What was the Holocaust?

The Holocaust was the systematic killing of European Jews who lived in areas that were controlled by Nazi Germany in World War Two, as well as the persecution and murder of other groups of people. Millions of Jews lost their lives in purpose-built extermination camps and concentration camps; more than a million were murdered by the Einsatzgruppen (mobile killing units); while the squalid ghettos claimed the lives of thousands more.


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Learn more about the Holocaust with a new three-part virtual lecture series from acclaimed historian and broadcaster Laurence Rees, starting at 12.30pm on 22 September. From the origins of Nazi antisemitism and the rise of Adolf Hitler to the escalation of violence and persecution amid the Second World War and the horrors of the death camps, this series will provide an authoritative look at one of the darkest events in history.

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How many people were killed?

No exact figure of how many people died exists, though it is estimated that approximately six million Jews were killed by Nazi Germany and collaborators of the regime during the Holocaust, as Adolf Hitler was determined to expunge the world of all Jews, whom he viewed as “sub-human”.

The Nazis also persecuted other groups of people either because they were also seen to be racially inferior or for other reasons, such as their sexual orientation. Between 200,000 and 500,000 Roma and Sinti (pejoratively called ‘gypsies’) were killed during the Holocaust, along with millions of Slavs in the Soviet Union and Poland, and up to 250,000 disabled people. The latter were murdered during the Aktion T4 ‘euthanasia’ programme, which was first established in 1939.

Thousands of homosexuals, Jehovah’s Witnesses, communists and socialists – as well as anyone who outwardly opposed Hitler’s government – were also murdered.

When did the Holocaust begin?

The start of the Holocaust is tied to the outbreak of World War Two. In September 1939, Germany invaded Poland and forcibly took control of around 1.7 million Polish Jews. And, as the Nazis swept across Europe, more and more Jews found themselves under Hitler’s influence. As a temporary measure, Jews were forced into walled-off sections of cities, known as ghettos, until the Nazis could decide what to do with them permanently.

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These ghettos were cramped, squalid places that heaved with misery. The Warsaw Ghetto – the biggest of the 400 ghettos that dotted German-occupied Poland – saw 30 per cent of the city’s population herded into a measly 2.4 per cent of the city’s land. Disease and malnutrition were rife, with access to food or medicine becoming a distant memory for the ghettos’ inhabitants, and people died in their thousands.

Who were the Einsatzgruppen and what they do?

The Einsatzgruppen were mobile killing units that were tasked with murdering Germany’s ‘political enemies’ during the 1939 invasion of Poland and the 1941 invasion of the Soviet Union. In Poland, they were instructed to target Roman Catholic clergymen, Polish nationalists and Jews. By December 1939, 50,000 Poles had died at their hands. These calculated acts of violence marked the moment when the Nazis began systematically murdering Jews.

Einsatzgruppen ‘task forces’ targeted people the Nazi regime considered ‘political enemies’. (Photo by Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)
Einsatzgruppen ‘task forces’ targeted people the Nazi regime considered ‘political enemies’. (Photo by Universal History Archive/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

In the Soviet Union, these units were tasked with rounding up Jews and Soviet officials, marching them to isolated locations, and turning their guns on them. It’s believed they murdered approximately 1.5 million Jewish people.

What was the ‘final solution’?

The “final solution to the Jewish question” was unveiled by Reinhard Heydrich (who was Heinrich Himmler’s chief lieutenant in the SS) on 20 January 1942 at the Wannsee Conference. Fourteen top Nazis gathered at a villa in Wannsee, a Berlin suburb, to hear Heydrich’s plan.

The previous “solution” to the Jewish “problem” that the Nazis had favoured – deporting every European Jew to the island of Madagascar – was deemed unfeasible. Instead, Heydrich proposed “the evacuation of the Jews to the east”. Everyone around the table knew what this meant: the Jews would be transported to death camps. The systematic murder of Jews was about to reach its height.

What was the difference between death camps and concentration camps, and how many camps were there?

Death camps, or extermination camps, were designed specifically to murder prisoners, often as soon as they arrived. The first to be operational – Chelmno, in Poland – killed people in mobile gas vans. Others, such as Treblinka, had permanent gas chambers in which the prisoners were murdered.

There were four other death camps: Belzec, Sobibor, Majdanek and Auschwitz II-Birkenau. Apart from Sobibor and Chelmno, all these sites also had work or concentration camps. Auschwitz IIBirkenau was the regime’s largest death camp, and as many as 12,000 prisoners could be put through the gas chambers and burned in the crematoria every day.

Death camps were designed specifically to murder prisoners, often as soon as they arrived

But not every prisoner at Auschwitz was put to death straight away. During the Selektion process, those who were deemed fit to work were taken to the site’s ‘main camp’: the concentration camp Auschwitz I. Out of the thousands of concentration camps that littered German-occupied Europe, Auschwitz I was the largest – and deadliest.

Although concentration camps were not designed to immediately murder prisoners, being sent to one was often a death sentence in itself. The Nazis dubbed the forced labour that took place at these camps “extermination through work”. At Auschwitz I, prisoners received little food – a watery slop of rotten vegetables and meat was a common meal – slept in slum-like barracks and were worked well past the point of exhaustion. Some toiled in the camp’s kitchens or shaved prisoners’ heads. Others worked outside the camp under armed guard, assembling weaponry in German factories. If they didn’t die at Auschwitz I, when they were deemed too frail to continue working, prisoners were condemned to Birkenau. At least 1.1 million people never made it out of Auschwitz-Birkenau.

Who was Josef Mengele, and why was he called the ‘Angel of Death’?

Josef Mengele was a doctor at Auschwitz who earned his macabre nickname for the sickening medical experiments he performed on the camp’s prisoners. He deliberately sought out twins, and those with unusual physical characteristics. Prisoners with dwarfism, a club foot or two different eye colours were taken away to be experimented on – to be electrocuted, perhaps, or else have chemicals injected into their eyeballs in an attempt to change their eye colour.

After the war ended, Mengele evaded capture for decades and remained in hiding until his death in 1979 – having never answered for his crimes.

Was there any resistance to the Holocaust in Germany?

A number of Germans did not agree with the Holocaust and clandestinely helped protect Jews, such as the Nazi business mogul Oskar Schindler, who rescued more than 1,000 Jews. Across German-occupied countries, dissenting individuals secretly provided Jews with food or offered them shelter – one of the most well-known examples being Miep Gies and the others who hid Anne Frank and her family. Jews occasionally actively resisted the Holocaust, too. In 1944, an uprising erupted at Birkenau when the Sonderkommando (Special Commando) prisoners who worked in and around the crematoria wrecked a crematorium.

How and when did the Holocaust end?

In the second half of 1944, the British and American armies were taking swathes of territory back from the Nazis across western Europe, while the Soviets were closing in from the east. As winter set in, SS officials were desperate to cover up the atrocities that had been committed in the camps before the Allies arrived. So, after setting fire to the crematoria and mass graves to obscure evidence of the mass murders, the death marches began.

Prisoners were made to march west, towards the heart of the Reich. More than 50 marches from concentration and death camps took place, with some routes stretching over hundreds of miles. Food and water was scarce, and the prisoners were already starving before the marches began. Any who stopped to catch their breath or who couldn’t keep up were shot, and prisoners died in their thousands.

Liberated: inmates from the Dachau concentration camp raise bottles of wine in celebration. Thousands more inmates died after liberation from disease and hunger. (Photo by © CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images)
Liberated: inmates from the Dachau concentration camp raise bottles of wine in celebration. Thousands more inmates died after liberation from disease and hunger. (Photo by © CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images)

But the Allied forces kept coming, and in 1945 the Holocaust came to an end with the liberation of the camps. On 27 January, Soviet soldiers discovered 7,650 severely ill or malnourished prisoners at Auschwitz-Birkenau (Majdanek was liberated by the Soviets even earlier, in July 1944). And at Bergen-Belsen, which British troops liberated on 15 April, they found thousands of starving prisoners, many of whom were suffering from typhus. They were so unwell that 28,000 died after being liberated, and the whole camp was set alight to stop the spread of disease.

How many people survived?

Some 6 million Jews were murdered by the Nazis, and the approximately 3.5 million Jews who survived found their lives were completely changed. Many had lost family members or couldn’t return to their homes. Immediately after the war, many moved to displaced-person camps, and in the years afterwards, a large number permanently left their homelands, moving to Israel, the US, Canada and Australia.

When did the outside world learn about the Holocaust?

The Nazis had tried to keep many details of the Final Solution secret from the world – and their own people. However, the UK, US and Soviet governments knew about the Holocaust as early as December 1942, and prepared war crime indictments against Hitler and other members of Nazi High Command. They did not attempt to close down the camps at this time, though, preferring to focus on securing victory first.

A number of post-war trials were staged to bring the Nazis to justice, the most famous being the Nuremberg trials

After the war, a number of trials were staged to bring the Nazis to justice, the most famous being the Nuremberg trials. Held in 1945-46, 22 top Nazis were accused of war crimes, crimes against the peace and crimes against humanity. Three were acquitted; seven were handed prison sentences; and 12 were given the death sentence.

How did Germany react to the Holocaust in the aftermath of World War Two?

When the Allies carved up Germany after the war, the West Germans were instructed to view the Holocaust very differently to those who lived in the East. Those in the western Federal Republic of Germany, occupied by the US, UK and France, were instilled with a sense of guilt for the crimes of the Holocaust, and Jews were given reparation payments.

The eastern German Democratic Republic, conversely, was told by the Soviets that the Holocaust was the evil product of capitalism, and they should feel no guilt for the part they had played. However, the first action of east Germany’s post-communist parliament was to issue an apology to Jews, and in 1999, the German parliament decreed that a Holocaust memorial would be put up in Berlin.

What (and when) is Holocaust Memorial Day?

Holocaust Memorial Day takes place every year on 27 January: the day that Auschwitz-Birkenau was liberated. It’s a day of remembrance, for those who died during the Holocaust and the millions of others who suffered as a result of Nazi persecution, as well as those who lost their lives in later genocides.


This article was first published in the December 2020 edition of BBC History Revealed


Rhiannon DaviesFreelance journalist

A former BBC History Magazine section editor, Rhiannon has long been fascinated by history and continues to write for HistoryExtra.com. She has appeared on the award-winning HistoryExtra podcast, interviewing experts on a variety of subjects, from Lucy Worsley discussing Agatha Christie to Sir Ranulph Fiennes on the perils of polar exploration