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Holocaust

Map of Europe

Map of Europe from the CIA World Factbook.

At the end of the Great War, the warring powers signed the Treaty of Versailles in 1919, thus ending the conflict.  As a result of this signing several provisions were established in the hope of preventing another war.  Unfortunately, these reparations caused German citizens and the government to resent the Allied forces.  The Great Depression compounded the economic impact the war reparations had on Germany.  By 1933 Adolf Hitler, the leader of the Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei (National Socialist German Worker’s Party) or the Nazi Party was appointed Chancellor of Germany by President Hindenburg.  Following the death of Hindenburg in 1934, Hitler combined the positions of chancellor and president and declared himself Fuhrer and became the supreme ruler of Germany. By 1935, Hitler instituted the Nuremberg Laws, which established Jewish identity under German law. This aggravated and increased persecution of individuals of Jewish ancestry.

Prior to Hitler’s consolidation of power, the SS or Schutzstaffel, established the Dachau concentration camp in March, 1933. This camp, which operated until liberation, held criminals, political prisoners and any other individuals that Germany, declared a threat to the state. By 1937 inmates held at the Dachau Concentration Camp were used as forced labor to construct additional buildings.  This practice of internment and forced labor was then repeated by the Nazi government throughout Germany and would become the basis of the complex network of concentration camps throughout German occupied territories.

On March 12, 1938, the German troops entered Austria with out force and became incorporated with Germany.   The Anschluss of Austria resulted in the German occupation of Austria until the end of the war. This act of non-violence signaled was the first major public act of Hitler’s conquest for a greater Germany, and the tipping point for Britain and France. The two allied countries threatened war upon the Third Reich if Hitler’s forces invaded Romania or Poland.

Following the annexation of Austria, Hitler then annexed the Sudetenland in October 1938, yet again demonstrating Germany’s desire to expand their sphere of influence.  The escalation of anti-Semitic sentiment erupted in November of 1938 when the German government destroyed Jewish establishments and businesses, this event known as Kristallnacht, or “Night of Broken Glass.” After that night, the Jews were held fiscally responsible for the damages accrued during the Kristallnacht.

Another failed attempt to appease the expanding powers of the Third Reich, The Munich Agreement of September 30, 1938 was a pact signed by Germany, France, the United Kingdom, and Italy that allowed Nazi Germany to annex border regions of Czechoslovakia that contained a populace that primarily consisted of German-speaking people. Czechoslovakia suffered from a continual sense of betrayal as several countries failed to invite them to a pact that revoked a major defensive territory and have it renamed “Sudetenland.” It comes to no surprise that the Agreement was referred to as the Munich Dictate and the Munich Betrayal by the Czechoslovakians.

In August 23, 1939, only several days before the invasion of Poland, Germany and Russia signed the Treaty of Non-Aggression Between Germany and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics; also known as the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. The pact publically ensured that the Soviet Union would not interfere with a European war and that Germany and Japan would not form a military alliance. The pact remained effective until Germany’s invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941.

With the invasion of Poland on September 1, 1939 the Second World War had officially begun. The German battleship Schleswig-Holstein attacked the Polish garrison stationed at Westerplatte Fort, Danzig. Two days later, France and Great Britain declared war on Germany. As per the result of one of several secret agreements between the Soviet Union and Germany in the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, Soviet forces invaded Poland on the 17th of September.

Einsatzgruppen, or “task groups,” was a paramilitary branch of the Schutzstaffel, held accountable for mass killings during World War II. These death squads were Hitler’s leading force in his “Final Solution.” Soviet political commissars, Jews, Gypsies, Polish intelligentsia could not flee as the Einsatzgruppen wrecked havoc through Eastern Europe early in the war. Later on, the Einsatzgruppen would be held responsible for the killings in Germany’s concentration camps. Initially killing most of their victims through firing squads in the early years of the war, these mass murders became heavily systematic by the end of the war, ultimately leading to the death of nearly six million people.

Beginning in April 9th, 1940, Germany and the Axis powers launched a series of successful invasions all within a short span of time. Denmark and Norway were invaded on April 9th, 1940. Then one month later France and the Netherlands were invaded on May 10th, 1940. One year following, Germany and the Axis powers invaded Greece and Yugoslavia on April 6, 1941.

Despite the initial success Germany experienced in the beginning of World War II, Germany and Italy experienced an incredible defeat at the Battle of Britain. From July 10th to October 31st, 1940, Germany and Italy failed to take out Britain’s Royal Air Force in what entailed to be the first major campaign to be fought entirely by air forces, and one of the largest and most sustained aerial bombing campaigns to date. The Battle of Britain is considered to be Germany’s first major defeat and a turning point in the war.

As the Allied powers began to build up momentum against the Axis forces, the United States of America were about to abandon their neutral status and definitively proclaim war against the Axis powers. December 7, 1941 Japan launched a surprise attack on the Hawaiian Naval base of Pearl Harbor. With over 2,400 Americans killed and over 1,200 wounded, this battle sparked another turning point in the war. America was now fighting on the side of the Allied powers. The United States fought on both European and Pacific fronts, akin to their role in the First World War, America’s influx of supplies and troops would be a much needed booster to the Allied forces on Germany’s Western front.

As the German army gained control over Europe the Jews, Gypsies, political enemies, Jehovah’s Witnesses, homosexuals, the handicapped and many other “undesirables” were taken to complex network of ghettos, camps, factories and extermination centers all over central Europe.

The first concentration camps were constructed in February 1933 by the Nazis to hold and torture political opponents and union organizers, the number of concentration camps in Germany increased dramatically to more than 300 concentration camps between 1939 and 1942 during World War II. Over 1,200 camps and subcamps, which were designed for labor, were operated within Germany and the other occupied territories, as many as 15,000 camps were constructed over all of occupied Europe. Many camps would be located near densely populated areas, especially those with a high percentage of “undesirables.” Mass executions by gassing would not happen until 1942, when the SS built a network of extermination camps or Vernichtungslager and death camps or Todeslager for the primary function of genocide. Most prisoners were required to wear overalls with colored badges according to their categorization.  Red triangles for political prisoners, green triangles for common criminals pink for homosexual men, purple for Jehovah’s witnesses, black for Gypsies, and yellow for Jews. Many prisoners died by means of deliberate mistreatment. Starvation, disease, overwork, and systematic executions took the lives of millions of prisoners throughout the wartime period.

Selected prisoners would be sent to the gas chambers for “special treatment 14f13.” The selected prisoners were people that were permanently unfit for labor, officially; however unofficially, Jews, the handicapped, and criminals would be arrested with no prior medical examination. After 1942, many small subcamps were erected near factories to provide forced labor. These factories would supply goods such as rubber, airplanes, coal, and rocket propellant. Any prisoners that did not meet the require standards set by the SS would be sent to the gas chambers or killed.  Jewish Allied P.O.W.’s were also sent to prison work camps. Stalag IX-B, or “Bad Orb” was located in Hesse, Germany and a stark violation of the Third Geneva Convention. The camp became grossly overpopulated in 1945, and gained the reputation as one of the worst Stalags in World War II. This Stalag was liberated by the U.S. 44th Infantry Division on April 2, 1945.

The Warsaw Uprising, or powstanie warszawskie, began on August 1, 1944 and ended on October 2. Even though the occupying Nazis faced a conglomerate of British, South African, Polish, American, and Soviet forces, the Nazis prevailed and Warsaw, Poland suffered fierce consequences. With over 10,000 killed, 6,000 missing, 5,000 wounded, and roughly 15,000 imprisoned, this was a major loss for the Polish fighters and even worse for the civilians. Over 150,000 civilians were killed and roughly 700,000 were expelled from the city.

The Allies invaded Sicily on July 9th, 1943; thus beginning Operation Husky and the start of the military strategy that would end the war in Europe. On June 6th, 1944 the Allied forces began a strategic military operation known as the Invasion of Normandy or Operation Overload. The combination of American, Canadian, Free French, British and other allies were able to expand dominance over the Western Front. Simultaneously the Soviet forces expanded dominance over the Eastern Front.  This operation, combined with the subsequent invasions Operations Shingle, and Dragoon on the Italian peninsula and Southern France, respectively, forced the Germans and their allies to fight a two front war in Europe.  This military strategy divided German attention and allowed the allies to capture Rome and Paris and head towards Franco-German border.  The Battle of the Bulge began in December 1944 and lasted until January 1945, the decisive battle allowed Allied troops to cross into German occupied Belgium as well as penetrate Franco-German border. The troops that fought in this battle or replaced those who perished in it, would assist in the liberation of concentration camps, death marches, and other war crimes throughout Germany. 

The liberation of concentration camps began in mid 1944 with the liberation of Majdanek by Soviet forces. As Soviet and Allied troops advanced into deeper former German occupied territory the more camps were discovered.  In January 1945 the Soviet forces discovered the largest and most complex camp to date, Auschwitz.  The Germans who were aware of the Allied advancement would destroy many of the camps and relocate the prisoners. These forced relocations were known as Death Marches.

The Death Marches or Todesmärsche are the forcible movements of prisoners in Nazi Germany with aims to remove evidence of the concentration camps and to prevent the reparation of prisoners of war. The Nazis would lead prisoners away from the camps lying near the front lines to more secluded areas as Allied forces continued to advance on Nazi territory. These prisoners were brutally mistreated and under constant threat of execution by the SS if they fall behind, many prisoners would be killed in the end to hide any evidence.

The first camp to be liberated by the Americans was Buchenwald on April 11, 1945.  By April 16th, 1945 Soviet troops had surrounded Berlin and initiated a major attack on Germany that would become the final major offensive of the European Theater of World War II. Germany suffered a staggering defeat at the hands of the Soviets and Polish, resulting in the suicide of Adolf Hitler and Soviet occupation of eastern Germany.

The suicide of Adolf Hitter on April 30th, 1945 signaled the end of the war was near. On May 8th, 1945 the German and Allied forces signed an instrument of surrender and thus ending the war in Europe.  On August 6th and August 9th the United States bombed Hiroshima and Nagasaki, respectively.  By August 15th the Japanese government surrendered to the United States and on September 2, 1945 a formal declaration of surrender was signed, thus concluding World War Two. 

The end of the Second World War brought on new challenges of reconstruction, reconciliation and the rehabilitation.  In addition to the substantial loss of life, the loss of European Jewish culture heritage was also a victim of the Holocaust.  This was due in part to the destruction of Synagogues, Jewish religious and cultural artifacts as well as the large-scale emigration to Israel and other countries.

And as a result those who participated in war crimes were tried on an international stage. Camp-based trials were established to punish and convict specific individuals who operated and ran the concentration camps. The most prominent of these trials were held in Nuremburg, Germany; the International Military Tribunal, which consisted of the Allied powers, held The Nuremburg Trials. The trials were most notable for the prosecution of prominent members of the military, political, and economic leadership of Nazi Germany. The Nuremburg trials lasted from November 20, 1945 to October 1, 1946. On the Pacific end of the war, the International Military Tribunal for the Far East began on April 29, 1946, with the objective to try the leaders of the Empire of Japan.

One of many major achievements of the Allied powers of World War II was the formation of the United Nations on January 1, 1942, when twenty-six governments signed the Atlantic charter pledging to continue the war effort. The first United Nations council took place in April 25, 1945. A unified body of nations now had the power to control a military body to enforce peace and stability in the world. After the establishment of the United Nations, the Geneva Convention (1949) and Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, in December 1948 established a plethora of new laws and regulations in the event of another act of war. The investigation, capture and prosecution of Nazi soldiers have continued until present day, and will continue to do so as long as there are still people out there that have not yet atoned for their heinous crimes against humanity.

 

Recommended Resources

Name
Affiliation
 
Eva Schloss Holocaust Survivor  
Thomas Buergenthal Holocaust Survivor  
Rachel Nurman Holocaust Survivor  
George Turlo Holocaust Survivor  
Herta and Salomon Pila Holocaust Survivor  
Sara Hannah Matuson Rigler Holocaust Survivor  
John Rinde Holocaust Survivor  
Yehuda Bauer Professor, Hebrew University of Jerusalem  
Anne Sutherland Professor, Macalester College  
Elie Wiesel Holocaust Survivor and Author  


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