The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum defines the Holocaust as the "systematic, bureaucratic, state-sponsored persecution and murder of six million Jews by the Nazi regime and its collaborators", distinguishing between the Holocaust and the targeting of other groups during "the era of the Holocaust". According to Yad Vashem, Israel's Holocaust memorial, most historians regard the start of the "Holocaust era" as January 1933, when Hitler was named Chancellor of Germany. Other victims of the Holocaust era include those viewed as inferior, including for reasons of race or ethnicity (such as the Roma, ethnic Poles, Russians, and the disabled); and those targeted because of their beliefs or behavior (such as Jehovah's Witnesses, communists, and homosexuals). Hitler came to see the Jews as "uniquely dangerous to Germany", according to Peter Hayes, "and therefore uniquely destined to disappear completely from the Reich and all territories subordinate to it". The persecution and murder of other groups was much less consistent. For example, he writes, the Nazis regarded the Slavs as "sub-human", but their treatment consisted of "enslavement and gradual attrition", while "some Slavs—Slovaks, Croats, Bulgarians, some Ukrainians—[were] allotted a favored place in Hitler's New Order".
These are notions that are hard to swallow—so they have not been swallowed. There are some, bored beyond toleration and callous enough to admit it, who are sick of hearing—yet again!—about depredations fifty years gone. “These old events,” one of these fellows may complain, “can rake you over only so much. If I’m going to be lashed, I might as well save my skin for more recent troubles in the world.” (I quote from a private letter from a distinguished author.) The more common response respectfully discharges an obligation to pity: it is dutiful. Or it is sometimes less than dutiful. It is sometimes frivolous, or indifferent, or presumptuous. But what even the most exemplary sympathies are likely to evade is the implacable recognition that Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen, however sacramentally prodded, can never yield light.
“We had big gaps in our knowledge because most of the documentation about how the genocide was carried out on the ground was captured by the Soviet Red Army and wasn’t available until after the Cold War,” says White. The fall of the Soviet Union led to a feast of wartime bureaucratic records, allowing historians to realize how much leeway Nazi officials were given. It became readily clear that the number of Nazis involved in enacting the Final Solution was much larger than previously believed.
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.
Half a year later, Harel was replaced by Meir Amit, who ordered the Mossad to “stop chasing after ghosts from the past and devote all our manpower and resources to threats against the security of the state.” He mandated that the agency deal with Nazis “only to the extent it is able to do so, in addition to its principal missions” and as long as “it doesn’t impinge on the other operations.”
In the autumn of 1941, SS chief Heinrich Himmler assigned German General Odilo Globocnik (SS and police leader for the Lublin District) with the implementation of a plan to systematically murder the Jews of the Generalgouvernement. The code name Operation Reinhard was eventually given to this plan, named after Heydrich (who was assassinated by Czech partisans in May 1942). As part of Operation Reinhard, Nazi leaders established three killing centers in Poland—Belzec, Sobibor, and Treblinka—with the sole purpose of the mass murder of Jews.
Alone and against seemingly impossible odds, Jewish men and women struck back on occasion. In April 1943, Jews in the Warsaw Ghetto staged an armed battle against SS troops lasting five weeks. In October 1943, nearly 300 Jews and Soviet POWs overpowered guards and broke out of Sobibor death camp, which was then shut down by the SS. A year later, a revolt by Jewish slave laborers at Auschwitz-Birkenau resulted in the destruction of one of the main gas chamber-crematories. Elsewhere, Jews who eluded capture became partisans, particularly in Russia, where some 30,000 Jews fought alongside the Soviets to disrupt Hitler's armies.
German mobile killing squads, called special duty units (Einsatzgruppen), are assigned to kill Jews during the invasion of the Soviet Union. These squads follow the German army as it advances deep into Soviet territory, and carry out mass-murder operations. At first, the mobile killing squads shoot primarily Jewish men. Soon, wherever the mobile killing squads go, they shoot all Jewish men, women, and children, without regard for age or gender. By the spring of 1943, the mobile killing squads will have killed more than a million Jews and tens of thousands of partisans, Roma (Gypsies), and Soviet political officials.
In June 1941, Mengele was posted to Ukraine, where he was awarded the Iron Cross 2nd Class. In January 1942, he joined the 5th SS Panzer Division Wiking as a battalion medical officer. After rescuing two German soldiers from a burning tank, he was decorated with the Iron Cross 1st Class, the Wound Badge in Black, and the Medal for the Care of the German People. He was declared unfit for further active service in mid-1942, when he was seriously wounded in action near Rostov-on-Don. Following his recovery, he was transferred to the headquarters of the SS Race and Settlement Main Office in Berlin, at which point he resumed his association with von Verschuer, who was now director of the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute of Anthropology, Human Heredity, and Eugenics. Mengele was promoted to the rank of SS-Hauptsturmführer (captain) in April 1943.