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The term holocaust, with origins in the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible, translates the Hebrew expression olah as holokauston, meaning "a burnt sacrifice" (Berenbaum 2000, p. 31). Deeply imbued with religious meaning, the expression is presently most closely associated with the Nazi policy of mass murder directed against European Jewry. In a century when over 140 million people died in wars, the Holocaust may long be the ultimate symbol of inhumanity.

The meaning of Holocaust is itself fraught with great controversy. Some, like the historian Walter Lacquer, insist that the expression is "singularly inappropriate" because of its religious connotations (Lacquer 1980, p. 7). Elie Wiesel, a survivor of Auschwitz and the Nobel Prizewinning author of Night (1960), is often credited with introducing the word into popular usage. In the face of this religious qualification, the term remains widely used by academics, the media, and the larger community. Wiesel has since expressed great concern over the abuse of the term applied to situations beyond the historical context of the Third Reich and the experience of mass destruction experienced by the Jews. Just as important, Wiesel reminds readers that the term Holocaust, like any expression from human language, invariably falls far short in encompassing the sheer horror and depth of tragedy behind the persecution and mass death inside and outside Nazi concentration and death camps. Poets and historians still search for words to explain the unfathomable atrocity.

The history of the Holocaust reflects the reality that Adolph Hitler and the Nazi movement did not invent anti-Semitic hatred against the Jews. What was unique in the Nazi experience was that the Third Reich was the first and only regime in modern history to define anti-Semitism in racial terms and, upon this basis, to use the full weight of the state to legitimize the Ausrottung, or eradication of the Jews. Racial bloodlines defined the essential difference between Aryan Germans and Jews. This distinction, in the words of Victor Klemperer, a philologist and shrewd observer of Nazi language, was everything. What set National Socialism apart from other forms of fascism "is a concept of race reduced solely to anti-Semitism and fired exclusively by it" (Klemperer 2000, p. 135). The racial state conceived by the Nazis as a foundation stone for the Holocaust defined citizenship in biological terms. As one prominent Nazi race eugenicist argued, "National Socialism is nothing but applied biology" (Baur, Fischer, and Lenz 1931, p. 417).

Part of the Nazi success in rising to power in 1933 was the union of racial science from the late nineteenth century with traditional religious and economic forms of anti-Semitism rooted in the Middle Ages. From its inception racial science took on an international character. Appearing only about six months into the regime, the Nazi Law on the Prevention of Hereditarily Ill Progeny, which legalized compulsory sterilization, drew from a notable legislative model in the numerous compulsory sterilization measures passed by twenty-four of the states of America under the aegis of the American eugenics movement, beginning with Indiana in 1907 (Kühl 1994, p. 17). The Nazi policy of destroying "life unworthy of life" under the banner of "scientific objectivity," of which sterilization was an early manifestation, would hold profound implications for others deemed racially undesirable, including Jews and Gypsies.

Furthermore, Nazi propagandists exploited the long tradition of religious anti-Semitism in the Lutheran and Catholic churches. Jews were considered outcasts by both religious communities because of their refusal to convert to Christianity and for the charge of deicide in killing Christ. Martin Luther became an especially popular historical reference for Nazi propagandists who liberally quoted the religious reformer's incendiary pamphlet, "The Jews and Their Lies" (1543). Luther vented his rage against the Jews by drawing on old economic stereotypes depicting Jews as greedy moneylenders with an aversion to physical labor. The negative connotation of usury and lust for money, part of both Christian traditions, remained alive and well under the Third Reich. As vital as Jews were to the emerging market economy of Europe, they were still held as parasites and criminals. The social and economic power of anti-Semitic stereotypes like these was central to William Shakespeare's play The Merchant of Venice (1596), which portrays the rejection and suffering of Shylock, the Jewish merchant. Under the Third Reich, the new anti-Semitism, steeped in the language of race biology and yet connected to traditional hatred for Jews in the marketplace and church, provided an even more powerful ideological justification for persecution of a distinct minority.

Anti-Semitism alone does not explain German Nazism and the Holocaust. Yet any serious consideration of what caused the Third Reich must take into account the dynamics of anti-Semitic thinking and their influence in shaping the formation and administration of Nazi social and political policies. Hitler's anti-Semitic agenda and the reality of the Holocaust did not assume definite policy directions overnight. Other contemporary factors played a significant role in bringing Hitler to dictatorial rule. Buoyed by the social and political malaise engendered by the Great Depression and skyrocketing unemployment and inflation rates, Hitler ridiculed democratic institutions and the lack of political unity under the Weimar Republic. Hitler also exploited the legacy of the Treaty of Versailles, which stripped Germany of pride and territories, and added the heavy weight of war guilt and reparations. All of these elements from World War I left a great deal of resentment among various elements in the German population. Here again, the Jews suffered from scapegoating and received blame for Germany's misfortunes. In what became known as the "stab in the back," Jews were even accused of causing Germany's defeat in World War I by working behind the scenes as betrayers on the home front.

Historians and social scientists still struggle to understand how a country with one of the highest literacy rates in the world and a culture which nurtured great scientists, musicians, and theologians could administer one of the biggest mass murders in history, carried out with the complicity of millions and with the aid of the most modern technological means available. Indeed, the Germans were to industrialize mass death and the disposal of their remains. Germany was not the only country with a culture marked by deep-seated anti-Semitic resentments, but it was the only one to transform this resentment into a policy directed toward annihilating the entire Jewish people.

Neither were the Jews the only group identified for total destruction because of racial reasons. The infamous "T-4" killings of the handicapped, the mentally ill, and those suffering from hereditary illness conducted by medical doctors under Hitler's orders preceded the formation of the death camps in the East. These were the first victims of mass murder. Under the guise of "euthanasia" and supported by the legal apparatus of the state, as many as 6,000 children and 70,273 adults met their deaths at the hands of medical professionals in asylums across the Reich. The vast majority of the victims died in gas chambers. The choice of method for this kind of murder was critically important for the future. The early Nazi elimination of "life unworthy of life" through the "T-4" killings foreshadowed the use of gas chambers in Auschwitz and other camps as well. Both the technology and many of the former medical personnel from this sordid experiment in mass murder would re-emerge with the SS, or schutztaffel, in helping to run the machinery of the death camps after 1941. The story did not end here. The intent to racially cleanse Germany of undesirable racial elements also extended to Sinti and Roma, called Zigeuner by the Germans and known traditionally as "Gypsies." Classified by the Nazis as "criminal"

Jewish casualties from the Final Solution
German Reich (boundaries of 1938) 130,000
Austria 58,000
Belgium 26,000
Bulgaria 7,000
Czechoslovakia (boundaries of 1938) 245,000
France 64,000
Greece 58,000
Hungary and Carpatho-Ukraine 300,000
Italy 8,000
Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia 200,000
Luxembourg 3,000
Netherlands 101,800
Norway 677
Poland (boundaries of 1939) 2,700,000
Romania (boundaries prior to 1940) 220,000
USSR (boundaries prior to 1939) 800,000
Yugoslavia 54,000
Note: The numbers under discussion cannot embrace the full depth and scope of human loss which was the Holocaust. Controversy undoubtedly continues among scholars over the statistics representing the loss, of which Gerald Fleming's research is an important part.
SOURCE: Fleming, Gerald. Hitler and the Final Solution. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984.

or "asocials" and forced to wear the black triangle on prisoner clothing, at least 250,000 Sinti and Roma died under Nazi rule. Whether the Nazis fully intended to wipe out the entire population of Sinti and Roma remains an issue of some dispute among scholars.

The Road to Auschwitz

There existed no doubt among Nazi policymakers regarding the scope of mass murder and the massive destruction of Jews in the wake of the attack on Russia in the summer of 1941. The Nazi intention was to kill every single Jewish man, woman, and child. Hitler vented his obsessive hatred for Jews in Mein Kampf, (My Struggle ) originally written in Landsberg prison in 1924. The Jewish community stood in diametric opposition to his racial vision for a New Germany. Judeophobia, as the scholar Klaus Fischer calls it, reflected a paranoid distortion of reality and delusionary thinking. After rising to power in 1933, Hitler wasted little time before moving against the Jews and other avowed enemies of the state. Dachau, the first of many concentration camps originally created to incarcerate political enemies of the regime, opened less than two months after Hitler came to office. The SA, or sturmabteilung, brown-shirted storm troopers, rounded up Social Democrats and Communists. The Nazis followed on April 1, 1933, by boycotting all Jewish businesses. Even more devastating to the Jewish community was the dismissal of all Jews from civil service and the legal practice six days later.

The mass murder of Jews and others declared unworthy of citizenship did not take place overnight. State violence and terror, in order to be more fully institutionalized, required the legitimacy of a legal framework. Early on the perpetrators created a series of laws to legalize the oppressive actions taken against their victims. Compulsory sterilization laws appeared in July 1933 leading to the forced sterilization of over 320,000 people suffering from hereditary illnesses. Forced to wear the pink triangle and condemned under Paragraph 175 of the 1871 Reich Criminal Code, which made homosexual relations a criminal offense, at least 10,000 gays suffered imprisonment and deplorable treatment in at least eleven concentration camps.

The legal noose continued to tighten around the Jews. A public book-burning of works by Jewish authors like Heinrich Heine and Sigmund Freud along with other opponents of Nazism took place in May 1933. Signs declaring "No Jews" sprung up all over the country during the summer of 1935 outside restaurants, stores, and villages forbidding Jewish entry. A critically important racial development emerged in September of that year under the anti-Semitic Nuremberg Laws. These laws virtually stripped Jews of citizenship, legitimizing the huge social chasm between Jews and Aryan Germans. With the intent of preserving blood purity, Jews could not marry and have sexual relations with Germans or employ female employees under the age of forty-five in their households.

An equally ominous but perhaps lesser known aspect of the Holocaust regarded early reactions of the global community to the treatment of the Jews. At an international conference staged at Evian in France during early July 1938, diplomats representing thirty-two nations met to discuss solutions in answer to a growing refugee problem. The mounting number of Jewish refugees from Austria and Germany created pressure on the United States and other countries to raise immigration quotas. Little more than expressions of sympathy for the Jews came out of the conference. In short, the conference results convinced Hitler that "no one wanted the Jews" and, moreover, implied that he had a free hand in dealing with the Jews without international interference.

Agrowing escalation of violence against the Jews occurred during Kristallnacht, or the Night of the Broken Glass, on November 9, 1938. That evening, over 1,000 synagogues across Austria and Germany were burned and many Jewish businesses looted and destroyed. Ninety-six Jews were murdered and 30,000 were arrested and sent to concentration camps in Dachau, Sachsenhausen, and Buchenwald. Eight days later, Jewish children were expelled from German schools. Economic pressures increased; the isolation of the Jews continued with the compulsory expropriation of their businesses, industries, and shops with the "Aryanization" of the economy in December of that year.

The Final Solution, the Nazi answer to the Jewish question, did not follow a direct path from Hitler's obsessive hatred of Jews, as expressed in Mein Kampf, to the killing fields of the death camps. A major focus of Nazi policy from 1933 to 1941 was to use forced emigration to clear Germany of all Jews. At least as late as the closing days of 1938, the Nazi regime explored the possibility of organizing a wholesale migration of Jews to either Madagascar or Palestine. Some historians, like Gerald Fleming and Eberhard Jäckel, known in some quarters as intentionalists, claim a direct connection between Hitler's anti-Semitic ideology and anti-Semitic practices. Karl Schleunes, representing a more functionalist point of view, argues that the Nazi leadership from the top down had not defined the scope and substance of the Final Solution.

Conditions of the war on the eastern front marked a critical phase in the Holocaust. Vast tracts of territory, along with huge numbers of Russian prisoners of war and Jews, fell under German control during the early phase of Hitler's war with Russia. Christopher Browning's research argues convincingly that Hitler gave the go ahead for the mass murder of the Jews in the fall of 1941, some four months after Germany attacked Russia. This distinction is important since it sheds new light on the old and misguided assumption that plans for the Final Solution were first instituted months later as part of the Wannsee Conference on January 20, 1942. Knowing when Hitler and his circle passed the point of no return in regard to killing Jews remains important for students of the Holocaust for several reasons. As Browning reminds readers, this extreme case of genocide was different from other genocides in that the goal was to eliminate every single Jewish person in the entire Reich and occupied territories. This genocide remains unique as a turning point in history for another reason. The Nazi regime exploited the latest technology as well as considerable bureaucratic and scientific resources to achieve the most thorough and efficient killing process possible.

The Dynamics of Nazi Mass Murder

An important distinction existed between the formation of concentration as opposed to death camps within the Nazi racial state. Concentration camps originally imprisoned political opponents. Eventually, as racial enemies of the regime, Jews also became part of the prison population in the concentration camps. Death camps, of which there were six in number, were located in Poland. Their sole purpose was to kill as many Jews as quickly as possible. Auschwitz, Chelmo, Treblinka, Sobibor, Maidanek, and Belzec are places that will forever live in the memory of the Holocaust. Of these, Auschwitz was by far the largest. From at least 1.3 million deportees to Auschwitz, about 900,000 met their end very soon after arrival. Another 400,000 entered as camp prisoners and given identification numbers. About half of these people died of disease, hunger, or slave labor. Many of the remainder met their end by injection, medical experiments, or the gas chambers. Ninety percent of the victims in Auschwitz were Jews. Poles constituted the second largest group followed by Gypsies and Soviet prisoners of war.

The geographical location of the death camps in the East afforded a certain level of official secrecy and deceit in the administration of mass murder. The six camps were located close to the highest concentration of Jews in all of Europe. Prewar Poland had a Jewish population of just less than 3 million. Auschwitz, which opened its gates as a death camp in 1942, was favorably situated because of its location at a confluence of major railroad lines. The railroads acted as major arteries to the death camps running from all parts of occupied Europe. Day and night Jews from twenty countries were shipped to their deaths.

The railroads, in order to operate as efficiently as possible, relied on armies of trusted bureaucrats who, with the stroke of their pens, determined the fate of hundreds of thousands of people. These same faceless figures rarely witnessed the lethal results of their orders. SS Officer Adolf Eichmann, as master bureaucrat, was a central figure in this process since he designed and administered the entire transportation system for the purpose of speeding up the process of mass murder. The memoirs of Rudolf Höss, SS commandant of Auschwitz, reveal a kind and dedicated family man who felt no hatred for Jews. In the banal language of the brutally efficient bureaucrat, he simply had a job to do.

The power of Nazi propaganda to work a language of deceit was an important factor in efficiently moving large groups of people to their unknown destinations. Victims were packed into cattle cars under the most inhumane conditions without food, water, or basic sanitation. To quell the threat of riots, Nazi officials informed passengers that they were part of a resettlement project. Showers, clean clothing, and hot soup were among those things promised at journey's end. Jewish musicians were pressed into service to play classical music at the gate of Auschwitz to soothe the anxieties of incoming prisoners. The real truth of the matter was hidden in an intricate language of deception. To make the situation even more precarious, Jews were required by law to wear the yellow star in September 1941. The Nazis developed no less than twenty-five expressions to mask the real meaning behind mass murder. Sonderbehandlung conveyed a literal meaning of special treatment. The expression really meant taking Jews through the death process in the camp. Arriving prisoners saw a welcome sign for Badeanstalten, or bath houses, which really were gas chambers.

Not all Jews were killed in the camps. To facilitate the killing operations, the Germans initiated the Einsatzgruppen, or mobile killing squads under the direction of the SS. This newly formed "police army" swept through areas newly conquered by the German army in Poland and Russia. Thousands of Jewish women and children were hunted down and shot on the spot. Males were either executed or deported. This massive killing campaign, carried out primarily in 1942, demonstrated the highly concentrated methods used by the SS to eliminate as many people as possible within a relatively short timeframe. This was another face of the Holocaust which reflected the serious Nazi intent and purpose to carry out a war against the Jews.

The Voice of Survivors

Several years would pass after the horrific experience of the Holocaust before survivors began to write about and discuss the meaning of their experiences. Survivor literature teems with many volumes of memories and poignant observations about the problem of being human under Nazi persecution. The writing of Elie Wiesel and Primo Levi, both Jewish survivors of Auschwitz, remain among the most popular authors from this literary genre. Wiesel's Night continues to be the most widely read recollection of the Holocaust. He captures his own adolescent struggle with his father while offering poignant observations about the problem of retaining some kind of humanity in Auschwitz. Perhaps one of the most excruciating theological questions raised by Wiesel concerns the existence of God. For him, the question about the presence or absence of God in Auschwitz remains unanswered to this very day.

The sheer struggle for survival, also a powerful theme in Wiesel's writing, returned to Levi's experience in a most powerful way. His If This Is a Man (1986) recounts with great insight the culture of Auschwitz and the behavior of both perpetrators and victims. Under the shadow of hunger, disease, and fear, Levi describes the extent to which human beings regressed to the level of animal instinct to survive. There was for this man a larger lesson to be learned: "The story of the death camps should be understood by everyone as a sinister alarm-signal" (Wiesel 1986, p. 4).

The importance of the survivors as teachers of succeeding generations cannot be overstated. The late existential psychologist Viktor Frankl, a survivor of four camps, influenced many readers with his theory about the nature of meaning and its relationship to suffering. Art symbolized another legacy from the survivors, including Alfred Kantor's 1987 collection of drawings depicting his experiences as a survivor in Auschwitz and Theresienstadt. Szyman Laks takes readers into the world of a musician in the orchestra at Auschwitz. His writing defies those who insist on finding a message of hope in the death camps. In Music from Another World (2000), Laks describes how the experience of being a musician, steeped in the classics and the daily smell of death, led some to despair. Until the 1980s the voices of women survivors were overlooked. A rich literature in poetry and verse relating the experiences of women in the camps by Carol Rittner (1993) and Ruth Schwertfeger (1989) offers readers new perspectives on the oppression of female populations. Another way of preserving the voices of survivors for future generations is being led by the pioneering work of the filmmaker Steven Spielberg and the Shoah Foundation. The group digitally recorded and indexed interviews with over 50,000 survivors. The realization is that, in only a few years, all survivors will pass into history.

The Accounting of Death

Exactly how many victims died in the Holocaust will never be known with great exactitude. Six million Jews lost their lives under the Nazi regime, a figure most commonly cited over the years by historians and social scientists. This statistical assumption continues to come under scrutiny. The historian Gerald Fleming argues with certainty that the figure reaches the 5 million mark (see Table 1). Raoul Hilberg proposes a slightly higher number of Jewish victims at 5.1 million. One important basis for determining the scope of human destruction in the death camps are the railroad passenger numbers and points of departure with dates carefully documented by the SS. While the toll of other twentieth-century disasters are often known to the single person, the loss of life from the Holocaust can only be estimated to within hundreds of thousands and millions. In some cases, entire Jewish communities in eastern Europe were wiped off the face of the earth.

More Competing Views

Noted earlier were the competing views of scholars regarding the intentional versus the functional nature of Nazi ideology and the Holocaust. Another voice, which emerged in the mid-1990s, sparked a firestorm of debate. Daniel Goldhagen's Hitler's Willing Executioners (1996) claims that anti-Semitic hatred, nurtured in the soil of Christianity, was the central cause for the Holocaust and that such hatred was imbedded in German culture. Goldhagen attacks the cherished assumption that Germans were guilty only of obedience to authority. Like many other institutions under the fascist process of centralization, the churches participated in an already deeply rooted German tendency toward "eliminationist anti-Semitism" (Goldhagen 1996, p. 23).

Goldhagen's thesis came under withering criticism by a host of historians. The prominent German historian Eberhard Jäckel accused Goldhagen of advancing "primitive stereotypes" while making wholly inaccurate contrasts between anti-Semitism in Germany and developments in Italy and Denmark. Christopher Browning's scholarship emphasizes obedience to authority as a critical development leading to the Holocaust. He carefully contends that the demonization of an entire people with the charge of anti-Semitism explains nothing. Goldhagen's reductionist argument did not sit well among many historians. The controversial nature of the Holocaust, deeply embroiled in the causes and motivations for mass murder, promises new and expanded debates in the future.

Appearing in the late twentieth century, certain revisionist historians like David Irving and Arthur Butz, members of the infamous Institute for Historical Review, exploited historical ignorance and nascent anti-Semitic prejudices by denying the Holocaust. Irving had long argued that Hitler remained ignorant of the Holocaust and Butz insisted that gas chambers did not exist at Auschwitz. The emergence of Holocaust denial as a cultural phenomenon, often reflecting an anti-Semitic agenda from elements of the Far Right, is not one to be overlooked or easily dismissed. A legal confrontation was inevitable. In 2000 a civil trial in London, where Irving sued the scholar Deborah Lipstadt for calling him a Holocaust denier, ended in disgrace for the plaintiff and a resounding public condemnation of Irving's historical claims about Hitler and the Jews by the judge. The controversy is not over. The language of anti-Semitic hatred continues to find audiences on the Internet under a growing number of web sites. In the Federal Republic of Germany and Canada, public denials of the Holocaust are considered expressions of hate language, incitements to violence, and insults to the dead. As such, these actions are considered serious violations of federal law in both nations.

The long shadow of the Holocaust continues to shape world affairs. The tremendous sorrow, grief, and sense of betrayal from the Holocaust provided a powerful emotional and political thrust for Jews to create the state of Israel in 1948. Research protocols ensuring the protection of research subjects, growing out of the revelations of the Nuremberg trials, influences the way research is conducted today. Millions each year visit the extensive exhibits in the Holocaust and Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. A new memorial in the center of Berlin, finalized after a protracted debate in the Federal Republic, will memorialize millions of Jews whose lives were lost in one of the most horrendous genocides in human history. The legal settlements over Swiss gold, which began in 1998 and continue into the twenty-first century, as well as reparations paid by German corporations who employed forced laborers raised a new awareness about the complicity of economic interests in the Nazi exploitation of minority populations. A deeper understanding about the human capacity for evil is an inescapable part of this legacy.

See also: Black Stork; Genocide; Grief and Mourning in Cross-Cultural Perspective; Judaism; Mass Killers


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Holocaust, The

Holocaust, The





The Holocaust is the most common name for the systematic destruction of almost 6 million European Jews under German National Socialism between 1933 and 1945. Holocaust, from the Greek holokauston, means a burnt sacrifice or offering. Because the events of the Holocaust were no such thing, however, many prefer other terms, including the Hebrew Shoah (calamity) or genocide of the European Jews. The term genocide (murder of an entire ethnic group) was coined during World War II (19391945) by the Polish exile lawyer Raphael Lemkin to describe the murderous program Germany was carrying out, particularly in occupied central and eastern Europe; since then genocide has been used to refer to numerous other historical programs of mass ethnic-based extermination.


The Nazi regime never made a secret of its anti-Semitism, if there is nevertheless substantial debate about how early, public, and explicitly murderous were its intentions to make Europe Judenrein (free of Jews). Vilification and scapegoating of Jews was certainly a central feature of Nazi rhetoric throughout the 1920s. Following the Nazi seizure of power in Germany in January 1933, the regime instituted a boycott of Jewish businesses. Soon thereafter Jews were dismissed from the civil service, and strict quotas were placed on Jewish presence in schools. In May 1933 libraries were purged of decadent materials, Jewish and otherwise, which were burned in great pyres in public squares.

As discrimination against Jews escalated in the following years, authorities felt the need for a more precise legal definition of Jew, which they produced in the September 15, 1935, Nuremberg Laws for the Protection of German Blood and German Honor and the Law of the Reich Citizen. The Nuremberg Laws defined Jews as those having at least three Jewish grandparents; those with one or two Jewish grandparents were defined as Mischlinge (mixed breeds). The laws prohibited marriage between Jews and Aryans and declared civil and political rights only for Germans. Despite many generations of patriotic commitment and a high degree of social integration, including often enthusiastic participation in the German military during World War I (19141918), Jews were no longer considered German.

A more vigorous stage of persecution began on November 9, 1938. Following the murder of a German diplomat in Paris by a Jew, the Nazi regime sponsored an enormous nationwide pogrom against Jews often referred to as Kristallnacht (Night of Broken Glass). In two days more than 7,000 Jewish-owned shops and businesses were destroyed, more than 1,500 synagogues (almost every synagogue in the country) were burned, more than 100 Jews were killed, and more than 30,000 other Jews were imprisoned in the so-called concentration camps that had been set up since the first days of the regime for holding political opponents and others.

World War II began on September 1, 1939, when the German army invaded Poland. With the progress of war and the occupation of vast portions of eastern Europe, the Nazis murderous programs entered a new phase. Chancellor Adolf Hitler explicitly endorsed a large program of euthanasia for undesirables, mainly the mentally and physically handicapped, though the definition of undesirable extended to include homosexuals, prostitutes, Jehovahs Witnesses, and Sinti and Roma peoples (Gypsies), among others. In July 1941 Hitler also explicitly discussed the so-called Einsatzgruppen (operational forces). These special units engaged in systematic, though cumbersome, mass murder of Jews and partisans in the occupied territories, often by machine-gunning large groups of people gathered to dig their own graves.

Nevertheless, given the stresses and expenses of such a program, Nazi planners sought other, more efficient means for killing large numbers of Jews as well as for disposing of their bodies in a more sanitary way. Experimentation thus continued with various forms of mobile death squads and subsequently with specially designed gas chambers as well as large-scale crematoria. The regime built and expanded camps to carry out these latter innovations. The extent of these practices was systematized and expanded following the Wannsee Conference of January 20, 1942, where Nazi leaders met and empowered such functionaries as Adolf Eichmann to coordinate the vast transport of Jews to the death camps, defining what they euphemistically called the final solution to the Jewish problem. In July 1942 SS leader Heinrich Himmler ordered the evacuation of the many ghettos the Nazis had set up in eastern European cities to segregate and control Jewish populations. Most of these evacuationsmost notoriously of the Warsaw ghettoinvolved transport to extermination camps (Vernichtungslager ) in such places as Auschwitz-Birkenau, Treblinka, Belzec, and Majdanek. Best estimates are that approximately three million Jews died in the death camps, in addition to the millions of others who died in concentration camps, by mass killings, and of disease, hunger, desperation, and murder.


Most accounts from a social sciences perspective emphasize how sociologists, psychologists, and others have sought to explain the Holocaust as well as how social science was necessarily influenced and challenged by the ramifications of the Holocaust. In focusing on the role the Holocaust has played in social science, however, we overlook the role social science played in the Holocaust. For indeed social theory and research of various kinds was an important part of the intellectual milieu from which National Socialism arose. National Socialist ideologues drew explicitly on social Darwinism and eugenics, which were prominent themes across the political spectrum both in Germany and elsewhere in the first decades of the twentieth century. In Germany in particular social theory helped define a climate of radical conservatism. Prominent thinkers, such as Oswald Spengler, Werner Sombart, Arnold Gehlen, and others, helped define a mood of cultural discontent and suspicion of liberalism, which contributed to the failure of the Weimer Republic. Indeed many such figures remained in Germany throughout the Nazi years, somefor instance, Hans Freyereven assuming positions of power in Nazi academe and beyond. Many of these intellectuals, as well as those trained under them during the Nazi period, were rehabilitated after the war and became prominent figures in postwar thought (e.g., Helmut Schelsky).

Given the predominance of both Marxism and Jews in German sociology during the 1920s, moreover, many falsely assume that the Nazis rejected the social sciences. That was not entirely the case. The Nazi regime used the social sciences for a variety of purposes, drawing great power from the advanced state, for instance, of German managerial science. In the early years of the regime, the Swiss psychoanalyst Carl Jung collaborated with Matthias Goering, brother of the Nazi propaganda minister and Hitler confidante Hermann Goering, on the formation of a German Psychoanalytic Society free of Jewish influence. The sociologist Theodor Geigers work was part of the discussion of Nazi sterilization and euthanasia programs. Social scientific work on regional planning was useful to the formation of occupation policy in the East, as were area specialists, who drew on and contributed to German Ostforschung (research on the East), which incorporated geographical, economic, and sociological approaches. Freyer, director of the German Scientific Institute in Budapest, and his assistant Schelsky contributed to cultural propaganda aimed at the Hungarian intelligentsia. The so-called Inlandsnachrichtendienst (Domestic Information Service) employed large numbers of social scientists to gather public opinion and other data. While the regime had chased large numbers of leading scholars into exile, remaining Nazi scholars sought to combine traditional social theory (Gesellschaftslehre ) with a new racist anthropology (Volkskundelehre ) into a unified theory (Gesamtheitslehre ). As in law, medicine, literature, and other institutional spheres, then, portions of the social sciences as well as some of their members were associated with, were used by, and supported the Nazi regime, and the contemporary disciplines neglect examination of this legacy at their peril.


Social scientific efforts to explain the Holocaust directly have been few and far between. In the first place, the unprecedented scale of industrial killing the Nazis undertook as well as the unfathomable mass of cruelty they sponsored in some sense defy explanation and are grasped more readily in the philosophical vocabulary of radical evil. Indeed cultural theorists have often described the Holocaust as an event beyond the limits, which include those of comprehensibility as well as representability. In the second place, sociology and political science, some have argued, are better suited to explaining conditions and structures rather than events, particularly events considered unique in a sense beyond the usual one in which all historical events are unique. But part of the reason is that the contemporary association of National Socialism and World War II with the Holocaust was not always as central as it is in the early twenty-first century. For at least twenty years after 1945, most social scientific and historical accounts saw the Judeocide as a consequence of rather than as the centerpiece of National Socialism.

To be sure, a wide variety of theory has sought to explain the rise of National Socialism in Germany and the extreme violence it produced. Two major axes of argument characterize most of this literature. The first is between theories that see National Socialism as a variety of fascism, an extreme outgrowth of capitalism, milder versions of which can be found in all capitalist societies, and totalitarianism, a form of radical authoritarianism characterizing both Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. The second is between intentionalists, who see Nazi aggression and the destruction of the Jews as the result of a master plan, and functionalists, who see it as a sort of industrial accident, the conditions for which could be found almost anywhere but combined in unusual ways in Germany. Intentionalists emphasize both the evil machinations of leaders as well as unique desires inherent in German culture, while functionalists emphasize Germanys delayed modernization, absent middle class, and polycratic (dis) organization. The social scientific and historical literatures thus range over a variety of causes and characteristics of the Nazi regime, including massification, secularism, nihilism, consumerism, militarism, imperialism, evolutionism, and modernity itself. In most such accounts, however, the dependent variable is National Socialism, not the Holocaust. Theories associating radical Nazi anti-Semitism and the Holocaust with modernity generallysuch as Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adornos Dialectic of Enlightenment (written before the era of extermination camps, though it did not appear until 1944) and Zygmunt Baumans Modernity and the Holocaust (1989)are perhaps the most successful because they seek to draw meaning rather than determine causation.

Beyond the more macrohistorical efforts to explain National Socialism (which, again, confound the Judeocide with political authoritarianism and militarism), a number of sociological and social-psychological studies have sought to confront the cruelty and evil of National Socialism and the extermination camps as general problems of deviant behavior and social psychology, thus approaching the question equally as obliquely as the macrohistorical theorists. Adorno and colleagues conducted research into what they called the Authoritarian Personality. During the war the psychiatrist Richard Brickner diagnosed a collective paranoia, as did Jung after the war, both arguing for an occupation policy modeled on therapy for a neurotic patient. The sociologist Everett Hughes framed Nazi brutality as a matter of good people and dirty work. Similar to Hannah Arendt, who most famously described Nazi brutality as banal, not in the sense of being trivial but in the sense of being ordinary, the work of desk-chair perpetrators (Schreibtischtaeter ), Hughes sought to understand the social processes that made ordinary people capable of extraordinary cruelty, just as theories of differential association and socialization explain other kinds of deviance. In a similar vein Christopher Brownings studies of police officers who served in death squads underscore the universal capacity of every person for brutality in the right circumstances. Most famously the psychologist Stanley Milgram designed a series of experiments in which ordinary people were led, under a variety of conditions, to administer increasingly painful and finally lethal electrical charges to fictional test subjects, illustrating the general tendency for human beings to be obedient to authority.

Debates about the causes of National Socialism and of the centrality of the murder of the Jews are ongoing and frequently occasion public controversy. For instance, the political scientist Daniel Goldhagens 1996 book Hitlers Willing Executioners attracted a great deal of public attention for its thesis that Germany exhibited a unique form of eliminationist anti-Semitism and that as a result ordinary Germans supported the extermination of the Jews. The consensus is that Goldhagen failed to establish the existence and operation of a uniquely eliminationist political culture. Goldhagens charge that macrohistorical and macrosociological accounts have not adequately conceptualized the centrality of Jew hatred has received less attention.

From about the 1980s on a particularly interesting strand of social scientific work focusing directly on the Holocaust developed concepts of collective memory and cultural trauma to understand the aftereffects of the Holocaust in contemporary culture. In the first place, collective memory scholars have studied how nations have confronted and commemorated both their victimhood and their complicity in the crimes. For Germany, the question has been what kind of an identity a nation held responsible for what many consider to be the worst crime in human history can have after such knowledge.

Elsewhere the questions have centered on the fluid boundaries between complicity and resistance; in Poland and Israel questions of the centrality of victimhood to contemporary identity have been key, and sociologists of memory have sought to understand the complex comparative dynamics of the different national cases. In the second place, theorists of trauma, both individual and cultural, have studied the problems of cultural and social transmission. For both survivors and perpetrators, scholars have identified unique legacies for the second and third generations, identifying both substantive problems from this particular history and general processes of intergenerational transmission. Finally, political sociologists have described the Holocaust as an interesting model for the globalization of memory, arguing that the civilizational dimensions of the Holocaust and its implied indictment of modernity are diagnostic of the present condition and serve as a model for commemorative forms elsewhere as well as for the pursuit of redress claims in a variety of cases.

SEE ALSO Anti-Semitism; Arendt, Hannah; Concentration Camps; Eugenics; Genocide; Hitler, Adolf; Jews; Milgram, Stanley; Nazism; Neumann, Franz; World War II


Adorno, Theodor, and Max Horkheimer. 2002. Dialectic of Enlightenment: Philosophical Fragments. Ed. Gunzelin Schmid Noerr, trans. Edmund Jephcott. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Arendt, Hannah. 1963. Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil. New York: Viking.

Arendt, Hannah. 2004. The Origins of Totalitarianism. New York: Schocken Books.

Bauman, Zygmunt. 1989. Holocaust and Modernity. Cambridge, U.K.: Polity.

Browning, Christopher. 1992. Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Batallion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland. New York: HarperCollins.

Derks, Hans. 1999. Social Science in Germany, 19331945. Germany History 17 (2): 177219.

Friedlaender, Saul, ed. 1992. Probing the Limits of Representation: Nazism and the Final Solution. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

Gerson, Judith M., and Diane L. Wolf, eds. 2007. Sociology Confronts the Holocaust: Memories and Identities in Jewish Diasporas. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Hilberg, Raul. 1961. The Destruction of the European Jews. Chicago: Quadrangle Books.

Levy, Daniel, and Natan Sznaider. 2006. The Holocaust and Memory in the Global Age. Trans. Assenka Oksiloff. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.

Milgram, Stanley. 1974. Obedience to Authority: An Experimental View. New York: Harper and Row.

Muller, Jerry Z. 1987. The Other God That Failed: Hans Freyer and the Deradicalization of German Conservatism. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Neumann, Franz. 1944. Behemoth: The Structure and Practice of National Socialism, 19331944. Toronto and New York: Oxford University Press.

Jeffrey K. Olick

Shannon Latkin Anderson

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The murder of Jewish children comported with the ideology of racial nationalism on which the Third Reich rested. Rooted in mythic notions of German national superiority, racial conflict as the key to history, and a vast empire ruled by a master race, this ideology identified Jews in particular as parasites in need of elimination. This anti-Semitism did not allow for distinctions according to religious commitment, social position, gender, or age: all Jews fit beneath a blanket condemnation. Adolf Hitler's central obsession was the removal of Jews from German lands, as well as from lands taken from "subhuman" Slavs and other Europeans by military conquest. A spirited debate continues about the sequence of decisions leading to the implementation of the "Final Solution to the Jewish Question," the Nazi plan not merely to remove but to kill every Jew in Europe. It is clear that by the beginning of World War II, in September 1939, however, the Nazis had already crossed the moral threshold with respect to murdering children. At least 6,000 children up to sixteen years of age with serious congenital or hereditary illnesses or physical deformities were killed in the Third Reich's euthanasia program, which began at this time. Some of these children were subjected to painful experiments. Increasingly inured to the suffering of the young, the Nazis waged a war of extermination against their racial enemies. One should not be surprised that Jewish children were, in the words of Elie Wieselhimself a youth of fifteen when he entered Auschwitz"the first to suffer, the first to perish."

The Ghettos

The successes of the German military during the first three years of the war significantly increased the number of individuals under German control who could be exploited or tyrannized according to Nazi racial doctrines. Among these individuals were millions of Jews, who were subjected to the same kinds of persecutions that had led to the social death of Jews living in Germany in the 1930s: revocation of citizenship, reduction of food rations, confiscations, deprivation of schooling, restricted access to public institutions. Anti-Semitic propaganda was given free rein; Jews were ordered to display the yellow Star of David on their clothes. Condemned virtually to remain at home, Jews in occupied areas became isolated from their neighbors, who, with Nazi encouragement, withheld their sympathy or expelled Jews entirely from their orbit of moral responsibility. From Poland to France, from Holland to Greece, a regime of diatribe and harassment descended on Jewish communities. In the east, Nazi measures to render Jews vulnerable and contemptible included forcible removal from their homes to designated urban areas called ghettos. Isolating them in ghettos facilitated the seizure of their property. The policy also concentrated Jews for forced labor in the production of war supplies.

Jewish children experienced these persecutions in emotional and spiritual distress. Entries in children's diaries indicate a general inability among children to integrate ghetto life with their pre-ghetto existence and confusion about the moral reordering of their world. Many diarists could not understand why they were hated, why they had to be prisoners, why their fathers had been arrested, why their mothers had been beaten. In the ghettos, children confronted grave responsibilities. Every day, children were orphaned, as adults perished from hunger, disease, or execution, or were taken away for forced labor. Orphans begged for bread and potatoes or smuggled food by squeezing through gaps in the ghetto walls. Older children cared for younger siblings in this way. Some provided for their entire families. This harried existence had dreadful consequences. Children in particular suffered from overcrowding, hunger, improper sanitation, lack of medical care, and exposure to cold. In winter, thousands of children froze to death.

Social welfare organizations in the ghettos attempted to meet children's special needs. Children's kitchens were opened, as were children's libraries, and some children had access to schooling and cultural activities. In the ghetto at Theresienstadt, northwest of Prague, for example, children expressed themselves artistically. Some four thousand of their paintings and drawings were recovered. These included depictions of flowers and butterflies but also of executions, deportations at the railhead to Auschwitz, and queues for a ladle of broth. Most Jewish children, particularly those in large ghettos at places like Lodz, Warsaw, Minsk, and Riga, had little or no access to social welfare or cultural out-reach programs. Their lives were consumed with meeting the everyday requirements of bare subsistence.

Hiding Children, Hunting Children

Tens of thousands of Jewish parents attempted to hide their children from the Nazis. When the ghettos were liquidated, parents hid them in pantries, coal boxes, toilets, walls, chimneys, floorboardsanyplace they might escape the Germans and their local collaborators. Forced laborers often hid their children in factories. Partisan bands fighting behind German lines ensconced children in woods, caves, bunkers, or family camps in the forests. Underground organizations tried to find refuge for Jewish children, too. Few non-Jewish individuals, however, were willing to endanger themselves or their families by hiding them. Those who agreed to help acted more from impulse than careful calculation. Girls found greater acceptance than boys did. Boys' Jewishness manifested itself physically through circumcision, and it was not uncommon for the German police to demand that boys pull down their pants and expose their "race." Rescuers might conceal children around the clock in cellars, barns, even cupboards, or assign them false names and try to pass them off as non-Jews. Hundreds of children from across Europe found refuge in Christian children's homes and convents. Female religious orders in Poland, for example, especially if they ran orphanages or residential schools for girls, could be persuaded to hide Jews, sometimes on the understanding that the girls would be introduced to Christianity, other times to satisfy altruistic principles. An unusual episode of Christian heroism occurred at Le Chambon-sur-Lignon, France. Here the largely Protestant community concealed some four hundred Jewish children from German authorities, saving them from deportation and almost certain death. For all these hidden children of the Holocaust, privation and the trauma of losing parents and siblings were accompanied by loneliness and the mortal terror of being hunted.

The Nazis allowed precious few to escape. With their invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941, they unleashed the full criminal power of the Third Reich against Jewish children. Hitler wanted the newly won territories in the east to be completely Judenfrei, free of Jews. All traces of Jewish existence were to be wiped out. Before the invasion commenced, Heinrich Himmler, the head of the SS and chief of the genocidal cohort, transmitted spoken orders to German military and SS commanders, which were interpreted broadly to authorize the extermination of Russian Jewry. Four mobile killing squads, or Einsatzgruppen, were organized to execute this task. Elements of the German military, reserve police battalions, and local auxiliaries, whose violence towards Jews was historic, assisted these units.

Although Jewish children were shot along with their parents as early as late July 1941, in many towns and villages only adult males were killed. Adult males were also the principle targets of pogroms (organized massacres of Jews), which local inhabitants in Belorussia and the Baltics initiated under German auspices. This evidence suggests that initially German killers were uncertain what to do with children. After shooting their parents, they often removed children to a nearby town or interned them in local buildings. They quickly abandoned this practice, however. Multitudes of screaming, starving, soiled small children with no one to care for them became a nuisance, and commanders began shooting them en masse. Some worried that allowing children to suffer in plain view was psychologically disruptive to their troops and thought it better to liquidate them on "humanitarian" grounds. Others acted on what they understood to be legitimate orders. Still others took their cue from Himmler, who justified the murder of children to avoid creating a generation of anti-German avengers. In any case, despite the initial hesitation, the mass murder of Jewish children rapidly became an integral part of the genocidal plan. By October 1941, at some execution sites, such as one outside Smolensk in the Soviet Union, the first to be shot were children, along with the sick, aged, and those who could not perform manual labor. Only later were their parents killed. The shooting of children at close range was particularly gruesome. Some killers shot children right next to their parents, who refused to abandon their boys and girls to face death alone. Spattered with blood and the brain matter of their victims, a handful of killers refused to continue. The great majority, however, became callused executioners, for whom the murder of children was routine activity. Before the death camps for gassing had even been constructed, almost a million Jews on the Eastern Front had been shot. Tens of thousands of these victims were defenseless children.

At the Wannsee Conference outside of Berlin in January 1942, Nazi officials met to systematize the genocide that was already underway. The Final Solution ordained that Jews from all over Europe be rounded up and evacuated to the east. Here they would be concentrated in transit ghettos before their murder at work camps or death camps. With extreme brutality, Jewish children were taken with the surviving members of their families to rail depots for deportation. Infants were shot on the spot, as were children found hiding or attempting to escape. Some children were snatched from their parents at deportation sites and were left to perish from hunger and the elements. Others were separated from their families and had to face the trials of deportation alone. From the fall of 1941 to the spring of 1945, more than 400 transport trains rolled to the work and death camps in the east. Jammed into sealed cattle cars, many children were crushed to death or suffocated. Others starved or died of thirst.

Children in the Camps

When they disembarked, Jewish children encountered deadly peril. Those judged suitable for work were interned. Children as young as seven undertook heavy labor, such as carrying building materials or pushing overloaded carts. Some camp guards took Jewish boys for personal servants or for the traffic in children among pedophiles. Death visited young internees in numerous forms. Chronic malnutrition and exposure rendered children susceptible to infectious diseases. Many babies conceived in camps were forcibly aborted or had their heads smashed at birth by SS guards. At Auschwitz, some 3,000 twins underwent experiments conducted by the SS doctor Josef Mengele. These experiments included exposure to cholera and tuberculosis, operations without anesthetic, sterilization, and murder by phenol injection to the heart for the purpose of examining internal organs. In an attempt to create perfect "Aryans" from "inferior" racial stock, Mengele injected the eyes of some twins with chemicals in the hope of turning them blue. Few Jewish twins survived these horrific experiments. Few Jewish children survived internment at all. Those who did survive had generally been orphaned and continued to suffer after the war from penetrating psychological wounds and emotional disorders.

Most Jewish children, of course, were not interned in camps but were slaughtered upon arrival. All pregnant women, infants, and children deemed incapable of forced labor were sent for immediate gassing. As the commandant of Auschwitz explained, "Children of tender years were invariably exterminated, since by reason of their youth they were unable to work." Pressed against their mother's chests, some children did not die in the gas chamber and were burned alive in the crematoria. At Majdanek in 1943, the SS made sport of machine-gunning Jewish children in front of their parents. At Birkenau in 1944, Hungarian children, some of them still alive, were incinerated in great pits. Children were not always unaware of their imminent death. In October 1944, an eyewitness at Birkenau recorded the behavior of a large group of Lithuanian Jewish boys as they were herded into the gas chamber by SS guards: "Crazed with fright, they started running around the yard, back and forth, clutching their heads. Many of them broke into frightful crying. Their wailing was terrible to hear."

Between 1.2 to 1.5 million Jewish children died in the Final Solution89 percent of all Jewish children living in German-occupied lands. They glimpsed the world, and then they were gone.

See also: Frank, Anne; Holocaust, Jewish Ghetto Education and the; War in the Twentieth Century.


Dwork, Deborah. 1991. Children with a Star: Jewish Youth in Nazi Europe. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Eisenberg, Azriel, ed. 1982. The Lost Generation: Children in the Holocaust. New York: Pilgrim.

Frank, Anne. 1995. The Diary of a Young Girl: The Definitive Edition. Trans. Susan Massotty. New York: Doubleday.

Holliday, Laurel. 1995. Children in the Holocaust and World War II: Their Secret Diaries. New York: Pocket Books.

Lagnado, Lucette Matalon, and Sheila Cohn Dekel. 1991. Children of the Flames: Dr. Josef Mengele and the Untold Story of the Twins of Auschwitz. New York: Morrow.

Marks, Jane. 1993. The Hidden Children: The Secret Survivors of the Holocaust. New York: Fawcett Columbine.

Sliwowska, Wiktoria, ed. 1998. The Last Eyewitnesses: Children of the Holocaust Speak. Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press.

Valent, Paul. 2002. Child Survivors of the Holocaust. New York: Brunner-Routledge.

Volavková, Hana. 1993. I Never Saw Another Butterfly: Children's Drawings and Poems from Terezin Concentration Camp, 19421944. New York: Schocken.

Wiesel, Elie. 1982. Night. New York: Bantam.

Jeffrey T. Zalar

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Term commonly used in English (Hebrew, Shoah) to denote anti-Jewish policies conducted by the Third Reich (Nazi Germany, 19331945), resulting in the systematic and bureaucratically organized genocide of approximately 6 million Jews.

Exploiting anti-Jewish themes present in Christian theology and culture, but going far beyond them by incorporating them onto a racist worldview, Nazi ideology presented the Jews as a satanic and corrupting element and demanded their "total removal" (the formulation of Germany's dictator, Adolf Hitler: "Entfernung der Juden überhaupt" ) from human society. They held a special place among a variety of undesirable elements (Gypsies, homosexuals, people deemed genetically defective or incurable) that had to be eliminated.


During the 1930s, Nazi policies gradually crystallized: German Jews were legally defined, humiliated through propaganda and education, and disenfranchised. Many were deprived of their livelihoods and property and openly encouraged to emigrate. These policies became harsher and more brutal after Nazi Germany's annexations and conquests of 1938 and 1939. After September 1939, the more than 2 million Jews living in Nazi-occupied Poland were herded into ghettos, where they were exposed to death by hunger and disease on a massive scale. The occupation of western, central, and southern Europe resulted in the legal, political, economic, and social disempowerment of the Jews, causing harsh living conditions, followed by their deportation to camps in eastern Europe beginning in 1942.

In January 1939, Hitler foreshadowed a more radical policy when announcing that, if the nations would be plunged "once more into a world war, then the result will not be the bolshevization of the earth, and thus the victory of Jewry, but the annihilation (Vernichtung) of the Jewish race in Europe." It took, however, more than two years for this vision to begin to be implemented. Germany's mass murder of Jews began in mid-1941 with mass executions, led by special death squads (Einsatzgruppen) accompanying the advancing troops that invaded the Soviet Union; it was supported and aided by other German units, including the German army; by local collaborators; as well as by Germany's ally, Romania. During the summer and fall of 1941, the shape of a Europe-wide "Final Solution" crystallized both in theory and practice, and in November and December Hitler's final decision became known to his entourage. On 20 January 1942, a meeting of senior Nazi bureaucrats in Berlin (the Wannsee Conference) coordinated plans for the systematic murder of the rest of European Jewry, stage by stage. The method of choice was gassing, administered in specially designed or adapted annihilation camps in Poland: Chelmno, Belzec, Majdanek, Sobibor, and Treblinka. By far the greatest number of Jews and Gypsies perished at a sixth location: the Auschwitz-Birkenau complex, to which Jews from all over Europe were shipped aboard freight trains for immediate death in gas chambers. Many Jews also died while on the way to the annihilation camps or as a result of being worked to death in forced labor camps.

The Holocaust cast its shadow over the Middle East and North Africa as well as over Europe. For several months during 1942, the Jews of Palestine feared the prospect of annihilation at the hands of the German armies under the command of General Field Marshal Erwin Rommel, which threatened to overrun Palestine. The threat was lifted following the Allied victory at the battle of al-Alamayn (23 October2 November 1942) in Egypt. Jews in German-occupied Tunisia and Libya were not so fortunate. They suffered humiliation and persecutionsome were deported to Italy and others were brought to the Bergen-Belsen campbut they were spared the full force of the Final Solution.

From the end of 1944, when the Allied advance moved toward Germany and Poland, hundreds of thousands of Jewish and non-Jewish inmates of concentration camps were marched away from the front lines; more than half of the evacuated inmates died in these death marches. Some 200,000 European Jews probably survived the camps; a smaller number survived in hiding or as partisan fighters against the Germans.

The Jews of Europe received little help from the Allied powers or from the local population of the countries where they lived. Yet a small number of non-Jews, subsequently honored as "righteous Gentiles," endangered their lives to hide or help rescue Jews. The most significant example of Jewish armed resistance, lasting several weeks, took place in the Warsaw Ghetto in 1943. Elsewhere, there were instances of Jewish escape, rebellion, and participation in underground and partisan resistance, but with little tangible result against overwhelming odds and in inauspicious conditions. Prominent among the resisters were Jewish youth who had been members of various Zionist and non-Zionist youth movements.

Repercussions for the Middle East

The impact of the Holocaust on the Middle East has been felt in several ways. German-Jewish emigration

to Palestine increased shortly after the Nazi rise to power, aided by the August 1933 ha-Avara (property transfer) agreement between the Jewish Agency for Palestine and the German government. The desperation of European Jews also contributed to illegal immigration to Palestine (Aliyah Bet) in the late 1930s, during World War II, and in the wake of the Holocaust (19451948).

The responses of the Yishuv (the organized Jewish community in Palestine) and Zionist leadership toward Nazi policies were the cause of much controversy within Jewish circles. Did the leadership emphasize the building up of a Jewish national home in Palestine at the expense of wider international efforts to rescue European Jewry? After the outbreak of World War II, the plight of the European Jews was used, unsuccessfully, as a major argument against the 1939 White Paper's limitations on Jewish immigration. Arab and Palestinian spokesmen countered that the two issues should not be linked. Later on, the Holocaust served as a motive for establishing the Jewish Brigade within, and the recruitment of Jews from Palestine into, the British army.

The real extent of the mass murder campaign in Europe penetrated only in November 1942. Afterwards, Zionist and Yishuv organizations contributed moral and financial aid to European Jews, some of it via a delegation based in Istanbul. In a few cases, missions were sent out (e.g., the dropping of some Palestine Jewish paratroopers into Slovakia and Hungary in 1944, in cooperation with the Royal Air Force) in attempts to rescue and support European Jews.

On the Palestinian side, the mufti of Jerusalem, Amin al-Husayni, tried to establish contacts with the Italians and the Germans in the mid-1930s, viewing them as potential allies for his goal of removing British and Zionist influence from Palestine. Cooperation on several issues lasted until the downfall of Nazi Germany. The peak was on 28 November 1941, when the mufti met with Adolf Hitler; Hitler alluded to the Nazi Final Solution, while alHusayni emphasized common German-Arab interests. There is no evidence to support claims that it was the mufti who inspired Hitler to initiate the Final Solution.

The extent to which the Holocaust was a factor in the establishment of the state of Israel remains a question in both historiography and nonacademic polemics. One stream of Zionist historiographers and religious Zionist thinkers, along with many Arab and post-Zionist commentators, view the Holocaust as the single decisive factor in the creation of Israel. Careful historical research, however, undermines such a simple causal connection.

On the other hand, it is undeniable that the Holocaust helped Zionism become the dominant political stream within world Jewry. The immediate post-Holocaust trauma and disillusion of Jews everywhere were so extreme that many Jews in the United States and Western Europe became committed to promoting a Jewish state. Yet the Holocaust had decimated European Jewry so drastically that the very foundations of the Zionist solution for the so-called Jewish problem in Europe were undermined.

From 1944 onwards, many Holocaust survivors made their way to Palestine on their own initiative, even before Yishuv emissaries came to convince them to do so. The Zionist movement became active in directing people to Palestine, and the struggle of the ha Apala (overcrowded illegal immigration boats crossing the Mediterranean Sea) served as a major tool in Zionist propaganda for open immigration and an end to British restrictions. The link between the plight of the Holocaust survivors in the Displaced Persons (DP) camps in Germany and the creation of a Jewish state was accepted by the United Nations Special Committee on Palestine (1947), thereby strengthening the Zionist case.

Recent research suggests that guilt about the Holocaust had little effect on the UN decision to partition Palestine. Britain wanted the Jews to stay in Europe, and the United States considered the direction of DPs to Palestine a humanitarian issue and did not at first see it leading to adverse political consequences. Latin American states supported the 1947 partition plan because of Christian pro-Zionist feelings, while communist states cast their vote with the intention of weakening Britain and advancing the decolonization process.

After the establishment of Israel, the Holocaust became a central issue in the building of national identity. An annual Holocaust Remembrance Day, memorials, the trial of Rudolph Kasztner (1954) and its repercussions, the kidnapping and trial of Adolf Eichmann (19601961), literature and theater, and more recently journeys of youngsters to extermination sites in Europe all contributed to keeping this topic center stage. Holocaust imagery also deeply penetrates Israeli discourse. On several occasions, it has been politically linked to the IsraeliArab conflict. For example, Prime Minister Menachem Begin justified the Israeli bombing of Iraq's Osirak nuclear facility in 1981 by vowing that Israel would not allow anyone to prepare a "second Holocaust" in his lifetime.

The Arab world has done little or nothing to deal directly with the issue of the Holocaust dissociated from the conflict with Israel. Arabs often claim that the establishment of Israel would not have occurred without the Holocaust to justify it; they accuse Jews and Israelis of manipulating the Holocaust to bolster Zionist claims to Palestine. Since the mid-1990s a few Arab and Palestinian intellectuals have displayed greater awareness of the gravity of the Holocaust, partially disconnecting it from the polemics of the ArabIsrael conflict. Reconciliation groups among Israeli Arabs (and Jews) have created courses and activities to sensitize Arab educators to the impact of the Holocaust on Jewish and Israeli thinking; one such activity was a joint ArabJewish pilgrimage to Auschwitz in summer 2003, led by a Palestinian priest from Nazareth. Yet, hardened by their own feelings of victimization and defeat at the hands of Israel's army, many Arabs find it difficult to empathize with Jewish suffering. A number of Arab authors and politicians have gone so far as to openly associate themselves with Holocaust deniers, while others downplay the extent of the Nazi genocide.

See also alamayn, al-; jewish agency for palestine; kasztner affair; rommel, erwin; united nations special committee on palestine, 1947 (unscop); world war ii; yishuv.


Arnow, David. "The Holocaust and the Birth of Israel: Reassessing the Causal Relationship." Journal of Israeli History 15, no. 3 (autumn 1994): 257281.

Caplan, Neil. "The Holocaust and the Arab-Israeli Conflict." In So Others Will Remember: Holocaust History and Survivor Testimony, edited by Ronald Headland. Montreal: Véhicule Press, 1999.

Laqueur, Walter, and Tydor Baumel, Judith, eds. The Holocaust Encyclopedia. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2001.

Michman, Dan. Holocaust Historiography: A Jewish Perspective: Conceptualizations, Terminology, Approaches, and Fundamental Issues. London: Vallentine Mitchell, 2003.

Nicosia, Francis R. The Third Reich and the Palestine Question. London: I.B. Tauris, 1985.

Yahil, Leni. The Holocaust: The Fate of European Jewry, 19321945. New York: Oxford University Press, 1990.

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Holocaust (hŏl´əkôst´, hō´lə–), name given to the period of persecution and extermination of European Jews by Nazi Germany. Romani (Gypsies), homosexuals, Jehovah's Witnesses, the disabled, and others were also victims of the Holocaust. Although anti-Semitism in Europe has had a long history, organized persecution of German Jews began with Hitler's rise to power in 1933. Jews were disenfranchised, then terrorized in anti-Jewish riots (such as Kristallnacht), forced into the ghettos and had their property seized, and finally sent to concentration camps. The concentration camp system was in existence for 12 years and included 27 main camps and more than 1,000 subcamps. The camps were established and were under the control of Heinrich Himmler and the SS.

After the outbreak of World War II, Hitler established death camps to secretly implement what he called "the final solution of the Jewish question." Extermination squads were also sent to the fronts: In one operation alone, over 30,000 Jews were killed at Babi Yar (Ukr. Babyn Yar), outside Kiev. In all, some 1.7 million Jews were shot to death in Soviet Europe in 1941–42. The U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum has documented a staggering 42,500 ghettos, slave-labor and concentration camps, brothels, and other facilities for the confinement and/or murder of Jews in German controlled areas (from France to Russia) in the years 1933–45—a much higher number than originally thought. It is estimated that from 15 to 20 million people were imprisoned or died at these sites. By the end of the war some six million Jews had been systematically murdered.

The main Jewish resistance was spiritual: observing their religion and refraining from suicide, while Zionists evacuated some to Palestine. After 450,000 Jews were sent from the Warsaw Ghetto to death camps, however, news of their fate led the last 60,000 to rebel (1943), fighting until they were killed, captured, or escaped to join the resistance. While the European churches were silent, some clergy and individual non-Jews saved many. The Danes sent most Danish Jews to Sweden in private boats while under German occupation. The Allies refused rescue attempts, and American Jews were warned against attempting them.

After the war Nazi leaders were tried for war crimes at Nuremburg, and West Germany later adopted (1953) the Federal Compensation Law, under which billions of dollars were paid to those who survived Nazi persecution. In the mid-1990s a number of suits were filed against Swiss banks that held accounts belonging to Holocaust victims but had denied the fact and failed to restore the money. A settlement reached in 1998 established a $1.25 billion fund to be used to compensate those who can document their claims and, more generally, Holocaust survivors, the latter as restitution for undocumented accounts and for Swiss profits on Nazi accounts involving Holocaust victims' property. Also in 1998, the Roman Catholic Church formally acknowledged Catholic complicity in the long-standing European anti-Semitism that was background to the Holocaust. Under the terms of an agreement signed in 2000 by the United States and Germany, a $5 billion fund was established by the German government and German industry to compensate those who were slave or forced laborers or who suffered a variety of other losses under the Nazi regime.

A vast literature consisting of histories, diaries, memoirs, poetry, novels, and prayers has emerged in an effort to understand the Holocaust in terms of its religious and secular implications. The secular materials have attempted to explain how it happened and the reactions of the victims; some have suggested that an underlying and pervasive anti-Semitism in Germany was fueled by a deep and complete despair combined with a corrosive and unacknowleged sense of worthlessness that had been created by crushing and humiliating hardships and the disintegration of the Weimar Republic. The religious materials have focused on the problem of whether one can still speak in traditional Jewish terms of a God, active in history, who rewards the righteous and who maintains a unique relationship with the Jewish people. Museums and memorials have been established in a number of cities worldwide to preserve the memory of the Holocaust. There are three main archives that contain materials relating to the Holocaust: the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., Yad Vashem in Jerusalem, and the International Tracing Service in Bad Arolsen, Hesse, Germany.

See M. Buber, Eclipse of God (1952); E. Wiesel, Night (1960) and Legends of Our Time (1968); R. L. Rubenstein, After Auschwitz (1966); A. H. Friedlander, ed., Out of the Whirlwind (1968); L. S. Davidowicz, The War against the Jews (1975); D. S. Wyman, The Abandonment of the Jews: America and the Holocaust (1984); C. Browning, Ordinary Men (1992); I. W. Charny, ed., Holding on to Humanity—The Message of Holocaust Survivors: The Shamai Davidson Papers (1992); R. Hilberg, Perpetrators, Victims, Bystanders: The Jewish Catastrophe, 1933–1945 (1992) and The Destruction of the European Jews (3 vol., 3d ed. 2003); D. J. Goldhagen, Hitler's Willing Executioners (1996); S. Friedländer, Nazi Germany and the Jews (2 vol., 1997–2007); W. D. Rubinstein, The Myth of Rescue (1997); I. Clendinnen, Reading the Holocaust (1999); O. Bartov, Mirrors of Destruction: War, Genocide, and Modern Identity (2000) and Germany's War and the Holocaust (2003); R. Rhodes, Masters of Death: The SS-Einsatzgruppen and the Invention of the Holocaust (2002); C. R. Browning, The Origins of the Final Solution (2004); P. Longerich, Holocaust (2010); G. Aly, Why the Germans? Why the Jews? (2014); S. Helm, Ravensbrück: Life and Death in Hitler's Concentration Camp for Women (2015); N. Wachsmann, KL: A History of the Nazi Concentration Camps (2015). See also C. Lanzmann, dir., Shoah (documentary film, 1985).

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Holocaust, the

Holocaust, the the mass murder of Jews under the German Nazi regime during the period 1941–45. More than 6 million European Jews, as well as members of other persecuted groups, such as gypsies and homosexuals, were murdered at concentration camps such as Auschwitz. The term Holocaust denial is now used for the mistaken belief or assertion that the Holocaust did not happen, or was greatly exaggerated.

The word holocaust was originally recorded in Middle English denoting a Jewish sacrificial offering which is burnt completely on an altar; from this it was extended to mean a sacrifice on a large scale, and then a complete destruction or massacre. (It comes ultimately from Greek holokauston, from holos ‘whole’ + kaustos ‘burnt’.) The specific application was introduced by historians during the 1950s, probably as an equivalent to Hebrew ḥurban and shoah ‘catastrophe’ (used in the same sense); but it had been foreshadowed by contemporary references to the Nazi atrocities as a ‘holocaust’ in the sense of slaughter on a large scale.

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hol·o·caust / ˈhäləˌkôst; ˈhōlə-/ • n. 1. destruction or slaughter on a mass scale, esp. caused by fire or nuclear war: a nuclear holocaust | the threat of imminent holocaust. ∎  (the Holocaust) the mass murder of Jews under the German Nazi regime during the period 1941–45. More than 6 million European Jews, as well as members of other persecuted groups, such as gypsies and homosexuals, were murdered at concentration camps such as Auschwitz. 2. hist. a Jewish sacrificial offering that is burned completely on an altar. ORIGIN: Middle English: from Old French holocauste, via late Latin from Greek holokauston, from holos ‘whole’ + kaustos ‘burned’ (from kaiein ‘burn’).

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"holocaust." The Oxford Pocket Dictionary of Current English. . 15 Dec. 2017 <>.

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Holocaust, the

Holocaust, the (1933–45) Extermination of European Jews and others by the Nazi regime in Germany. The Nazi persecution reached its peak in the ‘Final Solution’, a programme of mass extermination adopted in 1942, and carried out with murderous efficiency by Adolf Eichmann. Jews, as well as others considered racially inferior by the Nazis, were killed in concentration camps such as Auschwitz, Belsen, Dachau, Majdanek, and Treblinka. Total Jewish deaths are estimated at more than 6 million, about three-quarters of the population of European Jews. The Holocaust raised theological and moral problems about the course of European civilization.

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holocaust whole burnt offering XIII; complete sacrifice XV; complete destruction XVII. — (O)F. holocauste — late L. holocaustum — Gr. holókauston, f. hólos whole + kaustós, var. of kautòs burnt, f. kaíein burn.

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"holocaust." The Concise Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology. . 15 Dec. 2017 <>.

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Holocaust (Gk.). The burnt offering of Leviticus 1. 3, from which the word is applied to any offering which is consumed by fire.

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holocaustexhaust, under-resourced, unforced •hypocaust • holocaust

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