The atrocities committed against the victims of the Holocaust by the Nazis evolved from previous generations’ prejudices and racism, which had existed in Europe for as much as two centuries prior to the actual time of the Holocaust. Though the Nazis extended the persecution of individuals to new levels of horror, the groups chosen by the Nazis were not new to harassment or abuse from their neighbors. Racism and discrimination are terrible cancers that can infect any population, or be used against any cohesive sub-group. Such attitudes must be identified and vigorously fought against.
March 12, 1938, was the turning point for millions of people worldwide. Though few were aware of its significance at the time, the event that took place in Austria that day would change their lives forever. For it was on that day that Nazi Germany began to invade its neighboring countries (Stuart 8). Years of hatred and prejudice had led up to that day, and, sadly, years of even more horrific hatred and prejudice would follow it.
The feelings of prejudice expressed by the Nazis were not new, but rather an expression of beliefs that had been ingrained in the European populace from centuries before. Although Jewish communities had existed in Europe for 2,000 years, and were often older than the countries in which they existed, the Jews had experienced continual persecution. Jews were rarely given full citizens status in any of the European countries. Religious intolerance forced the Jews to become outcasts (Courage 1-5).
Prejudice began to escalate in the late Nineteenth Century. In 1985, Hermann Ahlwardt gave a speech to the Reichstag stating:
Long-standing patterns of prejudice against Jews helped reinforce Nazi ideology and were used to promote the deadly philosophy of racial purity. Propaganda was developed to classify Jews as "subhuman" (Courage 1-5). Laws established in 1933 limited the professions and jobs that Jews could hold. Jewish businesses were boycotted. The Nuremberg laws that were enacted in 1935 stripped German Jews of their citizenship. These laws classified by blood-line rather than by religious or personal beliefs (Holocaust 1-5). Kristallnacht, November 9 and 10, 1983, was a Nazi sanctioned pogrom carried out against the Jews in Germany, Austria, and Sudetenland (previously western Czechoslovakia). After this, Jews began to be sent to concentration camps; 30,000 male prisoners were sent to Dachau, Buchenwald, and the Sachsenhausen at this time. A decree was then issued to all Jews requiring retail businesses to be turned over to Aryans. Jewish students were expelled from schools and universities (Courage 1-5).
Severe persecution of the Jews continued throughout the war, culminating in the "Final Solution to the Jewish Problem." Six million Jews, nearly 2/3 of the entire Jewish population in Europe, were exterminated by the Nazis (Courage 1-5).
Another example of historical discrimination is evident by the treatment of the Gypsies by the Nazis. The Gypsies were descendants originally of ancient tribes, the Roma and Senti, collectively called the Romani, in India. They came to Eastern Europe in the 1300s. Due to their dark skin, the Europeans mistakenly assumed that they had migrated from Egypt. From the time of their arrival, they faced discrimination. They were prevented from owning land, they were not allowed to join guilds, and they were later forced into slavery, from the Fourteenth to the Nineteenth Century. In the Fifteenth Century, European countries passed laws to keep the Romani out, and rewards were offered for Gypsies to be captured, dead or alive. In some places, Gypsy women who were captured had their left ears cut off. Gypsy hunting was considered an acceptable sporting event (Friedman 7-11).
The Nazi policies toward the Gypsies were not new to the German people. In 1899, the "Central Office for the Fighting of the Gypsy Menace" was established Munich. By 1920, all Romani were required to be fingerprinted and photographed. In 1933, the Nazis came up with their proposal to sole the "Gypsy Menace." They wanted to herd 30,000 gypsies onto boats and sink them at sea. Although this plan was never carried out, many Gypsies were sterilized at this time. By 1935, the Germans had passed the Nuremberg laws declaring Jews and Gypsies as second class citizens. Anyone with two Gypsy great-grandparents was considered a Gypsy and classified as such. By 1936, Gypsies started to be sent to concentration camps and mass round-ups began in 1983 (Friedman 7-11).
Handicapped people were also victims of the Holocaust. Adolph Hitler wrote: "The state is a means to an end. Its end lies in the preservation … of a community of physically and psychically homogeneous creatures … " (Friedman 63). The Nazi goal to prevent reproduction among the "imperfect" was accomplished by mandatory sterilization of handicapped individuals.
What happened to Franziska (Fanny) Schwartz, a deaf 16 year old German Catholic girl, is characteristic of how the handicapped were treated. She came home one day and found her mother crying. After asking her what was wrong, her mother handed her a letter which said, "Frau Schwarz and her daughter Franziska are to come to the health office to arrange for their sterilization. Heil Hitler." (Friedman 69).
The family tried to get the order reversed. They argued that her mother was going through menopause, and Fanny was just a young girl. The judge showed leniency toward her mother, but still required Fanny to be sterilized. She complied with the order and underwent the operation. Unbeknownst to Fanny, however, the operation was unsuccessful and a while later she became pregnant. When the authorities discovered her condition, they tricked her into coming in for an examination and forced to have an abortion against her will. Ten weeks later, she was again required to be sterilized (Friedman 67-76).
Sterilization was not the only means of persecution used against the handicapped. The Nazi belief that the handicapped were "useless mouths" was used to justify their policy that the handicapped had no right to live. In 1939, Hitler "granted" handicapped individuals the right to die. Under the pretense of euthanasia, hundreds of thousands of mentally defective and handicapped individuals were put to death by gas or lethal injection. For these victims the first hermetically sealed gas chambers were developed which later became a prototype for the extermination chambers used in the concentration camps (Courage 1-5).
Both Jehovah’s Witnesses and political prisoners were persecuted for similar reasons. Jehovah’s Witnesses’ doctrine calls for believers to show allegiance only to God. German Jehovah’s Witnesses refused to salute the Nazi flag or say "Heil Hitler" as a greeting. They refused to serve in the Germany Army or Navy (Friedman 47-49). The Nazis considered this an act of traitors. Political prisoners were viewed the same way because of their failure to conform to Nazi policy. Due to this "rebellion" they were also targeted for persecution, which could include anything from daily harassment to incarceration or death (Haas 142).
Homosexuals, also victims of the Holocaust, had a long history of German persecution. Ancient tribes condemned their behavior and buried them in bogs. Laws permitted the death penalty for homosexuals until 1746. By 1871, homosexuality was legislated to be a criminal offense punishable by imprisonment. When the Nazis came to power, this law was still in effect. After serving prison time, homosexuals were often sent to concentration caps. Between 5,000 and 15,000 perished there (Friedman 25-29).
No matter the reason a person became a prisoner, the forms of punishment used against the different victims were the same. The means of mass killing most commonly used was the gas chambers. Mobile killing squads used gas vans, or automatic weapons, to "eliminate undesirables." Poor sanitary conditions, lack of food, and forced labor also resulted in many deaths. Towards the end of the war, death marches added to the already rising toll of victims (Stuart 7, 30). All these methods were the means to the same end, the "purification" of the Aryan race.
None of the eleven million people who perished or were persecuted during the Holocaust deserved their fate. They were innocent victims of long-standing hatreds, prejudices, and racism. The atrocities of the Holocaust could never have been imagined by generations prior to it. It should never be forgotten by generations after it.
Holocaust survivor and persistent Nazi tracker, Simon, Wiesenthal, explains why this painful period must continue to be examined and the victims mourned:
"Courage to Remember" America Online. Yahoo. Available.
http://motlc.wiesenthal.com/index.html. 27 Feb. 1999 pp. 1-5
Friedman, Ina R. The Other Victims: First-Person Stories of Non-Jews Persecuted by The Nazis, Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1990
Haas, Gerda Tracking the Holocaust, Runestone: Minneapolis, 1995
Hebrew-Greek Key Study Bible, Michigan: Baker, 1998
"Holocaust: An Historical Summery." America Online. Yahoo. Available.
http://www.ushmm.org">United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, Washington, D.C.. .org/education/history.html. 28 Feb. 1999 pp. 1-5
Meltzer, Milton Rescue: The Story of How Gentiles Saved Jews in the Holocaust, New York: Harper, 1998
Stuart, Kallen A. The Holocaust 1940-1944. Minnesota: Abdo, 1994
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