The Holocaust is a term used to describe the systematic persecution and annihilation of European Jews,Gypsies, Poles, Communists, the mentally and physically infirmed as well as others, between 1933-1945 throughout German controlled territory. During the Second World War approximately 6 million Jews and 5 million non-Jews died as a result of Adolf Hitler’s Nazi program. A program that was partly devoted to creating an ethnically pure Aryan state by expelling all racial enemies,foremost the Jews.
The beginning of the Holocaust is often marked by Kristallnacht, otherwise known as “The Night of Broken Glass.” On 9-10 November 1938, a pogrom throughout Germany and Austria occurred in which thousands of Jewish synagogues, businesses and homes were burned to the ground or irreparably vandalized; 30,000 Jewish men were sent to concentration camps; and hundreds of Jewish people were killed in the streets.
From 1939, all Jews were to be imprisoned in Ghettos or camps where countless men, women and children died at the hands of both the Nazis and their collaborators. State sponsored systematic mass murder began in June 1941 when Germany invaded the Soviet Union and mobile killing units (SS Einsatzgruppen) proceeded to round up and shoot hundreds of thousands of Jews in open trenches or ditches. Such systematic mass murder culminated with the creation of extermination camps that predominantly used poisonous gas as its weapon.
These killing centers(such as Auschwitz-Birkenau) began operating in late December 1941 and were created in order to annihilate as many Jewish people as possible in the least amount of time. Although created prior the Wannsee Conference, the extermination camps carried out the dictates of the “Final Solution”. After the Allied Powers, including Canada, defeated the Axis Powers in 1945, the Nuremberg Trials were held and symbolically prosecuted a select few guilty of war crimes.
However, most of those responsible for the Holocaust lived as free men and women and to this day continue to be tracked down by The Simon Wiesenthal Center. Simon Wiesenthal,the famed “Nazi Hunter,” dedicated his life to pursuing those that escaped trial and detention until the time of his death in 2005.
The Holocaust, or Shoah as it’s known in Hebrew, is the widely accepted name given to the mass-murder of European Jews orchestrated by the National Socialist regime in Germany and its collaborators during the 1930s-40s. This violence is classified as a genocide,meaning that it was systematic, bureaucratic, and sanctioned by the highest levels of German leadership. Although it started in Germany as early as 1933,the Holocaust was ultimately carried out across many nations during the Nazi struggle for European domination during the Second World War. Between the German invasion of the Soviet Union in the summer of 1941 and the end of the war in Europe in May 1945, Nazi Germany and its accomplices sought to enact the“Final Solution to the Jewish Question”, their euphemism for the decision to annihilate all Jewish life under their domination, resulting to the deaths of 6 million Jewish men, women and children. Their justification for this violence was their ideology of ethno-nationalist hatred; the Nazis believed Germans were racially and culturally superior to all other peoples and needed to rid itself of foreign blood and influence. Jewish people, as one of the main ethnic,religious and cultural minorities in Germany, were designated as the most dangerous threat to German racial purity and society at large.
Unfortunately, the National Socialist regime did not limit itself to Jewish victims; they also killed millions of non-Jewish people deemed to be political, racial, and social enemies of the German state. Other victims include people with disabilities, Slavic peoples,Roma and Sinti minorities, political opponents of Nazism (communists especially), homosexuals, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and others deemed worthless or dangerous by the National Socialist Regime.
The word “holocaust” itself predates the events of WWII. Historically, the word has been used to describe any catastrophic large-scale sacrifice or destruction, often describing destruction by fire. Although it can still be applied as a general term, today the word is associated almost exclusively with the fate of European Jewry under Nazism.Scholar Jon Petrie has shown that ‘holocaust’ was already in use during the war itself, although various other terms were equally popular. In the post-war era,holocaust became the preferred title among American scholars by the 1960s. Equally popular among Jewish people is the Hebrew word Shoah.
Antisemitism is prejudice, hostility or discrimination against Jews as a religious, ethnic, and/or racial group.It may take the form of religious teachings that proclaim the inferiority of Jews, or political efforts to isolate, oppress, or otherwise injure them.Antisemitic ideologies often promote the view that Jews are a unified malevolent force, working in It may also include stereotyped or dehumanizing views about Jews, and the devaluation of Jewish life as distinctly “other.”
Antisemitism is difficult to boil down into one clear set of ideas because it is one of the oldest forms of prejudice and has evolved in various locations and contexts for as long as we have been recording history. Although the Holocaust was the largest and most violent manifestation of antisemitism in Europe’s history, antisemitism as an ideological force has existed for thousands of years, across many different states- resulting in expulsions,forced conversions, limitations on Jewish civic freedoms, and outright murder. The age of National Socialism in Germany is therefore not the end point of the long and troubling history of anti-Jewish hatred, nor the starting point. In fact, we have seen an unfortunate resurgence of antisemitism in the 21st century and can expect that this hatred will continue to exist in the future.
A Brief History of Antisemitism
Prejudice toward Jews dates to ancient times, perhaps to the beginning of Jewish history itself. From the days of the Old Testament until the Roman Empire, Jews were criticized and sometimes punished for their efforts to remain a separate social and religious group — one that refused to adopt the values and the way of life of the non-Jewish societies in which it lived.
The rise of Christianity roughly 2000 years ago greatly increased hatred of Jews, in spite of the fact that Jesus was himself Jewish. His followers were also Jewish, including the figure seen as the ultimate betrayer of Christ, Judas Iscariot. Although Christ was in fact executed by Roman authorities, Jews became seen as collectively guilty for the death of Christ, a crime known as deicide (to kill a god). The accusation of Jews committing deicide and the perception that Jewish people had rejected Christ as the son of God was arguably the most powerful justification for antisemitism for over a thousandyears. The earliest recorded instance of an accusation of deicide against the Jewish people as a whole – that they were collectively responsible for the death of Jesus – occurs in a sermon of 167 CE attributed to Melito of Sardis.
By the high middle ages (11th-14th centuries), the Jewish Diaspora had reached Europe, but religious prejudice combined with the perception that Jews were outsiders meant that Jewish people were widely persecuted as barely human"Christ-killers" and "Devils." Forced to live in all-Jewish ghettos, their isolation meant that they were viewed as a threatening “other”and this suspicion exploded into outright violence during times of chaos and crisis. In 1347, the devastating plague known as the Black Death descended on Europe and is believed to have killed almost half the population. Due to the lack of understanding about disease transmission until the late 19th century, in combination with hostility towards Jewish outsiders, an antisemitic conspiracy theory gained traction as a popular explanation. People claimed that Jews were actually causing the illness by poisoning Christian peoples’ wells and this paranoid delusion spread like wildfire. Thousands of Jews were ultimately murdered due to this accusation across several European communities but violence was concentrated in the Dutch lowlands.
Monstrous legends about malevolent Jewish forces were not limited to the medieval period. At other moments in European history, Jews have been tortured and executed for supposedly abducting and killing Christians (especially children)to drink their blood or to use it in religious rituals— an accusation known as"blood libel." The concept of blood libel is really useful when trying to understand antisemitism but also more broadly how an individual or community justifies exclusion and violence against minority groups. If the “other” is so monstrous as to be unrecognizable as human, and believed to be a hostile enemy that wants to harm the larger community, the majority begins to see themselves as victims that are defending themselves from a threatening outside force. Violence is framed not as an attempt by the majority to eradicate difference, but as a justified reaction against Jewish villainy.
Anti-Jewish violence was often implicitly allowed, if not explicitly promoted by ruling authorities, but forced conversion and expulsion were recurring strategies employed across different territories in European history. During the Spanish Inquisition of the 15th century, for example, a large number of Jews were forced to convert to Christianity to avoid death, torture, or expulsion, although many Jews who were forced to convert continued to secretly practice Judaism. Religious antisemitism was not limited to Catholicism; antisemitism was built into the very foundations of the 16th century Protestant Reformation. The leading figure of the reformation, Martin Luther, was known for vocal hatred of Jewish people and went as far as to advocate murder of Jews in his 1543 text, On the Jews and Their Lies.
One of the most pernicious forms of antisemitism that weaves a constant thread throughout European history can be classified as economic antisemitism, including the idea that Jews exploited Christians and fed off of the nations they lived in for their own interests. One classic example of this prejudice can be seen in Shakespeare’s the Merchant of Venice in the character of Shylock. The historical underpinnings of economic antisemitism can be found by studying the complex relationship between Jewish economic activity and their status as a reviled minority from antiquity on wards. Discrimination against Jews meant that Jewish people were often barred from certain professions (craft and artisan guilds) and from owning land or titles. Jewish survival would depend on other economic activities, including but by no means limited to trade and money-lending. Many European rulers saw the value of using Jews, who were typically more literate than the non-Jewish population and more desperate for work, as a sort of middle man in the state’s attempts to collect taxes and generate wealth. This fact, coupled with the reality of Jewish exclusion and separation from Christian communities, meant that resentment and hatred towards the Jewish ‘other’ was widespread even as Europe turned towards secularism.
In the 18th century, as the influence of Christianity began to lessen during the Enlightenment, religious hatred of Jewish people gave way to new forms of non-religious criticism: Judaism was attacked as an outdated belief system that blocked human progress. Jewish separatism was again targeted.
As European countries began to take shape in the 19th century and nationalism grew, Jews,- who were still usually deprived of civil rights and lived throughout Europe as outsiders- were subjected to further hostility. This hostility took on new intensity with the rise of socialism. For hundreds of years, Jews had been excluded on the basis of religious and cultural differences; now here came an ideology that called on the working class, regardless of race or nationality, to rise up collectively and overthrow the corrupt ruling class. Some Jews were attracted to socialist ideals, although the vast majority of Jews were not communists, and the vast majority of communists were not Jews. Even so, antisemites seized on the idea of a Jewish communist conspiracy and this perception sometimes fed into deadly persecution, as was the case with the late-19th century Russian pogroms. Even though antisemitism continued to be widespread, the 19th and 20th centuries saw unprecedented assimilation by Jews into European society.
By the late 19th-century,antisemitism was evolving yet again. Social Darwinism and new “racial sciences” like the eugenics movement gave antisemites the ability to argue that ‘Jewishness’ was not a religion but a racial category, and that the Jewish "race" was biologically inferior and inherently dangerous.
The belief in a Jewish race would later become Germany's justification for seeking to kill every Jewish person in lands Germany occupied during World War II, whether the person practiced Judaism or not. In fact, even the children or grandchildren of those who had converted to Christianity were sometimes murdered as members of the Jewish race. The Holocaust resulted in the death of six million Jews — more than a third of the world's Jewish population. While the rise to power of the Nazis (Germany's leaders during World War II) in the 1920s and 1930s involved numerous social and political factors, the views that helped turn antisemitism into official government policy included belief in the inborn superiority of "Aryans," or whites; belief that Jews destroyed societies; that Jews secretly worked together to gain control of the world; and that Jews already controlled world finance, business, media, entertainment, and Communism.
Contemporary examples of antisemitism (Source: International Holocaust Remembrance Alliance)
· Calling for, aiding, or justifying the killing or harming of Jews in the name of a radical ideology or an extremist view of religion.
· Making mendacious, dehumanizing, demonizing, or stereotypical allegations about Jews as such or the power of Jews as collective — such as, especially but not exclusively, the myth about a world Jewish conspiracy or of Jews controlling the media, economy, government or other societal institutions.
· Accusing Jews as a people of being responsible for real or imagined wrongdoing committed by a single Jewish person or group, or even for acts committed by non-Jews.
· Denying the fact, scope, mechanisms (e.g. gas chambers) or intentionality of the genocide of the Jewish people at the hands of National Socialist Germany and its supporters and accomplices during World War II (the Holocaust).
· Accusing the Jews as a people, or Israel as a state, of inventing or exaggerating the Holocaust.
· Using the symbols and images associated with classic antisemitism (e.g., claims of Jews killing Jesus or blood libel) to characterize Israel or Israelis.
· Drawing comparisons of contemporary Israeli policy to that of the Nazis.
National Socialism or Nazism is the political ideology of the Nazi party. The period of Nazi rule in Germany, January 1933 to May of 1945, is often called the National Socialist Era. The term"National Socialism" first arose out of attempts to create a nationalist redefinition of "socialism", as an alternative to Marxist international socialism. Nazism rejected socialist ideals around the idea of class conflict and universal equality and instead sought to convince all parts of the new German society to subordinate their personal interests to the "common good." In order for German people to accept this new order, the Nazis engineered a seductive national myth that combined history,mythology, and the new racial sciences. The Nazis promoted the idea that German people were the descendants of the ancient Aryan people and that their Nordic heritage meant they were racially superior to all other racial groups. As the superior “master race”, Germany had the right to dominate and rule over others- through violence if necessary.
The National Socialist Party evolved from the far-right antisemitic and nationalistic German Worker’s Party, which formed in the immediate aftermath of the First World War. By the early 1920s the party was renamed the National Socialist German Workers' Party to attract workers away from left-wing parties, and Adolf Hitler became their official leader. In Mein Kampf ("My Struggle"), Hitler further outlined the antisemitism and anti-Communism at the heart of his political philosophy and his belief in Germany's right to territorial expansion.
The “Final Solution” was the euphemism used by Nazi Germany to describe their campaign of genocide against European Jews between 1942 and 1945, including mass deportations to Eastern Europe and systematic extermination of Jews in death camps constructed for this purpose.The Final Solution was enacted with the intention of destroying the Jews as a collective “race” of people. This was a pivotal moment in Nazi strategy for dealing with the “Jewish Question”( the question of Jewish existence in modern European society). Before this phase in the war, there had been mass killing of Jews but Nazi leadership had actually considered different possibilities as to how they could solve the supposed “problem” of the prevalence of Jews across Europe. For instance, they explored the idea of creating a Jewish state on the island of Madagascar.
However all other ideas were ultimately abandoned and Nazi leadership decided that European Jewish communities should be wiped off the map permanently through mass murder. While Hitler made several references to killing Jews, both in his early writings (Mein Kampf) and in various speeches during the 1930s, it is fairly certain that the Nazis had no operative plan for the systematic annihilation of the Jews before 1941. The decision on the systematic murder of the Jews was apparently made in the late winter or the early spring of 1941 in conjunction with the decision to invade the Soviet Union. These plans were solidified into official policy during the infamous Wannsee Conference held near Berlin in January 1942, presided over by Reinhard Heydrich and attended by many high-level officials. It was at this conference that Nazi leadership created a list of all of the Jewish communities to be targeted and determined that concentration camps could be turned into centers of mass murder. Although concentration camps had existed in Germany since the Nazis rise to power in 1933, it wasn’t until 1942 that special gas chambers and crematoria were constructed to “process” Jewish victims more easily.
In light of the evolution of the Nazi regime’s policies towards Jewish people under their domination, most historians agree that it is incorrect to say that the Final Solution was “inevitable” but the rabid antisemitism of many top Nazi officials meant that the state’s treatment of Jews became more brutal and violent as the war progressed. By the time mass extermination was seen as an option, many Nazis , collaborators, and ordinary citizens believed that Jewish life was worthless.
As Holocaust educators, we get more questions about Adolf Hitler than about any other topic. This isn’t surprising when you realize the place that he holds in our culture as the quintessential villain of the 20th century. Children are often exposed to information about Hitler and Nazism long before they participate in our workshops but in reality, it isn’t only young people but our entire culture that is fascinated with a man who can seem cartoonishly evil when we read about him or see him depicted in movies. This caricature seems at odds with the fact that Hitler was extremely popular in his own time and attracted widespread popular support, leading to the victory of the Nazi Party during the elections of January 1933. These different depictions of Hitler may seem to contradict one another and people without a lot of background knowledge on Germany in the early 20th sometimes feel they are not getting the “full story” when it comes to the history of the Nazi regime. This attitude is understandable and can be a great starting point for further inquiry, but it can also be problematic when it opens individuals to Holocaust revision and denial. The truth is that the “full story” is far more complex than most popular media conveys and if we want to understand the cult of personality around Hitler and the popularity of the Nazis, we need to take a closer look at the broader context of Germany in the 1920s-30s.
The Nazis were unlike any political movement in Germany’s history, rising to power in the aftermath of the most devastating war the world had ever seen. Germany in the aftermath of the First World War was in chaos. Germans felt like the victims of other European powers,unfairly blamed for WWI and devastated by the harsh conditions of the main peace agreement signed at the end of the war, the Treaty of Versailles. Germany lost a huge amount of territory, had to pay millions of dollars to the countries that won the war, and had to officially declare their guilt in causing the conflict- all of this on top of the fact that the war was devastating in and of itself and millions of German men had died. The 1920s and30s in Germany were marked by civil war, unemployment, economic depression and many other issues, making life very difficult in a country that had long been considered one of the economic and scientific powerhouses of Europe. Germans who supported the Nazis didn’t see Hitler as evil or crazy. They thought of him as a savior, the strong leader who would finally pull Germany out of catastrophe and strike at their enemies (both internal and external). When we watch his speeches through 21st century eyes, we might see someone who looks unhinged/enraged, gesticulating wildly. But the adoring crowds who watched him saw strength and righteous anger,a patriot who had the passion and qualities that would raise Germany up from the humiliating defeat of WWI. The return to a powerful German Empire required a strong leader and Hitler’s charisma and magnetism should not be underestimated.Hitler identified real problems in Germany: the economic depression, the lack of jobs for German citizens, the demoralization of the German people after WWI,weak government in the interwar period- and proposed innovative solutions to deal with these problems. He gave the German people what they had been lacking for many years: a sense of hope and confidence in their nation’s leadership.
Hitler’s other great success as a leader of the German people was to give them a common enemy- the Jew. Hitler focused the anger and hatred of the German people on Jews and other alleged enemies of German greatness and we should never underestimate the social utility of having a scapegoat to unify the populace. Germans who conformed to the Nazi ideology were at a minimum willing to ignore the Nazi’s hateful race propaganda and many enthusiastically promoted it.
While we must acknowledge and examine the reason that German people were so receptive to Nazism and Hitler’s cult of personality, students must also understand that the Nazis were not able to deliver this fantasy and their policies did not lead to lasting positive change in Germany. One ‘advancement’ that Hitler is too often given credit for by Holocaust and WWII revisionists is economic development in the 1930s. It is true that the German economy was stimulated in this time, but it’s easy to create jobs and new industry when you are trying to prepare for global war. The average German citizen saw little improvement in their day-to-day lives in this period. The efforts of rearmament and mobilization for the coming war that had been part of Hitler’s plan from very early on, and was entirely dependent on the expectation of invasion and conquest. The only way that production could be maintained was through conquering and adsorbing the economies of Germany’s neighbors.
Adolf Hitler was an obsessive white supremacist and antisemite who established a totalitarian, single-party state within Germany, thereby dismantling German democracy in the process. There was no such thing as free speech during the Third Reich and public life was rigidly controlled. Hitler and his followers launched a war of naked aggression that involved half of the globe and caused the deaths of millions of soldiers and civilians. He had knowledge and gave assent to the attempted extermination of the Jewish population in Europe, resulting in their slaughter both in concentration and extermination camps, as well as by various other means in the east. He is also responsible for the murder of millions of non-Jews , including over 200,000 people with disabilities in hospitals, Roma and Sinti populations across Europe, Slavic people, etc. It is also worth noting that when the German army was finally defeated, he did not stand by his country and the actions they had taken; he committed suicide, leaving Germany to mercy of the Allies.
We get this question a lot. Many Canadian students are familiar with Jewish people who essentially look “white” like other Europeans and kids often imagine that the Holocaust happened in some distant past where records were rarely kept. It is easy for students to imagine that Jewish people could simply pretend to be Christian/hide their true name and identity. It is worth pointing out that there were a huge number of public records being kept on all people within Germany and other European states in the early 20th century including censuses, birth, marriage, and death records, school records, church or synagogue membership lists, labour unions, and countless other documents that often directly stated one’s religion, last name, parents, etc. Another major source of information in Nazi Germany was from people spying on their own neighbours or Jewish businesses. Many different methods were ultimately employed and it was relatively easy for the Nazi regime to identify Jews, both within Germany and in the different countries invaded by Germany during the war:
1. Long-standing trend of antisemitism meant that Jews were often already being tracked and counted in different ways. For example, there were quotas on the number of Jews allowed to live in urban centres and universities in the Russian empire well into the 20th century, so Jewish individuals and communities were often tracked and regulated.
2. Jewish people do not necessarily look racially distinct but there were many cultural and physical markers that set them apart: most Jews (especially in Eastern Europe) spoke Yiddish, wore specific clothing and men wore long beards. Orthodox women, meanwhile often wore wigs to cover their real hair. Another piece of physical evidence was that for Jewish men, circumcision was the norm, and many orthodox Jewish men had payot (earlocks).
3. The progression of violence during the Holocaust was gradual and the full extent of the genocide unimaginable, so when the Nazis first started systematically counting and collecting data on Jewish communities, Jewish leadership usually cooperated because they were legally required to do so and felt that if they resisted, their refusal to obey the law could result in worse treatment for their community. We should not be quick to judge these decisions as foolish when we consider that they based off of hundreds of years of experience of Jewish communities weathering antisemitic policies. The notion that Germany, one of the most civilized and advanced European states, would seek to exterminate millions of innocent lives, was inconceivable to many, even after the Second World War had begun.
4. New laws were introduced during the 1930s and 40s that forced people to carry identity papers that included information on your religious and national background. It was punishable by death to carry fake papers, to hide/remove a Jewish star, otherwise conceal your identity so many people never tried.
At FSWC, we fully embrace Simon Wiesenthal's assertion that “the Holocaust was not just a Jewish tragedy but a human tragedy.” Although the destruction of Jewish communities was a unique obsession of Hitler and other Nazi leaders, a full accounting of the crimes of the National Socialist regime must also speak to the millions of non-Jewish victims murdered during this period. When discussing the number of victims during the Holocaust, many know that approximately six million people were killed. While this number accounts for Jewish victims of the Holocaust, it does not include non-Jewish victims. It is very difficult to give an exact figure of victims targeted across many different countries, but scholars believe that as many as five million non-Jewish victims were also murdered during this era. . Among the groups which the Nazis and their collaborators murdered and persecuted were: Other ‘racial’enemies including Roma/Sinti peoples ( often referred to as Gypsies), Slavs,and people with physical and mental disabilities, communists and other political enemies , resistors, and those who were considered agents of social degeneracy like homosexuals, drug addicts and prostitutes.
The racial enemies targeted by the Nazis were from diverse backgrounds but the German word ‘untermenschen’ became an umbrella term used to describe non-Aryan"inferior people", often referred to as "the masses from the East". This concept was applied to Jews, Roma and Sinti people,and Slavs (mainly ethnic Poles, Serbs, and later also Russians). The term was also applied to Blacks, and many other persons of color (with some exceptions).People classified as gypsies and the physically /mentally disabled were also exterminated en mass in killing centers. The Nazis designated people with disabilities to be “life unworthy of life", and began a campaign of murder (involuntary euthanasia) called Aktion T4 that saw th edeaths of between 200,000 and 300,000 people.
Although the Slavic population of East-Central Europe was to be reduced in part through mass murder, Hitler’s long-term plan for Slavic peoples was that the majority would ultimately be expelled to Asia or used as slave labor in the Reich. Some among the Slavs or Baltic people who happened to have Nordic racial features were deemed to have distant Germanic descent which meant partially "Aryan"origin, and therefore were to be ‘Germanized.’ While the Nazis were inconsistent in the implementation of their policies, the total death toll was over 10 million of victims.
YES. This is the most pervasive Holocaust conspiracy theory that we deal with at FSWC. Almost everyday a student brings up the idea that Hitler might have escaped, might even still be alive today, biding his time somewhere in the Amazonian Jungle. This question has been the source of many rants by our education team. It stems from the fact that there have been a few different docu-series that present the question as if it’s a legitimate line of inquiry(Hunting Hitler, Hitler in the Andes, etc).
The whole crux of this question stems from the nature of Hitler’s death and evidence that we have been lacking, until recently. Until a couple of years ago, the events of his suicide in the bunker were only known through witness testimony and there was no definitive proof identifying Hitler’s remains. The fact that the Soviet army were the ones who captured the bunker and the burned remains of Hitler meant that western scientists did not have the ability to examine these remains themselves, which also added to the perception of mystery and potential escape. The theory was also given new life several years ago when Russian scientists working with a bone fragment supposedly belonging to Hitler discovered that it was actually a bone from a young woman. People jumped on this as evidence that Russia has been lying the whole time, in spite of our knowledge that a young woman DID die and was buried with Hitler, his young wife of 24 hours, Eva Braun.
In the spring of 2018, a team of French pathologists, published in the peer-reviewed European Journal of Internal Medicine, their own results. This team were the first Western European group allowed to study a set of teeth kept in Moscow since the end of the war. Their findings in the report show that they have determined with certainty what historians have always assumed — with World War II irredeemably lost by Germany, Adolf Hitler did in fact kill himself at his Berlin bunker on April 30, 1945.
The public perception of Hitler and Nazism in North American pop culture is definitely unique in many ways, and we often hear the Nazis described as the most evil or notorious political regime in history. The question of “why” Hitler is more deserving of our attention than other notorious dictators comes up fairly often with high school students and stems from the knowledge that other world leaders like Mao and Stalin were responsible for the deaths of millions of civilians, in some cases in numbers that are comparable to the Holocaust. This violence has unfolded through a variety of economic, social and political crises including political purges and coups, civil war, famine (sometimes forced), and systematic forced labour programs. In spite of this we hear way more about the Nazis than other violent authoritarian regimes.
This is a logical question, although it can be concerning when it seems that the importance of Holocaust education is being challenged. These questions can definitely fall into “what-aboutism”territory, but when the question is asked in good faith, there are ways to respond thoughtfully. The first thing to make clear is that there needs to be space to talk about the crimes of other leaders, that these questions should be asked of many different political regimes. The answer here is not to shut down conversations about the Holocaust, but to spend more time examining the many faces of injustice in recent history. You may also want to highlight some of the following characteristics of Hitler and the Holocaust that help explain why they hold a central place in recent history:
· The Scale and Character of the Holocaust
o The Holocaust is unique in that the genocide happened over an entire continent,across many different nations. Jewish people targeted were civilians from all walks of life, ages, and nationalities. The sheer scale of the violence,facilitated in part through collaboration by non-German peoples across dozens of countries, is an unprecedented phenomenon in recorded history.
o The methodical, technologically-advanced strategies utilized by the Nazis are another unique characteristic of the Holocaust. The Nazis set up industrial killing factories for human beings and used the most sophisticated technology of the time to “process” their inventory. History has been plagued with countless massacres, genocides, and general inhumanity,but in the case of the Holocaust, it is specifically the industrialization of the slaughter that stands out. It was all the technological and bureaucratic advancement of the West and the modern era, turned toward the singular purpose of the extermination of Jewish people.
· The ideological basis for the Holocaust
o In some ways it is easier to understand and be horrified by the Nazis hatred of one ethnic/religious group as compared with the reasoning behind terror committed by someone like Mao. The Nazis saw Jewish people as a distinct racial group, inherently sub-human and dangerous. They had no mercy for children, the elderly and other groups we normally see as innocent and deserving of protection. By contrast, Mao and Stalin's enemies were targeted during political struggles and purges, and justified through more abstract concepts such as"an enemy of the people" rather than a specific ethnicity or religion.Furthermore, the reasoning and decision-making that happens in oppressive authoritarian regimes can be difficult to glean when we don’t have access to relevant historical documents and scholarship. By contrast, there are endless resources to learn about Hitler and the Nazis.
· History is written by the victors:
o When comparing Stalin and Hitlers’ international reputations, we must also consider the fact that Stalin was an ally of England, France, and Canada during WWII. The Soviet Union was instrumental to the defeat of Nazi Germany and the Eastern Front was the most devastating battlefront in terms of loss of life and destruction of property in recorded history.
o It was possible to take an accounting of the crimes of the Nazi state because Germany lost the war and Nazi leadership was totally destroyed.This is a very different situation than with dictators who are in power for decades and have control of media/public statements about the atrocities.Stalin has a much more ambiguous status in Russian history, in part because he is still celebrated as a strong leader who kept Russia together during the Second World War(or the Great Patriotic War as it is known by many in Russia), when many believed Russia would crumble in the face of German aggression.
o Also consider how the Nazi crimes against Jewish people were revealed: As allied forced liberated concentration camps, some of the most unimaginable scenes of human suffering were photographed and filmed for the first time. These images had a very dramatic impact on public perception of Nazism and Germany as a whole and this impact continues to be felt today.
· Unfortunately, Racism and Western European biases also play into the attitudes that we take towards particular human rights abuses: for much of European history, Russians were generally regarded as backwards at best, savage at worst by Western Europeans. Racism has also factored into how loss of human life was perceived by Western media during Mao’s Cultural Revolution.
It may seem obvious to many people,but a lot of students struggle to understand why they need to learn about events that happened in distant locations decades before they were born. Another thing to consider is that this question can be indicative of underlying resentment or perception that the Nazi genocide against European Jews seems to get more attention than other human rights abuses in recent history. When confronted with this kind of attitude, it is important to respond in a way that acknowledges the way many topics are marginalized while also reaffirming the importance of Holocaust education. You should emphasize that it is wrong that we hear less about other crimes in history, but the solution is not to abandon studies of the Holocaust. We need to devote more time and energy to understanding global histories of injustice and the Holocaust, as the largest and most devastating genocide of the 20th century, is an integral part of that history. If you would like to be more specific, there are a few key points that might be useful to highlight:
1. We need to Bear Witness: Many Holocaust survivors have expressed the importance of bearing witness, of remembering the lives lost and the horrors of that time. We believe that the burden of remembrance should not fall to survivors alone. We need to foster interest in future generations if we want the Holocaust to be preserved in our collective memory. Gregory Stanton’s 10 Stages of Genocide tells us that the attempt to erase and deny the existence of a genocide after the fact is one of the last acts of violence committed as apart of that genocide. The greatest crime of all would arguably be to forget the Holocaust even happened, to forget the victims stolen from their families and communities.
2. The Holocaust reveals important truths about human nature: the consequences of the bystander effect, the progression from legal discrimination to outright violence and murder in genocidal situations, dehumanization, the power of fear and greed. It also highlights the way that in horrific times there can be exceptional acts of compassion, altruism, and bravery. It reveals the power of hope and the depths of human depravity. It is a microcosm of the human experience.
3. We should learn the lessons of history so we don’t repeat them: We need to learn about the Holocaust because as arguably the greatest atrocity in modern history, there are many lessons we must learn to avoid repeating the same injustices. The phrase “Never Again” emerged as a slogan in the aftermath of the Holocaust and has become one of most powerful statements against hatred and genocide, but it is also a wish unfulfilled. We have not reached the point that “never again”describes our collective response to violence and loss of innocent life in the present-day. We continue to see communities destroyed by discrimination and violence,whether it be Yadizi Christians in Iraq, the Twa of the Congo, or Rohingya Muslims of Myanmar. Consider Martin Neimoller’s famous poem, “First they came for the Jews.” This important work illustrates the fact that we need to protect the rights and freedoms of all in order to protect our own. The protection of universal human rights requires open-mindedness and respect for ethnic, cultural and religious diversity and collective action in the face of forces that threaten this respect and inclusivity.
4. Need to Fight Holocaust Denial/Modern Antisemitism/General Ignorance: It might surprise some students (and teachers), but there are people all over the world, even certain governments, that promote Holocaust denial. There are a lot of people out there who are ignorant of the history and can’t wrap their heads around the sheer number of people killed and so choose to believe that the disappearance of 6 million Jewish people is somehow a conspiracy or gross exaggeration. This ignorance is fertile ground for antisemitic theories and stereotypes that persist today. Challenges to the history of the Holocaust or denial of the fact that Jewish people were victimized on a massive scale is a sort of “gateway” argument in justifying antisemitism and/or belief in white supremacy.
5. You can’t understand the past 75 years of global history without understanding the role that WWII and the Holocaust played in shaping it: World War two was the most devastating war in human history. This conflict led to a complete remaking of the world order and many of the advancements and upheavals of more recent decades can be traced directly back to WWII. This can be seen through countless post-war trends, including technological development, decolonization movements of the 1950s-60s, the rise of America as a global superpower, massive population movements/immigration out of Europe, the Civil Rights Movement, the dissolution of Nazi Germany and the emergence of a new type of geopolitical conflict with the Cold War.
The Holocaust as a part of this war also had a pivotal impact on the character of post-war reconciliation and arguably helped shape the very language we use to discuss things like human rights and hate crimes today. It was in the immediate post-war era that the United Nations formed and discussions immediately began on how to define concepts like human rights, genocide and war crimes. After the Holocaust we see, for the first time, an international community of leaders coming together to acknowledge their collective responsibility in protecting the rights and dignity of all people, irrespective of borders.