The scale of devastation unleashed by the Holocaust can be difficult for many of us to imagine. The sheer numbers of people murdered both before and during the Second World War boggle the mind. According to the most recent estimates, between five and six million Jewish people were slaughtered by the Nazi regime – about one million of these were children.
The worst genocide in history also claimed the lives of a further estimated 11 million people, who were murdered for their political or religious beliefs, ethnicity, disability, race or sexual orientation.
On Holocaust Memorial Day today (January 27), people across the world will commemorate the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz and will also mark the 25th anniversary of the Bosnian genocide.
While concentration camps such as Auschwitz and Bergen-Belsen are the most potent reminders of an atrocity of unimaginable horror, it’s important too to remember that the Holocaust did not begin with these death chambers; it ended with them.
The Holocaust, like all mass genocides, began with the spread of hatred and division. Anti-Semitism had already had a long and established history in Europe, which escalated further once Adolf Hitler, a virulent white supremacist, came to power.
Under Nazi Germany, Jewish people were singled out and persecuted as were other minority groups – Roma, black people, gay people, those with physical or mental disabilities, among others.
Dachau was the first Nazi concentration camp opened in 1933, six years before the Second World War began, and was initially created to detain political prisoners, including social democrats, communists and trade unionists and other opponents of the Nazi regime.
This was the same year that the Nazi government began in earnest its anti-Semitic campaign, first by sacking Jewish people from the civil service, liquidating Jewish-owned businesses and stripping Jewish doctors and lawyers of their patients and clients.
In 1935, when the Nuremberg Laws were introduced, Jewish people were stripped of their citizenship and marriages between Jews and non-Jewish Germans were forbidden. The laws devastated Jewish communities and helped sow further division among people who once peacefully lived side-by-side.
Once the war began in 1939, Nazi persecution of Jewish and other groups of people escalated. When Germany invaded and occupied western Poland, Polish Jews were forced from their homes and placed in ghettos walled off by barbed wire, where disease and hunger festered. That same year, the Nazis selected 70,000 Germans institutionalised with mental illnesses or disabilities to be gassed to death. The so-called T4 euthanasia programme prompted public criticism, after which disabled people continued to be murdered by the tens of thousands but in secret.
As Germany expanded its empire, Jews across Europe were transported to Polish ghettos. From 1941, Nazi officials began to implement what they referred to euphemistically as “the Final Solution” – the wholesale extermination of Jews. This process began as mass shootings and eventually led to the creation of gas chambers at concentration camps, where millions of Jewish people were murdered.
The largest concentration camp Auschwitz, a complex which contained over 40 forced labour and extermination camps, was the largest of all. By the end of the war, more than 1.1m people were murdered at Auschwitz, including 960,000 Jews, the majority of whom were gassed on arrival, 74,000 non-Jewish Poles, 21,000 Roma, 15,000 Soviet prisoners of war, and up to 15,000 other Europeans. Of those who were detained at Auschwitz and not murdered in gas chambers, the remaining victims died of disease, starvation, exhaustion or in medical experiments.
By the end of the war, the Holocaust had killed two-thirds of European Jews — a third of all Jewry across the world.
Every year, the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust chooses a theme for Holocaust Memorial Day – this year’s is Stand Together.
The theme, the Trust explained, “explores how genocidal regimes throughout history have deliberately fractured societies by marginalising certain groups, and how these tactics can be challenged by individuals standing together with their neighbours, and speaking out against oppression.
“In the years leading up to the Holocaust, Nazi policies and propaganda deliberately encouraged divisions within German society – urging ‘Aryan’ Germans to keep themselves separate from their Jewish neighbours,” the Trust noted. “The Holocaust, Nazi Persecution of other groups and each subsequent genocide, was enabled by ordinary citizens not standing with their targeted neighbours.
“Today there is increasing division in communities across the UK and the world. Now more than ever, we need to stand together with others in our communities in order to stop division and the spread of identity-based hostility in our society. Everyone can take some action to support others – by using our voices, presence, platform or influence.”
Unite assistant general secretary Diana Holland agreed.
“This year’s Holocaust Memorial Day theme ‘Stand Together’ is a vital message for us all, more relevant now than ever,” she said. “At a time when anti-semitism, discrimination, hatred and the same far-right ideologies that fuelled the Holocaust are once again on the rise, we must take action to challenge them and build solidarity in our communities with all our sisters and brothers.
“Standing together against racism, sexism, homophobia, xenophobia and prejudice in all its forms is at the heart of Unite, at the heart of the trade union movement. We have to speak out, to act, to ensure all in our workplaces and our communities are safe and respected, and Unite is working with the Holocaust Memorial Day Trust to publicise and take action to mark this day on 27th January and beyond. Unite has also most recently developed its Unity over Division campaign which equips officers and activists with counter arguments to challenge the far right’s narrative.”
“It’s easy to dismiss the far right as a movement on the fringes, but this is precisely what happened in 1930s Germany – far too many people turned and looked the other way, while extremist ideologies and anti-Semitism spread far and wide until they became an unstoppable force. On Holocaust Memorial Day, we must stand together and say loud and clear, ‘Never again!’”