In 1933, the National Socialist Worker’s Party came to power in a Germany that was struggling with escalating unemployment, dramatic inflation due to the Versailles Treaty, and a sense of bitterness from their losses during World War I. It proved to be a polarizing moment for the nation. With a series of backroom deals, party officials managed to install Adolf Hitler as Chancellor, who would quickly move to establish himself as Fuhrer with the power to rule by decree.
Not long after taking power, Hitler’s government began to chip away at the legal standing of Jewish citizens. The measures were designed to exclude Jews from public service, strip them of German citizenship, and deprive them of the right to earn a living.
In the early years, the intent was clearly to disenfranchise German Jewish citizens until they were left with no other option than leaving the country. These measures ultimately failed as post-World War I nations were not open to allowing large numbers of refugees to enter their countries.; the United States, for instance, kept strict quota limits in place throughout World War II, which prohibited large numbers from finding shelter.
On November 9-10, 1938, the Nazis enacted a massive pogrom against the Jewish population. Groups of Nazi men came out in cities and towns across the country to vandalize Jewish businesses, burn Synagogues, and destroy property. The government rounded up 30,000 Jewish men and deported them to concentration camps, where they would stay unless they could secure a visa to leave the country.
As World War II began with Germany’s invasion of Poland, the Nazi attitude towards the Jews continued to evolve. With a growing amount of territory under its control, the Third Reich implemented forced deportations to the Eastern expanses. The Jews were placed on train cars and forced to move into segregated sections of cities known as ghettos.
Inside the ghettos, living conditions were harsh as multiple families were often forced to live together in small apartments or houses. Adults were often required to work and leave the ghetto during the day to labor in factories or outdoor work details. Food was scarce in the ghetto as strict rationing was in place; the average person was required to survive on 1,100 – 1,400 calories day. In the Warsaw ghetto, some 100,000 people died of starvation, while 40,000 succumbed to malnutrition in the Lodz ghetto.
As the Third Reich enacted Operation Barbarossa – the invasion of the Soviet Union – the Einsatzgruppen commanders were encouraged to support and actively organize pogroms against Jewish populations. The units would round up people from a given town, march them to a secluded location, and shoot them. This method came to be known as open air killings (or death by bullets).
In January 1942, the Nazi high command met at a villa in Wannsee for a two day conference. It was during this meeting that Heydrich gave voice to a new policy:
"Under proper guidance, in the course of the final solution the Jews are to be allocated for appropriate labor in the East. Able-bodied Jews, separated according to sex, will be taken in large work columns to these areas for work on roads, in the course of which action doubtless a large portion will be eliminated by natural causes. The possible final remnant will, since it will undoubtedly consist of the most resistant portion, have to be treated accordingly, because it is the product of natural selection and would, if released, act as the seed of a new Jewish revival."
Even though the Einsatzgruppen units were already killing large numbers of Soviet and Eastern European Jews, the Wannsee Conference codified the Nazi’s intent to annihilate European Jewry.
By 1942, the concentration camp system was already enormous. Hundreds of thousands of Jews, political opponents, asocials, homosexuals, Gypsies, Poles, Russian POWs, and Jehovah's Witnesses were laboring in the factories, shops, and mines attached to them. Within months of the Wannsee meeting, six death camps – Auschwitz, Belzec, Chelmno, Majdanek, Sobibor, and Treblinka -- opened and began operations. These new extermination camps were equipped with gas chambers and crematoria or outdoor fire pits; each of them were explicitly designed to industrialize the killing process.
Even though they were only in operation for a few years, the death toll in the extermination camps was immense. Current research puts the totals at:
The majority of victims in each of these camps were Jewish men, women, and children.
As the Allied armies pushed towards Germany, the Nazis attempted to liquidate the camps and destroy any records of their operation. In some cases, the camps were overrun before this could take place. Other times, the Nazis would pull prisoners out of the camps and march them for days in frigid weather, with little food, and no rest; these became known as death marches as many prisoners who were too weak, sick or malnourished to continue would simply die on the road.
The camps that were liberated created shock among the Allied soldiers, as the average American or British infantryman was unaware of their existence. The lack of food and sanitation left the liberating troops to cope with a fragile population. Medical personnel often spent weeks in the camps attempting to bring the survivors back to health.
Even after the Germans were defeated, the former prisoners of the concentration camp system were left with nothing. The Jewish populations were essentially homeless and many countries were not interested in their return. For the first years after the war, this meant that significant numbers of former slave laborers were living in displaced person camps. Not unlike modern day refugee camps, the Jews relied on humanitarian aid for food, education, and health care.