The Holocaust is the general term for one of the most horrific chapters in Europe's history and that of humanity. The word describes the systematic extermination of the Jewish population during National Socialism in Germany. In this explanation, we'll explain the background and history of the Holocaust, what happened, and what its consequences were.

Holocaust Holocaust

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Table of contents

    Holocaust Definition

    The term "Holocaust" originates from Ancient Greek, meaning "totally incinerated" in translation. In Judaism and in Hebrew, one can also say "Shoah", which means "the great unholiness" in Hebrew. Whereas the term Holocaust was also used in the past about rituals of sacrifice and other genocides, today we use the term mainly about the 5-6-6-3 million Jews who were systematically murdered under National Socialism in Germany. The term sometimes includes the Porajmos, a term describing the genocide of the Romani people. Typically, though, when we speak of the Holocaust, we are referring to the genocide of the Jewish population.

    The map below features all the extermination camps, concentration camps, and ghettos in Europe during World War ll.

    The Holocaust Map Europe StudySmarterFig. 1- Holocaust Map

    concentration camps (noun) - facilities where Germans sent to war and political prisoners to live in poor conditions as they awaited execution or worked themselves to death. The main difference between concentration camps and extermination or death camps was that death camps were used exclusively for the mass murder of Jews, who were slaughtered in the millions. In the concentration camps, the cause of death was often disease, neglect, starvation, or overwork.

    Holocaust History

    This definition is the lens through which we'll look at the Holocaust. To get a grip on the facts, we must look at the roots of antisemitism within the National Socialist party.

    Goals of the National Socialists

    The NSDAP of Adolf Hitler had aspired to either exterminate or expel the Jews from Germany since its inception in 1920. The party explicitly laid out this goal as part of the 25-point program that was one of their main elements. Hitler had been jailed earlier for his attempted coup, also known as the Munich Beer Hall Putsch. While serving his sentence, the future leader wrote his autobiography and one further unpublished work. These critical texts laid out Hitler's racist and antisemitic theories.

    The ultimate goal of Hitler and his NSDAP was the extermination of what they termed "Judeo-Bolshevism", here referring to the revolutionary coup that had overtaken the Soviet Union, that in their view, had been masterminded by the Jews. Hitler had also said in an interview that the best solution to the Jewish "problem" would be to kill all the Jews in Germany. As that was presumably impossible, the Jews should at least be subject to mass expulsion.

    Holocaust - Persecution of the Jews

    At the beginning of Hitler's takeover of power, the National Socialists wanted to banish the Jews from their areas. So began the sub-organization of the first assault on the freedoms of Jewish people. Those tasked with this project included the SA, SS, and the Hitler Youth. First stop, Dachau, for the construction of the first concentration camp.

    Hitler himself quickly passed several laws restricting the freedoms of Jewish folks. He did this with the help of the Enabling Act of 1933, which granted him almost unlimited power.

    A prime example of the racist legislation Hitler enacted was the Law for the Restoration of Professional Civil Service (1933-1945). This new law forbade anyone not of Aryan descent from assuming positions as civil servant in Germany.

    Heinrich Himmler (1900-1945) was in charge of the SS and Hitler's chief architect of the Holocaust. Born in Munich to conservative Catholic educator parents, the patriotic young Hitler dreamed of being a military officer on the front lines. Still, these aspirations were thwarted by the end of World War l.

    Himmler studied agriculture at Munich's Technical University, where he nurtured his racist beliefs by joining various nationalist student groups. He joined the Nazi party in 1923 by connecting to Ernst Roehm, whom he would later murder. Following the failed Munich Beer Hall putsch, he worked in a manure processing plant.

    In 1929, he was assigned to the position of Reichsführer of the SS. From there, he grew this agency, and its roles shifted under his tenure from a humble collection of 280 bodyguards to an internal security body of 52,000. Himmler consolidated power by taking charge of the Race and Settlement Office, responsible for expelling thousands of Jews, communists, Roma, disabled persons, and homosexuals. He then took over the task of centralization of concentration camps. Finally, he usurped the power of the German police and military by leading the Gestapo. This position under the direct command of Hitler cemented his position as the chief architect of the Final Solution.

    In the spring of 1945, Himmler sealed his fate when he unsuccessfully tried to negotiate with Jewish leaders, who by dint of his atrocities, refused to meet with him, and subsequently attempted to broker an offer of surrender to General Dwight D. Eisenhower, leader of the Allied troops. Hitler then fully revoked his power. British troops captured Himmler in May. He died by swallowing a specially prepared cyanide capsule during a cavity search.

    “In front of you here, I want to refer explicitly to a very serious matter….I mean here…the annihilation of the Jewish people…. Most of you will know what it means when 100 corpses lie side by side, or 500 or 1,000…. This page of glory in our history has never been written and will never be written….We had the moral right, we were obligated to our people to kill this people which wanted to kill us.”

    - Heinrich Himmler, speech justifying the Final Solution to the Jewish Question in Poznan, 1943

    Holocaust Heinrich Himmler StudySmarterFig. 2- Heinrich Himmler

    The Nuremberg Laws

    Further dire consequences arrived in the summer of 1935 with a boycott of the National Socialists for their actions against Jews. This backfired when the government swiftly passed the Nuremberg Laws, which even further restricted the rights of Jews. The following two years saw no additional measures taken, as Hitler's attention had shifted to administrative matters. However, in 1938, a whole raft of drastically intensified measures was taken to persecute this vulnerable group during World War II. In the interim period before the war began, up to 315,000 Jews fled Germany.

    The Beginning of Systematic Murder

    With the start of World War ll and the German invasion of Poland, the Nazis undertook the systematic murder of Polish Jewry. There the Brownshirts were able to test new methods of mass destruction. And here, the first mass extermination of Jews took place. Since this new territory lay outside the officially controlled region of the German Kingdom, Hitler ordered the deportation of German Jews to this region of Poland, where they would live monitored on reservations.

    Holocaust Warsaw Ghetto StudySmarterFig. 3- Warsaw Ghetto Map

    Jewish Ghettos

    By 1938, the National Socialist regime had begun to place Jews in tenements or "Jew Houses," as the Nazis called them. Therefore, they could be more easily separated from the population, making deportation much easier. Once the war had begun, the Nazis began to designate Jewish ghettos in occupied territories. They designed these places to maximize the suffering, terrorization, and starvation of Jews. Residents were walled in and patrolled by police, so they could not flee. A prime example of these areas is the Warsaw ghetto, where up to 500,000 Jews were imprisoned in May 1941.

    Death Camps

    The plan was always to deport the Jews to the newly acquired Soviet territory. Soon it was clear, however, that reaching this aim would not be so simple. The National Socialist Regime instead decided to murder the Jews in the ghettos en masse. Starting in 1941, the regime built extermination camps in occupied areas. These camps had the sole and exclusive purpose of killing Jews as quickly and efficiently as possible and completely cremating their corpses.

    The likely best-known extermination camp was also the largest: Auschwitz-Birkenau. Most Jews were sent here from German-occupied territories like France and Belgium to be immediately killed. In these extermination camps (also known as concentration camps), the Germans killed over 3,000,000 Jews. From these, between 900,000 and 1,100,000 perished at Auschwitz alone.

    Holocaust Auschwitz StudySmarterFig. 4- Selection of prisoners for either work or gas chamber at Auschwitz

    Holocaust Timeline

    Below you will find a timeline tracing the Holocaust from post-World War ll antisemitic stirrings to the full-blown seismic catastrophe it became.

    September 16, 1919Adolf Hitler issued his first comment on the so-called Jewish Question.
    February 24, 1920Nazis release their party platform, including Hitler's 25-point plan.
    November 9, 1923Hitler engineers the Munich Beer Hall Putsch
    January 30, 1933Adolf Hitler becomes Chancellor
    February 28, 1933Based on the Reichstag fire, constitutional protections were put on hold in Germany.
    April 7, 1933Law for the Professional Civil Service Restoration bans Jews from civil service jobs.
    August 19, 1934Hitler becomes dictator after abolishing the office of President following Hindenburg's death.
    September 15, 1935The Nuremberg Race Laws had immediate effects on Jews in Germany.
    March 11, 1938Germany annexed Austria (the Anschluss)
    March 1, 1942German regime established the Auschwitz-Birkenau camp.
    July 23, 1942SS began gas chamber operation at Treblinka
    January 27, 1945Soviets liberated Auschwitz
    February 4, 1945Yalta conference took place
    April 30, 1945Hitler committed suicide
    May 7, 1945Germans surrendered

    Holocaust Fact

    Although the Jewish population had already been excluded from the general population, what was happening in the extermination camps was largely unknown to the public at the time. SS soldiers in the camps were sworn to secrecy under the death penalty. Publicly, the Jews had been subjected simply to relocation measures.

    Holocaust Survivors

    There are up to 50,000 Holocaust survivors in the United States today. Holocaust Memorial Day is a worldwide day where moments of silence are observed along with candlelight vigils. Buildings all over the US and the UK are illuminated in purple, the official memorial color of the Holocaust. Citizens adorn themselves with Stars of David or pink triangles to commemorate the horror.

    The survivors carry on the legacy of the Holocaust, which states simply, "Never again." These folks bore witness to the pure hatred and evil in the most cataclysmic event of the 20th century and somehow lived to tell the tale. In the absence of six million souls who cannot tell their stories, it is more important than ever to pass on this legacy.

    Holocaust Eli Wiesel StudySmarterFig. 5 -Eli Weisel

    “Never shall I forget that night, the first night in camp, which has turned my life into one long night, seven times cursed and seven times sealed....Never shall I forget those moments which murdered my God and my soul and turned my dreams to dust. Never shall I forget these things, even if I am condemned to live as long as God Himself. Never.”1

    - Eli Wiesel, Night

    Holocaust - Key takeaways

    • The Holocaust refers to the systematic murder of Jews during World War ll, marking one of the most horrific events in European, nay world, history.
    • Around six million Jews fell victim to the Holocaust. Even at the beginning of his political career, Hitler spoke of his goal to solve the "Jewish problem". When he assumed power, and before the beginning of World War ll, Jews Germany-wide were ostracised, harassed, and oppressed under various laws, such as the Nuremberg Laws, passed in the wake of the Enabling Act of 1933.
    • When Poland was occupied, German Jews were deported to ghettos, the end goal being their banishment to the presumably-occupied Soviet Union.
    • Soon it became apparent that this goal would not be attainable. Hitler and the National Socialists decided to build extermination camps to systematically murder Jews. Three million Jews were killed in these extermination camps, and six million people were killed in total by the end of World War ll.


    1. Wiesel, Eli. Night. 1960.
    2. United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. Learn About the Holocaust. 2022
    Frequently Asked Questions about Holocaust

    How many Jews died in the Holocaust?

    Six million Jews were killed during the Holocaust.

    What was the Holocaust?

    A systematic state ordered murder of Jews and other undesirables.

    When was the Holocaust?


    What impact did the Holocaust have on history?

    The Holocaust displayed the dangers of a government built on hate, as well as shaped the way Jewish people saw themselves and their position in the world. 

    How many Holocaust survivors are still alive?

    50,000 in the United States.

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