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READ: The Holocaust

The article below uses “Three Close Reads”. If you want to learn more about this strategy, click here.

First read: preview and skimming for gist

Before you read the article, you should skim it first. The skim should be very quick and give you the gist (general idea) of what the article is about. You should be looking at the title, author, headings, pictures, and opening sentences of paragraphs for the gist.

Second read: key ideas and understanding content

Now that you’ve skimmed the article, you should preview the questions you will be answering. These questions will help you get a better understanding of the concepts and arguments that are presented in the article. Keep in mind that when you read the article, it is a good idea to write down any vocab you see in the article that is unfamiliar to you.
By the end of the second close read, you should be able to answer the following questions:
  1. What policies made persecutions of Jewish German citizens official?
  2. What was Kristallnacht?
  3. What was the T4 program?
  4. Who committed the atrocities of the Holocaust?
  5. How does the author explain the willing participation of women in fascist regimes, even those regimes limited their public and private freedoms?

Third read: evaluating and corroborating

Finally, here are some questions that will help you focus on why this article matters and how it connects to other content you’ve studied.
At the end of the third read, you should be able to respond to these questions:
  1. The Holocaust was a horrific event that shattered communities in Europe. The author makes the point that, “in many ways, we are still recovering”. How can you explain some of the causes and effects of the Holocaust using the Communities Frame narrative?
  2. Do atrocities like the Holocaust support, extend, or challenge the narrative you have been given?
Now that you know what to look for, it’s time to read! Remember to return to these questions once you’ve finished reading.

The Holocaust

By Amy Elizabeth Robinson
The Holocaust was the murder of millions of Jews and other persecuted groups across Nazi-occupied Europe in World War II. Discussing it is among the most difficult and most necessary topics in history.

A spiral of fascism

Despite the ideals of political liberalism and reformers, genocide was a feature of the early twentieth century world. In particular, the mass killings of Herero and Nama people in German South West Africa and 1904 and Armenians in the Ottoman Empire in 1915 were shocking news, but then quickly seemed to be accepted by many. By the 1930s, many parts of the world seemed to be caught in a spiral of empire-building, nationalism, and authoritarianism. At first promoted by just a few fascist hard-liners, these trends began to pull in "ordinary" people filled with hatred and fear. In this atmosphere, there was little space for ideas like human rights. In Europe during World War II, the spiral culminated in the extreme violence and genocide that we call the Holocaust.
The Holocaust was the deliberate killing of millions of people by Adolf Hitler's Nazi party, the German military (the Wehrmacht), and local collaborators across Europe. The victims included 6 million European Jews, somewhere between 250,000 and 1 million Roma (often mischaracterized as "gypsies"), 3 million Soviet prisoners-of-war (POWs), several million non-Jewish Eastern European civilians, and hundreds of thousands of other people targeted because of their race, political affiliation, disability, religion, or sexual orientation.
The killing took place in a number of settings. Some were executed in eugenics-based start superscript, 1, end superscript institutions in Hitler's "T4" program of mass murder through forced euthanasia, or medical killing. Many died of disease, starvation, or overwork in concentration camps, forced labor camps, or "ghettos." Ghettos were walled off sections of occupied cities where Jews were forced to live. Many were murdered in mass shootings, in eastern Europe especially. And about half of the Jewish people who perished in the Holocaust were massacred in "extermination camps": Chelmno, Sobibor, Treblinka, Belzec, Majdanek, and Auschwitz. Roma, POWs, and others were murdered there, too.
This printed money was obsolete in Germany, but was reused in German Ghettos – notice the red stamp in the lower left. This gave Germans more control over Jews, because they could not easily accumulate money that would be valid outside the ghettos. Public domain.
It was violence and devastation on a scale that is almost unthinkable. Which is why thinking about it is vital. The difficult task of remembering what went wrong is how we keep it from happening again. In this article, we will see how the persecution of minority groups began in small steps, increased gradually, and involved more and more perpetrators, until it reached the horrific level of a society-wide genocide.

Origins and first steps before the Second World War

In the lessons on fascism, you learned how scientific racism and ideas about national "purity" and "redemption" fed early twentieth-century fascist visions of the world. You also learned a lot about European imperialism. All of these elements came together in a powerful and terrible way in Hitler's wartime Germany. As WWII historian Robert Gellately writes, "it was in the context of creating a Germanic empire that the Nazi regime set about the truly monstrous undertaking of murdering all of Europe's Jews."
On November 11, 1938, the day after the “night of broken glass,” it was clear how many Jewish-owned businesses had been vandalized. Yet the majority of non-Jewish citizens did not protest, public domain.
There were only about half a million Jewish German citizens before the war. They were not the only people targeted by the Nazis. Other groups included anyone the Nazis considered "unfit"—politically, physically, sexually— for German life. But for Hitler, and eventually for the Nazi state he controlled, "solving the Jewish question" was the key to a racially "pure" nation. In the 1920s and 1930s, a generation of Germans was growing up learning about "racial science," a "Jewish-Bolshevik" threat, and "Aryan" victimhood. They learned this in schools and in groups like the League of German Girls and Hitler Youth. Young Germans became accustomed to the marginalization and humiliation of their Jewish neighbors.
These ideas evolved into policy by 1933, when the Nazis required Jewish German citizens to register and identify themselves by wearing armbands or yellow stars. Then, in 1935, the Nazis passed the Nuremberg Laws, stripping Jews and Roma of German citizenship and prohibiting various kinds of relationship between "pure" Germans and others. For example, Jews could not employ servants with "German or related blood," and intimate relationships between the two groups were outlawed.
Many non-Jewish Germans rioted on November 9, 1938, a date that has come to be known as Kristallnacht ("night of broken glass"). Eugenics added fuel to their existing hatred, and of course their own government was promoting hatred of Jewish people. They ransacked and destroyed Jewish synagogues, schools, businesses, hospitals, and homes across Germany. The chief of the Gestapo (Nazi police) ordered local police units not to interfere. Some 30,000 Jewish males were detained that night and sent to concentration camps that had been built to hold supposedly "antisocial" members of the Nazi state. Shortly after Kristallnacht, Jews lost more civil rights. They were barred from public transport, parks, and schools, and a Nazi campaign of "Aryanization" began. Jews lost the right to work in certain jobs. Their property and savings were confiscated. It became more and more clear that Jews were marked by the Nazi state for elimination—by imprisonment, emigration, expulsion, or worse.

Intensification after 1939

Adolf Hitler invaded Poland in 1939, with the goal of creating Lebensraum (living space) for "Aryan" Germans. This marked another point in the intensification of the Holocaust. The German invasion of Poland from the west was followed by the Soviet invasion of Poland from the east. This dual attack unleashed extreme violence, including not just concentration camps but also mass shootings, starvation, and forced labor.
Mass grave discovered during the liberation of Bergen-Belsen Concentration Camp in April 1945. Public domain.
Amid this violence "survival itself was a constant act of resistance" for Jewish people, say historians Dalia Ofer and Lenore Weitzman. Polish Jews were forced into crowded ghettos along major railroad lines, to make their eventual removal easier. Leaders debated whether Jews should be sent to a single section of Poland, to Palestine, or even to Madagascar. In many places Jews were shot en masse (all together), often by local non-Jews who were trained and encouraged by German paramilitary death squads, called Einsatzgruppen. Innumerable Jews, Roma, Soviet POWs, and local opponents were killed, or sent to ghettos or labor camps. Those who escaped hid in the forest, sometimes joining resistance forces.
At the same time, the Nazis also began the "T4" program, which intentionally killed disabled teens, adults, and elderly people, who were considered "unfit" members of society.

The “final solution”

In July 1941, Adolf Hitler's Reichsmarshall Hermann Göring wrote a letter to Gestapo chief Reynard Heydrich requesting a "final solution" to the "Jewish question." Sometime in the fall or winter of 1941, Hitler authorized the intentional mass murder of Jews. The extermination camps, which would allow for the mass gassing and cremation of inmates, were already under construction in occupied Poland. In the spring of 1942, mass deportations of Jews from the ghettos of Poland to the extermination camps began. Deportations from across Nazi-occupied Europe soon followed. By the war's end, over 3 million people had been murdered at these industrial killing sites: about 320,000 at Chelmno, 1.7 million at Belzec, Treblinka and Sobibor, and 1.25 million at Auschwitz-Birkenau.
Inmates arrived by train and were lined up for inspection, segregation, and selection for either hard labor or immediate gassing. They were harassed and humiliated during the entire process. Pregnant women, children, and mothers of young children were often selected for gassing because their survival would carry on the Jewish "race." Elderly, sick, injured, and disabled inmates were selected because they could not be exploited for the war effort. But Jews and others who survived hard labor were also eventually killed, because their strength and resilience were perceived as a danger to the Nazis. The logic was cruel, racist, and methodical, and went on for over two years.

Who were the killers?

The horror of the Holocaust was not limited to extermination camps, and the violence grew as Germany neared defeat. By 1944, Germany's desperate war efforts included widespread use of concentration camp inmates as slave labor in both state and privately-owned farms and factories. Economic historian Peter Hayes estimates that two- thirds of these 700,000 enslaved workers died within one year. At the same time, "vast numbers of Jews continued to be murdered" at killing sites near their homes in eastern occupied lands. About these murders, Omer Bartov writes the following:
This kind of killing was very different from the industrial, relatively insulated, and impersonal mass murder in gas chambers, which distinguished the Holocaust from other genocides. Instead, it was intimate, face-to-face mass murder in towns where the victims, perpetrators, and bystanders often knew each other beforehand and where no one was entirely passive or could claim not to have seen, heard, or known about the killing.
Bartov's words, and the fact that Jews and others died working for private companies, remind us that the Holocaust could not have happened without extensive civilian collaboration.
Map showing the locations of the larger concentration camps, though there were others. Public domain.
Many historians now study the "ordinary" or "everyday" lives of people pulled into the violence of fascism and the Holocaust. In Germany, many people were genuinely drawn into the mood of youthful, fascist fervor, the sense of belonging and redemption. And by the 1940s Germans were steeped in propaganda and a racist, imperialist worldview. What was happening may have felt like just an escalation of something they had "gotten used to." Roma in Germany, for example, had long been labelled "habitual criminals," imprisoned, and discriminated against. Also, it wasn't just everyday Germans who were perpetrators in the Holocaust. In places like Croatia and Ukraine, a relatively small Nazi presence overlapped with local campaigns of racist, nationalist "ethnic cleansing."
Gender offers a particularly interesting way to think about ordinary people's participation in fascism and the Holocaust. Both Mussolini and Hitler believed that women belonged in the home, producing children for the nation, and fascist imagery and ideology were drenched in militarist masculinity. "War is to men as maternity is to women," said Mussolini. As oppressive as that is, many women embraced fascist regimes because they offered, in the words of historian Victoria de Grazia, a "disconcerting experience of new opportunities and new repressions." They felt like they were volunteering to help a national cause, even though they were also losing fundamental liberties, including the ability to think and make decisions for themselves.
Women and girls also made up half of the victims of the Holocaust. Gisela Bock, a historian of women in Nazi Germany, asks us to remember that in Nazism and the Holocaust, "race" became the most important marker of identity, the thing that marked a person for death or survival. Male and female Holocaust victims may have had slightly different experiences in the camps, but in the face of Nazism these were just "different horrors inside the same Hell." Furthermore, anyone who fell under the banner of what we now call LGBTQ, was targeted along with Jews, Roma, and other groups.
We may always struggle with the immensity of the Holocaust, and especially with the fact that so many people participated in the killing, supported the killing, or failed to act or speak up when they saw that others were being harmed.
Fascism and the Holocaust destroyed a basic sense of human connection and trust. In many ways, we are all still recovering. We need to be on the lookout for when we, too, become "used to" the casual oppression of others, when our everyday compassion for people different from us disappears. Without compassion, there is always a danger of something like the Holocaust happening again.
This memorial at the New England Holocaust Memorial in Boston, MA, shows an engraving of a poem attributed to the German pastor Martin Niemöller. It was a confession he made after the war, and was subsequently translated in a poetic style. There are different versions, but the text here reads: “They came first for the Communists, and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Communist / Then they came first for the Jews, and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Jew / Then they came first for the trade unionists, and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a trade unionists / Then they came first for the Catholics, and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Catholic / Then they came first for me, and by that time no one was left to speak up.” By Yunner, CC BY-SA 3.0.
Author bio
Amy Elizabeth Robinson holds a Ph.D. from Stanford University in the History of Britain and the British Empire. She is a freelance writer, editor, and has taught at Sonoma State University and Stanford University.

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