The Holocaust, the murder of six million Jews by the forces of Nazi Germany during World War II, is commonly spoken of as the greatest crime in human history. The scale of the act, its deliberate, methodical cruelty, the enormous resources harnessed by one nation for the purpose of slaughtering so many fellow human beings, continue to trouble and fascinate us despite the passage of decades. Beyond the accumulation of so many acts of individual murder, the Holocaust was a concerted effort by the one of the world’s most advanced industrialized nations, the home of a great and proud civilization, to wholly eradicate another nation. It was something new in the history of human wrongdoing, and a new word was coined to describe it: genocide.
After the defeat of Nazi Germany, it was widely believed that such a horror could never be repeated. One of the first international treaties adopted by the newly formed United Nations after the war was the landmark Convention for the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, which created, it was thought, a mechanism for the international community to identify such acts in real time, so it needn’t take a world war to stop them. But the crime has been repeated, in Bosnia, Rwanda, Sudan and elsewhere.
What we now call the Holocaust was a campaign by Nazi Germany, during the course of World War II, to exterminate the Jews of Europe. While the Nazis’ decision to implement a “Final Solution” to “the Jewish problem” — that is, to kill every Jew in every country they controlled — was taken at a conference in January 1942 in the Berlin suburb of Wannsee, most discussions of the Holocaust identify that as the beginning of a third phase in the destruction. The first phase began when Adolf Hitler and his Nazi Party rose to power in January 1933 and inaugurated a steadily escalating campaign of persecution terror against German Jews. A second phase began with the formal outbreak of the world war in September 1939 when Germany invaded Poland, home of the world’s largest Jewish community. German forces began systematically killing Jews as they proceeded from town to town.
In 1940 Germany invaded Belgium, Holland and France, followed by the Soviet Union in 1941. In each place Jews were gathered and either murdered on the spot or shipped to concentration camps in Poland, where extermination centers were set up. The killing proceeded at a frantic pace almost until the European war ended with German surrender in May 1945. The massive killing effort, even at the expense of other war goals, has led some historians, notably Lucy Dawidowicz, to describe the extermination of Jews as one of the central goals of the Nazi regime. By the end between 5.4 million and 6 million Jews had been murdered in Europe and North Africa, out of a total Jewish population of 9 million before the war.
Jews were not the Nazis’ only victims. The killing machine also targeted some 2.5 million non-Jewish Polish civilians and 500,000 Roma as well as gays, socialists, disabled, Jehovah’s Witnesses and others — in all, some 11 million deliberately murdered in addition to Jews. Jews, however, were the only group targeted for total eradication.
What have we learned?
Although the word “genocide” was originally coined to describe a deliberate effort to exterminate an entire ethnic or national group, the UN genocide convention adopted in 1948 broadened the term to cover “acts committed with intention to destroy” a national, ethnic, racial or religious group “in whole or in part.” The proscribed acts included killing or seriously harming members of the group, imposing living conditions that would lead to destruction, preventing births or removing children. Since its adoption, international prosecutions for genocide have been initiated against officials from Bosnia, Rwanda, Cambodia and Sudan. But credible cases have been made that acts of genocide have occurred as well in Guatemala, Pakistan, East Timor, Laos, Sri Lanka, Democratic Republic of Congo and, more controversially, Tibet, Iraq, Ethiopia and Somalia. Allegations are occasionally leveled against Israel for its treatment of the Palestinians, the United States for its war in Vietnam and others, but there is no consensus. It remains unclear when the line is crossed from an exceptionally bloody war to a campaign of genocide, particularly since most wars today kill more civilians than combatants.
The fact that the world community has been able to create tribunals to punish perpetrators in several cases is often cited by human rights activists as evidence that lessons have been learned from the Holocaust. On the other hand, the failure of the world community to stop the murders in real time in almost every case is cited just as often to show the opposite—that little or no progress has been made.
Nowhere are the lessons of the Holocaust and the meaning of genocide more debated than among Jews. To many leading Jewish scholars and activists, the Nazi campaign of murder was unique in modern history. Unlike virtually every other case of mass murder since World War II, the Nazi Holocaust sought to exterminate every single Jew. Moreover, it was carried out not in pursuit of any other goal — land acquisition, political hegemony, punishment of rebellion, revenge — but simply in order to rid the world of Jews.
On the other hand, many observers, Jewish and non-Jewish alike, say the Nazis set a standard of evil that is so universally acknowledged that it can and should be used to build a new global moral consensus. Some go further and charge that efforts to preserve the uniqueness of the Holocaust can lend themselves to a sort of exploitation of the Holocaust for the purpose of preserving an image of Jewish victimhood and thereby deflecting criticism — usually of controversial Israeli actions.
A separate controversy surrounds efforts during the 1990s and 2000s by some Holocaust survivors and Jewish organizations, with U.S. government backing, to reclaim properties that were stolen or looted from Jews by the Nazis. It’s estimated that $10 billion to $15 billion in property was looted from Jews during the Holocaust, worth about ten times that amount in today’s dollars. No more than one-fifth was ever returned or compensated. Public pressure and threatened lawsuits have pushed Germany, Switzerland and several other countries since 2000 to restitute less than 10% of the total value. But the public pressure for monetary compensation has led to resentment in Europe and, some say, fed a new wave of anti-Semitism. The handful of lawsuits that have actually gone to trial in U.S. courts have all been thrown out, on grounds that the multilateral treaties signed in the 1950s to end the war included binding end-of-claims provisions.
The restitution efforts are often confused with reparations paid by Germany to Holocaust survivors and to the state of Israel, representing the Jewish people. Restitution is compensation for lost property. Reparations are damages paid for suffering caused by German actions.