The Holocaust is the name given to the genocidal policies implemented during the Second World War by Nazi Germany. It saw the extermination of millions of people because of their race, religion, political beliefs, sexuality or disabilities. The Holocaust was fuelled by Nazi beliefs in racial purity and their concept of racial hierarchy. Pre-war policy isolated and persecuted these groups. The SA intimidated them. Camps such as Dachau were used to imprison and ‘reeducate’ political opponents. Nazi occupation of much of Europe saw a huge number of such people under Nazi law. They were forced into hard labour camps, made to live in Ghettos, then under the Final Solution, exterminated.

Selection process at Birkenau. The Holocaust.

Origins of the Holocaust: Nazi Racial Theory

The Nazi Party believed in a form of Social Darwinism. Their belief was that the Aryan Race was superior to others. As such they wanted to preserve the purity of the Aryan Race. This meant that they wanted to prevent mixed race children being born and aimed to increase the number of ‘pure’ children. Aryan’s are the sub set of Caucasians who originate from parts of Germany and Scandinavia. Common physical features are that they are tall, broad in build, blonde hair and blue eyes. Ironically most of the Nazi hierarchy did not fit the description of a pure Aryan. The aim for this purity manifested itself into policy. Marriage laws were changed to prevent Jews marrying Germans. Sterilisation was introduced for people suffering from some types of disability.

Persecution of the Jews in Nazi Germany: The Nuremberg Laws

In 1935 the Nuremberg Laws were introduced. These denied Citizenship to Jews. Marriage and sexual relationships between Jews and Germans were prohibited. Restrictions on the types of profession that a Jew could work in introduced at a later date.

The Nuremberg Laws defined a Jew as anybody whose grandparents identified themselves as being Jewish. This meant that many people who had never practised or who had converted, or who had been raised as Christians, found themselves subject to the anti-semitic laws.

The Nuremberg Laws were accompanied by an increase in activities by the SA. Poster campaigns were run in many German towns and cities identifying Jewish shops and discouraging people from using them. Pogroms, anti-Jewish riots, occurred. The most famous of these was Kristallnacht.

In 1937 and 1938 the Nuremberg Laws were extended to enforce the registration of all Jewish businesses. This resulted in further persecution and many owners were ‘encouraged’ to sell their businesses for a fraction of the true value. Professionals suffered further restrictions. Jewish Doctors were forbidden to treat Germans, Jewish Lawyers were no longer able to practise.

The introduction of these laws and the relative ease with which the Nazi party were able to introduce them encouraged further discrimination and was a large factor in enabling the Holocaust.

The establishment of Concentration Camps

Concentration Camps were opened almost as soon as Hitler gained power. The first was opened in March 1933 at Dachau. This concentration camp was used mainly to house political opponents to the Nazi regime. Dachau housed 4800 prisoners in its early years. These tended to be Communists, Social Democrats, Gypsies, Homosexuals and people who were deemed to be highly anti-social. The camp was overseen by the SS under the control of Heinrich Himmler.

It is a misconception to think of Concentration Camps as being solely death camps. Those camps were opened later, during the war and are the ones most associated with the Holocaust. The earlier camps were designed to house people who were a threat to the state. Or those who violated the increasingly strict Nazi Laws. They were correctional facilities that did see people being released. Conditions were far from pleasant but not deliberately life threatening.

Dachau was extended in 1937. The inmates were used as the labour force for the demolition of the original building and construction, on the same site, of a larger camp. At this new camp the SS trained its Concentration Camp guards for the entire network, making Dachau the centre of operations throughout the Nazi Regime.

Dachau saw a large influx of Jewish inmates in the days following Kristallnacht. Some 10000 were interred at the camp. Most of these prisoners were released quite quickly, often on the basis that they had the means to emigrate from Germany. At this stage the Holocaust is not a certainty.

War and the ‘Jewish Problem’

The Nazi invasion of Poland in September 1939 led to the rapid expansion of the Reich’s rule to the East. Part of Hitler’s Lebensraum policy, this new land included many Jews. Unlike Germany, Poland had a large and vibrant Jewish community. This posed a problem for the authorities. Imposing the Nuremberg Laws whilst also establishing Nazi governance in all aspects of rule would be problematic. Resistance to the invasion was always likely, the Nazi’s had to quickly and effectively impose rule if future operations were to be possible within the planned time frame. The solution was to impose very strict military law. Curfews were introduced, registration of the population was introduced. Buildings and significant industries were requisitioned. Yet this took manpower, time and ran the risk of being undermined. The Jews in particular posed a potential threat, large in number and with laws that would destroy their way of life, they posed a challenge. The solution was to house all of the Jews in specified areas. Within towns and cities the establishment of Jewish areas, Ghettos, would allow for easier monitoring. Such control made the execution of the Holocaust easier for the Nazi’s once the Final Solution had been established as a policy.


Ghettos are areas of towns or cities that were set aside for the Jewish population. The term originates from Venice in the 17th century where such a quarter was established. Nazi Germany utilised Ghettos as a means of controlling Jews in occupied territory. Over 1000 were opened in occupied Poland and Soviet Union. They ranged from short term Ghettos that were open for a matter of days to Ghettos that lasted several years. Ghettos came in three forms, open Ghettos in which movement into and out of was unrestricted. This allowed Jews to participate in the local economy, in directed jobs. Closed Ghettos were also introduced. These isolated the Jewish Community from the rest of the town/ city and were enclosed by guarded fences or walls. Much of the administration of life inside the closed Ghetto was left to the Jews to arrange. This left the Nazi’s with just the task of policing entry and exit points which could usually be done with a reasonably small number of guards. The last type of Ghetto is known as a destruction Ghetto. Here Jews from a region were to be rounded up, detained in the Ghetto whilst the round up was complete and then see the population transported with the Ghetto subsequently being destroyed. The latter is more common after the Final Solution had been determined at the Wannsee Conference. The use of Ghettos and the Nazi’s ability to manipulate the inhabitants was a critical factor in enabling the Holocaust.

Wannsee Conference and The Final Solution

As Nazi occupied territory expanded the Jewish Problem became one that required consideration. On 20th January 1942 a group of Nazi officials from numerous departments met at Wannsee to discuss the issue and to agree a solution to the problem. The outcome of this conference is known as the Final Solution. The Wannsee Conference determined that the Jewish Problem needed to be solved through an extermination program. Jews and other undesirables were to be killed off. This would require coordination and collaboration between most facets of government. The conference itself was concerned not with deciding that the Jews were to be killed, that decision had already been taken, but the means of doing it.

Prior to Wannsee the Wehrmacht had advanced a huge distance into the Soviet Union. As with Poland, there was a large Jewish community in these occupied territories. It had been decided at an early stage that Jews would be exterminated. Einsatzgruppen, death squads, had followed the advance and were shooting Jews in large numbers. However, the Einsatzgruppen could not deal with the numbers involved, nor could many of its members deal with the task that they were carrying out on a daily basis. Wannsee was to solve the problems the Nazi’s had in making the Holocaust happen.

It identified 11 million Jews living in Europe and came up with a policy for dealing with this group. Richard Heydrich summarised it as:

during the course of the Final Solution, the Jews will be deployed under appropriate supervision at a suitable form of labor deployment in the East. In large labor columns, separated by gender, able-bodied Jews will be brought to those regions to build roads, whereby a large number will doubtlessly be lost through natural reduction. Any final remnant that survives will doubtless consist of the elements most capable of resistance. They must be dealt with appropriately, since, representing the fruit of natural selection, they are to be regarded as the core of a new Jewish revival.

So the Final Solution of the Jewish Problem and the enactment of the Holocaust would be death through hard work and extermination. To do this the conference identified the possibility of labour camps adjoining death camps. Selection could take place and process each Jew as appropriate.

Video: The Wannsee Conference

Death Camps

Extermination centres or death camps became a key part of the Nazi policy towards the Jews. Once a decision had been made to exterminate the Jewish race, a means of doing so quickly and efficiently was needed. The solution was the type of killing centre such as Auschwitz-Birkenau. Many death camps sat alongside concentration or labour camps. This meant that as transports of Jews arrived, a selection process could be undertaken. Those who could work in labour camps were sent there, those who couldn’t were sent to the death camp.

The best known of the camps is Birkenau. Here the infamous Dr Josef Mengele and his team were involved in selection. Labourers went to work at a variety of industrial plants such as the IB Farben chemical works nearby. Some were identified as being ideal for Mengele’s medical experiments. Others went straight to the gas chambers in which killing could be done on an industrial scale.

The first Death Camp was Chelmno in Poland. Here they used mobile gassing vans. This proved quite slow. Operation Reinhard, shortly after the Wannsee Conference saw the opening of camps at Sobidor, Treblinka and Belzec. Over 1.5 million people were gassed in these camps.

Auschwitz-Birkenau in Poland grew into the largest of the Death Camps. It had 4 gas chambers and could exterminate 6000 people a day. It was a vast complex adjoining labour and concentration camps.

See Auschwitz, a Blueprint for Genocide for additional information.