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The Holocaust was the murder of six million Jews and millions of others by the Nazis and their collaborators during World War II. Mass killings began in June 1941 with the shooting of Jewish civilians during the German invasion of the Soviet Union. At the end of 1941, the Germans began deporting Jews to killing centers in occupied Poland. By May 1945, about two out of every three Jews in Europe had been murdered.
In January 1945, the Third Reich stood on the verge of military defeat. As Allied forces approached Nazi camps, the SS organized death marches of concentration camp inmates, in part to keep large numbers of concentration camp prisoners from falling into Allied hands. The term "death march" was probably coined by concentration camp prisoners. It referred to forced marches of concentration camp prisoners over long distances under heavy guard and extremely harsh conditions. During death marches, SS guards brutally mistreated the prisoners and killed many. The largest death marches were launched from Auschwitz and Stutthof.
The Nazi camp system expanded rapidly after the beginning of World War II in September 1939, as forced labor became important in war production. Labor shortages in the German war economy became critical after German defeat in the battle of Stalingrad in 1942-1943. This led to the increased use of concentration camp prisoners as forced laborers in German armaments industries. Especially in 1943 and 1944, hundreds of subcamps were established in or near industrial plants. Subcamps were generally smaller camps administered by the main camps, which supplied them with the required number of prisoners. Camps such as Auschwitz in Poland, Buchenwald in central Germany, Gross-Rosen in eastern Germany, Natzweiler-Struthof in eastern France, Ravensbrueck near Berlin, and Stutthof near Danzig on the Baltic coast became administrative centers of huge networks of subsidiary forced-labor camps.
At the Wannsee Conference in Berlin in January 1942, the SS (the elite guard of the Nazi state) and representatives of German government ministries estimated that the "Final Solution," the Nazi plan to kill the Jews of Europe, would involve 11 million European Jews, including those from non-occupied countries such as Ireland, Sweden, Turkey, and Great Britain. Jews from Germany and German-occupied Europe were deported by rail to the killing centers in occupied Poland, where they were killed. The Germans attempted to disguise their intentions, referring to deportations as "resettlement to the east." The victims were told they were to be taken to labor camps, but in reality, from 1942 onward, deportation for most Jews meant transit to killing centers and then death.
Killing centers (also referred to as "extermination camps" or "death camps") were designed to carry out genocide. Between 1941 and 1945, the Nazis established six killing centers in former Polish territory—Chelmno, Belzec, Sobibor, Treblinka, Auschwitz-Birkenau (part of the Auschwitz complex), and Majdanek. Chelmno and Auschwitz were established in areas annexed to Germany in 1939. The other camps (Belzec, Sobibor, Treblinka, and Majdanek) were established in the Generalgouvernement (General Government) of Poland. Both Auschwitz and Majdanek functioned as concentration and forced-labor camps as well as killing centers. The overwhelming majority of the victims of the killing centers were Jews. An estimated 3.5 million Jews were killed in these six killing centers as part of the Final Solution. Other victims included Roma (Gypsies) and Soviet prisoners of war.
Throughout German-occupied Europe, the Germans arrested those who resisted their domination and those they judged to be racially inferior or politically unacceptable. People arrested for resisting German rule were mostly sent to forced-labor or concentration camps. The Germans deported Jews from all over occupied Europe to extermination camps in Poland, where they were systematically killed, and also to concentration camps, where they were used for forced labor. Transit camps such as Westerbork, Gurs, Mechelen, and Drancy in western Europe and concentration camps like Bolzano and Fossoli di Carpi in Italy were used as collection centers for Jews, who were then deported by rail to the extermination camps. According to SS reports, there were more than 700,000 prisoners registered in the concentration camps in January 1945.
During World War II, the Germans established ghettos mainly in eastern Europe (between 1939 and 1942) and also in Hungary (in 1944). These ghettos were enclosed districts of a city in which the Germans forced the Jewish population to live under miserable conditions. The Germans regarded the establishment of Jewish ghettos as a provisional measure to control, isolate, and segregate Jews. Beginning in 1942, after the decision had been made to kill the Jews, the Germans systematically destroyed the ghettos, deporting the Jews to extermination camps where they were killed.
Roma (Gypsies) were among the groups singled out on racial grounds for persecution by the Nazi regime. Roma were subjected to internment, deportation, and forced labor, and were sent to killing centers. Einsatzgruppen also killed tens of thousands of Roma in the German-occupied eastern territories. The fate of the Roma closely paralleled that of Jews.
In Nazi usage, "euthanasia" referred to the systematic killing of those Germans whom the Nazis deemed "unworthy of life" because of alleged genetic diseases or defects. Beginning in the fall of 1939, gassing installations were established at Bernburg, Brandenburg, Grafeneck, Hadamar, Hartheim, and Sonnenstein. Patients were selected by doctors and transferred from clinics to one of these centralized gassing installations and killed. After public outrage forced an end to centralized killings, doctors instead administered lethal injections to those selected for "euthanasia" in clinics and hospitals throughout Germany. In this way, the "euthanasia" program continued and expanded until the end of World War II.
The first concentration camps in Germany were established soon after Hitler's appointment as chancellor in January 1933. The Storm Troopers (SA) and the police established concentration camps to handle the masses of people arrested as alleged political opponents of the regime. These camps were established on the local level throughout Germany. Gradually, most of these early camps were disbanded and replaced by centrally organized concentration camps under the exclusive jurisdiction of the SS (Schutzstaffel; the elite guard of the Nazi state). By 1939, seven large concentration camps had been established. Besides Dachau, they were Sachsenhausen (1936) north of Berlin, Buchenwald (1937) near Weimar, Neuengamme (1938) near Hamburg, Flossenbürg (1938), Mauthausen (1938), and Ravensbrück (1939).
The European rail network played a crucial role in the implementation of the Final Solution. Jews from Germany and German-occupied Europe were deported by rail to killing centers in occupied Poland, where they were killed. The Germans attempted to disguise their intentions, referring to deportations as "resettlement to the east." The victims were told they were to be taken to labor camps, but in reality, from 1942 onward, deportation meant transit to killing centers for most Jews. Deportations on this scale required the coordination of numerous German government ministries, including the Reich Security Main Office (RSHA), the Transport Ministry, and the Foreign Office. The RSHA coordinated and directed the deportations; the Transport Ministry organized train schedules; and the Foreign Office negotiated with German-allied states to hand over their Jews.
Jews have lived in Europe for more than two thousand years. The American Jewish Yearbook placed the total Jewish population of Europe at about 9.5 million in 1933. This number represented more than 60 percent of the world's Jewish population, which was estimated at 15.3 million. Most European Jews resided in eastern Europe, with about 5 1/2 million Jews living in Poland and the Soviet Union. Before the Nazi takeover of power in 1933, Europe had a dynamic and highly developed Jewish culture. In little more than a decade, most of Europe would be conquered, occupied, or annexed by Nazi Germany and most European Jews—two out of every three—would be dead.