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Section: Life in Nazi-controlled Europe

German occupation and alliances

German troops march into Prague Castle following the Nazis invasion of Czechoslovakia in March 1939.

German troops march into Prague Castle following the Nazis invasion of Czechoslovakia in March 1939.

Courtesy of The Wiener Library

From 1938 – 1945, the Nazis invaded and occupied over twenty countries.

This section uses case studies to illustrate the experiences of some of the countries occupied or allied with Nazi Germany.

Czechoslovakia

Invasion

Under the terms of the Munich Pact, the Sudetenland, a region in the north of Czechoslovakia, was incorporated into the Greater German Reich from the 1 October 1938.

Just six months later, Hitler broke the terms of this pact and invaded the rest of Czechoslovakia. On the 15 March 1939, Hitler declared a new state, the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia. This became an occupied territory under German control.

The southern part of Czechoslovakia became Slovakia, an independent fascist dictatorship. Slovakia collaborated with Nazi Germany.

Oppression and persecution

Jews were persecuted in all parts of Czechoslovakia under Nazi rule.

Prior to the start of the Second World War, over 350,000 Jews lived in Czechoslovakia. Of these, approximately 118,000 lived in the area that became known as the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia.

After the German takeover, Jews soon became subject to a number of discriminatory laws, similar to those in place in Nazi Germany. These laws mostly focused on the exclusion of Jews from society and limiting their everyday actions, such as where they could work.

In November 1941, Heydrich ordered the creation of the Theresienstadt Ghetto to the north of Prague. Jews from all over Czechoslovakia began to be deported to and concentrated in this ghetto.

The ghetto became dual purpose. It was also used as a transit camp, with the first transport of people departing from Theresienstadt to the east on the 9 January 1942. In total, approximately 88,000 people were deported to Auschwitz, and 33,000 people died from the unsanitary conditions and starvation in Theresienstadt alone.

At the end of the Second World War, just 14,000 Jews remained alive in German occupied Czechoslovakia. Approximately 263,000 Jews had been murdered by the Nazis.

Poland

Invasion

Prior to the invasion of Poland on the 1 September 1939, the country was home to just over three million Jews. By 28 September 1939, Poland had been defeated and divided up between the Nazis and Soviets as per the Molotov-Ribbentroppact.

The western area of Poland was annexed into the Greater German Reich. The Soviet Union occupied the eastern section.

On 23 October 1939, the area not annexed to Germany or to the Soviet Union was placed under the control of a German administration led by Hans Frank. This administration was called the General Government, and contained approximately one and a half million Jews.

Oppression and persecution

The majority of the Polish population were brutally suppressed. Many Poles were forced to move in order to make room for ethnic Germans, a small proportion of the Polish population who were named Volkdeustche, meaning German blood. Thousands of Polish leaders and resisters were arrested, tortured and killed.

Antisemitic attacks and measures began immediately. In the part of Poland incorporated to Germany, around 300,000 Jews fled to Soviet controlled territories. On 21 September 1939, Reinhard Heydrich issued an order that the remaining 1.8 million Jews should be expelled to the General Government. Forced deportations began on the 21 November 1939.

On 23 November 1939, Hans Frank decreed that all Jews residing in the General Government had to wear a white armband with a blue Star of David. Prior to this, Frank had ordered that all Jewish males be sent for forced labour, and Jewish businesses be seized. From January 1940, Jews were also forbidden to use trains, except by special permit.

The first ghetto was established on 8 October 1939, in Piotrakow Trybunalski, sixteen miles south of the central Polish town of Łódź.

Throughout 1940 and 1941, the Nazis established hundreds of ghettos as the German armed forces invaded lands across Europe.

The ‘Final Solution’

Between 1939 and 1945, the Nazis established hundreds of concentration camps and forced labour camps across Poland.

In June 1941, German armed forces invaded Soviet controlled eastern Poland.  As the German Army fought its way eastwards, mobile killing units, the Einsatzgruppen, followed behind, carrying out the mass extermination of Jews living in these areas.

Following the Wannsee Conference of January 1942, the Nazis started to implement their ‘Final Solution to the Jewish Question’.

Chełmno was established as the first of six main extermination camps in Poland on 7 December 1941.

In the spring of 1942, three other extermination camps at Sobibór, Bełżec and Treblinka were established as part of Aktion Reinhard. The concentration camps complexes at Auschwitz and Majdanek were also expanded and developed into extermination centres.

Jews who had previously been held in ghettos within occupied Poland were transported to their deaths in the extermination camps. The ghettos within the General Government were liquidated. By the summer of 1944 only the Łódź Ghetto remained.

Three million Polish Jews were murdered by the Nazis during the occupation of Poland.

In addition to this figure, three million non-Jewish Poles were also murdered at the hands of the Germans.

France

Occupation

The German Army invaded France on 10 May 1940.

On 22 June 1940, the French surrendered and signed an armistice with the Nazis. France was then divided in two zones.

Northern France was occupied and controlled by Germany.

The unoccupied southern zone came under the control of a new French Government led by Marshal Philippe Pétain. Established in the spa town of Vichy, the government and area became known as Vichy France.

General Charles de Gaulle, who opposed Pétain’s surrender to the Germans, fled to Great Britain and set up a French government-in-exile.

In the summer of 1940, approximately 350,000 Jews were living in France. More than half this Jewish population were not French citizens, but refugees who had fled Nazi persecution in other countries.

Collaboration

Theoretically, the Vichy Government was independently governed. However, in reality, the Vichy Regime was subject to a large amount of pressure from the Nazis to implement Nazi policies, and often collaborated with them to achieve this.

The Vichy government were soon pressurised by the Nazis to persecute Jews.

Initially, the Vichy Government’s antisemitic measures were directed against Jews who were refugees, or of non-French origin.

However, in April 1942, Pierre Laval joined the Vichy Government as the Prime Minister. Laval pushed the Vichy Regime to fully collaborate with the Nazis. From this point onwards, all Jews were targeted, irrespective of their citizenship.

Oppression and persecution

Almost immediately after the German invasion, Jews living in both the occupied zone and in Vichy France were subjected to antisemitic measures.

In the occupied zone of France, Jews were treated similarly to those in Poland, and faced immediate persecution by the occupying Nazi forces. Many were dismissed from their jobs and their freedom of movement was restricted. From June 1942, the Nazis forced Jews to wear the Star of David.

Throughout the summer of 1942, the Nazis started to arrest Jews for deportation to the east. Following this, they restricted the movements of the remaining Jewish community for future arrests. These arrests were typically carried out by French police.

The Vichy government also passed antisemitic laws.

In October 1940, a decree was passed defining who was a Jew and limiting their involvement in French society.

In March 1941, the Vichy authorities set up an Office for Jewish Affairs. Jewish property and businesses also became confiscated under ‘Aryanisation’ laws, leaving people homeless and without work. From 1942 onwards, French Jews started to be deported from the Vichy zone.

During the war approximately 80,000 Jews were deported from France.

Of these, 70,000 were sent to Auschwitz. The remainder were sent to Majdanek, Sobibór and Buchenwald.

By the end of the war just 2,000 of those who were deported had survived.

The Netherlands

Occupation

On 10 May 1940, the German Army invaded the Netherlands.

Within four days, after witnessing the bombing of Rotterdam and the threat of the same in Amsterdam, the Dutch army surrendered.

Queen Wilhelmina of the Netherlands fled to Great Britain, where she established a government-in-exile.

Hitler ordered the creation of a German civil administration in the Netherlands under the command of the SS.

Oppression and persecution

After Hitler came to power in 1933, many German Jews began to emigrate to the Netherlands. The Netherlands had remained a neutral power during the First World War, and so many German Jews believed that they would be safe from persecution there.

The Netherlands was home to 140,000 Jews, with approximately 75,000 Jews living in the capital, Amsterdam.

Immediately following the Nazi occupation, antisemitic measures were implemented by the Nazis.

Between September and November 1940, Jewish newspapers were closed down, Jewish civil servants were sacked and the assets of all Jewish businesses were registered. Following this, Jewish students were also expelled from schools and universities.

In January 1941, all Jews living within the Netherlands were ordered to register themselves with the SS. A total of 159,806 persons registered, including 19,561 born of mixed marriages. The total also included approximately 25,000 Jewish refugees from Germany.

In the second half of 1941, the Joodse Raad was forced to provide lists of Jews to work in forced labour camps for the German war effort.

In January 1942, persecution escalated as the Nazis ordered the concentration of Jews in Amsterdam.

In July 1942, the Germans began transporting Jews who had gathered in Amsterdam to Westerbork, a camp in the north-east of the Netherlands. Westerbork was a transit camp, and Jews were then transported again to extermination camps in the east.

The Dutch police actively collaborated and assisted the German authorities in the rounding up of Jews on the streets or in their homes. Dutch railway workers also administered and operated the trains in which Jews were deported to and from Westerbork.

The last train left Westerbork for Auschwitz-Birkenau on 3 September 1944, by which time 107,000 Jews had been deported. Of this number, only 5,200 people survived.

Resistance

The Nazis soon realised that their antisemitic actions would not be able to be easily implemented without resistance from the population of the Netherlands.

In early February 1941, a fight broke out in a café between Jews and the occupying German police. In response to this fight, the Germans arrested 389 young people and transported them to Buchenwald. Many of the Dutch population were outraged at this open show of brutality. In response, many Dutch workers went on strike on the 25 February 1941. The strike was violently suppressed by the Nazis, forcing the Dutch population back to work.

Some of the Dutch population also actively involved themselves more covertly by hiding some Jews from the Nazis. In total, 25,000-30,000 Jews managed to go into hiding assisted by the Dutch underground. Of this number, two-thirds managed to survive.

Romania

Collaboration

Romania was not occupied but allied with Nazi Germany from 1940 onwards, collaborating with them in policy and in the war.

Romania had a long history of antisemitism, particularly in the east of the country.

In September 1940, the Romanian King, King Carol II, was forced to abdicate and the fascist General Ion Antonescu took power. Antonescu’s regime was known as the National Legionary State. Antonescu also brought members of the Iron Guard into government, a far-right, and highly antisemitic political party.

In November 1940, Romania officially entered the Second World War when it joined the Axis Alliance. Romania actively assisted the Nazis in the invasion of the Soviet Union.

The Romanian army and police forces collaborated with the Nazis helping to plan and carry out the murders of thousands of Jews. They also acted independently to carry out several barbaric executions and pogroms in annexed or occupied territories. In total, German and Romanian troops, with assistance from local Romanians and Ukrainians, murdered over 160,000 of Romania’s Jews.

By 23 August 1944, Antonescu’s government was overthrown by an antifascist group called the National Democratic Bloc. The new government signed an agreement with the Soviet Union that formally acknowledged that Romania was no longer allied with Germany.

Oppression and persecution

The Iron Guard, the political party brought into government by Antonescu, initially led the physical attacks on Jews in Romania. Jews were beaten up in the streets, and often killed as a result of random attacks on their homes and businesses.

The Antonescu government also escalated prior antisemitic laws implemented by previous governments to restrict every area of Jewish life. Jews were banned from owning any type of rural property. Jewish businesses were nationalised. Jews were excluded from almost every profession of work, and all areas of education (both as teachers and students). From the 27 July 1941, Jews were not allowed to travel.

In July 1941, Romania set up its first concentration camp, Chișinău. More camps soon followed, such as Bogdanovka, where over 40,000 Jews perished at the hands of the Romanian authorities.

Some 420,000 Jews who had previously lived in Romania died during the Holocaust.

Hungary

Collaboration

Shortly after the Nazis came to power, the Hungarian government, led by Miklós Horthy, built an alliance with Nazi Germany. Following Germany’s occupation of Austria and then Czechoslovakia, Hungary regained territorial gains which they had lost after the First World War. This combined with a rise in sympathy for fascism and Nazi ideas in Hungary, encouraged the country to join the Axis Alliance in November 1940.

In line with the Nazis policies towards Jews, in 1941 the Hungarian government deported approximately 20,000 non-Hungarian Jews to Ukraine, where they were murdered by the Einsatzgruppen.

However, until 1944, the Hungarian government refused to deport Hungarian Jews, despite the range of brutal antisemitic laws they enacted.

When it became clear that the Nazis would not emerge from the war victorious, the Hungarian government attempted to pull out of the alliance with Germany, and sought an armistice with the Allies.

In response, in March 1944, Germany invaded and occupied Hungary. The Nazis set up a new government loyal to Germany.

Occupation

Miklós Horthy did not resign under the German occupation of Hungary, but instead helped to appoint a new government who were more submissive to the Nazis demands.

Adolf Eichmann was deployed to Hungary on the 19 March 1944 to carry out the extermination of its Jewish population. Eichmann aimed to deport more than 800,000 people to the camps in the east. Despite the likelihood of defeat in the war by this stage, genocide was still a priority for the Nazis. Arriving with just a few German staff, Eichmann was reliant on the collaboration of the Hungarian authorities to achieve this aim. The Hungarian authorities cooperated enthusiastically with Eichmann’s plans.

In little over two months, over 200 camps and ghettos were created and filled with the Jewish population.

437,402 Hungarian Jews were deported in 56 days between May and July 1944, primarily to Auschwitz, where almost all of them were murdered.

Oppression

Although the Hungarian authorities did not actively deport Hungarian Jews until the occupation of Hungary in 1944, harsh antisemitic policies were in place. Between 1920 and 1944, over 300 antisemitic laws were passed.

From 1938, the persecution of Jews increased significantly as Hungary strengthened its ties with Nazi Germany. The law known as the First Jewish Law was passed on 29 May 1938. This law limited the number of Jews in many professions and companies to a maximum of 20%.

In 1939, a law forced all Jewish men of military age to join the Hungarian Labour Service.

On 5 May 1939, the Second Jewish Law passed. This law defined Jews as a race rather than a religion: any person with two or more grandparents was regarded as a Jew. The law also banned Jews from working for the government and further restricted their employment in other areas.

On 8 August 1941, the Hungarian government passed the Third Jewish Law. This law prohibited marriages between Jews and non-Jews.

Following the Nazi occupation in 1944, the persecution of the Jews turned actively murderous. Almost immediately, Jews had to wear a Star of David on their clothes and their movement was restricted. Telephones and radios were confiscated, and Jewish property and businesses were seized. During April, the Jews of Hungary were forced into ghettos, where they were soon deported to extermination camps in the east.

Hungary was liberated by the Soviet army during April 1945. By this time, approximately 568,000 Hungarian Jews had perished during the Holocaust.

Ukraine

Ukraine was a republic under the control of the Soviet Union. It had a large Jewish population, of approximately 2,700,000 Jews.

Occupation

In June 1941, following the launch of Operation Barbarossa, the Ukraine was invaded by Nazi Germany and quickly became occupied. Erich Koch became the Reichkommissar, or leader, of the region, which became formally known as Reichkommissariat Ukraine on the 20 August 1941.

After twenty years of Soviet rule, and the famine and terror of 1932-1933, many in the Ukraine were hopeful that the Nazis would bring economic revival to the country.

The Ukrainian Jewish population were fearful, however, having heard reports of the Nazi persecution in Germany and beyond. Many Ukrainian Jews attempted to flee the advancing army. However, the lack of transportation and speed of the advancing army meant that escape was difficult.

Adolf Hitler declared his intentions for the country in a speech in October 1941, ‘In twenty years the Ukraine will already be a home for twenty million inhabitants besides the natives. In three hundred years, the country will be one of the loveliest gardens in the world. As for the natives, we’ll have to screen them carefully. The Jew, that destroyer, we shall drive out’.

Persecution

The invasion of the Soviet Union was seen as not only a military attack but also an ideological one. The Soviet Union was portrayed in Nazi propaganda as the ultimate enemy, the home of communism and Jews. This attitude was reflected in the actions of the Nazis in occupied Ukraine.

From the very beginning, propaganda was instigated against the Jews. During the bombing campaign that followed the invasion of the Ukraine, leaflets were dropped over Ukrainian towns and cities. They aimed to get Soviet Army soldiers to surrender, and were extremely antisemitic. The leaflets stated that there was no reason to fear the invading Germans, as the real enemy were communist Jews.

Shortly after their occupation, the Jewish population were forced into Jewish quarters and ghettos and placed under supervision. This was a temporary measure. Soon after being forced into ghettos, the SS, Einsatzgruppen, the German Army, the Ukrainian police and local collaborators, started the mass murder of Ukrainian Jews.

The ‘Final Solution’

Unlike in Poland where camps were more common, many of the victims of the Holocaust in the Ukraine were shot in or nearby their home towns by the Einsatzgruppen which swept across the country following the German army.

The local population were usually aware of what was happening, and in many cases assisted the Nazis in carrying the murders out.

On arrival, the Einsatzgruppen would initially target and murder Jewish men aged 17-45. These men were seen as an immediate threat who had to be instantly destroyed.

Meanwhile, the rest of the Jewish population were forced into ghettos or specific areas. These men, women and children would then be taken from the ghetto in the following days and weeks, marched or transported to the edge of the city or town, and shot.

Victims were often told they were going to do agricultural work, and were forced to dig their own graves.

In the city of Zhytomyr, 180,000 Jews were murdered this way in over two years from the summer of 1941 to the autumn of 1943.

On the 29 and 30 September 1941, in the capital city of Kiev, the Babi Yar massacre took place. Over the course of two days, 33,771 Jews were massacred in a mass shooting at the Babi Yar ravine by the Ukraine police and Einsatzgruppe C. The massacre was one of the largest single mass killings that the Nazis and their collaborators carried out.

These types of mass murder took place alongside spontaneous killings, public hangings and beatings, and medical experiments, where many local Nazis experimented the most effective ways to commit mass murder.

In total, historians estimate that around one million Jews were murdered by the Nazis and their collaborators during the Holocaust in the Ukraine.

Collaboration

There was significant collaboration between the Ukrainians and the Nazis throughout the occupation of the Ukraine and the Holocaust.

Ukrainian police actively collaborated with the Einsatzgruppen in the murder of the Jewish people. Some served as camp or ghetto guards, others helped to round up Jews, and others participated in shooting them.

Civilians also collaborated with the Nazis, either through committing antisemitic attacks of their own, or by joining one of the paramilitary services. Examples of this collaboration can be seen in the Lvov Pogroms, where 7000 Jews were murdered, and many other were raped and beaten by Ukrainian nationalists.

Many Ukrainians were antisemitic prior to the Holocaust and the Nazis actively encouraged and expanded this feeling, often blaming acts of war, such as arson or mass shootings, on Jews.

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What were the ghettos and camps?

What were the ghettos and camps?

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