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The term holocaust, with origins in the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible, translates the Hebrew expression olah as holokauston, meaning “a burnt sacrifice” (Berenbaum 2000, p. 31). With very deep religious meaning, the expression is associated with the mass murdering of the Jewish people in Europe do to Nazi policy. In a century where multiple world wars occurred resulting in the deaths of millions, the Holocaust stole the show as one of the worst acts against humanity. The meaning of Holocaust is itself fraught with great controversy. Some, like the historian Walter Lacquer, insist that the expression is “singularly inappropriate” because of its religious connotations (Lacquer 1980, p. 7). Elie Wiesel, a survivor of Auschwitz and the Nobel Prize-winning author of Night (1960), is often credited with introducing the word into popular usage. In the face of this religious qualification, the term remains widely used by academics, the media, and the larger community. Wiesel has since expressed great concern over the abuse of the term applied to situations beyond the historical context of the Third Reich and the experience of mass destruction experienced by the Jews. Just as important, Wiesel reminds readers that the term Holocaust, like any expression from human language, invariably falls far short in encompassing the sheer horror and depth of tragedy behind the persecution and mass death inside and outside Nazi concentration and death camps. Poets and historians still search for words to explain the unfathomable atrocity.
The history of the Holocaust reflects the reality that Adolph Hitler and the Nazi movement did not invent anti-Semitic hatred against the Jews. What was unique in the Nazi experience was that the Third Reich was the first and only regime in modern history to define anti-Semitism in racial terms and, upon this basis, to use the full weight of the state to legitimize the eradication of the Jews. Racial bloodlines defined the essential difference between Aryan Germans and Jews. What set National Socialism apart from other forms of fascism “is a concept of race reduced solely to anti-Semitism and fired exclusively by it” (Klemperer 2000, p. 135). The racial state conceived by the Nazis as a foundation stone for the Holocaust defined citizenship in biological terms. As one prominent Nazi race eugenicist argued, “National Socialism is nothing but applied biology” (Baur, Fischer, and Lenz 1931, p. 417). The irreconcilable actions of Hitler and his Nazi followers was viewed so tragically and created such a negative aurora around Germany as a country that those actions still define them. This legacy of negativity is what Germany has attempted to change through the years, but why did these atrocities occur?
The reason why the Holocaust happened had to do with Hitler’s belief that the Jews were responsible for the misery in Germany at the time. Anti-Semitism was not new, but the Nazis brought the terrorizing to another level. Although he was Austrian, Hitler became more of a German than most nationalists at the time. He fervently believed that the Germans were descended of the superior Aryan race. He saw most of humanity as inferior to the Aryan class. Above all, he considered the Jews as subhuman. Hitler didn’t just think that they should be enslaved; he wanted them exterminated. In looking for an explanation as to why the Holocaust happened, this theory of the superior is one of them. The Jews were a minority in Germany at the time. There were only 550,000 from the 66 million population of the country. Still, they contributed to the country’s economy. 10% of the doctors there were Jews. Over 16% of lawyers and over 5% of its writers were also Jewish. In addition they also held positions in some banks. In Hitler’s eyes, this was a problem. He didn’t think they helped the country. What he saw were subhuman beings taking away work and profit from the master race. This is why the Holocaust happened; as Hitler entered politics, he used the Jews as scapegoats. During the time, several people came to support him.
The persecution started the moment the Nazis came to power. Within a few years of Nazi rule, the Jews were forbidden to hold on to their jobs. Their movement was restricted and so were their business opportunities. Stores and shops forbade selling of items to Jews. Many restaurants forbade them from entering the premises. This was only the beginning. Unknown to the world at the time the persecution had begun even before World War II. By 1938, the Nazi secret police imprisoned Jews, took away their property and burned their homes. When looking for an explanation as to why the Holocaust happened; it can’t be denied that other Germans supported Hitler. Because the Nazis were able to provide employment, some found it easy to look the other way. The Jews would leave Germany, but they wouldn’t be safe. The Nazis hunted them down in conquered lands. In the Soviet Union, special corps was set up. Their sole purpose was to round up and kill Jewish men, women and children. The scene was repeated throughout Europe. Most were killed in gas chambers. Thousands were beaten to death. Many became subject to medical experiments. The greatest number of victims died in Auschwitz, Poland. 2.5 million Jews were gassed to death. Another half a million died of hunger. All in all, over 6 million Jews were killed by the Nazis. In trying to understand why the Holocaust happened, it becomes clear its root lie in anti-Semitism. Hitler was not the first to harbor this sentiment. But it was his actions that brought the issue to the forefront in the 20th century.
Who is to blame for these despicable actions? Germany should take the forefront for the blame, and that includes those who aided or worked under the rule of Hitler. Whether or not everyone participated in the murders is irrelevant. Most aided the massacres that were occurring and everyone knew what was taking place behind the gates. As brought up earlier by Zuroff, time has diminished the will for the prosecution of those involved in the Holocaust which is both ethically and morally wrong. The debate whether we should continue to hunt those involved in the egregious actions is being questioned, but the answer is simple yes.
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