Throughout the late-1930s, the Nazi government began to forcibly acquire ethnically German territory in Austria and Czechoslovakia that was taken from Germany at the end of the First World War. Although the international community initially allowed Germany to incorporate these territories into the growing German Empire, it became increasingly clear that Hitler’s ambition did not stop at these small territories. When Germany invaded Poland on September 1, 1939, Britain and France responded by declaring war on Germany, beginning the Second World War.
Holocaust, Hebrew Shoʾah (“Catastrophe”), Yiddish and Hebrew Ḥurban (“Destruction”), the systematic state-sponsored killing of six million Jewish men, women, and children and millions of others by Nazi Germany and its collaborators during World War II. The Germans called this “the final solution to the Jewish question.” Yiddish-speaking Jews and survivors in the years immediately following their liberation called the murder of the Jews the Ḥurban, the word used to describe the destruction of the First Temple in Jerusalem by the Babylonians in 586 bce and the destruction of the Second Temple by the Romans in 70 ce. Shoʾah (“Catastrophe”) is the term preferred by Israelis and the French, most especially after Claude Lanzmann’s masterful 1985 motion picture documentary of that title. It is also preferred by people who speak Hebrew and by those who want to be more particular about the Jewish experience or who are uncomfortable with the religious connotations of the word Holocaust. Less universal and more particular, Shoʾah emphasizes the annihilation of the Jews, not the totality of Nazi victims. More particular terms also were used by Raul Hilberg, who called his pioneering work The Destruction of the European Jews, and Lucy S. Dawidowicz, who entitled her book on the Holocaust The War Against the Jews. In part she showed how Germany fought two wars simultaneously: World War II and the racial war against the Jews. The Allies fought only the World War. The word Holocaust is derived from the Greek holokauston, a translation of the Hebrew word ʿolah, meaning a burnt sacrifice offered whole to God. This word was chosen because in the ultimate manifestation of the Nazi killing program—the extermination camps—the bodies of the victims were consumed whole in crematoria and open fires.
Oskar Schindler was born into a German Catholic family on April 28, 1908. After attending trade schools, he worked for his father’s farm machinery company. He worked for German intelligence and later joined the Nazi Party. An opportunist businessman with a taste for the finer things in life, he seemed an unlikely candidate to become a wartime hero. During the war, however, he operated a factory that employed more than 1,000 Polish Jews, saving them from concentration camps and extermination. In 1993 his story was made into the Steven Spielberg feature film Schindler's List.
In November 1938, the prohibitive measures against German Jews that had been instituted since Hitler came to power took a violent and deadly turn during “Kristallnacht” (“Crystal Night” or “Night of Broken Glass”). On the evening of November 9, synagogues in Germany and Austria were burned and Jewish homes, schools and businesses were vandalized. Over 30,000 Jews were arrested and dispatched to Dachau and the Buchenwald and Sachsenhausen concentration camps. Nearly 11,000 Jews ended up in Dachau.
Writer Herbert Steinhouse, who interviewed him in 1948, wrote that "Schindler's exceptional deeds stemmed from just that elementary sense of decency and humanity that our sophisticated age seldom sincerely believes in. A repentant opportunist saw the light and rebelled against the sadism and vile criminality all around him." In a 1983 television documentary, Schindler was quoted as saying, "I felt that the Jews were being destroyed. I had to help them; there was no choice."
All prisoners underwent the same fate when they entered the camp, they lost their legal status, their remaining possessions were confiscated, their hair was shaved off, and they were dressed in striped clothes. They were allocated a number as well as a coloured triangle, indicating what type of category they belonged to. The daily routine was filled with work, hunger, exhaustion, and fear of the brutality of the sadistic SS guards.
On April 26, 1945, as American forces approached, there were 67,665 registered prisoners in Dachau and its subcamps. Of these, 43,350 were categorized as political prisoners, while 22,100 were Jews, with the remainder falling into various other categories. Starting that day, the Germans forced more than 7,000 prisoners, mostly Jews, on a death march from Dachau to Tegernsee far to the south. During the death march, the Germans shot anyone who could no longer continue; many also died of hunger, cold, or exhaustion.
Eicke urged his SS men to treat all inmates as dangerous "Enemies of the State." He repeatedly lectured them: "There behind the barbed-wire lurks the enemy and he watches everything you do. He will try to help himself by using all your weaknesses. Don't leave yourself open in any way. Show these 'Enemies of the State' your teeth. Anyone who shows even the smallest sign of compassion for the 'Enemies of the State' must disappear from our ranks. I can only use hard men who are determined to do anything. We have no use for weaklings."
As we moved down along the west side of the concentration camp and approached the southwest corner, three people approached down the road under a flag of truce. We met these people about 75 yards north of the southwest entrance to the camp. These three people were a Swiss Red Cross representative and two SS troopers who said they were the camp commander and assistant camp commander and that they had come into the camp on the night of the 28th to take over from the regular camp personnel for the purpose of turning the camp over to the advancing Americans. The Swiss Red Cross representative acted as interpreter and stated that there were about 100 SS guards in the camp who had their arms stacked except for the people in the tower. He said he had given instructions that there would be no shots fired and it would take about 50 men to relieve the guards, as there were 42,000 half-crazed prisoners of war in the camp, many of them typhus infected. He asked if I were an officer of the American army, to which I replied, “Yes, I am Assistant Division Commander of the 42d Division and will accept the surrender of the camp in the name of the Rainbow Division for the American army.”
Also among the Dachau inmates were 109 anti-Nazi Protestant clergymen, including the Reverend Martin Niemöller, one of the founders of the Protestant Confessional Church. Niemöller had been tried in a German court and convicted of treason; after being sentenced to time served, he was first sent to the Sachsenhausen concentration camp near Berlin, then later to Buchnwald and finally to Dachau. After the war, he continued to preach against the Nazi regime, including making a speech before the American Congress.
When asked, Schindler told that his metamorphosis during the war was sparked by the shocking immensity of the Final Solution. In his own words: "I hated the brutality, the sadism, and the insanity of Nazism. I just couldn't stand by and see people destroyed. I did what I could, what I had to do, what my conscience told me I must do. That's all there is to it. Really, nothing more."
In 1935 the Wehrmacht began to build a large military complex close to the village of Belsen, a part of the town of Bergen, in what was then the Province of Hanover. This became the largest military training area in Germany of the time and was used for armoured vehicle training. The barracks were finished in 1937. The camp has been in continuous operation since then and is today known as Bergen-Hohne Training Area. It is used by the NATO armed forces.