History Crash Course #60: The Holocaust
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History Crash Course #60: The Holocaust

History Crash Course #60: The Holocaust

While Nazi Germany systematically rounded up and executed Jews, the world closed its eyes and its doors.

by

As we begin to discuss this most painful of subjects to the Jewish people, please keep in mind that this is a vast subject. At the moment there are some 1,200 books in print examining why it happened, how it happened, and all the details in between.

Some of the classics that give insight into the Holocaust are:

  • The Holocaust by Martin Gilbert
  • The War Against the Jews by Lucy S. Dawidowicz
  • Night by the Nobel Prize Winner Elie Wiesel
  • The Diary of A Young Girl by Anne Frank
  • Hitler's Willing Executioners by Daniel Jonah Goldhagen
  • Destruction of European Jews by Raul Hilberg

Alternatively one can visit:

  • Yad Vashem Museum in Jerusalem, Israel
  • The Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C.
  • The Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles

A Crash Course in Jewish History cannot possibly do justice to this devastating event in which a nation (Nazi Germany) targeted a people (the Jews) and systematically and with breath-taking cruelty killed 6 million of them. The word "genocide" was coined to describe it. This word did not exist in the English language before this.[1]

Not only did Nazi Germany set out to eliminate the Jews from the face of the earth, virtually no other country on earth lifted a finger to stop them.

Of course, there were isolated incidents of great heroism on the part of some non-Jews, but history stands in mute testimony that this was a paltry effort. Most did nothing as the Jews died.

The Holocaust thrusts a question into the face of all of humanity: how could civilized people let this happen?

We have a clue to where the answer to this question lies from Adolf Hitler himself:

"Yes, we are barbarians! We want to be barbarians! It is an honorable title ... Providence has ordained that I should be the greatest liberator of humanity. I am freeing men from ... the dirty and degrading self-mortifications of a false vision (a Jewish invention) called 'conscience' and 'morality.'"

(See Hermann Rauschning's books: Hitler Speaks and Voice of Destruction.)

Adolf Hitler

To begin with we have to explode some major myths about Hitler.

Adolf Hitler, who was born in Braunau, Austria in 1889, had nothing but positive interactions with Jews in his childhood and youth, contrary to popular belief that tries to blame his actions on some early vendetta. In his youth, when he was a struggling artist, many of the people who supported him were Jews. Even more, some important figures in his life were Jewish – like his family doctor or his commander in World War I who nominated him for the Iron Cross.

And yet, despite these positive experiences, Hitler had a deep-seated hatred of the Jews. In terms of Jewish history, the only people who had similar pathological hatred, were the nation of Amalek.

(Amalek, as we might recall from Part 16, was the ultimate enemy of the Jewish people in history. Amalek's major ambition was to rid the world of the Jews and their moral influence and return the planet to idolatry, paganism, and barbarism.)

Hitler's hatred of the Jews – like the Amalekite's hatred of the Jews – was not illogical. We can even call it rational, in that he had a reason for it that he understood very well, as we shall see.

Hitler also was not insane. He had his neuroses, but he was not crazy. In fact, he was a brilliant political manipulator. We can certainly say a lot of horrible things about him, but Hitler was one of the greatest public speakers in human history. If you understood German, you'd understand while watching tapes of his speeches why those blonde, blue-eyed Germans cheered so heartily a man whose very appearance contradicted everything he preached. There he was with black hair and brown eyes, as far away as he could come in appearance from the Aryans, the master race with which he wanted to populate the earth. And yet they gave him their loyalty and gave up their lives for him.

Hitler's rise to power began after the 1932 German elections when his party received more than 35 percent of the vote. A year later President Paul von Hindenburg appointed him as Chancellor of Germany. Immediately after he came to power, he set up Dachau – not as a concentration camp for Jews, that would come later, but as a place to put his political opponents. Little by little, he took a very sophisticated democratic system of the Weimar German Republic and turned it into a totalitarian state. Democratic rights were suspended, political opposition was suppressed and books were burned. [2]

His dictatorship in place, Hitler embarked on a policy of bullying his way into taking over much of Europe.

Initially Europe, and certainly the United States, did nothing. Together with his Austrian Fascist allies, Hitler (in violation of the Treaty of Versailles) [3] pressured Austria into unifying with Germany in March 1938. Then he took over part of Czechoslovakia, a region called the Sudetenland, without the consent of the Czechs but with the blessing of European powers – particularly England and France. The Prime Minister of England at that time, Neville Chamberlain, showed how little England cared about the problems of Europe in this speech:

"How horrible, fantastic, incredible it is that we should be digging trenches and trying on gas masks here because of a quarrel in a faraway country between people of whom we know nothing."

England and France negotiated a pact with Hitler in Munich on September 30, 1938, promising to look the other way as Hitler dismembered Czechoslovakia. Afterwards Chamberlain, satisfied Europe would be safe from Hitler, declared:

"...the settlement of the Czechoslovakian problem, which has now been achieved is, in my view, only the prelude to a larger settlement in which all Europe may find peace. This morning I had another talk with the German Chancellor, Herr Hitler, and here is the paper which bears his name upon it as well as mine.... I believe it is peace in our time ... peace with honor."

A year after this infamous statement, World War II broke out – a war in which 50 million people would die – showing how naive is a leader who thinks that by placating evil peace can be won.

Offensive Against the Jews

Some three years before he made his strides into Europe, Hitler was already putting into place his program to get rid of the Jews.

It began in 1935 with the Nuremberg Laws. These laws basically cancelled all the rights that Jews had won in Germany post-Enlightenment.

For so many years before the Enlightenment Jews were hated because they were different and refused to assimilate. Post-Enlightenment, (as we saw in Parts 53 and 54) in the very country where the Jews assimilated the most easily, they were now hated because they were blending in too well. Hitler's ultimate nightmare was that Jews would intermarry with Germans and poison the gene-pool of the master race. [4]

Hence laws such as these were passed to preserve "the purity of German blood":

  • "Marriages between Jews and subjects of German or kindred blood are forbidden."
  • "Extramarital relationships between Jews and subjects of German or kindred blood are forbidden."
  • "A Reich citizen can only be a state member who is a German of German blood and who shows through his conduct and is both desirous and fit to serve in the faith of the German people and Reich. The Reich citizen is the only holder of political rights."
  • "A Jew cannot be a citizen of the Reich. He can not exercise the right to vote. He cannot occupy public office."
  • "Jews are forbidden to display the Reich's national flag or to show the national colors."

Systematically, Jews lost their citizenship, their political rights, their economic rights.

Then the violence started.

Closed Doors

The first explosion of major Nazi violence against the Jews was Kristallnacht – "the night of broken glass." It happened on November 9, 1938. That night 191 synagogues were destroyed and 91 Jews were killed, many beaten to death.

Afterwards some 30,000 Jews were arrested and fined a billion marks (equal to about 400 million dollars) for the damage that was caused by the Germans.

This was really the writing on the wall for the Jews. At this time many tried to get out of Germany. Unfortunately, very few places in the world would accept them. For example, when the Foreign Minister of Canada was asked how many Jews Canada should take, his response was "None is too many."

America took in only 200,000 Jews due to the anti-Semitism that we discussed in Part 59.

Even when it was clear the Germans were persecuting the Jews, the American State Department had such strict criteria for allowing Jews into the country that 75% of the spaces that were allotted to Jews technically, by American law, were never even taken. Amazingly, so many Jews who in theory could go to America couldn't make the requirements. (Canada was by far worst of all the Western countries allowing only 5,000 Jewish refugees into the country.)

All told, about 800,000 Jews actually found refuge in various places in the world. But the majority couldn't get out.

(For more on this subject read While Six Million Died: A Chronicle of American Apathy by Arthur D. Morse. It is a stinging indictment.)

World War II

World War II started on September 1, 1939, when Germany invaded Poland.

That brought England and France into the war in opposition to Germany. On June 22, 1940, France surrendered to Germany, leaving England to fight it alone. Eventually the U.S. would join in, although not until 1941, when Japan bombed , which was Germany's ally, bombed the U.S. naval base at Pearl Harbor.

By that time, virtually all of Europe was in Hitler's control. It happened quickly because the Germans were so good at waging war (and because countries like France, while well equipped-had military leadership who lacked the will to fight). They had perfected the art of using concentrated, fast-moving armor and infantry together with intense artillery and air support – they called it blitzkrieg, meaning "lightning war." They were unstoppable.

They were stopped, of course – first and foremost by the Russians and secondly by the British and Americans – though it took years at a cost of many lives.

In the beginning of the conflict, Hitler had signed a non-aggression pact with Stalin but in June 1941, he violated it and invaded the Soviet Union anyway. Here, too, the Germans were initially very successful, primarily because Stalin, despite all the evidence, refused to believe that Hitler would break his none-aggression pact and attack Russia. Stalin had also purged his whole army of most of his competent officers – he had killed them all.

Basically as fast as the Germans could walk is as fast as they advanced into the Soviet Union. And there, of course, was where a great many Jews resided. Immediately, Hitler began his campaign to eliminate them.

The Einsatzgrupen, special German units, began systematically executing people and some 1.5 million Jews were killed by them alone. They were rounded up, usually over a big ravine or pit which they were often forced to dig themselves, and then they were machine-gunned over it. Those who did not die immediately from their gunshot wounds were buried alive.

This is what happened at the Babi Yar forest near Kiev in the Ukraine. There, according to German "official" records 33,782 men, women and children were executed over a ravine in September of 1941. The watchman at the old Jewish cemetery, near Babi Yar, recalled how the Ukrainian policeman:

...formed a corridor and drove the panic-stricken people towards the huge glade, where sticks, swearing, and dogs, who were tearing people's bodies, forced the people to undress, to form columns in hundreds, and then to go in the columns in twos towards the mouth of the ravine.

At the mouth of the ravine the watchman recalled:

...they found themselves on the narrow ground above the precipice, twenty to twenty-five meters in height, and on the opposite side there were the Germans' machine guns . The killed, wounded, and half-alive people fell down and were smashed there. Then the next hundred were brought and everything repeated again. The policemen took the children by the legs and threw them alive down into the Yar.

But the worst was yet to come.


[1] Raphael Lemkin (June 24, 1900 – August 28, 1959) was a lawyer of Polish-Jewish descent.…He is best known for his work against genocide, a word he coined in 1943 from the root words genos (Greek for family, tribe or race) and -cide (Latin for killing). He first used the word in print in Axis Rule in Occupied Europe: Laws of Occupation – Analysis of Government – Proposals for Redress (1944).
[2] It is interesting to note a comment from the great German-Jewish writer Heinrich Heine. After watching a book burning in Germany in 1920 he stated: "Where they burn books, they will also, in the end, burn human beings." Amos Elon, The Pity of It All-A Potrait of the German-Jewish Epoch 1743-1933. (Picador, 2002), p 119.
[3] The Treaty of Versailles (1919) was a peace treaty that officially ended World War I between the Allied and Associated Powers and Germany.
[4] It is interesting to note that throughout history Gentiles were happy to have Jews leave the fold of Judaism, convert to Christianity and marry out of the faith. During the vast majority of Jewish history in Europe Jews stubbornly clung to their identity and usually refused to convert to Christianity even under duress. It is only when we get to 19th and 20th centuries do we find significant numbers of Jews abandoning their faith and consciously attempting to assimilate. Precisely at this point in history the reason for anti-Semitism takes a dramatic course change: In medieval Europe the Jews was hated for being different. Now the Jew is hated for trying to be the same as the Gentile. While neither of these two reasons is the true cause of anti-Semitism, assimilation is never the solution. Perhaps the most ironic aspect of anti-Semitism is that the greatest explosions of anti-Semitism have usually taken place in places where Jews are most comfortable amongst the Gentiles. Germany is arguably the best example of this phenomena. For more on this topic see: Dennis Prager & Joseph Telushkin, Why the Jews-The Reason for Anti-Semitism, New York: Touchstone Books. 2003.

Published: January 12, 2002

Article 60 of 68 in the series Jewish History


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Visitor Comments: 19

(19) Victor Martin Hunt, June 29, 2013 11:03 PM

1920 should read 1820 ?

You write (2) After watching a book burning in Germany in 1920 he stated: "Where they burn books, they will also, in the end, burn human beings." My query is the date 1920 ? did you mean 1820 ? Which I believe gives Heinrich Heines statement one of prophetic importance in regard to the horrors of Crystal Night in 1938.

(18) Umana Etiakam, February 13, 2008 8:16 AM

Why, Why Why

I am a Christian and each time i hear something about the Jews, i always pick interest because i have this inner likeness for the Jews, whose story i have only sourced from the Bible. My recent decision to subscribe to the Jewish history, i hope, will give me an insight into understanding the Jew better. However i felt like discontinuing on the aspect of the holocaust because it pumps up my adrenaline. How could a people want to wipe out fellow human beings. Well, i believe the Jews have forgiven both the aggressors and the able byestanders.
The Amalekites will never succeed in bringing the Jews down and i pray.

(17) howard yagerman, February 7, 2008 7:52 AM

Please Read this Mr.Olmert

Does Mr.Olmert understand his role in Jewish history? Will he announce that he met with Herr Abbas and there will be peace in our time?Or will he miracuously awake from his delusion and see that history will repeat itself if we forget its lessons.

(16) Grace Fishenfeld, February 6, 2008 8:45 PM

The Difference

zul dem abishter uphitten." Kill or be killed", as directed by one of the commenters is our way only to defend against an enemy who has been aggressive and threatening our existence.
In ancient day , rules of war dictated that when a Jewish army is gaining on an enemy, an exit of escape should be made for them because Jews have a high regard for all life. After the SIX DAY WAR, Israel mourned the losses of all who perished, including the enemy, before victory was celebrated. Yes, we are an unusual people.

(15) Bob, February 5, 2008 4:23 PM

Reason for anti-semitism

I have always felt that the reason for anti-Semitism was that the Jews, by their very existence, force humanity to accept the reality of the One G-d. That is why it will never end until Mashiach comes. But, on that day, Isaiah 49:23 says that one day these people who hate the Jews will lick the dust of their feet as they prostrate themselves to the Jews.

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