What the Holocaust was, and is not

Beth Bailey
Feb 13, 2017 · 15 min read

On January 27th, when the world celebrates International Holocaust Remembrance Day, we are urged to remember the Nazi genocide and its 11 million victims so that, “Never Again” will a similar tragedy take place.

Of the Holocaust’s victims, five million were political dissidents, Roma gypsies, homosexuals, the mentally challenged, and other peoples, like those of Slavic origin, who were deemed to be of “inferior” races.

The remainder of the Holocaust’s victims, some six million people, were Jews. During the Second World War, Hitler and his followers managed to eradicate two-thirds of European Jewry using a horrific combination of gas chambers, gas vans, mobile extermination units, starvation, sickness, and overwork. When these methods failed and Russian and Allied forces closed in on German territory, the Nazis sent the malnourished Jews living in some of their concentration camps on forced death marches as a last-ditch effort to hide the evidence of their crimes against humanity.

Local Germans forced by American soldiers to march past the bodes of thirty Jews who starved to death on a forced march. Photo from National Archives and Records Administration (Id. Number 292593)

Given the extent of these crimes, and our desire as humans to keep them from occurring again, it will always be important to explain how such atrocities could have taken place.

Some Holocaust scholars point to the creation of the “Final Solution”, the decision for once and for all to annihilate the Jews, at the 1942 Wannsee Conference as the point at which the Nazis began their inexorable descent into barbarism. Most agree that the genocide got its start much earlier.

Adolf Hitler first developed strong feelings of antisemitism as a young adult. (Levy 18) Those feelings grew in the aftermath of the First World War, in which he fought as an Austrian soldier. Jews and Marxists were to blame for the loss of that war, and for the subsequent stripping of German land, money, and military assets. “That which was evil in this world,” Hitler believed, “Could be laid at the feet of the Jews.” (Schleunes 48)

At thirty years old, Hitler burst onto the German political scene as a member of the German Workers Party. A skilled orator, Hitler’s early speeches prominently featured his antisemitic beliefs. In a talk given before a Munich beer hall in 1920, for instance, Hitler called for the denial of office and citizenship to Jews in Germany, the exclusion of Jews from the press, and the expulsion of Jews who had entered Germany after August 2, 1914. (Shirer 41)

After being named leader of the newly-formed Nazi party and staging a failed coup against the government in Munich in 1923, Hitler was sent to prison. While there, he composed Mein Kampf, in which he “expounded on race as the central principle of human existence and explicated the relationship, since the start of time, between the two world adversaries — the Aryans and the Jews.” (Dawidowicz 18)

When released from prison in 1924, Hitler began to consolidate power and pursue in earnest the promise he had made in 1920, and upon which he had elucidated in Mein Kampf, to “carry on the struggle until the last Jew is removed from the German Reich.” (Dawidowicz 17)

As his party grew, Hitler ensured it could control society at every level. He created a “state within a state,” with Nazi party members organizing within each of the country’s newly-defined eleven districts, as well as in smaller sub-sections of each district, which were organized down to specific streets and blocks. As part of their duties, party members promoted party ideals and violently countered opposition political activity. (Shirer 119–20) They also performed public services and provided means for locals to organize within their party structure. This allowed them to ingratiate themselves even in small towns, such as Thalburg, Germany, where the Nazis’ antagonistic brand of antisemitism was either embraced or “simply ignored or rationalized.” (Allen 61–77)

Some Jewish families in Germany and surrounding countries, accustomed to antisemitism and anti-Jewish pogroms, believed that Hitler and his Nazi party posed no great threat. Others, sensing danger, pursued what actions they could to send family members to safety.*

As the years passed, it became impossible to escape the truth: that antisemitism, and the removal of Jews from Germany, were, just as Hitler claimed, central facets of the Nazi program. Hitler began his endeavor in earnest in 1933 by disenfranchising the Jews with a series of decrees that would dehumanize them and pave the way for the acts of violence to come. (A full list of these decrees can be found here, as only a subset are described below)

The first decrees of 1933 included the burning of books written by Jews, the random inciting of attacks against Jews, and the institution of a boycott on Jewish stores and businesses, which was often enforced by the Nazi party’s paramilitary force, the Sturmabteilung (SA). In the same year, Jews were forbidden from farming, teaching, holding public office, being members of the civil service, and engaging in arts such as journalism, radio, theater, and films. Their removal from the stock exchanges came a year later. Though it would be 1938 before Jews were legally banned from engaging in business or practicing law or medicine, “they were in practice removed from these fields” after several years of Nazi rule. (Shirer, 233–4)

In 1935, utilizing tenuous pseudo scientific logic, Hitler established the Nuremberg Laws, which determined whether one was racially German, or racially Jewish. Irrespective of religion, these laws defined a Jew as any person with three of four Jewish grandparents. Under the Nuremberg Laws, any mixing of Jewish and German blood was prohibited by law. Henceforth, membership in Nazi party organizations was limited to those who could prove themselves to be of “pure Aryan descent.” (Ehrenreich 10)

Chart describing the Nuremberg Laws. Photo by Reichsauschuss für Volksgesundheitsdienst
A page from Nazi paper “Der Stürmer” discussing Fthe “death penalty for race betrayers.” Photo by Wolfgang Sauber.

1935 also saw Jews lose their German citizenship, be banned from public parks, pools, and restaurants, and lose the right to obtain travel documents to leave Germany. In 1936, Jewish students were removed from universities. In 1938, all Jews were forced to change their middle names to Sarah, for women, or Israel, for men. That same year, Jews whose passports were not revoked outright were forced to stamp them with the letter “J.”

1938 was also the year in which the first widespread act of violence was carried out against the Jewish population. Kristallnacht, or “The Night of Broken Glass,” was an alleged reprisal for a Jewish teen’s assassination of a German official stationed in Paris. Kristallnacht consisted of two days of pogroms against the Jews of Germany, during which 815 shops were destroyed, 171 dwellings and 119 synagogues were set aflame, and 20,000 Jews were arrested. As a result of the pogrom, 36 Jews were killed, and an additional 36 were severely injured. (Shirer 430–431)

The following year, World War II began, and the decrees continued. Jews could now be evicted from their homes without warning at any time and were forced to give up certain items of property, to include radios. In 1941, they were forbidden from leaving Germany and were forced to identify themselves with the yellow star. Finally, 1942 was marked by mass deportations of Jews to crowded, unsanitary ghettos and deadly concentration or labor camps.

Very few Germans spoke out against the activities occurring in their midst, likely because anyone who protested did so with disastrous consequences. Those caught giving protection or aid to Jews could receive the death penalty. A group of students and teachers calling themselves Die Weisse Rose, or The White Rose, distributed leaflets on their Munich campus to speak out against the Nazi regime. The members of the group were discovered and executed. By the early forties, the Nazi party was too strong, and the fervor to avenge the German loss in World War I too great, to stop the activities set in motion. With few impediments, Hitler could carry out his plans to annihilate the Jews.

In fact, once the Jews were rounded up, a number of ordinary Germans were complicit in the transpiring events. Owners of businesses in Germany and German-occupied areas utilized the cheap forced labor of Jews in ghettos or camps to churn out their products under wartime economic constraints.

Even more disturbing is the record of German businesses which supplied the means by which genocide and mass cremation of bodies were achieved. Two German firms supplied several tons of the Zyklon-B crystals used in deadly gas chambers, as well as the equipment that ventilated and heated those chambers to disperse the deadly crystals without killing chamber operators. (Shirer 972–3) A letter found in one camp’s records described an “order for five triple furnaces, including two electric elevators for raising the corpses and one emergency elevator. A practical installation for stoking coal was ordered and one for transporting ashes.” (Shirer 971). In another letter, a company offered the following recommendation for the use of its product: “For putting the bodies into the furnace, we suggest simply a metal fork moving on cylinders. Each furnace will have an oven measuring 24 by 18 inches, as coffins will not be used. For transporting the corpses from the storage points to the furnaces we suggest using light carts on wheels, and we enclose diagrams of these drawn to scale.” (Shirer 971)

Ovens from Crematorium 1 in Auschwitz I. Photo by Jorge Láscar

Another disturbing aspect of the Nazi’s business-like genocide was the collection of Jewish property. Jews’ abandoned apartments were looted, and the belongings within redistributed to citizens of the Reich. At the concentration camps, many personal effects, such as hair, shoes, clothing, and luggage, were collected and warehoused. Other belongings, deemed more valuable, were confiscated for the Reich coffers. Specifically, after Jews were gassed, they were searched for items of worth, including not only watches and jewelry, but also teeth filled or capped with gold. Gold teeth were pulled, and Jewish dental gold was melted down and sent to the Reichsbank in Berlin, where it was deposited in an account code-named “Max Heiliger.” The extent of the Max Heiliger deposits “overwhelmed” the Reichsbank, which turned to a Berlin pawnshop to let off excess “holdings.” By 1944, the pawnshop “itself was overwhelmed…and informed the Reichsbank it could accept no more.” (Shirer 973–4)

Confiscated gold wedding bands discovered near Buchenwald Concentration Camp. Photo from National Archives Picturing the Century:A World in Flames Records of the Office of the Chief Signal Officer (111-SC-206406) VENDOR # 105, NARA’s ARC# 531294, Record Group 111

Many of Hitler’s instruments in the extermination of the Jews were people, such as Adolf Eichmann. As a young Nazi clerk, Eichmann was a proponent of Zionism, and sought in the 1930s to remove the Jews from Germany and German territory by returning them to Palestine. (Levy 104–5) However, as Eichmann rose through the party ranks, with his “stolid acceptance and relentless expediting of whatever evil was decreed from above,” (Levy 105) he was charged with implementing the Wannsee Conference’s Final Solution. In a sick irony, a one-time Zionist both helped build the machine that carried out Hitler’s planned genocide, and periodically greased its wheels.

As Hitler’s reign of madness and terror drew to a close, he had very nearly carried out his proposed annihilation of the Jews. His final act, committing suicide rather than facing justice for his horrible crimes, shows Hitler’s true cowardice.

At the end of the war, a number of high-ranking members of the Nazi party fled Germany to likewise escape the consequences of their actions. Thanks to the persistence of international groups, and individuals such as Simon Wiesenthal, a handful of those criminals, including Adolf Eichmann, were captured and brought to trial.

Though they may not have authored Mein Kampf or planned out the Holocaust, the men and women who oversaw it or otherwise participated have been forced to answer for their actions at trials in Nuremberg, in Jerusalem, and in the countries where they have sought asylum. Many claimed that they acted under orders; that they wouldn’t have acted as they did were they not in fear for their own lives. In the end, such excuses were considered invalid. Those aboard for the descent into inhumanity and mass murder were culpable for their participation.

Adolf Eichmann, on trial in Jerusalem after his capture. Photo by United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, Photo 65268

Still, many Nazis have managed to evade justice. Over the years, various organizations have continued to seek out the men and women who participated in the Holocaust, many of whom have continuously lied about the roles they played in hopes that they might live quiet, peaceful lives. Through the efforts of such justice-seeking organizations, many truths about the Holocaust continue to be brought to light.

One particular organization, Yahad-In Unum, continues to uncover additional Holocaust history by specifically investigating the mass murders Adolf Eichmann’s Einsatzgruppen carried out against the Jews in Eastern Europe. Members of Yahad-In Unum travel to the small towns where the Einsatzgruppen committed their atrocities, both to identify the killing fields where hundreds or thousands of Jews were shot to death and buried in mass graves, and to seek out oral histories from town members who witnessed those mass executions and their aftermaths. While Yahad-In Unum’s work seeks to broaden the historical record, its members also take their research to areas rife with violence and intolerance in hopes that they will show current generations the deadly consequences of misguided, wholesale hatred. Yahad-In Unum wants its Holocaust research to make a difference in a world where genocides continue to be perpetrated by groups of people who are intolerant of those different from themselves.

Yahad-In Unum, like so many other organizations fighting to tell the truth about the Holocaust, has an important role. In a world where genocide continues to occur, the importance of truly remembering our Holocaust history will never fade.

You may be asking, why now? Why would you write this so many weeks after International Holocaust Remembrance Day?

First of all, just like I don’t advocate limiting the consumption of beer to National Beer Day, I don’t advocate thinking deeply about the Holocaust only on International Holocaust Remembrance Day.

But my primary reason for writing this now is that, during this contentious and politically-divisive year, a number of people did not celebrate the day with the solemnity that it deserved. Instead, some people exploited the day, and used cherry-picked Holocaust “facts” to morally indemnify opposition political parties and party members to their own ends. This type of behavior, as well as being blatantly disgusting, shows a deep lack of understanding of the events that led up to the Holocaust, and of the tremendous impact the Holocaust had across the world.

To those individuals who believe their party possesses a moral right to use the Holocaust to condemn those in the opposing party, shame on you. In and of itself, remembrance of the Holocaust does not belong to any particular political party. By and large, both Democrats and Republicans find the Holocaust reprehensible.

But what about the exceptions, you ask? Though we each want to believe the proponents of antisemitism are all members of the camp opposite our own, they exist across the political spectrum.

The images most people might readily call to mind are those of alleged Trump supporters defacing property with the swastika in the days following the 2016 election. It is obvious to most Americans that the use of such hateful and intolerant symbols in political speech is unacceptable. Unfortunately, that’s not the case for all of us, which is why I’d like to share a story from the other side.

My friend’s mother (I’ll call her Sally) runs a conservative news site. Day in and day out, Sally posts thought-provoking quotations from conservative thinkers, politicians, and comedians, as well as news articles that lean more to the right. (And before anyone asks, no, Sally does not publish fake news.) Over the years, some of Sally’s posts have stoked the anger of those who have different views than her own. Rather than calmly stating their disagreement, these angry commenters sometimes threaten Sally and her family with violence. An alarming number have taken it upon themselves to search for Sally’s identity. On discovering that she has a “Jewish” last name, some have made disparaging antisemitic comments, threatening Sally with remarks about Nazis and encouraging her to “stick her head in an oven.” All because they don’t want Sally to feel safe voicing her conservative thoughts. At a basic human level, these are clearly despicable behaviors. But the antisemitic remarks in particular show a disturbing lack of empathy for the millions of Jews who endured torturous conditions and ultimately were put to death in Nazi concentration camps. They show an incredible disrespect, too, for those who survived such camps, one of whom is Sally’s relative.

The normalization of this hateful Holocaust imagery and terminology is a long-time trend, and a large problem in modern society. As the historical facts of Nazi rule fade ever further into the past, we’ve lost their depth of meaning. As such, our vernacular has filled up with “acceptable” terms and images that are filled with hate,** as we reduce the Holocaust to its buzz words and stereotypes. The lack of deep knowledge makes it easy to use fuzzy and ahistorical details to cast aspersions on others in order to make a cheap political point. It makes it simple to call someone “Hitler,” or a “Nazi,” though he or she may not be marked by an iota of Hitler’s distinct, long-standing hatred and depravity. It makes it easy to turn “Never Again” into a political slogan that engenders intolerance of those who disagree with your political views, even if doing so is a direct contradiction of the phrase’s true meaning.

Utilizing the Nazi-sponsored escalation of indifference and intolerance, and the horrible genocide that followed, to make a political point about those who disagree with your beliefs is unconscionable. The Holocaust should never be used for cheap political exploitation. International Holocaust Remembrance Day is not a time to pursue political goals.

On International Holocaust Remembrance Day, and on any other day when the Holocaust comes to mind, we should remember it for what it was: a time in which Adolf Hitler, whose political views centered on the hatred of a single minority group, was able to coalesce a powerful, hate-filled government, normalize the dehumanization of the aforementioned minority group, and pursue a policy of genocide.

More than that, we must remember the victims, those 11 million souls who were systematically eradicated from the earth because Adolf Hitler believed that Jews and other undesirables were Untermenschen, or subhumans. We must never forget the devastation that can occur when we begin to break down the world into those who are good, and those who are bad.

*One of these was the Stern family, who sent their child, Guy, to live with an uncle in the United States. Though the Stern family perished in the Holocaust, their son lived on, becoming a U.S. Army interrogator, and eventually an important advocate for Holocaust study.

**The last time this normalization hit my home was about six months ago, when my husband was referred to by a colleague as “Hitler Youth” on account of his blonde hair and blue eyes. What one man found a blasé nickname was, to me, inexcusably disgusting. For those who are unfamiliar with the group, the Hitler Youth was used to indoctrinate young boys into the Nazi ideology and to normalize the hatred of Jews and non-Aryans. Its existence was not funny. It never will be. The fact that someone found the term to be an acceptable, lighthearted way to joke about my husband’s coloring positively rankles me. I’ll admit that this is a demonstration of my own deep bias. My mother studied the Holocaust extensively, which influenced my interest in the time period starting around the age of ten. After taking German throughout high school, I pursued a major in German (with a double in Poli-Sci) at the College of William and Mary so that I could study the Holocaust more thoroughly. As a result of my studies, I was able to participate in the legal proceedings against a man who was accused of participating in the genocide against the Jews of Serbia. In that capacity, I spent days of my life at the National Archives at College Park, poring over captured German documents, which ceaselessly surprised me with the cruelty and indifference with which they described killing. I also spent a great deal of time in the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, where I searched through so many horrific photographs of mass grave sites and group hangings that I had nightmares in which I was dumped into killing fields where the dying victims, moaning and crying in pain, were just out of my reach. To summarize, the Holocaust has touched me deeply, which is why I react so strongly to those who use its terminology lightly or who appropriate it incorrectly to pursue goals that do not remotely apply to facts.

Works Cited

Allen, William Sheridan. The Nazi Seizure of Power: The Experience of a Single German Town, 1930–1935. Chicago: Quadrangle Books, 1965.

Dawidowicz, Lucy S. The War Against the Jews, 1933–1945. New York: Bantam Books, 1986.

Ehrenreich, Eric. The Nazi Ancestral Proof: Genealogy, Racial Science, and the Final Solution. Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 2007.

Levy, Alan. Nazi Hunter: The Wiesenthal File. New York: MJF Books, 2002.

Schleunes, Karl A. The Twisted Road to Auschwitz: Nazi Policy Toward German Jews 1933–1939. Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1990.

Shirer, William L. The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich: A History of Nazi Germany. New York: Simon and Schuster, Inc., 1990.

Beth Bailey

Written by

Freelance writer working on a novel about love and the war in Afghanistan. You can find my work in the Washington Examiner, the Federalist, and the Detroit News

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