Jews were one of four groups racially targeted for persecution in Nazi Germany and in German-controlled Europe.
Racially Targeted Groups
While Nazi ideology targeted Jews as the primary enemy of Germany, the Nazis also targeted Roma (Gypsies) on racial grounds. The 1935 Nuremberg Laws (which defined Jews by blood) were later applied to Roma. Drawing on traditional prejudices in German society, the Nazis termed Roma as prone by race to be "work-shy" and "asocial" with an inherited inclination to engage in petty crime. Among the first killed in the mobile gas vans at the Chelmno killing center in German-occupied Poland in early 1942 were Roma deported from the Greater German Reich to the Lodz ghetto. SS and police authorities deported more than 20,000 Roma to the Auschwitz-Birkenau camp, where the camp authorities killed almost all of them in the gas chambers.
In the German-occupied parts of the Soviet Union, German military and SS-police officials shot tens of thousands of local Roma, often on trumped-up justification that the Roma were engaged in espionage for the Soviet authorities. Two of Nazi Germany's Axis partners also engaged in the mass murder of Roma. The authorities of the so-called Independent State of Croatia killed approximately 25,000 Roma, many of them at the Jasenovac concentration camp complex. In Romania, the government of General Ion Antonescu killed between 13,000 and 36,000 Roma, both in Romania proper and in Transnistria.
The Nazis viewed Poles and the Slavic and so-called Asiatic peoples of the Soviet Union as racially inferior, and slated them for subjugation and forced labor. They implemented a policy of physical annihilation of the political, intellectual, and cultural elites of Poland and the Soviet Union. German occupation authorities murdered tens of thousands of members of the Polish elite classes (including intellectuals and Catholic priests) in an operation known as Ausserordentliche Befriedungsaktion (AB-Extraordinary Pacification Action). The Commissar Order, issued to German military commanders on June 6, 1941, called for shooting captured political commissars serving in the Red Army. German SS and police units received instructions to kill high-ranking and mid-level officials of the Soviet state and the Soviet Communist Party.
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. Approximately two million Soviet soldiers died as a result of this criminal neglect in the winter of 1941-1942. Even after the Germans decided to permit the remaining Soviet soldiers to survive so that their labor could be exploited, Soviet soldiers were generally incarcerated under harsher conditions—often in concentration camps—than any other group of prisoners of war.
Backed by willing supporters in the medical, healthcare, and social service professional communities, the Nazis viewed institutionalized people with disabilities perceived as congenital to be a threat to the gene pool of the so-called German master race. The Nazi leadership was determined to use the opportunity of war to physically annihilate people with disabilities living in institutions but perceived as unable to work.
Legislation passed during the 1930s required the identification of persons perceived as “useless eaters” in institutions throughout Germany. After this legislation, officials of Hitler's private chancellery—working with officials of the German Ministry of Health and the German Criminal Police—established plans and procedures for three killing operations. These operations fell under the general umbrella term “Euthanasia.” All three were implemented during the war:
- Some 5,000–7,000 institutionalized small children (infants and toddlers) with disabilities were murdered in institutions throughout Germany and Austria.
- In “Operation T-4” (named for the address of the Führer Chancellery office in Berlin at Tiergartenstraße 4), some 70,000 institutionalized adults were murdered in six killing centers. (As part of Operation 14f13, ill and exhausted concentration camp prisoners were sent to euthanasia killing centers for gassing.)
- In the second phase of euthanasia program, from 1942–45, approximately 173,000 institutionalized adults with disabilities were murdered at institutions throughout Greater Germany; these victims were killed by starvation and lethal overdoses of medication.
Other Persecuted Groups
The Nazi regime also persecuted and killed members of other groups.
Among the earliest victims of discrimination and persecution in Nazi Germany were political opponents—primarily Communists, Socialists, Social Democrats, and trade union leaders. The Nazis also persecuted authors and artists whose works they considered subversive or who were Jewish. In 1933–34, the German central government and various local governments as well as local battalions of the Nazi SA (Sturmabteilungen; Assault Detachments) and SS (Schutzstaffel; Protection Squads) established concentration camps throughout Germany to detain political prisoners. The SS, which centralized and took control of the concentration camp system in 1934, had established its first concentration camp, Dachau, in March 1933.
The Germans persecuted, incarcerated in concentration camps, and killed real and perceived political opponents of the Nazi regime inside Germany. This included both Catholic and Lutheran clergy as well as persons engaged in real and perceived activities of resistance movements in German-occupied Europe. Some of the so-called anti-partisan operations, particularly in the occupied Soviet Union, were in effect efforts to depopulate the Soviet countryside. The Germans massacred hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of Soviet civilians in their villages. The vast majority of these victims had little or no connection to partisan resistance.
The Nazi regime also targeted Jehovah's Witnesses who refused to swear an oath to the regime or perform military service. Approximately 3,000 Jehovah's Witnesses were incarcerated in concentration camps. Nearly a third of them died there. Another 250 were shot after being convicted by a military tribunal. The Nazi regime also persecuted male homosexuals for failing their duty to contribute to the expansion of the German race and for their perceived corrupting influence. Tens of thousands of homosexuals were indicted for alleged homosexual acts or behavior: some of those who could not be convicted, or who were picked up by the Gestapo (German secret state police) after serving their sentences, were imprisoned in concentration camps. Hundreds, possibly thousands died in the camps.
Finally, German Criminal Police officials arrested and incarcerated in concentration camps tens of thousands of so-called asocials as well as real or perceived repeat criminal offenders, even though they had not committed a new crime or violation. Thousands of these so-called asocial and “criminal” prisoners were murdered in the camps.
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?
- Investigate the concept of “race.” How has scientific study changed our understanding of the human race since the Holocaust?