Historical Background

(This website will be under construction for the next year. New entries will be added weekly.)


Quite early the Germans designated Poland as the center of Jewish destruction. Jews from different European countries were forcibly brought to Poland to die. As the center of Jewish annihilation Poland provides the key to an understanding of the Holocaust in general. — THE HIDDEN CHILDREN By Jane Marks


Regardless of the massive genocide by the Soviets or the communist Chinese, the only government mass murder that the world remembers and our school books describe is the Nazi genocide of the Jews in which “6 million” were slaughtered. But even then this count ignores the vast number of people exterminated. Overall, by genocide, the killing of hostages, reprisal raids, forced labor, “euthanasia,” starvation, exposure, medical experiments, terror bombing, and the concentration and death camps, the Nazis murdered from about 15,000,000 to over 31,600,000 people, most likely closer to 21 million men, women, handicapped, aged, sick, prisoners of war, forced laborers, camp inmates, critics, homosexuals, Jews, Slavs, Serbs, Czechs, Italians, Poles, Frenchmen, Ukrainians, and so on. Among them were 1 million children under eighteen years of age. — DEATH BY GOVERNMENT By R. J. Rummel


Auschwitz has long been the symbol of the Holocaust. The Nazis murdered almost one million Jews here, more than in any other single place. And only in Auschwitz did they systematically kill Jews from all across the continent, deported to their deaths from Hungary, Poland, France, the Netherlands, Greece, Czechoslovakia, Belgium, Germany, Austria, Croatia, Italy, and Norway. In part, Auschwitz was so lethal because it operated so much longer than other killing sites. In late spring 1944, when the three death camps in the General Government had long closed down again, Auschwitz was only just beginning to reach its murderous peak. And after Soviet troops finally liberated the camp in January 1945, much of the infrastructure of murder remained on-site, in contrast to Belzec, Sobibor, and Treblinka, where the traces of genocide had been carefully concealed. This is one reason why we know so much more about Auschwitz than about the other death camps. Another is the abundance of testimony. Several tens of thousands of Auschwitz prisoners survived the war and many of them told their story. By contrast, hardly anyone left the other death camps alive, since they functioned purely as extermination sites; only three survivors ever gave testimony about Belzec. — KL – A HISTORY OF THE NAZI CONCENTRATION CAMPS By Nicolaus Wachsmann


Why were the Germans so powerful? Most historians agree that their Prussian culture, in which civilians were treated almost like soldiers who were required to obey orders or die, was a powerful influence. “War was the national industry of Prussia.” And this was Germany’s fifth war of aggression in seventy-five years, so they had plenty of practice. German civilians admired and deferred to officers in uniform. Germany had long been a paternalistic society in which commands were obeyed instantly with a nod of the head and a click of the heels. It was one of the reasons why blitzkrieg tactics worked so well for them: they required close cooperation and instant disciplined reaction between all armed services. — HOW CHURCHILL SAVED CIVILIZATION By John Harte


German soldiers march into Warsaw carrying bayonets.


Dachau was the first of many SS concentration camps. Established inside Germany in the early years of Hitler’s rule, these camps soon spread, during the Nazi conquest of Europe from the lat 1930’s, to Austria, Poland, France, Czechoslovakia, the Netherlands, Belgium, Lithuania, Estonia, Latvia, and even the small British Channel Island of Alderney. In all, the SS set up twenty-seven main camps and over 1,100 attached satellite camps over the course of the Third Reich, though members fluctuated greatly, as old camps closed down and new ones opened; only Dachau lasted for the entire Nazi period. – KL – A HISTORY OF THE NAZI CONCENTRATION CAMPS By Nicolaus Wachsmann


Between 1933 and 1939, the Nazis would progressively strip the German Jews – which in 1933 numbered 503,000, only .076 percent of the country’s population – of their rights and equality as citizens, deprive them of their principal means of assimilation into German society, and persecute them in numerous ways. Simultaneously National Socialist propaganda boasted of the ever more ruthless measures taken against the victims. During its first six years, the National Socialist regime implemented roughly four hundred pieces of anti-Jewish legislation. –– HITLER’S SHADOW WAR By Donald M. McKale


“Tonight,” Hitler announced, “Poland has for the first time fired on our territory with regular troops. Since 5:45 a.m., fire is being returned!” There had indeed been trouble on the German-Polish border in Upper Silesia. But it had all been staged by the Nazis themselves: dramatic political theater – devised by Hitler and Himmler, directed by Heydrich, performed by special Nazi forces – to give an excuse, however flimsy, for German aggression. “The victor,” Hitler had bluntly told his military commanders a few days earlier, “will not be asked whether he told the truth or not.” — KL – A HISTORY OF THE NAZI CONCENTRATION CAMPS By Nicolaus Wachsmann


Between 22 July and 12 September, some 265,000 inhabitants of the Warsaw ghetto and 112,000 from other parts of the Warsaw district were deported to Treblinka and murdered. — HITLER’S SHADOW WAR By Donald M. McKale


By the end of 1942 the killing centers of Sobibor and Treblinka had murdered over one and a half million Jews, most of them from occupied Poland. Of the nearly 1.2 million Jews who entered Treblinka in 1942 and 1943, only fifty-four are known to have survived; most of them escaped during an uprising of Jewish prisoners at the camp in August 1943. — HITLER’S SHADOW WAR By Donald M. McKale


Five Jewish prisoners pose outside a row of barracks at the Belzec concentration camp. It’s likely they were shot immediately after this propaganda photo was taken. Nobody survived for long at Belzec.


Nearly one-third of the world’s nineteen million Jews perished during the Holocaust. — HITLER’S SHADOW WAR By Donald M. McKale


“I would not like to be a Jew in Germany,” Hermann Goring quipped on November 12,1938, at a top-level Nazi meeting on anti-Jewish policy, only days after a devastating state-sponsored pogrom had engulfed Germany, with Nazi mobs razing thousands of synagogues, shops, and houses, and humiliating, robbing, and assaulting tens of thousands of Jews; hundreds had died, murdered during the storm of violence or driven to suicide. The pogrom was the climax of years of Nazi persecution, which saw the gradual but relentless exclusion of Jews from German social, cultural, and economic life, pursued by radical forces from below and above. It was becoming impossible for Jews to live in Germany, and around half of the estimated five hundred thousand Jews left their fatherland during the prewar years, despite the uncertainties of life abroad, the Nazi levies on emigration, and the difficulties of securing visas. The remaining Jews – impoverished, isolated, and deprived – faced a desperate future trapped inside the Third Riech.” — KL – A HISTORY OF THE NAZI CONCENTRATION CAMPS By Nicolaus Wachsmann


At the very center of Hitler’s worldview – together with his fanatical hatred of Jews and Bolsheviks – stood the belief that Germany could not survive without the conquest of living space. Hitler had already made up his mind about this in the mid-1920’s, when he still seemed destined for political obscurity. Germany needed to expand, he believed, and its future lay in the east, above all in the Soviet Union, with its vast stretches of land and rich agricultural resources. Hitler remained fixated on this goal for the rest of his life. Even as he was cowering in a maze of bunkers under the garden of the bombed Reich Chancellery, not long before his suicide in April 1945, he talked feverishly about the German mission to secure living space in the east. Back in summer 1941, right after the start of Operation Barbarossa, Hitler’s dream appeared to be within his grasp. Germany was on course for a crushing victory over the Soviet Union, or so it seemed; within a month of the invasion, the Wehrmacht had crossed the Dnieper, taken Smolensk, and closed in on Kiev. On July 16, 1941, in a top-level conference, Hitler laid out his vision. All the European areas of the Soviet Union would remain in German hands, Hitler announced: “We have to turn the newly gained eastern territories into a Garden of Eden.” — KL – A HISTORY OF THE NAZI CONCENTRATION CAMPS By Nicolaus Wachsmann

Hermann Goring was born in Rosenheim, Bavaria, on 12 January 1893. His family background was solidly upper middle class… He was expelled from school after several explosive arguments with teachers. His father decided army discipline might tame him. He attended an army cadet school in Karlsruhe and then gained entrance to a military school in Berlin. In October 1914, Goring joined the newly formed German Flying Corps. He became a fearless flying ace, in the elite “o. I Air Squadron,” led by the legendary “Bloody Red Baron,” Freiherr von Richthofen. Goring’s willingness to undertake dangerous combat missions led to the award of a series of bravery awards, most notably, the Iron Cross, First Class and the Pour le Merite (“The Blue Max”), the highest aviation honor of all. At the end of the First World War, Goring returned to Munich, but found it difficult to find employment. After seeing Adolf Hitler speak in a local beer hall in the autumn of 1922, he joined the Nazi Party. Goring took part in the failed 1923 Munich Beer Hall Putsch, and sustained two bullet wounds during the final bloody showdown with the police in Marienplatz in the city center. The Putsch had attempted to overthrow the Bavarian state government, but it ended up as a humiliating failure. — THE GESTAPO, By Frank McDonough


Heinrich Himmler was a mass murderer greatly concerned with decorum. He had long cultivated an image as a deeply principled man, and during the Second World War he became a prominent preacher of a new kind of Nazi morality that saw mass killing as a sacred duty to protect the German people from its mortal enemies. Contrary to the views of some historians, Nazi perpetrators like Himmler did not see themselves as nihilists. Himmler regarded the Nazi Final Solution as a righteous act, committed out of necessity, idealism, and “love for our people,” as he put it in a notorious speech to SS group leaders in Posen in the early evening of October 4, 1943. That the killers had remained unblemished and “decent” during the mass slaughter of Jews was a truly “glorious page in our history,” he told himself and the other SS grandees. — KL – A HISTORY OF THE NAZI CONCENTRATION CAMPS, By Nicolaus Wachsmann


Grandmother of a Jewish family in Brest, Poland with her grandchildren. All were murdered.


“Though appalled by Nazi treatment of Jews and aware of the violence that had convulsed Germany earlier in the year, he [Roosevelt] refrained from issuing any direct statement of condemnation. Some Jewish leaders, like Rabbi Wise, Judge Irving Lehman, and Lewis L. Strauss, a partner at Kuhn, Loeb & Company, wanted Roosevelt to speak out; others, like Felix Warburg and Judge Joseph Proskauer, favored the quieter approach of urging the president to ease the entry of Jews into America. Roosevelt’s reluctance on both fronts was maddening. By November 1933, Wise would describe Roosevelt as “immovable, incurable and even inaccessible excepting to those of his Jewish friends whom he can safely trust not to trouble him with any Jewish problems.” Wrote Felix Warburg, “So far all the vague promises have not materialized into any action.” Even Roosevelt’s good friend Felix Frankfurter, a Harvard law professor whom he later named to the Supreme Court, found himself unable to move the president to action, much to his frustration.

But Roosevelt understood that the political costs of any public condemnation of Nazi persecution or any obvious effort to ease the entry of Jews into America were likely to be immense, because American political discourse had framed the Jewish problem as an immigration problem. Germany’s persecution of Jews raised the specter of a vast influx of Jewish refugees at a time when America was reeling from the Depression. The isolationists added another dimension to the debate by insisting, as did Hitler’s government, that Nazi oppression of Germany’s Jews was a domestic German affair and thus none of America’s business. Even America’s Jews were deeply divided on how to approach the problem. — IN THE GARDEN OF BEASTS, By Erik Larson


The Nazi policy of ghettoizing Jews began in Poland in October 1939, a month after the start of the war. Over time, the ghetto took on many forms and uses. In the villages the ghettos could consist of a few streets behind the main road, demarcated by some barbed wire. Viewing the Jews as a racial threat and an enemy, the Germans incarcerated them as a segregationist and security measure. Any facility could serve this purpose. German military commanders and SS and police officers would arrive in a small town such as Narodichi, Ukraine, announce that a ghetto would be formed, and demand that the Jewish population report for registration. In Narodichi, Jews were brought to a local club; elsewhere they were brought to a school, factory barracks, or synagogue, or even locked in abandoned railway cars, while plans for the mass shooting or deportation to a camp were made. It could be days, weeks, or months before these plans were carried out, depending on available SS and police forces, the whims of local officials, and the orders of higher-ups such as Heinrich Himmler and his regional deputies. In the interim, local German officials, Poles, Ukrainians, Lithuanians, and others “traded” with the trapped Jews, who were forced to give up their personal possessions – everything from houses to coats and boots – for a loaf of bread or some firewood. Skilled Jewish laborers were selected from the ghetto population and assigned to heavy labor, such as road construction, and to war-related industries in mining, textile, carpentry, and metalworking. Though these Jewish-only incarceration sites were often referred to as ghettos, they were in fact way stations to sites of mass murder, as well as “death crates,” in Goebbels’s term, since famine, typhus, and suicide took the lives of hundreds of thousands who were boxed into them. — HITLER’S FURIES, By Wendy Lower


An odd kind of fanciful thinking seemed to have bedazzled Germany, to the highest levels of government. Earlier in the year, for example, Goring had claimed with utter sobriety that three hundred German Americans had been murdered in front of Independence Hall in Philadelphia at the start of the past world war. Messersmith, in a dispatch, observed that even smart, well-traveled Germans will “sit and calmly tell you the most extraordinary fairy tales.” — IN THE GARDEN OF BEASTS, By Erik Larson


Jews had resided in the Germanic areas of Europe for centuries. They periodically suffered persecution. The 1871 German constitution offered Jews full citizenship rights. Religious conversion to Christianity was allowed too. Many Jews integrated and assimilated with the German majority. From 1881 to 1933, 19469 Jews converted to Protestantism, for example. During the First World War, 100,000 Jews signed up to fight and 70,000 served at the front, with 30,000 of them receiving bravery awards a total of 12,000 Jews were killed. — THE GESTAPO, By Frank McDonough


Much has been written about Hitler’s failed “beer hall” coup in 1923 and his showmanship in the subsequent trial, which served as his first national stage. But few know that after his conviction for treason the courts banned him from public speaking throughout Germany, with the exception of Thuringia. The reason for this exception was not that Weimar politicians were determined to uphold free speech in their budding democracy; rather, it was that Nazi Party activists had so effectively infiltrated that state that Thuringia provided a haven for Hitler and a platform for his annual Party rally, moved in 1926 from Munich to Weimar. For Hitler, Thuringia provided a model of how the system of democracy could be destroyed legally from within, by swamping the parliament with Nazi delegates and cultivating the movement in the countryside with aggressive electioneering. — HITLER’S FURIES, By Wendy Lower


The bodies of Jewish resisters lie in front of the ruins of a building where they were shot by the SS during the suppression of the Warsaw ghetto uprising. the original German caption reads: “Bandits killed in battle.” 

In reality, any person who accepted and supported the Nazi regime enjoyed enormous individual freedom. Hitler’s regime was hugely popular. Once you appreciate this essential fact, you begin to understand the reality of life inside Nazi Germany. — THE GESTAPO, By Frank McDonough


The final result, as laid down in Mein Kampf, was a plan which envisaged Britain and Italy as allies or benevolent neutrals, the Austro-Hungarian successor states and also Poland as auxiliary nations, France as a secondary enemy to be eliminated at the start, and Russia as the principal enemy to be conquered and permanently subjected, and to be turned into German living space, “a German India.” That was the plan underlying the Second World War, though it went wrong right from the start when Britain and Poland did not accept the roles intended for them. — THE MEANING OF HITLER, By Sebastian Haffner


As for Auschwitz as a death camp, it was eclipsed by Gruppenführer Odilo Globocnik’s death camps. In 1942, around 190,000 Jews died in Auschwitz, the great majority of them in the Birkenau gas chambers. By contrast, the three Globocnik death camps claimed around 1,500,000 victims that year; more than 800,000 were murdered in Treblinka alone, a small number of Gypsies among them. It was only during 1943 – when Belzec, Sobibor, and Treblinka were wound down, having fulfilled their mission of murdering most Jews in the General Government, and when most of the remaining ghettos and labor camps were eradicated, too – that Auschwitz moved into the center of the Holocaust. — KL – A HISTORY OF THE NAZI CONCENTRATION CAMPS, By Nicolaus Wachsmann


Hitler’s anti-Semitism is an East European plant. In Western Europe and also in Germany anti-Semitism was on the wane about the turn of the century; assimilation and integration of the Jews was desired and was in full swing. But in Eastern and South Eastern Europe, where the numerous Jews were living, voluntarily or involuntarily, as a separate nation within the nation, anti-Semitism was (and is?) endemic and murderous, directed not towards assimilation or integration but towards liquidation and extermination. And this murderous East European anti-Semitism, which allowed the Jews no escape, reached as far as Vienna in whose third district, according to Metternich’s famous dictum, the Balkans begin. There the youthful Hitler picked it up. How, we do not know. — THE MEANING OF HITLER, By Sebastian Haffner


Whitney Harris, a member of the American prosecution team, elicited [Auschwitz commandant] Hoss’s confession without any difficulty. According to Harris, Hoss was “quiet, unprepossessing and fully co-operative.” Right at the start of that confession, he dropped a bombshell, estimating “that at least 2,500,000 victims were executed and exterminated there [at Auschwitz] by gassing, and burning, and at least another half million succumbed to starvation and disease, making a total dead of about 3,000,000. — THE NAZI HUNTERS, By Andrew Nagorski


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