Nazi Extermination of the Jews Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The Nazis began extermination of the Jews in an effort to achieve Hitler’s goal of eradicating the Jewish race. The Nazi program resulted in the deaths of six million Jews from Germany and from areas of Europe occupied by the German armed forces.

Summary of Event

The extermination of European Jews during World War II, which has come to be known as the Holocaust, was the outgrowth of Adolf Hitler’s violent persecution of Germany’s Jews through tactics that began with his ascent to power in 1933. Systematically deprived of their political rights, occupations, and property, the Jews in Germany suffered physical violence, mental anguish, exile, and death at the hands of the National Socialist German Workers’ Party (the Nazi Party). On January 30, 1939, Hitler predicted that the coming world war would bring “the annihilation of the Jewish race throughout Europe.” World War II began seven months later, on September 1, when Hitler’s armed forces invaded Poland. Simultaneously, Hitler and his henchmen, including Adolf Eichmann and Heinrich Himmler (commander of the Schutzstaffel, or SS, the Nazi secret police), initiated policies and programs they hoped would bring about the extermination of the Jews. [kw]Nazi Extermination of the Jews (1939-1945) [kw]Extermination of the Jews, Nazi (1939-1945) [kw]Jews, Nazi Extermination of the (1939-1945) Holocaust Jews;Holocaust Nazi Germany;Holocaust Genocide;Holocaust World War II (1939-1945)[World War 02];Holocaust Nazi death camps Death camps, Nazi [g]Germany;1939-1945: Nazi Extermination of the Jews[09920] [g]Poland;1939-1945: Nazi Extermination of the Jews[09920] [c]Atrocities and war crimes;1939-1945: Nazi Extermination of the Jews[09920] [c]World War II;1939-1945: Nazi Extermination of the Jews[09920] [c]Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;1939-1945: Nazi Extermination of the Jews[09920] [c]Human rights;1939-1945: Nazi Extermination of the Jews[09920] Hitler, Adolf Eichmann, Adolf Himmler, Heinrich Heydrich, Reinhard Mengele, Josef

At the time of the Nazi invasion of Poland, Reinhard Heydrich was placed in charge of German actions affecting the Jews in Poland, who constituted about two million of the Polish population in 1939. During medieval and early modern times, many Jews had been driven to Poland by persecution and expulsion from Western Europe. Moreover, when the Polish borders were redrawn after World War I, the nation gained areas that included many Jews. Heydrich first began to deal with the Polish Jews in a directive dated September 21, 1939. This order was issued to the heads of the Einsatzgruppen, Einsatzgruppen or mobile killing squads. First, Jewish property was to be “Aryanized,” or expropriated. Second, Jews were to be forced into ghettos in the large cities. In each ghetto, Jews were required to establish a Council of Elders, or Judenrat, which was to administer the ghetto in conformity with Nazi orders. Historians regard Heydrich’s directive as the preliminary step to the so-called final solution, which eventually accomplished the near destruction of European Jewry.

In addition to ghettoization, another of Hitler’s policies toward the Jews in 1939 was murder. The Einsatzgruppen that accompanied the German armies in Poland and elsewhere were given orders to massacre Polish civilians, especially Jews. Eventually, members of the Einsatzgruppen operated throughout Eastern Europe and, with the assistance of some two hundred thousand collaborators, tortured and murdered about one and one-half million Jews by the end of World War II. Two difficulties arose, however, with the Einsatzgruppen. First, as diligent as they were in murdering Jews, they could not possibly accomplish the destruction of all of Europe’s Jews. In only two days at Babi Yar in Russia, the Einsatzgruppen shot thirty-five thousand Jews, but the Russian Jewish population numbered four to five million. Second, there was some concern about the ability of members of this Nazi elite to retain their sanity as they went about their duties. “The unlimited brutalization and moral depravity,” wrote German general Johannes Blaskowitz, “will spread like an epidemic through the most valuable German human material” and “brutal men will soon reign supreme.”

In order to help solve these two problems, the Nazis devised a more efficient means of murder that was expected to have a less brutalizing effect on the murderers. Ghettoization had concentrated the Jews into rather small areas—including the central Polish cities of Radom, Lwów, Lublin, Warsaw, and Kraków—that were then sealed. Jews from throughout Europe, including Germany, were deported to the Polish ghettos. Concentrated in the worst parts of cities and required to subsist on a few calories per day, many Jews fell ill or starved to death. The Nazis found starvation too slow, however, and so prepared other means of extermination. In the meantime, they exploited the Jews as a natural resource.

Prisoners in Buchenwald concentration camp near Jena, Germany, in April, 1945.

(Library of Congress)

The largest form of exploitation involved using Jews as forced laborers for various large-scale projects. Many Jews were literally worked to death during the construction of concentration and labor camps. Once the labor camps were in operation, major German industrial corporations, such as Krupp and I. G. Farben, continued the brutal process of killing Jewish laborers with overwork. At the I. G. Farben synthetic rubber works at Auschwitz, Auschwitz death camp the estimated life expectancy of workers was three to four months. The ghettos were also centers of labor where Jews were required to produce a variety of manufactured goods for the Nazis. Although the Jews were, by their labor, contributing significantly to the German war effort, Hitler’s implacable objective remained the destruction of their race, regardless of the impact on the German economy or the war.

By the winter of 1942, rumors of the Nazi determination to destroy all Jews began to circulate. Actually, that decision had already been made, and efforts to implement the decision were being carried out. Because the mass shootings of the Einsatzgruppen had certain drawbacks, as had the program of starvation, German technical skills were used to devise an orderly technology of murder. Facilities for mass extermination by gas were constructed at six camps: Auschwitz-Birkenau, Treblinka, Sobibór, Majdanek, Belżec, and Chełmno. At the same time, the Nazi bureaucracy organized to undertake mass murder and to process the corpses as efficiently as possible. Top Nazi officials coordinated the entire procedure at the Wannsee Conference held near Berlin on January 20, 1942. As a result of the decisions made at that conference, the Nazis began to transport Jews from all over Europe by rail to the extermination camps.

The camps were very efficient; for example, in two months of the summer of 1942, three hundred thousand Jews from the ghetto of Warsaw were gassed at Treblinka, Treblinka death camp and the Judenrat of the Warsaw ghetto was forced to furnish six thousand Jews per day for transportation to Treblinka. Throughout German-occupied Europe, Jews were sent to extermination camps in Poland and Germany until one and three-quarter million had been exterminated at Auschwitz, one and one-half million had died at Majdanek, Majdanek death camp and hundreds of thousands had been killed elsewhere by 1944.

About fifty thousand people were engaged in carrying out the extermination process in the camps. Two types of gas were used: carbon monoxide and hydrogen cyanide (Zyklon B), which was considered to be much quicker than carbon monoxide. The procedure was much the same in the various death camps. Jews would arrive jammed into railroad boxcars. Forced out of the cars, they were sent to barbershops, where their heads were shaved and the hair was carefully retained for various manufacturing purposes. They were then required to surrender all their clothing, valuables, eyeglasses, and everything else they possessed—even artificial limbs. Those Jews not spared to be used for forced labor were then marched to large open areas in front of gas chambers, where they were forced to wait, often for hours, while smaller groups were “processed.” These smaller groups were marched into the gas chambers, which were filled with so many people that there was no room even to fall down. The doors were sealed, and, while the remainder waited, the gas was turned on for about half an hour. When all inside were dead, doors at the opposite end from the entrances were opened and the corpses were removed. Gold fillings and valuable dental bridges were salvaged, and the bodies were cremated while the next group entered the chamber. By 1944, this process had become so efficient that tens of thousands of Jews were being slaughtered daily. Auschwitz held the record: In July of 1944, thirty-four thousand people were killed there in a single day.

In addition to their extermination efforts, the Nazis undertook medical experiments on the Jews. Regarding Jews as potential research animals, the Nazis were ready to test literally any drug or attempt any type of experiment on them, as Dr. Josef Mengele—known as the “Angel of Death”—demonstrated. All segments of the German scientific community took part in these experiments, for reasons that were frequently obscene and sadistic as well as scientific. Almost all of the experiments involved torture and resulted in the deformity or death of the victims. In short, such “research” was little more than one aspect of the extermination process, as Mengele himself performed the daily selection of experimental subjects at Auschwitz. By the end of World War II, the combined activities of the Einsatzgruppen, the medical experimenters, and the extermination camps had brought death to approximately six million Jews. Some of the Jews who died in the camps did not reach the gas chambers or become the subjects of experimenters; they died of typhus, cholera, or dysentery.


Hitler’s program of extermination was not limited to Jews. The Nazis also attempted to exterminate all intellectuals, priests, deformed persons, Gypsies, homosexuals, and other “undesirables,” bringing the total number exterminated to between ten million and twelve million.

Despite his determination, Hitler failed to decimate the Jewish race or even to eliminate Jews from Europe. In many countries, brave individuals stepped forward to protect Jews, often claiming them as their own relatives and providing them with food and lodging. One example is Swedish diplomat Raoul Wallenberg, Wallenberg, Raoul who used his position to save many Jews. Hitler underestimated the human nature of many of the Germans in his employ, not to mention people in Poland, Lithuania, and France who did not support the mass extermination. Hitler’s plan was highly mechanistic, relying on a cold, unfeeling bureaucracy, and this bureaucracy was sometimes circumvented.

In their sufferings under the Nazis, many Jews lost their faith in God and therefore in the world. Nevertheless, Jewish resistance, as some scholars have noted, was not unknown. The Warsaw ghetto uprising drew thousands of German troops away from the front, and minor events within the camps distracted the camp commanders each day. The Jews fought back when and as they could.

To “choose life” under the conditions of the concentration camp had to have been one of the hardest things an individual could do. Author Elie Wiesel, Wiesel, Elie who received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1986, made that choice, but it was an internal pact—one that he has written about in most of his books, most notably his memoir Un di Velt hot geshvign (1956; Night, 1960) Night (Wiesel) and his novella Le Jour (1961; The Accident, 1962). Accident, The (Wiesel) Many of those who survived the camps confronted terrible feelings of guilt, and it was not uncommon for survivors to commit suicide decades later, as did Italian author Primo Levi. Other survivors believed it to be their duty to bear witness to the Holocaust, so that such mass destruction of human life could never happen again and so that those responsible could be brought to justice. Holocaust Jews;Holocaust Nazi Germany;Holocaust Genocide;Holocaust World War II (1939-1945)[World War 02];Holocaust Nazi death camps Death camps, Nazi

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Browning, Christopher R. The Origins of the Final Solution: The Evolution of Nazi Jewish Policy, September 1939-March 1942. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2004. Highly detailed and well-documented work focuses on the beginnings of the Holocaust.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Des Pres, Terrence. The Survivor: An Anatomy of Life in the Death Camps. New York: Oxford University Press, 1976. Describes well how those in the camps had to live one day at a time—as though they had no past, history, or future—in order to survive.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Friedlander, Henry. The Origins of Nazi Genocide: From Euthanasia to the Final Solution. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1995. Examines the intentions of the Nazis and traces each step along the way to the “final solution.”
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Greene, Joshua M., and Shiva Kumar, eds. Witness: Voices from the Holocaust. New York: Free Press, 2000. Companion volume to a documentary film collects the remembrances of twenty-seven Holocaust witnesses, including camp survivors, American prisoners of war, and resistance fighters.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Hilberg, Raul. Perpetrators, Victims, Bystanders: The Jewish Catastrophe, 1933-1945. New York: HarperCollins, 1992. Explains early German interest in eradication of the Jews and discusses the roles played by various individuals.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Langer, Lawrence L. Admitting the Holocaust: Collected Essays. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995. Attacks the misguided revisionism of those who argue that the Holocaust did not happen and aims to force the German people to admit their complicity in the acts.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Levi, Primo.“Survival in Auschwitz” and “The Reawakening”: Two Memoirs. New York: Summit Books, 1986. Two visceral commentaries on camp life by a survivor who later killed himself.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Marrus, Michael R., ed. The Nazi Holocaust: Historical Articles on the Destruction of European Jews. 9 vols. Westport, Conn.: Meckler, 1989. Multivolume work collects decades of writings to present the definitive study of the Nazi execution of European Jews.

Racist Theories Aid Nazi Rise to Political Power

Mein Kampf Outlines Nazi Thought

Hitler Comes to Power in Germany

Nazi Concentration Camps Begin Operating

German Troops March into the Rhineland

Evian Conference


Germany Invades Poland

Gypsies Are Exterminated in Nazi Death Camps

Categories: History