Thursday this week, 20th January, is the 80th anniversary of the conference at Wannsee in Berlin where Nazi bosses decided on further steps towards bringing about a Europe without any Jews in it. International Holocaust Remembrance Day occurs a week later, on 27th January, the date on which Russian troops entered Auschwitz, most notorious of the Nazis’ extermination camps.
Thousands of books have been written about the crimes of the Nazis. One of them, The Holocaust by Laurence Rees, shows how many other European countries made those crimes possible by rounding up Jews and packing them into trains destined for murder camps. The German occupiers did not have the manpower to do this on their own.
When Adolf Hitler came to power in 1933, not even 1% of the population of Germany was Jewish. But as the German armies conquered most of Europe, the Third Reich found itself with a very much larger Jewish population, 3 million in Poland alone. Nearly all of these were murdered, but another 3 million victims came from German-occupied parts of the Soviet Union; western, central, and eastern Europe; the Baltic states; and the Balkans.
Many European countries had enacted their own anti-semitic legislation in the 1930s, and Poland in 1937 had proposed sending Polish Jews to Madagascar (an impractical idea later revived by the Nazis).
Jews were not the only people the Third Reich sought to exterminate. Several thousand homosexuals perished, along with 200 000 Sinti and Roma, and thousands of disabled people (along with prisoners of war, Polish intellectuals, Soviet commissars, and others).
But Jews accounted for the vast majority of ideological murder victims. Enormous massacres by shooting, and mass murder by gassing, started well before Wannsee, while the extermination programme was intensified long after it was clear by mid 1943 that Germany was losing the war.
Finland was a German ally, but had a small Jewish population and they were generally safe from deportation. Italy was also a German ally, but Mussolini’s regime did not deport Jews: 80% of Italy’s Jews survived the war, the 7 000 who perished having been deported only after Germany had occupied Rome and the northern parts of the country.
Some 2 000 Norwegian Jews escaped to Sweden, but 747 were killed at Auschwitz. Partly because it had refused entry to Jewish refugees, Denmark had a Jewish population of only 7 500. Most of these survived the war: the local Nazi boss, Werner Best, having helped them to escape to Sweden or hide with Danish families in the countryside. Many of the 3 500 Jews in Luxembourg were pushed into France. Most of the 65 000 Jews in Belgium were not citizens of that county, but refugees from Germany and elsewhere. Some 40% perished.
Altogether 75% of the 140 000 Jews in the Netherlands were murdered. The country’s civil service co-operated with the Nazis by registering all the Jews, so making it easier for them to be identified for deportation. At least 60 000 were sent to Auschwitz, and 35 000 to Sobibor.
Of the 330 000 Jews in France, 135 000 were refugees from Germany and elsewhere. While 10% of French Jews were murdered, more than 40% of the foreign Jews there were transported to extermination camps. The Germans had only 3 000 police in the whole of France so they had to rely on 100 000 French police to round up Jews for deportation – as elsewhere, men, women, and children.
After the Germans occupied Czechoslovakia in March 1939, the country was carved up. The government of the eastern part, headed by a Catholic priest, Josef Tiso, agreed to pay the Germans 500 Reichsmarks for every Jew they took. By August 1942 a total of 58 000 Jews had been handed over to Germany.
The German occupiers hunted down Jews in Greece much more ruthlessly than they had done in Denmark, and 55 000 were sent to Auschwitz, most of them from Salonica. The Croatian authorities imprisoned most of that country’s 40 000 Jews, although few were deported. Around 10 000 Jews went from Yugoslavia to Auschwitz.
Romanian troops, working alongside German murder squads known as Einsatzgruppen, had helped to murder 160 000 Jews in the Ukraine and to deport 135 000 to murder camps, where 90 000 died. However, as German defeat loomed, Marshal Antonescu refused to surrender the country’s remaining Jews. Bulgaria handed over 11 000 Jews from Thrace and Macedonia, which it had occupied, but declined to deport any from Bulgaria proper.
Like Romania, Hungary was one of the most brutally anti-semitic countries. It was occupied by the Germans in March 1944, and Adolf Eichmann – who had taken the minutes at Wannsee – was installed in Budapest. With eager local assistance, 430 000 Jews were sent to Auschwitz in the first half of 1944 alone.
Thereafter Admiral Horthy, who had previously been an enthusiastic collaborator, ordered deportations to stop. Although Hitler’s determination to carry on with his extermination programme did not let up for a second even as Germany crumbled, some of his erstwhile collaborators were thinking about their own futures.
Although Auschwitz is the most infamous of the German murder camps, large numbers of Jews perished elsewhere. By the time they were closed at the end of 1942, more than 1.27 million human beings had been murdered at Majdanek, Sobibor, Belzec, and Treblinka. Between 150 000 and 300 000 people perished at Chelmno. From March 1943 Auschwitz-Birkenau had the killing capacity to take over from these other camps.
Another part of the story is that a conference of Allied powers in Bermuda in April 1943 failed to elicit any commitments to admit Jewish refugees to their countries.
The failure at Bermuda occurred despite the fact that the Americans, British, and Soviets had finally acknowledged in official statements in December 1942 what was happening to Europe’s Jews. The British foreign secretary, Anthony Eden, had spoken in the House of Commons in that same month of “Hitler’s oft-repeated intention to exterminate the Jewish people of Europe”.