While it is a difficult claim to make with absolute certainty, the 20th century is often cited as the bloodiest in human history, at least in terms of violent deaths (not disease and other factors). The claim is very debatable, as the numbers of people killed through acts of collective violence were massive throughout the 1900’s which explains why the overall population grew like it had never grown before. Of course, there were other centuries with catastrophic events, including (but not limited to) the 1300’s in which Genghis Khan led the Mongol Conquests, killing about 40-50 million with a world population of just under 300 million, and the 1600’s which saw China’s Qing Dynasty take control from the Ming, a conflict that is believed to have killed around 25 million.
While we won’t dwell on the details of which century was the worst in terms of body count, we cannot deny that the 20th century did have some very ugly periods. World Wars I and II saw death tolls of 20 and 60 (conservative estimate) million, while the rise of dictatorships saw Communist governments wiping out untold numbers, including Josef Stalin and Mao Zedong racking up body counts estimated at about 40 million and 70 million, respectively. Of course, Cambodia (Khmer Rouge), Rwanda, Japan, the Ottoman Empire (Turkey), and many more experienced government cruelty to the tune of millions of deaths.
But the most well-known and universally hated of these evil creatures in human skin was Adolf Hitler, the man whose rhetoric and “leadership” led to the Holocaust. While other mass killings may have had higher body counts, Nazi Germany’s decimation of the European Jewish population (and many other groups) may well be the most influential event of the 20th century. While it is often remembered and lamented by the entire world, it remains largely unknown, beyond the basic tragic facts. Here are fifteen facts you most likely did not know about the Holocaust.
15. The Camera Company That Saved Lives
Unless you are a photography enthusiast, the name “Leica Camera” may not mean anything to you. If you are into photography though, you may know this brand and their story. Today, they are an extremely high-end camera and photography accessory company. However, back before World War II, Leica was circumventing the treatment of Jews in Germany and undoubtedly saved lives.
The company had a reputation for treating their employees well. But after 1933, when Adolf Hitler’s Nazi Party started ramping up persecution of Jews, the company’s owner at the time, Ernst Leitz II took initiative to help their Jewish employees, along with Jewish friends of their non-Jewish employees. The strategy was to send people (whether employees or not) to other parts of Europe, the United Kingdom, France, or even the United States, where they would either work for the company if they were already employed, or try to find work elsewhere while being supported by the company. This has become known as the “Leica Freedom Train” and likely saved the lives of several hundred Jews in the early days of persecution.
14. Suffering And Death Continued After Camps Were Liberated
One might think that once the Allies were on the offensive and camps were being liberated, the worst would be over for the occupants of those camps. This is untrue. Many of those who were kept in these places got used to their lives inside the fence and had great psychological difficulty adjusting to freedom. This was, however, just the tip of the iceberg. Disease had become widespread in many of these camps, and many prisoners were beyond help. Allied soldiers and fellow camp-mates had to watch many of these people die. For the most part, prisoners were not allowed to leave the camps as Allied leadership realized it would have created a whole new series of problems to just free hundreds of thousands of former prisoners into the European countryside. Finally, while they were hungry, and most soldiers were happy and eager to share what little food they carried, many prisoners died a few minutes after their first few bites of food. They had not been fed properly in years and reintroducing a normal amount of food wreaked havoc on their digestive systems.
Not to spew out too much scientific jargon, but when someone is starved for a period of time, they lose the ability to properly digest food. Their gut gets used to surviving on next to nothing, and starts to produce less of those substances within the body that carry out the digestion process. If a large and high-calorie amount of food is quickly introduced, the body may just shut down.
This word when directly translated, means “deployment group” or “task force.” This, like many other words used by the Nazis, was a euphemism for something horrible. The Einsatzgruppen were essentially mobile death squads, who round people up and take them to camps for processing. These people would simply massacre entire areas of all undesirable populations. They were particularly brutal, even compared to most concentration camp personnel and battle-hardened Nazi soldiers. The men chosen to lead these squads were handpicked for their ruthless dedication to the Nazi cause.
There were four Einsatzgruppen, ranging in number between 600 and 1,000 men. Many of the worst atrocities of the war were committed by these groups and included murdering infants and toddlers. They were also tasked with mass shootings of Jewish civilians and would sometimes get creative in their methods of execution, including tying people together near a river, shooting a few so that they fall in, and then allowing the rest to drown.
12. Early Reports Of Concentration Camps Were Thought To Be False
While the Allies on the Western Front had retreated across the British Channel early in the war and later pushed the Germans back after the D-Day landing, the Soviet Union had fought to a stalemate before starting to push back. By 1944, the Soviets had made their way into Poland. They were the first to encounter a concentration camp. That camp was Majdanek, near the Polish city of Lublin. This camp was primarily used for labor, but like almost all camps, many people were killed. The most recent reliable numbers are 80,000, and just under 60,000 were Jewish.
When the Western Allies were informed of the Soviets overrunning the camp, they did not believe what they heard. While the Soviet Union was obviously in an alliance with France, Great Britain, the U.S., and others, it was by this point, an alliance that was growing increasingly uneasy. Of course, just under a year later, soldiers from the United States would learn the true horrors of the Holocaust.
11. Witold Pilecki
This man started the war as a Polish military officer. The Polish armed forces were quickly overwhelmed, and he joined the underground Polish resistance during occupation. He allowed himself to be captured, and was subsequently sent to Auschwitz, where he spent two years gathering information. He escaped after those two years and was able to get a report of the conditions and atrocities in the camp to the Allies. He later took part in the 1944 Warsaw Uprising as a prominent leader of the resistance.
When the end of the war came, Poland remained part of the Soviet Union, but Pilecki was loyal to the prior Polish government which was operating in exile from London. He worked in a clandestine capacity for them before he was caught, tried, and executed by the Soviets. His actions throughout and after the war remained a well-guarded secret until the fall of the Soviet Union. Since the late 1980’s, Pilecki’s story has earned him a place among the unsung heroes of the war.
10. Righteous Among The Nations
Most of the information we ever hear about this event is the brutality, the savagery, and of course, the death, but the list of heroes who helped out the innocent during this dark period of history are numerous. While Oskar Schindler may be the most famous of those who went out of their way to help Jews during this period, he is far from being the only one. The designation of “Righteous Among the Nations” is used by the Israeli government to identify gentiles (non-Jews) who saved Jews from the Nazis.
Over 26,000 of these people have been honored over the years and represent fifty countries. Poland, the Netherlands, France, Ukraine, and Belgium all have over 1,000 designated groups. Most other countries in Europe are represented on the list, and finally, some countries in Asia and North and South America.
An interesting fact about most of the people included in the Righteous Among the Nations is that what many of them did, especially in Nazi-occupied Europe, was illegal and more often than not, would be punished by death. Those who helped Jews during this period were breaking the law. This should be a lesson. Just because the government disapproves of something, doesn’t mean it’s wrong.
It would be somewhat irresponsible to discuss the Holocaust without at least acknowledging that there is a significant movement of Holocaust denial—one key distinction that must be made between “revisionism” which is the constant and necessary search for a more accurate picture of what happened, and outright denial.
The basic points that Holocaust deniers try to make include the idea that the “Final Solution” was not mass extermination, but just mass deportation. They also try to argue that the horrors of the concentration camps, including the mass murder, gas chambers, and mass shootings, are all massive conspiracies created by “Jews who rule the world” to make people look favorably on Jews and Judaism. These are just a couple of main points, but entire books have been written about why this event never happened, or at the very least, that the number of deaths is a gargantuan exaggeration.
While we could go on all day discussing why Holocaust denial is a joke, we’ll leave it at this: there is no proof to support any of it. This is one of the most diligently studied events in human history and the evidence to suggest that yes, six million Jews were killed, and it was done through mass shootings, gassings, and other horrible forms of execution, far outweighs the rhetorical “arguments” used to try to inspire doubt in these events.
8. The Evian Conference
Something many people forget about the world during the early half of the 20th century is the fact that Antisemitism was widespread throughout the world, not just Germany. Throughout the 1930’s, the Nazi Party made life harder and harder for the Jewish population. Jews could not vote, were barred from relationships with ethnically “German” people and the laws got more restrictive over the course of the 1930’s. The rest of Europe and several countries in the Americas, all led by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, met with Nazi leadership to discuss the plight of Jews within Germany in Evian-Les-Bains, France.
While the United States had a very small quota on immigration at the time, partially due to the Great Depression, Roosevelt’s hope was that he could sidestep any criticism by bringing 31 other countries to this conference and urging all of them to take Jewish refugees from Germany and Austria-Hungary. The vast majority of these countries, including Canada, Australia, basically the rest of Western Europe, along with most of the nations of Latin America, declined to increase their refugee quotas, with many of the representatives citing the “racial problem” Jewish people would bring.
7. Other Groups Targeted
While the term “Holocaust” generally refers to the extermination of Jews, it is important to remember that the Nazis did not limit themselves to this single group. Other religions, races, and ethnicities all became victims, along with anyone else Hitler and his ranking thugs considered a threat to Germany or his people.
Among the races and ethnicities were Slavs, which included Russians, Poles, and Ukrainians, Serbs, Romani people, and basically all non-Europeans, including Asians (despite the fact that Japan was essentially fighting on their side), and Africans.
With regard to religion, Christians (both Catholic and Protestant denominations) were persecuted, along with basically any other religion that did not exist to serve Germany. Adolf Hitler did use Christianity to his favor but only to manipulate his people into fearing other groups.
Homosexuals were singled out for medical experimentation (as we have mentioned earlier) and suffered some very nasty fates. People with disabilities were sterilized, as they were considered an undue burden on Nazi society and were also among the first to be killed. Gays, like many other groups, were singled out for a great deal of horrific medical experimentation, like those experiments of Dr. Josef Mengele, “The Angel of death.”
Political dissenters, some criminals, prostitutes, drug users, anyone caught helping Jews, and even ethnic Germans who had spent too many years abroad were also imprisoned in the camps.
6. The “Banality Of Evil”
There is no shortage of important literature, both fiction and nonfiction, about the Holocaust. Anne Frank’s The Diary of A Young Girl and Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning are among the most well-known (deservedly so) in terms of nonfiction. Less popular but still an incredibly important read, is philosopher Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil.
In this book, Arendt outlines the key issues in the trial of Adolf Eichmann, who was captured over a decade after the Holocaust and tried in Israel for his part in it. The phrase “banality of evil” is an important distinction that she made between the way people at the time (and now) saw ‘evil’. Not all evil people are raving lunatics like Hitler, arguing for death and destruction. Rather, many are absolutely average people “just doing their job” or “just following orders.” In Eichmann’s case, he was in charge of organizing the train schedule for deportations of Jews to camps. He claimed to have no idea what the end result would be (dubious) but he carried out his orders as he had made an oath to do so, and was bound to serve as his leaders saw fit.
While it may not seem like a revolutionary concept now, the fact that someone as profoundly average as Adolf Eichmann had made such an impact (albeit an extremely negative one) on so many lives should serve as a constant reminder that “just doing one’s job” is not an excuse to be a part of something as truly despicable as what the Nazis carried out. The Nuremberg Trials, at which many senior Nazi officials were tried and later executed or imprisoned for their part in the Holocaust, featured many people who tried to say that their actions were simply the result of following orders. This strategy in legal proceedings has been colloquially called the “Nuremberg Defense” since the late 1940’s.
5. “Arbeit Macht Frei”
This phrase was featured (and still is, with regard to concentration camps that have been preserved) on signs at the entrances to many camps. When literally translated, it means “work will set you free.” The phrase comes from a novel written in the 19th century and entails the idea that people of limited moral quality can earn salvation and self-improvement through their labor. It was essentially used by Nazi camp administrations as a sick joke, but also as a manipulative trick. Many of the camps that had these signs were labor camps at the start of the war, and these signs would give the prisoners some false hope, that (perhaps) if they worked hard enough, they would be freed. The German officers in charge of the camps however, knew that there would be any chance of that freedom.
4. Putting “6 Million” In Perspective
The most common number used for the amount of Jewish people murdered during the Holocaust is six million. The Nazis were merciless and cared not for women, the elderly, or even children, who were considered a particular threat especially if they were to grow up and potentially one day fight back. The goal was the unequivocal elimination of all Jews. As of 1939, the outbreak of the war, the worldwide Jewish population was estimated at around 17 million. By 1945, when the fighting in Europe had finally stopped, those six million who had been killed brought the worldwide population down to almost 11 million. To look at this as a percentage, about 35.3% of all of the world’s Jews had been wiped out. The population has yet to recover to that 1939 number, and since the end of the war, has risen, by 2014 to just under 14 million.
3. Wannsee Conference
This was a large and important meeting held in Wannsee (just outside of Berlin) which included Nazi Party officials and high-ranking Schutzstaffel (SS) officers. In one of the darkest moments of the war, the Wannsee Conference involved SS leader Reinhard Heydrich outlining his plan for the “Final Solution to the Jewish Question.”
It took place on January 20th in 1942. While prior to this date there had been plenty of killing and savagery and Jews and other groups had been rounded up, harassed, and killed, it was in this time that the leadership of Nazi Germany came together to actually come up with the concrete plan to put their machine into action and start eliminating their enemies.
The identification of Jews and other enemies had already happened, and the goal of eradicating them was already clear to those who attended this hour-and-a-half meeting, but it was on that day that they all learned of the plan and set it in motion.
2. The Victims Fought Back
By reading about the Holocaust and watching movies on the subject, there is an ever-present narrative of Jews and other targeted groups following orders from the Nazis and essentially marching to their deaths. Many did this, and they thought that cooperation was their best chance at survival. Others disagreed and rose up.
In the early stages of the war, throughout occupied Europe, Jews were rounded up and kept in ghettos. It was in these ghettos that resistance started. Between 1941 and 1943, more than 100 ghettos saw some sort of rebellion against the Nazi troops in the area. While most were very small and had little effect, some involved detailed planning and did some damage to the local Nazi contingent.
Likely, the most influential of the ghetto rebellions was the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, which took place in May, 1943. Local leader Mordechaj Anielewicz led the Jewish Combat Organization, an underground network of Jews working to fight back against their oppressors. While they put up an admirable fight (outnumbered and outgunned more than 10-1), much of the Warsaw ghetto was destroyed and tens of thousands of inhabitants were sent to camps in the wake of this event. That pattern was common throughout Europe whenever an uprising took place.
1. Nakam: “The Avengers”
Along with fighting back, as many Jews did during their time in ghettos and camps, some tried to exact revenge after the events of the Holocaust. The Nakam were former Partisan fighters, and they did not give up their fight after the war was over. While many other Jews were simply trying to put their lives back together, this small group wanted retribution for the millions of deaths.
There are two events that Nakam are known for. Shortly after the end of the war, they found out where bread was being made for Stalag 13, a prison for former SS officers. The group managed to infiltrate the bakery and get arsenic into the bread one morning, poisoning the population of Stalag 13, and killing an unknown number of former Nazi officers. Estimates range from between just over 100 to about 1,000.
Nakam did however, try to do something much more large in scope. In 1946, they tried to import a large amount of poison into Europe and hoped to tamper with the water supply of Munich, Weimar, Berlin, Hamburg, and Nuremberg, creating millions of deaths among the largest populations in the country. This plot was foiled and the poison never even made it to Europe.
While this attempt by Nakam did fail (definitely a good thing, because those cities all had millions who had nothing to do with the Holocaust), Nazi hunters were the other form of unconventional punishment. Primarily led by survivors such as Simon Wiesenthal, these people spent decades searching the Americas, the Middle East, and all other corners of the world, bringing concentration camp officers, SS members, and other ranking Nazis to justice.