When Did the Holocaust Start? Key Dates in the Timeline

Laura Mackenzie

The Holocaust Twentieth Century World War Two
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The Holocaust was the genocide of approximately six million European Jews, alongside members of other persecuted groups, at the hands of Nazi Germany. Despite its far reaching and ongoing impact, the exact date on which the genocide started is difficult to distinguish and the subject of some debate.

The Nazis began the widespread implementation of their plan to kill all Jews within reach — known as the “Final Solution” — under the cover of World War Two.

Using 1939 as a starting point for the Holocaust does not, however, consider the less systematic killings or the other forms of persecution that occurred before the war. It also fails to show how Nazi policy towards Jews evolved over time.

As a result, the date that has become commonly associated with the start of the Holocaust is 30 January 1933, the day on which Hitler became chancellor of Germany. This is also the point at which our timeline of the intensification of anti-Semite action begins.

1933

30 January: Hitler was sworn in as chancellor of Germany after the Nazis became the largest party in the German parliament. He had already publicised his anti-Semite ideology in Mein Kampf, in 1925.

22 March: The first of a network of concentration camps opened in Dachau, just outside Munich. Many of the first prisoners sent here were communists or political opponents of the regime, but Dachau’s main camp and branches would evolve into a place where over 200 thousand people were sent, including thousands of Jews and other minorities.

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1 April: A Hitler-sanctioned boycott of Jewish businesses began. The Nazi Party’s brown-shirted militia, the SA, painted Stars of David and slogans on shops owned by Jews and tried to intimidate shoppers.

10 May: University students in Berlin burned more than 25 thousand ‘un-German’ books, including those written by Jewish intellectuals. Though the event was organised by a union of students, the Reichsminister of Public Enlightenment and Propaganda, Joseph Goebbels, made a speech supporting the effort to ‘commit to the flames the evil spirit of the past.’

1935

15 September: The Nazis introduced the Nuremberg Laws, a series of anti-Semitic and racist laws at the annual party rally. Marriage and sex between Jews and persons with ‘German or related blood’ was forbidden by the Law for the Protection of German Blood and German Honour.

14 November: The Nuremberg Laws came into force and a decree was published defining a Jew as a person who had 3 or 4 Jewish grandparents, regardless of their religious beliefs. This made being Jewish racial, rather than religious or cultural, and excluded Jews from German citizenship under the Reich Citizenship Law, which accepted only people of ‘German or related blood’.

Chart published to show racial classifications under the Nuremberg Laws, 1935. From Left to right, the headings read German-blooded, Mischling (term used in the Third Reich to denote a person with both Jewish and Aryan ancestry) – Second Degree, Mischling – First Degree, and Jew. (Credit: Public Domain)

1936

1-16 August: Brief abatement of anti-Jewish attacks and the removal of obvious anti-Semitism to avoid international criticism during the Berlin Olympics. In accordance with Nazi directives, the German Olympic committee excluded Jewish athletes from competing for Germany.

1937

8 November: The Reich Ministry of Public Enlightenment and Propaganda opened an art exhibition in Munich entitled ‘Der Ewige Jude’ – ‘The Eternal Jew’. This travelling exhibition continued the propagation of the image of Jews as the enemy.

1938

12 March: Germany annexed Austria. Following the annexation, the Nazis began arresting Jews in both Germany and Austria and taking them to concentration camps, with the offer of release if they agreed to leave Nazi territory.

9-10 November: The SA carried out coordinated attacks against Jewish institutions and businesses in Germany and Austria. The event became known as “Kristallnacht”, or the “Night of Broken Glass” in a reference to the number of windows smashed.

These attacks marked a major transition in the Nazis’ treatment of Jews, from policies that reduced their rights and excluded them from mainstream society, to organised violence. 267 synagogues were destroyed. At least 91 Jews were killed. More than 30,000 more were arrested and taken to concentration camps.

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1939

24 January: Hermann Göring, Hitler’s second in command, authorised the establishment of a Central Office for Jewish Emigration in Berlin. He also had SS Lieutenant General Reinhard Heydrich, begin to find solutions for the mass deportation of Jews from the Reich.

1 September: Germany invaded Poland in what is generally considered to be the start of World War Two. The Nazis began opening forced-labour camps to serve the war effort, and establishing ghettos in order to segregate and confine Jews.

By the end of the month Heydrich has issued instructions to commence the expulsion of Jews from the Reich. Jews within Germany were to be transferred to Poland alongside any remaining Roma people. In Poland, Jews were to be concentrated in major cities, near to major railroads.

The invading Wehrmacht was accompanied by seven SS Einsatzgruppen, who had orders to handle ‘anti-German elements’ in the occupied territory. The Einsatzgruppen engaged enacting Heydrich’s commands, but had also executed over 50 thousand civilians by the end of the year.

November 23: All Jews above the age of 10 residing under Nazi rule were required to wear white armbands featuring a Star of David.

1940

Auschwitz prisoners are seen here during the camp’s liberation in 1945.

20 May: Auschwitz concentration camp is established in Nazi-occupied Poland, outside the city of Oswiecim. The camp began as a single camp set in pre-war barracks, but expanded throughout the war to include the purpose built Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration and extermination camp, alongside more than 40 sub-camps which exploited the prisoners for labour.

Auschwitz would become the most notorious concentration camp of the Holocaust with an estimated 1.1 million people being killed there.

15 November: Authorities seal the Warsaw ghetto, the largest ghetto in Nazi controlled territory. This confines 30 percent of the city’s population in 2.4 percent of its area.

1941

22 June: The Nazis launched their invasion of the Soviet Union, codenamed “Operation Barbarossa”. Hitler saw Germany’s war against Bolshevism and Jews as one and the same and the Einsatzgruppen were organised to eliminate Jews and communists in occupied territory.

Actions previously considered taboo or exceptional become normalised after this point, including the widespread killing of women and children, and over the next two years these squads — with the help of local citizens — would murder more than 1 million Jews.

27 June: In an event that some see as the beginning of the Final Solution, one of the death squads arrived in the Soviet-controlled Polish city of Białystok and set the Great Synagogue on fire, with hundreds of Jewish men locked inside. A frenzy of overnight killings targeting Jews followed.

3 September: Zyklon B was used for the first time to gas humans in an experiment on Soviet prisoners of war at Auschwitz.

29-30 September: The largest mass shooting of Soviet Jews during the Holocaust took place in Babi Yar ravine, near Kiev. More than 33,000 Jews of all ages were killed with machine guns. The ravine continued to be used as a site for massacre over the following months.

8 December: Jews and Roma were gassed to death in vans at Chelmno, 30 miles from Lodz. Chelmno was the first so-called “killing centre” or “extermination camp” of the six to become operational, the others were Bełżec, Sobibor, Treblinka, Majdanek and Auschwitz-Birkenau.

The sole purposes of these camps was to ensure efficient mass murder. Around half of the Jews confined to the Lodz ghetto since 1940 were deported to, and murdered at, Chelmno before the end of the war.

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1942

20 January: 15 high-ranking Nazi officials formalised their plan to exterminate all Jews possible, known as the “Final Solution”, at the Wannsee Conference, held just outside Berlin.

17 March: The first extermination camp with gas chambers became operational outside the Polish village of Bełżec, using carbon monoxide. Jews and Roma were deported from ghettos in Lublin and Lvov. Within a year, as many as half a million Jews would have been killed at Bełżec alone.

19 July: SS chief Heinrich Himmler issued a general order that all Jews residing in Nazi occupied territory and the Reich should be ‘resettled’ by 31 December 1942.

1943

21 June: Heinrich Himmler, chief architect of the Final Solution, issued an order to liquidate all ghettos and transfer remaining Jewish inhabitants to concentration camps with the intention that they be killed. Over the following year ghettos are liquidated, their residents are deported to camps or shot.

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1945

8 May: The Allies formally accepted Germany’s unconditional surrender, ending World War Two in Europe. In the months leading up to this, concentration camps had been liquidated and liberated by Allied forces as Nazi territory decreased in size.

The Holocaust is usually considered to have ended on this date although it did not mark the end of massacres of Jews in Europe.

1946

4 July: More than 40 Jews were killed in the Polish city of Kielce in a massacre incited by the communist authorities and with local citizens among those taking part. Zionists conclude that Jews have no future in Europe, almost 20 thousand Jews leave Poland when the need for a visa or exit permit is removed.

Laura Mackenzie