In the late twentieth century, the term Holocaust has come to refer to the extermination (or genocide) of an estimated six million Jews and the mass murder of about five million other civilians by Nazi Germany and other Axis powers in the years leading up to and during World War II. Among the others murdered were homosexuals, communists, and ethnic Roma, Russians, Poles and other Slavs.
Never before in the history of humanity has there been such a large logistic and systematic effort for the sole purpose of extermination of human life. Meticulous notes were kept. One of the main 'coordinators' of the mass deportations was Adolf Eichmann, who managed to escape to Argentina after the war but was later kidnapped by the Israeli Secret Service and sentenced to death in Israel.
Genocide of the Jews
Anti-Semitism was common in Europe in the 1920s and 1930s (though its history extends far back throughout many centuries during the course of Judaism). Hitler's fanatical anti-semitism was laid out in his 1925 book Mein Kampf, which became popular in Germany once he acquired political power.
Jews had long lived in concentrated areas in many cities, and during the first years of World War II ghettos were established in the occupied territories by formalizing the boundaries and restricting movement. These ghettos were meant to be temporary holding pens for Jews until an official policy regarding the Jewish question could be formulated. Concentration camps for Jews and political opponents also existed in Germany itself, and while not specifically designed for extermination, many prisoners died there because of harsh conditions. During the invasion of the Soviet Union over 3,000 special killing units (Einsatzgruppen) followed the Armed Forces and conducted mass killings of the Jewish population that lived on Soviet territory.
In January of 1942, during the Wannsee conference, Nazi leaders agreed on what Nazi ideologists called the "final solution of the Jewish question" (Endlösung der Judenfrage). The Jewish population of the ghettos and from all occupied territories was systematically deported to extermination camps, such as those in Auschwitz and Treblinka. The transport was often carried out under horrifing conditions using cattle cars. Upon arrival, they were divided into two groups: those too weak for work were directly murdered in gas chambers (which were designated as "showers") and their bodies burned, the others were first used for work. The work was either carried out in nearby factories or had to do with the removal of bodies, for instance the extraction of tooth gold from the corpses.
Prior to the Third Reich, Berlin was considered a liberal city, with many gay bars, nightclubs and cabarets. There were even many drag bars where tourists straight and gay would enjoy female impersonation acts. And there had been a fairly significant gay rights movement under Magnus Hirschfeld around the turn of the century.
In some ways the Nazis seemed conflicted on the subject of homosexuality. Nazi ideology was that homosexuality was incompatible with National Socialism because homosexuals did not reproduce and perpetuate the Master Race. But while the stereotype they propogated of the limp-wristed pansy was incompatible with their image of the ideal Aryan, the Chief of Staff of the SA, Ernst Rohm was homosexual. Hitler seemed quite willing to overlook homosexuality where it suited him.
When Hitler decided the SA had to be disbanded, Hitler ordered Rohm and several other SA chiefs killed, along with hundreds of others in a purge known as the Night of the Long Knives (June 30, 1934). Rohm's murder was undoubtedly based on political motivations and not his sexual orientation, but his orientation was given as justification.
Also in 1934, shortly after the purge, a special division of the Gestapo was instituted to compile lists of known homosexuals. In 1936, Heinrich Himmler, Chief of the SS, created the "Reich Central Office for the Combatting of Homosexuality and Abortion".
Himmler had initially been a supporter of Rohm, arguing that the charges against him were manufactured by Jews. But after the purge, Himmler became very active in the suppression of homosexuality. He exclaimed, "We must exterminate these people root and branch... the homosexual must be eliminated" (Plant, 1986, p. 99).
Estimates vary wildly as to the number of homosexuals murdered. They range from as low as 100,000 to as high as 600,000. One reason for the wide variance is whether the researcher counted people who were both Jewish and homosexual.
Please complete information about the way the campaigns against the other groups were carried out. They were each unique in some ways.
To identify prisoners in the camps according to their "offense", they were required to wear colored triangles on their clothing. The colors were:
- Yellow: Jews -- two overlaid to form a Star of David, with the word "Jew" inscribed
- Red: political dissidents, including communists
- Green: ordinary criminals
- Purple: Jehovah's Witnesses
- Blue: Emigrants
- Brown: Roma, i.e., "Gypsies"
- Black: Lesbians and "anti-socials"
- Pink: Gay men
A major issue in contemporary Holocaust studies is the question of functionalism versus intentionalism. Intentionalists argue that the Holocaust was planned by Hitler from the very beginning. Functionalists hold that the Holocaust was started in 1942 as a result of the failure of the Nazi deportation policy and the impending military losses in Russia. They claim that extermination fantasies outlined in Hitler's Mein Kampf and other Nazi literature were mere propaganda and did not constitute concrete plans.
Another controversy was started by the historian Daniel Goldhagen, who argues that ordinary Germans were knowing and willing participants in the Holocaust, which has its roots in a deep eliminative German anti-semitism. Others claim that while anti-semitism undeniably existed in Germany, the extermination was unknown to many and had to be enforced by the dictatorial Nazi apparatus.
Revisionism and criticism
Some Neo-Nazi groups, and others, have sought to deny that the Holocaust ever occurred, or to sanitize it. Due to the extremely rapid collapse of the Nazi forces at the end of the war, however, they were unsuccessful for the most part in destroying their documents. After their defeat, many tons of documents were recovered, and many thousands of bodies were found not yet completely decomposed, in mass graves near many concentration camps. The physical evidence and the documentary proof, which included records of train shipments of Jews to the camps, orders for tons of cyanide and other poisons, and other explicit details of how the genocide was pursued. Therefore, these revisionist views are rejected by all serious historians of the period. See Holocaust revisionism for details.
Recently the term Holocaust industry has been used to criticize the insistence of Jewish leaders to remember the Holocaust as an attempt to further financial and political interests.
Origin and use of the term
The word 'Holocaust', from the Greek word holokauston meaning a burnt sacrifice offered to God, originally referred to a sacrifice Jews were required to make by the Torah, and later to large scale catastrophes or massacres. While nowadays the term 'Holocaust' usually refers to the above-mentioned large-scale genocide of Jews, it may also refer to the murder of other groups carried out by Nazis in their extermination camps, for instance Roma and Sinti, Jehovah's Witnesses, homosexuals, communists and various Slavic races.
Many Jewish scholars prefer the term Shoah, a Hebrew word meaning "Desolation", as the preferred term for the Jewish genocide as they feel that "Holocaust" has lost much of its significance through overuse.
- Raul Hilbert, Perpetrators, Victims, Bystanders: The Jewish Catastrophe 1933-1945, HarperCollins Publishers, 1992
- John V. H. Dippel, Bound Upon a Wheel of Fire: Why so many German Jews made the tragic decision to remain in Nazi Germany, Basic Books, 1996.
- Daniel J. Goldhagen, Hitler's Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust, New York: Knopf, 1996
- Norman G. Finkelstein, Ruth Bettina Birn, A nation on trial: the Goldhagen thesis and historical truth, Owl books, 1998. Criticizes Goldhagen's methods and theses.
- Martin Gilbert, Auschwitz and the Allies, Henry Holt and Company, 1982. A devastating account of how the Allies responded to the news of Hitler's mass-murder.
- Karl A. Schleunes, The Twisted Road to Auschwitz: Nazi Policy Toward German Jews, 1933-1939. Urbana: University of Illinois, 1990. An argument for functionalism.
- Deborah Lipstadt, Denying the Holocaust: The Growing Assault on Truth and Memory, Plume (The Penguin Group), 1994.