The Holocaust was the systematic, state-organized persecution and murder of nearly 6 million Jews by Nazi Germany, its allies, and collaborators. They destroyed two thirds of Europe’s Jews and one third of the world’s Jewish population. If Nazi intentions had fully prevailed, all Jewish life and tradition would have been annihilated globally, because Adolf Hitler (1889-1945) and his most dedicated followers took the Jews to be so threatening and unwelcome— racially, economically, and politically—that their total destruction became the plan.
The Holocaust shows where racism can lead. According to Nazi ideology, Jews were the lowest of the low in the Nazis’ extensive racial classification, which put Germans at the top but also fueled twin fears: (1) that German superiority could be harmed by race mixing, which would pollute German “blood,” and (2) that “inferior” races had to be controlled, if not destroyed, to ensure that German power and culture were triumphant. As a result, Nazi Germany’s genocidal policies destroyed millions of other defenseless people who were also regarded as inferior and threatening. These included Roma and Sinti (gypsies) and Polish citizens as well as homosexuals, the handicapped, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and other political and religious dissidents. Thus, while the Holocaust refers primarily to the Nazi destruction of the Jews, it also encompasses other groups who, for racial, cultural, or political reasons, became Nazi targets in ways that were related but not identical to the Jews’ fate under Hitler.
The Holocaust has more than one name. Its perpetrators took part in what the Nazis eventually called the “Final Solution” (die Endldsung) of their so-called Jewish question. In the early 1940s, eastern European Jews turned to Jewish scripture and used a Yiddish word, Churb’n, which means “destruction,” or the Hebrew term Shoah, which means “catastrophe,” to name the disaster confronting their people. Although Shoah is used widely in Israel and the official Holocaust remembrance day is called Yom Hashoah, the term Holocaust, which began to achieve prominence in the 1950s, remains the most common name. Its diverse sources include derivation from the Septuagint, an ancient Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible, which employs holokauston for the Hebrew word olah. Those biblical words refer to a completely consumed burnt offering.
Racism and Religion
Hitler and his followers were racists because they were anti-Semites looking for an anti-Jewish stigma deeper than any religious, economic, or political prejudice alone could provide. For if Jews were found wanting religiously, it was possible for them to convert. If their business practices or political views were somehow inappropriate, changed behavior could, in principle, correct their shortcomings. But anti-Semites such as Hitler and the Nazis believed that Jews were a menace no matter what they did. Racial theory “explained” why the Jews, no matter what appearances might suggest to the contrary, were a threat that Germans could not afford to tolerate.
Contrary to Nazi ideology, Jews are not a race. Any person, irrespective of “blood” or any other biological feature, can become a Jew by conversion. Nevertheless, the belief that Jews were a race caught on in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Once linked, anti-Semitism and racism energized each other. Racial anti-Semitism, however, could never have arisen had it not been for nonracial forms of anti-Jewish prejudice and hatred that were at its roots. Among those roots, none was more important than Christianity.
Not all Jews are religious, but historically Jewish identity is scarcely imaginable apart from Judaism and its traditions, which unintentionally led to Christianity, a competing religious tradition, some 2,000 years ago. The history of the Holocaust shows that while Christianity was not a sufficient condition for the Holocaust, it was necessary for the actual catastrophe that took place. That statement does not mean that Christianity caused the Holocaust. Nevertheless, apart from Christianity, the Holocaust is barely conceivable because Nazi Germany’s targeting of the Jews cannot be explained apart from the anti-Jewish images (“Christ-killers,” willful blasphemers, unrepentant sons and daughters of the devil, to name only a few) that have been deeply rooted in Christian teaching and practices until post-Holocaust reforms uprooted them. Existing centuries before Nazism, Christianity’s negative images of Jews and Judaism—supported by the institutions and social relationships that promoted those stereotypes— played key parts in bolstering the racial and genocidal anti-Semitism of Hitler and his Third Reich.
The “Final Solution”
In late 1941, the Nazi leader Reinhard Heydrich issued invitations to important German government and SS (Schutzstaffel) officials for a meeting to be held on December 9. Heydrich’s invitations contained copies of the document he had received from Hermann Goring, his Nazi superior, on July 31, 1941. That document authorized Heydrich to plan the “Final Solution” of the “Jewish question.” The Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, and the entry of the United States into World War II forced the postponement of the December meeting. But on January 20, 1942, Heydrich convened the Wannsee Conference at Am Grossen Wannsee 56/58, a comfortable lakeside villa in an affluent Berlin suburb.
Many of the men attending the meeting held doctorates from German universities. Most knew that mass murder of Jews had become state policy. Heydrich’s meeting ensured that all of the leaders in attendance, and the bureaucracies they supervised, were on the same page. The report that emerged from the Wannsee Conference sanctioned the industrialization of death. To those who had to know, its euphemistic language made clear that the Third Reich had sentenced every European Jew to die, either by attrition, extermination through work, or outright murder.
As 1942 unfolded, six major Nazi killing centers were operational in occupied Poland: Chelmno, Belzec, Sobibor, Treblinka, Maidanek, and Auschwitz-Birkenau. At each of those places, gas chambers—some using carbon monoxide, others using a pesticide called Zyklon B—were destroying Jewish lives. During 1942 alone, the most lethal year in Jewish history, approximately 2.7 million Jews perished in the Holocaust.
The Nazis’ racist anti-Semitism eventually entailed a destruction process that required and received cooperation from every sector of German society. On the whole, moreover, the Nazi killers and those Germans who aided and abetted them directly—or indirectly as bystanders—were civilized people from a society that was scientifically advanced, technologically competent, culturally sophisticated, efficiently organized, and even religiously devout.
Some Germans and members of populations allied with the Nazis resisted Hitler. Many others, however, played either a silent or an active role in the Holocaust. There were, for example, pastors and priests who led their churches in welcoming Nazification and the segregation of Jews it entailed. In addition, teachers and writers helped to till the soil where Hitler’s racist anti-Semitism took root. Their students and readers reaped the wasteful harvest. Lawyers drafted and judges enforced laws that isolated Jews and set them up for the kill. Government and church personnel provided birth and baptismal records that helped to document who was Jewish and who was not. Other workers entered such information into state-of-the-art data processing machines. University administrators curtailed admissions for Jewish students and dismissed Jewish faculty members. Bureaucrats in the finance ministry handled confiscated Jewish wealth and property. Art dealers bought and sold treasures looted from Jewish families. Scientists performed research and tested their racial theories on those branded subhuman or nonhuman by German science. Business executives found that Nazi concentration camps could provide cheap labor. Railroad personnel scheduled and drove the trains that transported Jews to their death. If the destruction process had not been halted by the Third Reich’s crushing military defeat, the “Final Solution” would probably have continued until it was finished.
Reverberations and Aftereffects
The Holocaust’s impact has been immense. It undermined confidence in religious beliefs (Where was God?), political institutions (What happened to law?), and ethics (In what sense do human rights exist?). Toward the end of the 1990s, an upsurge of concern arose about reparations for Holocaust survivors and former slave laborers and about the restitution of property stolen from Jewish families and communities during the Holocaust years. This modicum of justice is important but also far from perfect.
The Holocaust played a part in the development of the 1948 United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, but the world has not heeded the post-Holocaust imperative, “Never Again,” at least not sufficiently to prevent the ethnic cleansing and genocide that have plagued the world after Auschwitz in the Balkans, Rwanda, and Darfur. The Holocaust was also decisive in the establishment of the state of Israel. Repeatedly, however, that aftereffect of the Holocaust has led to volatility and violence as Israelis, Palestinians, and their neighbors in the Middle East try to cope with each other’s existence.
Once it was thought that memory of the Holocaust would check anti-Semitism, if not eliminate it. That hope has proved to be naive, especially with regard to the Arab and Muslim worlds, where it is often alleged that Jews, and Israelis in particular, use appeals to the Holocaust to legitimate policies that violate human rights. Holocaust denial—the unfounded view that the Holocaust is a myth, that it never happened, or that claims about its extent are exaggerated—used to be restricted to fringe groups, located primarily in Europe and North America, whose disrespect for sound historical research was disguised as a form of scholarly revisionism. In the early 21st century, however, Holocaust denial has become much more widespread and dangerous because it is so frequently found in radical Islamic ideologies that encourage suicide bombers and seek Israel’s destruction. The Holocaust was not over when World War II ended in 1945. Its history and significance are still in the making.
- Berenbaum, Michael. 2006. The World Must Know: The History of the Holocaust as Told in the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. Washington, DC: U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum.
- Bergen, Doris L. 2003. War & Genocide: A Concise History of the Holocaust. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.
- Dwork, Deborah and Robert Jan van Pelt. 2002. Holocaust: A History. New York: Norton.
- Hilberg, Raul. 2003. The Destruction of the European Jews. 3rd ed. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
- Patterson, David and John K. Roth, eds. 2004. After-Words: Post-Holocaust Struggles with Forgiveness, Reconciliation, Justice. Seattle, WA: University of Washington Press.
- Roth, John K. 2005. Ethics during and after the Holocaust: In the Shadow of Birkenau. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.
- Rubenstein, Richard L. and John K. Roth. 2003. Approaches to Auschwitz: The Holocaust and Its Legacy. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox.
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