When Did the Holocaust Begin? A Genesis of Genocide

The Holocaust was the single-most traumatic event for the Jewish people in the 20th century, but there is some disagreement over the exact date on which it started.

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The railroad tracks leading to the entrance of the Auschwitz concentration camp, January 1941 .
The railroad tracks leading to the entrance of the Auschwitz concentration camp, January 1941 .Credit: AP

When did the Holocaust actually begin? The answer is not so simple.

The term Holocaust (with a capital H) is commonly used to refer to the systematic murder by Nazi Germany of approximately six million Jews and the destruction of their communities, representing one-third of world Jewry at the time. In this use, it is analogous to the Hebrew word Shoah, also used to refer to the genocide committed against the Jews. Sometimes Holocaust is also used in a broader sense, to refer to all of the victims of Nazi state-organized murder, including the Roma, gay people and others.

The Nazi genocide and ethnic cleansing efforts did not begin as a specific plan to gas Jews and others in concentration camps, but rather evolved over time, beginning with systematic persecution aimed in part at encouraging Jewish emigration from Germany to other countries. It grew from spontaneous murders to planned massacres of Jewish communities, to the establishment of an industrial apparatus for the efficient, wholesale slaughter of a people.

In recognition of the evolving nature of the genocide, the date most frequently associated with the start of the Holocaust is January 30, 1933: This is when Adolf Hitler was appointed German chancellor, setting in motion what would become the Nazi genocide against the Jews. The end of the Holocaust is usually thought to be May 8, 1945, or VE (Victory in Europe) Day, when the Allies formally accepted Germany’s unconditional surrender, ending World War II on the Continent, although fighting continued in the Far East.

When does persecution become genocide?

A major turning point in Nazi policy toward Jews was the coordinated attacks by the Sturmabteilung (or SA, the original paramilitary wing of the Nazi Party) against Jews and Jewish institutions and businesses throughout Germany and Austria on November 9-10, 1938 – an event known as Kristallnacht or the Night of the Broken Glass, due to the large amount of shattered windows at Jewish properties in its aftermath. At least 91 Jews were killed in the violence, and 30,000 were arrested and interned in concentration camps (but not extermination camps). Over 900 synagogues and 7,000 Jewish businesses were severely damaged or destroyed.

Kristallnacht marked the transition of the Nazi policy vis-a-vis Jews from social ostracism, abrogation of legal rights and economic boycotts, to organized physical violence including murder. As such, some consider the November ‘38 pogrom as marking the actual beginning of the Holocaust – the date when anti-Jewish persecution in Germany began moving toward genocide.

Mass killings of Jews became commonplace following the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union on June 22, 1941. Death squads called Einsatzgruppen, formed at the order of Reinhard Heydrich, director of the Reich Main Security Office at the time, were tasked with murdering Jewish civilians and Communist Party officials with the help of local citizens. Historians estimate that between June 1941 and May 1943, these roaming death squads killed over 1 million Jews.

Industrial-scale murder of Jews, known as the Final Solution, was approved by the senior Nazi leadership on January 20, 1942 at the Wannsee Conference, held just outside Berlin. At the meeting, called by Heydrich, he presented the plan to transport Jews from Eastern and Western Europe to extermination camps located in Poland.

While the fall of the Nazi regime and its surrender on May 8, 1945 is usually the date given as the end of the Holocaust – it did not mark the end of organized killings of Jews in Europe. Hundreds of Jews were killed across Poland by Polish locals after the war had ended. In the most of infamous of these events, on July 4, 1946, over 40 Jews were killed in the Polish city of Kielce, in a massacre incited by Polish communist authorities with elements among the local population participating.

This article was originally published in February 2014

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