History of the Holocaust

The Holocaust was the systematic, bureaucratic, state-sponsored persecution and murder of approximately six million Jews by the Nazi regime and its collaborators. “Holocaust” is a word of Greek origin meaning “sacrifice by fire.” The Nazis, who came to power in Germany in January 1933, believed that Aryan Germans were superior and that the Jews, deemed inferior, were a “racial threat” to the German people.

During the era of the Holocaust, German authorities also targeted other groups because of their perceived “racial inferiority”: Roma (Gypsies), the disabled, and some Slavic peoples (Poles, Russians, and others). Other groups were persecuted on political, ideological, and behavioral grounds, among them Communists, Socialists, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and homosexuals.

In 1933, the Jewish population in Europe was more than nine million. Most European Jews lived in countries that Nazi Germany would occupy or influence during World War II. By 1945, the Germans and their collaborators had killed nearly two out of every three European Jews as part of the “Final Solution,” - the Nazi policy to murder the Jews of Europe.

As Nazi tyranny spread across Europe, the Germans and their collaborators persecuted and murdered millions of other people including some 200,000 Roma (Gypsies) and a similar number of mentally or physically disabled patients, mainly Germans, living in institutional settings, who were killed as part of the so-called Euthanasia Program. Between two and three million Soviet prisoners of war also were murdered or died of starvation, disease, neglect, or maltreatment as well as non-Jewish Polish intelligentsia. They deported millions of Soviet civilians for forced labor in Germany where these individuals worked and often died under deplorable conditions. The same held true for those in occupied Poland. From the earliest years of the Nazi regime, German authorities persecuted homosexuals and others whose behavior did not match prescribed social norms. German police, party and government officials targeted thousands of political opponents including Communists, Socialists, and trade unionists - indeed indeed they were some of the very first groups to be attacked - as well as those they considered religious dissidents such as Jehovah’s Witnesses. Many of these individuals died as a result of incarceration and maltreatment.

From the very beginning, the National Socialist government established concentration camps to detain these real and imagined political and ideological opponents. They incarcerated Jews, Roma, and other victims of ethnic and racial hatred in these camps. They also established numerous forced-labor camps, both in the so-called Greater German Reich and in German-occupied territory, for those whose labor the Germans sought to exploit.

To concentrate and monitor the much larger Jewish populations that were captured after 1939, as well as to facilitate later deportation of the Jews, the Germans and their collaborators created ghettos and thousands more camps and sub-camps for Jews during the war years.

Following the invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941, Einsatzgruppen (mobile killing units) and, later, militarized battalions of Order Police, moved behind German lines to carry out mass-murder operations mostly against Jews. Some Roma, Soviet state and Communist Party officials also were targeted. German SS and police units, supported by units of the Wehrmacht and the Waffen SS, murdered more than one million Jewish men, women, and children, and large numbers of non-Jews. Between 1941 and 1944, Nazi German authorities deported millions of Jews from Germany, from the occupied territories in the West and the East, and from the countries of many of its Axis allies to specialized killing centers, often called extermination camps, where they were murdered in gas chambers.

In the final months of the war, SS guards moved camp inmates by train and by foot, on what have been called “death marches,” in an attempt to prevent their liberation. As Allied forces moved across Europe in a series of offensives against Germany, they encountered and freed prisoners in camps as well as prisoners marching en route from one place to another. The marches continued until May 7, 1945, the day the German armed forces surrendered unconditionally to the Allies. For the western Allies, World War II officially ended in Europe on the next day, May 8 (V-E Day), while Soviet forces announced their “Victory Day” on May 9, 1945. The estimated number of Jews murdered in the Holocaust is six million.

In the aftermath of the Holocaust, many of the survivors found shelter in displaced persons (DP) camps administered by the Allied powers. Between 1948 and 1951, almost 700,000 Jews emigrated to Israel, including 136,000 Jewish displaced persons from Europe. Other Jewish DPs emigrated to the United States and other nations. The last DP camp closed in 1957. The crimes committed during the Holocaust devastated most European Jewish communities and eliminated thousands of them entirely.

Further Reading

Bergen, Doris. War & Genocide: A Concise History of the Holocaust. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2003
Dawidowicz, Lucy S. The War Against the Jews, 1933-1945. New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1975.
Gilbert, Martin. The Holocaust: A History of the Jews of Europe During the Second World War. New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1986.
Gutman, Israel, editor. Encyclopedia of the Holocaust. New York: Macmillan Publishing Company, 1990.
Hilberg, Raul. The Destruction of the European Jews. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2003.
Yahil, Leni. The Holocaust: The Fate of European Jewry, 1932-1945. New York: Oxford University Press, 1990.


Adapted from The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, Washington, DC. Weblink: