"Death seemed to guard all exits." This motto defined the fate of millions of Europeans between 1941 and 1945. As Nazi Germany gained control of one country after another in World War II, there was much killing of civilians and maltreatment of soldiers that can be classified as war crimes. These crimes, however, pale in comparison to the massive, deliberate, and well-planned extermination of more than 15 million persons in what is termed the Holocaust. This genocide of staggering proportions was carried out with scrupulous efficiency by a well-coordinated German bureaucracy in which nothing was left to chance.
The primary goal of the Nazi Holocaust was the extermination of all the Jews in Europe. This purpose was nearly fulfilled. Out of an estimated 8.3 million Jews living in German-occupied Europe after 1939, about 6 million were killed. Although they were the chief targets, Jews were not the only ones. Gypsies, Slavs, and homosexuals were also singled out for special treatment. It is believed that an additional 16 million Poles and Russians were killed during this five-year orgy of slaughter.
Holocaust as a term has normally been used to describe the fate of Europe's Jews. While the Nazis had little trouble in disposing of people whom they considered inferior, the policy aimed at Jews was the most deliberate and well calculated. The policy found eager support in other European nations as well, where centuries of deeply ingrained Christian anti-Semitism erupted into violence under cover of war. Only in Denmark were heroic national efforts made to save the Jewish population in spite of the German occupation. Most Danish Jews were sent to neutral Sweden to live out the war. Other efforts to save the Jews were made by individuals, such as the Swedish businessman Raoul Wallenberg, and by institutions
Adolf Hitler's persecution of Jews began as soon as the Nazis came to power in 1933. A strident anti-Semitism had always been part of his party platform. Jewish businesses were boycotted and vandalized. Jews were driven from their jobs in government and universities. By the Nuremberg laws of 1935 they lost their citizenship and were forbidden to intermarry with other Germans. They became nonpersons in their own country with no claim to rights of any kind. Many fled to other European nations or to the United States. Most, however, stayed behind, convinced that as fully integrated German citizens they were safe. In so doing they failed to understand the seriousness of their predicament.
Nazi intentions should have become clear on Nov. 9-10, 1938, the Night of Broken Glass (Kristallnacht in German), when nearly every synagogue in Germany was destroyed along with many other Jewish institutions. There followed the rounding up of thousands of Jews to be imprisoned in concentration camps. Their wealth and property were confiscated.
Although these outrages were reported around the world, the response to them was generally rather mild. Italy, Romania, Hungary, and other European countries were beginning to follow Germany's lead in persecuting their Jewish minorities. There was almost no organized opposition to what was happening, even on the part of most churches. This silence meant, to Hitler, tacit approval of his policies.
By late 1941, after the invasion of the Soviet Union, the overwhelming mass of European Jewry had been brought under German domination. It was at this point in the war that the Nazi leaders began their "final solution" to what they called the Jewish problem. An earlier plan to ship all Jews to the island of Madagascar was rejected as impracticable.
The Wannsee Conference met on Jan. 20, 1942, in a suburb of Berlin. Fifteen Nazis, headed by Reinhard Heydrich, made plans for the final solution. All Jews were to be evacuated to camps in Eastern Europe. Many would be killed outright, while others would endure slave labor and meager rations until they died. Before or after they were killed, they were stripped of every potentially valuable possession--clothing, eyeglasses, jewelry, gold teeth, and hair.
Organizing such a massive undertaking seriously detracted from Germany's war effort. It required the cooperation of the government bureaucracy, the military, industry, and the railroads. There were frequent shortages of trains to transport troops because of the thousands of people being shipped eastward to the camps. By 1945, when it was obvious that Germany was losing the war, this goal rather than the war itself had become paramount.
The killings were done by mobile death squads and in concentration camps such as Auschwitz, Treblinka, Belzec, and Majdanek. The Nazis' most effective method of exterminating people was in specially constructed gas chambers, into which the victims were packed wall to wall. After the gassing the bodies were then moved to nearby furnaces to be burned. The Nazis had little trouble recruiting help from among the citizens of occupied countries to staff the camps.
Although Allied leaders and Jewish leaders in the United States knew of the exterminations, Jewish efforts to have the Allies bomb the death camps were unsuccessful. When the war ended and Allied troops entered Germany and Eastern Europe, news of the Holocaust had a shattering effect upon the world, but especially upon a German public already disheartened by defeat. Pictures of the camps were sometimes too gruesome to be published. The damage suffered by the Jews of Europe could never be repaired. One benefit did accrue, however--the founding of the State of Israel as a Jewish homeland in 1948. One of the most useful books about the Holocaust is 'The War Against the Jews' by Lucy Dawidowicz, published in 1975.