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The Jewish Holocaust, 1933-1945

Both men, women and children were systematically killed during the Jewish Holocausts of 1933-1945, and the gendercidal components are only secondary and subsidiary ones. Nonetheless, understanding the gendercidal elements and strategies of the Jewish holocausts can help with our overall understanding of this genocide.

Finding exact numbers for the Jewish holocaust is difficult, but traditional estimates are around 6 million dead. Raul Hilberg uses a lower number and 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.” (Source: Raul Hilberg, Hilberg, “Holocaust,” Encarta Encyclopedia.)

In his book Hitler´s Willing Executioners, Daniel Goldhagen points out the massive geographic scope of the Jewish holocaust. (Source: Daniel Goldhagen, “Hitler´s Willing Executioners”, p. 412.) It is estimated that the Nazi´s killed 60% of the Jews living in Europe at the time. A lot of the killings took place in Eastern Europe, with an estimated 3 million Jews killed in Poland, 1 million in the Soviet Union, 550,000 in Hungary, 275,000 in Romania, and 150,000 in Lithuania. This is considerably more than the number of Jews killed in Germany itself, which as been estimated to around 135,000. Outside Germany, the Netherlands had the highest number of Jews killed in Western Europe. Roughly 100,000 Jews were killed there during the Nazi occupation, including many who had fled to the Netherlands from the German Reich. (Source: United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, Washington, DC, article “The Netherlands” published on Encyclopedia.ushmm.org/content/en/article/the-netherlands, retrieved December 15, 2021.)

Understanding the context: The Nazi party´s ascent to power

The Nazi party, officially the National Socialist German Workers´Party (Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei), was active in Germany from 1920. Initially, the party focused on drawing workers away from communism and therefore emphasized anti-capitalist, anti-bourgeois and anti-big business rhetoric. Later, these elements were downplayed to gain the support of business leaders. In the 1930s, the party´s rhetoric became heavily anti-Marxist and anti-Semitic.

As a part of the anti-Semitic rhetoric of the Nazi party, Jews were accused of being behind the German defeat in the World War of 1914-1918. More specifically, they were accused of having orchestrated a “ stab in the back“ against the German nation and being supporters of the humiliating and damaging surrender terms of the 1919 Versailles Treaty.

Adolft Hitler led the Nazi party from 1921, including a period when he was in prison. After the 1932 Reichstag election, held in July, the Nazi party became the largest party in parliament by a wide margin. No party was large enough to form a government on its own, however, and none of the parties aggreed to be in a coalission. The result was weak ministries governing by decree.

In November 1932, Chancellor Franz von Papen called another Reichtag election, hoping that it would result in a stronger government. This did not happen. The Nazi party and the Communists party were still holding more than half of the seats combined, and no functional coallisions were formed. The other parties could have united against the Nazis at this point, but did not. Notably, the Communists and the Social Democrats did not unite to form a government together, despite having enough seats between them to do so.

After two months of political intrigues, President Hindenburg was persuaded that it is was safe to appoint Adolf Hitler as Reich Chancellor at the head of a cabinet including only a minority of Nazi ministers. (In the November election, the Nazi party had recieved 33.1% of the votes, which was somewhat lower than in the July election.)

Hitler was appointed Chancellor of Germany by President Paul von Hindenburg on 30 Januay, 1933. The following month, the Reichtag fire on February 27 gave Hitler a pretext for convincing President Hindenburg to issue a decree which suspended most civil liberties in Germany.

In the parliamentory election held on 5 March 1933, the Nazi party got 44% of the votes. On March 23, the parliament passed the Enabling Act of 1933 which gave the cabinet power to enact laws without the consent of parliament. This paved the way for the Nazi party´s establishment of a totalitarian regime. After Hindenburg´s death in August 1934, Hitler took over as president.

Concentration camps

The Nazi party did not invent the concentration camp, but the Nazis came to use concentration camps on an unpresidented scale. For the earliest Nazi-controlled concentration camps, Jews and political opponents – especially communists – were at the top of the list for incarceration.

Gender-selective components

The gendercidal components of the Jewish holocausts became noticable when we zoom in and look at different stages of the extermination campaign. For several years during the early stages, it was almost exclusively men who were inprisoned in the Nazi concentration camps. Notably, the Dachau prison camp, which was created as early as March 1933, was for males only.

Early targeting of Jewish men and boys

After the imfamous Kristallnacht of November 9-10 in 1938, a gender-selective roundup took place, where approximately 30,000 Jewish men were arrested and sent to concentration camps. (Source: Chalk and Jonassohn, “The History and Sociology of Genocide“, p. 353.)

Notably, there was no age-selection in play for this round-up.

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. – Eugen Kogon et al., eds., Nazi Mass Murder: A Documentary History of the Use of Poison Gas [Yale University Press, 1993], pp. 153, 159.)

Eventually, most of the surviving Jews from this event were set free and allowed to go into exile. Why the Nazi authorities allowed this remains unknown. Exactly a year later, a new event occured, after an alleged attempt to kill Hitler. In Buchenwald, Jewish men were confined in barracks, and the Nazis selected twenty-one German and Austrian Jews from this group, apparently at random, although most of the selected men were young and vigorous. The selected twenty-one were brought to a quarry and shot at close range by SS staff. (Source: Kogon, “The Theory and Practice of Hell”, Berkley paperback edition [1980], pp. 176-79.)

Nazi Germany´s occupation of Poland and subsequent invasion of the Soviet Union

After striking a deal with Joseph Stalin, leader of the Soviet Union, Germany, under the leadership of Adolf Hitler, invaded Poland in September 1939. Poland was, at the time, home to a large number of Jews and had many thriving Jewish communities. The mistreatment of Poland´s Jews was always a major component of the Nazi occupation of Poland, but did not come into full-force until Germany and the Soviet Union broke ties with each other and Germany invaded the Soviet Union in June 1941. This was also the starting point for a horrible, but less well known, treatment of Soviet prisoners-of-war on the eastern front. In 1941-1942, millions of Soviet prisoners-of-war held by the Nazis died of exposure, starvation and mass executions.

The later stages of the Jewish holocausts

The 1933-1941 period has been described as the “onset phase” of the holocausts as it was followed by an even more intense phase that lasted from 1941 until the end of the Nazi regime in 1945.

During the onset phase, the regime´s attack on the Jewish populations were chiefly targeting Jewish men and boys, giving it a gender-selected component.

From 1941, gender-selected strategies addressing women and girls, including Jewish ones, developed. Among other things, this involved the creation of women-only death camps.

It should be noted, that the Jewish genocide carried out by the Nazis was a “root-and-branch extermination” campaign and that gender was not a dominant consideration.

Step-by-step accommodation to killing civilians

In his book “Hitler´s Willing Executioners”, Daniel Goldhagen describes how gender-selected killing events were used to gradually make Nazi personnel accustomed to killing people regardless of age and gender.

The Einsatzgruppen 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 operations.

Source: Daniel Goldhagen, “Hitler’s Willing Executioners”, pp. 149-150)

Summary executions

Christopher Browning’s research regarding police battalions attached to Einsatzgruppen reveals how orders from the top to execute criminals could be formulated in way that gave them a genocidal and gender-selected nature.

One example is from 1942, when the following order was sent out to the police battalions on July 11: “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, pp. 13-14.)

Even though formulated as a decree to execute criminals, they order only pertained to Jewish men and boys, and there was never any investigations, trials or convictions. Instead, Jews who appeared to fit the gender and age requirement were rounded up and led away for execution.

Source: Christopher Browning, “Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland”, pp. 13-14.

The link to Soviet prisoners-of-war

While this article is mainly about the Jewish holocausts, we would also like to take a moment to look on another, much lesser-known, component of the World War II epoch. Nearly three million Soviet prisoners-of-war captured by Nazi forces died of exposure, starvation and executions in less than eight months in 1941-1942. As they were prisoners-of-war from the Soviet Army, it can be assumed that a vast majority of them were male.

Many of the deaths were prisoners that had not been transferred to Germany. Those who did survive long enough to be reach Germany became “guinea-pigs” for the Nazi authorities who needed to experiment and fine tune their methods for large-scale killings of other groups, including Jews.

In the book “Wehrmacht, Einsatzgruppen, Soviet POWs and Anti-Bolshevism in the Emergence of the Final Solution,” Christian Steit points out how the infrastructure of both Auschwitz-Birkenau and Maidanek were originally developed to handle Soviet prisoners-of-war. (Source: Christian Streit, “Wehrmacht, Einsatzgruppen, Soviet POWs and Anti-Bolshevism in the Emergence of the Final Solution,” in Cesarani, ed., The Final Solution, pp. 111-112, and 117.)

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. 111-112.

On page 117 of the same book, we learn that the Maidanek concentration camp originated as an SS-Kriegsgefangenenlager (SS prisoner-of-war camp), and that the construction of the camp had begun using 5,000 Soviet prisoners-of-war as forced labour. Just as the prisoners-of-war in Auschwitz, the prisoners-of-war at Maidanek were decimated by death at a quick pace.

The Jewish genocide stops being gender-selected in 1941

As we have learned above, the early stages of the Jewish holocausts chiefly targeted Jewish men and boys. It was only later that women and girls were became direct targets on a large scale.

On July 11, 1941, the first formal order to immediately kill all male Jews within the 17-45 year age span was issued. Unlike earlier orders, this order did not even pretend to target “looters,” “political activists” or similar. (Source: Jürgen Förster, “The Relations Between Operation Barbarossa as an Ideological War of Extermination and the Final Solution,” in Cesarani, ed., The Final Solution.)

In a report to his superiors on July 28, 1941, the Intelligence Officer of the Kommandostab Reichsführer-SS noted 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”. On August 15, 1941, Einsatzkommando 3 stopped excluding Jewish women and Jewish children in their elimination campaign. Notably, the Police Regiment Centre did not – they only extended the age band for Jewish men from 17-45 to 16-65. (Still, their 3rd Battalion did execute 64 Jewish women in Minsk on 1 September 1941.)

Although firm evidence is lacking as to exactly when it happened, a second decision regarding the killing of Jewish women and children seems to have been made by the German leadership in the summer of 1941. We can surmise this based on the many indiscriminate mass killings of Jewish people, regardless of gender, that took from this summer and onward. One example of such a mass killing was the one taking place at Babi Yar, a ravine in Kyiv (Kiev) on 29-30 September, 1941, when over 33,750 Jews were taken to the ravine and shot in an effort to kill all Jews in Kyiv. (Source: Jürgen Förster, “The Relations Between Operation Barbarossa as an Ideological War of Extermination and the Final Solution,” in Cesarani, ed., The Final Solution. p. 93)

1942: A major change in gender-selection policy

In 1942, the Nazis embarked on a new genocidal offensive on the eastern front. Now, they largely spared able-bodied men, and instead targeted women, children, the elderly, and men deemed non-able bodied. These targeted groups were rounded up for immediate annihilation, while able-bodied men where spared (at least temporarily) since they were now considered valuable as forced labour.

One example of a mass-killings of those not deemed suitable for labour is the massacre of circa 1,500 Jews carried out by the Police Battalion 101 on 13 July, 1942, in the village Józefów in Nazi-occupied Poland. Prior to the mass killing, the battalion was ordered to separate male Jews of working age from the other Jews, and those men were moved to a work camp instead of being killed. The other Jews were shot on the spot. (Source: Christopher Browning, “Ordinary Men”, pp. 2, 116-117.)

Another example is from Konskowola in Nazi-occupied Poland, where a Jewish ghetto had been established and was used to relocate Jews from certain other areas, including Jews expelled from Slovakia. In May 1942, part of the ghetto population was transferred to the extermination camp Sobibor. In October 1942, the ghetto was liquidated; partly through killings and partly by sending able-bodied men to another camp. An estimated 500-1,000 Jewish men were kept alive as they had been selected for labour. (Of those, a hundred were shot en route to the labour camp after collapsing from exhaustion.) The 800-1,000 Jews that had not been selected for labour were taken to a nearby forest and killed there. This group consisted chiefly of women, children and elderly men. First, the men were taken into the woods, forced to lie face down and shot. The women and children were killed afterwards. (Source: Christopher Browning, “Ordinary Men”, pp. 2, 116-117.)

Late in the war: Jewish women are utilized as forced labour

Earlier in this article, we have looked at two different stages of the Jewish holocausts. First, men and boys were the primary targets of the Nazi killings of Jews. Then, there was a shift, and able-bodied Jewish men became seen as valuable as forced labour, and the killers now instead targeted Jews that did not fit into this category, such as women, children and the infirm.

We will now look at a third shift; one where the Nazi war effort was stretched so thin that they could no longer afford to waste the potential of Jewish women as a source of forced labour.

Johann Paul Kremer, a Nazi doctor at the Auschwitz concentration camp, reported how, at this stage of the war, that camp utilized an initial selection of new arrivals where women in charge of children were targeted for immediate extermination by gas, along with all children and the elderly. (Source: Eugen Kogon et al., eds., “Nazi Mass Murder: A Documentary History of the Use of Poison Gas” [Yale University Press, 1993], p. 153)

For January, 1943, we have data from Auschwitz managers about the “arrival strength” of incoming groups of Jews. On January 21, 2,000 Jews, 254 men and 164 women were selected to be put to work, which equals 418 individuals or 20.9%. For January 24, it was 2,029 Jews and 228 of them (11.8%) were selected for work; 148 men and 80 women. On January 27, out of 993 Jews, 284 individuals (22.5%) were selected for work; of them 212 were men and 72 women. (Source: Eugen Kogon et al., eds., Nazi Mass Murder: A Documentary History of the Use of Poison Gas [Yale University Press, 1993], p.159.)

Who was in charge?

Throughout the Jewish holocausts, the Nazi party led Germany. As leader of the Nazi party, Adolf Hitler was Chancellor of Germany from 30 January, 1933. From March 23, 1933, the cabinet was allowed to enact laws without the consent of parliament. (The Nazi party did not hold a majority of the seats in the German parliament.) After President Hindenburg´s death in August 1934, Hitler took over as president too.

Examples of notable party institutions and branches of the German state during that were directly involved in the Jewish holocausts were the Schutzstaffel (SS) headed by Heinrich Himmler and Reinhard Heydrich, the Einsatzgruppen which were para-military groups under SS control, and the Einsatzkommandos which formed a sub-group of the Einsatzgruppen and were comprised of functionaries of the SS and Gestapo. It should also be noted that there was a very close relationship between the SS and the regular German army.

End of the Jewish holocaust

Adolf Hitler not only scrapped his agreement with Josef Stalin, but also elected to actually invade the Soviet Union. This strategic choice proved to be more than the German war effort could handle. Between 1941 and 1944, roughly 80% of the German forces were concentrated on the eastern front.

After the critical battles of Stalingrad (September 1942 – January 1943) and Kursk (July 1943), Soviet forces turned the tide of the war and began to successful push back the German army from the eastern front. On the western front, Nazi-occupied France was invaded by Allied forces in June 1944, and Paris was liberated on August 25.

On the 20 April, 1945 (Hitler´s 56th birthday), the Soviet army was close enough to central Berlin to reach it with shelling. While the 1st Belorussian Front shelled Berlin´s city centre after advancing from the east and north, the 1st Ukrainian Front moved in towards the city´s southern suburbs. Over the course of a week, the Soviet army gradually took control of Berlin.

Hitler committed suicide in his bunker in Berlin on 30 April, and several of his official did the same shortly afterwards. Berlin´s garrison surrendered to the Soviet forces on May 2, but fighting continued around the city in some directions until May 8. During this latter stage of the Fall of Berlin, some German units fought westward hoping to surrender to the Allies instead of the Soviets.


As both Soviet and Allied forces rolled back across parts of Europe that had been under German control, they came across evidence of the mass-killings of Jewish people and others. Among other things, they found mountains of Jewish corpses in concentration camps, and camp survivors in a deep state of starvation.

In the Nürnberg Trials of 1945-1947, several surviving Nazi leaders – including Hermann Göring, Rudolf Hess, and Wilhelm Keitel, – were tried and convicted of war crimes and crimes against humanity. Twelve were sentenced to death. Göring was sentenced to death by hanging, but committed suicide with cyanide.

Subsequent trials were held for other groups, such as camp doctors, judges, and industrialist. Many of the accused received either a death sentence or a long prison term.

The state of Israel was formed in 1948 and many Jewish holocausts survivors emigrated to it. In 1960, Israeli agents tracked down Adolf Eichmann, one of the last surviving perpetrators of the Jewish holocaust. He was taken from Argentina to Israel to stand trial there, and was convicted and hanged in Jerusalem in 1962.