Hitler’s worldview revolved around two concepts: territorial expansion (that is, greater Lebensraum—“living space”—for the German people) and racial supremacy. After World War I the Allies denied Germany colonies in Africa, so Hitler sought to expand German territory and secure food and resources—scarce during World War I—in Europe itself. Hitler viewed the Jews as racial polluters, a cancer on German society in what has been termed by Holocaust survivor and historian Saul Friedländer “redemptive anti-Semitism,” focused on redeeming Germany from its ills and ridding it of a cancer on the body politic. Historian Timothy Snyder characterized the struggle as even more elemental, as “zoological,” and “ecological,” a struggle of the species. Hitler opposed Jews for the values they brought into the world. Social justice and compassionate assistance to the weak stood in the way of what he perceived as the natural order, in which the powerful exercise unrestrained power. In Hitler’s view, such restraint on the exercise of power would inevitably lead to the weakening, even the defeat, of the master race.
Deportation was the first step in the “Final Solution.” Typically, the Jews were informed that they were going to be resettled for work. Each was told to take some clothing, blankets, shoes, eating utensils (but no knife), a bowl, and some money. Rounded up, they were herded into trucks for the trip to the rail station, or were forced to walk. The rail cars were often strategically located at a distance from the passenger terminals, so that this scene would not arouse the ire of the local populace. Many who did see chose not to protest.
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.
In the first few decades after the Holocaust, scholars argued that it was unique as a genocide in its reach and specificity. This began to change in the 1980s during the West German Historikerstreit ("historians' dispute"), an attempt to re-position the Holocaust within German historiography. Ernst Nolte triggered the dispute in June 1986 with an article in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung: "Vergangenheit, die nicht vergehen will: Eine Rede, die geschrieben, aber nicht mehr gehalten werden konnte" ("The past that will not pass: A speech that could be written but not delivered"), in which he compared Auschwitz to the Gulag and suggested that the Holocaust was a response to Hitler's fear of the Soviet Union: "Was the Bolshevik murder of an entire class not the logical and factual prius of the 'racial murder' of National Socialism? ... Was the source of Auschwitz a past that would not go away?"[aa]
According to the drawings done by Walter Dejaco, one of the architects of the Krema II building, the original blueprint showed a corpse slide for rolling bodies down into the vestibule between the two morgues, which were later converted into an undressing room and a gas chamber. The corpse slide was never built. Dejaco was acquitted by a court in Austria in 1972; at his trial, the drawings of the corpse slide were entered as evidence. (The morgue at the Sachsenhausen camp has a corpse slide which can still be seen today.)
Being a twin, regardless of age, meant survival in 1944. Some 3,000 children (or about 1,500 sets of twins) were selected for the experiments. They were not terrified of him but rather they were often intimidated by some of what he did. They knew of his temper and his passion for his work. Yet, they were also aware of his role in their survival. "Being on Mengele’s list was better than being on no list," said Eva Mozes Kor.
Resistance movements also helped Jews. Sometimes, this aid was intended to help the Jews; often it was rendered in the context of the general anti-Nazi resistance. In Yugoslavia, Serbian partisans attacked a concentration camp near Nish in 1941, freeing a small number of Jews. On April 19, 1943, the Committee for Jewish Defense, aided by Christian railroad workers, attacked a Belgian transport leaving Malines for Auschwitz. Several hundred Jewish deportees escaped with the help of the Belgian resistance.
Pogroms occurred in several countries occupied by, or supportive of, Germany, attacks that were both encouraged by the Germans and carried out without their involvement. Thousands of Jews were killed in January and June 1941 in the Bucharest pogrom and Iaşi pogrom in Romania, a German ally. According to a 2004 report written by Tuvia Friling and others, up to 14,850 Jews died during the Iaşi pogrom. The Romanian military killed up to 25,000 Jews in Odessa, then under Romanian control, between 18 October 1941 and March 1942, assisted by gendarmes and the police. Mihai Antonescu, Romania's deputy prime minister, is reported as saying it was "the most favorable moment in our history" to solve the "Jewish problem". In July 1941 he said it was time for "total ethnic purification, for a revision of national life, and for purging our race of all those elements which are foreign to its soul, which have grown like mistletoes and darken our future".
The mass killings of Jews in the occupied Soviet territories were assigned to four SS formations called Einsatzgruppen ("task groups"), which were under Heydrich's overall command. Similar formations had been used to a limited extent in Poland in 1939, but the ones operating in the Soviet territories were much larger. The Einsatzgruppen's commanders were ordinary citizens: the great majority were professionals and most were intellectuals. By the winter of 1941–1942, the four Einsatzgruppen and their helpers had killed almost 500,000 people. The largest massacre of Jews by the mobile killing squads in the Soviet Union was at a ravine called Babi Yar outside Kiev, where 33,771 Jews were killed in a single operation on 29–30 September 1941.[n] A mixture of SS and Security Police, assisted by Ukrainian police, carried out the killings. Although they did not actively participate in the killings, men of the German 6th Army helped round up the Jews of Kiev and transport them to be shot. By the end of the war, around two million are thought to have been victims of the Einsatzgruppen and their helpers in the local population and the German Army. Of those, about 1.3 million were Jews and up to a quarter of a million Roma.
The Nuremberg trials were a series of military tribunals, held by the Allied forces after World War II in Nuremberg, Germany, to prosecute prominent members of the political, military, and economic leadership of Nazi Germany. The first of these trials was the 1945–1946 trial of the major war criminals before the International Military Tribunal (IMT). This tribunal tried 22 political and military leaders of the Third Reich, except for Adolf Hitler, Heinrich Himmler, and Joseph Goebbels, all of whom had committed suicide several months before.
In May 1960, Isser Harel, director of Mossad (the Israeli intelligence agency), personally led the successful effort to capture Adolf Eichmann in Buenos Aires. He was also hoping to track down Mengele, so that he too could be brought to trial in Israel. Under interrogation, Eichmann provided the address of a boarding house that had been used as a safe house for Nazi fugitives. Surveillance of the house did not reveal Mengele or any members of his family, and the neighborhood postman claimed that although Mengele had recently been receiving letters there under his real name, he had since relocated without leaving a forwarding address. Harel's inquiries at a machine shop where Mengele had been part owner also failed to generate any leads, so he was forced to abandon the search.
The biblical term shoah (Hebrew: שׁוֹאָה), meaning "destruction", became the standard Hebrew term for the murder of the European Jews, first used in a pamphlet in 1940, Sho'at Yehudei Polin ("Sho'ah of Polish Jews"), published by the United Aid Committee for the Jews in Poland. On 3 October 1941 the cover of the magazine The American Hebrew used the phrase "before the Holocaust", apparently to refer to the situation in France, and in May 1943 The New York Times, discussing the Bermuda Conference, referred to the "hundreds of thousands of European Jews still surviving the Nazi Holocaust". In 1968 the Library of Congress created a new category, "Holocaust, Jewish (1939–1945)". The term was popularized in the United States by the NBC mini-series Holocaust (1978), about a fictional family of German Jews, and in November 1978 the President's Commission on the Holocaust was established. As non-Jewish groups began to include themselves as Holocaust victims too, many Jews chose to use the terms Shoah or Churban instead.[g] The Nazis used the phrase "Final Solution to the Jewish Question" (German: die Endlösung der Judenfrage).
Mengele assembled hundreds of pairs of twins and sometimes spent hours measuring various parts of their bodies and taking careful notes. He often injected one twin with mysterious substances and monitored the illness that ensued. He applied painful clamps to children’s limbs to induce gangrene, injected dye into their eyes – which were then shipped back to a pathology lab in Germany – and gave them spinal taps.
Despite the Vatican failure to act, many priests, nuns, and laymen hid Jews in monasteries, convents, schools, and hospitals and protected them with false baptismal certificates. However, as Saul Friedlander’s memoirs show, many Catholic priests proselytized and converted their “guests.” Moreover, after the war, many Jewish children were never returned to Jewish families, even after lengthy court battles.
When an outbreak of noma (a gangrenous bacterial disease of the mouth and face) struck the Romani camp in 1943, Mengele initiated a study to determine the cause of the disease and develop a treatment. He enlisted the assistance of prisoner Dr. Berthold Epstein, a Jewish pediatrician and professor at Prague University. The patients were isolated in a separate barracks and several afflicted children were killed so that their preserved heads and organs could be sent to the SS Medical Academy in Graz and other facilities for study. This research was still ongoing when the Romani camp was liquidated and its remaining occupants killed in 1944.