History 104: Western Civilization since 1648
Lecture: World War II

The Holocaust click here for audio

The Holocaust is the term used to describe the systematic extermination of people considered undesirable

"The Spider. Many victims are trapped in the web, caught by flattering words. Rip the web of deceit and free German youth." (1934)

to Hitler's idea of a third German Reich. The Jews in particular were subjected to genocide, the deliberate effort to extinguish an entire segment of the population. The Jews had been persecuted in Germany since Hitler's rise to power in 1933, and gradually their civil and legal rights had been taken away. By 1936, over 75,000 Jews had left Germany and 8,000 had committed suicide. Nazi racial theory saw Jews as an inferior race to be overrun in social Darwinistic fashion, and Nazi political theory saw them as an international force which (like Bolshevism) undermined German nationalism.

Beginning with the invasion of Poland in 1939, Jews were rounded up in ghettos. In their invasion of Russia in 1941, Germany discovered there were millions of Jews in Russia. Although the original idea had been to relocate all the Jews east of the new Reich, it became obvious that there was nowhere to put so many people. By 1942, extermination camps were in operation. Unlike labor camps (used by both sides during the war), prisoners in extermination camps were there to die. The only work was in the killing and processing of bodies. Anyone not suited for work was killed. Gradually the killing process was refined, from shooting to gassing with Zyklon-B and incinerating the remains. The largest camp, Auschwitz (in Poland) had an organized system consisting of arrival by cattle car, separation into workers (about 30% of all new prisoners) and the condemned (about 70%), gassing of the condemned, removal of useful by-products (glasses, hair, gold teeth, artifical limbs), and burning in crematoriums. All work was done by prisoners.

Yellow - Jew
Brown - Gypsy
Violet - Jehovah's Witness
Pink - Homosexual
Green - Habitual criminal
Red - Political prisoner
Black - Asocial
Blue - Emigrant

Jews were not the only victims. Political prisoners, Slavs, gypsies, Catholics, prisoners of war, homosexuals, mental patients, transvestites, all were to be exterminated. Prisoners at the larger camps wore color-coded with tags on their clothes: a star of David for Jews, a violet badge for Jehovah's Witnesses, a brown badge for gypsies, a pink triangle for gays. And a red and white target for anyone who had attempted to escape.

As it became obvious that the Germans were losing the war, there were efforts to destroy evidence of some of the camps. Many camps were simply abandoned, their prisoners left to starve, as Germany retreated westward. The worst camps, because they were in the east, were liberated by Soviet troops. This may have had something to do with the loyalty some eastern European nations felt toward the Soviet Union after the war.

The death toll of the Holocaust is hard to determine; records were destroyed in many cases. The nearest estimate is:

  • 6 million Jews (including 90% of the Jewish population of Poland, the Baltic Republics, and Germany; a total of 66% of all European Jews)
  • 4 million Soviet prisoners of war
  • 4 million Poles, Ukranians, Belorussians and other Slavs
  • 400,000 Gypsies (40% of all European gypsies)
  • 10,000 homosexuals

There is much information available about the Holocaust: see the Holocaust Timeline for the major events and issues. So-called "revisionist" historians have tried to argue with the genocidal aspects of the Holocaust, claiming that Jews were not exterminated because they were Jewish, etc. Although the revisionist analyses are unconvincing, their presence has led to the release of a great deal of evidence showing what really happened, such as the pictorial archives and Stephen Spielberg's Shoah project.