During World War II, Nazi Germany and its collaborators murdered approximately six million Jews. The Holocaust is the name used to refer to this systematic, bureaucratic, and state-sponsored campaign of persecution and murder. Beginning with racially discriminatory laws in Germany, the Nazi campaign expanded to the mass murder of all European Jews
During the era of the Holocaust, the Nazis also targeted other groups because of their perceived "racial inferiority": Roma (Gypsies), people with disabilities, and some of the Slavic peoples (Poles, Russians, and others). Other groups were persecuted on political and behavioral grounds, among them Communists, Socialists, Jehovah's Witnesses, and homosexuals.
"Holocaust" is a word of Greek origin meaning "sacrifice by fire." The Nazis came to power in Germany in January 1933. The Nazis frequently used euphemistic language to disguise the true nature of their crimes. According to this vocabulary, Germans were considered "racially superior" and the Jews, and others deemed "inferior," were "life unworthy of life."
In 1933, the Jewish population of Europe stood at over nine million. Most European Jews lived in countries that Nazi Germany (the Third Reich) would occupy or influence during World War II. The Nazis established concentration camps to imprison Jews, other people targeted on ethnic or “racial” grounds, and political opponents. Germany invaded Poland on September 1, 1939, beginning World War II. Over the next two years, German forces conquered most of Europe.
During the war years, the Nazis and their collaborators created ghettos (to isolate Jewish populations) and thousands of new camps for the imprisonment of targeted groups and forced labor. Following the invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941, Einsatzgruppen (mobile killing units) carried out mass-murder operations against Jews, Roma, and Soviet state and Communist party officials. More than a million Jewish men, women, and children were murdered by these units, usually in mass shootings. Between 1942 and 1944, Nazi Germany deported millions more Jews from occupied territories to extermination camps, where they murdered them in specially developed killing facilities using poison gas. At the largest killing center, Auschwitz-Birkenau, transports of Jews arrived almost daily from across Europe.
Although Jews were the primary victims of Nazi racism, others targeted for death included tens of thousands of Roma (Gypsies) and at least 200,000 mentally or physically disabled people. As Nazi tyranny spread across Europe, the Germans persecuted and murdered millions of other people. More than three million Soviet prisoners of war were murdered or died of starvation, disease, or maltreatment. The Germans killed tens of thousands of non-Jewish Polish intellectual and religious leaders, and deported millions of Polish and Soviet citizens for forced labor. From the earliest years of the Nazi regime, homosexuals and others deemed to be socially unacceptable were persecuted. Thousands of political dissidents (including Communists, Socialists, and trade unionists) and religious dissidents (such as Jehovah's Witnesses) were also targeted. Many of these individuals died as a result of incarceration and maltreatment.
In the final months of the war, SS guards forced camp inmates to march hundreds of miles without shelter in an attempt to prevent the Allied liberation of large numbers of prisoners. As Allied forces moved across Europe in a series of offensives, they began to encounter and liberate concentration camp prisoners. World War II ended in Europe with the unconditional surrender of German armed forces in the west on May 7 and in the east on May 9, 1945.
By war’s end, close to two out of every three Jews in Europe had been murdered by Nazi Germany and its collaborators in the massive crime we now call the Holocaust.