Nazi ideology and the Nuremberg laws
The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum defines the Holocaust as: the systematic, bureaucratic, state-sponsored persecution and murder of approximately six million Jews by the Nazi regime and its collaborators. ‘Holocaust’ is a word of Greek origin meaning ‘sacrifice by fire.’ The Holocaust took place during the Second World War (1939-1945) when Germany was ruled by Adolf Hitler and his Nazi Party.
The Nazi ideology used to justify the mass murder of Jews was based on the belief that Germans were "racially superior" and that the Jews, deemed "inferior," were an alien threat to the so-called German racial community. While racism and anti-Semitism existed in Europe and the rest of the world long before Hitler, the Nazi regime was able to implement their ideology across their territory through the vast machinery of the Nazi state, including the military, the police and state propaganda. The constant “de-humanisation” of Jews was a key part of this strategy, and one that has been applied since in situations such as the genocide in Rwanda in 1994.
When Hitler came to power in 1933, violence and discrimination against Jews increased. Two years later, the “Nuremberg laws” were passed, which stripped Jews of their citizenship. They could no longer marry non-Jews, their passports were marked with a “J”, they had to wear a yellow star, and they had to live in separate districts. Isolating Jews from the rest of the population helped to support the dehumanising propaganda.
The Nazis also targeted other groups because of their perceived ‘racial inferiority’, such as the Roma/Sinti, Poles and Russians. Others were persecuted on political or social grounds, among them persons with disabilities, homosexuals, Socialists and Jehovah's Witnesses.
The Nazi camp system
The first concentration camps in Germany were established soon after Hitler's appointment as chancellor. Initially the camps were used to incarcerate real and perceived political opponents of the Nazi regime. As Germany conquered much of Europe in the years 1939-1941, a vast camp system was established to imprison the increasing numbers of political prisoners, resistance groups, and groups deemed racially inferior, such as Jews. The camps had different functions, including forced labour camps, prisoner of war camps, transit camps and death camps.
The Final Solution
The mass killing of the Jewish population started when the Nazis embarked on what they called the ‘Final Solution of the Jewish Question’ following the invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941. The genocide was the culmination of a decade of increasingly severe discriminatory measures. The ‘Final Solution’ called for the murder of all European Jews by gassing, shooting, and other means. To implement the mass killing on this scale, the Nazis established a number of ‘killing centres’ or death camps. The death camps were specifically designed for efficient mass murder and the victims were usually killed within hours of arrival. Gas chambers were used to speed up the rate of the killings. Auschwitz-Birkenau, one of the most well-known death camps, had four gas chambers, where, at its peak use, 6,000 Jews were killed each day.
Approximately six million Jewish men, women, and children were killed during the Holocaust – two-thirds of the Jewish population living in Europe before the Second World War. The Holocaust was brought to an end when Nazi Germany announced an unconditional surrender to the allied forces in May 1945. The Second World War ended in October 1945 when Japan surrendered after Nagasaki and Hiroshima were attacked with atomic bombs by American forces.
The International Community’s response
The United Nations was established in 1945 in the aftermath of the Second World War. Its founders were shocked by the destruction of the war and the horrors of the Holocaust. They hoped that the UN would be able to prevent such catastrophes from happening in the future by stabilising international relations and giving peace a more secure foundation. The UN recognised that in order to create a more peaceful and secure future it was necessary to ensure that the genocide, mass killings and violence of the Second World War would never happen again.
Securing universal human rights for everyone was a key part of this response. Human rights are the rights and freedoms to which every human being is entitled, regardless of any distinction. The values underpinning human rights – fairness, dignity, justice, equality and respect – are the totally opposite of the Nazi ideology.
The UN’s commitment to human rights was affirmed through the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), which was adopted by states in 1948. The UDHR is the most famous expression of rights in the world. It is celebrated across the globe as a common standard of values and it has inspired over 80 national and international human rights treaties.
The UN Human Rights framework and genocide
The UN hoped that creating an international human rights system would protect people from tyrannical regimes and genocide. While the system has led to great progress – helping to protect and empower people around the world, serious human rights violations still take place. The worst of these violations, such as genocide, are called “crimes against humanity”.
Cambodia experienced a genocide during the Pol Pot regime (1975-79). An estimated 1.7 million people were killed. In 1994, Rwanda was the scene of a genocide of the Tutsi minority – over 800,000 people were slaughtered in just three months. A year later, some 8,000 Bosnian Muslims were killed in an ethnically-motivated massacre carried out by the Bosnian Serb army in the town of Srebrenica. Minorities in countries such as Sri Lanka, Sudan and Syria have also been the victims of mass killings.
In some of these situations, such as Rwanda and Bosnia, UN peacekeepers were on the ground but failed to prevent the massacres. Following the atrocities, the UN examined its failings and came up with a number of ways to improve how it responded to such situations in the future. One of the problems is that the UN cannot take action without the blessing of the Security Council, which is made up of 15 countries that are not always able to agree on a course of action. This remains a problem to this day.
The UN also set up war crimes tribunals for Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia. These tribunals have tried those bearing the greatest responsibility for the crimes committed.