The First World War begins. A 25-year-old Austrian, Adolf Hitler, volunteers for the German Army. He serves throughout the war and sees thousands of his fellow-soldiers die.
The Treaty of Versailles, which follows the end of the First World War, is vindictive. According to its terms, Germany is to pay the cost of the war: an additional humiliation for the loser and the cause of economic ruin. It is also to lose land in Europe and Africa; its armed forces are to be limited.
The Nationalsozialistische Deutsche Arbeiterpartei, the National Socialist German Workers Party, is founded. Hitler, who has discovered his natural ability to make stirring public speeches, becomes its leader. The Nazi party programme includes this statement: 'None but members of the Nation may be citizens of the State. None but those of German blood, whatever their creed, may be members of the Nation. No Jew, therefore, may be a member of the Nation.' Hitler tells his followers that his aim is 'the removal of Jews from the midst of our people'.
Hitler leads an unsuccessful coup and is imprisoned for 13 months. While in prison he writes 'Mein Kampf' ('My Struggle') which later becomes a bestseller. It contains his fundamental beliefs: the German or 'Aryan' master-race must be kept 'pure', with no intermarriage; Germany must be made great again, taking new territory to the east as its rightful lebensraum ('space for living'); the Aryans' greatest enemy is the Jews.
'Hitler Youth' is founded for children and young people under 18, with camps and rallies, marches and sports events. 'Racial purity' is stressed, and Jews are not allowed to join.
Nazi militia attack and kill 8 Jews in Berlin. Jews begin to be harassed and abused in streets, shops, cafés, and other public places. Anti-Jewish notices and slogans start to appear. The Nazi party wins 107 seats in the German parliament, and by 1933 will have become the largest single party. Communists, to whom the government and the Nazis are fiercely opposed, are a close second.
On January 30, in an attempt to use Hitler and his party against the Communists, the German president appoints Hitler to be Chancellor (prime minister) of Germany. A week before elections, a mysterious fire destroys the parliament building; the Nazis blame the Communists, win 44% of the vote, and come to power by the will of the people. An act of law is immediately passed, giving Hitler the powers of a dictator for 4 years. The secret police force Geheime Staatspolizei, 'Gestapo', is formed. It is given full powers to spy, arrest, interrogate and imprison. Jewish businesses are boycotted for one day. Books written by Jews are publicly burned as 'degenerate'. A series of anti-Jewish laws are passed: Jews are barred from all public service, including the civil service, the law, and teaching. Jewish doctors are banned from Berlin hospitals, and can find no other employment. Jews are also barred from sports organisations, and from being journalists on German newspapers. Individual Jews are attacked, and some are killed. The Nazi newspaper says 'Jews can never be anything but stateless aliens, they can never have any legal or constitutional status.' A concentration camp for imprisoning Nazi opponents is set up at Dachau.
The Nazi party's new militia, the black-shirted Schutzstaffeln (SS), is created. Hitler's main rivals are assassinated. All other political parties are banned. Germany's president dies and Hitler at once makes himself not only Head of State but also Chief of the Armed Forces, and begins to ensure his popularity by re-arming them. He also revitalises the arms industry and other industrial projects, delighting the German people with his promises of an end to poverty and unemployment. Jewish actors are banned from appearing on stage or screen. No Jews can now take law exams. Jewish newspapers can no longer be publicly displayed and sold.
Jews are forbidden to serve in the German armed forces. New war memorials must not carry the names of any Jews who died while fighting for Germany in the First World War. The 'Nuremberg Laws', signed by Hitler personally, are passed: they state that (a) only people of German or kindred blood can be German citizens; (b) Jews are not of German blood. Marriages between Jews and non-Jews are forbidden. 'No Jews Allowed' signs increase significantly in offices, shops, hotels, and other public places. 'Jew-free' and 'Jews not welcome here' banners are displayed at the entrances to towns and villages.
Another burning of books by Jewish writers takes place, three years to the day after the first. Jewish doctors are forbidden to practise in any state hospital. Because international attention is focused on the Olympic Games, held in Berlin this year, persecution of Jews is more discreet. A concentration camp is opened at Sachsenhausen.
Jews are forced to sell their businesses, mostly for very low sums. Jews are increasingly excluded from such places as parks, libraries and museums. The number of Jews emigrating increases: by 1939 half of Germany's half million Jews have left the country, the largest number (over 160,000) moving to America. Over 33,000 move to Palestine. Anti-Semitic laws are passed in Romania; by 1939 no Jew will be able to have a job there. A concentration camp is opened at Buchenwald.
German troops enter and annex Austria. They immediately close down Austrian Jewish organisations and begin looting Jewish residences, removing valuables (including two fine art collections). Austrian Jews are beaten and humiliated (some are publicly forced to wash Vienna's streets on their knees). They are also dismissed from their jobs and expelled from institutions. Hundreds commit suicide, thousands emigrate; the property of the rest is confiscated. In Germany, 15,000 Polish-born Jews are expelled across the Polish border, without property, shelter or resources. Jewish doctors are forbidden to treat non-Jews. The Nazis' 'Kristallnacht', the night of broken glass, takes place on November 8/9: Jewish shops and houses are vandalised, synagogues are set on fire and over 90 Jews are killed. The Jewish community is ordered to pay for the damage. German Jewish children are excluded from schools. Jewish businesses and factories are forcibly taken over. Already there are 45,000 Jews imprisoned and brutally treated in concentration camps; some prisoners die, some commit suicide. An international conference is held at Evian in France, and Jewish refugees are discussed: many countries say they are unwilling to go on accepting them, and Britain cuts back the admission of Jewish emigrants to Palestine. Anti-Semitic laws are passed in Hungary and by the fascist government in Italy. Concentration camps are opened at Neuengamme and Mauthausen.
Hitler predicts that if there is war, Jews will be exterminated. On September 1 Germany invades and occupies western Poland, home to nearly 3m Jews, and the USSR occupies eastern Poland. German troops and SS units take every opportunity to torment, beat or kill Polish Jews. On the eve of the invasion, Hitler (who regarded Poles as 'primitive', 'subhuman') is reported by one of his generals to say: 'Genghis Khan had millions killed, and history sees him only as a great state-builder. I have sent my Death's Head units to the East in order to kill without mercy men, women and children of the Polish race or language. Only in such a way will we win the lebensraum that we need.' All Polish Jews are ordered to wear identification armbands showing the Star of David emblem. The first ghettos are set up in Poland, and Jews are forcibly brought in from town, country and abroad to endure the overcrowded and insanitary conditions. The ghettos are walled and locked, to isolate Jews from the rest of the population. A concentration camp is opened at Ravensbruck.
The Warsaw Ghetto is set up, in which over 500,000 Jews are confined. Jews in the ghettos are temporarily allowed to produce goods for the German war effort, which offers them short-lived hope of survival. Labour camps (associated with war-support industries such as building work or making armaments) are set up in or near ghettos and are staffed by Jews forced to work there, increasingly as slaves. Most Jews have now been deprived of all or most of their human rights. A concentration camp is opened at Auschwitz.
The word 'holocaust' comes from the ancient Greek word for 'sacrifice by fire'. In the 19th century it was used to refer to mass slaughter, especially by fire. The mass killing of Jews by Nazis was referred to as 'this holocaust' in the British parliament in 1943, and by the 1950s the name was widely applied. Jews often prefer to name the event 'Shoah', which means 'catastrophe'.
Remaining chimney stack in Auswitsch