The Holocaust: History and Major Facts

The Holocaust, also known as the Shoah, was a genocide during World War II in which Nazi Germany, aided by its collaborators, systematically murdered six million European Jews—around two-thirds of the Jewish population of Europe—between 1941 and 1945.

Jews were targeted for extermination as part of a larger event involving the persecution and murder of other groups, including in particular the Romani, ethnic Poles, Soviet civilians and prisoners of war, disabled individuals, individuals that would fall under the LGBTQ+, and political and religious dissidents.

The Holocaust remains one of the most studied and discussed events in history. It serves as a grim reminder of the dangers of racism, totalitarianism, and intolerance. Image: Jewish arrivals at Auschwitz II in German-occupied Poland in May 1944. Several of these individuals were sent to gas chambers.

Prelude to the Holocaust

The rise of Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party in 1933 marked the beginning of a perilous time for Jews in Europe. Racial policies that classified the Jews as “inferior” became part of the national law. The Nuremberg Laws of 1935 officially excluded Jews from civil society, prohibiting them from marrying or having sexual relations with persons of “German or related blood.”

These discriminatory policies escalated dramatically following the Kristallnacht (“Night of Broken Glass”) in November 1938, a government-sanctioned pogrom against the Jewish population carried out by SA paramilitary forces and civilians throughout Nazi Germany. This event resulted in the deaths of hundreds, with thousands more imprisoned in newly established concentration camps—a system that would later be expanded and used for mass murder.

Expansion of Nazi Power and Racial Policy

As Nazi Germany expanded its territory across Europe, the anti-Semitic laws and the bureaucratic machinery of persecution spread to annexed and occupied countries, including Austria, Czechoslovakia, and Poland.

The invasion of Poland in 1939 brought millions of additional Jews under Nazi control. Ghettos were established in major Polish cities, such as Warsaw and Łódź, where Jews were confined in overcrowded and unsanitary conditions, leading to rampant disease and high death rates.

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The “Final Solution”

The extermination of Jews became a centrally administered state policy after the Wannsee Conference in January 1942, where senior Nazi officials formalized plans to deport all Jews from Nazi-occupied territories to extermination camps. This policy was termed the “Final Solution to the Jewish Question” and led by SS-Obergruppenführer Reinhard Heydrich.

The most notorious extermination camps included Auschwitz-Birkenau, Treblinka, and Sobibor. These camps were equipped with gas chambers designed to kill large numbers of people quickly and efficiently.

Zyklon B, a cyanide-based pesticide, was commonly used for this purpose. The efficiency of these extermination camps escalated the mass murder to unprecedented levels.

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Resistance and Non-Jewish Victims

Resistance to the Nazi regime came from various quarters. Jews in the ghettos and camps organized uprisings, such as the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising in 1943. Non-Jewish citizens in various countries also played roles in protecting Jews, such as the Danish resistance efforts that helped ferry the majority of Denmark’s Jewish population to safety in Sweden.

The Holocaust also targeted other groups: the Romani were subject to extermination, disabled individuals were killed in euthanasia programs, and millions of Soviet prisoners of war and Polish intellectuals were murdered. Homosexuals, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and political dissidents were persecuted under Nazi rule as well.

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Liberation and Aftermath

The Holocaust ended with the Allied forces’ victory over Germany in 1945. The liberating troops discovered the concentration camps and the horrific extent of the Nazi extermination policy. The Nuremberg Trials, held between 1945 and 1946, brought many of the major war criminals to justice, although countless others escaped prosecution.

The aftermath of the Holocaust saw the displacement of millions of survivors who were housed in Displaced Persons camps across Europe. Many survivors emigrated to Israel, which was established in 1948 as a Jewish state in part as a response to the Holocaust.

Remembering the Holocaust

Today, the Holocaust is memorialized through numerous monuments and museums across the world. The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and Yad Vashem in Israel serve both as repositories of the history of the Holocaust and as educational resources. International Holocaust Remembrance Day is observed on January 27, the anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau.

The lessons of the Holocaust continue to have relevance today as the world continues to grapple with issues of genocide, human rights abuses, and the treatment of minorities. Image: A 1942 image showing Jews being deported from Würzburg in Germany to the German-occupied Lublin district in Poland.

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Here are some frequently asked questions about the Holocaust, a tragic and pivotal event in history:

The Holocaust was the systematic, state-sponsored persecution and genocide of six million Jews and millions of others by the Nazi regime and its collaborators during World War II. Image: Jewish individuals from Subcarpathian Rus, formerly part of Hungary, stand on the selection ramp at Auschwitz II-Birkenau, awaiting their fate.

When did the Holocaust occur?

The Holocaust occurred from 1941 to 1945, reaching its peak during World War II, although discriminatory policies and isolated acts of violence against Jews and others began earlier in the 1930s.

Who were the victims of the Holocaust?

The primary victims were Jews. However, other groups targeted by the Nazis included Romani people, disabled individuals, Polish and Soviet civilians, communists, socialists, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and homosexuals.

What were concentration and extermination camps?

Concentration camps were used primarily for detention, forced labor, and punishment. Extermination camps, like Auschwitz, Treblinka, and Sobibor, were specifically designed for mass murder, primarily through gas chambers.

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How did the Nazis carry out the Holocaust?

The Nazis used a variety of methods to carry out the Holocaust, including mass shootings, gas chambers, forced labor, starvation, and medical experiments. The process was systematized with the use of concentration and extermination camps.

What was the “Final Solution”?

The “Final Solution” was the Nazi plan to exterminate the Jewish people. It was formally decided upon at the Wannsee Conference in January 1942, where Nazi officials coordinated the logistics for the mass deportation and extermination of all Jews in Nazi-occupied Europe.

How many people died in the Holocaust?

Approximately six million Jews and several million others were murdered during the Holocaust.

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What was the response of the international community during the Holocaust?

The international response varied. Many nations were indifferent or unaware of the full extent of the atrocities until late in the war. However, some individuals and groups took significant risks to help the victims, including hiding them and facilitating escapes.

How did the Holocaust end?

The Holocaust effectively ended with the defeat of the Nazis by Allied forces in 1945. The liberation of concentration camps by Allied troops revealed the extent of the Nazi atrocities to the world.

The Holocaust, one of the most horrendous events in human history, underscores the necessity of remembrance and education to prevent such atrocities from occurring in the future. Image: The Holocaust Memorial in Berlin.

What are the ongoing impacts of the Holocaust?

The Holocaust has had a profound effect on global history and Jewish culture. It led to the establishment of Israel as a homeland for Jews in 1948 and influenced international laws against genocide and crimes against humanity.

How is the Holocaust remembered today?

The Holocaust is commemorated worldwide through memorials, museums like Yad Vashem in Israel and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., and educational programs to teach future generations about the dangers of unchecked hatred and bigotry.

Image: The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum is located in Washington, D.C. U.S.

READ MORE: Overview of Casualties of World War II

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