Professor David Cesarani OBE is one of the world's leading historians of the Holocaust. He is Research Chair in History at Royal Holloway, University of London. David is a former HMDT trustee and is Historical Consultant to HMDT. In this podcast Professor Cesarani provides an authoritative introduction to the history of the Holocaust.
In 1937, the regime took a radical turn. Hitler was now determined to embark on a war of conquest in Europe. He pushed the conservative nationalists out of his coalition government – they’d been pretty ineffective for some years in any case. But now the regime was a purely Nazi regime; with aggressive intentions. As it radicalised, and as it prepared for war, the regime began to tighten the screws on the Jews, seizing their property, depriving of their assets and their wealth, causing massive unemployment and suffering and encouraging Jews in a very brutal way to emigrate, to leave Germany. In 1938, in March 1938, Germany occupied and then annexed Austria. The annexation of Austria, and the so-called Anschluss was accompanied by a wave of violence, murder, abuse; in Vienna and other cities in Austria where Austrian Jews lived. An officer of the SS was sent to Vienna to oversee the affairs of the Jewish community, his name was Adolf Eichmann. Eichmann, set up an office that was designed to help Jews to emigrate, that is to say, strip them of all their assets, their wealth, but it made it possible for them to get the necessary papers to find refuge in another country. The culmination of terror and brutality and the work of this office, meant that tens of thousands of Jews emigrated quite quickly from Austria. This created a so-called model that the Nazi leadership in Berlin were rather drawn to.
We’ll come back to this model in a moment, but we need to pause for a moment at the 9-10 November 1938. The Nazis had ordered the expulsion from Germany of Jews with Polish Nationality – a young Polish Jew in France was so upset that his mother and father had been abruptly rounded up and then shoved across the border and dumped into a country that did not want Jews. He was so upset by this that he got a gun, marched into the German embassy in Paris and shot the first embassy official he came across: a chap called Ernst von Rath who died. Goebbels, the propaganda chief, in the Nazi government, was incensed by this assassination and used it as a good reason to organise a massive riot against the Jews in Germany and Austria. A pogrom, as a riot is sometimes called. He hoped that by organising this riot, he’d impress Hitler. Many of the Nazi leaders believed that if you wanted to impress Hitler, the Fuhrer the best way to do it was by bashing the Jews, by passing anti-Jewish measures, by thinking of ways of making the lives of Jews in Germany unbearable, so Goebbels made his move, and triggered the Night of Broken Glass, Kristallnacht, called that by the Nazis because in the morning, the streets of German cities were covered with the glass of shattered shop windows; of homes that had been broken into and ransacked; of synagogues that had been destroyed. Hundreds of synagogues were set ablaze, houses were invaded by SA and SS thugs, tens of thousands of Jewish men were rounded up and taken to concentration camps.
The Nazi leadership was not entirely happy with the world’s response to Kristallnacht, there were many protests from around the world. Goering, the head of the German Economics Ministry was particularly upset because he was not consulted by Goebbels, and he thought this could damage the German economy. On the other hand, Goering thought this was a terrific opportunity to pass laws that would finally seize all German Jewish business assets, property, absolutely everything, squeeze them out of German life and the German economy. At a crucial meeting, at Goering’s Air Ministry, he also heard a presentation about the so-called Vienna model: what Adolf Eichmann had done in Vienna. He thought this was a terrific idea and ordered that a similar office should be established in Germany. And indeed it was, under the auspices of Adolf Eichmann who was working for Reinhart Heidrich, the head of the SS security service and Heinrich Himmler, the head of the SS. In this way, the Jews of Germany and Austria came under the control of the SS. The SS was the most ideologically advanced, the most Nazified, the most ruthless part of the entire Nazi State. Because of Kristallnacht, because of the SS control of immigration, the immigration of Jews, the Jews thereby fell into the hands of the most virulently antisemitic element of the Nazi movement. These men believed absolutely that the Jews were the racial enemy; believed that the Jews were engaged in a conspiracy, a world-wide conspiracy against Germany; believed that the Jews were a world-wide power; believed that the Jews had to be destroyed. Men, women and children, they were all bearers of the virus of Judaism, they were all capable of subverting German life, or Aryan life, that they were actually a threat to Humanity as a whole. They took their lead from Hitler, and Hitler had written in his book Mein Kampf, ‘My Struggle’, in which he described, set out his ideas, described his struggle to power [of the Nazi Party], they took as their lead the claim that if the Jews triumphed over the Aryans the world, the earth would go spinning through the Universe, devoid of life. That is the kind of cosmic struggle that Hitler and the true believers of the Nazi Party believed they were engaged in, and the SS: Himmler, Heidrich, men like Eichmann, they were the arm of the Nazi movement, carrying out the war against Jews.
The Second World War
So the Jews have fallen into the hands of the most violent, hateful element of the Nazi regime. In 1939, in September 1939, Germany invaded Poland, triggering the Second World War. As soon as the Germans had occupied Western Poland, Heidrich, set in train a series of anti-Jewish measures, concentrating Jews in certain cities, areas that later became ghettos, stripping the Jews of their rights, their wealth, their assets. Triggering unemployment, poverty, and with poverty and overcrowding in these Jewish quarters or ghettos – came disease. Starvation and disease began to decimate the Jewish populations of the cities in Poland. Germans were now in charge of not just the Jews left in Germany and Austria and the Czech lands they’d occupied, but one and a half million Jews in Poland. And these were Jews that they hated even more if that’s possible, than the Jews in Germany. The so-called Aus-Juden, the Eastern Jews were very religious, they looked different, who characterised to them everything that was horrible about Judaism and about the Jews. This is the beginning of violence against Jews, murder on a large scale. It’s still unsystematic, but the inhibitions that the SS have, no longer exist, if they ever were there, and they have infected the German Army, and the civil administration that’s set up in Poland. Everyone understands that the Jews are fair game. You can kill a Jew and no one’s going to care, you can take their home, their property, no one’s going to care. In fact you are working towards the Fuhrer, you are doing what the Fuhrer, Adolf Hitler wants, by persecuting Jews, by making their lives miserable, by taking their homes their wealth, their property. Everything from them.
In the Spring of 1940, the Germans complete their conquest of Western Europe, a stunning military victory, which led to the control of significant Jewish populations in France where about three hundred thousand Jews lived, the Netherlands, where about a hundred and forty thousand Jews were living, Belgium where about sixty thousand Jews as well as smaller Jewish communities in Denmark and Norway. Within a short time all of these Jews are subjected to antisemitic legislation, modelled on the legislation passed in Germany. In France, the collaborationist regime, the Vichy government, passed these laws before the Germans had even suggested it, because wherever the Germans went they found collaborators. There was a significant part of public opinion that hated the Jews, that shared Nazi antisemitism [anti-Jewish hatred]. Maybe not the racial antisemitism, maybe not the view of the Jews as the racial enemy, the conspiratorial force; but nevertheless, the old, traditional religious hatred, the old stereotypes of Jews were common, everywhere the Nazis went. They were able to, what you might call, what you might say, is form alliances, they were able to find people in France, in Belgium, in Holland, in Norway, who would work with them. In Poland, a country which had long been friction between the Jews and non-Jews, although they didn’t find, and didn’t seek people to help persecute the Jews, they nevertheless found tacit support, or indifference. Most Poles simply didn’t mind if the Germans made the lives of the Jews a misery, and a few actually enjoyed the spectacle. Until the invasion of Russia, by the Germans in the Summer of 1941, it was German policy to encourage Jews to emigrate from the areas under their control or to expel them, and soon there was very little difference between emigration and expulsion because the lives of Jews were being made so miserable, there was no way they could survive in the areas under German control. However, there were increasingly, fewer countries willing to accept Jews. Before the Second World War, Britain, for example tightened its immigration controls, was very reluctant to admit significant numbers of refugees and once war had broken out borders were closed everywhere. With the beginning of the Second World War Jews were pretty much trapped in Germany, there were only a few places they could go, places like Shanghai, certain countries in South America that would accept Jews from Europe. There was a steady dribble of Jews who did get visas, who managed to escape.
The Final Solution
In the Summer of 1941, something changed, something changed at the very top of the top of the Nazi hierarchy, historians find it very difficult to date exactly when this happened, find it very difficult to document how it happened, but the Nazi movement went from a policy of extruding Jews, pushing them out of the areas of its control, to physically annihilating them, to murdering them, to killing the entire Jewish population. It seems to begin in Russia with the invasion of Russia, the German army is followed by four special, mobile task groups, these groups called Einsatzgruppen. These groups have a series of jobs that include collecting intelligence, suppressing resistance and dissent, capturing Communists and everyone who worked for the Soviet State and also killing Jews who were seen as pretty much the same as the Bolsheviks. The Einsatzgruppen carry out the first large scale killings by shooting in the Summer of 1941 though, between the beginning invasion on 22 June 1941 and the end of August 1941, the Einsatzgruppen go from killing Jewish men only to wiping out entire Jewish populations, men, women, children. This is a genocide.
The genocide begins with mass shooting in Russia, and it kind of feeds back into Poland, and then into Western Europe, in Poland the Jews had been confined to ghettos for the best part of one and a half years, there was enormous suffering, starvation, hunger, unemployment, but the Jews had found an accommodation with the Germans – many of the ghettos had been turned into productive centres, producing things that the Germans, particularly the German army needed. But Hitler and those around him began to see the ghettos in Poland in a different light. They wanted to use the ghettos to dump the German population, German Jewish population, and in order to make room, for the German Jews in those ghettos, the local inhabitants were systematically slaughtered, either by shooting or using poison gas. The first poison gas was piped into the rear compartments of lorries at a place called Chelmno in Poland. This was a horrible technology, a technology of mass killing, which had been pioneered, killing Germans, Disabled Germans, because in 1939, in roughly the time that the Second World War started; the regime had started killing those who were mentally and physically Disabled. Men, women, children, in sanatoria, in asylums. These were ‘useless eaters’, lives unworthy of life. At a time when the Reich was going to war, Hitler believed they should not be a burden on the State. It was also quite convenient to free up space, to create hospitals for the Wehrmacht, the German army. About 70,000 Germans: men, women, children, not Jews, were murdered, using poison gas in fixed gas chambers, and using gas vans, particularly in areas annexed to Germany in 1939-40, about 70,000 Germans, and later on Poles were killed in this way. And then this killing technology was transferred to Poland to be used to get rid of the surplus population of the ghettos, to make room for German Jews being dumped there from within Germany, from the Reich.
Sometime around December 1941, January 1942, again, historians differ about the exact timing, the Nazi regime resolved to not only wipe out the Jews of the Soviet Union, not only to clear out much of the Jewish population of Poland, by murdering them, but to annihilate, physically destroy the entire Jewish population of the whole of Europe. And to achieve this, they built death camps; factories that produced nothing but death. Extermination sites: the first sites were in Poland and were intended to wipe out the Polish Jewish population. They were at Belzec, Sobibor and Treblinka. Those three camps, along with Chelmno, more or less destroyed the Jewish population of Europe. There was another camp at Majdanek, near Lublin in Poland, and the most famous of all, Auschwitz-Birkenau, near the Polish city of Krakow. Now initially Auschwitz was not built as a death camp, it was built as a concentration camp used to imprison and terrorise the Polish population, and the Germans killed, tortured, imprisoned tens of thousands of Polish people in 1939-40 and 41, the suffering of the Polish people under Nazi rule was terrible. In 1941, however, Himmler gave orders for Auschwitz to be enlarged, a new camp was built, at a place called Birkenau, and later on this became the site of huge specially built gas chambers, using a cyanide gas, Zyklon-B. Jews from all over Western Europe, Southern Europe, South-Eastern Europe were transported by rail to Birkenau, solely in order to be murdered. A tiny fraction of each trainload, and each trainload was about 1,000 people, would be used for labour within the camp system, but this work, this labour was just a form of slow death. The Jewish prisoners were not fed properly, they were brutally treated, thousands of them died. The height of the killing of Jews was in the period between the Summer of 1942 and the end of 1943; somewhere around 3,000,000 Jews were murdered during this period, shot to death by the Einsatzgroupen, murdered in gas chambers in Poland, shipped from Western Europe to extermination centres.
From the Winter of 1942/3, the Germans found it much harder to get their hands on Jews, for several reasons. First of all, many of their allies and collaborators began to get nervous, about the possibility that Germany might lose the war; also because the Jews had wised up, they understood that they were now facing a ruthless, murderous enemy. Jews began to flee, to evade, to hide, and to fight back. The most famous example of Jewish resistance is the Warsaw ghetto uprising in April 1943, which was a spark that lit Jewish resistance all over Europe, many ghettos resisted when the Germans came to deport the Jews in Poland. Jews went into the partisan movements in Russia, in the Balkans; Jews fought with the Maqui, they formed their own Jewish underground army. In France, Jewish members of the underground actually stopped a deportation-train, train number 22 in Belgium and freed several hundred Jews who were being deported to one of the death camps in Poland. So from 1943, there is more support for Jews in the countries in which they lived, people are increasingly angry with the Germans, for the way they’re being treated in the occupation regimes; they now begin to think the Germans might lose the war, and the Jews are also reaching out to non-Jews for help in the resistance for help in hiding.