A History of the Holocaust

By Tim Lambert

The Background to the Holocaust

The holocaust was a genocide carried out by the Nazis in the years 1941-45. Most of the victims were Jews, although the Nazis also murdered a huge number of Roma and Sinti people. The Nazis also murdered a vast number of disabled people.

Anti-Semitism, the dislike of Jews was centuries old, in Europe and it was certainly not limited to Germany. Prejudice against ‘Gypsies’ was also widespread. At the time of the First Crusade in 1095 Jews were massacred in many European towns. In 1190 a massacre took place in York, England.

The hatred of Jews was partly for religious reasons (there was no religious tolerance in Medieval Europe). The Jews were blamed for killing Jesus. Also, in many parts of Europe Jews were forbidden to own land. At the same time, Christians were not allowed to charge interest on loans (it was called usury). Jews were forced to make money by lending it to Christians. So Jews were useful but also detested. In the 16th century, the religious reformer Martin Luther was stridently anti-Semitic. And he wasn’t alone.

In the late 19th century and early 20th century, a series of pogroms (attacking Jews and destroying their property) took place in the Russian Empire. Following the First World War Jews were murdered in pogroms in Poland, Ukraine, and Hungary. 

Jews in Germany in the 1930s

But the Nazi’s hatred of the Jews was based on race rather than religion. According to Nazi ideology, a race called the Aryans, which included the Germans were superior to all other races. Certain races were subhuman. These included Jews and Slavs. The Nazis blamed the Jews for Germany’s defeat in the First World War and for its economic problems afterward.

When they took power in Germany in 1933 the Nazis introduced the first concentration camps, for their political enemies. (At first, the concentration camps were prisons, although many inmates died after ill-treatment by the guards).

Hitler also introduced laws discriminating against Jews. In April 1933 he ordered a boycott of Jewish shops. Also in 1933 a law called ‘The Law for the Restoration of the Professional Civil Service’ banned Jews from working in government jobs. Then in 1935, Hitler passed the Nuremberg Laws. The Law for the Protection of German Blood and Honor made it illegal for Jews to marry ‘Aryans’. The Reich Citizenship Law stated that Jews could not be German citizens.

Worse was to come. On 7 November 1938, a Polish Jew called Herschel Grynszpan shot a German official called Ernst vom Rath at the German embassy in Paris. In response, the Germans attacked Jews and Jewish property on 9 November 1938. Jewish homes and shops were attacked and so many windows were broken it was called Kristallnacht (Crystal Night). Thousands of Jews were sent to concentration camps. The Nazis also decided that the rest of the Jews must pay a fine of 1,000 million marks and they were not eligible for insurance payments.

Anti-Semitism in Other Countries

During the 1930s laws discriminating against Jews were also passed in Hungary and Rumania. In Poland, between 1936 and 1939 there were attacks on Jewish property and 79 Jews were murdered. Some Polish Jews emigrated to Western Europe and Palestine. Many Jews also emigrated from Germany. In 1938 Germany annexed Austria and some Jews emigrated from that country too. In 1939 Germany took over Czechoslovakia. Many Czech Jews emigrated. 

Then on 1 September 1939 Germany invaded Poland. Many Polish soldiers were taken prisoner. But the Germans separated Jewish Pows from non-Jews. The Jewish POWs were treated much more harshly. The Germans also began to force Polish Jews to live in ghettoes.

The ghettoes were severely overcrowded. Conditions in them were terrible and they were severely overcrowded. Rations were woefully inadequate. The Germans also built a concentration camp at Auschwitz in 1940 but at first it was a prison camp for political prisoners.

The Holocaust Begins

In June 1941 Germany invaded the Soviet Union. The Nazis despised Slavs but they hated Jews even more. They began to murder all the Jews in the conquered territory. Special units called Einsatzgruppen were formed for that purpose. Jews were shot and then buried in mass graves.

But the Germans did not murder Jews unaided. In Lithuania and Ukraine, local people murdered Jews even before the Einsatzgruppen arrived. Lithuanian and Ukrainian auxiliaries also assisted the Einsatzgruppen in mass killings. Among the worst cases was a massacre at Babi Yar in September 1941 when an estimated 33,000 Jews were shot. On 30 November 1941, at least 25,000 Jews were shot in a forest outside Riga, Latvia. Jews were also murdered in Latvia, Estonia, and Serbia.

In 1941 the Romanians joined Germany in attacking Russia. The Romanians also massacred Jews in the Soviet Union.

However, the Germans gradually changed their method of killing from shooting to gassing. At first, this was done by carbon monoxide in trucks. In December 1941 Jews were taken to a camp at Chelmno, near the city of Lodz and they were gassed by carbon monoxide in trucks.

The Germans built a second extermination camp at Belzec in Poland. This time they used bottled carbon monoxide. The first gassings on a large scale took place there on 17 March 1942.

Later the Germans used Zyklon B to kill prisoners. They were solid pellets but if they were exposed to the air they released hydrogen cyanide gas.

Zyklon B

Meanwhile, on 20 January 1942, a group of leading Nazis met at a conference in Wannsee to discuss a permanent solution to the ‘Jewish problem’. It was decided that Jews should be deported to Eastern Europe. Jews fit for work would be used as slave labour. Those Jews who were not fit to work or who became unfit would be given ‘special treatment’, which meant murder, although the exact method by which they would be killed was not decided. The ultimate aim was to exterminate the entire Jewish population of Europe. It was known as the Final Solution to the Jewish problem.

The Germans built also concentration camps at Sobibor and Treblinka in Poland. Another notorious camp was at Auschwitz. It was originally built as a prison but in 1942 they began gassing Jews there.

When Jews arrived at Auschwitz they were divided into two groups. Those judged to be unfit for work were sent to the gas chambers. Their heads were shaved. They were told they were going to have a shower and were ordered to undress. The gas chambers even had shower heads in them to add to the deception. When the door was sealed pellets of Zyklon-B were dropped in and the prisoners were gassed. Afterward, the ventilators removed the poisonous gas. Prisoners called Sonderkommando removed the bodies. They removed gold teeth from the bodies. Then the bodies were cremated.

The gold was melted down and hair was used to make felt, mattresses, and ropes. Ash from cremated bodies was used to make fertilizer. Clothes and prostheses belonging to dead Jews were also collected and used by the Germans. At intervals, the Sonderkommando were murdered and replaced by new men.


Those Jews selected to work were given woefully inadequate food and clothing and in many cases, they were worked to death. Many died from a combination of starvation and overwork. Others died of disease in very overcrowded conditions. The camp guards behaved with appalling cruelty. Beatings and executions were common.

The Nazis also built many concentration camps in Germany that were not designed to exterminate large numbers of people. Instead, prisoners were used as slave labour. Some prisoners were Jews. Others were Roma, male homosexuals, and Jehovah’s Witnesses. Anyone perceived as an enemy of the state could be sent to one. These included political prisoners, criminals (repeat offenders), and the workshy. Conditions in the concentration camps were, of course, terrible.

Nazi doctors also carried out horrific medical experiments e.g. the notorious doctor Josef Mengele (1911-1979) carried out experiments on dwarfs, twins, and triplets. Many prisoners died as a result of these barbaric experiments.

The Holocaust in Western Europe

Deportations of Jews from Western Europe to concentration camps began in 1942. In 1942 Jews in the Netherlands, Belgium, and German-occupied France were ordered to wear a yellow star of David on their clothing. But it was not imposed in Norway or Denmark.

People were deported to camps by train in grossly overcrowded carriages, with little or no food or water. Some prisoners died en route.

The Holocaust in France

When France surrendered in 1940 it was divided into two zones. The North and West were occupied by the Germans. But the rest was ruled by a puppet regime based in the town of Vichy.

The first Jews to be deported from France were non-French Jews living in that country. In 1941 all non-French Jews in Paris were interned. On 29 March 1942, they were deported to Auschwitz. Many more followed.

However, Jews in France were more likely to survive than Jews in Belgium and the Netherlands. About 75% of them survived. Some non-Jewish French people helped Jews to hide.

The Holocaust in the Low Countries

Germany conquered Belgium in 1940 and the deportation of Jews from Belgium began in August 1942. Fortunately, some Belgians hid Jews. Even so, only about 60% of Belgian Jews survived. Belgium was liberated by the Allies in September 1944.

The Germans also conquered the Netherlands in 1940. They began deporting Jews from the Netherlands in 1942. About 107,000 Dutch Jews died, more than 75% of the total number. Some Jews went into hiding and of those who did about two-thirds survived. Sadly that did not include Anne Frank and her family. Most of the Netherlands was occupied until May 1945.

The Germans also occupied the small country of Luxembourg in 1940. At that time about 3,500 Jews lived in Luxembourg. About 45% of Belgian Jews died.

The Holocaust in Italy

Italy declared war on Britain and France in June 1940. However when the Holocaust began Italians were, generally unwilling to deport their Jews. They were also, usually unwilling to deport Jews from areas occupied by the Italian army in France and Yugoslavia. However, Italy surrendered to the Allies in September 1943 and German forces quickly occupied northern and central Italy. The Germans then began deporting Italian Jews to concentration camps. German forces in Northern Italy surrendered on 2 May 1945.

The Holocaust in Scandinavia

There were about 2,100 Jews in Norway in 1940 when the Germans invaded. Large-scale arrests of Jews began in the autumn of 1942. In November the first group was deported to Auschwitz. Fortunately, many Jews managed to escape to neutral Sweden. Others went into hiding. Sadly, about one-third of the Jews in Norway died.

When the Germans occupied Denmark in 1940 they first treated the Danes with a light hand. The Jews were allowed to continue their lives as normal. But things changed in 1943 when Germany was losing the war. On 29 August 1943, the Germans declared martial law in Denmark. They planned to round up and deport the Danish Jews but word leaked out. Non-Jews helped the Jews to go into hiding. The Jews were then smuggled into Sweden on fishing vessels. As a result, most of the 7,500 Jews in Denmark survived.

Finland joined Germany in the attack on the Soviet Union in June 1941. But Finland refused to deport its Jews.

The Holocaust in Eastern Europe

The Holocaust in Czechoslovakia

Germany occupied part of Czechoslovakia in 1938. The Germans occupied the rest in 1939. In 1941 they created a ghetto at Theresienstadt. The ghetto was a ‘transit camp’. Many Jews from Czechoslovakia. were taken there at first and then deported to extermination camps in Poland. But conditions were so dreadful in the ‘transit camp’ that many Jews died of starvation and disease. Most Jews in Czechoslovakia did not survive.

The Holocaust in Hungary

In 1941 Hungary joined with Germany in invading Russia. But in 1944 the Russians were advancing and Germany was facing defeat. Hitler feared the Hungarians would leave the war so he sent German troops to occupy the country. The Germans began mass deportations of Hungarian Jews in May 1944. Most were sent to Auschwitz and the vast majority were gassed straight away. However, the Hungarian government stopped the deportations in July 1944.

The Holocaust in Bulgaria

In 1941 Bulgaria joined Germany in attacking Yugoslavia and Greece. Germany allowed Bulgaria to take part of Greece (Thrace) and part of Yugoslavia. The Bulgarian government agreed to deport Jews from these areas. However, in March 1943, the SS demanded that all Jews in Bulgaria be deported to Poland. But the people of Bulgaria and their king resisted. The Bulgarian parliament voted unanimously against the deportation order. As a result, no Jews were deported from Bulgaria itself.

The Holocaust in Yugoslavia

Germany invaded Yugoslavia in April 1941. The country was then divided up. Germany took Serbia and nearly all Serbian Jews were murdered. Croatia was made an independent state. Sadly most Croatian Jews were killed. Hungary and Bulgaria both annexed parts of Yugoslavia. Although Jews were not deported from Bulgaria itself they were deported from the Bulgarian-ruled part of Yugoslavia.

In 1944 the Germans occupied Hungary. Jews were deported from Hungary and the part of Yugoslavia that was ruled by Hungary. Sadly most Jews in Yugoslavia were killed although some escaped and joined the partisans.

The Holocaust in Greece

About 77,000 Jews lived in Greece in 1941 when the Germans invaded. Greece was divided into two zones, one occupied by the Germans, and the other by the Italians. The Italians refused to deport the Jews in their area. Unfortunately, the bulk of the Jewish population lived in Salonika, which was in the German-occupied part. They were deported to Auschwitz early in 1943.

However, when the Italians surrendered to the Allies in September 1943 the Germans occupied all of Greece. They then deported Jews from all over Greece. Sadly about 60,000 Greek Jews died in the holocaust.

The Romanian Holocaust

In 1940 the Soviet Union took some territory from Romania, Bessarabia, and North Bukovina. In June 1941 the Romanians joined in with the German invasion of the Soviet Union. They began shooting large numbers of Jews in Bessarabia and North Bukovina. (The Romanian dictator Antonescu saw the Jews of Bessarabia and North Bukovina as traitors, in league with the Soviet Union). They also murdered large numbers of Jews in Ukraine. It’s believed the Romanians killed between 380,000 and 400,000 Jews.

Although the Romanian dictator Antonescu saw the Jews of Bessarabia and North Bukovina as traitors, he refused to deport Jews from the rest of Romania to concentration camps in Poland and Germany (because he feared loss of independence not for humanitarian reasons). 

The Roma and Sinti Holocaust

As well as Jews the Nazis hated Roman and Sinti people, believing they were inferior. Prejudice against them was already common even before the Nazis came to power in 1933 and there were already laws in Germany discriminating against ‘Gypsies’.

But under the Nazi regime, the persecution grew worse. From 1943 Roma and Sinti in Germany were deported to concentration camps. They were also deported from other occupied countries. It is estimated that 230,000 Roma and Sinti died.

The End of the Holocaust

The Germans tried to keep the Holocaust secret but, of course, word leaked out. The Allies became aware that the extermination of the Jews was taking place. By 1944, Germany was obviously losing the war and the Soviet army was advancing.

The Germans tried to hide the evidence of their crimes. However, the Soviet army captured the Majdanek concentration camp almost intact on 22 July 1944. The Germans physically destroyed the extermination camps at Belzec, Sobibor, and Treblinka and plowed over the grounds. They blew up the gas chambers and crematoria at Auschwitz in January 1945.

As the Soviet army advanced the Germans deported prisoners from Auschwitz to other camps to the west. Unfortunately, many of them died of cold and starvation on the way. Others were shot. The Soviets liberated Auschwitz on 27 January 1945.

In the Spring of 1945, the British and Americans invaded Germany from the west and they liberated concentration camps. The British army reached the Belsen concentration camp on 15 April 1945. The American army reached Dachau on 29 April 1945.

Allied soldiers were horrified by what they found. Some concentration camp guards were executed including Josef Kramer The Beast of Belsen and Irma Grese. One of the architects of the Holocaust, Adolf Eichmann escaped to Argentina. However, he was captured in 1962, taken to Israel, tried, and hanged.

Jewish Resistance

The Warsaw Ghetto Uprising

There were several cases of Jewish resistance but unfortunately, they had little chance against heavily armed Germans. The most famous was the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising of April 1943. In 1939-1940 around 400,000 Jews were sent to a ghetto in Warsaw, which was surrounded by walls. The conditions in the ghetto were appalling and many died of starvation and disease. From July 1942 the Jews inside were gradually sent to Treblinka. By the Spring of 1943, there were only about 70,000 Jews left in the ghetto. But in 1942 the Jews began organising resistance realising that deportation met death.

On 19 April 1943 German soldiers entered the ghetto planning to deport more Jews to their deaths but they were met with pistol fire and homemade bombs. The Germans were forced to retreat. It was heroic resistance but lightly armed Jews without combat experience had no chance against the Germans, who resorted to burning buildings. By 16 May the uprising had been crushed. Several thousand Jews died in the fighting. Those who survived were sent to Treblinka.

Other resistance

On 2 August 1944, an uprising took place at Treblinka. Some prisoners seized arms from the camp armoury. Many prisoners rushed out of the main gates despite the fact that they faced machine gun fire. Several hundred managed to escape but sadly most were found and shot. All the prisoners who did not manage to escape were also shot.

On 14 October 1943, an uprising took place at Sobibor. Prisoners killed 11 German staff and about 300 of them escaped. Sadly most were found and killed. Only about 50 survived the war.

Many Jews also served in the French Resistance or as Yugoslav or Russian partisans. 

Holocaust Memorial Berlin

Photo by Chad Greiter on Unsplash

The Disabled Holocaust

Before the genocide of Jews and Roma, the Nazis had begun murdering disabled people. In 1939 the parents of a severely disabled boy asked a doctor to kill him. The doctor replied that it was illegal so the boy’s father wrote to Hitler asking him to overturn the law. Hitler obliged him. The child was killed by a lethal injection.

Hitler soon began murdering all severely disabled children. Doctors and midwives were required to register the births of all children with severe disabilities. The children were taken to special clinics and examined. Doctors decided whether or not they should be killed.

At first, children were killed by lethal injections, or they were left to starve to death. But from June 1941 they were gassed with carbon monoxide. The parents were lied to. They were told their children had died from natural causes. The scheme was soon extended to include older children and adults living in institutions. The range of conditions for which people were murdered was quickly extended. People were killed not just for physical disabilities but for mental illnesses such as schizophrenia.

The murders of disabled people were supposed to be secret but the German people eventually realised what was going on. Some German clergymen denounced the killings in their sermons. Hitler gave in and on 24 August he ordered the gassings to cease.

However, by 1942, the murder of disabled people began again on an ad hoc basis. The victims were usually starved the victims or given lethal injections. The murders continued until 1945.