Chapter 25 Growing Aggression and World War II

Section 3 The Holocaust and Other Atrocities

World War II witnessed acts of extraordinary brutality. The war provided totalitarian regimes with the opportunity to eliminate people whom they regarded as enemies of the state. Hitler decided on the extermination of a whole people—the Jews. The dictatorial regimes of Japan and the Soviet Union also committed acts of unspeakable inhumanity during World War II.

Hitler’s Racial Imperialism

To a considerable extent, the brutality of World War II in Europe owed much to the Nazi racial policies that underlay Hitler’s expansionist aims. Hitler’s primary goal in launching World War II was the conquest of the Soviet Union and its transformation into a fertile ground for extensive German colonization. As part of this plan, Hitler anticipated the destruction or enslavement of the Slavic population of eastern Europe and Russia.

            In addition, in order to ensure the “purity” of the new German Empire he planned to build, Hitler determined to eradicate the Jews from Europe once and for all in what he called the “Final Solution” to the “Jewish Problem”. Persecution of the Jews had been a central feature of Nazi policy from the beginning. Hitler had declared his intentions in Mein Kampf, and throughout the 1930s the Nazis had increasingly persecuted Germany’s nearly quarter million Jews. During the war, these policies extended to Jews living in countries occupied by Germany. In 1941, Hitler decided to carry out their final destruction. To the rest of the world, this act of genocide has become known as the Holocaust.

            The man responsible for carrying Hitler’s vision of racial imperialism into effect was Heinrich Himmler, head of the SS, the Nazi Party military arm. In 1941, just before the invasion of the Soviet Union, Himmler announced to his subordinates that one aim of the upcoming campaign was to “decimate the Slav population by thirty million” to make way for German settlers.[xxx] Special units of the SS were detailed for the task. Himmler also accepted responsibility for dealing with the Jews. As he wrote to a subordinate officer, “The occupied Eastern territories are to become free of Jews. The execution of this very grave order has been placed on my shoulders by the Fuhrer.”[xxxi]


The “Final Solution.” Initially, the SS used the crude tactic of simply rounding up Jews and shooting them on the spot. They soon developed a more efficient method—the use of poison gas. In January 1942, senior Nazi officials headed by Himmler’s deputy, Reinhard Heydrich, met in Wansee, a suburb of Berlin. At the Wansee Conference, the Nazis finalized their plans for the systematic extermination of the Jews. Over the next three years the SS transported Jews from across Europe to concentration camps mainly in eastern Germany and Poland.

            Jews arrived in the camps by the hundreds of thousands. Once there, SS officers sorted them by age, health and sex, instantly separating families. The officers “selected” many for immediate execution, and took them off in large groups to gas chambers on the pretext that they were going to take “showers.” Those considered healthy enough went to work in camp factories, where regular beatings and slow starvation awaited them. Some found themselves the subjects of cruel medical experiments—including operations carried out without anesthesia. Those not immediately executed had numbers tattooed into the skin of their forearms for permanent identification.

            Perhaps the most notorious of the camps was Auschwitz in Poland. Elie Wiesel, a survivor of Auschwitz, later described his arrival in the camp at the age of 14:  

“Every two yards or so an SS man held his tommy gun trained on us. Hand in hand we followed the crowd. An SS noncommissioned officer came to meet us, a truncheon in his hand. He gave the order: ‘Men to the left! Women to the right!’ Eight words spoken quietly, indifferently, without emotion. Eight short, simple words. Yet that was the moment when I parted from my mother. I had not had the time to think, but already I felt the pressure of my father’s hand: we were alone. For a part of a second I glimpsed my mother and my sisters moving away to the right. Tzipora held my mother’s hand. I saw them disappear into the distance; my mother was stroking my sister’s fair hair, as though to protect her, while I walked on with my father and the other men. And I did not know that in that place, at that moment, I was parting from my mother and Tzipora forever. I went on walking. My father held onto my hand. Behind me, an old man fell to the ground. Near him was an SS man, putting his revolver back in its holster.”[xxxii]  

Most people sent to the camps were killed. The largest number were Jews, but significant numbers of Gypsies, homosexuals, and political dissidents were also sent—anyone the Nazis deemed liabilities in their efforts to achieve racial strength and purity.

            The greatest obstacle to the program of genocide was disposal of the bodies. Many were buried in mass graves. Eventually, the Nazis resorted to huge ovens in which the remains of the dead were cremated. Before the bodies were disposed of, however, the Nazis forced work gangs made up of camp prisoners to extract gold fillings from the teeth of the dead, and to collect all hair for recycling in the war effort.

            The exact number of people who died as a result of the Holocaust will probably never be known, but Nazi records suggest that roughly six million Jews were killed. Half came from Poland alone and represented 90 percent of Poland’s Jews. The Jews of Germany, Austria, and the Baltic states went to the camps in similar proportions. Though the number of Jews from Soviet territories was proportionally smaller, they numbered around 1,500,000.  

Resistance to the Holocaust. As the real dimensions of the Holocaust became clear, some Jews began to resist. The fiercest resistance occurred in the Jewish ghetto of Warsaw. With few weapons, however, the Jewish fighters were no match for German forces, and eventually the ghetto was reduced to rubble. Conditioned by centuries of relatively low-intensity anti-Semitic persecution, the Jewish populations of Europe were simply unprepared for Nazi ruthlessness.

            Although most other people in Europe quietly ignored what was happening to the Jews, some did not. In Denmark, for example, the German occupying authorities ordered all Jews to wear the Star of David on their clothing for identification purposes, presumably to make rounding them up easier. The day after the order went out, however, King Christian X himself appeared wearing the Star of David. Moreover, in a concerted effort the Danes also managed to help some 3,000 Danish Jews escape into neutral Sweden to keep them out of Nazi hands.

            One remarkable case of heroism occurred in Warsaw, where Raoul Wallenberg, a neutral Swedish diplomat, used his diplomatic position and the sheer force of his personality to save as many Jews as possible, declaring them under the protection of the Swedish Embassy. Wallenberg disappeared after the war, probably imprisoned by Soviet authorities fearful that he would report on their own wartime atrocities. A similar case occurred in Germany itself. Alfred Schindler, a German industrialist under contract to the German government, secretly saved as many Jews as possible from the death camps by employing them in his factories. Eventually, he bankrupted himself in the process. Such acts were few and far between, however.  

Other atrocities. Hitler’s SS was also responsible for a number of atrocities other than the Holocaust. The SS often employed particularly brutal measures to suppress resistance in German-occupied countries. In Yugoslavia, for example, the SS carried out reprisals, executing specified numbers of the local populations in revenge for attacks carried out by resistance fighters hiding in the hills. In some cases, they wiped out whole villages in reprisal for resistance attacks.[xxxiii] Similar measures were taken in other occupied countries.

            The Nazi SS were also associated with incidents of mistreatment of Allied POWs, or prisoners of war. During the last major German offensive of the war in the Ardennes forest, for example, in the so-called Battle of the Bulge, SS units under orders to take no prisoners massacred Allied soldiers who had surrendered near the French town of Malmédy. Such cases were rare on the western front, but the eastern front was a different story. Treatment of Soviet prisoners was more brutal, perhaps due to Nazi racial propaganda that branded Slavs as “sub-human.” However, Soviet treatment of German prisoners was probably no better.

Japanese Atrocities

The Nazis were not alone in their cruel treatment of both civilians and enemy soldiers. The Japanese army also treated civilian populations in areas it occupied with sometimes extraordinary brutality. One of the worst cases occurred in December 1937 when Japanese troops occupied the Chinese city of Nanking. For two weeks, they looted and burned stores and homes. They orchestrated mass rapes and mass executions. After the war, one Chinese officer testified to Japanese atrocities he had witnessed in Nanking:  

“I estimate there were above 5,000 who were marched four abreast, and the line was 3/4 of a mile long. When we arrived [on the bank of the Yangtze River] we were placed in a line near the River.... Men were tied five in a group with their wrists tied below their backs, and I saw the first men who were shot by rifles and who were then thrown in the river by the Japanese.... We had...arrived at the bank of the River about seven o’clock, and the binding of the prisoners and shooting kept up until two o’clock in the morning.”[xxxiv]  

During their two-week rampage, Japanese troops murdered an estimated 250,000 people[xxxv] in what became known as the “Rape of Nanking”. The Chinese, suffered many other atrocities during another eight years of Japanese occupation, as did people in other occupied countries like Korea.

             The Japanese army also proved particularly brutal in its treatment of prisoners of war. According to the militaristic code of bushido, to which most Japanese officers adhered, a soldier who surrendered had disgraced himself utterly and forfeited all rights. Consequently, Allied prisoners were regularly used as slave labor, and were often subjected to torture or even execution in violation of the Geneva Convention.

            In the Philippines, for example, Japanese soldiers subjected American and Filipino prisoners to a sixty-five mile forced march up the Bataan Peninsula. Along the way, Japanese guards beat, bayoneted, beheaded, and shot many of the prisoners. They killed over 600 Americans and as many as 10,000 Filipinos. After arriving in the prison camp, another 16,000 died within weeks. The incident became known as the “Bataan Death March”.[xxxvi] In other cases, the Japanese army used prisoners for research in chemical and biological warfare. Like Hitler’s SS, a special unit of the Japanese army conducted cruel medical experiments on thousands of human subjects in Japanese-occupied areas.[xxxvii]

Soviet Atrocities

The Axis powers were not the only totalitarian regimes practicing large-scale acts of brutality during the war, however. For nearly two years, between September 1939 and June 1941, the Soviet Union occupied the eastern half of Poland. Soviet policy in Poland bore a striking resemblance to that of the Nazis, but reflected communist ideology rather than racial theory. The Soviets did not single out Jews for elimination. Instead they went after specific classes of the population—landowners, local officials, clergy, teachers, and intellectuals. They urged peasants to murder their landlords. One Soviet pamphlet read:  “For Poles, masters and dogs—a dog’s death”.[xxxviii] Soviet officers talked of three types of Poles: “Those who were in prison; those who are in prison; and those who will be in prison.”[xxxix]

            The NKVD, the Soviet equivalent of Hitler’s SS, arrived in Poland with the Soviet army. Over the course of Soviet occupation the NKVD subjected thousands of Poles to imprisonment, torture, and execution. They deported an estimated 1.5 million Poles to labor camps in the Soviet Union. Up to half of those deported may have died.[xl] Sometime in 1940, Soviet forces murdered 15,000 officers of the Polish army, burying them in mass graves in a forest near Smolensk.[xli] Before retreating in the face of the German invasion of 1941, the NKVD simply began shooting many of the Poles it had imprisoned, probably executing close to 100,000.[xlii] All in all, more than 400,000 Poles died at the hands of the Soviets in World War II.