The Holocaust: The Nazi’s Secret Mission

From the Lecture series: A History of Hitler's Empire, 2nd Edition

By Thomas Childers, Ph.D., University of Pennsylvania

Reinhard Heydrich wanted to carry out the ‘final solution’ in utmost secrecy. During the First World War, the Western Allies had created stories that the Germans were bayoneting babies in Belgium. Heydrich wanted to avoid this kind of foreign propaganda, although it was not really first and foremost on his mind. What was, then, the primary cause of concern for Heydrich?

Jews de-boarding a train after reaching a concentration camp.
During the Holocaust, the Third Reich’s officials used trains to transport millions of Jews to concentration camps. (Image: Unknown/Public domain)

If Jews were going to be rounded up from the German-occupied Europe, the process, Heydrich believed, would depend to a certain extent on the ignorance of the victims. They were going to be required to come to the train stations—escorted of course by Gestapo or SS—but it was important for them to believe that they were off on a journey, that they were going to be resettled.

They might have heard rumors about what awaited them at the end of the train line, but they certainly shouldn’t have any sort of hard information. This had to be kept secret if this whole diabolical scheme was to succeed.

This is a transcript from the video series A History of Hitler’s Empire, 2nd Edition. Watch it now, on Wondrium.

The Death Camps in Europe

In this atmosphere of secrecy, the Germans launched the ‘final solution’ to the Jewish question in the spring of 1942. It began with the construction of the death camps in the east. Belzec, a camp near Lublin, opened in March of 1942; Treblinka, 50 miles from Warsaw, in July of 1942; and, of course, Auschwitz, which already existed but which housed primarily Russian prisoners of war.

Indeed, the first experiments with the new gas installations would be conducted on 300 to 400 Russian prisoners who were already at Auschwitz. It was to be expanded and turned into a massive killing machine. On July 22, 1942, deportations from the Warsaw ghetto began; the destination was Treblinka.

Mothers, small children, the old, the infirm were to be selected at the very beginning. The trains would arrive, many of the people coming in cattle cars, stuffed in, from various locations in Europe. The people would be separated on the platform. Those who were capable of work would be sent off in one direction; those who were deemed unfit for work into another.

Learn more about the Munich agreement of 1938.

The Arrangement for Instant Death

For those who were selected for instant death were instructed to undress. Women and girls had their hair cut. Human hair would be used for industrial purposes by the SS and their various factories.

Then they were marched between files of auxiliary police, often SS people but mostly volunteers or people drafted—Poles and others—for this deadly task. They were taken down into a bunker-like room, which had a vast shower arrangement.

The Horrifying Death

They were pushed in one person at a time. The SS had calculated one person per square foot. At some point during this process, with the showerheads above them and the crush of bodies becoming greater and greater, panic would often break out among the people, either from claustrophobia or just terror at what was awaiting them.

Then the great steel door at the back of the chamber would be slammed shut and barred. And then, from vents above them in the ceiling, the gas would be released into this vast chamber.

It took anywhere from 10 to 30 minutes for everyone to perish. Only when the last screams and cries had been heard and several more minutes had been passed were the steel doors of the chambers opened, and locals sent in—volunteers, some SS personnel—to begin the process of cleaning up bodies. Gold teeth, hair, anything that could be used in any way for the economic or financial uses of the regime was claimed from those bodies.

The True Face of the Third Reich

A black and white photograph of the Auschwitz concentration camp.
Facilities like the Auschwitz concentration camp became the sight of terror during the Holocaust. (Image: Desiree Attard/Shutterstock)

Between 1942 and late ’44, and very early ’45, when the camps would cease their killing, about 4 million Jews would die. Two million had already died in the activities of the Einsatzgruppen in Poland and Russia, bringing the total to six million.

No one really knows; eight million is often the high figure given, but the numbers are astronomical and beyond comprehension. What one saw was the true racial essence of National Socialism. This was at the core of Nazi ideology.

Learn more about Hitler’s war against the Jews.

The Allied Stand on the Holocaust

The Allies had already heard about the barbaric pogroms conducted by the Einsatzgruppen. Intelligence would be smuggled out of Poland about various aspects of the camps in late ’42 and into 1943.

Then there was a good deal of resistance to what it actually meant. For one thing, German military interaction with the Western Allies—fighting the British in northern Africa and then in ’42 fighting the Americans there, and then later even in Western Europe after the D-Day landings in June of 1944—the German military had fought according to the accepted rules of war.

In late ’44, when German military from the east was transferred to the West to deal with the invasion, did the Western Allies encounter real atrocities.

The Allied Action against the Third Reich

In August of 1944, the American air force bombed Buchenwald concentration camp in Germany; that is to say, they bombed the factories just to the east and just to the south of the concentration camp and did not hit the camp itself at all. Intelligence planes flew over Auschwitz and later would bomb factories close to Auschwitz.

It was a long way, and a very dangerous way, to fly all the way out to Poland in 1944, where the camps were. It was a dangerous military job, but it could have been done. The Allies, however, chose not to. They decided, instead, to concentrate on defeating the Nazi military machine and destroy it as fast as possible, and that way bring the end of the regime, and therefore to save Jewish lives.

Common Questions about the Final Phase of the Holocaust

Q: Why did the women and girls have their hair cut in the death camps during the Holocaust?

Women and girls had their hair cut during in the death camps because it was used for industrial purposes by the SS and their various factories, both at Auschwitz and elsewhere.

Q: How many people died during the Holocaust?

It is estimated that around eight million people perished during the Holocaust.

Q: What did the Allies decide to do when they came to know about the death camps in Europe?

When the Allies came to know about the death camps in Europe, they decided to concentrate on defeating the Nazi military machine and destroy it as fast as possible. They thought it would bring the end of the Third Reich and save Jewish lives.

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