Why Did the Holocaust Happen? | History Hit

Why Did the Holocaust Happen?

Alex Browne

24 Jul 2018

The Holocaust was the most intensive, industrialised genocide the world has ever seen. In three years between 1942-45 the Nazi ‘Final Solution to the Jewish Question’ was a program of extermination that killed 6 million Jewish people – around 78% of all Jews in occupied Europe. But how could such a horrific crime occur in the 20th Century – after an extreme period of economic and scientific progress?

As the Allies advanced through Europe in early 1945, the Nazis embarked on one final escalation of the Holocaust. Hundreds of thousands of prisoners, already weak and starving from their treatment in the camp system, were forcibly marched away from the possibility of liberation. For this episode, James welcomes the curators of the Wiener Holocaust Library’s new exhibition, ‘Death Marches: Evidence and Memory’. Dr Christine Schmidt and Professor Dan Stone talk us through why the Death Marches happened, what the experience would have been like and how we know anything about them.
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Medieval background

Jewish people had been expelled from their home of Israel after revolting against the Roman Empire under Hadrian in 132 – 135 AD. Jews were banned from living there and many migrated to Europe, in what’s known as the Jewish Diaspora.

A culture of stereotyping, scapegoating and abusing Jews developed over centuries of European history, originally based on the notion of their responsibility for the killing of Jesus.

On various occasions medieval kingdoms, including those in places such as England, Germany and Spain, sought to exploit Jews through targeted taxation, restrict their movements or banish them completely.

One of the leading figures in the reformation, Martin Luther, called for violent action against the Jews in the mid-sixteenth century and the word pogrom became synonymous with their persecution in 19th and 20th century Russia.


The Expulsion of the Jews is depicted in a manuscript of the Rochester Chronicle, dated 1355.

Hitler and eugenics in the 20th century

Adolf Hitler strongly believed in eugenics, the pseudo-scientific theory of a racial hierarchy that developed in the later-19th century through the application of Darwinian logic. Influenced by the work of Hans Günter, he referred to Aryans as the ‘Herrenvolk’ (master race) and aspired to establish a new Reich that brought all Germans within one border.

He opposed this grouping of supposedly superior European peoples with the Jews, Roma and Slavs and ultimately wished to create Aryan ‘Lebensraum’ (living space) at the expense of these ‘Untermenschen’ (subhumans). Simultaneously, this policy was designed to provide the Reich with the internal oil reserves it so ominously lacked.

Dan visits the Hasmonean High School in London, which took in refugee children escaping persecution.
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The Nazi rise to power and subjugation of German Jews

Having forced their way to way to power, the Nazis had success in propagating the idea that the Jews were to blame for the misfortunes of the German nation, as well as plunging the world into war from 1914-18. Concentration camps had been established as early as 1933 and Hitler proceeded to erode Jewish rights and encourage the SA to attack and steal from Jews at will.

The most notorious pre-war action by the SA against the Jews became known as Kristallnacht, when shop windows were smashed, synagogues burned and Jews murdered across Germany. This act of retaliation followed the assassination of a German official in Paris by a Polish Jew.


The interior of Fasanenstrasse Synagogue, Berlin, following Kristallnacht.

In January 1939, Hitler made prophetic reference to bringing ‘the Jewish problem to its solution’. German conquests in Europe over the next three years brought some 8,000,000 or more Jews under Nazi rule. Massacres occurred throughout this period, but not with the mechanistic organisation that was to come.

Historian Jack Fairweather tells the story of Witold Pilecki the Polish resistance agent who volunteered to be sent to Auschwitz concentration camp.
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Nazi officials, most notably Reinhard Heydrich, developed plans to manage the ‘Jewish question’ from summer 1941 and in December Hitler used events on the eastern front and at Pearl Harbour to legitimise a proclamation that the Jews would pay for the now-global war ‘with their lives’.

The ‘Final Solution’

The Nazis agreed and planned their ‘Final Solution’ with the intention of exterminating all European Jews, including those in neutral countries and Great Britain, at the Wannsee Conference in January 1942. Their hell-bent obsession with this task was detrimental to the war-effort, however, as the exploitation of skilled Jewish labour and use of rail infrastructure to resupply the eastern front were compromised.

Zyklon B was first tested at Auschwitz in September 1941 and gas chambers became central to the industrialised extermination that occurred within the expanding network of death camps.

4,000,000 Jews had already been murdered by the end of 1942 and the intensity and efficiency of killing increased thereafter. This meant that a mere twenty-five SS men, assisted by about 100 Ukranian guards, were able to eliminate 800,000 Jews and other minorities at Treblinka alone between July 1942 and August 1943.

A mass grave at Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, comprised of bodies that were found littered across the site when it was liberated in April 1945.

Although the numbers can only be estimated, somewhere in the region of 6,000,000 Jews were killed in the Holocaust. In addition, it should be remembered that over 5,000,000 Soviet POWs and civilians; over 1,000,000 Slavs from each of Poland and Yugoslavia; well over 200,000 Romani; around 70,000 people with mental and physical handicaps; and many thousands more homosexuals, religious followers, political prisoners, resistance fighters and social outcasts were executed by the Nazis before the end of the war.

Alex Browne