Before the start of World War II, around 9.5 million Jewish people lived in Europe. By the time the war ended, the Nazis had killed 6 million European Jews in concentration camps, or pogroms, or ghettos, or mass executions in what we refer to today as the Holocaust. The Nazis used the term Endlösung, or Final Solution, as the “answer” to the “Jewish question.” But when did this monstrous plan get put in motion?
In his 1983 book, Popular Opinion and Political Dissent in the Third Reich, Ian Kershaw examined the Alltagsgeschichte (history of everyday life) in Bavaria during the Nazi period. The most common viewpoint of Bavarians was indifference towards what was happening to the Jews, he wrote. Most Bavarians were vaguely aware of the genocide, but they were vastly more concerned about the war. Kershaw argued that "the road to Auschwitz was built by hate, but paved with indifference". His assessment faced criticism from historians Otto Dov Kulka and Michael Kater. Kater maintained that Kershaw had downplayed the extent of popular antisemitism. Although most of the "spontaneous" antisemitic actions of Nazi Germany had been staged, Kater argued that these had involved substantial numbers of Germans, and therefore it was wrong to view the extreme antisemitism of the Nazis as coming solely from above. Kulka argued that "passive complicity" would be a better term than "indifference". Focusing on the views of Germans opposed to the Nazi regime, the German historian Christof Dipper, in his essay "Der Deutsche Widerstand und die Juden" (1983), argued that the majority of the anti-Nazi national-conservatives were antisemitic. No one in the German resistance supported the Holocaust, but Dipper wrote that the national conservatives did not intend to restore civil rights to the Jews after the planned overthrow of Hitler.
According to psychologist Eva Fogelman “Rescuers’ families nourished an independence of mind and spirit. … In talking with rescuers from all kinds of different homes, I found that one quality above all others was emphasized time and again: a familial acceptance of people who were different. This value was the centrepiece of the childhood of rescuers and became the core from which their rescuer self evolved. From the earliest ages, rescuers were taught by their parents that people are inextricably linked to one another. No one person or group was better than any other. The conviction that all people, no matter how marginal, are of equal value was conveyed to children of both religious and nonreligious households.” Fogelman is the daughter of a Holocaust survivor and founder of the Jewish Foundation for Christian Rescuers.
If only Anne Frank's diary was the figment of someone's imagination. If it meant that this spirited, intelligent and articulate girl hadn't died along with so many others in Belsen concentration camp, and that the holocaust had never happened, that would be a wonderful thing, but it did happen, and that makes the reading of this diary even more heartbreaking.
Mengele firmly endorsed Nazi racial theory and engaged in a wide spectrum of experiments which aimed to illustrate the lack of resistance among Jews or Roma to various diseases. He also attempted to demonstrate the “degeneration” of Jewish and “Gypsy” blood through the documentation of physical oddities and the collection and harvesting of tissue samples and body parts. Many of his “test subjects” died as a result of the experimentation or were murdered in order to facilitate post-mortem examination.
Even before the Nazis came to power in Germany in 1933, they had made no secret of their anti-Semitism. As early as 1919 Adolf Hitler had written, “Rational anti-Semitism, however, must lead to systematic legal opposition.…Its final objective must unswervingly be the removal of the Jews altogether.” In Mein Kampf (“My Struggle”; 1925–27), Hitler further developed the idea of the Jews as an evil race struggling for world domination. Nazi anti-Semitism was rooted in religious anti-Semitism and enhanced by political anti-Semitism. To this the Nazis added a further dimension: racial anti-Semitism. Nazi racial ideology characterized the Jews as Untermenschen (German: “subhumans”). The Nazis portrayed the Jews as a race and not as a religious group. Religious anti-Semitism could be resolved by conversion, political anti-Semitism by expulsion. Ultimately, the logic of Nazi racial anti-Semitism led to annihilation.
As the unsuspecting people were herded off the train and ordered into separate lines, SS officers shouted in German, "Zwillinge!" (Twins!). Parents were forced to make a quick decision. Unsure of their situation, already being separated from family members when forced to form lines, seeing barbed wire, smelling an unfamiliar stench -- was it good or bad to be a twin?
On October 23, 1941, S.S. head Heinrich Himmler issued an order down the Nazi chain of command which heralded a major change in Nazi policy with respect to the “Jewish problem.” Until then, the Nazis worked vigorously to encourage Jews to emigrate. The Madagascar Plan (see below) was one example of strategies which were formulated to remove Jews from Germany and its occupied lands. As is described in more detail in Chapter 11, many countries refused to accept Jewish refugees. This shift in policy resulted in the deportation of Jews to camps and ghettos in the East. The policy to “resettle” Jews to these ghettos and camps was a significant step in what was to become the “Final Solution” the systematic murder of millions of Jews.
Timothy Snyder writes that Longerich "grants the significance of Greiser's murder of Jews by gas at Chełmno in December 1941", but also detects a significant moment of escalation in spring 1942, which includes "the construction of the large death factory at Treblinka for the destruction of the Warsaw Jews, and the addition of a gas chamber to the concentration camp at Auschwitz for the murder of the Jews of Silesia". Longerich suggests that it "was only in the summer of 1942, that mass killing was finally understood as the realization of the Final Solution, rather than as an extensively violent preliminary to some later program of slave labor and deportation to the lands of a conquered USSR". For Longerich, to see mass killing as the Final Solution was an acknowledgement by the Nazi leadership that there would not be a German military victory over the USSR in the near future.
"For the survivor who chooses to testify, it is clear: his duty is to bear witness for the dead and the living. He has no right to deprive future generations of a past that belongs to our collective memory. To forget would be not only dangerous but offensive; to forget the dead would be akin to killing them a second time. The witness has forced himself to testify. For the youth of today, for the children who will be born tomorrow. He does not want his past to become their future." Elie Wiesel, Night, Preface to the New Translation (New York: Hill and Wang, c2006), page xv.
In October 1939 Hitler signed a "euthanasia decree" backdated to 1 September 1939 that authorized Reichsleiter Philipp Bouhler, the chief of Hitler's Chancellery, and Karl Brandt, Hitler's personal physician, to carry out a program of involuntary "euthanasia"; after the war this program was named Aktion T4. It was named after Tiergartenstraße 4, the address of a villa in the Berlin borough of Tiergarten, where the various organizations involved were headquartered. T4 was mainly directed at adults, but the "euthanasia" of children was also carried out. Between 1939 and 1941, 80,000 to 100,000 mentally ill adults in institutions were killed, as were 5,000 children and 1,000 Jews, also in institutions. In addition there were specialized killing centres, where the deaths were estimated at 20,000, according to Georg Renno, the deputy director of Schloss Hartheim, one of the "euthanasia" centers, or 400,000, according to Frank Zeireis, the commandant of the Mauthausen concentration camp. Overall, the number of mentally and physically handicapped murdered was about 150,000.
Meanwhile, sightings of Josef Mengele were being reported all over the world. Wiesenthal claimed to have information that placed Mengele on the Greek island of Kythnos in 1960, in Cairo in 1961, in Spain in 1971, and in Paraguay in 1978, eighteen years after he had left the country. He insisted as late as 1985 that Mengele was still alive—six years after he had died—having previously offered a reward of US$100,000 in 1982 for the fugitive's capture. Worldwide interest in the case was heightened by a mock trial held in Jerusalem in February 1985, featuring the testimonies of over one hundred victims of Mengele's experiments. Shortly afterwards, the West German, Israeli, and U.S. governments launched a coordinated effort to determine Mengele's whereabouts. The West German and Israeli governments offered rewards for his capture, as did The Washington Times and the Simon Wiesenthal Center.
It is not known when Hitler formed the intention of the “final solution of the Jewish question” on the scale of the European continent. The conference in Wannsee on January 20, 1942 considered only the details of the undertaking: the methods for organizing the deportation and ensuring the cooperation of the civilian administration. Overall, the plans called for the murder of 11 million Jews living in Germany, the occupied territory, the states opposed to the Third Reich, and the allied and neutral countries.
For the first time, camps were created specifically for Jews. Their conditions were far worse than other camps. The implicit intention was that the inmates would die there. Increasing numbers of Jews in Poland were relocated in ghettos. Non-Jewish Poles were also deported from their farms and villages to make room for ‘pure’ ethnic Germans to populate the new territory.
On April 16, 1945 Soviets surrounded Berlin, Germany’s capital. When the Soviets began advancing towards the Reich Chancellery, Hitler committed suicide on April 30, 1945. Then on May 7th, Germany surrendered to the Western Allies in Reims, France and a few days later to the Soviets in Berlin. All told more than 60 million people, or about 3% of the world’s population at the time, were killed during the course of the Second World War.
He was capable of being so kind to the children, to have them become fond of him, to bring them sugar, to think of small details in their daily lives, and to do things we would genuinely admire ... And then, next to that, ... the crematoria smoke, and these children, tomorrow or in a half-hour, he is going to send them there. Well, that is where the anomaly lay.