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In the late 20th century, the term Holocaust (Greek, "a completely (holos) burnt (kaustos) sacrificial offering") was introduced to refer to the attempt of the Nazi Party of the German Empire to exterminate those groups of people found "undesirable" by the Third Reich.

The term is primarily used to refer to the extermination of most of Europe's Jewish population, of which more than 6 million were systematically killed according to the extensive documentation left behind by the Nazis themselves.

In some circles, the term holocaust is used to describe the systematic murder of the other groups which were exterminated in the same circumstances by the Nazis, including ethnic Roma and Sinti (also known as gypsies), political dissidents, communists, homosexuals and mental patients raising the total number of victims of Nazi atrocities to between ten and fourteen million civilians, and up to 4 million POWs. Today, the term is also used to describe other attempts at genocide, both before and after World War II.

Concentration camp inmates during the Shoah

Shoa, also spelled Shoah and Sho'ah, Hebrew for "Destruction", is the Hebrew term for the Holocaust. It is used by many Jews and a growing number of Christians due to theological discomfort with the literal meaning of the word Holocaust; it is considered theologically offensive to imply that the Jews of Europe were a sacrifice to God. It is nonetheless recognized that most people who use the term Holocaust do not intend such a meaning. Similarly, the Roma (Gypsy) people use the word Porajmos, meaning "Devouring" to describe the Nazi attempt to exterminate that group.

One feature of the Nazi Holocaust that distinguishes it from previous attempts at genocide was the systematic method with which the mass killings were conducted. Detailed lists of present, and future, potential victims were made and meticulous records of the killings have been found. In addition, considerable effort was expended over the course of the Holocaust to find increasingly efficient means of killing more people faster, for example by switching from carbon monoxide poisoning to the use of zyklon B.

In addition to mass killings, Nazis conducted very cruel "medical experiments" with prisoners, even children. Josef Mengele, AKA "Angel of Death" is one of the most infamous Nazis for his cruel experiments and arbitrary mass-executions of people.

Table of contents

Concentration and Extermination Camps

Concentration camps for "undesirables" were spread throughout Europe, with new camps being created near centers of dense "undesirable" populations, often focusing on heavily Jewish, or Roma groups.

Concentration camps for Jews and other "undesirables" also existed in Germany itself, and while not specifically designed for systematic extermination, many concentration camp prisoners died because of harsh conditions or were executed.

Some camps, such as Auschwitz, combined slave labor with systematic extermination. Upon arrival in these camps, prisoners were divided into two groups: those too weak for work were immediately murdered in gas chambers (which were sometimes disguised as "showers") and their bodies burned, while others were first used for slave labor in factories or industrial enterprises located in the camp or nearby. The Nazis also forced some prisoners to work in the removal of the corpses and to harvest elements of the bodies. Gold teeth were extracted from the corpses and women's hair (shaved from the heads of victims before they entered the gas chambers) was recycled for use in products such as rugs and socks.

Three camps--Belzec, Sobibor, and Treblinka II--were used exclusively for extermination. Only a small number of prisoners were kept alive to work at the task of disposing of the bodies of people murdered in the gas chambers.

The transport was often carried out under horrifying conditions using rail freight cars.

See also: Concentration camp, Extermination camp


Anti-Semitism was common in Europe in the 1920s and 1930s (though its history extends far back throughout many centuries during the course of Judaism). Adolf Hitler's fanatical anti-Semitism was laid out in his 1925 book Mein Kampf, which became popular in Germany once he acquired political power. On April 1, 1933 the recently elected Nazis under Julius Streicher organized a one-day boycott of all Jewish-owned businesses in Nazi Germany (the last remaining Jewish enterprises in Germany were closed on July 6, 1939). This policy helped to usher-in a series of anti-Semitic acts that would eventually culminate in the Jewish Holocaust.

In many cities throughout Europe, Jews had been living in concentrated areas. During the first years of World War II, the Nazis formalized the borders of these areas and restricted movement, creating modern ghettos to which Jews were confined. The ghettos were in effect prisons, in which many Jews died from hunger and disease; others were executed by the Nazis and their collaborators. Concentration camps for Jews existed in Germany itself. During the invasion of the Soviet Union over 3,000 special killing units (Einsatzgruppen) followed the Armed Forces and conducted mass killings of the Jewish population that lived on Soviet territory. Entire communities were wiped out by being rounded up, robbed of their possessions and clothing, and shot at the edges of ditches.

In January of 1942, during the Wannsee conference, Nazi leaders agreed on what Nazi ideologists called the "final solution of the Jewish question" (Endlösung der Judenfrage). They began to systematically deport the Jewish populations of the ghettos and from all occupied territories to extermination camps, such as Auschwitz and Treblinka II.

See also : Judenrat, genocide


Homosexuals were another of the groups targeted during the time of the Holocaust. However, the Nazi party made no attempt to exterminate all homosexuals; according to Nazi law, being homosexual itself was not grounds for arrest. Some prominent members of the Nazi leadership were known to other Nazi leaders to be homosexual, which may account for the fact that the leadership offered mixed signals on how to deal with homosexuals. Some leaders clearly wanted homosexuals exterminated; others wanted them left alone, while others wanted laws against homosexual acts enforced, but otherwise allowed homosexuals to live as other citizens did.

Estimates vary wildly as to the number of homosexuals killed. They range from as low as 10,000 to as high as 600,000. The large variance is partly dependent on how researchers tally those who were Jewish and homosexual, or even Jewish, homosexual and communist. In addition, records as to the reasons for internment remain non-existent in many areas. See Homosexuals in Nazi Germany for more information.


Main article: Porajmos

Hitler's campaign of genocide against the Roma people of Europe was seen by many as a particularly bizarre application of Nazi racial science[?]. German anthropologists were forced to contend with the fact that Gypsies were descendants of the original Aryan invaders of India, who made their way back to Europe. Ironically, this made them no less Aryan than the German people itself, in practice if not in theory. This dilemma was resolved by Professor Hans Gunther, a leading racial scientist, who wrote:

"The Gypsies have indeed retained some elements from their Nordic home, but they are descended from the lowest classes of the population in that region. In the course of their migration, they absorbed the blood of the surrounding peoples, thus becoming an Oriental, West-Asiatic racial mixture with an addition of Indian, mid-Asiatic, and European strains."
As a result, however, and despite discriminatory measures, some groups of Roma, including the Sinti and Lalleri tribes of Germany, were spared deportation and death. Remaining Gypsy groups suffered much like the Jews (and in some instances, were degraded even more than Jews). In Eastern Europe, Gypsies were deported to the Jewish ghettoes, shot by SS Einsatzgruppen in their villages, and deported and gassed in Auschwitz and Treblinka.


Please complete information about the way the campaigns against the other groups were carried out. They were each unique in some ways.

Slavic people have been targeted by the Nazis, mostly intellectuals and prominent people, although there were some mass murders and instances of genocide (Croatian Ustashe as the most notorious example).

Extent of the Holocaust

The exact number of people killed by the Nazi regime is still subject further research. However, the following estimates are considered to be highly reliable.

  • 6 - 7 million Jews
  • 3.5 - 6 million Slavic civilians
  • 2.5 - 4 million POWs
  • 1 - 1.5 million political dissidents
  • 200,000 - 800,000 Roma & Sinti
  • 200,000 - 300,000 Handicapped
  • 10,000 - 250,000 Homosexuals

The Triangles

To identify prisoners in the camps according to their "offense", they were required to wear colored triangles on their clothing. Although the colors used differed from camp to camp, the colors most commonly were:

  • Yellow: Jews -- two overlaid to form a Star of David, with the word "Jude" (Jew) inscribed
  • Red: political dissidents, including communists
  • Green: common criminals
  • Purple: Jehovah's Witnesses
  • Blue: Emigrants
  • Brown: Roma and Sinti, i.e., "Gypsies"
  • Black: Lesbians and "anti-socials"
  • Pink: Gay men

Historical Interpretations

As with any historical event, scholars continue to argue over what, exactly, happened, and why. Among the major questions historians have sought to answer are,

  • how many people were killed in the Holocaust?
  • who was directly involved in the killing?
  • who authorized the killing?
  • who knew about the killing?
  • why did people directly participate in, authorize, or tacitly accept the killing?

The sections above reflect a general consensus among historians, although the Holocaust remains a subject of ongoing historical research. One major issue in contemporary Holocaust studies is the question of functionalism versus intentionalism. Intentionalists argue that the Holocaust was planned by Hitler from the very beginning. Functionalists hold that the Holocaust was started in 1942 as a result of the failure of the Nazi deportation policy and the impending military losses in Russia. They claim that extermination fantasies outlined in Hitler's Mein Kampf and other Nazi literature were mere propaganda and did not constitute concrete plans.

Another controversy was started by the historian Daniel Goldhagen[?], who argues that ordinary Germans were knowing and willing participants in the Holocaust, which he claims had its roots in a deep eliminative German anti-Semitism. Others claim that while anti-Semitism undeniably existed in Germany, the extermination was unknown to many and had to be enforced by the dictatorial Nazi apparatus.

Revisionists and Deniers

Some groups, usually branded as Neo-Nazis, deny that the Holocaust occurred at all. They are commonly referred to as "Holocaust deniers".

Holocaust revisionism claims that far fewer than 6,000,000 Jews were killed, and that the killing was not a result of deliberate Nazi policy. Although Holocaust revisionists claim to present documentary evidence to support their claims, critics argue that the evidence is flawed, the research is specious, and the conclusions are pre-determined. Many claim that such revisionism is a form of Anti-Semitism and tantamount to denial. Holocaust revisionism is not supported by any respected historians of the period.

Holocaust theology

In light of the magnitude of evil seen in the Holocaust, many people have re-examined the classical theological views on God's goodness and actions in the world. How can people still have any faith after the Holocaust? For the theological responses to questions raised by the Holocaust, see Holocaust theology.

Origin and use of the term

The word 'Holocaust', from the Greek word holokauston meaning "a burnt sacrifice offered to God", originally referred to a sacrifice Jews were required to make by the Torah, and later to large scale catastrophes or massacres. Due to the theological meaning that this word carries, many Jews find the use of this word problematic, as it could imply that Jews were a sacrifice. Instead of holocaust many Jews prefer the Hebrew word Shoah, which means "desolation".

While nowadays the term 'Holocaust' usually refers to the above-mentioned large-scale genocide of Jews, it is also sometimes used to refer to other occurrences of genocide, especially the Armenian Holocaust, the murder of over a million Armenians by the Young Turk government in 1915. However, the Turkish government officially denies that there was any genocide, claiming that most of the Armenian deaths resulted from armed conflict, disease and famine during the turmoil of World War I.

See also:

Auschwitz, Historical revisionism, Anti-Semitism, Genocide, Final solution, Holocaust memorials, eugenics, Bohdan Chmielnicki, Rhineland Bastard, Phases of the Holocaust

Further reading

  • John V. H. Dippel, Bound Upon a Wheel of Fire: Why so many German Jews made the tragic decision to remain in Nazi Germany, Basic Books, 1996, hardback, ISBN 0465091032.
  • Martin Gilbert, Auschwitz and the Allies, Henry Holt and Company, 1982, hardback, ISBN 0030592844. A devastating account of how the Allies responded to the news of Hitler's mass-murder.
  • Daniel J. Goldhagen, Hitler's Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust, New York: Knopf, 1996, hardback, ISBN 0679446958.
  • Norman G. Finkelstein, Ruth Bettina Birn, A nation on trial: the Goldhagen thesis and historical truth, Owl books, 1998, hardback, ISBN 0929087755. Criticizes Goldhagen's methods and theses.
  • Raul Hilberg, Perpetrators, Victims, Bystanders: The Jewish Catastrophe 1933-1945, HarperCollins Publishers, 1992, hardcover, ISBN 0060190353.
  • Raul Hilberg, The Destruction of the European Jews, Yale University Press, 2003, revised hardcover edition, ISBN 0300095570
  • Deborah Lipstadt, Denying the Holocaust: The Growing Assault on Truth and Memory, Plume (The Penguin Group), 1994, hardback, ISBN 0029192358.
  • Karl A. Schleunes, The Twisted Road to Auschwitz: Nazi Policy Toward German Jews, 1933-1939. Urbana: University of Illinois, 1990, hardback, ISBN 0252000927. An argument for functionalism.
  • Art SpiegelmanMaus I: A Survivor's Tale: My Father Bleeds History, Pantheon Books, New York, 1991, hardback, ISBN 0394541553
  • Art Spiegelman, Maus II: A Survivor's Tale: And Here my Troubles Began, Pantheon Books, New York, 1991, hardback, ISBN 0-394-55655-0. Comic book format; story is of author's father, a survivor.
  • John Weiss, Ideology of Death: Why the Holocaust Happened in Germany,1997, paperback, ISBN 1566631742.
  • Shoah is a nine-hour documentary completed by Claude Lanzmann in 1985. The film, unlike most historical documentaries, does not feature reenactments or historical photos; instead it consists of interviews with people who were involved in various ways in the Holocaust, and visits to different places they discuss.

External Links

The word holocaust can also be used as a general term for any overwhelmingly massive deliberate loss of life, such as that which would result from nuclear war, hence the phrase "Nuclear Holocaust".

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