As Allied and Soviet troops moved across Europe against Nazi Germany in 1944 and 1945, they encountered concentration camps, mass graves, and other sites of Nazi crimes. The unspeakable conditions the liberators confronted shed light on the full scope of Nazi horrors. 2020 marked the 75th anniversary of the liberation of prisoners from Nazi concentration camps and the end of Nazi tyranny in Europe.
The Holocaust occurred in the broader context of World War II. World War II was the largest and most destructive conflict in history. Adolf Hitler and the Nazi regime envisioned a vast, new empire of "living space" (Lebensraum) for Germans in eastern Europe by the removal of existing populations. The Nazi goal to strengthen the German “master race” resulted in the persecution and murder of Jews and many others.
Between the Nazi rise to power in 1933 and Nazi Germany's surrender in 1945, more than 340,000 Jews emigrated from Germany and Austria. Tragically, nearly 100,000 of them found refuge in countries subsequently conquered by Germany. German authorities would deport and kill the vast majority of them. The search for refuge frames both the years before the Holocaust and its aftermath.
Children were especially vulnerable to Nazi persecution. Some were targeted on supposed racial grounds, such as Jewish youngsters. Others were targeted for biological reasons, such as patients with physical or mental disabilities, or because of their alleged resistance or political activities. As many as 1.5 million Jewish children alone were murdered or died at the hands of Nazi officials or their collaborators.
Between 1933 and 1945, Nazi Germany and its allies established more than 44,000 camps and other incarceration sites (including ghettos). The perpetrators used these sites for a range of purposes, including forced labor, detention of people thought to be enemies of the state, and for mass murder.
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.
The term “Final Solution of the Jewish Question” was a euphemism used by Nazi Germany’s leaders. It referred to the mass murder of Europe’s Jews. It brought an end to policies aimed at encouraging or forcing Jews to leave the German Reich and other parts of Europe. Those policies were replaced by systematic annihilation.
The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, was the impetus for the United States’ entrance into World War II.
Before the Nazis seized power in 1933, Europe had a richly diverse set of Jewish cultures. Many of these cultures were dynamic and highly developed. They drew from hundreds and, in some areas, a thousand or more years of Jewish life on the continent.
In January 1945, the Third Reich stood on the verge of military defeat. As Allied forces approached Nazi camps, the SS organized “death marches” (forced evacuations) of concentration camp inmates, in part to keep large numbers of concentration camp prisoners from falling into Allied hands.
By the late 1940s, concerns about the Cold War caused interest in prosecuting Nazi crimes to wane. Convicted perpetrators were released from prison, while many thousands more were never arrested or tried. Two major trials in the early 1960s led to greater public awareness of the Holocaust and renewed efforts to bring perpetrators to justice. Certain individuals and governments took the lead in these efforts, which forced hundreds of perpetrators to face accountability for their acts. The search for perpetrators continues, but as nearly all have died, only a small minority will ever have been brought to justice.
During World War II, a number of German physicians conducted painful and often deadly experiments on thousands of prisoners without their permission. Considering the inhumane conditions, lack of consent, and questionable research standards, modern scientists overwhelmingly reject the use of results from experiments in the camps.
Between 1933 and 1945, Nazi Germany and its allies established more than 44,000 camps and other incarceration sites (including ghettos). The perpetrators used these locations for a range of purposes, including forced labor, detention of people deemed to be "enemies of the state," and mass murder. Millions of people suffered and died or were killed. Among these sites was Majdanek.
During the Holocaust, the creation of ghettos was a key step in the Nazi process of brutally separating, persecuting, and ultimately destroying Europe's Jews. Ghettos isolated Jews from the non-Jewish population and from other Jewish communities. Living conditions were miserable. Among them was the Vilna ghetto.
During the Holocaust, the creation of ghettos was a key step in the Nazi process of marginalizing, persecuting, and ultimately destroying Europe's Jews. Ghettos separated Jews from the non-Jewish population and concentrated them for later deportation and mass murder. Living conditions for the imprisoned Jewish communities were appalling. One of the most well-known ghettos in the German-occupied east was the Kovno ghetto.
The term antisemitism was coined only in the nineteenth century, but anti-Jewish hatred and Judeophobia (fear of Jews) date back to ancient times and have a variety of causes.
The three principal partners in the Axis alliance were Germany, Italy, and Japan. These three countries recognized German domination over most of continental Europe; Italian domination over the Mediterranean Sea; and Japanese domination over East Asia and the Pacific.
Forced labor played a crucial role in the wartime German economy. German military, SS, and civilian authorities brutally exploited Jews, Poles,Soviet civilians, and concentration camp prisoners for the war effort. Many forced laborers died as the result of ill-treatment, disease, and starvation.
German troops overran Belgium, the Netherlands, Luxembourg, and France in six weeks starting in May 1940. France signed an armistice in late June 1940, leaving Great Britain as the only country fighting Nazi Germany. Germany and collaborating authorities soon initiated anti-Jewish policies and laws in occupied western Europe.
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