The Holocaust began in Germany in the 1930s and later expanded to all areas of Nazi-occupied Europe during World War Two.
The majority of killings occurred after the Nazis invaded the Soviet Union two years into the war, with approximately 6 million European Jews murdered between 1941 and 1945. But the Nazis’ persecution of Jews and other minorities began long before that.
Such persecution was initially confined to Germany. After Hitler was sworn in as the country’s chancellor in January 1933, he immediately set about implementing policies that targeted Jews and other minority groups.
The first concentration camps
Within two months, the new chancellor had established the first of his infamous concentration camps, just outside Munich. At first, it was mainly political opponents who were taken to these camps. But, as the Nazis’ policy towards Jews evolved, so did the purpose of these facilities.
Following the annexation of Austria on 12 March 1938, the Nazis began rounding up Jews from both countries and taking them to concentration camps located inside Germany. At this point the camps served largely as detention facilities but this would change with the invasion of Poland on 1 September 1939 and the start of World War Two.
Forced-labour camps and ghettos
Once embroiled in an international war, the Nazis began opening forced-labour camps to serve the war effort. They also began establishing densely packed ghettos in areas under their control through which to segregate and confine Jews.
And as German rule spread across Europe in the next few years — eventually enveloping France, the Netherlands and Belgium, among many other countries — so did the Nazis’ network of concentration camps.
Figures vary drastically but it is thought there were eventually thousands of camps established across Nazi-occupied Europe in which millions of people were enslaved — though many facilities were only run for a limited time.
A focus on Poland
The camps were usually set up close to areas with large populations of so-called “undesirables”, primarily Jews, but also Communists, Roma and other minority groups. Most of the camps were established in Poland, however; not only was Poland itself home to millions of Jews, but its geographical location meant that Jews from Germany could also be easily transported there.
A distinction is generally drawn today between these concentration camps and the killing centres or extermination camps that would be established later in the war, where the sole goal was the efficient mass murder of Jews.
But these concentration camps were still death camps, with many prisoners dying due to starvation, disease, maltreatment or exhaustion from forced labour. Other prisoners were executed after being deemed unfit for labour, while some were killed during medical experiments.
The Nazis’ invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941 also marked a turning point in the Holocaust. The concept of certain actions being taboo was thrown out the window with women and children killed and death squads sent out to commit massacre after massacre of Jews in the streets.
The “Final Solution”
The event seen by some as marking the start of the Nazis’ “Final Solution” — a plan to kill all Jews within reach — took place in the previously Soviet-controlled Polish city of Białystok, when one of these death squads sets fire to the Great Synagogue while hundreds of Jewish men are locked inside.
Following the invasion of the Soviet Union, the Nazis also increased the number of prisoner of war camps. The Soviet Union’s Bolsheviks had been conflated with Jews in the Nazi narrative and the Soviet POWs were shown little mercy.
At the end of 1941, the Nazis moved towards establishing killing centres in order to facilitate their Final Solution plan. Six such centres were set up in present-day Poland, while another two were set up in present-day Belarus and Serbia. Jews throughout Nazi-occupied Europe were deported to these camps to be killed in either gas chambers or gas vans.