After coming to power in 1933, Germany’s Nazi Party implemented a highly organized strategy of persecution, murder, and genocide aimed at ethnically “purifying” Germany, a plan Hitler called the “Final Solution”.
Six million Jews and five million Slavs, Roma, disabled, Jehovah’s Witnesses, homosexuals, and political and religious dissidents were killed during the Holocaust.
As Champetier de Ribes, the French Prosecutor at the Nuremberg Trials explained, “This [was] a crime so monstrous, so undreamt of in history … that the term ‘genocide’ has had to be coined to define it.”
Precursors to Genocide
After Germany’s loss in WWI, the Treaty of Versailles punished Germany by placing tough restrictions on the country. The treaty made Germany take full responsibility for the war, reduced the extent of German territory, severely limited the size and placement of their armed forces, and forced Germany to pay the allied powers reparations. These restrictions not only increased social unrest but, combined with the start of the Great Depression, collapsed the German economy as inflation rose alongside unemployment.
In the German parliament, the Nazi party, led by Adolf Hitler, gained popularity. The number of seats Nazis controlled in the parliament rose from 12 in 1928 to 230 in 1932, making them the largest political party. The strong showing guaranteed the Nazi party would need to be part of any political coalition. Believing he could check Hitler’s ambition, President Hindenburg reluctantly made Hitler the Chancellor of Germany on January 30, 1933.
Shortly after Hitler came to power, the Reichstag building, seat of the German parliament, burnt down. Communists were blamed for setting the fire and Hindenburg declared a state of emergency, passing the Reichstag Fire Decree that suspended basic rights like trial by jury. The German Communist Party was suspended and over 4,000 members were detained without trial. The next month, Hitler’s cabinet passed the Enabling Act which allowed him to enact laws without the consent of the parliament for four years, effectively transforming the German government into a de facto Nazi dictatorship.
From this moment on, the Nazi regime adopted hundreds of laws restricting the rights and liberties of the Jewish people. Jews were expelled from the civil service and barred from entering particular professions, stripped of their citizenship, and forbidden from intermarrying or even having a relationship with anyone of “German or German-related blood”.
The government defined a Jewish person as someone with three or four Jewish grandparents, not someone who had religious convictions. This meant that people who had never practiced, or hadn’t practiced Judaism in many years, or even converted to Christianity were subjected to persecution. Although anti-semitism was pervasive in 1930s Germany, these restrictions frequently extended to any person the Nazis considered to be “non-Aryan”.
— Kristallnacht —
The Night of Broken Glass
Throughout the nights of November 9-10, 1938, rioting across Germany, Austria, and part of German-controlled Czechoslovakia targeted Jewish people and their places of business and worship. These nights have come to be known as Kristallnacht, or “The Night of the Broken Glass”.
Over those two nights, hundreds (and possibly thousands) of synagogues were burned; more than 7,000 Jewish-owned businesses were looted and destroyed, and almost 100 Jews were killed during the violence. Some 30,000 Jewish men were arrested and transported to concentration camps.
The rioting was triggered by the assassination of Ernst vom Rath, a German diplomat in Paris, by a Polish Jewish teenager, Herschel Grynszpan, on November 7th. Grynszpan did not attempt to escape and claimed that the assassination was motivated by the persecution of the Jewish people. Despite being attended to by Hitler’s personal physician, vom Rath died two days later.
Although the events of November 9th and 10th were reported to be a spontaneous outburst of violence among the German people, they were actually closely organized by the Nazis.
After this night, the German government supported dozens of laws and decrees that took away Jews property and livelihood. By the end of the year, Jews were prohibited from attending school. One billion reichsmarks of Jewish property was seized as collective punishment against the nation’s Jews for the murder of von Rath. Those able to flee the country did. In the year after Kristallnact, more than 100,000 Jews left Germany as the situation deteriorated.
World War II
Throughout the late-1930s, the Nazi government began to forcibly acquire ethnically German territory in Austria and Czechoslovakia that was taken from Germany at the end of the First World War. Although the international community initially allowed Germany to incorporate these territories into the growing German Empire, it became increasingly clear that Hitler’s ambition did not stop at these small territories. When Germany invaded Poland on September 1, 1939, Britain and France responded by declaring war on Germany, beginning the Second World War.
Between April and June of 1940, Germany invaded Norway, Denmark, the Netherlands, Belgium, and Luxembourg consolidating power across neutral Western Europe. On June 22, 1940, France signed an armistice with Germany, which divided France between the German-occupied territory in the north and the Vichy regime in the south. Although officially neutral, the French state during this time was generally pro-Nazi and cooperated with Germany’s racial policies.
In the first half of 1941, after conquering Yugoslavia and Greece, Germany broke off its alliance with the Soviet Union and launched an invasion of the Soviet Union known as Operation Barbarossa. Hitler described his vision for the war with the Soviet Union as an “extermination of Bolshevik Commissars and of the Communist intelligentsia”.
To the Nazi regime, there would have been no doubt that a war against Bolshevism was implicitly a war against the Jewish population of the Soviet Union. A division of Hitler’s SS known as the Einsatzgruppen traveled behind the German army and acted as death squads, exterminating civilian populations in the most efficient way possible. During the early part of Operation Barbarossa these were frequently people who had fled the Nazi’s earlier invasion of Poland.
On December 7, 1941, the United States entered the war following the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. Four days later, Germany and Italy declared war on the United States, bringing them into the European Theatre.
Beginning with the British air raids on Cologne in May of 1942, the Allies launched a strategic bombing campaign that would target cities and industrial plants across the Reich for the next three years. In the summer of 1942, Germany and its allies focused on the Soviet Union unsuccessfully. The Soviet Union gained the dominant role, which it would maintain for the rest of the war.
On June 6, 1944, also known as D-Day, more than 150,000 Allied soldiers landed in France. In December the Germans started an unsuccessful counterattack in Belgium and northern France, known as the Battle of the Bulge. Continuing to gain momentum, the Soviets began an offensive in January 1945, liberating western Poland and then forcing Hungary to surrender.
On April 16, 1945 Soviets surrounded Berlin, Germany’s capital. When the Soviets began advancing towards the Reich Chancellery, Hitler committed suicide on April 30, 1945. Then on May 7th, Germany surrendered to the Western Allies in Reims, France and a few days later to the Soviets in Berlin. All told more than 60 million people, or about 3% of the world’s population at the time, were killed during the course of the Second World War.
— The “Final Solution” —
Ghettos, Concentration Camps and Death Camps
Jews were forced to move, often to different cities or countries, and live in designated areas, referred to as ghettos. Most of the ghettos were “open” which meant Jews were free to come and go during the daytime. As time past, more and more ghettos became “closed” meaning that Jews were trapped and not allowed to leave. No ghettos were ever established within the borders of Germany and most were only meant as a temporary means of isolating Jews from the German population until they could be moved elsewhere.
When the Nazi’s rose to power they built facilities to hold and, eventually kill, their enemies. When the first concentration camps were built in 1933, this primarily meant political dissidents and opponents of the Nazi government, such as German Communists, Socialists, Social Democrats but would grow to include asocial groups – Gypsies, Jehovah’s Witnesses, the homeless, the mentally ill and homosexuals. It was not until Kristallnacht that the prisoners became primarily Jewish.
Once Germany took over Poland in 1939, it created forced-labor camps. Thousands of prisoners died from working conditions, exhaustion, and starvation. After the outbreak of World War II, the number of concentration camps increased exponentially. The number of prisoners of war camps also rose, but after the first years of the war most were converted into concentration camps. Nazis forcibly relocated Jews from ghettos to concentration camps.
Treatment inside the concentration camps were horrible. Prisoners were given tiny rations of food and forced into physical labor. They often slept more than three to a bed without pillows or blankets, even in the winter months. In many concentration camps, Nazi doctors conducted medical experiments on prisoners against their will, in many cases killing the prisoners in the process.
In 1942, fifteen Nazi leaders met at a conference in Wannsee, Germany to discuss the “Jewish Question”. Their job was to decide the most efficient way to exterminate the Jews. They decided that Jews would be sent to extermination camps where they would be sent to showers. But instead of water coming out of the faucet, they faced their death when poisonous Zyklon-B gas leaked through the showerheads to suffocate them. This decision at the conference is called the “Final Solution.”
It was not until this point in the war that systemic extermination of the Jewish people was considered. Before this point, none of the concentration camps had been built to explicitly carry out the mass murder of the Nazi’s enemies.
The first such extermination camps were introduced during Operation Reinhardt, which targeted the elimination of the Jewish people within the General Government of Occupied Poland and Ukraine. After the first killing center open at Chelmno, the use of these extermination tactics spread quickly. At the height of deportations, the Birkenau killing center murdered 6,000 Jews a day.
While there were only 23 main camps between 1933 to 1945, the Nazi regime established some 20,000 other camps used for forced labor, transit or temporary internment. During the Holocaust it is estimated that 6 million Jews were slaughtered along with, 3 million Soviet prisoners of war, 3 million Polish Catholics, 700,000 Serbians, 250,000 Gypsies, Sinti, and Lalleri, 80,000 Germans (for political reasons), 70,000 German handicapped, 12,000 homosexuals, and 2,500 Jehovah’s Witnesses.
After WWII had ended, photographs of the Holocaust stunned the public. Newspapers in the United States had reported on the oppression of the Jews in Germany during the war. In 1942, many newspapers were writing details of the Holocaust, but these stories were short and were not widely read. In 1943, after sources had confirmed the killings of at least two million Jews in concentration camps across Europe a Gallup poll found that less than half of Americans believed these reports to be true; 28% thought they were “just a rumor”. The reports were unconfirmed and sometimes denied by the United States government.
In 1944, Josiah DuBois, Jr. wrote a memorandum to then-Secretary of the Treasury Henry Morgenthau, Jr. entitled “Report to the Secretary on the Acquiescence of This Government in the Murder of the Jews”, which condemned the bureaucratic interference of U.S. State Department policies in obstructing the evacuation of Holocaust Refugees from Romania and Occupied France. The Report would spur the Roosevelt administration to create the War Refugee Board later that year.
The International Response
Despite, wide reporting of Holocaust atrocities including gas chambers, many prominent analysts doubted the authenticity of these reports. Prominently, Roger Allen, a member of the British Foreign Office discounted intelligence reports on the use of gas chambers in Polish extermination camps because he could “never understand what the advantage of a gas chamber over a simple machine gun or over starving people would be.”
Advocacy organizations worldwide called for British Royal Air Forces to bomb concentration camps particularly at Auschwitz. Although the plan was adopted by British Prime Minister Winston Churchill poor information-sharing between parts of the British government led the order to be ignored and the plan dropped. Such calculations were hardly the low point of Allied Responses. One story has that, low on supplies, the Nazis offered the British a million Jews in exchange for 10,000 trucks, which one British diplomat promptly refused saying, “What would I do with one million Jews? Where would I put them?”
Although many people responded with obstructionism and doubt, several rescue operations were run throughout Axis-controlled Europe. Some were the work of prominent individuals like Raoul Wallenberg and Carl Lutz who worked largely alone while other operations were far more complex. A network of Catholic bishops and clergymen organized local protests and shelter campaigns throughout much of Europe that are today estimated to have saved 860,000 lives. Danish fishermen clandestinely ferried more than 7,000 Jews into neutral Sweden while the French town of Chambon-sur-Lignon sheltered between 3,000 and 5,000 refugees.
— Refugees Refused —
The Journey of the St. Louis
On May 19th, 1939, the S.S. St. Louis sailed from Hamburg, Germany to Havana, Cuba with 937 passengers; almost all of them were Jews escaping with their lives. This was one of the last ships that left Germany before the outbreak of World War II. Most of the passengers had applied for U.S. visas and were only planning on staying in Cuba until they could enter into the United States. The U.S. State Department in Washington, the U.S. consulate in Havana, and the owner of the St. Louis were aware that they might not be able to enter Cuba, but the passengers were never told.
The passengers had landing certificates and transit visas by the Cuban Director-General of Immigration, Manuel Benitez Gonzalez. But, a week before the ship left, Cuban President Federico Laredo Bru published a decree that overturned all recent landing certificates. For them to land in Cuba, they needed written authorization from the Cuban Secretaries of State and Labor and a $500 bond. Most of the passengers were not prepared for the bureaucratic mess they were about to face in Cuba.
The St. Louis arrived in Havana harbor on May 27th. Of the 937 passengers on board, only 28 passengers were allowed into Cuba. 22 of these passengers were Jewish and had valid U.S. visas, 4 were Spanish citizens and 2 were Cuban nationals, all with valid documents. This story gained a lot of publicity; it was spread throughout Europe and the United States. The U.S. newspapers reported the story compassionately, but only a handful suggested that the refugees should come to the United States. The United States government decided not to take the steps to permit the passengers into the country.
After the U.S. government refused to permit the passenger’s refuge, the St. Louis left Cuba for Europe. The St. Louis sailed so close to Florida that they could see the lights of Miami. The passengers were able to find refuge in other European countries so they didn’t have to return to Germany. Great Britain took 288, the Netherlands admitted 181; Belgium took 214, and 224 passengers found temporary refuge in France. When Germany invaded Western Europe, 532 of the original passengers were trapped. Just over half survived the Holocaust.
To prosecute the leaders of the Holocaust, the International Military Tribunal in Nuremberg was formed in 1946. The U.S., the UK, the Soviet Union and France each supplied two judges (a primary and an alternate) and a prosecution team for the trial. Twelve leading Nazi officials were sentenced to death for the crimes they had committed, while three received life sentences in prison, and four had prison terms for up to twenty years.
Three defendants were acquitted. However, many of the Nazis who perpetrated the Holocaust were never tried or punished, including Hitler who had committed suicide. Since then, the international community has continued and improved accountability through forums such as the International Criminal Court, and the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda.
The Word ‘Genocide’
Raphael Lemkin, a holocaust survivor who worked on the Nuremberg Trials, coined the term genocide and spent 4 years pushing for it to be added to international law. As Champetier de Ribes, the French Prosecutor at the Nuremberg Trials explained “This [was] a crime so monstrous, so undreamt of in history throughout the Christian era up to the birth of Hitlerism that the term ‘genocide’ has had to be coined to define it.” Ultimately, in 1948 The United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of Genocide was adopted, and it entered into force in 1951. The convention defined genocide in legal terms based on Lemkin’s work, and is the basis for genocide prevention efforts today.
The Pledge: Never Again
After the Nuremberg war crimes trials finished, the United States spearheaded the effort to end genocide and become a champion for the prevention of crimes against humanity. The U.S. pushed for greater international effort, helping to draft the 1948 Genocide Convention. President Harry Truman addressed Congress urging the Convention’s passage. He stressed the role the United States had to play in “outlawing the world-shocking crime of genocide.”
These pleas went unheard and though an original signatory of the convention the United States did not ratify the Genocide Convention for another forty years and then only with reservations. Presidents of the U.S. have vowed “never again” but have looked the other way when genocide happened again and again.
To fill this void, civil society organizations such as United to End Genocide have taken up the pledge and advocate for the international responsibility to prevent mass atrocities like genocide.