What Was the Holocaust?

Though the word is used for genocides of all kinds, it specifically refers to the Nazi campaign to murder all of Europe's Jews during World War II. Haaretz brings you a short primer on defining the Holocaust.

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What was "the Holocaust?" The term refers to the campaign carried out by the Third Reich during the years 1933-1945 to destroy the Jewish population of Europe.

The word derives from the ancient Greek word “holokauston,” referring to a ritual sacrifice in which the entire animal is consumed. It only came into common use with regard to the Nazi genocide of the Jews in the 1970s, although it was used in that context as early as 1943, in an article in The New York Times.

Today, the word is interchangeable with the Hebrew word “Shoah,” which literally means “calamity.”

The most commonly cited figure for the number of Jews murdered by Nazi Germany is 6 million, a number calculated by SS official Adolf Eichmann and cited at the Nuremberg trials. More recently, historians have placed the estimate between 5 million and 6 million. Germany also set out to systematically exterminate other civilian targets, including ethnic Poles and some other Slavs, Roma (Gypsies), and such groups as homosexuals and the physically and mentally disabled. Estimates are that another 5 million people in these categories, non-Jews, were killed by the Germans, but these are not generally included as part of the Holocaust.

The anti-Semitism that drove the Germans to genocide had roots in Christian theology, in medieval German attitudes toward Jews, and in contemporary quasi-scientific racial theories. But it was when these factors were combined with the economic and political malaise that Germany faced in the years following World War I, with the country’s technological and military sophistication, and with the rise to power of a megalomaniacal dictator who dared to suggest and to attempt to carry out the previously unthinkable, that a perfect storm of conditions was created that actually put in reach the goal of destroying the Jews in toto.

When one considers that Nazi Germany was also fighting a world war at the same time it was rounding up and killing Europe’s Jews, it is all the more amazing that it succeeded in executing more than a third of the world’s approximately 17 million Jews. And its obsessive dedication to the cause is demonstrated by the fact that it carried on with that mission until the very last day of the war, May 7, 1945, when it finally was left with no alternative but to submit to an unconditional surrender to the Allies.

World War II was fought over the Third Reich’s attempt to dominate the world, not over the fate of the Jews. And Germany’s war against the Jews was primarily ideological, not a necessary part of its effort at global conquest. One of the basic themes of Adolf Hitler's manifesto “Mein Kampf,” published in 1925, is the danger of the “Jewish peril.”

Within two months of January 20, 1933, the date that Hitler became chancellor of Germany – but more than six and a half years before the start of World War II -- the country passed its first anti-Jewish legislation, which allowed for the immediate dismissal of all “non-Aryans” from the civil service, including in schools.

The Nuremberg Laws, which stripped Jews of German citizenship and all civil rights, were passed in the second half of 1935.

The actual implementation of the “total solution of the Jewish question” only began in earnest after the top-secret January 20, 1942 Wannsee Conference, whose participants, all senior German officials, were presented with estimates of the number of Jews to be killed, country by country. But both for lands already under German occupation and for those still slated for conquest, Hitler had made his intentions clear much earlier: In a January 1939 speech, he threatened to carry out “the annihilation of the Jewish race in Europe” – and a clip of that part of his speech was included in the 1940 propaganda film “The Eternal Jew.”

Almost as soon as Germany occupied Poland, with its 2 million Jews, in September 1939, it began resettling them in closed ghettos. Similarly, as it proceeded to conquer the states of Western and Central Europe, in 1940 and 1941, it restricted and rounded up their Jews, although the exact measures undertaken varied from country to country.

Deportations to the east began as early as 1939 and got under way in earnest beginning in July 1942. Conditions in the ghettos and in concentration and forced-labor camps were so poor that they succeeded in killing up to half of their residents, even before the opening of the death camps, equipped with gas chambers and crematoria, that made it possible to kill and dispose of tens of thousands in a single day. In the East, following the opening of a German front with the Soviet Union, death squads killed an estimated 1.3 million Jews. And even in the final days of the Third Reich, when authorities hurried to destroy evidence of the killing apparatus in the camps, they sent thousands of concentration camp prisoners on the so-called death marches toward the interior of the Reich, so as to prevent their liberation by the Allies.

Some 400,000 Jews lived in the countries of North Africa that were under the control of Vichy France, and the Germans did undertake efforts to restrict and in some cases round them up. But because the Allies began to liberate the region in late 1942, most of the Jews there were spared from being murdered.

More Jewish terms that might interest you: Holocaust denial, Jewish religion, What is Kosher and Jewish food?

Jews in Auschwitz.Credit: Wikipedia Commons

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