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World War II and the Holocaust

The Holocaust was the state-sponsored, systematic persecution and annihilation of European Jewry by Nazi Germany and its collaborators, between 1933 and 1945. Jews were the primary victims - six million were murdered. Roma (Gypsies), physically and mentally disabled people and Poles were also targeted for destruction or decimation for racial, ethnic, or national reasons. Millions more, including homosexuals, Jehovah's Witnesses, Soviet prisoners of war, and political dissidents also suffered grievous oppression and death under Nazi tyranny.

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The Holocaust was the state-sponsored, systematic persecution and annihilation of European Jewry by Nazi Germany and its collaborators, between 1933 and 1945. Jews were the primary victims - six million were murdered. Roma (Gypsies), physically and mentally disabled people and Poles were also targeted for destruction or decimation for racial, ethnic, or national reasons. Millions more, including homosexuals, Jehovah's Witnesses, Soviet prisoners of war, and political dissidents also suffered grievous oppression and death under Nazi tyranny.

The Nazi Party came to power in Germany in 1933. The Nazis believed that Germans were members of a biologically "superior" race threatened with extinction through the struggle for survival with "inferior" races. They saw Jews, especially, as a biological threat to the "German (Aryan) Race."

Adolf Hitler moved to extend German power in central Europe, annexing Austria and destroying Czechoslovakia in 1938-1939.

In the aftermath of the violence of the Kristallnacht pogroms, the Nazis instituted the first systematic roundups of German and Austrian Jews. They deported approximately 30,000 Jewish men to Dachau and other concentration camps after Kristallnacht.

Germany invaded Poland in September 1939, beginning World War II. Within weeks, the Polish army was defeated. Britain and France declared war on Germany in support of Poland. Under a secret pact with Germany, Soviet forces occupied eastern Poland in 1939, but remained officially neutral in the war until 1941.

The Germans killed or resettled hundreds of thousands of Poles in an effort to create new living space for the "superior Germanic race." German families settled on the vacant properties. German authorities forced the Jewish population into ghettos, areas of cities where the Jews lived in horrendous squalor under German supervision.

During the next two years German forces were victorious, invading Denmark and Norway, the Low Countries (Belgium, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg) and France. As German troops neared Paris in June 1940, Italy - Germany's Axis partner - declared war on Britain and France.

Meanwhile, the Soviet Union attacked Finland, annexed two eastern border provinces from Romania, and occupied the Baltic countries (Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia). Slovakia, Hungary, Romania, and Bulgaria and, later, Finland and Croatia, allied with Germany. In Spring 1941, the Axis allies dismembered Yugoslavia and occupied Greece.

In June 1941, Germany attacked the Soviet Union. German forces advanced deep into Soviet territory. This battle was also an ideological battle. Following German combat units, Mobile Killing Squads (Einsatzgruppen), German Order Police Battalions, and other SS units, supported by units of the German army, slaughtered Jews and other victims in mass shootings. They killed more than 1.5 million Jewish men, women, and children, in mass shootings. German police and military authorities also killed Jews in mass shootings operations in occupied Yugoslavia and Eastern Poland.

Increasing Soviet resistance halted the German advance, preventing the Germans from capturing the key cities of Leningrad and Moscow. A second German offensive in the summer 1942 brought German forces deeper into Soviet territory to the southeast, to the Volga River and into the north Caucasus region.

As the German advance stalled in the east, Germany moved to consolidate its dominance in Europe. They also extended in 1942 the systematic killing of Jews to other territories they controlled or occupied. German SS and police officials established killing centers in German-occupied Poland, where the Jewish population was both relatively numerous and densely settled. They deported Jews there, primarily by rail, from all over German-occupied Europe. Carbon monoxide gas or Zyklon B gas (hydrogen cyanide) were the primary methods of murder.

In late 1942 and early 1943, Soviet forces counterattacked and began liberating territory from German domination. In the west, Allied forces invaded Sicily and the Italian mainland that summer. In June 1944, Allied forces landed in northern France, beginning the liberation of Western Europe. Meanwhile, from the east, Soviet forces reached Germany's eastern borders.

As the Allies forced German troops to retreat, Allied troops began to encounter tens of thousands of concentration camp prisoners. In an effort to prevent large numbers of prisoners from falling into the hands of the Allies, the Germans forced the evacuation of many camps, compelling thousands of prisoners to march into the interior of Germany. Prisoners called these forced marches "death marches."

By the spring of 1945, conditions in the remaining concentration camps exacted a terrible toll in human lives. Overcrowded, filthy, with few supplies, these camps became sites of mass death. Around half of the concentration camp population in January 1945 died before the war's end.

World War II ended in Europe with the unconditional surrender of German armed forces in May 1945. In addition to millions of other victims, Nazi Germany and its collaborators murdered close to two out of every three Jews in Europe. Hundreds of Jewish communities in Europe, some centuries old, disappeared forever in the massive crime we now call the Holocaust.


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  • US Holocaust Memorial Museum

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