HISTORY OF THE HOLOCAUST: AN OVERVIEW
On January 20, 1942, an extraordinary 90-minute meeting took place in a lakeside villa in the
wealthy Wannsee district of Berlin. Fifteen high-ranking Nazi party and German government leaders
gathered to coordinate logistics for carrying out “the final solution of the Jewish question.” Chairing
the meeting was SS Lieutenant General Reinhard Heydrich, head of the powerful Reich Security
Main Office, a central police agency that included the Secret State Police (the Gestapo). Heydrich
convened the meeting on the basis of a memorandum he had received six months earlier from Adolf
Hitler’s deputy, Hermann Göring, confirming his authorization to implement the “Final Solution.”
The “Final Solution” was the Nazi regime’s code name for the deliberate, planned mass murder of
all European Jews. During the Wannsee meeting German government officials discussed “extermination”
without hesitation or qualm. Heydrich calculated that 11 million European Jews from more
than 20 countries would be killed under this heinous plan.
During the months before the Wannsee Conference, special units made up of SS, the elite guard of
the Nazi state, and police personnel, known as Einsatzgruppen, slaughtered Jews in mass shootings on
the territory of the Soviet Union that the Germans had occupied. Six weeks before the Wannsee
meeting, the Nazis began to murder Jews at Chelmno, an agricultural estate located in that part of
Poland annexed to Germany. Here SS and police personnel used sealed vans into which they pumped
carbon monoxide gas to suffocate their victims.The Wannsee meeting served to sanction, coordinate,
and expand the implementation of the “Final Solution” as state policy.
During 1942, trainload after trainload of Jewish men, women, and children were transported from
countries all over Europe to Auschwitz,Treblinka, and four other major killing centers in Germanoccupied
Poland. By year’s end, about 4 million Jews were dead. During World War II (1939–1945),
the Germans and their collaborators killed or caused the deaths of up to 6 million Jews. Hundreds
of Jewish communities in Europe, some centuries old, disappeared forever.To convey the unimaginable,
devastating scale of destruction, postwar writers referred to the murder of the European Jews as
Centuries of religious prejudice against Jews in Christian Europe, reinforced by modern political
antisemitism developing from a complex mixture of extreme nationalism, financial insecurity, fear of
communism, and so-called race science, provide the backdrop for the Holocaust. Hitler and other
Nazi ideologues regarded Jews as a dangerous “race” whose very existence threatened the biological
purity and strength of the “superior Aryan race.”To secure the assistance of thousands of individuals
to implement the “Final Solution,” the Nazi regime could and did exploit existing prejudice against
Jews in Germany and the other countries that were conquered by or allied with Germany during
World War II.
“While not all victims were Jews, all Jews were victims,” Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel has written.
“Jews were destined for annihilation solely because they were born Jewish.They were doomed not
because of something they had done or proclaimed or acquired but because of who they were, sons
and daughters of Jewish people.As such they were sentenced to death collectively and individually….”
SUMMARY OF THE HISTORY OF THE HOLOCAUST
IN TWO MAIN SECTIONS: 1933–1939 AND 1939–1945
On January 30, 1933, Adolf Hitler was named chancellor, the most powerful position in the German
government, by the aged President Hindenburg, who hoped Hitler could lead the nation out of its
grave political and economic crisis. Hitler was the leader of the right-wing National Socialist
German Workers Party (called the “Nazi party” for short). It was, by 1933, one of the strongest parties
in Germany, even though—reflecting the country’s multiparty system—the Nazis had won only a
plurality of 33 percent of the votes in the 1932 elections to the German parliament (Reichstag).
Once in power, Hitler moved quickly to end German democracy. He convinced his cabinet to
invoke emergency clauses of the constitution that permitted the suspension of individual freedoms
of press, speech, and assembly. Special security forces—the Gestapo, the Storm Troopers (SA), and the
SS—murdered or arrested leaders of opposition political parties (Communists, socialists, and liberals).
The Enabling Act of March 23, 1933—forced through a Reichstag already purged of many political
opponents—gave dictatorial powers to Hitler.
Also in 1933, the Nazis began to put into practice their racial ideology.The Nazis believed that the
Germans were “racially superior” and that there was a struggle for survival between them and “inferior
races.” They saw Jews, Roma (Gypsies), and the handicapped as a serious biological threat to
the purity of the “German (Aryan) Race,” what they called the “master race.”
Jews, who numbered about 525,000 in Germany (less than one percent of the total population in
1933), were the principal target of Nazi hatred.The Nazis identified Jews as a race and defined this
race as “inferior.” They also spewed hate-mongering propaganda that unfairly blamed Jews for
Germany’s economic depression and the country’s defeat in World War I (1914–18).
In 1933, new German laws forced Jews out of their civil service jobs, university and law court positions,
and other areas of public life. In April 1933, a boycott of Jewish businesses was instituted. In
1935, laws proclaimed at Nuremberg made Jews second-class citizens. These Nuremberg Laws
defined Jews, not by their religion or by how they wanted to identify themselves, but by the religious
affiliation of their grandparents. Between 1937 and 1939, new anti-Jewish regulations
segregated Jews further and made daily life very difficult for them: Jews could not attend public
schools; go to theaters, cinemas, or vacation resorts; or reside or even walk in certain sections of
Also between 1937 and 1939, Jews increasingly were forced from Germany’s economic life: The
Nazis either seized Jewish businesses and properties outright or forced Jews to sell them at bargain
prices. In November 1938, the Nazis organized a riot (pogrom), known as Kristallnacht (the “Night
of Broken Glass”). This attack against German and Austrian Jews included the physical destruction
of synagogues and Jewish-owned stores, the arrest of Jewish men, the vandalization of homes, and
the murder of individuals.
Although Jews were the main target of Nazi hatred, the Nazis persecuted other groups they viewed
as racially or genetically “inferior.” Nazi racial ideology was buttressed by scientists who advocated
“selective breeding” (eugenics) to “improve” the human race. Laws passed between 1933 and 1935
aimed to reduce the future number of genetic “inferiors” through involuntary sterilization programs:
320,000 to 350,000 individuals judged physically or mentally handicapped were subjected to surgical
or radiation procedures so they could not have children. Supporters of sterilization also argued that
the handicapped burdened the community with the costs of their care. Many of Germany’s 30,000
Roma (Gypsies) were also eventually sterilized and prohibited, along with Blacks, from intermarrying
with Germans. About 500 children of mixed African-German backgrounds were also
New laws combined traditional prejudices with the racism of the Nazis, which defined
Roma, by “race,” as “criminal and asocial.”
Another consequence of Hitler’s ruthless dictatorship in the 1930s was the arrest of political opponents
and trade unionists and others the Nazis labeled “undesirables” and “enemies of the state.”
Some 5,000 to 15,000 homosexuals were imprisoned in concentration camps; under the 1935 Nazirevised
criminal code, the mere denunciation of a man as “homosexual” could result in arrest, trial,
and conviction. Jehovah’s Witnesses, who numbered at least 25,000 in Germany, were banned as an
organization as early as April 1933, because the beliefs of this religious group prohibited them from
swearing any oath to the state or serving in the German military. Their literature was confiscated,
and they lost jobs, unemployment benefits, pensions, and all social welfare benefits. Many Witnesses
were sent to prisons and concentration camps in Nazi Germany, and their children were sent to juvenile
detention homes and orphanages.
Between 1933 and 1936, thousands of people, mostly political prisoners,were imprisoned in concentration
camps, while several thousand German Roma (Gypsies) were confined in special municipal
camps.The first systematic roundups of German and Austrian
Jews occurred after Kristallnacht, when
approximately 30,000 Jewish men were deported to Dachau and other concentration camps, and
several hundred Jewish women were sent to local jails. The wave of arrests in 1938 also included
several thousand German and Austrian Roma (Gypsies).
Between 1933 and 1939, about half the German-Jewish population and more than two-thirds of
Austrian Jews (1938–39) fled Nazi persecution.They emigrated mainly to the United States, Palestine,
elsewhere in Europe (where many would be later trapped by Nazi conquests during the war), Latin
America, and Japanese-occupied Shanghai (which required no visas for entry). Jews who remained
under Nazi rule were either unwilling to uproot themselves or unable to obtain visas, sponsors in host
countries, or funds for emigration. Most foreign countries, including the United States, Canada,
Britain, and France, were unwilling to admit very large numbers of refugees.
On September 1, 1939, Germany invaded Poland and World War II began.Within weeks, the Polish
army was defeated, and the Nazis began their campaign to destroy Polish culture and enslave the
Polish people, whom they viewed as “subhuman.” Killing Polish leaders was the first step: German
soldiers carried out massacres of university professors, artists, writers, politicians, and many Catholic
priests.To create new living space for the “superior Germanic race,” large segments of the Polish
population were resettled, and German families moved into the emptied lands. Other Poles,
including many Jews,were imprisoned in concentration camps.The Nazis also “kidnapped” as many
as 50,000 “Aryan-looking” Polish children from their parents and took them to Germany to be
adopted by German families. Many of these children were later rejected as not capable of
Germanization and were sent to special children’s camps where some died of starvation, lethal injection,
As the war began in 1939, Hitler initialed an order to kill institutionalized, handicapped patients
deemed “incurable.” Special commissions of physicians reviewed questionnaires filled out by all state
hospitals and then decided if a patient should be killed. The doomed were then transferred to six
institutions in Germany and Austria where specially constructed gas chambers were used to kill
them. After public protests in 1941, the Nazi leadership continued this “euthanasia” program in
secret. Babies, small children, and other victims were thereafter killed by lethal injection and pills and
by forced starvation.
The “euthanasia” program contained all the elements later required for mass murder of European
Jews and Roma (Gypsies): a decision to kill, specially trained personnel, the apparatus for killing by
gas, and the use of euphemistic language like “euthanasia” that psychologically distanced the
murderers from their victims and hid the criminal character of the killings from the public.
In 1940 German forces continued their conquest of much of Europe, easily defeating Denmark,
Norway, the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg, France,Yugoslavia, and Greece. On June 22, 1941,
the German army invaded the Soviet Union and by late November was approaching Moscow. In the
meantime, Italy, Romania, and Hungary had joined the Axis powers led by Germany and were opposed
by the main Allied powers (British Commonwealth, Free France, the United States, and the
In the months following Germany’s invasion of the Soviet Union, Jews, political leaders,
Communists, and many Roma (Gypsies) were killed in mass shootings. Most of those killed were
Jews.These murders were carried out at improvised sites throughout the Soviet Union by members
of mobile killing squads (Einsatzgruppen) who followed in the wake of the invading German army.
The most famous of these sites was Babi Yar, near Kiev, where an estimated 33,000 persons, mostly
Jews, were murdered over two days. German terror extended to institutionalized handicapped and
psychiatric patients in the Soviet Union; it also resulted in the death of more than 3 million Soviet
prisoners of war.
World War II brought major changes to the concentration camp system. Large numbers of new prisoners,
deported from all German-occupied countries, now flooded the camps. Often entire groups
were committed to the camps, such as members of underground resistance organizations who were
rounded up in a sweep across western Europe under the 1941 Night and Fog decree.To accommodate
the massive increase in the number of prisoners, hundreds of new camps were established in
occupied territories of eastern and western Europe.
During the war, ghettos, transit camps, and forced-labor camps, in addition to the concentration
camps, were created by the Germans and their collaborators to imprison Jews,Roma (Gypsies), and
other victims of racial and ethnic hatred as well as political opponents and resistance fighters.
Following the invasion of Poland, 3 million Polish Jews were forced into approximately 400 newly
established ghettos where they were segregated from the rest of the population. Large numbers of
Jews also were deported from other cities and countries, including Germany, to ghettos and camps
in Poland and German-occupied territories further east.
In Polish cities under Nazi occupation, like Warsaw and Lodz, Jews were confined in sealed ghettos
where starvation, overcrowding, exposure to cold, and contagious diseases killed tens of thousands of
people. In Warsaw and elsewhere, ghettoized Jews made every effort, often at great risk, to maintain
their cultural, communal, and religious lives. The ghettos also provided a forced-labor pool for the
Germans, and many forced laborers (who worked on road gangs, in construction, or at other hard
labor related to the German war effort) died from exhaustion or maltreatment.
Between 1942 and 1944, the Germans moved to eliminate the ghettos in occupied Poland and elsewhere,
deporting ghetto residents to “extermination camps”—killing centers equipped with gassing
facilities—located in Poland.After the meeting of senior German government officials in late January
1942. After the meeting in late January 1942 at a villa in the Berlin suburb of Wannsee informing
senior German government officials of the decision to implement “the final solution of the Jewish
question,” Jews from western Europe also were sent to killing centers in the East.
The six killing sites, chosen because of their closeness to rail lines and their location in semirural areas,
were at Belzec, Sobibor,Treblinka, Chelmno,Majdanek,
and Auschwitz-Birkenau. Chelmno was the
first camp in which mass executions were carried out by gas piped into mobile gas vans; at least
152,000 persons were killed there between December 1941 and March 1943, and between June and
July 1944.A killing center using gas chambers operated at Belzec, where about 600,000 persons were
killed between May 1942 and August 1943. Sobibor opened in May 1942 and closed following a
rebellion of the prisoners on October 14, 1943; about 250,000 persons had already been killed by
gassing at Sobibor.Treblinka opened in July 1942 and closed in November 1943; a revolt by the prisoners
in early August 1943 destroyed much of that facility. At least 750,000 persons were killed at
Treblinka, physically the largest of the killing centers. Almost all of the victims at Chelmno, Belzec,
Sobibor, and Treblinka were Jews; a few were Roma (Gypsies), Poles, and Soviet POWs.Very few individuals
survived these four killing centers where most victims were murdered immediately upon arrival.
Auschwitz-Birkenau, which also served as a concentration camp and slave labor camp, became the
killing center where the largest numbers of European Jews and Roma (Gypsies) were killed.After an
experimental gassing there in September 1941—of 250 malnourished and ill Polish prisoners and
600 Soviet POWs—mass murder became a daily routine; more than 1 million people were killed at
Auschwitz-Birkenau, 9 out of 10 of them Jews. In addition, Roma, Soviet POWs, and ill prisoners
of all nationalities died in the gas chambers there. Between May 15 and July 9, 1944, nearly 440,000
Jews were deported from Hungary in more than 140 trains, overwhelmingly to Auschwitz.This was
probably the largest single mass deportation during the Holocaust. A similar system was implemented
at Majdanek, which also doubled as a concentration camp, and where between 170,000 and 235,000
persons were killed in the gas chambers or died from malnutrition, brutality, and disease.
The methods of murder were similar in the killing centers, which were operated by the SS. Jewish
victims arrived in railroad freight cars and passenger trains, mostly from ghettos and camps in occupied
Poland, but also from almost every other eastern and western European country. On arrival,
men were separated from women and children. Prisoners were forced to undress and hand over all
valuables. They were then forced naked into the gas chambers, which were disguised as shower
rooms, and either carbon monoxide or Zyklon B (a form of crystalline prussic acid, also used as an
insecticide in some camps) was used to asphyxiate them.The minority selected for forced labor were, after initial quarantine,
vulnerable to malnutrition, exposure, epidemics, medical experiments, and
brutality; many perished as a result.
The Germans carried out their systematic murderous activities with the active help of local collaborators
in many countries and the acquiescence or indifference of millions of bystanders. However,
there were instances of organized resistance. For example, in the fall of 1943, the Danish resistance,
with the support of the local population, rescued nearly the entire Jewish community in Denmark
by smuggling them via a dramatic boatlift to safety in neutral Sweden. Individuals in many other
countries also risked their lives to save Jews and other individuals subject to Nazi persecution. One
of the most famous was Raoul Wallenberg, a Swedish diplomat who played a significant role in some
of the rescue efforts that saved the lives of tens of thousands of Hungarian Jews in 1944.
Resistance existed in almost every concentration camp and ghetto of Europe. In addition to the armed
revolts at Sobibor and Treblinka, Jewish resistance in the Warsaw ghetto led to a courageous uprising
in April and May 1943, despite a predictable doomed outcome because of superior German force. In
general, rescue or aid to Holocaust victims was not a priority of resistance organizations, whose principal
goal was to fight the war against the Germans. Nonetheless, such groups and Jewish partisans
(resistance fighters) sometimes cooperated with each other to save Jews. On April 19, 1943, for
instance,members of the National Committee for the Defense of Jews, in cooperation with Christian
railroad workers and the general underground in Belgium, attacked a train leaving the Belgian transit
camp of Malines headed for Auschwitz and succeeded in assisting Jewish deportees to escape.
The U.S. government did not pursue a policy of rescue for victims of Nazism during World War II.
Like their British counterparts, U.S. political and military leaders argued that winning the war was
the top priority and would bring an end to Nazi terror. Once the war began, security concerns,
reinforced in part by antisemitism, influenced the U.S. State Department (led by Secretary of State
Cordell Hull) and the U.S. government to do little to ease restrictions on entry visas. In January
1944, President Roosevelt established the War Refugee Board within the U.S.Treasury Department
to facilitate the rescue of imperiled refugees. Fort Ontario in Oswego, New York, began to serve as
an ostensibly free port for refugees from the territories liberated by the Allies.
After the war turned against Germany, and the Allied armies approached German soil in late 1944,
the SS decided to evacuate outlying concentration camps. The Germans tried to cover up the
evidence of genocide and deported prisoners to camps inside Germany to prevent their liberation.
Many inmates died during the long journeys on foot known as “death marches.” During the final
days, in the spring of 1945, conditions in the remaining concentration camps exacted a terrible toll
in human lives. Even concentration camps such as Bergen-Belsen, never intended for extermination,
became death traps for thousands, including Anne Frank, who died there of typhus in March 1945.
In May 1945, Nazi Germany collapsed, the SS guards fled, and the camps ceased to exist.
The Allied victors of World War II (Great Britain, France, the United States, and the Soviet Union)
faced two immediate problems following the surrender of Nazi Germany in May 1945: to bring
Nazi war criminals to justice and to provide for displaced persons (DPs) and refugees stranded in
Allied-occupied Germany and Austria.
Following the war, the best-known war crimes trial was the trial of “major” war criminals, held at
the Palace of Justice in Nuremberg, Germany, between November 1945 and August 1946. Under the
auspices of the International Military Tribunal (IMT), which consisted of prosecutors and judges
from the four occupying powers (Great Britain, France, the Soviet Union, and the United States),
leading officials of the Nazi regime were prosecuted for war crimes.The IMT sentenced 13 of those
convicted to death. Seven more defendants were sentenced to life imprisonment or to prison terms
ranging from 10 to 20 years. One defendant committed suicide before the trial began.Three of the
defendants were acquitted. The judges also found three of six Nazi organizations (the SS, the
Gestapo-SD, and the Leadership Corps of the Nazi Party) to be criminal organizations.
In the three years following this major trial, 12 subsequent trials were conducted under the auspices
of the IMT but before U.S. military tribunals.The proceedings were directed at the prosecution of
second- and third-ranking officials of the Nazi regime.They included concentration camp administrators;
commanders of the Einsatzgruppen (mobile killing units); physicians and public health
officials; the SS leadership; German army field commanders and staff officers; officials in the justice,
interior, and foreign ministries; and senior administrators of industrial concerns that used concentration
camp laborers, including I. G. Farben and the Flick concern.
In addition, each occupying power (Great Britain, France, the United States, and the Soviet Union)
conducted trials of Nazi offenders captured in its respective zone of occupation or accused of crimes
perpetrated in that zone of occupation. The U.S military authorities conducted the trials in the
American zone at the site of the Nazi concentration camp Dachau. In general, the defendants in
these trials were the staff and guard units at concentration camps and other camps located in the zone
and people accused of crimes against Allied military and civilian personnel.
Those German officials and collaborators who committed crimes within a specific location or
country were generally returned to the nation on whose territory the crimes were committed and
were tried by national tribunals. Perhaps the most famous of these cases was the trial in 1947, in
Cracow, Poland, of Rudolf Höss, the commandant of Auschwitz.Trials of German war criminals and
their collaborators were conducted during the late 1940s and early 1950s in Poland, Hungary,
Romania, Bulgaria,Yugoslavia, and the Soviet Union. After the establishment of West Germany in
1949, many former Nazis received relatively lenient treatment by the courts. Courts in West
Germany ruled the offenders were not guilty because they were obeying orders from their superior
officers. Some Nazi criminals were acquitted and returned to normal lives in German society, a
number of them taking jobs in the business world.
Many war criminals, however,were never brought
to trial or punished. In 1958, the Federal Republic of Germany established a Central Agency for the
Investigation of National Socialist Violent Crimes to streamline the investigation of Nazi offenders
living in West Germany.These efforts, which continue to this day, led to some significant proceedings
such as the Frankfurt Trial of Auschwitz camp personnel in the 1960s. The investigation of Nazi
offenders residing in the United States began in earnest during the late 1970s and continues to this day.
Even as the Allies moved to bring Nazi offenders to justice, the looming refugee crisis threatened to
overwhelm the resources of the Allied powers. During World War II, the Nazis uprooted millions of
people.Within months of Germany’s surrender in May 1945, the Allies repatriated more than 6
million (DPs) to their home countries.
Some 250,000 Jewish DPs, including most of the Jewish survivors of concentration camps, were
unable or unwilling to return to Eastern Europe because of postwar antisemitism and the destruction
of their communities during the Holocaust. Many of those who did return feared for their lives.
Many Holocaust survivors found themselves in territory liberated by the Anglo-American armies
and were housed in DP camps that the Allies established in Germany, Austria, and Italy. They were
joined by a flow of refugees, including Holocaust survivors, migrating from points of liberation in
Eastern Europe and the Soviet-occupied zones of Germany and Austria.
Most Jewish DPs hoped to leave Europe for Palestine or the United States, but the United States was
still governed by severely restrictive immigration legislation, and the British, who administered
Palestine under a mandate from the defunct League of Nations, severely restricted Jewish immigration
for fear of antagonizing the Arab residents of the Mandate. Other countries had closed their
borders to immigration during the Depression and during the war. Despite these obstacles, many
Jewish DPs were eager to leave Europe as soon as possible.
The Jewish Brigade Group, formed as a unit within the British army in late 1944, worked with
former partisans to help organize the Beriha (literally,”escape”), the exodus of Jewish refugees across
closed borders from inside Europe to the coast in an attempt to sail for Palestine.However, the British
intercepted most of the ships. In 1947, for example, the British stopped the Exodus 1947 at the port
of Haifa.The ship had 4,500 Holocaust survivors on board, who were forcibly returned on British
vessels to Germany.
In the following years, the postwar Jewish refugee crisis eased. In 1948, the U.S. Congress passed the
Displaced Persons Act, which provided up to 400,000 special visas for DPs uprooted by the Nazi or
Soviet regimes. Some 63,000 of these visas were issued to Jews under the DP Act.When the DP Act
expired in 1952, it was followed by a Refugee Relief Act that remained in force until the end of
1956. Moreover, in May 1948, the State of Israel became an independent nation after the United
Nations voted to partition Palestine into a Jewish state and an Arab state. Israel quickly moved to
legalize the flow of Jewish immigrants into the new state, passing legislation providing for unlimited
Jewish immigration to the Jewish homeland.The last DP camp closed in Germany in 1957.
A Jewish girl from Vienna sits on a staircase after her arrival in England. Nearly 10,000 children found
refuge in England in what was called the Kindertransport. (December 12, 1938)
U.S. National Archives and Records Administration