How and why did the Holocaust happen?

A gypsy in Auschwitz, one of the concentration camps in Poland. Not only Jews were killed during the Second World War Holocaust. Gypsies, Catholics, homosexuals and the mentally ill were some of the groups that were also seen by the Nazis as ‘undesirables’ that needed to be exterminated. About half a million gypsies died in the Holocaust. Source:

The Holocaust was a specific event in 20th century history: the intentional systematic annihilation of six million Jews and 'undesirables' by the Nazis and their collaborators between 1933 and 1945.

The word 'Holocaust' comes from the Greek word Holocauston. The first part of the word 'Holo' means whole, and the second part of the word 'causton' means burnt, so the word 'Holocaust' means 'totally burnt'.

The Holocaust was an extreme form of genocide. Genocide is the planned attempt to physically kill every single member of the targeted ethnic, national or 'racial' group.

In 1933, approximately nine million Jews lived in the 21 countries of Europe that would be occupied by Nazi Germany during the Second World War. By 1945 two out of every three European Jews had been killed.

Although European Jews were the primary victims of the Holocaust. Other 'undesirables' were also killed or used for medical experiments. For example, nearly half a million Gypsies were murdered during the Holocaust. Other victims included homosexuals, disabled people, the mentally ill, communists and even catholics.

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. Her family hid for two years, and were betrayed and sent to different concentration camps. Anne died in the concentration camp called Bergen Belsen in 1945 at the age of 16, just before the war ended.

You should always keep in mind that ordinary, regular people - families of grandparents, parents and children are behind the statistics. Personal accounts will help you to get beyond the statistics and make the historical events more personal. For a personal account of a concentration camp survivor, go to:

Why did the Holocaust happen?

Just because it happened does not mean it was inevitable. The Holocaust took place because individuals, groups, and nations made choices or decisions to act or not to act.

The Nazis believed that exterminating the Jews was justified because the Jews were not only a 'low' and 'evil' race, but were affecting the lives of the Germans negatively. Hitler and the Nazis blamed them for all the social and economic problems in Germany.  

As the 'pure Aryan race', it was therefore their right and obligation to get rid of the Jews. Anti-Semitism was a large part of the Nazis ideas. Hitler wanted to exterminate all Jews.

Many people in Germany supported the Nazis and their racist ideas.

In history, we call those who do wrong or commit a crime, perpetrators. So, in this case, the Nazis were the perpetrators, and the Jews were their victims. Those who stand by and do nothing are called bystanders. Many people in Nazi Germany did not support the ideas of the Nazis, but they did nothing, and are called bystanders. Those who did not support the ideas of the Nazis and took action are called resisters. Resisters usually lost their lives.

Pastor Niemoller was a German Christian who wrote a well known poem describing the dangers of not taking action against human rights abuses. Human rights abuses, like the Holocaust, often begin with specific and targeted fear and hatred which soon gets out of control.

In Germany, they came first for the Communists

And I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Communist.

And then they came for the trade unionists

And I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a trade unionist.

And then they came for the Jews

And I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Jew.

And then... they came for me...

And by that time there was no one left to speak up.

How did the Holocaust happen?

A woman marked with the Star of David to show that she is Jewish. Source:

The Holocaust did not happen suddenly, it was the end of a long process of anti-Semitism. The Nazis had come to power in 1933, and used propaganda and terror to enforce their anti-Semitic policies.

Laws were passed by the Nazis called the Nuremburg Laws. These laws took away all the human rights of Jews. They were not allowed to go to German schools or universities, use sporting facilities, sit on park benches or run businesses. It they left Germany, their property was taken away. All Jews had to wear a badge to make it easy for people to identify them as Jews.

Jews became desperate to leave Germany. But, it was very difficult for them to get into other countries. Governments all over the world came up with all sorts of excuses why their countries could not take more refugees.

In 1938 the Nazis organised violent attacks on Jewish citizens. There was so much broken glass in the streets, that this became known as the Night of Broken Glass. By 1938, the lives of Jews living in Germany had already become intolerable. Things got worse after the Second World War broke out in 1939, and the Nazi's began adopting their policy of Genocide.

Death camp mass grave. Source:

In the late 1930's the Nazis killed thousands of handicapped Germans by lethal injection and poisonous gas. After the German invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941, mobile killing units (group of policemen called Einsatzgruppen) following in the wake of the German Army began shooting massive numbers of Jews and Gypsies in open fields and ravines on the outskirts of conquered cities and towns.

At first, 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 Nazi killers. Special death camps were therefore constructed. The victims were crowded into cattle trucks and taken to these camps.

Victims were ordered to undress and were forced into gas chambers that were disguised as shower rooms.  They were locked inside, and poisonous gas was released into the room. They died within fifteen minutes.

After gassing, everything valuable was taken from the bodies of the victims. The bodies were pushed into giant ovens or burning pits.

The website houses a good 'history through pictures' summary of the holocaust and anti-Semitism, please note however that the images are graphic and might offend sensitive viewers.

As empasised previously not only Jews died in the Nazi death-camps. Other 'undesirables' were also killed or used for medical experiments. For example, nearly half a million Gypsies were murdered during the Holocaust.


Kurt Gerstein was a young SS officer who witnessed the gassing at Belzec death camp in August 1942. He wrote this account in May 1945, shortly before committing suicide.

Then the procession starts to move – all naked men, women and children, cripples. Mothers with their babies at their breast, come up, hesitate, enter the death chambers. A tough SS man tells the poor people: “Nothing is going to happen to you. Just breathe in deeply in the chambers; it will strengthen your lungs. This is necessary because of all the sickness ”¦” But the majority understand what is happening to them. They climb the staircase, hesitate, but they enter the death chambers, driven on by the others behind them or by the leather whips of the SS”¦ seven to eight hundred in an area of twenty-five square metres. The SS push them in as far as possible. The doors shut; the others are waiting outside in the open, naked. The people are going to be killed by diesel exhaust gases. But the diesel engine won’t start! The people wait in the gas chambers. One can hear them sobbing”¦ After two hours, forty-nine minutes the engine starts ”¦ After thirty-two minutes they are all dead.

Last updated : 27-Jul-2011

This article was produced by South African History Online on 22-Mar-2011

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