Section: How and why did the Holocaust happen?

Why did the Holocaust happen?

Antisemitism was one of the most fundamental causes of the Holocaust. The banner in this picture reads ‘Germany does not buy from Jews’. This photograph is taken from The Wiener Holocaust Library’s Motorcycle Album, a collection of photographs taken on a journey from the Dutch border to Berlin in 1935

Antisemitism was one of the most fundamental causes of the Holocaust. The banner in this picture reads ‘Germany does not buy from Jews’. This photograph is taken from The Wiener Holocaust Library’s Motorcycle Album, a collection of photographs taken on a journey from the Dutch border to Berlin in 1935.

Courtesy of The Wiener Holocaust Library Collections.

The Holocaust was the culmination of a number of factors over a number of years.

Historic antisemitism , the rise of eugenics and nationalism , the aftermath of the First World War, the rise of the Nazis, the role of Adolf Hitler, the internal operation of the Nazi state, the Second World War and collaboration all played key roles in the timing and scale of the final catastrophe.

This section aims to explore how these individual factors contributed to the Holocaust.

Nationalism and the First World War

Following the Enlightenment (late seventeenth century – early nineteenth century), there was a growth in nationalism . The rise in nationalism intensified the rise in antisemitism, which had also been growing since the Enlightenment. The First World War (1914-1918) strengthened these feelings of nationalism across Europe, as nations were pitted against each other.

In 1918, Germany lost the First World War. Many people within Germany, including Adolf Hitler, found this loss very difficult and humiliating to process. Instead, many looked for scapegoats to blame.

This led to the Stab-in-the-Back Myth. The Stab-in-the-Back Myth was the belief that the German Army did not lose the First World War on the battlefield, but was instead betrayed by communists , socialists and Jews on the home front. This myth fostered the growth of extreme antisemitism , nationalism and anti-communism .

These feelings were exacerbated further by the Treaty of Versailles in 1919. The Treaty of Versailles forced Germany to admit complete responsibility for the war; pay large amounts of reparations (which undermined the Germany post-war economy); give up significant proportions of land, and limited the size of its army. The Treaty was extremely unpopular in Germany, where the public regarded it as a diktat (dictated peace). This led to a lack of faith in the Weimar Republic , the newly established regime of rule in Germany.

The unsettled conditions in Germany encouraged the popularity of nationalism and nostalgia for the country’s pre-war strength. Nationalism was a key factor in the rise in popularity of nationalist political parties such as the Nazis, and, in turn, ideas such as antisemitism.

Eugenics and antisemitism

In addition to the rise in nationalism, the modern age saw the rise of racist ideas such eugenics and antisemitism. Both of these ideas lay at the heart of Nazi ideology, and eventually informed their persecutory and genocidal policies.


Following the publication of Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection in 1859, the study of eugenics became extremely popular. Eugenics is the science of regulating a population through controlled breeding. Eugenic scientists aimed to eliminate traits believed to be undesirable, and encourage those that were ‘desirable’ in order to ‘improve’ the human race. This idea was dangerous as it suggested that certain groups were superior to others. Eugenics quickly became misused by far-right groups.

Hitler and the Nazis later used the popularity of eugenics and the theory of Social Darwinists as a pseudo-scientific justification to support their idea that non-‘ Aryans ‘ were inferior races, and should therefore be exterminated.


Antisemitism  was one of the most fundamental causes of the Holocaust.

The rise of antisemitism over the course of the early twentieth century was extremely dangerous. It allowed an overtly antisemitic party such as the Nazis to come to power in 1933.

Hitler and the Nazis considered Jews to be an inferior race of people, who set out to weaken other races and take over the world. Hitler believed that Jews were particularly destructive to the German ‘ Aryan ’ race, and did not have any place in Nazi Germany.

The Nazis’ implemented antisemitic laws, which persecuted and oppressed Jews, and eventually led to their deportation and mass murder.

Rise of the Nazis and Adolf Hitler

The Nazis’ rise to power, and the role of Adolf Hitler himself, is one of the primary causes of the Holocaust. The Nazis initiated, organised and directed the genocide and their racist ideology underpinned it.

The Nazi rise to power 

The Nazis’ ideology rested on several key ideas, such as nationalism, racial superiority, antisemitism, and anticommunism. These ideas were popular in Germany in the 1920s and early 1930s, as the economic and political situation fluctuated and then, following the Wall Street Crash in 1929, quickly deteriorated.

In these uncertain times, the Nazi Party appeared to offer hope, political stability and prosperity. In 1932, the Nazis became the biggest party in the Reichstag , with 37.3% of the vote.

Shortly afterwards, on 30 January 1933, Hitler was appointed Chancellor. The Nazis quickly consolidated their power, taking advantage of the Reichstag Fire of February 1933 to begin their reign of terror. Whilst primarily aimed at political enemies, the infrastructure of camps and institutionalised torture used in these initial months provided the groundwork for the camp system which later facilitated mass murder. Although not the subject of mass arrests in the same way that many political prisoners were initially, Jews were quickly targeted by the Nazi regime.

The Nazis’ persecution of Jews started with exclusionary policies, eliminating Jews from certain professions and educational opportunities and encouraging them to emigrate. As their power became more secure, the Nazis quickly escalated to more direct persecution, such as the Nuremberg Laws of 1935 which stripped Jews of their citizenship and Kristallnacht (an antisemitic pogrom ) in 1938. This escalation of oppression continued to intensify and radicalise until the outbreak of war, where it quickly became more lethal, and, eventually, genocidal.

The role of Adolf Hitler

As leader of the Nazi Party, Adolf Hitler played a key role in the ideas behind, the events leading up to, and the unfolding of, the Holocaust.

Prior to their election, the Nazis shaped their propaganda to present Hitler as a strong leader that could return Germany from the uncertain circumstances of the time to its former glory. In the early years, Hitler was the driving force behind the Nazis, and made key changes to the party’s structure, branding and methods to turn it into a credible political force.

Once elected, Hitler rarely took part in direct actions against Jews or other internal enemies, instead directing his security forces, the SS , SA and SD , and their leader, Heinrich Himmler, to carry out this work. Whilst not physically involved, Hitler was involved in all major policy decisions, including persecutory policies and events. This is evidenced by his personal approval for the secret euthanasia programme of the disabled, T-4 , in Autumn 1939.

Hitler’s fanatic antisemitism , nationalism and anticommunism propelled Nazi ideology, and later, the Holocaust. Hitler’s expansionist policies, such as Lebensraum  pushed Europe into the Second World War. This, alongside other factors, had severe ramifications for European Jews.

Radicalisation of the administration of the Nazi state

Shortly after being elected into power, the Nazis set about radicalising the infrastructure of government to suit their needs.

Gleichschaltung (Co-ordination)

Gleichschaltung was the process of the Nazi Party taking control over or reforming all aspects of government in Germany. It is otherwise known as coordination or Nazification.

One of the first institutions to be targeted for reform was the Civil Service . On 7 April 1933, the Nazis passed the Act for the Restoration of the Professional Civil Service, legalising the removal of anyone of non-Aryan descent from the civil service. Amongst other things, this act removed any judges that were deemed non-compliant with Nazi laws or principles, and therefore paved the way for legalising future radical persecutory actions against the Jews and other enemies of the Nazis. Those that remained in the Civil Service quickly became aware of how enemies of the regime were treated by the SS, and having benefitted from the spaces left by their Jewish colleagues, were unlikely to speak out in their favour.

This process of co-ordination was repeated through almost all aspects of government policy, which helped to align existing institutions to be sympathetic (and obedient) to Nazi ideology. This, in turn, allowed the Nazis to continue to push the boundaries of, and slowly radicalise, persecution.

Cumulative radicalisation

In addition to taking over existing government departments, the Nazis also created new departments of their own. These frequently carried out similar functions to pre-existing departments, often resulting in overlap on policy. An example of this is the Office of the Four Year Plan (created in 1936) and the already existing Economics Ministry, which both had power over economic policy.

This internal duplication meant that many elements of the regime were forced to compete with each other for power. Each office took increasingly radical steps to solidify its favour with Hitler, and in turn, its authority. The process is often referred to as ‘working towards the Führer’: the idea that the Nazi state attempted to anticipate and develop policy in line with Hitler’s wishes, without him being directly involved. Goebbels’ organisation of Kristallnacht can be used as an example of ‘working towards the Führer’ – Hitler did not directly authorise the event, but it was carried out with his racist ideology and wishes in mind.

The competition and constant radicalisation meant that the administration and bureaucracy of the Nazi state was chaotic. This chaos increased over time because of a lack of clear lines of accountability. For example, even though, in theory, Himmler was answerable to Minister of the Interior Wilhelm Frick, in reality he only ever received orders from Hitler himself.

As the Second World War progressed, the administration of the Nazi state became even further radicalised. New territories created new positions of power which further increased the radicalisation of ideological policy. The SS competed with senior party members and army officers for these positions and jurisdiction in the newly occupied areas. This internal competition in policy again pushed the radicalisation of policy as each organisation grappled for control, especially where there were ‘security concerns’ in the newly occupied areas.

The effect of the Second World War

The Second World War resulted in an extensive radicalisation of the Nazis’ antisemitic policy.

The first major radicalising action that resulted from the war was the creation of ghettos following the invasion of Poland on 1 September 1939. This resulted in three million Jews coming under German control. In order to contain the Jewish population, the Nazis forcibly segregated these Jews from the local population and placed them into ghettos. This was a large escalation of the Nazis’ previous antisemitic policy.

As the war continued it became clear that both the Magagascar Plan and the Generalplan Ost were infeasible, and it would not be possible to forcibly deport and resettle the Jewish population of Europe.

The invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941 further escalated lethal actions towards Jews. In the lead up to the invasion, Joseph Goebbels propaganda against Jews and, specifically OstJuden (eastern Jews), became even more vicious. This propaganda not only gave justification for the invasion of the Soviet Union, but directly linked the invasion to Jews.

As the historian Donald Bloxham wrote, ‘The very decision to go to war presupposed a racial mindset…everything that happened in war was liable to be interpreted in that light: frustrations were the cause for ‘revenge’; successes provided opportunities to create facts on the ground’ [Donald Bloxham, The Final Solution A Genocide, (United States: Oxford University Press, 2009), p.174].

Following behind the Germany Army throughout the invasion and subsequent partial occupation, the Einsatzgruppen conducted mass shootings of communists , Jews and any others thought to be enemies of the Nazi state. As the invasion of the Soviet Union slowed and the tide of war turned against the Nazis, actions against the Jews were further intensified. They were once again used as scapegoats for Germany’s military failures.

These actions culminated in the Wannsee Conference of January 1942, which coordinated the Nazis genocidal policy towards the Jews and resulted in the establishment of six extermination camps.

The Second World War played a vital role in radicalising the Nazis’ antisemitic policy into genocide. The Nazis reacted to some events in the war by escalating their actions against Jews. One example of this is the murder of Reinhard Heydrich and the subsequent mass killings of civilians and the liquidation of the village of Lidice.


The Nazis did not carry out the Holocaust alone. Their descent into genocide was assisted and carried out by collaborators: individuals, groups and governments that helped the Nazis to persecute and murder their victims. Without the aid of these collaborators, the Nazis would not have been able to carry out the Holocaust to the same extent or at the same pace.

Collaboration took many forms.

Home front

On the home front in Germany, some civilians actively collaborated with the Nazis to implement their antisemitic persecutory polices, such as denunciating Jewish neighbours or colleagues, or helping to implement antisemitic laws.

This form of collaboration reinforced antisemitic laws and obedience to the regime, which allowed the Nazis to slowly push and escalate the boundaries of acceptable levels of persecution.

Occupied countries

The most active, direct and deadly collaboration took place in the countries occupied by, or aligned with, the Nazis across Europe.

In the Seventh Fort, a concentration camp in Lithuania, Lithuanian police and militia acted as guards and participated in daily mass rapes, tortures, and murders. In Lvov, which is now part of modern-day Ukraine, pogroms organised by the Organisation of Ukrainian Nationalists and the Ukrainian National Militia resulted in the deaths and torture of thousands of Jews in June and July 1941. In Romania, the Antonescu regime widely collaborated with the Nazis to murder their Jewish inhabitants. Approximately 270,000 Romanian Jews were killed in the Holocaust.

These are just three examples of widespread collaboration with the Nazis.

The motivations behind these acts of collaboration are complex. Some acted in accordance with historic antisemitic views, others were motivated by potentials for economic gain, others did so out of fear.

Whatever their motivation, the effects of widespread collaboration for the Jewish population in the occupied countries of Europe were lethal. The participation of countries occupied by or aligned with Nazi Germany greatly extended the Nazis’ reach and speed at which the Holocaust unfolded, with fatal consequences.

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The effect of the Second World War

The effect of the Second World War

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