The Holocaust

A New History

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In June 1944, Freda Wineman and her family arrived at Auschwitz-Birkenau, the infamous Nazi concentration and death camp. After a cursory look from an SS doctor, Freda’s life was spared and her mother was sent to the gas chambers. Freda only survived because the Allies won the war — the Nazis ultimately wanted every Jew to die. Her mother was one of millions who lost their lives because of a racist regime that believed that some human beings simply did not deserve to live — not because of what they had done, but because of who they were.

Laurence Rees has spent twenty-five years meeting the survivors and perpetrators of the Third Reich and the Holocaust. In this sweeping history, he combines this testimony with the latest academic research to investigate how history’s greatest crime was possible. Rees argues that while hatred of the Jews was at the epicenter of Nazi thinking, we cannot fully understand the Holocaust without considering Nazi plans to kill millions of non-Jews as well. He also reveals that there was no single overarching blueprint for the Holocaust. Instead, a series of escalations compounded into the horror. Though Hitler was most responsible for what happened, the blame is widespread, Rees reminds us, and the effects are enduring.

The Holocaust: A New History is an accessible yet authoritative account of this terrible crime. A chronological, intensely readable narrative, this is a compelling exposition of humanity’s darkest moment.


List of Maps and Illustrations


Deportations of Jews to Auschwitz

Nazi extermination centres in Poland



1. Adolf Hitler and a group of Nazi supporters in the 1920s (Ullsteinbild / TopFoto)

2. Dietrich Eckart (Ullsteinbild / TopFoto)

3. A young Joseph Goebbels (World History Archive / TopFoto)

4. A Freikorps unit marches through Munich in 1919 (Ullsteinbild / TopFoto)

5. President Paul von Hindenburg and Adolf Hitler in 1933 (akg-images)

6. Otto Meissner and former Chancellor Franz von Papen (Ullsteinbild / TopFoto)

7. Concentration camp prisoners in the 1930s (Ullsteinbild / TopFoto)

8. Prisoners at Dachau before the war (akg-images)

9. Adolf Hitler in 1936 (Ullsteinbild / TopFoto)

10. Joseph Goebbels marries Magda Quandt in December 1931 (Topham Picturepoint)

11. Theodor Eicke (Ullsteinbild / TopFoto)

12. Hermann Göring and Heinrich Himmler (Topham / AP)

13. Adolf Eichmann (Ullsteinbild / TopFoto)

14. Heinrich Himmler and Reinhard Heydrich (Ullsteinbild / TopFoto)

15. Jews are made to scrub the streets in Austria in the wake of the Nazi occupation in 1938 (World History Archive / TopFoto)

16. The aftermath of Kristallnacht in November 1938 (Ullsteinbild / TopFoto)

17. A synagogue burns as a result of Kristallnacht (bpk / Abraham Pisarek)

18. The main camp at Auschwitz (ITAR-TASS / TopFoto)


19. Hitler and his generals (Walter-Frentz-Collection, Berlin)

20. A Legitimationskarte of a Jew in the Łódź ghetto (©IMAGNO / TopFoto)

21. Dr Robert Ritter assesses a Sinti woman (Ullsteinbild / TopFoto)

22. One of Ritter's assistants quizzes a Roma family (Roger-Viollet / TopFoto)

23. Jews take a shower in the Łódź ghetto (Ullsteinbild / TopFoto)

24. Children in the Łódź ghetto (Roger-Viollet / TopFoto)

25. German soldiers march through Paris in 1940 (World History Archive / TopFoto)

26. Dutch Jews prepare to board trains to take them to the east (©2003; Topham Picturepoint)

27. Heinrich Himmler visits the Łódź ghetto in June 1941 (Ullsteinbild / TopFoto)

28. Mordechai Chaim Rumkowski seated in his private carriage (Ullsteinbild / TopFoto)

29. Adolf Hitler with Jozef Tiso, the President of Slovakia (©2004 TopFoto)

30. Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini (World History Archive / TopFoto)

31. Dr Irmfried Eberl (Bundesarchiv, B162 Bildild-00636 / Photographer: Unknown)

32. Christian Wirth (Yad Vashem)

33. Pope Pius XII (Ullsteinbild / TopFoto)

34. Adolf Hitler, making a rare public appearance later in the war (Walter-Frentz-Collection, Berlin)


35. German soldiers stealing pigs (Bibliotek für Zeitgeschichte in der Württembergischen Landesbibliothek, Stuttgart)

36. German units advance against a village on the eastern front (Ullsteinbild / TopFoto)

37. Jewish women wait to be murdered by Nazi security forces in the occupied Soviet Union (bpk / Karl Sturm)

38. Nazi security forces in action in the occupied Soviet Union (akg-images)

39. Soviet soldiers captured by the Germans (©2001; Topham / AP)

40. Jewish civilians captured by the Germans (World History Archive / TopFoto)

41. Hungarian Jews arrive at Auschwitz Birkenau in 1944 (World History Archive / TopFoto)

42. An Allied reconnaissance flight photo of Auschwitz Birkenau (Roger-Viollet / TopFoto)

43. Selection of new arrivals at Auschwitz Birkenau (Ullsteinbild / TopFoto)

44. Staff at Auschwitz relax (United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, courtesy of Anonymous Donor)

45. Crematorium III at Auschwitz (Archival Collection of the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum in Oświęcim)

46. Crematorium IV at Auschwitz (Archival Collection of the Auschwitz-Birkenau State Museum in Oświęcim)

47. Fritz Klein at Bergen Belsen (Roger-Viollet / TopFoto)

48. Oskar Groening

49. Petras Zelionka

(While every effort has been made to contact copyright holders, the publishers will be happy to correct any errors of omission or commission.)

1. Origins of Hate

In September 1919 Adolf Hitler wrote a letter of immense historical importance. But at the time no one realized its significance. That's because the Adolf Hitler who composed the letter was a nobody. He was thirty years old, and yet he possessed no home, no career, no wife, no girlfriend, no intimate friend of any kind. All he had to look back on was a life filled with crushed dreams. He had wanted to become a famous artist but had been rejected by the artistic establishment; he had longed to play a part in a German victory over the Allies during the First World War, only to witness the humiliating defeat of German forces in November 1918. He was bitter, angry and looking for someone to blame.

In this letter, dated 16 September 1919, and addressed to a fellow soldier called Adolf Gemlich, Hitler stated unequivocally who was responsible not only for his personal predicament, but for the suffering of the whole German nation. 'There is living amongst us', wrote Hitler, 'a non-German, foreign race, unwilling and unable to sacrifice its characteristics… and which nonetheless possesses all the political rights that we ourselves have… Everything which makes men strive for higher things, whether religion, socialism or democracy, is for him only a means to an end, to the satisfaction of a lust for money and domination. His activities produce a racial tuberculosis among nations.'1 The adversary Hitler had identified was 'the Jew'. And he added that the 'final aim' of any German government had to be 'the uncompromising removal of the Jews altogether'.

It is a remarkable document. Not just because it allows us an insight into the thinking in 1919 of the man who would later instigate the Holocaust, but also because it is the first irrefutable evidence of Hitler's own anti-Semitic beliefs. In his autobiography, Mein Kampf, which he wrote five years later, Hitler claimed that he had hated Jews even when he was a struggling artist in Vienna in the early years of the twentieth century. But some scholars have cast doubt on his simplistic version of his own past,2 and questioned whether he really held these strong anti-Semitic views during his time in Vienna and his service as a soldier in the First World War.3

But that is not to say that Hitler's anti-Semitism entered into his head from nowhere in September 1919. In writing this letter he drew on currents of anti-Semitic thought that had swirled around Germany before, during and immediately after the First World War. So much so that not one of the ideas that he wrote about in his September 1919 letter was original. While he would later become the most infamous proponent of anti-Semitism, Hitler built on a vivid history of persecution.

Anti-Semitism, of course, was not new. Its origins can be traced back several thousand years. At the time of the emergence of Christianity, for instance, even though Jesus was born Jewish himself, passages in the Bible emphasize that 'the Jews' were antagonistic to him. The gospel of St John, in the King James version of the Bible, records that the Jews 'sought to kill'4 Jesus. At one point they even pick up stones to throw at him.5 As for Jesus, he tells the Jews that they are children of the 'devil'.6

Harmful ideas about the Jews were thus built into the most holy Christian text; and generations of priests branded the Jews a 'perfidious' people who had 'wanted to have Lord Jesus Christ killed'.7 So it's not hard to understand why Jewish persecution was commonplace in a medieval Europe dominated by Christian culture. In many countries Jews were banned from owning land, from practising certain professions and from living wherever they chose. At various periods, in a number of cities across Europe, the Jews were forced to live in ghettos and wear a special mark of identification on their clothing – in Rome in the thirteenth century it was a yellow badge. One of the few jobs open to Jews was that of moneylender, since Christians were prohibited from practising 'usury'. And as Shakespeare's Merchant of Venice illustrates, the Jewish moneylender subsequently became a hated figure. In Germany, in 1543, Martin Luther wrote On the Jews and Their Lies. The Jews, said Luther, 'are nothing but thieves and robbers who daily eat no morsel and wear no thread of clothing which they have not stolen and pilfered from us by means of their accursed usury'. He called on the populace to 'eject them forever from this country… away with them!'8

The Enlightenment brought a change in fortune for the European Jews. During this era of scientific and political advancement, many traditional beliefs were questioned. Did, for instance, the Jews 'deserve' the treatment they had suffered or were they merely the victims of prejudice? Christian Wilhelm von Dohm, a German historian, wrote in 1781 in favour of Jewish emancipation and pointed out that 'Everything the Jews are blamed for is caused by the political conditions under which they now live.'9 In France, following the 'Declaration of the Rights of Man' in 1789, Jews were made 'free and equal' citizens under the law. During the nineteenth century, in Germany, many of the prohibitions that had been placed upon Jews were lifted, including those that restricted what professions Jews could enter.

But all these freedoms came at a cost. For at the same time as the German Jews experienced these new opportunities, the country was undergoing enormous change. No country in Europe altered as quickly as Germany during the second half of the nineteenth century. Coal production increased from 1.5 million tons in 1850 to 100 million tons in 1906.10 The population grew from just over 40 million in 1871 to over 65 million by 1911. Germany also changed politically, with the unification of the country in 1871. In the wake of all this upheaval, many asked profound questions about the cultural and spiritual nature of this new nation. Not least, what did it mean to be 'German'?

Believers in the power of the Volk provided one answer. Although it is normally translated as 'people', the concept behind the Volk can't properly be conveyed in English by just one word. For the völkisch theorists it meant the almost mystical connection a group of people, all speaking the same language and possessing a shared cultural heritage, had with the soil of their native land. In reaction to the sudden growth of cities and the pollution emanating from newly built factories, they preached the glories of the German countryside and in particular the power of the forest. In Land und Leute (Land and People), one of the most famous paeans to the Volk, Professor Wilhelm Heinrich Riehl wrote: 'A people must die out if it can no longer understand the legacy of the forests from which it is strengthened and rejuvenated. We must preserve the forest, not just to keep the stove going in winter, but also to keep the pulse of the people warm and happy so that Germans can remain German.'11 Writing in the middle of the nineteenth century, Riehl warned against the dangers posed not only by the growth of cities, but also by that symbol of modernity, the railway: 'in particular the farmer feels that he cannot remain the "traditional farmer" by the side of the new railway… everyone fears to become someone different, and those who want to rob us of our characteristic way of life appear to be more spectres from hell than good spirits.'12

The concept of the Volk would subsequently become of immense importance to Hitler and the Nazis. The Nazi Propaganda Minister, Joseph Goebbels, even commissioned an extraordinary film, released in 1936, entitled Ewiger Wald (Eternal Forest) which glorified the power and importance of the forest and the peasant farmer. 'Our ancestors were a forest people,' said the press release issued with the film, 'their God lived in holy groves, their religion grew from the forests. No people can live without the forest, and people who are guilty of deforesting will sink into oblivion…'13 The final commentary line in the film reinforced this link between the Volk and the forest: 'The people, like the forest, will stand for ever!'14

Before the First World War the most popular youth movement in Germany was the Wandervogel, an organization that called for young men and women to journey into the countryside and recapture the connection between the German people and the soil. 'It was a spiritual movement,' says Fridolin von Spaun, who joined the Wandervogel as an adolescent. 'It was a reaction against the Emperor Wilhelm era, which was all about industry and commerce.'15 Other young Germans joined groups like the German Gymnastics League and exercised in the open air. 'The German Gymnastics League was the first time I ever came across the swastika,' says Emil Klein, who was a member before the First World War. 'The four F's – frisch [fresh], fromm [pious], fröhlich [happy], frei [free] – formed a double swastika on the badge that you had, a bronze badge that you wore as an insignia.'16 The swastika was adopted by a number of völkisch groups. They believed that this ancient symbol, used by various cultures in the past, represented a link with their early ancestors, in part because similar markings had been found on German archaeological relics.

All these new developments were a problem for German Jews, since they were excluded from the concept of the Volk. Most German Jews lived in cities and worked in jobs that were the antithesis of the völkisch ideal – the Jews were demonstrably not people who 'came from the forest'. In Soll und Haben (Debit and Credit), an enormously popular German novel published in 1855,17 the central Jewish character, the businessman Veitel Itzig, is portrayed as a loathsome individual, obsessed with money and cheating honest but naive Germans. Itzig is a parasite, living a life that could not be further away from the noble ideal of the peasant who tills the soil.

While not every individual who subscribed to the idea of the Volk was necessarily an anti-Semite, the Jew nonetheless became a symbol for the völkisch movement as a whole of everything that was wrong with the new Germany. If you were a peasant farmer who found it hard to cope with the sudden growth of cities and the reality of the railway that now cut through your land – you could blame the Jew. If you were a shopkeeper who found that customers were deserting you for new department stores – you could blame the Jew. If you laboured in a workshop making hand-crafted products and now couldn't sell them because of the presence in the market of mass-produced factory goods – you could blame the Jew.

These arguments rested, of course, on prejudice. If German Jews were living in cities, if they were starting up department stores and factories, it was to a large extent because they had been excluded from working in völkisch 'approved' occupations for hundreds of years. In short, the Jews were now being blamed for not being attached to the soil after they had been forbidden from owning land. This developing antipathy towards German Jews was all the more remarkable because there were hardly any Jews living in Germany. Fewer than 1 per cent of Germans were Jewish. Many Germans never came into contact with Jews. But the absence of Jews is no bar to anti-Semitism.

The old Christian-based prejudices against German Jews did not disappear as the völkisch movement grew, but were reinforced. Paul Lagarde, one of the most committed völkisch anti-Semites, ranted in terms that Martin Luther would have recognized. 'We are anti-Semites,' he wrote in Juden und Indogermanen (Jews and Indo-Germans), published in 1887, 'because in 19th-century Germany the Jews living among us represent views, customs, and demands that go back to the times of the division into peoples shortly after the Flood… because in the midst of a Christian world the Jews are Asiatic heathens.' The Jews were, according to Lagarde, 'A people that has contributed nothing to history over thousands of years'.18

The false perception that the Jews were both an alien force and the secret powerbrokers in the new Germany led Heinrich Class, the leader of the Pan-German League, to write Wenn ich der Kaiser wär' (If I Were Kaiser). Class's book, published in 1912, two years before the outbreak of the First World War, linked the need to 'return to health in our national life' with the demand that 'Jewish influence' be 'completely expunged or screwed back to a bearable, innocuous level'.19 Class proposed a variety of restrictive measures against the Jews. He called for newspapers that were owned by Jews or employed Jewish writers to 'make this fact known' and for Jews to be excluded from serving in the army or navy and banned from professions like teaching or the law.

In parallel to both völkisch and 'traditional' Christian-based anti-Semitism, another very different way of attacking the Jews was also growing. It was the idea behind Hitler's call in his letter of September 1919 for 'anti-Semitism based on reason'. 'Modern' anti-Semites, like Hitler, attempted to rely on pseudo-scientific reasons to justify their hatred of the Jews, arguing that the Jews should be despised not because of their religion, but because of their 'race'.

The notion that human beings could be distinguished from each other by race, and that some 'races' were superior to others, had received quasi-intellectual backing with the publication in 1855 of Essai sur l'inégalité des races humaines (Essay on the Inequality of the Human Races) by Arthur de Gobineau.20 Trained as a diplomat, not a scientist, Gobineau conjured up a world in which there were three races, 'the black, the yellow, and the white'. Of these 'the negroid variety is the lowest, and stands at the foot of the ladder.' Yellow people were 'clearly superior to the black' but 'no civilized society could be created by them; they could not supply its nerve force, or set in motion the springs of beauty and action.' At the top of the racial hierarchy was the 'white race'. They have 'a remarkable, and even extreme, love of liberty'. Thus 'the lesson of history' was that 'all civilizations derive from the white race, that none can exist without its help, and that society is great and brilliant only so far as it preserves the blood of the noble group that created it…' Gobineau also believed that all European 'civilizations' – including that of the 'German races' – had been created, 'at least in part', by a group called the 'Aryans' who had migrated to Europe from India.

Houston Stewart Chamberlain, a writer born in England who later became a German citizen, introduced an anti-Semitic dimension to all of this in his Die Grundlagen des XIX. Jahrhunderts (Foundations of the Nineteenth Century), published in 1899. The book achieved a wide readership – and not just in Germany. In his effusive Introduction to the English edition, Lord Redesdale wrote that the book had been 'speedily declared to be one of the masterpieces of the century' and that the 'full fruit' of Chamberlain's 'learning and scholarship' had now 'ripened for the good of the world'.21 Chamberlain argued that while the Aryans represented the ultimate ideal, the Jew embodied precisely the reverse. Even though some Jews might be hard to tell apart from Aryans at first sight, the reality was that all Jews were an 'alien Asiatic people' who had 'by the vilest means acquired immense wealth'.22 However, since only the Jews and the Germanic race had managed to keep themselves 'pure', it followed that these two 'races' – the Aryan and the Jew – were engaged in a mighty struggle for supremacy.

Understandably, Chamberlain and Hitler had a great deal in common. When they met in 1923 Chamberlain said that as a result of the encounter 'the condition of his soul' had been transformed 'at one fell swoop'.23 In return the Nazis adopted Chamberlain as one of their own. His seventieth birthday in September 1925 received huge coverage in the Nazi paper the Völkischer Beobachter, and Foundations of the Nineteenth Century became a revered text.

Many people – especially those whom Chamberlain and de Gobineau said were 'superior' – were attracted by this racial theory. The idea that it was possible to assess the worth of an individual just by their physical appearance proved to be a seductive one. In the popular German novel Helmut Harringa (1910) a judge cannot accept that Harringa could be guilty, simply because he looks so pure.24 It's a lesson that Heinrich Himmler, Reichsführer SS, seems to have taken to heart. On a visit to an SS unit in 1938, a soldier 'caught' his eye because of his 'appearance'. Merely because of his looks the man was judged by Himmler to be a 'capable, good-blooded German'. After investigating the soldier's background, Himmler called for him to be promoted.25

There is one further element to add to this toxic mix of 'traditional' anti-Semitism, völkisch anti-Semitism and 'racial' anti-Semitism – the emergence of the eugenics movement. The word 'eugenics' (literally 'good race' from the Greek) was coined by the English scientist Francis Galton. In 1869 in Hereditary Genius he argued that the key question that society had to address was simple – who was permitted to breed? He wrote that by 'careful selection' it would be possible 'to produce a highly gifted race of men by judicious marriages during several consecutive generations'. Society had to recognize that 'each generation has enormous power over the natural gifts of those that follow' and thus owed a duty 'to humanity to investigate the range of that power, and to exercise it in a way that, without being unwise towards ourselves, shall be most advantageous to future inhabitants of the earth'.26

Galton never advocated trying to stop certain people from breeding by force, but others did. In 1895, Alfred Ploetz, a German supporter of eugenics, or 'race hygiene' as he called it, raised the possibility of doctors deciding whether babies should live or die based on their racial worth. He also said that 'Advocates of racial hygiene will have little objection to war since they see in it one of the means whereby the nations carry on their struggle for existence.' He even suggested that during a battle 'inferior' people could be used as 'cannon fodder' and placed in positions of particular danger.27

Many of the pioneers in the eugenics movement were not anti-Semites – Ploetz, for instance, thought the Jews were 'racial Aryans' – but their teachings were of enormous use to those who were. The idea that 'racial hygiene' was central to the health of a nation, combined with Houston Chamberlain's notion that the Jews were a racial threat to 'Aryan' people, added a potentially catastrophic element to the anti-Semitic brew. Traditional anti-Semitism had been based on religion. If the Jews converted to Christianity then they had a chance of escaping persecution. But the idea that 'Jewishness' was something inherent in an individual – that it was present, as the Nazis came to believe, in the blood – meant that there was no escape. Your 'race', over which you had no control, was your destiny. You could be the kindest, most generous person imaginable, but if your 'race' was assessed as inferior or dangerous then you were at risk of persecution.

Hitler explicitly stated in his September 1919 letter that 'the Jews are definitely a race and not a religious community.' This was fundamental to his anti-Semitic belief. It meant, for him, that the question of what religion 'Jews' practised scarcely mattered, since 'there is hardly a single race whose members belong exclusively to one particular religion.'

However, despite a desperate search to identify a test for Jewish 'blood', the Nazis – not surprisingly – never managed to find a scientific way of telling whether or not an individual was a member of the Jewish 'race' or not. As a result, once the Nazis started to persecute and eventually exterminate Jews, they had to rely on a 'Jewishness' test that was religious. They assessed whether or not you were a Jew according to how many of your grandparents had practised the Jewish faith. Nonetheless, the Nazis still believed that the Jews were a 'race' not a 'religion'. The primacy of 'race' in human history was so central to Hitler's worldview that he would never let the small matter of science get in the way of his belief.

It is at this point that a warning needs to be stated. Given this evidence of German anti-Semitic belief predating the emergence of Hitler and the Nazis as a political force, it would be easy to suppose that there is a straight line from the pre-First World War hatred of the Jews to the Third Reich and the Holocaust, that the horror that was to come was somehow inevitable. But such a view would be mistaken, for two important reasons. First, despite the vehemence of their views, the German anti-Semitic parties were not successful in convincing the rest of the country to support them. One calculation is that in the Reichstag of 1893 there were only sixteen elected representatives from anti-Semitic groups, plus about twelve more in other parties who supported their views.28 An overwhelming majority of German voters – 95 per cent – were not prepared to support overtly anti-Semitic parties at the ballot box.

On Sale
Apr 18, 2017
Page Count
552 pages