The Holocaust was one of the most horrific events in human history. It was a genocide that was carried out by the Nazi regime during World War II. The Nazis killed more than six million Jews, as well as Roma (Gypsies), homosexuals, and people with disabilities. They operated over 25 concentration camps and used inmates for slave labour. One of the most notorious camps was Auschwitz, which resulted in the death of over 1 million people.
Concentration camps were introduced to Germany by the newly elected Nazi party in 1933. By the end of the Second World War, they would have built over 25 of them, run and operated by the Nazi paramilitary group known as the SS. The SS commander was Heinrich Himmler, who was in charge of the camps.
The Nazi party had been relatively popular following the challenges of the interwar years and the Great depression. When they were elected to power in March 1933, about 44% of the German population had voted for them.
The first prisoners of the earliest camps were German communists. The Nazi Party particularly disliked communism and used the camps as a way of ‘re-educating’ people away from this political ideology. This ‘red-education’ often involved physical beatings and abuse. However, most of the early inmates were released after a few months. By late 1934, the camps seemed to have fulfilled their purpose and many assumed they would be shut down.
When war broke out in 1939, Hitler set up a permanent concentration camp system and appointed Himmler as the overseer. New camps were built in areas conquered by the Nazi forces, particularly in Poland. The most famous concentration camp, Auschwitz, was set up in 1940 to specifically deal with Polish prisoners.
Anyone that was condemned to time in a concentration camp had to endure very poor living conditions. Sanitation was bad, there was limited food, and inmates were used as slave labour to work in Nazi factories that produced resources for the army. As a result of these conditions, many people died of sickness or starvation.
From 1942, the concentration camps were used for the mass killing of captured Jews, known as the Holocaust. In total, an estimated six million Jews were killed by the Nazis throughout the war. One million of them were killed in Auschwitz itself. Most of these victims were gassed in specially made chambers in which large groups of prisoners were forced to enter.
During the last few months of the war, from January to May of 1945, 300,000 people were killed. As the victorious armies of the Soviet Union, Britain and the US marched towards Berlin, they reported on the number of camps and victims that they constantly encountered.
After World War II ended, Allied leaders estimated that around 2.4 million people were imprisoned in the Nazi concentration camps. This number included men, women and children, including the famous Jewish young girl, Anne Frank. As well as Jews, other ‘undesirables' of the Nazi regime were also targeted, including homosexuals, Gypsies, and Jehovah’s Witnesses.
In an effort to understand the sheer scale of the camp system and the killings that occurred within them, members of the German population were interviewed and asked about them. However, most Germans claimed that they knew nothing about the existence of the concentration camps, nor what they were used for. However, many people believe that most Germans must have known about them due to their physical size and the number of people transported by trains that travelled there.
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