Throughout human history, no war’s death toll comes close to that of the Second World War. Estimates of total fatalities generally range between 70 and 85 million people, and up to two thirds of these deaths were civilians, killed through various means such as famine, disease, aerial bombardment, and mass genocide. The latter of these, particularly genocide committed by the Nazi regime, stands out due to its scale, the reasoning behind it, and the methodical nature in which it was carried out. In total, upwards of 17 million people were systematically murdered by the Nazis, largely based on their ethnicity. This began in Germany the 1930s with the persecution of the Jews, Roma and Sinti, and so-called “undesirables” (criminals, the disabled, and homosexuals, among others), before it gradually developed into programs of mass murder and ethnic cleansing across Eastern Europe, with the ultimate goal of eradicating the Jewish, Romani, and Slavic peoples.
Nazi persecution and Kristallnacht
The Nazis claimed that the Aryan race (an ethnic group which does not exist but refers to northwestern Europeans) was at the top of a racial hierarchy, with the Jews, Roma (and Sinti), Slavs, and Blacks at the bottom. Conspiracy theories and pogroms against Jews can be traced back for centuries in Europe, and they became the prime target for Adolf Hitler during his rise to power, where he blamed Jews for Germany’s financial difficulties in the interwar period. Nazi propaganda claimed that Jews were profiting at the expense of Aryan Germans, and that they controlled up to one fifth of the German economy, despite making up less than one percent of the population. After Hitler took power in 1933, the persecution of Jews intensified; for example, interracial relationships were forbidden, Jewish businesses were boycotted, Jews were removed from positions of influence or power, and society became segregated. Many Jews chose to flee, and the Nazi state used emigration taxes and transfer fees to strip migrating Jews of their assets.
In August 1938, the Nazis attempted to deport 17,000 Jews to Poland, but most were rejected and left stranded at the border. As revenge, a German diplomat was then assassinated in Paris a few months later, by the son of one stranded family. Nazi leadership responded by unofficially ordering a nationwide attack against the Jews, on the night of November 9-10, 1938, in what is now known as Kristallnacht (the Night of Broken Glass). This saw thousands of Jewish properties and places of worship attacked or burned down, many Jews were beaten, abused, or murdered during the attack, and thousands were arrested and deported to concentration camps in the days that followed. Germany’s concentration camp system had been established in 1933, primarily for forced labor and the “re-education” of criminals or political opponents; Kristallnacht then became a precursor for the mass deportation of Jews that became synonymous with the Holocaust. On November 12th, the government also imposed a harsh levy on Jewish citizens as reparations for “aggression towards Germany”; in reality, this money was used to repair properties damaged during the pogrom, which were then taken by the state and sold to non-Jews. The total death count of Kristallnacht remains unclear, but the combined figure for murders, suicides, and deaths in camps may exceed 1,400. While this is just a small fraction of what was to come, Kristallnacht is often viewed as the beginning of the Holocaust.
The Holocaust (the Shoah)
The Holocaust is the most famous of the Nazi genocides. It resulted in the deaths of approximately two thirds of all Jews in Europe, and one third of the world's Jewish population. After the German invasion of Poland in September 1939, authorities forced the Jews into ghettos, in cramped and squalid conditions, where starvation and disease were rampant. The Warsaw ghetto was the largest of these, and it was home to approximately 460,000 people at its peak, all living within a space smaller than four km2 (1.5 sq miles). Thousands of Jews were relocated to these ghettos and Germany’s expanding network of concentration camps, where many were then used as slave laborers for the German war effort. With the annexation of Western European countries in 1940, thousands who had fled Germany found themselves under Nazi rule once more, and many of these were eventually arrested and relocated. As the frontline moved further east following the launch of Operation Barbarossa in 1941, the SS expanded its network of Einsatzgruppen (task forces), which were small death squads, responsible for committing mass murder of Jews and Slavs through shootings or the use of portable gas vans. It is estimated that the Einsatzgruppen and their collaborators murdered over two million people, including 1.3 million Jews.
In addition to the concentration camps, six extermination camps were built in Poland after 1941, with the purpose of murdering Jews on a massive scale. Up to half of all Holocaust victims were murdered in these camps as part of the “Final Solution to the Jewish Question”. For the majority of those who died at extermination camps, they were sent directly to the gas chambers on arrival; only a small share of Jews were selected for labor, and most of these eventually died from exhaustion, neglect, or murder. It was rare for children to be spared, and they made up around one sixth of total Holocaust deaths. As the German Army was gradually defeated throughout 1944 and 1945, eastern camps were evacuated and prisoners were relocated to those in safer territories; much of this took place through so-called "death marches", and up to 250,000 prisoners were murdered as a result of these. This process also involved the dismantling and destruction of many camps, equipment, and records, and much of the evidence of the genocide was lost as a result. As the war drew to a close, Allied forces gradually liberated the concentration camps, but the majority of those imprisoned in this network had already died before this point. Although much knowledge of the Holocaust remains unknown, the scale of the atrocities means that this has become one of the most studied events in world history. Estimates of total fatalities have gradually become narrower over time, and a figure of approximately six million Jewish deaths is now widely accepted by the academic community.
Estimates for the total number of deaths through adjacent Nazi genocides are less clear than the Holocaust. Due to the scale of the murder, estimates are only made possible by comparing broader census or demographic data with incomplete records, and some estimate ranges remain quite broad. Excluding Jews, almost 11 million civilians or POWs from Poland, the USSR, and Yugoslavia were killed by the Nazis and their collaborators, but classifying these deaths is often problematic. For example, Eastern Europe's fluctuating borders in the early 20th century make census data unreliable, countless victims were murdered in spontaneous massacres that often went unrecorded (or evidence was destroyed), and the rapidity of the German Blitzkrieg means that the cause of many deaths remains unknown. While a large share of these people (especially Poles) were murdered alongside Jews in extermination and concentration camps, the Nazis' "Hunger Plan" also redirected food from civilians in occupied territories to the frontlines, creating man-made famines that killed millions. In particular, Soviet POWs were targeted by such practices, and starvation was the most common cause of death for the three million POWs who died while imprisoned (those from the Western armies were treated much more humanely).
In recent decades, more attention has been paid to the Porajmos, the Romani and Sinti genocide, as the experience and scale was similar to that of the Jews in many ways (although sporadic massacres were more common). The nomadic lifestyle of the Romani people and their exclusion from society meant that accurate pre-war population figures are unreliable; it is estimated that up to half of the Romani population was killed in the Porajmos, but some recent estimates claim the total figure may be over one million. Even today, new evidence continues to emerge of the atrocities committed by the Nazi regime; for example, until 2013 it was believed that the number of disabled persons euthanized under the Aktion T4 program was 70,000, but recent studies show that figures were closer to 200,000 in Germany, 100,000 elsewhere, and an even higher number of forced sterilizations were performed. Such eugenics programs were carried out against persons with perceived physical or mental disabilities with the aim of "purifying" the Aryan race, and this also applied to so-called "asocials", such as homosexuals and criminals, who were sometimes euthanized as they were deemed to have a mental disability. For many of these groups, imprisonment did not end after the war; for example, many gay men remained incarcerated as homosexuality was illegal in the Allied countries, and many of their stories were lost as they continued to be persecuted well into the late 20th century.
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In the following 4 chapters, you will quickly find the 24 most important statistics relating to "The Holocaust".