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The most notorious event within the broader landscape of the Second World War is without doubt the Holocaust, the name collectively given to the Nazi drive to rid Europe of Jews through mass murder of an entire group of people, which would come to be known as “genocide.”
We have already spoken about the role of radical anti-Semitism in the building of Nazi ideology, the development of the Nazi movement, and the creation of the Nazi state, including the development of the organization of Nazi vanguard, the SS. Just as the invasion of Soviet Russia was not a mistake but a core part of the Nazi war strategy, the attempt to eliminate the Jews was a core piece of the Nazi vision for a future German-dominated Europe. War was, in many respects, a means to this end.
The Holocaust was a vast and incredibly complex series of events—ranging from the mass murder of over one million Jews in the Auschwitz-Birkenau complex in Poland to the removal and deportation of small numbers of Jews from villages in Greece, Italy, Hungary, France, and so on. The murderousness ranged from gas chambers to mobile killing squads to death by forced labor under appalling conditions. The murderers were also manifold: SS sadists, ordinary German police units, members of the German army, foreign collaborators in Croatia, Hungary, Romania, etc. If the number of victims reached about six million, the number of perpetrators and passive bystanders who did nothing to help friends and neighbors was far beyond this. The killing of the Jews was a German program—but it was one that found active support and general apathy throughout the continent. Europeans did precious little to save the Jewish people among them.
For brevity’s sake, we can divide the execution of the Holocaust into five phases. The first phase, which lasted from the 1930s until the invasion of the Soviet Union was one of planning, testing and laying the foundations for genocide. It is during these years that the Nazis implemented regimes of forced sterilization, began the “Action T4” of forced euthanasia, developed the concentration camp system, and systematically marginalized Jews from German society.
The second phase of the Holocaust came with the invasion of the Soviet Union. Armed units of SS were sent in the wake of the German army with the express orders to find and murder Jews. These Einsatzgruppen killed millions of people, including around 1.3 million Jews. These murders were not part of the extermination camp system.
The third phase of the Holocaust was the period of ghettoization and the development of the mass extermination camps in the east. These camps, each a symbol of horror and inhumanity, included Treblinka, Belzec, Sobidor, Majdanek, and Chelmno. These camps operated mostly between 1942 and 1943. By this time, they had succeeded in killing most of the Jews in German occupied eastern territories.
The fourth phase of the Holocaust is its most infamous. By 1944, the camp at Auschwitz-Birkenau was running at full capacity. Auschwitz contained a highly efficient extermination camp (Birkenau) as well as a large forced labor camp that was being used for German industrial production. For the most part, Jews from Western Europe were being deported here to be worked to death or to be killed immediately. Unlike the other extermination camps, which were meant to clear large numbers of Jews from the immediate region and the eastern ghettos, Auschwitz was the receiving point for Jews from a multitude of nations, including France, Holland, Italy, Greece, Czechoslovakia, and of course the hundreds of thousands from Hungary. Auschwitz represented the pinnacle of Nazi destructive capacity and has become shorthand for the Holocaust as a whole, capturing its size, international scope, murderous efficiency, sadism, and even its heroism.
Finally, the fifth phase of the Holocaust was the period of German collapse, which saw the Nazis attempt to retreat from the Auschwitz and other camps into the heart of Germany and destroy evidence of the crimes. The famous “death marches” took place in this short, chaotic period. When the allies liberated camps in Germany, they had little idea that many of the survivors they encountered had been prisoners in the east.