Friday, July 6, 2012

When Did the Holocaust Begin?

I've been studying history most of my life, and I think I have a pretty good understanding of things that have happened and how they have influenced the days, months and years that followed.

Some events in history are easy to pinpoint — like battles. You know when they began. You know when they ended. You know how many people were killed and how many people were injured.

Same with presidential administrations. With few exceptions, a presidential administration spreads over several years; when all is said and done, you know when a president's tenure began and when it ended.

Other events are harder to nail down. When, for example, did the Great Depression begin? Was it when the stock market crashed in 1929? Or did it really begin with events that happened before that? Or after that? I've heard historians engage in lively debates on that one.

The Holocaust is kind of the same way, really.

Some people will tell you that the Holocaust began with laws that systematically segregated Jews from the rest of German society, the most noteworthy of those being the Nuremberg Laws of 1935, or with the establishment of the labor camps, which did not come into existence as the temporary homes of Jews who had been selected for extermination (the image that many in the early 21st century have of the Nazi camps) but rather were intended to squeeze as much labor out of each prisoner as possible.

Others will tell you that the Holocaust began when hostilities did — when the Nazis conquered Poland and France.

And, while some scholars prefer to define only Jewish casualties as victims of the Holocaust, others include all victims — not just Jews but Soviets, Poles, homosexuals, the disabled and others as well — which affects the parameters of that period in history as well as the actual number of victims.

The timeline that tracks the history of the Holocaust is not always clear, even after nearly three–quarters of a century. Concentration camps were part of the Third Reich from the beginning, but, originally, they were not designed for extermination. Many prisoners did die in them but primarily from being worked to death or being killed after being overcome with fatigue.

Mass extermination was a concept that was still in the future.

In the view of many, I suppose, January 20 of this year was the 70th anniversary of the actual birth of the Holocaust as we have come to know it — the approval of the "Final Solution" to the "Jewish question."

It was on that occasion that the Wannsee Conference was held. More than a dozen Nazi leaders gathered to discuss the implementation of the "Final Solution," and the conversion of concentration camps to extermination camps began in earnest.

Some concentration camps continued to serve as concentration camps, which were understood to be places where the prisoners were forced to work for the Third Reich. The deaths of prisoners under such circumstances were regarded as acceptable — albeit unintended — consequences. Collateral damage, you might say.

Extermination camps, on the other hand, were places where prisoners were not expected to live long after their arrival. Those camps were designed to carry out mass killings with almost assembly line–like precision.

But, from all outward appearances, one camp looked remarkably like the next — with the possible exceptions of the huge ovens and gas chambers that were on some properties but not on others. And in the winter and spring of 1942, some camps required physical conversions to prepare them for their new roles.

There were also changes in administrative procedures that were being implemented, the most significant of which may well have been what happened at Auschwitz 70 years ago tomorrow.

In a meeting in Berlin, Heinrich Himmler and three others made the decision on that day to begin medical experimentation on women prisoners at Auschwitz and to look into conducting similar experiments on males.

It was probably a natural step in the evolution of the Third Reich, considering that the experiments that were to be conducted were little more than torture — hardly legitimate scientific experiments.

Without going into too much detail, the experiments observed the physical reactions of people who were subjected to conditions and circumstances that would certainly result in their deaths. Of that, there was no doubt.

(The experiments included things like performing amputations on the subjects, testing drugs on them, freezing them, forcing them to drink nothing but sea water and injecting chemicals into eyes to alter their color.

(In William Shirer's rather stately language in "The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich," the experiments yielded "no benefit to science." Talk about an understatement.)

Nevertheless, while those experiments may have been given a fallacious label of legitimacy that permitted the doctors to put their ethics on a shelf, they seem to have ushered in the period when the Nazis as a group went past the point of no return — when they stopped merely mistreating their prisoners and began focusing on more efficient ways to kill them.

After the war, these abuses were addressed in the Doctors' Trial, one of the "Subsequent Nuremberg Trials" in which primarily medical doctors were accused of human experimentation and mass murder under the pretense of mercy killings.

That, at least, was how the doctors justified their actions — their experiments would benefit medical science, and sometimes the merciful thing was to kill their involuntary subjects when the experiment was concluded.

The wholesale killing that would forever stain this time in history had not really begun in earnest 70 years ago.

But the fact that Himmler and his colleagues even considered experimenting on humans — never mind actually sanctioning such a policy — is all the proof one needs that the Holocaust happened ... although there is so much more.

The mindset was in place.

It is bad enough to entertain the thought of human experimentation, but when the thought is given the legitimacy of law, it is no longer a considerable leap to implementation.

It is a very short step.

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