Describe in detail the different stages and decisions that led to the Holocaust.

Lesson 5 : The Holocaust
Lesson Essay
When you can accomplish the learning objectives for this lesson, you should begin work on the lesson essay described below. You may use any assigned readings, your notes, and other course-related materials to complete this assignment. Be sure to reread the essay grading criteria on the Grades and Assessments page.
This essay should be about 1,000 words long, typed double space with one-inch margins on each side. It is worth 150 points and should address the following:
There are a number of historians who regard the Holocaust as a unique occurrence unparalleled by other crimes in human history. On the basis of what you have just learned about the history of anti-Semitism over the last 2,500 years, would you agree with this view? Why or why not?
Learning Objectives
After completing this lesson, you should be able to do the following:
Provide a historical account of anti-Semitism in Europe.
Describe in detail the different stages and decisions that led to the Holocaust.
Portray the situation in the death camps.
Reflect on the historical significance of the Holocaust.
Commentary
A Brief History of the Jewish People
Judaism is the religion of the Jewish people, whose history goes back almost 6,000 years to biblical times. Today, there are about 13.5 million Jews worldwide. Most of them live in the United States, Israel, the European Community, and the former Soviet Republics. Judaism is built on monotheism. The Jewish law is laid down in the Torah, which consists of the five books of Moses in the Old Testament. According to the Jewish faith, Jews are the chosen people because God made a special pact with Abraham, from whom the Jewish people descended. Although this belief in exclusivity is hardly different from other world religions, it has often been referred to as the reason Jews would seek to establish world domination, a fear that contributed to the rise of anti-Semitism throughout the ages.
The descendents of Abraham’s family settled in Egypt peacefully until about 1580 BC, when a new pharaoh (or ruler) in Egypt made them slaves. To escape from bondage, the Jews, under Moses’ leadership, fled into the desert where they received the Ten Commandments and ultimately reached the so-called “promised land” of present-day Israel. In 586 BC, the Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar conquered the southern land of Judah, devastated Jerusalem, and destroyed the Jewish temple that had been built by King Salomon around 950 BC. He also led many Jews as slaves into the Babylonian exile and thus began what has become known as the Diaspora—the dispersion of Jews outside of Israel that continues until today. The first Diaspora lasted about fifty years, until the Babylonians were overthrown by the Persians and the Jews were allowed to go back home, where they built the second temple in 516 BC. During the following centuries, Judah was controlled by a variety of different powers, including the Persians, the Greeks, and finally the Romans, who, in 70 AD, under the leadership of Titus, destroyed the second temple and forced the Jewish people once again into exile. In 132 AD, the Jews under Bar Kochba (or Kokhba) started an unsuccessful revolt against the Romans, who subsequently decimated the Jewish community and deliberately sought to undermine their identification with the land of Israel by renaming itPalaestina.
The first Jews had entered German lands with the Roman legions that established colonies along the Rhine in the first two centuries AD. These Jews were essentially an agricultural people, and by the third century, some had become successful winegrowers on the slopes along the Rhine. Others had become merchants, artisans, or doctors. From these early centuries through the Carolingian Empire and up until the time of the early Crusades, the Jews were able to maintain legal autonomy within their own communities. Jewish law was binding and they were permitted to follow their religious worship and customs without persecution, as long as they did not attempt to convert Christians to Judaism.
Between 1099 and 1291, the Jews were again victimized by the Christian Crusades, undertaken to bring Jerusalem under Christian control. Thereafter, the Jews lived under the rulership of the Mamluks (a powerful military caste of Islamic faith) until the early sixteenth century. Then, the Ottoman Empire ruled over Judea until its destitution at the end of World War I. From 1918 until 1948, Great Britain occupied the area and split up the land between an Arab state (present-day Jordan) and the Jewish state of Israel (in its pre-1967 borders). The war between Israel and a coalition of its Arab neighbors in 1967 (the so-called Six-Days War), led to the Israeli occupation of the Golan Heights and the West Bank and established the present-day borders of Israel.
Classical Anti-Semitism
Anti-Semitism is the hatred of the Jewish people. The term was coined in 1879 by a German called William Marr, founder of the League for Anti-Semitism. Although the term is relatively new, the facts it describes are ancient and well known. The first incidents of anti-Semitism date back to the fifth century BC. Some of the reasons for persecution were the military and economic objectives of the conquerors. Others were cultural, because the Jews were often forced to live as part of a larger community with different customs and faith. However, they did not adapt their customs (food, religious practice, Sabbath, etc.) and refused to assimilate. Hence, they remained different, and this difference caused fear and anger amongst the majority.
Christian Anti-Semitism
It is crucial to remember that Christianity evolved out of Judaism and that both religions share a lot of important characteristics such as monotheism. Jesus was a Jew, and so were his first followers. The major difference between them regards the question of whether or not Jesus Christ was the Messiah. Also, it was decided early on that believers in Jesus had to follow only certain Jewish laws and traditions, but not all of them. Hence, Christianity slowly established itself as an autonomous religion with its own customs and beliefs different from Judaism. Thus, the two religions slowly drifted apart. In AD 135, the religious leaders of the Jewish people declared Kokhba to be the Messiah as he led a revolt against the Romans. The Christians, however, refused to participate in the revolt (which ended unsuccessfully), because, for them, Jesus had been the Messiah and hence there was no place for another to assume that title. Many of the Christians were killed because of their refusal to participate. Finally, there were also conflicts between Judaism and Christianity because of Roman politics. At the time of Jesus’ life, Judaism was officially accepted as a religion, which had numerous advantages for Jewish religious practice. Christians later sought to attain the same status for their religion against the strict opposition of the Jews, who feared losing Roman support if they were too closely affiliated with the other side. The Romans, of course, were happy to play one side against the other in order to secure their control over the country.
This situation changed radically in the fourth century AD, when Christianity was declared the official Roman faith by the Roman Emperor Constantine. From then on, the Christian church became increasingly less tolerant toward the Jews, forcing many of them to make an official choice between Judaism and Christianity. This lack of tolerance was promoted by some of the writings of the church fathers who preached against the Jewish tradition. First and foremost on their list was the accusation that the Jews had killed Jesus. The intolerance grew over the centuries and burst into violence when Pope Urban II called for the “liberation” of the Holy Land from the “infidels” in 1096. This date marks the beginning of the first of nine Crusades that lasted until 1272. Why were the Crusades terrible news for the Jews, many of whom no longer lived in the “Holy Land,” but in the Diaspora? Because on their way toward Jerusalem, the crusaders slew thousands and thousands of Jews.
Jews in Germany during the Time of the Crusades
The Jews suffered tremendously during the time of the Crusades. They were persecuted, exiled, tortured, and killed by the thousands by zealous Christian knights, soldiers, and their sympathizers. During the Crusades there also emerged a particular dress code for Jews, first initiated by Pope Innocent III at the Fourth Lateran Council (1215) in Rome. The decree required that Jews wear some form of dress (a style of hat, a cloak, or a veil) that would distinguish them from Christians. One of the most common forms of distinguishing dress was the bell hat that came to be known as “the Jew’s hat.” In the fifteenth century, for the first time Jews were required to wear a yellow badge to distinguish them as Jews. This emblem, which is the precursor to the infamous yellow Star of David the Jews were forced to wear in Nazi Germany, was first required by the city of Augsburg (1434) and then later by nine other cities as well (1451).
During the course of the Crusades, the Judensau (Jewish Sow), one of the crudest and most widespread of the anti-Semitic depictions of Jews, began to appear as architectural ornamentation on churches (on the friezes and capitals and as gargoyles) and occasionally as architectural sculpture on secular structures as well. Later, with the invention of the printing press, it also appeared frequently in popular broadsheets and as a book illustration. Although the source of the Judensau cannot be determined, the association of the Jew with a pig stems in part from the Jewish abstinence from eating pork. The association is perhaps also tinged with irony; among the Jews there was a collective cultural repulsion against the pig as a filthy animal, while anti-Semitic Christians portrayed the Jews as dirty and repulsive.
Jews also suffered tremendously when the Inquisition began to spread during the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. By far the worst persecution of the Jews in Germany prior to the Holocaust, however, resulted from the Black Death (the bubonic plague) that swept Europe in 1348–1349. As the death toll mounted and the epidemic persisted, new accusations arose against the Jews. The Christian population claimed that fewer Jews were dying and attributed the disease to Jewish poisoning of the wells. In 350 towns, Jews were massacred and in 210 of these towns, every single Jew was killed. The Strasbourg city council gave the orders to burn the 2,000 Jews who died there. This chronicle by the French Carmelite monk Jean de Venette describes the fate of the Jews during the Black Death:
Some said that this pestilence was caused by infection of the air and waters, since there was at this time no famine nor lack of food supplies, on the contrary great abundance. As a result of this theory of infected water and air as the source of the plague, the Jews were suddenly and violently charged with infecting wells and water and corrupting the air. The whole world rose up against them cruelly on this account. In Germany and other parts of the world where Jews lived, they were massacred and slaughtered by Christians, and many thousands were burned everywhere, indiscriminately. The unshaken, if fatuous, constancy of the men and their wives was remarkable. For mothers hurled their children first into the fire that they might not be baptized and then leaped in after them to burn with their husbands and children. (Newhall, 50)
This wave of persecution changed the structure of European Jewry permanently. Those who were able to escape the carnage fled, often moving to Eastern Europe. The Jewish population of Germany was severely reduced by the combined effect of the plague and the massacres. On the other hand, numerous Jewish communities began springing up throughout Poland, Lithuania, and Russia. Thus, German Jews formed the basis for the growing Jewry of Eastern Europe.

This emigration continued into the fifteenth century, as the image of the Jew as the enemy of the Christian became more fixed in the public mind. Flight was also at times a financial necessity, as the emperor retained the right to pardon Jews, but at a cost of a third of their fortune. And as economic competition increased in the German cities between the Jews and the burgher classes, the authorities came under increased pressure to expel the Jews. In the course of the fifteenth century, almost all the larger cities expelled their Jews, who for the most part took up residency in minor territories near towns and villages.
It should also be mentioned that Martin Luther and members of the Protestant Reformation movement preached tolerance against the Jews only for as long as they thought they could be “changed” and converted to Christianity. Once it became clear that, in most cases, this would not happen, Luther, too, turned anti-Semitic and explicitly condoned the persecution of Jews.
Modern Anti-Semitism
The major difference between medieval and modern forms of anti-Semitism concerns their motifs, which change from religious to racial. Anti-Semites now consider Jews to be an inferior race rather than adherents of the “wrong” faith. To this effect, racial theorists began to conflate purely linguistic terms (such as “Aryan” and “Semitic”) with race in order to provide biological reasons for the alleged superiority of the white race throughout human history.
A point of connection between the two phases of anti-Semitism regards the alleged greed of the Jewish people. Throughout the Middle Ages and into the beginning of modernity, usury (i.e., the lending of money against interest) was denounced by the church fathers and many Christian leaders as unethical. Moneylending was either frowned upon or explicitly forbidden by law. However, no such prohibition existed in Judaism. And since the Jews were also ostracized from many regular professions during the Middle Ages because of their faith, they increasingly turned toward moneylending to support themselves. The cliché of the “money-grabbing” Jew extorting Christians remained popular until the twentieth century and provided ample propaganda material for Hitler’s anti-Semitism.
In its secular form, anti-Semitism spread throughout Europe during the Enlightenment and can be found in France, Russia, and Germany. In France, the so-called Dreyfus affair from 1894 (which involved the wrongful conviction of a young promising Jewish officer for treason) revealed the extent of anti-Semitism in the French Third Republic. In Germany in 1897, there suddenly appeared the “Protocols of the Elders of Zion,” which later turned out to be fabricated. These “protocols” of the First World Zionist Congress (organized by Theodor Herzl) allegedly documented the Jewish ambition to achieve world domination. Although they were false, the “protocols” served to mobilize anti-Jewish sentiments throughout Europe at the beginning of the twentieth century.
Roots of the Final Solution
In Lesson 3, we discussed the tremendous impact of the Reichstag fire that allowed Hitler to implement the Enabling Act and the Gleichschaltung in the spring of 1933. Although these laws were directed against other groups as well, the Jews were hit hardest by them. The Nazis organized a national boycott of Jewish stores as early as April of 1933. One of the leaders of the boycott, Julius Streicher, the editor of the viciously anti-Semitic newspaper Der Stürmer (The Stormer) also began to reiterate the ancient charge of blood libel, according to which Jews slaughter German children. About 400 specifically designed decrees and laws were issued in order to discriminate against Jews, who were purged from all public positions in the juridical, educational, medical, and administrative sectors. The percentage of Jewish students admitted to German universities was severely limited, and the kosher slaughter of animals—a particular way of bleeding the animal to death—was banned on April 21, 1933. The first public burning of books, many of them authored by German Jews, took place on March 10, 1933 in Berlin. The first KZs (concentration camps) were also established in 1933, the first one at Dachau close to Munich. The original purpose of these camps had been to interrogate and terrorize political opponents of the regime. But they were increasingly used as a training ground for special units of the SS, such as the SS Death Heads, the SD (Sicherheitsdienst or Security Service of the SS), and the Gestapo (Geheime Staatspolizei or Secret Police). These forces would later prove crucial for implementing the Holocaust against the Jews.
In September of 1935, the Nazis issued the Nuremberg Racial Laws, which prohibited physical contact between Aryans and Jews. The law also limited German citizenship to Aryans, thus stripping Jews of all basic civil rights and making them subjects to, rather than citizens of, the German state. There were thirteen more laws passed during the next eight years that continued to restrict the civil and human rights of Jews more and more. A crucial component of the law was that it explicitly discounted Jewish cultural assimilation as well as conversion to the Christian faith. According to the Nazis, Jewishness was a biological (i.e., racial) fact that could not be changed, and Aryans had to provide proof of not being half- or quarter-Jewish (i.e., not having a Jewish parent or grandparent).
Nonetheless, many assimilated Jews remained in Germany, partly because they hoped that Nazism was short lived, and partly because they considered themselves more German than Jewish. At the time of the Nuremberg laws, only about 75,000 Jews had left Germany; 37,000 of those had actually left right away in 1933. In order to understand why no more left right away, one must keep in mind how difficult it would be for anybody just to leave their home and settle into an uncertain future. Also, it was not that easy to find a new home, since particularly after the beginning of World War II, foreign countries began to close their borders to Jewish immigrants. Finally, there was also a slight easing of public anti-Semitism in Germany between the Röhm-Putsch in 1934 and the beginning of the Olympic Games in 1936. During that time, Hitler sought to stabilize the country politically and to create a positive image of his regime internationally. Both goals would have been undermined if the Nazis had continued their vigilant anti-Semitic propaganda. The United States, for example, seriously considered a boycott of the Games and would have certainly done so had public anti-Semitism in Germany continued to increase.
The Final Solution
A major change in Nazi policy took place on October 23, 1941. Before that date, the Nazis had actively supported the deportation of Jews to various locations (the original plan had actually called for resettling all of them on the island of Madagascar). Thereafter, the policy changed from deportation to annihilation. The formal decision was made during the Wannsee Conference on January 20, 1942, in the vicinity of Berlin. Organized by Reinhard Heydrich (the second in command of the SS after its supreme leader Heinrich Himmler), the conference participants were charged with working out the logistical details for the “final solution of the Jewish question”—in other words, for the methodical killing of millions of Jews that would continue until the end of the war. “Europe would be combed of Jews from east to west,” Heydrich bluntly stated (The History Place, accessed December 31, 2007).
Heydrich’s plan called for the killing of all known Jews either through so-called Einsatztruppen or by deportation to the killing centers in the East, notably Poland. The Einsatztruppen (Special Action Squads) were employed in Poland and the Soviet Union as early as 1941. Their orders were to kill Jews wherever they found them. Of those transported to the KZ, many would die during the so-called death marches. Particularly toward the end of the war, many prisoners were moved by foot or train from camp to camp in order to evade the advancing Russian army. Exact numbers are difficult to get, but informed guesses range between 20,000 and 58,000 victims during these marches alone. Of those who actually reached the various concentration camps like Treblinka, Chelmon, Sobidor, and Belzek, a number of them would be killed right away (sometimes by bullet, but later by gassing due to cost considerations). Others would be “eliminated by natural causes” (as Heydrich put it) at places like Auschwitz and Maidanek. The expression was a euphemism, of course. It actually meant that prisoners would die due to forced labor and continued starvation. It is estimated that 2.5 million people died at Auschwitz alone.
Besides the concentration camps, the Nazis also established several city ghettos in the East between December of 1939 and March of 1942. Although there had been Jewish ghettos during medieval times, as names such as Judengassse (Jewish Street) or Judenviertel (Jewish quarter) make clear, the Jews then were allowed to participate in the communal activities during the day. Nazi ghettos, by contrast, were places of total confinement. The inhabitants were left to fend for themselves. One of the most famous is the Warsaw ghetto, partly because of its size of approximately 380,000 people, and partly because it was the scene of the first Jewish mass revolt against the Nazis during April and May of 1943. The revolt was brutally suppressed by the Nazi army and ultimately failed, but it nonetheless signaled the willingness and ability of the Jews to resist their oppressors. The Warsaw ghetto was established in the fall of 1940, and it is estimated that about 70,000 people died during the first two winters due to lack of medicine and food, contaminated water, etc. Almost all of the other inhabitants either died during the resistance fight or were deported to the Treblinka extermination camp.
Historical Significance of the Holocaust
The significance of the Holocaust for human history cannot be overestimated. It ranks among the most unfathomable and barbaric crimes ever committed, and it provides us with an absolute ethical imperative that something like this must never be allowed to happen again. On this point, every sane person must agree. Whether or not the Holocaust was a unique event in human history, on the other hand, remains a matter of debate. It was also the main issue of the so-called Historikerstreit (literally “historians’ quarrel”) between left-wing historians (such as Hans-Ulrich Wehler, Jürgen Habermas, and Martin Broszat) and their conservative colleagues (Andreas Hillgruber and Ernst Nolte) in Germany during the 1980s. Nolte had started the debate in a newspaper article by claiming that the Holocaust must be understood as a defensive reaction to Stalin’s extermination of political opponents in the Gulag. In response, Habermas rejected any such comparison between the two systems and the crimes they committed. Regardless of this particular question, though, there is no doubt that every student of history has a moral and political obligation to study the Nazis’ rise to power in order to learn about the dangers of modern populism and excessive nationalism, then and now.

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