Although the Jews were their primary targets, the Nazis and their collaborators also persecuted other groups for racial or ideological reasons.
Among the earliest victims of Nazi discrimination in Germany were political opponents—primarily Communists, Socialists, Social Democrats, and trade union leaders. In 1933, the SS established the first concentration camp, Dachau, as a detention center for thousands of German political prisoners. The Nazis also persecuted authors and artists whose works they considered subversive or who were Jewish, subjecting them to arrest, economic restrictions, and other forms of discrimination.
The Nazis targeted Roma (Gypsies) on racial grounds. The legal interpretations of the 1935 Nuremberg Laws (German laws which defined Jews by blood according to racist theories) were later adapted to include Roma. The Nazis termed Roma "work-shy" and "asocial"—in the Nazi framework, unproductive and socially unfit. Roma deported to the Lodz ghetto were among the first to be killed in mobile gas vans at the Chelmno killing center in German-occupied Poland. The Nazis also deported more than 20,000 Roma to the Auschwitz-Birkenau camp, where most of them were murdered in the gas chambers.
The Nazis viewed Poles and other Slavic peoples as inferior, and slated them for subjugation, forced labor, and eventual annihilation. Poles who were considered ideologically dangerous (including thousands of intellectuals and Catholic priests) were targeted for execution in an operation known as AB-Aktion. Between 1939 and 1945, at least 1.5 million Polish citizens were deported to German territory for forced labor. Hundreds of thousands were also imprisoned in Nazi concentration camps. It is estimated that the Germans killed at least 1.9 million non-Jewish Polish civilians during World War II.
In the German-occupied Soviet Union, the Commissar Order (issued to the Germany army by the Armed Forces High Command) targeted Red Army political officers to be murdered. During the autumn and winter of 1941-1942, German military authorities and the German Security Police collaborated on a racist policy of mass murder of Soviet prisoners of war: Jews, persons with "Asiatic features," and top political and military leaders were selected out and shot. Around three million others were held in makeshift camps without proper shelter, food, or medicine with the deliberate intent that they die.
The Nazis incarcerated Christian church leaders who opposed Nazism, as well as thousands of Jehovah's Witnesses who refused to salute Adolf Hitler or to serve in the German army. Through the Euthanasia Program, the Nazis murdered an estimated 250,000 individuals with mental or physical disabilities. The Nazis also persecuted male homosexuals, whose behavior they considered a hindrance to the preservation of the German nation. The Nazis imprisoned those they termed "chronic" homosexuals in concentration camps, as well as thousands of other individuals accused of so-called "asocial" or criminal behavior.
Nazi ideology identified a multitude of enemies and led to the systematic persecution and murder of many millions of people, both Jews and non-Jews.
Series: Victims of the Nazi Era
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?
Altman, Linda Jacobs. The Forgotten Victims of the Holocaust. Berkeley Heights, NJ: Enslow, 2003.
Berenbaum, Michael. A Mosaic of Victims: Non-Jews Persecuted and Murdered by the Nazis. New York: New York University Press, 1990.
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.