Who were the Victims?
The Nazi regime persecuted different groups on ideological grounds. Jews were the primary targets for systematic persecution and mass murder by the Nazis and their collaborators. Nazi policies also led to the brutalization and persecution of millions of others. Nazi policies towards all the victim groups were brutal, but not identical.
Some were targeted as threats to Germany for racial reasons, such as Europe’s Jews and Roma (Gypsies). People with disabilities were viewed as biological threats and financial burdens on the state.
Nazi authorities claimed that some Germans represented a danger to the “national community.” This included political opponents, gay men, “asocials,” and Jehovah’s Witnesses.
After the outbreak of World War II, the number of victim groups expanded to include Poles, Soviet prisoners of war, Soviet citizens, and others.
Who Were the Victims of the Holocaust?
All the Jews of Europe were systematically targeted for murder by the Nazi regime. The Nazis considered Jews a “mortal threat” to the German “race.”
Two-thirds, or six million, of Europe’s Jews were killed by Nazi Germany and its collaborators.
What Other Groups did the Nazis Target and Why?
The Roma and Sinti were viewed by the Nazis as the “Gypsy nuisance,” a racially “inferior” people with criminal habits. Between 250,000 and 500,000 Roma from across Europe were killed.
Germans with mental and physical disabilities were considered a burden on German society and the state. Approximately 250,000 people were killed in the so-called Euthanasia Program dedicated to eliminiating this perceived problem.
Poles were viewed as “subhuman” Slavs. They suffered a brutal German occupation. Tens of thousands of members of the Polish elites were killed or imprisoned as potential leaders of the Polish resistance.
Captured Soviet soldiers were viewed as “subhuman” Slavs. The Nazis believed they were linked to the “Judeo-Bolshevik threat.” 3.3 million Soviet soldiers died in executions or through intentional starvation and mistreatment.
Several other groups were targeted. These included real and suspected political opponents, Jehovah’s Witnesses, gay men and men accused of homosexuality, and persons considered to be “asocial.” They were among the hundreds of thousands of victims who were imprisoned and killed in concentration camps. They died from starvation, disease, overwork, mistreatment, or outright murder.
The Destruction of Europe’s Jews in the Holocaust
Jews were not only viewed in Nazi ideology as alien and biologically “subhuman.” They were also considered to be a “mortal enemy.” The Nazis believed that Jews were harmful to the strength and purity of the German race. In the Nazis’ view, Jews needed to be destroyed to ensure the long-term survival of “German-blooded” people. In the 1930s, this meant the forced emigration of Jews from Germany and annexed Austria. Efforts evolved during World War II. Throughout the war, millions more Jews came under German control. Anti-Jewish policy evolved into mass murder, then systematic genocide. Not only German Jews, but all Jewish men, women, and children who came within Nazi Germany’s reach were systematically targeted for murder. This measure was referred to as the “Final Solution to the Jewish Question in Europe.”
Jews had lived throughout Europe for centuries before the Nazis came to power. In September 1939, World War II began. At that time, Jews lived in 20 countries where Nazi officials and collaborators would seek to kill Jews during the war. Two-thirds, or six million, of Europe’s Jews were murdered by Nazi Germany and its collaborators. This total includes approximately 1.5 million children, from newborn infants to 17-year olds. About 75%, or 4.5 million, of all Jews killed lived in Poland, the Soviet Union, and other eastern European lands. For historic reasons, Jewish populations were more numerous in these areas.
Jewish victims came from all backgrounds. Victims were rich or poor, religiously orthodox or secular, and they came from every hue of the political spectrum from left to right. Further, the Nazis classified Jews on the basis of their “blood” or alleged “race.” They were not targeted simply by their religion. Thus, Protestants and Catholics whose parents or grandparents were Jews also became victims of Nazi persecution and genocide.
How did some Jews survive the Holocaust?
A small minority were able to reach safe havens during the 1930s. No country opened its doors very widely to Jewish refugees. The war also created many more barriers to immigration. Some Jews survived imprisonment in Nazi camps or in hiding. Others survived living in unoccupied territories of the Soviet Union far from the military front. After the war, many Jews lived in camps for displaced persons. Some lived there for years, because they could not return to their homes and immigration was still very difficult. Ultimately, many survivors immigrated to Palestine and the United States. They also immigrated to Canada, Australia, South Africa, and Latin America.
Other Groups Who Were Victims of Nazi Germany and Its Collaborators
Roma and Sinti Targeted as a Racial Threat and Socially "Deviant"
Often referred to as “Gypsies,” this ethnic minority is made up of distinct groups called “tribes” or “nations.” The Sinti generally predominated in Germany and western Europe. The Roma predominated in Austria and eastern and southern Europe.
The Roma and Sinti were viewed by the Nazis as both a racial and societal problem. The Nazi regime persecuted them as asocials and racial inferiors. An estimated 1 to 1.5 million members of this minority lived in countries across Europe before the war. Between 250,000 and 500,000 Roma and Sinti were killed by Nazi Germany and its collaborators during the war. Men, women, and children were victims of the genocide. They included both nomadic Roma and Sinti, whose numbers were in decline by the 1930s, and people with fixed residences in cities and towns.
In Nazi Germany some individuals identified as “Gypsies” were also sterilized against their will. An additional unknown number of Roma and Sinti were imprisoned in concentration camps as “asocials.”
Germans with Disabilities Targeted as a Racial Threat and Burden
Individuals with mental and physical disabilities deemed hereditary were targeted by the Nazis. The Nazis viewed these individuals as biologically “defective” and a drain on national resources. Nazi propaganda depicted them as “useless eaters.” A 1933 law aimed to prevent the birth of children with genetic “defects.” It enacted forced sterilization of persons diagnosed with certain mental or physical conditions. An estimated 300,000 to 400,000 males and females were sterilized. Among the persons sterilized were many teenaged youth.
The Nazis used the “national emergency” of war as a cover. In 1939 the regime escalated their policies against individuals with disabilities. They targeted for murder disabled patients living in mental health and other care institutions. A total of 250,000 people were killed in the secret “T-4” and related “euthanasia” programs carried out inside Greater Germany. Most of the victims were ethnically German, not Jewish. Some 7,000 children were among the victims. Victims of the T-4 program were killed in gas chambers disguised as showers, the first time this method of murder and deception was used.
Poles Targeted as a Racial and Political Threat
Poles were viewed in Nazi ideology as “subhumans” occupying lands vital to Germany. The Nazis aimed to prevent organized Polish resistance following Germany’s invasion of Poland in September 1939. As part of this policy, Nazi forces killed or imprisoned tens of thousands of men and women from the Polish elites. The victims included wealthy landowners, clergymen, government officials, teachers, doctors, dentists, military officers, and journalists. Less educated Polish citizens, including many young men and women, were transported to Germany for labor, most of them against their will. There, the approximately 1.5 million Poles, along with other eastern Europeans, were subject to harsh discrimination. Hundreds of Polish men were executed for having sexual relations with German women. The Nazis viewed these acts as “racial defilement.”
Soviet Prisoners of War Targeted as a Racial and Political Threat
Many Soviet soldiers were captured by the German army after the invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941. The soldiers were viewed as “subhuman” Slavs and part of the “Judeo-Bolshevik” menace. The myth of Judeo-Bolshevism claimed that communism was a Jewish plot designed at German expense.
A total of 3.3 million Soviet prisoners of war (POWs), including female soldiers, died. They were killed by executions, starvation, disease, exposure, beatings, and other mistreatment. German treatment of Soviet POWs violated the Geneva Convention and every standard of war. In comparison, most British and American POWs survived German captivity. Nazi ideology regarded them as racial equals.
Political and other Prisoners of Nazi Concentration Camps
Political opponents in Germany were the first prisoners of Nazi concentration camps. This prisoner category included anti-Nazi activists, outspoken dissidents, and members of European resistance groups. It also came to include persons who were only suspected of anti-Nazi sentiments or who privately criticized or mocked the Nazi regime. An undetermined number of men and women who were imprisoned as political prisoners died or were killed.
Jehovah’s Witnesses were a religious organization. There were about 20,000 members in Germany in 1933. As part of the strictures of their faith, they refused to swear allegiance to any worldly government and would not bear arms for any nation. Small as the movement was, it threatened Nazi demands for total loyalty to Hitler and the state. Approximately 1,900 Jehovah’s Witnesses died in the camps. Most of the victims were men of German nationality.
Homosexuals—gay men—were viewed by the Nazis as socially “deviant.” The Nazis considered them a danger to Nazi policies aimed at raising the German birthrate. Between 1933 and 1945, an estimated 100,000 men were arrested in Germany under Paragraph 175 of the German Criminal Code. Of the 50,000 men sentenced as “175ers,” 5,000 to 15,000 individuals were imprisoned in concentration camps. Hundreds, possibly thousands, died from harsh treatment.
“Asocials” included unemployed and homeless persons, welfare recipients, prostitutes, beggars, alcoholics, and drug addicts.
Series: Nazi Racism
Series: Victims of the Nazi Era
Series: Gay Men and Lesbians under the Nazi Regime
Critical Thinking Questions
- How and why do regimes target individual groups?
- Consider a more recent example of a specific group targeted for persecution and/or destruction. How are members of the group identified, separated, and brutalized?
- What options do other nations or coalitions have when a civilian group is targeted for discrimination and/or destruction within one country?
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Friedlander, Henry. The Origins of Nazi Genocide: From Euthanasia to the Final Solution. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1995.
Grau, Günter. Hidden Holocaust: Gay and Lesbian Persecution in Germany, 1933-45. Chicago: Fitzroy Dearborn, 1995.
Gutman, Israel, and Shmuel Krakowski. Unequal Victims: Poles and Jews During World War Two. New York: Holocaust Library, 1986.
Hesse, Hans, editor. Persecution and Resistance of Jehovah's Witnesses During the Nazi Regime, 1933-1945. Bremen, Germany: Edition Temmen, 2001.
Lewy, Guenter. The Nazi Persecution of the Gypsies. New York: Oxford University Press, 2000.