The word Holocaust (Greek, "a completely (holos) burnt (kaustos) sacrificial offering") was introduced in the late 20th century to refer to the attempt of Nazi-ruled Germany to exterminate those groups of people it found "undesirable".

Concentration camp inmates during the Shoah

Table of contents
1 Terminology and definition
2 Overview
3 Concentration and Extermination Camps
4 Historical Interpretations
5 Holocaust theology
6 Origin and use of the term
7 See also:
8 Further reading
9 External Links

Terminology and definition

The term is primarily used to refer to the systematic extermination of the approximately 6 million of the 9.5 million Jews living in Europe before the war, according to the extensive documentation left behind by the Nazis themselves (written and photographed), eye-witness testimony (by survivors, perpetrators, and bystanders), and the statistical records of the various countries under occupation.

In some circles, the term holocaust is used to describe the systematic murder of the other groups which were exterminated in the same circumstances by the Nazis, including ethnic Roma and Sinti (also known as Gypsies), political dissidents, communists, homosexuals, mental patients, Jehovah's Witnesses, Russians, Poles, and other Slavs, raising the total number of victims of Nazis to between ten and fourteen million civilians, and up to 4 million POWs. Today, the term is also used to describe other attempts at genocide, both before and after World War II, or more generally, for any overwhelmingly massive deliberate loss of life, such as that which would result from nuclear war, hence the phrase "Nuclear Holocaust".

Shoa (השואה), also spelled Shoah and Sho'ah, Hebrew for "Destruction", is the Hebrew term for the Holocaust. It is used by many Jews and a growing number of Christians due to theological discomfort with the literal meaning of the word Holocaust; it is considered theologically offensive to imply that the Jews of Europe were a sacrifice to God. It is nonetheless recognized that most people who use the term Holocaust do not intend such a meaning. Similarly, many Roma (Gypsy) people use the word Porajmos, meaning "Devouring" to describe the Nazi attempt to exterminate that group.


One feature of the Nazi Holocaust that distinguishes it from other mass murders was the systematic method with which the mass killings were conducted. Detailed lists of present, and future, potential victims were made and meticulous records of the killings have been found. In addition, considerable effort was expended over the course of the Holocaust to find increasingly efficient means of killing more people, for example, by switching from carbon monoxide poisoning in the Aktion Reinhard death camps of Belzec, Sobibor, Treblinka to the use of Zyklon-B at Majdanek and Auschwitz; gas vans using carbon monoxide for mass killings were used in the Chelmno death camp.

In addition to mass killings, Nazis conducted many experiments with prisoners, children inclusive. Dr. Josef Mengele, one of the most widely known Nazis, was known as the "Angel of Death" by the inmates of Auschwitz, for his experiments.

The full extent of what was happening in German-controlled areas was not known until after the war. However, numerous rumors and eye-witness accounts from escapees and others did give some indication that Jews were being killed in large numbers. Some protests were held. For example on October 29, 1942 in the United Kingdom, leading clergymen and political figures held a public meeting to register outrage over Germany's persecution of Jews.

Concentration and Extermination Camps

Concentration camps for, "undesirables," were spread throughout Europe, with new camps being created near centers of dense "undesirable" populations, often focusing on heavily Jewish, Polish intelligentsia, communists, or Roma groups. Most of the camps were located on the area of General Government.

Concentration camps for Jews and other, "undesirables," also existed in Germany itself, and while not specifically designed for systematic extermination, many concentration camp prisoners died because of harsh conditions or were executed.

Some camps, such as Auschwitz-Birkenau, combined slave labor with systematic extermination. Upon arrival in these camps, prisoners were divided into two groups: those too weak for work were immediately murdered in gas chambers (which were sometimes disguised as showers) and their bodies burned, while others were first used for slave labor in factories or industrial enterprises located in the camp or nearby. The Nazis also forced some prisoners to work in the removal of the corpses and to harvest elements of the bodies. Gold teeth were extracted from the corpses and women's hair (shaved from the heads of victims before they entered the gas chambers) was recycled for use in products such as rugs and socks.

Three camps--Belzec, Sobibor, and Treblinka II--were used exclusively for extermination. Only a small number of prisoners were kept alive to work at the task of disposing of the bodies of people murdered in the gas chambers.

The transport was often carried out under horrifying conditions using rail freight cars.


Anti-Semitism was common in Europe in the 1920s and 1930s (though its history extends far back throughout many centuries during the course of Judaism). Adolf Hitler's fanatical anti-Semitism was laid out in his 1925 book Mein Kampf, which became popular in Germany once he acquired political power. On April 1, 1933 the recently elected Nazis under Julius Streicher organized a one-day boycott of all Jewish-owned businesses in Germany (the last remaining Jewish enterprises in Germany were closed on July 6, 1939). This policy helped to usher-in a series of anti-Semitic acts that would eventually culminate in the Jewish Holocaust.

In many cities throughout Europe, Jews had been living in concentrated areas. During the first years of World War II, the Nazis formalized the borders of these areas and restricted movement, creating modern ghettos to which Jews were confined. The ghettos were, in effect, prisons, in which many Jews died from hunger and disease; others were executed by the Nazis and their collaborators. Concentration camps for Jews existed in Germany itself. During the invasion of the Soviet Union over 3,000 special killing units (Einsatzgruppen) followed the Armed Forces and conducted mass killings of the Jewish population that lived on Soviet territory. Entire communities were wiped out by being rounded up, robbed of their possessions and clothing, and shot at the edges of ditches.

In December of 1941 Hitler has finally decided to exterminate the Jews of Europe. In January of 1942, during the Wannsee conference, several Nazi leaders discussed the details of the "final solution of the Jewish question" (Endlösung der Judenfrage).

Dr. Josef Buhler pushed Heydrich to take off the final solution in the General Government. They began to systematically deport the Jewish populations of the ghettos and from all occupied territories to extermination camps, such as Auschwitz and Treblinka II.


Homosexuals were another of the groups targeted during the time of the Holocaust. However, the Nazi party made no attempt to exterminate all homosexuals; according to Nazi law, being homosexual itself was not grounds for arrest. Some prominent members of the Nazi leadership were known to other Nazi leaders to be homosexual, which may account for the fact that the leadership offered mixed signals on how to deal with homosexuals. Some leaders clearly wanted homosexuals exterminated; others wanted them left alone, while others wanted laws against homosexual acts enforced, but otherwise allowed homosexuals to live as other citizens did.

Estimates vary wildly as to the number of homosexuals killed. They range from as low as 10,000 to as high as 600,000. The large variance is partly dependent on how researchers tally those who were Jewish and homosexual, or even Jewish, homosexual and communist. In addition, records as to the reasons for internment remain non-existent in many areas. See Homosexuals in Nazi Germany for more information.


Main article: Porajmos

Hitler's campaign of genocide against the Roma people of Europe was seen by many as a particularly bizarre application of Nazi racial science. German anthropologists were forced to contend with the fact that Gypsies were descendants of the original Aryan invaders of India, who made their way back to Europe. Ironically, this made them no less Aryan than the German people itself, in practice if not in theory. This dilemma was resolved by Professor Hans Gunther, a leading racial scientist, who wrote:

"The Gypsies have indeed retained some elements from their Nordic home, but they are descended from the lowest classes of the population in that region. In the course of their migration, they absorbed the blood of the surrounding peoples, thus becoming an Oriental, West-Asiatic racial mixture with an addition of Indian, mid-Asiatic, and European strains."
As a result, however, and despite discriminatory measures, some groups of Roma, including the Sinti and Lalleri tribes of Germany, were spared deportation and death. Remaining Gypsy groups suffered much like the Jews (and in some instances, were degraded even more than Jews). In Eastern Europe, Gypsies were deported to the Jewish ghettoes, shot by SS Einsatzgruppen in their villages, and deported and gassed in Auschwitz and Treblinka.


Slavic people were targeted by the Nazis, mostly intellectuals and prominent people, although there were some mass murders and instances of genocide (Croatian Ustashe as the most notorious example).

During Operation Barbarossa, the German invasion of the Soviet Union 1941-1944, hundreds of thousands (if not millions) of Russian army POWs were arbitrarily executed in the field by the invading German armies, in particular by the notorious Waffen S.S., or were shipped to the many extermination camps for execution simply because they were of Slavic extraction. Thousands of Russian peasant villages were annihilated by German troops for more or less the same reason.

Around 2000 Jehovah's Witnesses perished in concentration camps, where they were held for political and ideological reasons, as they refused involvement in politics, would not say "Heil Hitler" and did not serve in the German army. - See Jehovah's Witnesses and the Holocaust.

On August 18, 1941, Adolf Hitler ordered an end to the systematic euthanasia of mentally ill and handicapped people due to protests within Germany.

Extent of the Holocaust

The exact number of people killed by the Nazi regime is still subject to further research. Recently declassified British and Soviet documents have indicated the total may be somewhat higher than previously believed [1]. However, the following estimates are considered to be highly reliable.

  • 5.6–6.1 million Jews
  • 3.5–6 million Slavic civilians
  • 2.5–4 million POWs
  • 1–1.5 million political dissidents
  • 200 000–800 000 Roma & Sinti
  • 200 000–300 000 handicapped
  • 10 000–250 000 homosexuals
  • 2 000 Jehovah's Witnesses

The Triangles

To identify prisoners in the camps according to their "offense", they were required to wear colored triangles on their clothing. Although the colors used differed from camp to camp, the colors most commonly were:

Historical Interpretations

As with any historical event, scholars continue to argue over what, exactly, happened, and why. Among the major questions historians have sought to answer are:

  • how many people were killed in the Holocaust?
  • who was directly involved in the killing?
  • who authorized the killing?
  • who knew about the killing?
  • why did people directly participate in, authorize, or tacitly accept the killing?

Functionalism versus Intentionalism

A major issue in contemporary Holocaust studies is the question of functionalism versus intentionalism. Intentionalists argue that the Holocaust was planned by Hitler from the very beginning. Functionalists hold that the Holocaust was started in 1942 as a result of the failure of the Nazi deportation policy and the impending military losses in Russia. They claim that extermination fantasies outlined in Hitler's Mein Kampf and other Nazi literature were mere propaganda and did not constitute concrete plans.

Another controversy was started by the historian Daniel Goldhagen, who argues that ordinary Germans were knowing and willing participants in the Holocaust, which he claims had its roots in a deep eliminative German anti-Semitism. Others claim that while anti-Semitism undeniably existed in Germany, the extermination was unknown to many and had to be enforced by the dictatorial Nazi apparatus.

Revisionists and Deniers

Some groups, commonly referred to as "Holocaust deniers", deny that the Holocaust happened. Many of the Holocaust deniers are neo-Nazis or just antisemites.

Holocaust revisionism claims that far fewer than 5-6 million Jews were killed, and that the killing was not a result of deliberate Nazi policy. Although Holocaust revisionists claim to present documentary evidence to support their claims, critics argue that the evidence is flawed, the research is specious, and the conclusions are pre-determined. Many claim that such revisionism is a form of Anti-Semitism and tantamount to denial.

Holocaust theology

In light of the magnitude of what was seen in the Holocaust, many people have re-examined the classical theological views on God's goodness and actions in the world. How can people still have any faith after the Holocaust? For the theological responses to questions raised by the Holocaust, see Holocaust theology.

Origin and use of the term

The word 'Holocaust', from the Greek word holokauston meaning "a burnt sacrifice offered to God", originally referred to a sacrifice Jews were required to make by the Torah, and later to large scale catastrophes or massacres. Due to the theological meaning that this word carries, many Jews find the use of this word problematic, as it could imply that Jews were a sacrifice. Instead of holocaust many Jews prefer the Hebrew word Shoah, which means "desolation".

While nowadays the term 'Holocaust' usually refers to the above-mentioned large-scale killings of Jews, it is also sometimes used to refer to other occurrences of genocide, especially the Armenian and Hellenic Holocausts, the murder of about 2.5 million Christians by the Young Turk government between 1915 and 1923. However, the Turkish government officially denies that there was any genocide, claiming that most of the deaths resulted from armed conflict, disease and famine during the turmoil of World War I, despite the fact that most casualties occured in villages far from the battlefield and that there is historical proof this was a systematic attempt to wipe out all non-Muslims.

Political ramifications

The Holocaust has had a number of political and social ramifications which reach to the present. The need to find a homeland for many Jewish refugees led to a great many Jews emigrating to Palestine, most of which was soon to become the modern State of Israel. This immigration had a direct effect on the Arabs of the region, which is discussed in the articles on the Arab-Israeli conflict, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and in many articles linked to these.

See also:

Anti-Semitism, Auschwitz, eugenics, final solution, genocide, The Holocaust Industry, Holocaust memorials, Judenrat, phases of the Holocaust, Rhineland Bastard, Chaim Michael Dov Weissmandl, Protest of Zofia Kossak-Szczucka, Report from Himmler to Hitler

Further reading

External Links