Holocaust remembrance

See also: European history

The Holocaust was a mass murder campaign during World War II, carried out by Germany's Nazi regime and some other Axis states. Among the victims were Jews; Roma people; Slavs, especially Poles, Serbs and Soviet prisoners of war; homosexuals; political opponents; and people with disabilities. About 6 million Jews were killed, along with at least 5 million people of other ethnic origins.

Though the Nazis and their allies tried to destroy the death camps at the end of the war, the remnants function as museums and monuments of this dark period of Europe's modern history. As of the 2010s, the few remaining Holocaust survivors are getting old and the very last perpetrators are facing justice, emphasizing the importance of the Holocaust memories.


Tell it to your children, and let your children tell it to their children,
and their children to the next generation. Book of Joel, 1:3

The Holocaust was a complex series of events, with roots in Europe's long history of racism and Antisemitism. Political prisoners and other perceived enemies of the state were rounded up in concentration camps from 1933, shortly after Hitler's rise to power. The Nuremberg Laws, introduced in 1935, stripped Jews of many of their civil rights. Organized mass murder started in 1941, and on January 20, 1942, the notorious Wannsee Conference took place, in which Nazi officials met in the Berlin suburb of Wannsee to plan the "final solution" (Endlösung) to the "Jewish question" (Judenfrage).

While the mass murder was planned by the Nazi government and most of the killing was done by German soldiers and SS, some occupied countries and allies of the Nazis also contributed in the killings and in some cases (such as the Ustase in Croatia) actually went farther or targeted other groups than the Nazis did. While some people helped Jews and other persecuted people escape, often risking their own lives and safety, the overwhelming majority ignored the killings or looked the other way, making the acts of resistance and human decency all the more laudable and celebrated to this day, both in the countries where they happened and Israel. In the context of the mass murder of the European Jews the Hebrew word Shoah (meaning "catastrophe") is frequently used and is preferred by some people, as the term Holocaust originally had religious implications.

As the war ended, some of the surviving Nazi leaders were held responsible in a series of criminal trials in Nuremberg. While they were also tried for war crimes, participation in the Holocaust brought the most attention and the harshest punishments. As the Allied governments, and later West Germany and the reunified Germany, have tried and imprisoned perpetrators of the Holocaust well into the 21st century, they have established a precedent of international law. While the Holocaust was neither the first nor the last genocide in world history, it is arguably the most thoroughly documented and researched crime against humanity.


The Holocaust was carried out in most Axis-occupied territory in Europe, with a few exceptions, such as Denmark (where almost the entire population helped Jews to escape and those who couldn't to stay alive), Finland and Albania. Even Jews in North Africa were rounded up for murder.

As the Nazis had grabbed power in 1933, they started setting up prison camps around Germany (which included what is today western Poland); first for political prisoners, later for Jews, and other prisoner groups. As the camp system evolved into a mass murder campaign, extermination camps were set up; most of them in Poland. In the Soviet Union, much of the killing took place in the field, without camps. See below for details about the Holocaust in each country.

Aside from the camps and other sites in Europe, there are Holocaust museums and monuments around the world, including in Israel, the United States, Germany and France.


Austria's role in the war, and the Holocaust, is a bit complicated. While Austria was annexed by Germany in 1938 and ceased to exist as a nation, many high-ranked Nazis, including Hitler himself, were Austrians.

Austria has had national military service for much of the post-war period. As an alternative to joining the military, young Austrians have the option to work with a memorial service instead in order to inform the public about the horrors of the war.


Czech Republic

  Theresienstadt (Terezín). This camp is located in the Sudetenland, annexed by Germany in 1938. It could be described a "showcase" concentration camp, built to make the internment look better than it actually was. The camp was mainly a temporary holding place for Jews before deportation to the gas chambers at Auschwitz.


The concentration camps in Germany proper were set up before the war. They were intended for internment and forced labour, not for mass murder. From 1942, many prisoners, especially Jews, were transported from these camps to extermination camps in Poland. The camps in Germany had comparably many survivors.



  Salaspils (outside Riga). The site of a former concentration camp where the SS and Latvian collaborators held Jews, Russian POWs and political prisoners. Nowadays the site only hosts a museum and a memorial with several statues, the actual barracks having been destroyed.




As Germany and the Soviet Union occupied Poland in 1939, the country ceased to exist by name, as the Nazis intended to use the land for German settlement (Lebensraum). Germany annexed the western provinces and the area around Białystok, and central Poland became the General Government, essentially a colony ruled by the Nazis. The General Government was extended to most of eastern Poland in 1941, following the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union. While a few Polish people were among the perpetrators, around three million Polish Jews and two million other Poles were killed in the Holocaust.

In contrast to the German prison camps, the sites in Poland were typically extermination camps (Vernichtungslager), where prisoners (mostly Jews from all parts of Europe, but also non-Jewish Poles and other perceived enemies of the German state) were sent to die, either in gas chambers, or through forced labour, weakened by starvation and epidemics. The extermination policy makes the notorious slogan Arbeit macht frei — "Work makes (you) free" which was displayed on many camp gates — bitterly ironic.

Some camps were pure execution chambers, only inhabited by guards and Sonderkommandos — prisoners assigned for disposal of bodies. Nearly all prisoners were killed in gas chambers on arrival, so these camps had very few survivors. The Sonderkommandos were regularly killed and replaced; some camps had more of a dozen "generations" of them.

Some of these sites have both a German and a Polish name. By convention, the German names (Auschwitz etc) are used to describe the concentration camp, while the Polish names (Oświęcim etc) are used to describe the civilian settlements.


Ukraine is often considered to be the place where the Holocaust started in earnest. In Ukraine, Jews were rounded up and shot, then buried in pits, as gas chambers had not yet been set up at this early stage of Nazi genocide.

See also

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