sook Ching Massacre. Certainly, those which occurred in Europe, including the deportation of Jews from Mussolini's Italy, were often committed under the influence of, or in co-operation with the Nazis.

It must also be noted that under the totalitarian Stalinist regime, the Soviet Union, a member of the Allies, committed many atrocities (eg. the Katyn Massacre), and used slave labour, both within its own territory and within the territories it occupied around the time of WWII. Certain Allied bombing attacks have also been described as atrocities, in particular the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki which killed more than 100,000 civilians and the firebombing attacks on Dresden, Hamburg, and Tokyo, each of which resulted in many tens of thousands of civilian deaths.

See also


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Resources are listed in Holocaust (resources).

Last updated: 10-15-2005 06:51:10
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