The Jewish Holocaust, 1933-45
[See also the case study of Soviet POWs.]
The holocaust inflicted upon European Jews by the Nazi regime was arguably the most systematic and sadistic campaign of mass
extermination ever mounted. Like the Armenian and Rwandan holocausts, the "gendercidal" component is only a secondary and
subsidiary one. Nonetheless, an understanding of the gendered strategies of incarceration and extermination pursued by the Nazis
throws important light upon the Jewish holocaust, and genocidal strategies as a whole.
The ideology and political programme of Nazism, the movement that seized power in Germany in 1933, was founded from the first on
an abiding hatred of Jews as Untermenschen, or "sub-humans." They were accused of orchestrating the "stab in the back" that
stripped Germany of victory in World War I and imposed upon it the humiliating surrender terms of the Versailles Treaty (1919).
Exploiting deep anti-semitic strains in German and European culture (see Goldhagen, Hitler's Willing Executioners), along with the
catastrophic economic conditions of the late 1920's and early 1930's, the Nazis under their supreme leader or Führer, Adolf Hitler,
succeeded in winning a plurality in 1932 parliamentary elections. In January 1933, Hitler was appointed Chancellor by the ageing
German president, Paul von Hindenburg. When Hindenburg died in August 1934, Hitler took over as president, and set about using
his police and paramilitaries to murder political opponents and ethnic "traitors" alike. Jews and "Bolsheviks" (communists) were at
the top of the list for incarceration in the first "concentration camps."
The Nazis did not invent the concentration camp, but they made it their definitive institution. For many years, it was almost
exclusively men who were detained in the grim and often atrocious conditions of the camps. The first Nazi prison camp, Dachau --
created in March 1933 -- housed males only, including many homosexuals. A major marker on the road to the holocaust against the Jews
was the Kristallnacht ("Night of Broken Glass") on November 9-10, 1938, when Hitler's thugs targeted Jewish citizens and
property for largescale violence and destruction. According to Yehuda Bauer, the Kristallnacht was accompanied by a gender-selective
mass roundup: the Nazis "arrested and sent to concentration camps some 30,000 Jewish men at least." (Cited in Chalk and Jonassohn,
The History and Sociology of Genocide, p. 353.) As Eugen Kogon writes,
These arrests were made without regard for age. Ten-year old boys could be seen side by side with septuagenarians and octogenarians. En route from the Wiemar [sic: Weimar] railroad station [to the camp at Buchenwald] all stragglers were shot down, while the survivors were forced to drag the bloody bodies into camp. ... Inside stood the Block Leaders, wielding iron rods, whips and truncheons, and virtually every Jew who got into the camp sustained injuries. The events that took place at the time are not easily described in a few words. Let me merely mention that sixty-eight Jews went mad that very first night. They were clubbed to death like mad dogs ... four men at a time. ... SS [Schutz-Staffel, "Defense Echelon"] noncoms pushed the heads of some of their charges into overflowing latrine buckets until they suffocated.
Eventually, "for reasons that never became clear, most of the[se] Jews were set free on orders from the Reich authorities" and allowed to go into exile. Exactly a year later, however, after "an alleged attempt on Hitler's life," Jewish men in Buchenwald "were suddenly recalled from their [work] details and confined to barracks." The Germans "picked out twenty-one Austrian and German Jews, entirely at random, without any list. Most of them were vigorous young men. ... The SS took the group out through the gatehouse and shot them at close range in the quarry." (Kogon, The Theory and Practice of Hell, Berkley paperback edition , pp. 176-79.)
Hitler's combined caution and brinkmanship in foreign policy won him increasing rewards during the 1930s. Western powers proved
unable to unite, or to accept an alliance with the Soviets, to head off the Nazi threat. Eventually, Hitler struck a temporary deal with
the Soviet leader, Joseph Stalin, freeing Germany to invade Poland -- the heartland of European Jewry -- in September 1939. From
the earliest days of the Nazi occupation, Poland's Jews were subjected to severe hardship and violence. However, it was only with the
German invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941 that the genocidal hatred of the Nazis was fully unleashed on the defenseless
populations of the east. Among those to suffer the worst, almost unacknowledged, were Soviet prisoners-of-war, who died in their
millions from exposure, starvation, and mass execution in 1941-42. But from the first, it was clear that the German occupation of the
vast new territories (including eastern Poland, which the Soviets had occupied under the terms of the Nazi-Soviet Pact) presented
Hitler with the opportunity to implement his "final solution" to the Jewish "problem" in Europe. What followed was a genocide that
Noam Chomsky has called "the most fantastic outburst of collective insanity in human history." (Cited in Robert F. Barsky, Noam
Chomsky: A Life of Dissent [ECW Press, 1997], p. 186.)
The gendercide against Jewish men
Early Nazi roundups of Jewish males
in the occupied territories (see also below).
The gendercidal dimension of the holocaust against the Jews was evident during particular phases of the campaign of extermination.
It nonetheless has its harbinger in the mass detentions of males during the earlier (1933-41) period of Nazi rule. As a campaign of
full-blown mass execution, the gendercide against Jewish males marked an important, if temporary, "onset phase" of the holocaust in
the occupied eastern territories (including, after August 1941, the Balkans). Gendercidal strategies against women were evident at
later stages, both in mass executions and gassings, women-only death camps, and the forced marches that killed tens of thousands in
the closing stages of the war. Again, it must be stressed that in both their male and female manifestations, the Jewish gendercides
were subsidiary features and strategies of a campaign of "root-and-branch" extermination, in which gender was far from a dominant
Daniel Goldhagen points out in Hitler's Willing Executioners (pp. 149-50) how the"up-close," intimate killing of manifestly
defenceless, screaming civilians on the eastern front -- killings which spattered blood and brain matter around the killing fields and
over the killers -- was at first incrementally managed according to gender:
The Einsatzgruppen [death-squad] officers ... could habituate their men into their new vocation as genocidal executioners
through a stepwise escalation of the killing. First, by shooting primarily teenage and adult Jewish males, they would be able to
acclimate themselves to mass executions without the shock of killing women, young children, and the infirm. According to
Alfred Filbert, the commander of Einsatzkommando 9, the [execution] order from [Reinhard] Heydrich "quite clearly"
"included also women and children." Yet, "in the first instance, without a doubt, the executions were limited generally to
Jewish males." By generally keeping units' initial massacres to smallish numbers (by German standards) of a few hundred or
even a thousand or so, instead of many thousands, the perpetrators would be less likely to become overwhelmed by the enormity
of the gargantuan bloodbaths that were to follow. They also could believe that they were selectively killing the most dangerous
Jews, which was a measure that they could conceive to be reasonable for this apocalyptic war. Once the men became used to
slaughtering Jews on this sex-selective and smaller scale, the officers could more easily expand the scope and size of the killing
Jewish men rounded up for mass execution
at Zhytomyr, Ukraine, August 7, 1942.
In the early weeks of these murder campaigns, the Einsatzkommandos, according to Goldhagen, "were the equivalent of
genocidal scouting parties, developing the methods of killing, habituating the perpetrators to their new vocation and, generally
speaking, working out the feasibility of the overall enterprise" (p. 150). Gendercides against men can be seen in such cases as a
vanguard for the wider "root-and-branch" genocide -- an initial barrier to be surmounted and a potential "threat" to be removed, before
the community is consigned without discrimination to torment and death.
Christopher Browning's research into the atrocities committed by the police battalions attached to the Einsatzgruppen confirms that orders from the top were translated into gendercidal policies at the base. On July 11, 1942, the following orders went out to the police battalions: "Confidential! By order of the Higher SS and Police Leader ... all male Jews between the ages of 17 and 45 convicted as plunderers are to be shot according to martial law. The shootings are to take place away from cities, villages, and thoroughfares." Browning notes: "There was, of course, no investigation, trial, and confiction of so-called plunderers to be shot according to martial law. Male Jews who appeared to be between the ages of seventeen and forty-five were simply rounded up" and led away for execution. (Browning, Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland, pp. 13-14.)
Importantly for the analysis of gendercide, Daniel Goldhagen notes that "even if ... the initial order was to kill 'only' teenage and adult Jewish
males -- the order was still genocidal and clearly was understood by the perpetrators as such ... The killing of the adult males of a
community is nothing less than the destruction of that community" (p. 153, emphasis added). The point is critical in a more general
way to modern scholarship on the Jewish holocaust, since this currently centres on key decision-points in the killing campaign on the
eastern front, and the debate over precisely when the Nazi actions passed from the atrocious to the outright genocidal (see Rosenbaum, Explaining Hitler). As in other holocausts (Armenia, Rwanda), the mass killing of Jewish males proved
a necessary initial strategy, but not a sufficient expression, of the eliminationist impulse.
The link to Soviet prisoners-of-war
The waging of genocide against eastern Jews proceeded alongside a much lesser-known holocaust, that of male prisoners captured by the German Army in huge encirclements during the first few months of the war. Nearly three million are known to have
died in less than eight months of 1941-42. Gendercide Watch includes a detailed case-study of the Soviet POWs on this
site. Most of them died before being transferred to Germany. Those that did not, however, became the original "guinea-pigs" in the
Nazis' vast machinery of death. Indeed, as Christian Streit has pointed out, it was originally for the Soviet POWs that the
infrastructure of the Auschwitz-Birkenau and Maidanek death camps was developed:
It is more than a mere coincidence that the discovery of the technical means to implement the Holocaust with a minimum of
material and personal expense and the preparation of the infrastructure at two of the most important death factories, Auschwitz
and Maidanek, are also connected with the dynamic described above. In this case, it was particularly the treatment of the
Soviet POWs which speeded up developments. Two large groups of Soviet prisoners were involved. The first comprised those
prisoners who were selected and executed as "politically intolerable." Before the end of December 1941 at least 33,000 such
prisoners had been executed in the concentration camps of the Reich and the General Government [in occupied Poland]. The
second group consisted of those Soviet POWs who had been allotted to Himmler as slave labourers in the SS enterprises. The
decision to turn these POWs into Himmler's slaves also resulted from the basic decision to brush aside international law in the
war against the Soviet Union. ... Repeatedly during the summer of 1941, and starting with a convoy of several hundred in July,
groups of Soviet prisoners of war, who had been selected as "intolerable," had been taken to the Auschwitz concentration camp
to be executed there. To ease the mental strain of the shooting squads and to save costs and energies the executors soon started
looking for a simpler method. It was probably deputy commander Karl Fritzsch who experimented in early September with a
pesticide, Zyklon B, to murder some 600 such prisoners and another 250 camp inmates who had been selected as "unfit for
work." After more such "test gassings" -- there were at least two more convoys of Soviet prisoners among the victims, one
numbering 900 men -- the gassings of Jewish victims were started in January or February 1942. ... Even the infrastructure used
in the Final Solution, the Birkenau camp with its rail connection, had originally been intended for 100,000 Soviet prisoners of
war who were to be [Heinrich] Himmler's allocation of slave labourers for the giant industrial complex at Auschwitz which
I.G. Farben and the SS were planning as a joint venture. Soviet prisoners numbering 10,000, who were to build the huge
Birkenau camp for 100,000 POWs, had been brought to Auschwitz in October 1941. By the end of November half of them
were dead, by February 1942 about 8,000. Only 186 were still alive on 1 May 1942. Those prisoners who had not starved had
been tortured to death. (Christian Streit, "Wehrmacht, Einsatzgruppen, Soviet POWs and Anti-Bolshevism in the Emergence of
the Final Solution," in Cesarani, ed., The Final Solution, pp. 111-12.)
Streit adds in a footnote (51, p. 117): "The same is true for the Maidanek concentration camp. It developed from an SS-Kriegsgefangenenlager, whose construction had been begun by 5,000 Soviet POWs, who were as rapidly decimated as those at
Auschwitz." But it was the Jewish population of the east that would be the primary victims of the genocidal apparatus that these
Soviet POWs first built, then perished in by the tens or hundreds of thousands.
The gendercide against Jewish women
(L) A Jewish woman and child are executed on the eastern front;
(R) A Jewish woman pleads for her life at a mass-murder scene
As with the Armenian case, the Jewish holocaust was launched with an initial genocidal outburst that targeted overwhelmingly males
-- partly as a means of acclimatizing the genocidal agents to their tasks. But in neither the Armenian nor the Jewish cases did more
than a short time elapse before women were swept up in the worst of the horror. Jürgen Forster's analysis brings out the speed, but
also the stages, by which the holocaust on the eastern front was extended to women. He writes that: "The first formal order to kill
immediately 'all male Jews of 17-45 years of age' was issued ... on 11 July 1941. ... The necessity of killing male Jews was not
justified ... with any reference to partisan activities but 'resulted from the political situation.' Since the SS was still liquidating
selected target groups, the Intelligence Officer of the Kommandostab Reichsführer-SS informed his superiors in his after-action report
of 28 July 1941 that 'all persons involved are in doubt whether the Jewish problem can be brought to a fundamental solution by the
multitude of executions of male Jews alone.' While the Einsatzkommando 3 ... began to include Jewish women and children on 15
August 1941, the Police Regiment Centre only increased the age band for men to be killed to 16-65. Its 3rd Battalion, however,
executed sixty-four Jewish women, too, in Minsk on 1 September 1941. The evidence on the practice of liquidating after 22 June 1941
suggests that a second, principal decision was made in the summer of 1941, this time to cleanse the conquered living space more
thoroughly from any manifestations of Jewry and Bolshevism, to make it 'free' of Jews and communists." (Förster, "The Relations
Between Operation Barbarossa as an Ideological War of Extermination and the Final Solution," in Cesarani, ed., The Final Solution,
p. 93. Emphasis added.) It was this second decision that led to the mass murder of women, both in mass shootings like Babi Yar
(33,000 Jews killed in September 1941) and in the gas-vans and concentration camps that were increasingly used from late 1941
The historical record of the renewed genocidal offensive on the eastern front in 1942 includes cases in which women (along with children and the elderly of both sexes) were targeted for immediate annihilation, while able-bodied men were preserved, at least temporarily, for use as forced labour. The murderous activities of Police Battalion 101, studied by both Christopher Browning and Daniel Goldhagen, included a massacre of 1,500 Jews at the Polish village of Józefów on July 13, 1942, in which the battalion was "ordered to round up ... Jews. The male Jews of working age were to be separated and taken to a work camp. The remaining Jews -- the women, children, and elderly -- were to be shot on the spot by the battalion," as occurred. A similar mass atrocity took place in the Jewish ghetto of Konskowola in October 1942, where between 500 and 1,000 Jews "were selected for labor," overwhelmingly able-bodied men, although "100 were shot en route after collapsing from exhaustion. ... The remaining Jews -- 800 to 1,000 women and children as well as a large number of elderly men -- were simultaneously led off to a shooting site in a woods beyond the edge of town. ... First the Jewish men were taken into the woods, forced to lie face down, and shot. The women and children followed." (Browning, Ordinary Men, pp. 2, 116-17.)
Link to a map of the main
One of the key rituals of the Nazi death-camp system similarly seems to have targeted women (especially mothers) for
extermination, along with children and the elderly, while adult males were disproportionately preserved for use as forced labour. The
reference here is to the "selection on the railway sidings," when huge numbers of Jews and others arrived at the gates of Auschwitz-Birkenau and the other camps. Especially later in the war, when the Nazis' absurd squandering of potential Jewish labour was
tempered by approaching defeat, emphasis was placed on the preservation -- usually brief -- of those deemed able to work in the
factories. All "women in charge of children" were targeted for immediate extermination in these initial selections, along with "the old
people, all the children ... and in general all the people unfit for work," according to Johann Paul Kremer, a Nazi "doctor" at
Auschwitz. "[They] were loaded into trucks and taken to the gas chambers." Auschwitz managers reported an "arrival strength" for
21 January 1943, at the height of the holocaust, as "2,000 Jews, of whom 418 were selected to be put to work (254 men, 164 women),
i.e., 20.9 percent; 24 January 1943, 2,029 Jews, of whom 228 were selected to be put to work (148 men, 80 women), i.e., 11.8 percent;
on 27 January 1943, 993 Jews, of whom 284 were selected to be put to work (212 men and 72 women), i.e., 22.5 percent." (Eugen Kogon et
al., eds., Nazi Mass Murder: A Documentary History of the Use of Poison Gas [Yale University Press, 1993], pp. 153, 159.)
The gendercide against women in the death camps may have been even more intense than at first appears, since there is evidence of a
pre-selection of males for mass execution before the construction of the death-camp system, as we have noted. Gendercide Watch is
aware of no comparative research on the numbers of men and women killed by the different Nazi mechanisms, however, and reminds
the reader that the Nazis' genocidal ideology and mass-murder apparatus finally spared no-one among the European populations it
targeted, Jews above all.
It is also important to note that the variable of age/infirmity, and not just gender, was another vital marker or "tripwire" on the road to
fullscale genocide. Indeed, the Nazis' murder between 1939 and 1941 of 70,000 "useless" and "burdensome" elderly and infirm
Germans -- which Gendercide Watch refers to as geracide (from the Greek geras, "old age") -- was clearly a manifestation of the
exterminationist impulse that would in short order be directed against Jews, Roma (Gypsies), Slavic males, and others. The
euthenasia campaigns also buttressed the Nazis' penetration of the German professions. When medical doctors were called upon to
perform ghastly medical experiments at Auschwitz and other death-camps, their Hippocratic oaths had long since been shattered by
involvement in the earlier "geracide."
How many died?
Raul Hilberg writes that "The Jewish dead numbered more than 5 million: about 3 million in killing centers and other camps, 1.4
million in shooting operations, and more than 600,000 in ghettos." Hilberg adds that "Traditional estimates are closer to 6 million."
(Hilberg, "Holocaust," Encarta Encyclopedia.) As Goldhagen notes, "The geographic scope of the German's exterminationist drive
against the Jews has no parallel, certainly not in the twentieth century" (Hitler's Willing Executioners, p. 412). It is estimated that the
Nazis succeeded in killing 60 percent of all the Jews in Europe. In addition to the Jews murdered in Poland (3 million) and the USSR
(1 million), the worst-hit communities were in Hungary (550,000 Jews killed), Romania (275,000), Lithuania (150,000), Germany
itself (135-140,000), and the Netherlands (100,000) (all figures approximate).
It was not the largest mass killing of the twentieth
century -- both Joseph Stalin and Mao Zedong probably killed more people than Adolf Hitler. But "in ferocity, hate, sadism and
horror, the Nazi genocide of the Jews of Europe has no peer." (Cathal Nolan, The Longman Guide to World Affairs [Longman, 1995],
p. 159.) The element of sadism has attracted considerable recent notice: "The Germans debased and inflicted pain upon Jews with a regularity
calculated not just to cripple their bodies but also to plunge them into a state of perpetual terror. The ideal guiding the Germans'
treatment of the [Jews] ... was that it ought to be a world of unremitting suffering which would end in their deaths. A Jew's life ought
to be a worldly hell, always in torment, always in physical pain, with no comfort available." (Goldhagen, Hitler's Willing
Executioners, pp. 320, 457).
Who was responsible?
Primary responsibility has long been assigned to Adolf Hitler, one of the most psychotic and sanguinary leaders in history, who
consigned tens of millions of people to furnaces and firing squads. Debate still rages over whether and when Hitler personally gave
the order to exterminate the Jews. But there is no doubt that he provided the venomous ideological framework for the genocide,
headed the state and military apparatus that implemented it, and frequently proclaimed his approval of the perpetrators' actions.
The Nazi Party that Hitler headed rapidly became indistinguishable from the German state. All party institutions and members --
especially Hitler's elite guard, the SS ("Death's Head" units, commanded by Heinrich Himmler and Reinhard Heydrich), and the
Einsatzkommanda (genocidal "action squads" in the East) -- shared responsibility for the Holocaust against Jews, Poles, Soviet
prisoners-of-war, and Roma, among other groups. At lower levels of the bureaucracy of mass death, "Amorality was encouraged by
specialization; each department and individual was accountable for only one small segment of the program, diffusing personal
responsibility." (Donald Niewyk in Totten et al., Century of Genocide, pp. 141-42.)
In the last several years, debate has raged around the "Goldhagen thesis" (see Goldhagen, Hitler's Willing Executioners) -- namely, that
"ordinary Germans" in their multitudes participated willingly, and usually enthusiastically, in the merciless tortures and annihilations
that the Nazis inflicted upon the subject peoples of Europe. Ron Rosenbaum includes a chapter on the controversy in Explaining
Recent research on the holocaust in the occupied territories has also emphasized the role of the German army in facilitating the genocides
against Jews and Soviet POWs in particular. The long-held view that the "proud" German military somehow held itself aloof from the
Nazis' genocide has been decisively debunked (see Bartov, The German Army and Genocide). The relationship between the regular
army and the SS or paramilitary killers was intimate and mutually supportive -- as in the Serbs' genocidal and gendercidal campaigns
in Bosnia-Herzegovina and Kosovo, but on a massively greater scale.
The German invasion of the USSR proved Hitler's undoing. The Second World War was won and lost on the eastern front, where
about 80 percent of German forces were concentrated between 1941 and 1944. Despite the Nazi victories and unbridled mass killing of the
first year of the war, the Soviets successfully withstood the German drive on Moscow. At the critical battles of Stalingrad (September
1942 -- January 1943) and Kursk (July 1943), Soviet forces turned the tide against the German armies. By April 1945, they had driven
them back to the gates of Berlin, with late assistance from Allied forces (who invaded Nazi-occupied France in June 1944). Adolf
Hitler killed himself in his bunker as Soviet troops approached.
The images of mountains of corpses
left behind by the Nazi mass murderers
shocked the world, and helped contribute
to the founding of the state of Israel.
As the Soviet and Allied forces rolled back across Nazi-occupied Europe, they came across evidence of the holocaust against the Jews
and others. For the first time, the outside world could see and be stunned by mountains of Jewish corpses in the concentration camps,
and skeletal survivors gathered at the wire. The horror at the discoveries fuelled the Nürnberg (Nuremberg) Trials of 1945-47, when
surviving Nazi leaders (including Hermann Göring, Rudolf Hess, and Field Marshal Wilhelm Keitel) were tried for crimes against
humanity. Twelve were sentenced to death, but not Göring, who swallowed poison in his prison-cell hours before he was to be
executed. Subsequent trials were held for "doctors who had conducted medical experiments on concentration camp inmates and
prisoners of war, judges who had committed murder and other crimes under the guise of the judicial process, and industrialists who
had participated in the looting of occupied countries and in the forced-labor program" (Hilberg, "Holocaust"). Again death sentences
and long prison terms were the norm.
The founding of the state of Israel in 1948, in large part by holocaust survivors, was assisted by global sympathy for the principal
victims of Nazi genocide. In 1960, it was Israeli secret agents who tracked down one of the last surviving architects of the holocaust,
Adolf Eichmann, and smuggled him from Argentina to Israel to stand trial. (See Arendt, Eichmann in Jerusalem.) He was convicted
and hanged in Jerusalem in 1962.
Many thousands of survivors worldwide still bear the tattooed identification numbers they were given in the concentration camps. All
must live with the enormous weight of the genocide, which laid waste to entire lineages and historic communities. Jewish populations in Poland, Germany, Hungary, Ukraine, and several other countries have never recovered from the blow dealt them by Hitler and the Nazis. Meanwhile, "studies of Holocaust
survivors have shown that virtually all suffered to some degree from a 'survivor syndrome' that included acute anxiety, cognitive and
memory disorders, depression, withdrawal, and hypochondria" (Donald Niewyk in Century of Genocide, p. 144).
The memory of the holocaust has been kept alive by Jews and others worldwide, and has staged a resurgence in cultural prominence
in the last two or three decades. To a degree this resurgence has been fuelled by the renewed rise of a racist, anti-semitic "far right" in numerous European countries, most notably France, Austria (Hitler's birthplace), and Switzerland. As a result of widespread efforts to conscientize and inform, "The Holocaust [today] is perhaps the
one genocide of which every educated person has heard" (Niewyk). It is often cited as a benchmark in debates over more recent
genocides in Rwanda and Bosnia-Herzegovina.
[ Further reading ] [ Back to main ] [ Back to top ]
The most wide-ranging
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