Recently I described the Holocaust as “the most industrialized genocide in history.” I was accused of “playing the oppression Olympics” and “diminishing other genocides,” so I want to make something abundantly clear: there is no such thing as a “better” or “worse” genocide. Trauma and suffering cannot be measured. There is no competition. What I’m saying is something entirely different.
There have unfortunately been thousands of genocides in human history. Some of these genocides have lasted much longer or claimed exponentially more lives than the Holocaust. All genocides share commonalities with each other but are also all unique in different ways.
One of the main factors that makes the Holocaust unique even amongst other genocides is that it was an industrialized genocide. The Nazis quite literally used mass production and factory-like methods to exterminate as many Jews and Roma as possible in the shortest amount of time possible. They created killing factories. And they were constantly searching for ways to make mass murder more “efficient.”
They largely succeeded: how else could they have exterminated 66 percent of Europe’s Jewish population — 90 to 95 percent in some countries — in the span of just three years, from the passing of the Final Solution in 1942 to the end of the war in 1945?
First and most importantly, a massive trigger warning for this entire post. I will be discussing the Nazi methods of extermination of Jews, Roma, and Disabled individuals — including children — in significant detail.
Second: the term “Holocaust” refers exclusively to the genocide of Jews and Roma at the hands of the Nazis, their allies, and collaborators throughout the course of World War II. Though the Nazis persecuted a number of groups, including political dissidents, communists, homosexuals, Slavs, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and more, only Jews — and Roma in some countries — were subjected to the policies of the Final Solution.
Much of the targeting of other groups was actually rooted in antisemitism. For example, the Nazis believed that communism and homosexuality were Jewish conspiracies to destroy the “Aryan race.” Others, such as Jehovah’s Witnesses, were targeted not necessarily because of their religious beliefs but because they refused to serve in the army.
The Nazis certainly wished to eradicate Disabled individuals in their quest to “purify” the Aryan race, but Disabled folks were not included in the Final Solution and the Nazis actually halted much of their eugenics program following public outcry. The same cannot be said of their treatment of Jews and Roma. That said, the development of the Nazi eugenics program is directly linked to the industrialization of the Holocaust.
The story of the industrialization of the Holocaust begins with the Nazis’ “euthanasia” program, known as Aktion T4, a euphemism for their eugenics program targeting Disabled individuals. The Nazis believed that eradicating individuals with mental and physical disabilities would “restore the racial integrity of the German nation” and relieve Germany of the “financial” and “genetic” burden of caring for people with disabilities.
In 1939, a team led by Philipp Bouhler, the director of Hitler's private chancellery, and Karl Brandt, Hitler's attending physician, began planning a secret operation to eradicate Disabled children. In August of 1939, the Reich Ministry of the Interior passed a decree requiring all medical personnel to report all children under the age of three showing signs of serious disability.
In October of 1939, public health authorities began encouraging parents to admit their Disabled children in a number of “special” pediatric clinics. These “clinics” were actually killing centers. The children were murdered through lethal over-medication or systematic starvation.
Soon, the Nazis expanded their program — now known as Aktion T4 (Tiergartenstrasse 4) — to adults with disabilities. T4 operatives established six gassing stations. The gassing stations were disguised as showers, and patients were killed immediately upon arrival. The Nazis used pure, bottled carbon monoxide gas.
Though Aktion T4 was halted in August of 1941 following public outcry, this method of rapid, “efficient” extermination laid the groundwork for the Holocaust.
In the beginnings of the Holocaust, Jews and Roma were murdered with bullets, as has been the case in virtually almost every other modern genocide in history. However, the Nazis found that shooting Jews to death was an inefficient method of extermination. It took too long and involved too much manpower. After experimenting with mass murder through gas poisoning with the Aktion T4 program, the Nazis thought to adopt this method of killing in their quest to exterminate the Jewish and Roma population of Europe.
The Nazis first introduced mobile gas vans in Poland in 1940, when they locked mentally disabled children in a van and suffocated them to death using carbon monoxide.
Frustrated with the “inefficiency” of shooting Jews, the Reich Security Main Office soon ordered the use of gas vans for murder on a mass scale. The first extermination camp to use gas vans was Chelmno; by June of 1942, there were 20 gas vans in operation, with many more being prepared. Some gas vans could hold up to 60 people, while others held around 30.
Soon the Nazis found that gas vans, too, were not efficient enough. A big problem was that gas van operators experienced high levels of mental distress due to their proximity to the victims. Sometimes gas vans broke down due to bad roads. Ultimately, they simply couldn’t exterminate Jews quickly enough, so the Nazis built permanent gas chambers.
Zyklon B was a cyanide-based pesticide notorious for its use in the gas chambers during the Holocaust.
Ironically — for complete lack of a better term — Zyklon B was first investigated for military use in 1920 by a Jewish man named Fritz Haber. After Hitler’s rise to power in 1933, Haber was dismissed from his position as a chemist. After his firing, renowned Jewish biochemist Chaim Weizmann invited Haber to become the director of the Sieff Research Institute (now known as the Weizmann Institute) in Mandatory Palestine. Haber was in poor health, however, and died in Basel while en route to Palestine in 1934 [please don’t even think of blaming Haber or Jews for what happened in the Holocaust later because you will be blocked immediately].
Trigger warning for detailed descriptions
After Jews or other prisoners were corralled into the gas chambers, a Nazi orderly, wearing a mask, would open the roof of the chamber and pour Zyklon B pellets through the shaft. Then, the orderly closed the vent to seal the gas chamber. Immediately, the pellets would turn into gas. Prisoners shoved, pushed, and climbed over each other, but they were trapped. Depending on the weather, they would die within about 20 minutes.
The Nazis were continuously searching for the most “efficient” method of exterminating Jews. In 1941, they concluded that permanent killing centers — that is, death camps — were a more efficient method of extermination than moving gas vans. As such, the deportation of Jews for the specific purpose of eradication began.
In 1942, the Germans built the first stationary gas chambers, establishing them at Belzec, Sobibor, and Treblinka death camps. The gas chambers at these camps used carbon monoxide gas generated by diesel engines. Upon arrival, prisoners were told that the chambers were “showers” for disinfection. They were corralled into the chambers and instructed to keep their arms raised to fit as many people in as possible. The more people in the chamber, the faster they suffocated.
Zyklon B was introduced as a killing method in Auschwitz in 1941. Previously it had been used for fumigation. The Nazis first experimented with Zyklon B as a gassing agent on 600 Soviet prisoners of war and 250 other ill prisoners. When they realized Zyklon B was the quickest, most efficient killing agent, they began using it on Jews and Roma. At one point between 1943 and 1944, 6000 Jews were gassed at Auschwitz every single day.
In their quest to “efficiently” exterminate the Jewish population of Europe, the Nazis kept meticulous records of Jews — and their respective fates — across Nazi-occupied Europe.
The first step in the implementation of the Nazi genocide took place soon after Hitler was appointed chancellor in 1933, with the boycotting of Jewish businesses and the dismissal of Jews from civil services and many other positions and spaces. Between 1933-1935, German Jews were systematically stripped of their German citizenship. The Nuremberg Laws of 1935 not only racialized Jews and stripped them of their rights, but also classified who was and wasn’t Jewish. In 1938, the Nazis forced Jews to register their wealth, which made it easy for the Nazis to then steal. Because many Jews were Germanizing their names in order to avoid detection, in 1938, the Nazis passed a laws forcing Jews to take on certain names. This later made it easy for the Nazis to identify who was or wasn’t Jewish. Little by little, law by law, Jews became more and more vulnerable.
To identify Jews for extermination, the Nazis went through items such as tax returns, census records, synagogue membership lists, parish records for converted Jews, police registration forms, and more.
Jews in Nazi or Axis-occupied territories were identified through Jewish community membership lists, identity papers, census documents, police records, local intelligence, and more.
Jews and other targets of the Nazi regime were also identified in a number of ways physically, including clothing (e.g. the yellow star) and numbered tattoos. All concentration camp prisoners were assigned a number, though only Auschwitz inmates were tattooed.
THE HUMAN COST
Though Jews were treated like products, the cost of the Holocaust was human. Through an intricate web of over 44,000 concentration camps, death camps, and ghettos, the Nazis exterminated six million Jews and about 1-1.5 million Roma in the span of just a few years.
Two out of every three Jews in Europe died during the Holocaust. In some countries such as Poland and Lithuania, 90-95 percent of the Jewish population was murdered. Thousands more were murdered in Southwest Asia (the Middle East) and North Africa. The worldwide Jewish population still hasn’t reached pre-Holocaust numbers, 78 years later.
The Holocaust nearly exterminated the Yiddish language, virtually ending hundreds of years’ worth of Yiddish theatre, literature, arts, and more. Entire family lines were decimated. In most countries, Jewish life overwhelmingly came to an end, especially in Eastern Europe, which for hundreds of years was home to some of the world’s largest and most vibrant Jewish communities. Survivors and second and third generation survivors suffer higher rates of depression, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress disorder than the general population.
There is no amount of compensation that could ever make up for any of this.
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