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The Holocaust and World War II

The Holocaust is a frightening example of what can happen if we do not constantly talk about democracy and the equal value of all human beings.

What is the Holocaust?

The genocide (mass murder) of Jews during World War II has been named the Holocaust. The name comes from the fact that the Nazi regime worked very methodically to wipe out all of the Jews throughout Europe. The Jewish genocide carried out by the Nazis and their allies resulted in the murder of about 6 million Jews. The genocide took place during World War II, between 1939 and 1945. The Roma were also subjected to genocide because of the Nazis’ belief that there were different “human races”. The Nazis also persecuted, imprisoned and killed thousands of people who were, for example, political opponents, homosexual, or people who the Nazis thought “did not fit in” to the Nazi society, and who they labelled as “anti-social”.

Roles in the Holocaust

Reality is rarely so simple that it is possible to say what roles various people or the governments of different countries played in a historical event. The Holocaust is no exception. By looking at the different roles, we may be able to learn how hard it is to point out people as being one or another. The roles most often used when categorising the actions of people and countries in the Holocaust are perpetrator, victim and bystander.

  • Perpetrator – means “a person who committed a particular crime”. In the Holocaust, the perpetrators were the people responsible for the genocide – the Nazis. But they were not the only ones who made the Holocaust possible, or who carried out all of the persecution and murders. Governments in other countries who murdered or sent Jews and Roma to concentration and extermination camps and were allies of the Nazis were also perpetrators. Individuals could also be perpetrators.
  • Victim – means one or more people who have been subjected to persecution or violence. The word victim could lead you to believe that there was no resistance to the perpetrators, which is not true. People who belonged to the ethnic groups of Jews and Roma fell victim to the killing by the Nazis and their allies. The Nazis also murdered groups like political opponents, homosexuals, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and people with disabilities.     
  • Bystander – a bystander is someone who looks on while something happens and does nothing to stop it. This could refer to people or the government of a country. The bystanders may have different reasons for not stepping in. It could be out of fear, not caring about what is happening, or some other reason. But many bystanders in Nazi Germany were involved in the Holocaust in some way through, for example, their work or by buying a home that once belonged to a Jew but was seized by the Nazis. 

The Nazis wanted to eliminate everything that was Jewish

The Nazis wanted to get rid of all Jews and the entire Jewish culture. That is why it is called a genocide. World War II made it possible to carry out a genocide (a mass murder) for as many as six years. Anti-Semitism is a collective term for hatred and hostility towards Jews. It has existed for many hundreds of years in Europe. The Holocaust, with the genocide of about six million Jews during World War II, is the most extreme expression of anti-Semitism.

The Roma and other groups were persecuted and murdered

During the same time as the Holocaust, the Nazis carried out a genocide of the Roma people, who were also called Gypsies. Other groups were also persecuted and abused by the Nazis. These were groups that the Nazis considered a threat to Nazi society or deemed as less worthy. They could be political opponents, criminals, or people with intellectual disabilities. 

Germany in the 1930s

In the late 1920s, the economy of many countries in the world turned bad when the New York Stock Exchange crashed. There was a high rate of unemployment, people lost their homes, and there was great uncertainty about the future. Like other parts of Europe, Germany was hit hard by the stock exchange crash. 

Promises of a better future for the German people

The National Socialist German Workers’ Party (NSDAP), the Nazis, and its leader Adolf Hitler attracted voters with promises of a better future for the German people. The Nazi party gained more supporters, but was not able to seize power through democratic elections. After a period of political unrest following the 1932 election, the German President, Paul von Hindenburg, named Hitler Chancellor of Germany in January 1933, which made him the head of government. As head of government, he made sure that he got all of the power, and the other political parties were banned.

Hitler put an end to democracy

Hitler liked to speak at large rallies in front of a large audience. In August 1934, Hitler proclaimed himself the leader and dictator of Germany, the “Führer”. It was important for the Nazis to put an end to democracy. Social-democratic and communist leaders and party members were sent to concentration camps, which were a kind of prison camp. 

The Nazis used threats and violence, and took away freedom of speech

For many people in Germany, things got better in different ways, which made them give their support to the Nazis. People who did not like the Nazis were subjected to violence and threats. Those who did not agree with the Nazis were often too scared to say anything, and newspapers were not allowed to write anything that the Nazis did not agree with.

Ideas about different human “races”

In the early 1900s, many people in Europe and other parts of the world believed that there were different human “races”. In the 1920s, the Swedish Parliament, the Riksdag, decided to establish “Statens institut för rasbiologi” (the National Institute for Racial Biology) in Uppsala.

The institute’s task was, among other things, to conduct scientific research on racial biology and how it could affect Sweden as a country and the Swedes as a people.

The Nazis’ views on “races”

However, there was no country that went as far as Nazi Germany. In Germany, there had long been a notion that the German people were superior to other people. Even many Jews had this same notion, because, like all other Germans, they were part of the German nation. The Nazis, however, divided the people of Germany into “races” of varying value. The Nazis believed that part of the German people belonged to the “pure Aryan race”, which was superior to all other “races” and peoples. They considered the Jews and Roma in particular to be inferior “races”, and a threat to the German people and the German nation. 

The Roma were considered a threat to the German “race”

Within “racial research”, racial biologists tried to describe the Roma as having particular personality traits. The same year that the Nazis came to power, the Law for the Prevention of Offspring with Hereditary Diseases, also known as the Sterilisation Law, was created in Germany. This was used as the basis for abuses against the Roma people, such as measures that prevented Roma from having children. 

The Nazis started extensive racial biological research on the Roma people in Germany. The aim was to prove that the “antisocial” behaviour of the Roma was hereditary, and that they were a threat to the German “race” and “people’s community” (“Volksgemeinschaft”). 

All German peoples should belong to the same country

The Nazis believed that the people in Europe who spoke German and had a German culture should belong to an empire called the “Greater German Reich”. The Nazis therefore wanted to fulfil the German people’s wish to reclaim the territories that Germany had lost after World War I. The first territory that became part of the “Greater German Reich” was the Saar region at the border of France and Luxembourg. In 1938, Nazi Germany occupied Austria with the support of the Austrian people. Shortly after this, the German-speaking areas of Czechoslovakia also became part of the “Greater German Reich”. 

The Nazis wanted a territory in Poland that Germany had lost after World War I. The Polish government protested, and Britain and France promised to intervene if Germany invaded Poland.

Anti-Semitism and anti-Gypsyism were widespread

Anti-Semitism was already widespread in Germany and the rest of Europe when the Nazis came to power. Because of this, the people readily believed what the Nazis said about Jews. In Nazi propaganda, the Jews were the greatest threat to the German people, and were responsible for “all the evil in the world”.

When Nazism emerged, there had already been widespread prejudice and suspicion against the Roma for a long time.

Jews had lived in Germany for many centuries

Jews have lived in the area that is modern-day Germany since the 7th century. In the 1930s, there were about 500,000 Jews living in Germany. They made up about 0.75 percent of the population.

The Nuremberg Laws – discrimination against Jews and the Roma

In 1935, the Nazis introduced the so-called “Nürnberglagarna” (Nuremberg Laws). Among other things, the laws stated that Jews were not allowed to own companies, hold a government job or marry an “Aryan” person, and that Jewish children were not allowed to go to the same school as children who were not Jewish. More and more Jewish bans were introduced and, in the end, Jews were not allowed to do things like own a radio, visit parks, or go to the cinema. Jews and the Roma lost their civil rights, despite having been German citizens for several generations.

Fascist Italy

Since the 1930s, Germany had had a pact with Italy, which was ruled by the fascist leader Benito Mussolini. In 1940, Japan also became part of the pact. The fascist regime in Italy introduced discriminatory laws against Jews in 1938.

Jewish refugees and the November Pogrom

At the beginning of the Nazi regime, they wanted Jews to move out of Germany. But the Nürnberglagarna (Nuremberg Laws) made it very difficult to move, as Jews no longer had any way to earn money. Many countries did not want to take in more refugees for economic and social reasons. The countries were also afraid that an influx of Jewish refugees would create more anti-Semitism, causing the country to have its own “Jewish problem”.

So, Jews who wanted to move out of Germany had trouble finding somewhere to flee. At the request of Sweden and Switzerland, German Jews had the letter J stamped in their passport from 1938 onwards.

Sweden did not want to take in Jewish refugees

At the end of the 1930s, Sweden did not want to take in Jewish refugees. Jews have lived in Sweden for many hundreds of years, but there were many Swedes who did not want Jews to immigrate to Sweden. Newspapers, cartoons, and movies had long described Jews as different and not as good as Swedes.

The Nazis never gained government power in Sweden

The Swedish Nazi parties never came close to getting seats in the Riksdag. They were divided and did not have enough votes. The largest parties in Sweden in the 1930s were the Social Democratic Party and the General Electoral League (today’s Moderate Party). The leader of the Social Democratic Party, Per Albin Hansson, was prime minister.

Novemberpogromen (the November Pogrom, Kristallnacht, the Night of Broken Glass)

On the night between 9 and 10 November 1938, a major Nazi pogrom targeting the Jews was carried out in Germany and Austria. A pogrom is a coordinated violent and bloody persecution of Jews. Nazi troops and private individuals forced their way into Jewish homes and businesses. They smashed shop windows and wrote hateful messages on windows and walls. The Jews had their belongings destroyed, and many were beaten. 400 people were killed, 30,000 men were arrested, and more than 1,400 synagogues and houses of worship were destroyed.

The next day, the streets were full of broken glass and furnishings from the ruined shops and private homes. The event is known as the Novemberpogromen (November Pogrom), Kristallnacht, or the Night of Broken Glass.

The Roma were forcibly relocated to camps

Even before the Nazis came to power in 1933, the German state had begun to forcibly relocate Roma people to special camps. The Nazis continued to forcibly relocate Roma people, but forbade the Roma from moving from the camps or the place where they lived. Many of the Roma were put in labour camps or in prison camps for Roma. The conditions in the camps were very bad, and many people died.

World War II and the Holocaust

To understand how the Holocaust could be carried out during World War II, it is important to understand how widespread the war was. On one side of the war was a group of countries called the “Axis Powers”, which consisted of Nazi Germany, Italy and also, from the end of 1941, Japan. 

The other side was known as “the Allies”: Great Britain and the British Commonwealth (Canada, India, Australia, New Zealand, etc.), the Soviet Union (after June 1941), France, Poland, the USA (after December 1941), and many other countries. Many people from other countries were also involved on both sides.

Agreement between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union

In August 1939, Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union made an agreement to not invade each other. This was very surprising since Hitler and the communist leader of the Soviet Union, Joseph Stalin, were hostile towards one another. A secret agreement between the two countries divided areas of Europe between them. Poland was to be divided so that Nazi Germany got the western parts and the Soviet Union the eastern ones. The Soviet Union would also gain control of Finland and the Baltic states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania.

World War II began in September 1939

On the 1st of September, just one week after the agreement between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, German troops invaded Poland. A few days later, Great Britain and France declared war against Germany. World War II had now begun.

Polish Jews were persecuted by the Nazis

Shortly after the German invasion, Nazis began persecuting Jews in Poland. The non-Jewish Polish population was also treated poorly by the Nazis, and almost 2 million Poles were murdered during the war.

The Nazis forced Jews in Poland to live in ghettos, which were areas of cities where the people were shut in with walls, fences or barbed wire and not allowed to leave. The conditions in the ghetto were bad. They were overcrowded, and many people there were sick and starving. Jews were forced to wear a Star of David on their clothes to show that they were Jewish.

Norway and Denmark are invaded

In April 1940, German troops invaded Denmark and Norway. Denmark gave up within 24 hours.  

Norway battled for two months before the Germans were able to occupy the country. Sweden’s closest neighbour, Norway, was now occupied by Nazi Germany.

The war in Western Europe

Nazi Germany invaded Belgium, the Netherlands, Luxembourg and France in May 1940. The British troops sent to help against the German troops withdrew to Great Britain. In June, victorious German troops were able to march into Paris.

French Jews were sent to concentration camps

Between 300,000 and 330,000 Jews lived in France. Many had fled to France from Central Europe and Eastern Europe. The Nazis introduced the same laws and bans for Jews as in Germany. In March 1942, the first Jews from France were sent to the Auschwitz concentration camp in occupied Poland.

The Netherlands and Belgium

In the occupied Netherlands, the Nazis took over Jewish businesses and companies. Jews lost their civil rights and were not allowed to work in government jobs. The Nazis demanded that all Jews register. Nearly 160,000 people registered. Among them were 25,000 Jews who had fled Nazi Germany.

A large number of the Jewish population in Belgium was forced into slave labour. Between 1942 and 1944, 25,000 Jews were deported from Belgium to Auschwitz. Fewer than 2,000 Jews survived.

Italy enters the war

Since the 1930s, Germany had a pact with Italy, which was ruled by the fascist leader Benito Mussolini. In 1940, Japan also became part of the pact. The fascist regime in Italy introduced discriminatory laws against Jews in 1938.

The persecution and hunting of Jews took place in the occupied countries

In almost all countries occupied by Nazi Germany, Jews were hunted. The only exception was Denmark, where about 7,000 Danish Jews managed to escape to Sweden in 1943. The Jews captured by the Nazis were sent to concentration camps and extermination camps in Eastern Europe. The Nazi genocide of the Jewish people in the various countries of Europe continued throughout the war. This happened in both large cities and small rural villages. 

Nazi Germany’s invasion of the Soviet Union

In the summer of 1941, Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union despite the 1939 agreement. Killing squads called the Einsatzgruppen had orders to murder Jews, communists, and others whom the Nazis considered a threat. Jews and Roma were lined up at mass graves and shot to death.

The Nazis also used buses that they crowded with people, and then filled with exhaust fumes. The people on the bus were poisoned by the exhaust fumes and died.

The Roma people were deported from Austria to a ghetto in Poland

In the autumn of 1941, 5,000 Roma were deported from Austria to the Polish city of Łódź, where an area of the Jewish ghetto was allocated to the Roma people. Of the 5,000 Roma, 700 died of typhus in the ghetto. Those who were still alive were then taken to the Chelmno extermination camp, where they were murdered. After Nazi Germany's invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941, the German Einsatzgruppen murdered a large number of Roma in mass executions.

Nazi camps for prisoners

The Nazis built many concentration camps in Europe, especially in Poland and Germany. This was a kind of prison camp where people were forced to work as slaves, and lived in very poor conditions. The prisoners were put in concentration camps without ever being given any type of trial and sentencing.

Labour camps were like a concentration camp, but prisoners there were forced to work as slaves, usually until they died. Many died of starvation, disease and exhaustion. Several labour camps were built in places where the prisoners could be used as forced labour in factories, quarries or road construction. In the concentration camps and labour camps, the prisoners were Jews, the Roma, political opponents of the Nazis, criminals, and others who belonged to groups that the Nazis considered less worthy.

Extermination camps

In order to murder as many Jews as possible, the Nazis built extermination camps, which were concentration camps for people who were to be executed. The extermination camps were like a death factory, a place where many people were to be executed. They were located in areas that had been Poland, but were occupied by Nazi Germany. Almost 3 million Jews were executed in extermination camps. The extermination camps were called Belzec, Chelmno, Sobibór, Treblinka, Majdanek and Birkenau. About the same number of Jews were murdered by the Einsatzgruppen and Nazi allies in Eastern Europe after the Germans invaded the Soviet Union in 1941. 

The war spread

In December 1941, Japan attacked the United States by bombing the US naval base of Pearl Harbor in Hawaii. After the attack, the United States declared war on Japan. A few days later, Nazi Germany declared war on the United States. The United States had stayed out of the war up until 1941, but now had enemies in both Asia and Europe.

“Zigenarfamiljelägret” (“Gypsy Family Camp”) in Auschwitz-Birkenau

In December 1942, the Nazis decided that all the remaining Roma in Germany had to be deported to the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp. There, they created a special camp for them that they called the “zigenarfamiljeläger” (“Gypsy Family Camp”). More than 22,000 Roma from Germany, Austria and Poland were held prisoner at this camp. About half died of disease and starvation. When the Nazis tried to execute the first Roma in the camp, Roma who had fought on Germany’s side in World War I put up resistance. After that, the male prisoners who were young and strong were moved, leaving women, children and elderly men behind.

In the summer of 1944, those in charge at Auschwitz-Birkenau decided to close the Roma family camp. Those who were still alive were murdered. The last 2,897 people in the camp were gassed to death on the night of 3 August 1944. 2 August is a memorial day for the Roma genocide.

The war in Asia and in Europe

In 1941, Japan attacked the United States. In December, the US naval base of Pearl Harbour in Hawaii was bombed. After the attack, the United States declared war on Japan. A few days later, Nazi Germany declared war on the United States. The United States had stayed out of the war up until 1941, but now it had enemies in both Asia and Europe.

Italy gave up, but Nazi Germany took control of the country

In 1943, British and American troops landed in Sicily to attack Nazi Germany’s ally, Italy. After two months of battle, the Italian troops gave up. Nazi Germany took control of the parts of Italy that the Allies had not yet captured.

When Italy surrendered, the situation worsened for the 43,000 Jews living in northern Italy. After the Nazis took over, deportations of Jews to concentration camps were organised. But many Jews in Italy survived by hiding with the help of Italian acquaintances and the Catholic Church. 

The end of the war in Europe

In June 1944, Allied troops from Great Britain, Canada, the United States and France landed in Normandy in northern France. After a few months of heavy battle, the German troops were forced to leave France, and the country was liberated from German occupation. 

The death marches

In the spring of 1945, the German troops were pushed back to Germany in both the east and the west.The Nazis emptied the camps of prisoners and forced them to walk long distances to camps further from the war front. Approximately 250,000 people died during these so-called death marches.

On 8 May 1945, the German troops surrendered, and World War II ended in Europe.

The first atomic bomb

In Asia, the war continued for almost another 3 months. In August 1945, the United States dropped an atom bomb on the Japanese city of Hiroshima. This was the first time an atom bomb was used in war. 80 percent of the buildings in the city were completely destroyed, and 150,000 people died. Three days later, the United States dropped an atom bomb on the Japanese city of Nagasaki. It was then that Japan surrendered.   

Huge death toll

A total of about 50 million people died during World War II. Many of these were civilians, meaning people who were not soldiers. 

After the end of World War II

After World War II, those responsible for the Holocaust were brought to trial in the German city of Nürnberg (Nuremberg). Several high-ranking Nazis who had been in charge, including Adolf Hitler, had already taken their own lives and could not be prosecuted. The crimes that the court prosecuted the accused for were crimes against humanity, war crimes and crimes against peace. One of the outcomes of the Nuremberg trials was the adoption of Human Rights by the United Nations (UN) in 1948.

The Holocaust’s impact on the world

By the time the genocide of Jews ended in connection with the end of World War II, nearly 6 million Jews had been murdered. Of these, 1.5 million were children.

For example, 3.3 million Jews lived in Poland before the war. After the war, there were only 50,000 left. There were 74,000 Jews in Greece, and 62,000 were murdered during the war.

Most of the Jews who survived the Holocaust left Europe after World War II. Hundreds of thousands of people moved to Israel, the United States, Canada, Australia, South America and South Africa.

Research on the Roma is being conducted

Research is being conducted on the history of the Roma genocide. It is important that this genocide is also documented. There are no reliable figures on how many people of Roma origin were murdered by the Nazis. Many of the Roma were undocumented and not citizens of any of the European countries. As many as 500,000 Roma may have been murdered by the Nazis.

Europe’s great wounds after the Holocaust

Even though there had long been widespread anti-Semitism and anti-Gypsyism in Europe, the Jewish and Roma people had been a natural part of the many different populations of Europe. After World War II and the Holocaust, the Jewish culture was destroyed and the Jewish people almost wiped out. A large percentage of the Roma population in Europe was murdered, but it still took decades before the genocide of the Roma was recognised. Many communities lacked important functions like doctors, butchers and craftsmen from the Jewish and Roma inhabitants having been forced out or murdered. The genocides and World War II affected large parts of the world, from northern Europe to North Africa. The Holocaust of Europe’s Jewish and Roma people and the Jewish and Roma culture, left great wounds in Europe.

The Holocaust was carried out by people against people

The perpetrators of the Holocaust were regular people, not machines who were programmed to kill. But they committed inhumane acts against other people. How could they do this to other people, even women and children, and at the same time be someone’s husband or father? 

In many countries, including Sweden, the Holocaust can be a sensitive subject. In the case of Sweden, there are many who think that the Swedish government did not do enough to help the Jews and Roma before and during World War II. In other countries, the subject can be sensitive because there were governments that aided the Nazis in the genocide.  

The governments of some countries want to rewrite history to make it look like the country only did good things during World War II. There are also countries where it is said that anyone who was not a Nazi was more or less a hero and resistance fighter. History is not very easy to handle, which is why the Holocaust can be such a sensitive, but important, subject to talk about.

The Holocaust is a frightening example of what can happen if we do not constantly talk about democracy and the equal value of all human beings.


    About The Living History Forum in English

    The Living History Forum is a public agency. We work for democracy and equality between all people, using lessons learned from the Holocaust.

      A survey of teachers experiences and perceptions in relation to teaching about the Holocaust

      The survey’s principal objective was that of charting whether attitudes of teachers, school managements, students and parents, create and maintain opposition to teaching and learning about the Holocaust.

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