When the Nazis seized power in 1933, roughly 67 percent of the population of Germany was Protestant, 33 percent was Roman Catholic, while Jews made up less than 1 percent. According to 1939 census, 54 percent considered themselves Protestant, 40 percent Roman Catholic, 3.5 percent Gottgläubig (God-believing; a Nazi religious movement) and 1.5 percent nonreligious.
After the liquidation of the Polish state and its institutions, the fundamental goal of German policy in occupied Poland was the exploitation of material and labor resources, and the removal of the local Polish population and ethnic minorities. This was done through expulsion and systematic extermination. The Polish lands were to be completely germanized, through German settlement in the depopulated area.
In “Ravensbrück,” Helm gives a further example of the erratic way the Nazis treated their own regulations, even late in the war. In 1943, Himmler agreed to allow the Red Cross to deliver food parcels to some prisoners in the camps. To send a parcel, however, the Red Cross had to mark it with the name, number, and camp location of the recipient; requests for these details were always refused, so that there was no way to get desperately needed supplies into the camps. Yet when Wanda Hjort, a young Norwegian woman living in Germany, got hold of some prisoners’ names and numbers—thanks to inmates who smuggled the information to her when she visited the camp at Sachsenhausen—she was able to pass them on to the Norwegian Red Cross, whose packages were duly delivered. This game of hide-and-seek with the rules, this combination of hyper-regimentation and anarchy, is what makes Kafka’s “The Trial” seem to foretell the Nazi regime.
These people had a blue stamp in their registration cards, meaning that they were exempt from deportation. They were Jews who had British or American citizenship. The Nazis saw these Jews as ‘exchange Jews’, and they would attempt to exchange each one of them for five to 10 Germans; especially military prisoners of war. In fact, few exchanges ever occurred.
The Security Police had held this exclusive authority de facto since 1936. The “legal” instrument of incarceration was either the “protective detention” (Schutzhaft) order or the “preventative detention” (Vorbeugungshaft) order. The Gestapo could issue a “protective detention” order for persons considered a political danger after 1933. The Criminal Police could issue a “preventative detention” order after December 1937 for persons considered to be habitual and professional criminals, or to be engaging in what the regime defined as “asocial” behavior. Neither order was subject to judicial review, or any review by any German agency outside of the German Security Police.
The systematic extermination of Jews, however, took place largely outside the concentration camps. The death camps, in which more than one and a half million Jews were gassed—at Belzec, Sobibór, and Treblinka—were never officially part of the K.L. system. They had almost no inmates, since the Jews sent there seldom lived longer than a few hours. By contrast, Auschwitz, whose name has become practically a synonym for the Holocaust, was an official K.L., set up in June, 1940, to house Polish prisoners. The first people to be gassed there, in September, 1941, were invalids and Soviet prisoners of war. It became the central site for the deportation and murder of European Jews in 1943, after other camps closed. The vast majority of Jews brought to Auschwitz never experienced the camp as prisoners; more than eight hundred thousand of them were gassed upon arrival, in the vast extension of the original camp known as Birkenau. Only those picked as capable of slave labor lived long enough to see Auschwitz from the inside.
In 1920, the Nazi Party officially announced that only persons of "pure Aryan descent [rein arischer Abkunft]" could become party members and if the person had a spouse, the spouse also had to be a "racially pure" Aryan. Party members could not be related either directly or indirectly to a so-called "non-Aryan". Even before it had become legally forbidden by the Nuremberg Laws in 1935, the Nazis banned sexual relations and marriages between party members and Jews. Party members found guilty of Rassenschande ("racial defilement") were persecuted heavily, some members were even sentenced to death.
The first German concentration camps were established in 1933 for the confinement of opponents of the Nazi Party—Communists and Social Democrats. Political opposition soon was enlarged to include minority groups, chiefly Jews, but by the end of World War II many Roma, homosexuals, and anti-Nazi civilians from the occupied territories had also been liquidated. After the outbreak of World War II the camp inmates were used as a supplementary labour supply, and such camps mushroomed throughout Europe. Inmates were required to work for their wages in food; those unable to work usually died of starvation, and those who did not starve often died of overwork. The most shocking extension of this system was the establishment after 1940 of extermination centres, or “death camps.” They were located primarily in Poland, which Adolf Hitler had selected as the setting for his “final solution” to the “Jewish problem.” The most notorious were Auschwitz, Majdanek, and Treblinka. (See extermination camp.) At some camps, notably Buchenwald, medical experimentation was conducted. New toxins and antitoxins were tried out, new surgical techniques devised, and studies made of the effects of artificially induced diseases, all by experimenting on living human beings.
By 1944 over a half million women served as auxiliaries in the German armed forces. The number of women in paid employment only increased by 271,000 (1.8 percent) from 1939 to 1944. As the production of consumer goods had been cut back, women left those industries for employment in the war economy. They also took jobs formerly held by men, especially on farms and in family-owned shops.
When the Italian invasion of Ethiopia led to only mild protests by the British and French governments, on 7 March 1936 Hitler used the Franco-Soviet Treaty of Mutual Assistance as a pretext to order the army to march 3,000 troops into the demilitarised zone in the Rhineland in violation of the Versailles Treaty. As the territory was part of Germany, the British and French governments did not feel that attempting to enforce the treaty was worth the risk of war. In the one-party election held on 29 March, the NSDAP received 98.9 percent support. In 1936, Hitler signed an Anti-Comintern Pact with Japan and a non-aggression agreement with Mussolini, who was soon referring to a "Rome-Berlin Axis".
Nazi ideology advocated excluding women from political involvement and confining them to the spheres of "Kinder, Küche, Kirche" (Children, Kitchen, Church). Many women enthusiastically supported the regime, but formed their own internal hierarchies. Hitler's own opinion on the matter of women in Nazi Germany was that while other eras of German history had experienced the development and liberation of the female mind, the National Socialist goal was essentially singular in that it wished for them to produce a child. Based on this theme, Hitler once remarked about women that "with every child that she brings into the world, she fights her battle for the nation. The man stands up for the Volk, exactly as the woman stands up for the family". Proto-natalist programs in Nazi Germany offered favourable loans and grants to newlyweds and encouraged them to give birth to offspring by providing them with additional incentives. Contraception was discouraged for racially valuable women in Nazi Germany and abortion was forbidden by strict legal mandates, including prison sentences for women who sought them as well as prison sentences for doctors who performed them, whereas abortion for racially "undesirable" persons was encouraged.
Nazi, the informal and originally derogatory term for a party member, abbreviates the party's name (Nationalsozialist German pronunciation: [natsi̯oˈnaːlzotsi̯aˌlɪst]), and was coined in analogy with Sozi (pronounced [ˈzoːtsiː]), an abbreviation of Sozialdemokrat (member of the rival Social Democratic Party of Germany). Members of the party referred to themselves as Nationalsozialisten (National Socialists), rarely as Nazis. The term Parteigenosse (party member) was commonly used among Nazis, with its corresponding feminine form Parteigenossin.
By the end of the war, the number of people who had died in the concentration camps, from all causes—starvation, sickness, exhaustion, beating, shooting, gassing—was more than eight hundred thousand. The figure does not include the hundreds of thousands of Jews gassed on arrival at Auschwitz. If the K.L. were indeed a battlefront, as the Death’s-Head S.S. liked to believe, the deaths, in the course of twelve years, roughly equalled the casualties sustained by the Axis during the Battle of Stalingrad, among the deadliest actual engagements of the war. But in the camps the Nazis fought against helpless enemies. Considered as prisons, too, the K.L. were paradoxical: it was impossible to correct or rehabilitate people whose very nature, according to Nazi propaganda, was criminal or sick. And as economic institutions they were utterly counterproductive, wasting huge numbers of lives even as the need for workers in Germany became more and more acute.
Stos said he survived by making himself useful. Prisoners had a better chance of staying alive if they worked under a roof—in a kitchen or an administration building—or had a skill, such as training in medicine or engineering, that made them hard to replace. “The hunger was hellish, and if you could work you could get something to eat,” Stos said. Having grown up in the countryside, he could do a little bit of everything, from pouring concrete to cutting grass. I pressed him for details of his time in the camp, but he spoke only of the work. “I had eight different professions at Auschwitz,” he said. “I knew how to take care of myself. I avoided the worst of it.”
The Nazis claimed that communism was dangerous to the well-being of nations because of its intention to dissolve private property, its support of class conflict, its aggression against the middle class, its hostility towards small business and its atheism. Nazism rejected class conflict-based socialism and economic egalitarianism, favouring instead a stratified economy with social classes based on merit and talent, retaining private property and the creation of national solidarity that transcends class distinction. Historians Ian Kershaw and Joachim Fest argue that in post–World War I Germany, the Nazis were one of many nationalist and fascist political parties contending for the leadership of Germany's anti-communist movement.
Between 1940 and 1942, the French interned Jewish refugee families fleeing Nazi oppression elsewhere in Europe in Rivesaltes for the same reason. Lists of those incarcerated include a transport of Czech Jewish children: Brothers Salomon and Abraham Davidovic were 13 and 14 when they arrived. Conditions deteriorated. Directors complained in 1941 of no heat. Illness spread. Babies and the elderly died. The situation worsened when the Nazi-puppet Vichy regime assumed control of the camp in 1942 and began deporting its 7,000 foreign Jewish refugee prisoners to the gas chambers of Auschwitz. There, mothers and children were not separated but instead went to their deaths together.
The Auschwitz registry (Hauptbücher) shows that 20,946 Roma were registered prisoners, and another 3,000 are thought to have entered unregistered. On 22 March 1943, one transport of 1,700 Polish Sinti and Roma was gassed on arrival because of illness, as was a second group of 1,035 on 25 May 1943. The SS tried to liquidate the camp on 16 May 1944, but the Roma fought them, armed with knives and iron pipes, and the SS retreated. Shortly after this, the SS removed nearly 2,908 from the family camp to work, and on 2 August 1944 gassed the other 2,897. Ten thousand remain unaccounted for.
The lead editors of the Encyclopedia of Camps and Ghettos, 1933–1945 of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, Geoffrey Megargee and Martin Dean, cataloged some 42,500 Nazi ghettos and camps throughout Europe, spanning German-controlled areas from France to Russia and Germany itself, operating from 1933 to 1945. They estimate that 15 million to 20 million people died or were imprisoned in the sites.