Previous page Page 6 of 7 Next page
Index |  History |  Highlights |  WhatWhenWhere
Israel and Judah
Greece and Rome
Middle Ages
15th - 19th century
20th century
     Sections missing
     Hitler and the Jews 1933-8
     The Holocaust 1941-2
     The Holocaust 1942-5

To be completed

Bookmark and Share
Sections Missing

Sections are as yet missing at this point


Hitler and the Jews: 1933-1938

Immediately after the Enabling Act is passed, the world is given clear warning that the anti-Semitism of Mein Kampf is not merely the raving of a theorist. It is a basis for action. The German government declares an open-ended boycott of all Jewish shops. The announcement receives wide international attention. On March 27 (just four days after the passing of the act) a mass rally is held in New York. A resolution is taken to boycott all German goods if Hitler's measure is put into effect.

Hitler compromises, revealing his sure touch in international diplomacy. He announces that the boycott will be limited to one day. On the designated day Brownshirts stand outside every Jewish establishment in Germany, warning people not to enter.


But the underlying policy remains unaltered. On April 7 a law is passed ordering the immediate 'retirement' of all civil servants 'not of Aryan descent'. This requires the dismissal of Jewish teachers in schools and universities as well as all those employed in government departments. Some of the German towns, in their enthusiasm, develop the policy beyond the immediate demands of the law. They ban performances by Jewish actors and musicians.

A 'non-Aryan' is defined as anyone with one or more Jewish grandparents. At first some exceptions are made, because of the insistence of the president, Hindenburg, that the law should not apply to Jews who had fought in the 1914-18 war or had lost a father or son in that conflict. But the law of April 7 is amended in 1935, after Hindeburg's death, and by the end of the following year there are no 'non-Aryans' in public employment.


Meanwhile, in 1935, even harsher measures are imposed, in the so-called Nuremberg Laws. At a Nazi rally in Nuremberg in September of that year it is announced that Jews are to be deprived of German citizenship, and that any sexual relationship between a Jew and a German citizen is henceforth illegal. The penalty, where the Jew in question is male, is to be death.

As yet there is no systematic and coordinated violence against Jews, but this changes drastically in November 1938. The pretext is the murder by a Jew of a diplomat in the German embassy in Paris. This occurs on November 7. Two days later a nation-wide pogrom is unleashed on the Jews of Germany and Austria (recently annexed by Hitler in the Anschluss). Organized bands of Nazis rampage through the towns, burning synagogues, smashing the windows of Jewish shops and looting their contents.


The smashed windows provide Germans with a name for this night of terror - Kristallnacht, the night of cut glass. Hitler personally orders the violence to continue throughout the night, telling Goebbels (who notes it in his diary) that 'the Jews should be made to feel the wrath of the people' and ordering 20,000 or 30,000 Jews to be arrested immediately. Approximately 20,000 are sent to the concentration camps during the next few days.

To pile on the agony, it is decreed that insurance money due on the damaged buildings is to be paid to the state. The Jews themselves are to bear the cost of repairs to their premises. And for good measure a fine of one billion marks is imposed on the German Jewish community.


The Holocaust: 1941-1942

The term holocaust, originally meaning a sacrifice consumed by fire in a Greek temple, has been used since the early 19th century for the murder of a large number of people. In recent decades it has acquired a much more specific significance. It now defines, almost exclusively, the systematic attempt by Hitler and the Nazis to exterminate the Jewish people. In the 20th century, which far outstripped all others in the horrors perpetrated by humans on their own kind, the Holocaust has come to stand as the defining atrocity.

It is also the atrocity, in the whole of world history, most deliberately planned as the fulfilment of a theory. A flawed and fanatic theory, but one of fatal potency.


The theory, articulated by Hitler in Mein Kampf and in frequent ranting speeches, taps into a deep-rooted European tradition of anti-Semitism, blends in some 19th-century fantasies about ethnic identity and racial purity, and finally adds a dash of 20th-century neurosis about socialism. The troubles of Germany and Austria are thereby blamed on a conspiracy of Jews , working like a virus in all spheres of national life to take over the economy and even, through sexual intermingling, to degrade the pure Aryan stock.

The misfortune underlying the tragedy of the Holocaust is that someone with these views succeeds in becoming the leader of a powerful nation and then, for a brief while, the conqueror of Europe.


From achieving power in 1933 until the outbreak of war in 1939 (an event for which he holds the Jews responsible), Hitler's ambition is to rid Germany and Austria of the nations' long-resident Jews by making them move elsewhere. But with his invasion of Russia in 1941 he begins to conceive a more drastic outcome. The 'final solution of the Jewish problem' (a phrase used in Nazi documents from early in 1942) will be death.

Within the first few days of the Russian campaign Hitler's Special Task forces round up and shoot large numbers of Jews. In two weeks of continual executions in early July, in the city of Kishinev alone, one such task force kills 10,000 people.


On June 27, in Bialystok, German soldiers chase Jews through the narrow streets around a blazing synagogue, like devils in a medieval scene of the Last Judgement. Hundreds of Jews have been locked into the synagogue before it is set on fire. Once it is blazing, the doors are broken down and others are shoved into the cauldron.

But the Nazis are already working on a less visible and more efficient method of achieving their purpose. It is first employed at Chelmno, in Poland, during 1941. Three vans are specially adapted for the killing of people through exposure to lethal gas. During the first six months 97,000 Jews die in these vans. The scheme is considered highly successful. So steps are taken to provide larger-scale death camps with permanent buildings.


These death camps are built on Polish or Russian soil. One of the first and largest is Treblinka (in Poland) where more than 750,000 Jews are killed during 1942, most of them brought there from the Warsaw ghetto.

The placing of the concentration camps in the east, relatively out of sight, is a practical measure of discretion by the Nazi high command. On 20 January 1942 a meeting is convened at Wannsee, a lakeside villa near Berlin, by Himmler's second-in-command in the SS, Reinhard Heydrich. Heydrich has been put in charge of the 'final solution'. The purpose of the meeting is to discuss the practical arrangements.


It is taken for granted by now in these high Nazi circles that the solution must apply to Jews in all the nations occupied by the Germans. But death camps in France or the Netherlands will be more exposed to view. So it is decided that Jews from such countries must be brought to the Polish camps.

Thus begins one of the abiding images of the holocaust - trains of cattle trucks into which Jews are crowded, heading for an unknown destination. The programme is described as 'transportation of the Jews towards the Russian East'. Early in 1942 the prospect facing these people is immediate death. But later there are two possibilities - immediate death by gas, or slow death by hard labour and deprivation.


The Holocaust: 1942-1945

During 1942 it occurs to the Nazis that, as with the Soviet prisoners of war, they are wasting valuable slave labour in their policy of automatic murder of the Jews. So a new form of camp is planned in which those on the trains will be classified, on arrival, as 'fit' or 'unfit' to work. The fit go one way, to the prison huts where they will live for a while as unpaid and underfed labourers. The unfit go the other way, to the gas chambers.

The first camp of this kind, ready for use in March 1942, is built at Auschwitz in Poland. An unknown number of people (certainly well in excess of a million) die in this camp in the next three years. More than half of them - the unfit, the elderly, the children - are killed in the four gas chambers within a day or two of their arrival.


Those judged fit 'to be worked to death' (a phrase used by Himmler) are put to the service of Germany's war production. Factories are moved from the vulnerable Ruhr, in the west, to the neighbourhood of Auschwitz - beyond the range of Allied bombers. Several of Germany's great industrial enterprises tarnish their reputation by benefiting during these years from Jewish slave labour.

By the end of 1942 knowledge of what is going on is not limited to those actively involved on the German side. On December 17 Anthony Eden tells the House of Commons in London that reliable reports have been received 'regarding the barbarous and inhuman treatment to which Jews are being subjected in German-occupied Europe'.


Eden is putting before the House an international declaration, published on that day, which is more direct in its account of what is actually going on. Issued jointly by the USA, the USSR, Great Britain and the governments in exile of nine occupied European countries, the declaration condemns in the strongest possible terms Germany's 'bestial policy of cold-blooded extermination'.

This is straightforward language, in stark contrast to the terms used in Nazi documents about a solution to the Jewish question and journeys to the east. But it is this veil of German euphemism which has enabled a few extreme right-wing historians to argue the preposterous theory that Hitler did not know what the terms meant and so was perhaps personally unaware of the Holocaust.


This History is as yet incomplete.


Previous page Page 6 of 7 Next page
Up to top of page HISTORY OF JUDAISM