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During World War 2 over 12 million people were murdered in Nazi occupied Europe during the Holocaust. How did this happen? How could this happen? The answer is in the history of Germany from 1914.


The First World War started in 1914 and ended with Germany's defeat in 1918. The carnage of that war was on a scale that had never been seen before in modern fighting history.

The Versailles' Treaty was signed in 1919 in Paris, establishing the terms of peace. The treaty also found that Germany was totally responsible for starting the war and it ordered them to pay for all the damage the Allies had suffered. The total bill was 132 billion gold marks. The debt was to be paid at six per cent interest over 37 years.

The annual repayments amounted to two billion gold marks, plus twenty six percent of Germany's exports.

A British economist, John Maynard Keynes judged that these payments were three times more than Germany could afford. The suffering, as a result of the financial burden and humiliation this caused Germany, created an atmosphere of deep public resentment towards the rest of Europe, which Hitler and his Nazi Party exploited to the full and was an important part of their election campaigning.

By 1921 the German government declared that it was unable to manage the payments that were due.

By 1923 the state of the German economy had worsened. The New York stock market crash of 1929 set off an international economic crisis that devastated Germany, which was already financially fragile.

Throughout these years Adolf Hitler and the National Socialist (Nazi) Party, campaigned tirelessly, promising that when he and his government came to power they would repudiate the Versailles' treaty and restore Germany's pride and prosperity.

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Adolf Hitler was born in April 1889 in Braunau, an Austrian town on the German border. He grew up in an authoritarian household. His father, a customs officer, was quick tempered and strict, whilst his mother spoilt him. He dropped out of school at 16, hoping to become an artist. But in 1907 having failed to get into the Vienna Academy of Art, he spent the next 5 years living in men's hostels, trying unsuccessfully to make a living by hawking his sketches round local cafes and pubs.

When World War 1 began Hitler joined the German Army. He spent four years as a despatch runner on the Western Front, carrying orders on foot or by bicycle, from regimental commanders to leaders at the front. It was often dangerous duty. In 1914 he was promoted to corporal and two years later he was wounded. He was decorated with the Iron Cross, First Class.

After the war Hitler was employed in the Political Department of the District Army Command in Munich. He was regarded as something of an expert on Jewish issues, and was told to deal with a letter wanting clarification on the Jewish question.

Hitler's reply dated September 1919 gave his first explicit writings about the 'Jewish question'.

'Jewry is unqualifiedly a racial association not a religious association,' Hitler wrote, 'It's influence will bring about the racial tuberculosis of the people.' His letter continued,' Rational antisemitism, however, must lead to a systematic legal opposition and elimination of the special privileges which Jews hold……It's final objective must unswervingly be the removal of the Jews altogether.'

In 1921 Hitler became the National Socialist (Nazi) party's first chairman with dictatorial powers. Three years later he and his Nazi followers attempted to overthrow the Bavarian Government, but the coup failed and Hitler was tried for treason and served nine months in jail. It was during his imprisonment that he dictated to his friend, Rudolf Hess, his famous book, 'Mein Kampf' (My Struggle).

The two volumes were published in 1925/26. They contained the core of Hitler's vision. By 1945 the book had sold ten million copies.

In Mein Kampf Hitler inflames antisemitism. He writes that the best and most desirable race was the Nordic-Aryian-German 'master race' and that the German people must eliminate the Jews, promising that the Nazis would do so.
By 1932 the Nazi party, who were fascists, had more than 1.4 million members.

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Fascism is an authoritarian political ideology. The word 'Fascist' was first used by Benito Mussolini's government in Italy in 1920.

Governments considered to be fascist came to power in Germany, Romania, Slovakia and Croatia. The governments were antidemocratic and anti-Marxist. Some, but not all fascist movements incorportated antisemitism into their political platform.


Antisemitism was a word coined by a German journalist, Wilhelm Marr, around 1867.
It was used it so that Judenhass, or Jew-hatred could be discussed in polite society.

Approximately nine million Jews lived in Europe. In 1933 there were half-a million German Jews.

Like many other Jews in Western Europe they had adopted the culture, but not the religion of their non-Jewish neighbours. Thousands of Jews served in the German army in World War 1, many were decorated for bravery.
From 1905 to 1933 Jews won 11 of the 37 Nobel Prizes awarded to Germans.

In the early 1930's Germany was suffering the effects of a world wide economic depression. Millions were out of work, leading to social unrest which undermined the confidence in the then government, the Weimar Republic.

Many ordinary Germans were still bitter about their defeat in World War 1 and the way the victors had treated them. The national shame plus the unsettled state of the economy had left Germany wanting decisive leadership and national rebirth.

By 1932 the National Socialists (Nazis) were now the largest political party in Germany. Fearing continued chaos the German president Paul von Hindenburg, then 85, appointed Hitler as the head of a coalition government.
Hindenburg and his conservative advisors hoped that Hitler would restore social order.

But the plan backfired and six months later Hitler's decrees were law and civil rights had disappeared.

Nazis became the only legal political party. Suspected political opponents were sent to concentration camps such as Dachau. As early as 1933, there were 50 concentration camps in Germany and more than 25,000 Socialists, Communists and Jews were sent to them.

Hitler had long been convinced that Jews posed the most deadly threat to German life, as he had written in his book, 'Mein Kampf'.
Nazi ideology required the elimination of the Jews.
Soon after taking power, Hitler began implementing the antisemitism that was the centre of his party's policy.

The Jews were hit hard by the Nazi take over. First there was the nation wide boycott of Jewish businesses, when Nazi Storm troopers posted up signs that advised 'Don't buy from Jews', and 'The Jews are our Misfortune'. Storm Troopers stood menacingly in front of the homes of Jewish doctors and lawyers warning people not to enter, whilst at the same time beating up, harassing and humiliating Jews on the street. Jewish doctors were barred from state hospitals, pharmacy licenses were no longer available to Jews and
Jewish lawyers were restricted in their practice.

This increased pressure forced Jews to sell their businesses at 30 to 60% of their real value. German Jews were forbidden to farm, banned from working in journalism, art, literature, music, broadcasting and theatre. Jews were forced to carry identity cards. The Jewish Star of David had to be shown outside buildings where Jews lived. Jews were forced on their knees to scrub pavements. Jewish passports were stamped with the letter 'J' to identify Jews and stop them from passing as Christians and crossing the border into Switzerland. All Jewish students were expelled from German schools, they were only allowed to attend Jewish schools. Parks and swimming pools were banned to Jews. Jewish men in Germany were ordered to take the middle name, 'Israel'; Jewish women must take the middle name 'Sara'.

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Being robbed of their liberty and their livelihoods about 37,000 German Jews managed to flee from Germany in 1933. But the cost of escape was high and not everyone could afford to leave. For the elderly it was often physically impossible and terrifying, so most Jews had no choice but to remain, hoping that the discrimination would pass.

But the opposite happened.

Within Germany and throughout the world, it was no secret that Hitler's regime had started a systematic process of persecuting and segregating Jews, they were being excluded from every aspect of German life.

By 1937, more than 60% of Jewish children had been banned from German schools. The forced imprisonment of Jews in concentration camps continued. Forced emigration was not solving the Nazi's 'Jewish problem'.

Franz Mayer, a Jewish leader described emigration as follows. 'You put in a Jew one end, with property, a shop, a bank account, and legal rights. He comes out the other end with out property, without privileges, without rights, with nothing except a passport and an order to leave the country within a fortnight, otherwise he will find himself in a concentration camp.'

Within six months of the German Anschluss, Eichmann expelled 45,000 Jews from Austria. A year later 100,000 Jews, nearly 50% of Austria's Jewish population had left.

In 1938 US President Franklin D Roosevelt called for an international conference to deal with the refugee situation. Although representatives expressed sympathy for Jewish refugees the doors of their countries remained firmly shut.

The Nazi's realised that forced immigration was not the way of solving their Jewish problem.

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In 1938 Herschel Grynszpan, a 17 year old Jewish student living in Paris, heard that his family had been forced, with other Polish Jews to leave their home in Hanover, Germany and they ended up in a concentration camp on the Polish border.

On November 7th as an act of reprisal, the young Grynszpan went to the German Embassy in Paris and shot Ernst von Rath, a diplomat, who died 2 days later. Grynszpan was arrested.

KRISTALLNACHT – Night of Broken Glass

Hitler decided to take revenge on the Jews for Rath's murder. On November 9th synagogues, Jewish cemeteries, hospitals, businesses, shops and homes across Germany were looted, destroyed, and set on fire. This event was known as Kristallnacht - The Night of Broken Glass.

Jews were killed and beaten up, thousands were arrested and sent to concentration camps. Kristallnacht ended any idea that Jews may have anything resembling normal Jewish way of life under the Third Reich.

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By 1938 many countries had closed their borders to Jewish immigrants fleeing from the Nazis, but in November the British Government allowed unaccompanied Jewish children into Britain. These transports, carrying children without their parents were known as the Kindertransport.

The children came from Germany, Austria and Czechoslovakia. The transports were organised and sponsored with the help of British Jews, the Quakers and other voluntary agencies. These transports only stopped in September 1939 when Great Britain declared war on Germany. By then almost 10,000 children had escaped the Nazi's in what became the biggest exodus of children from Nazi occupied territory.

In the US the Senate declared they would not take children as they decided it was, 'Against the will of God to separate children from their parents'.

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In March 1938 Germany crossed the border into Austria, making it part of the German Reich. One hundred and ninety thousand Austrian Jews were overnight subjected to the terrors of the Nazi anti-Jewish laws.

Seven months later Germany occupied the Sudetenland.

On March 15th 1939 German troops marched into Prague in Czechoslovakia and Hitler delivered 120,000 Jews into the ruthless hands of the SS. Forced to escape again, many fled to Poland and Hungary. Within six months more than 30,000 Jews were forced to emigrate. Of the 90,000 who remained only 10,000 would finally survive Nazi rule. The Nazis quickly got on with the business of stripping Czech Jews of their livelihoods, just as they had done earlier to the German and Austrian Jews. They froze their bank accounts, their businesses were shut down and their property confiscated.

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In August 1939 the German economy shifted to a war footing. The Nazi government issues restrictive ration cards to gypsies and resident aliens. Ration cards for Jews meant being restricted to a starvation diet of 200 to 300 calories per day.


On September 1st 1939, German forces overran western Poland. Two days later on September 3rd Great Britain and France declared war on Germany. German Forces occupied western Poland and on September 17th the Soviet Union invaded Eastern Poland.

The following day Reinhard Heydrich ordered that all Jewish communities in Poland and Germany were to be dissolved, and the deportation of Jews to ghettos and concentration camps was to be accelerated. The death sentence was passed on Jews who refused to report for deportation.

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Polish Jews over the age of ten were forced to wear a Star of David armband on the right sleeve of indoor and outdoor clothing. German Jews wore a yellow star armband inscribed with the word, 'Jude'. Armbands in the Warsaw ghetto featured a blue star and Greek Jews wore a badge with an identity number, Russian Jews a yellow badges on the their chest and back.

This was to identify Jews not only to the Nazis, but to everyone, everywhere they went. The penalty for not wearing an armband was summary execution. Jews were beaten and murdered and sent to concentration camps, for no reason. Two years of forced labour was made compulsory for all male Jews between the ages of 14 and 60.

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In late 1939 Jews were forced by the thousand into ghetto areas. Thousands of Czech Jews were deported in ghettos in Poland. They could take only with them what they themselves could carry, or would fit onto a cart.

The ghettos were separated, guarded, walled off areas where Jews were forced to live in vastly overcrowded, unhygienic, squalid conditions. Four to five people were crammed into each room, creating a situation where privacy was non-existent and sanitary conditions were appalling. They were given only meagre food rations and there was no paid employment. Those precious possessions that they had bought into the ghetto with them they were soon trying to sell, or burn to keep warm. Many were forced into slave labour for the Germans. Death from disease and starvation was rampant, especially for the elderly and children.

Lodz, in Poland was the first ghetto to be established by the Nazis in October 1939, 170,000 Jews were forced to live there. The Warsaw Ghetto was the largest, with 490,000 Jews. It was sealed in 1940. Krakow and Lublin were among the many ghettos established in Poland. There were ghettos in Minsk, (Soviet Union) Kovno and Vilna (Lithuania) and Riga (Latvia).

The only way to 'escape' from the ghetto was via one of the regular Nazi deportations to extermination/slave-labour camps.

During 1942/43 the Nazis 'liquidated' the ghettos by deporting hundreds of thousands of Jews to the death camps. The aim of the Nazis to was kill Jews as fast as possible. This they hoped would be achieved by starvation, squalor and disease in the filthy overcrowded ghettos. People did die in their thousands, but not in large enough numbers and not fast enough for the Nazis.

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Reinhard Heydrich had been commissioned to handle the 'Jewish question' in ways that went beyond, 'emigration and evacuation'. He had already ordered the ghettoization of Polish Jews and had organised the mass deportations of Jews in Eastern Europe.

In January 1942 in Berlin, Heydrich convened the Wannsee Conference, which was attended by many top Nazi leaders. At this meeting they co-ordinated the plans for the 'Final Solution to the Jewish question'.' This had already begun in late 1941. According to the protocol of the meeting, five million Jews in the USSR (now Russia) were marked for death, this included three million in the Ukraine, 700,000 in the Unoccupied zone of France, 5600 in Denmark, and 200 in Albania.

Figures are also given for nations not yet under Nazi control, including England (330,000) Spain (6000), Switzerland (18,000), Sweden (18,000), and Turkey (55,000). The total meeting time for the Wannsee Conference was less than 90 minutes.

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By 1942/43 the Nazis had stepped up the deportations from the ghettos to the gas chambers. The rumours that the gas chambers existed were every day talk in the filthy ghetto streets. No one, no members of any family, had ever heard a word from any of those thousands of Jews who had been rounded up by the trainload and deported. People began to realise they had to escape.

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Life outside the ghetto for a Jew was extremely dangerous. Antisemitism was rife and the Nazis had passed a law that hiding Jews was punishable by death. Despite this, many people made plans to escape and go into hiding. They were plans made in a hurry, desperate arrangements made with Polish non-Jews, who were often old friends, employers or even total strangers, all of them were Christians who lived outside the ghetto. They agreed to hide mostly children, sometimes with their mothers. Those who risked death by hiding Jews were generally poor peasants and farm workers, and they were paid.

Jews who were better off and had managed to smuggle gold coins, jewellery and money into and out of the ghetto used this to pay their rescuers. The question 'what would happen when the money ran out and the hiding had to continue?' didn't bear consideration, not in this atmosphere of panic and fear. Although some in hiding were thrown out when the money ran out, many were kept hidden even when they had nothing to offer in return. Those in hiding were fed and their rescuers risked being denounced to the Nazis by unusual behaviour such as buying 3 potatoes instead of their usual one. Many took in very small children and passed them off as their own, often keeping them when the war ended.

Many Catholic Nuns in convents hid Jewish children and were not exempt from being searched by the SS. Some Jews had bought forged papers, stating they were Christians. But often these forgeries weren't good and didn't stand up to Nazi scrutiny.

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The children were lucky if they escaped with their parents, most children were sent out of the ghetto alone. They usually escaped at night through a hole in the ghetto wall, or they would slide down into the ghetto sewers, often as the Nazis were organising a roundup of the ghetto inhabitants.

The sewers were an escape route to the outside world, beyond the ghetto wall. Some had pre-planned their escape by digging into the sewers, and paying a sewer worker to hide them inside the miles of tunnels, where they would live in the rat infested filth. The Nazis knew Jews hid there and frequently bombed the sewers.

Children, some as young as 7 escaped alone, their escape was often organised by a desperate relative, who told them that once outside the wall, they would be met by a stranger who would take them to a hiding place or run off with the money and leave the child. Children who had lost their families to the deportations, escaped alone onto the dangerous streets where they were vulnerable and exposed.

Those Jews who were blond haired and blue eyed stood a greater chance of surviving 'above ground'. They slept in toilets and stole food, some found domestic work. Children frequently headed for the countryside where there were farms that needed labour. Or they survived by stealing food and hiding in barns. Anyone in hiding above or below ground was prey to blackmailers and denouncers.

No one knows exactly how many Jews went into hiding, but it is estimated that during the course of the war, from 1939 till the Germans surrendered in 1945, some 400,000 Jews were hidden. Many of those who survived in hiding, having left family members behind who they never saw again suffered 'survivor's guilt'. Young children grew up feeling this guilt, even though it was their parent's last loving act to make arrangements for their children to hide.

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Life in hiding was not easy, comfortable or safe. Hiding places were scarce. The hidden lived in appalling conditions, underground, in dark windowless rooms, caves, barns, empty apartments. They were hidden in cramped spaces, covered in lice and fleas, hungry, silent - noise would betray them so babies were often given away to Polish families by desperate parents who could not go into hiding with a crying baby.

Many hid and often lived for years in sewers. The sewers were frequently bombed.

Those in hiding felt isolated and alone, there were few people they could trust. Twenty fours hours a day they were hunted. They often had to risk going outside to move to from one hiding place to another. This was very dangerous. The children were totally dependent on whoever was hiding them to bring food, a candle, and a waste bucket.

Jews who didn't look Jewish and had money were more likely to survive in hiding, some living openly.

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Because Jewish males are circumcised it was easier for the Nazis to reveal their true identity, there was no way it could be denied. Because of this Jewish boys had a harder time finding people willing to help hide them. Non Jews were less eager to risk taking in these boys and pass them off as their own child, when they could easily be identified as being Jews simply by the fact they were circumcised.

Nazi's frequently forced Jewish males, adults and children, at gunpoint to remove their trousers, as a basic requirement of a search.

Non Jews were happier to hide girls as they could pass them off as their own children. In desperation many Jews gave up their young children for hiding with a non Jewish family, agreeing the child would be returned to them after the war. What invariably happened was either the family were denounced by a neighbour and they were all murdered for hiding a Jew or the family refused to return the child to it's rightful parents.

Many escapees both adults and children were hidden by the partisans, who lived and fought together in the forests.

A little more than 40% of those in hiding lived to see the end of the war. The chances of survival were therefore not good. Half or more of those who fled may have perished, but so did 99% of those who did not go into hiding.

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The war in Europe came to an end on May 7th 1945, at Rheims, France where the unconditional surrender of Nazi Germany was signed. Hitler had already committed suicide in his Berlin Bunker on April 30th.

More than 35 million people, civilian and military, lost their lives in the Europe of World War 2.

The Nazis murdered 12 million people including 6 million Jews and millions of Gypsies, Poles, Russians, Slavs, Jehovah's Witnesses, homosexuals, Communists and the mentally handicapped, all singled out for Holocaust-related persecution and murder.

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"HIDE and SEEK" from the producers of "THE CHILDREN WHO CHEATED THE NAZIS" - the story of the Kindertransport.