Eugenics and Genocide in Nazi Germany Summary

The Holocaust was a form of genocide, which refers to the intentional, systematic extermination of six million Jews by the Nazis and their collaborators between 1933 and 1945. By 1945 two out of every three European Jews had been killed.

The Holocaust in Nazi-occupied Europe did not happen suddenly. It was the end of a long process of anti-Semitism and the belief in the pseudo-science of eugenics. The Nazis used propaganda and terror to enforce their anti-Semitic policies. By 1938, the lives of Jews living in Germany had become intolerable. A policy of annihilation called 'The Final Solution' was planned and put into practice in Nazi-occupied parts of Europe after the Second World War broke out in 1939.

The Nazi racist ideology of a Herrenvolk ('master race') was used to justify their eugenics program aimed at weeding 'undesirable' genes from the population. The Holocaust was the consequence of this racism.

Things to consider when learning and teaching traumatic topics (should teachers and learners be able to read this?)

Teaching about genocide is traumatic for many teachers and learners alike, but it is an effective way of reinforcing the human rights embodied in the South African constitution.

  • Keep in mind that teenagers learn from watching the adults in their lives, and that includes educators. They will take their lead from watching your attitude and mood.

  • Take time for yourself, too, and try to deal with your own reactions to Social Darwinism as fully as possible.

  • Pay attention to learner's feelings.

  • Respect silence.

  • Give learners the opportunity to express their thoughts and concerns. However, the principles that underlie our whole education system include social justice, human rights and inclusivity, and learner's responses should be in line with these principles.

  • Encourage learners to ask questions.

  • Be prepared to answer your learners' questions factually, and also be prepared to say when you are not sure of an answer, and be committed to find out.

  • Dispel myths and incorrect information.

  • Use discussions to teach about non-violent ways to handle situations. For instance, teach learners how to share and take turns.

  • Teach a sense of optimism.

  • Help children explore positive ways of coping with their fears and anxieties. For example, help children maintain a sense of control by organizing activities that support building a culture of human rights.

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Anti-Semitism in Nazi Germany

At the time the Nazis came to power in Germany in 1933, there were 500 000 Jews living in Germany. They saw themselves as Germans, who differed from other Germans only in religion. Hostility towards Jews had existed for hundreds of years in Europe. Jews were often used as scapegoats when things went wrong and were blamed for no reason. Anti-Semitism was therefore not unique to Nazi Germany. The Nazis extended the ideas of Anti-Semitism and Social Darwinism that were popular in Europe at the time.

Anti-Semitism was a major part of Nazi Party ideology. The false Social Darwinist theory of a hierarchy of human beings claimed that some groups of people were born with superior talent, ability and worth. In his book Mein Kampf Hitler argued that the German 'race' was superior to all others. He wrongly described gentile (ie non-Jewish) Germans as the 'Aryan race' or 'Herrenvolk' ('master race') and believed they had a duty to control the world.

Jews were blamed for all Germany's troubles and were demonised by Nazi propaganda, even though Jews made up less than 1% of the German population. The popular stereotype and Nazi propaganda created the myth that Jews were rich, when in fact Jews were not particularly wealthy. In Poland, for example, 3 million out of 3.3 million Jews were killed during the Holocaust, more than 50% of them lived in poverty.

How did Hitler take away the rights of the people of Germany?

Anti-Jewish Nazi laws and decrees

Hitler wanted to make Nazi Germany Judenrein (free of Jews). In the early years, the policy of Judenrein did not include genocide. Rather, anti-Jewish oppressive measures were slowly introduced to exclude Jews from all aspects of German life. Anti-Semitic laws went hand in hand with state violence and terror. By 1939, discriminatory laws and decrees grew longer and longer and included the following:

  • Jewish businesses were boycotted

  • All Jews had to wear a yellow Star of David badge to make them easy to identify

  • Jews were dismissed from the civil service

  • Jews were expelled from all schools and universities

  • Jews were stripped of all citizenship rights

  • Marriage or sexual relations between Jews and 'Aryans' was forbidden

  • Jews were forbidden in certain places (for example, Jews were forced to sit on separate benches, were not permitted to use public facilities, travel on trams, or attend opera, theatre or cinema, were not admitted to restaurants, hotels, shops or hospitals)

  • In some places bakeries would not sell bread to Jews

  • After June 1938, the Nazis began the systematic expropriation of Jewish property

Not only Jews

Jews were the main targets of genocide. But the following people were also considered 'inferior' and 'undesirable', and were sterilized, sent to concentration camps or killed:

How did his racial policy lead to persecution and genocide?

The Final Solution

In 1941 the Nazis changed their Anti-Semitic policy to systematic annihilation, which they called the 'final solution to the Jewish question.' They decided to murder every Jewish man, woman and child in Europe. A group of policemen called Einsatzgruppen became special mobile killing squads. Men, women and children were rounded up and shot by firing squads into mass graves. But shooting by firing squads was inefficient and too personal for the killers.

Mass 'extermination' by gas was planned as it was an efficient and cost effective method of murdering large numbers of Jews, and the construction of special killing centres began in the second half of 1941.

Six  'Death Camps' were established - all were situated in Poland. Auschwitz-Birkenau, Majdanek, Chelmno, Belzec, Sobibor and Treblinka, were constructed for the purpose of killing. Reinhard Heydrich (second in command to Himmler in the SS) co-ordinated the activities of all Nazi government structures to implement the 'Final Solution'. Gas vans and gas chambers were constructed at the death camps. Zyklon B gas was used. The Nazis kept meticulous records of their plans and activities associated with the annihilation of the Jews.

The implementation of the 'Final Solution' required Jews from all over Nazi-occupied Europe to be transported by rail to the death camps in Poland. Jews were told that they would be 'resettled'. In reality, they were taken to one of the six death camps. Hundreds of thousands of people were crammed into sealed cattle trucks or open wagons, sometimes spending days without food, water or sanitation.  People arrived sick, dehydrated and starving.  Many died-en-route.

By 1945 two out of every three European Jews had been killed.

Read a book about the Holocaust

Many books have been written about the Holocaust. One book, which you may find interesting, is The Diary of Anne Frank. Anne Frank was a Jewish girl born in Germany in 1929. Her family fled to Holland to escape the Nazis where they were helped and hid for two years, were betrayed and sent to different concentration camps. Anne died in the Bergen Belsen concentration camp in 1945 at the age of 16, just before the war ended. You can read more about her legacy on The Anne Frank Centre website

The Freedom Writers Diary is the inspiring modern, true story of an idealistic American teacher named Erin Gruwell. Her students were referred to by other staff members as teenagers who were 'unteachable and at-risk'. Her class was a diverse mix of teenagers many of whom had grown up in rough neighborhoods in California. Erin intercepted a racial caricature of one of the African-American students that was circulating in the classroom. She angrily compared it to the Nazi caricatures of Jews during the Holocaust. Erin Gruwell was appalled to discover that many of her students had never heard of the Holocaust. Read the book or see the movie to find out how these teenagers' lives changed.

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