Translated into English from its original form, the Holocaust has the literal meaning of “the catastrophe” or “the destruction.” What does this ambiguous term entail? Which groups were involved in this event in history? The traditional teaching of the Holocaust typically associates this term with the mass murder and systematic killing of Jewish peoples by the Nazis in Hitler’s Germany. While students typically learn about the state-sponsored execution of six million Jews during this particular genocide in several social studies courses during their high school career, their knowledge does not extend to the more focused groups who were targeted by the Nazi Party and housed or killed in crematoriums and concentration camps throughout Europe.
Students are usually aware that the philosophies of eugenics and social Darwinism are related to the Holocaust, but tend not to receive a detailed picture of how these concepts really factored into this period of genocide. Social Darwinism and eugenics, which originated in the mid to late nineteenth century and gained popularity in the early to mid twentieth century, came to dominate and determine many of the actions of the Nazi regime in Germany. With the intent of improving the genetic quality of the population through the promotion of desired traits, which they hoped would become dominant in society, the Nazis began intentionally murdering those civilians whose genetic traits were viewed as inferior or undesired. In order to conceive of the severity with which Hitler’s regime desired to stimulate strength in its population, students must explore the intricacies of the other targeted groups who faced persecution during the 1930s and early 1940s. Several of these groups specifically sought out by Hitler’s regime included the mentally and physically disabled, oftentimes which included persons of German descent, Sinti and Roma gypsies and homosexuals.
Running simultaneously to the targeting and decimation of Jews in Europe, the Nazi Party had a policy of euthanasia, which became officially known as Action T4 following World War II. The high numbers of people exterminated by gas chambers, intentional misuse of medication and deliberate starvation occurred for those people who were deemed “incurably sick.” The destruction of Germans at the hands of other Germans is an injustice with many motivations, to which few students are truly given knowledge in their academic career.
To purify and then destroy was the aim of those who persecuted and executed gypsies in Germany during the 1930s and 1940s. Though gypsy condemnation began in Europe prior to this time period, the work of doctors, medical personnel and students in this time period was previously unparalleled. The work of Nazi-appointed Dr. Robert Ritter and doctoral student Eva Justin with gypsy children in various gypsy orphanages is simply one example of the studies conducted to determine the genetic difference between the ideal Aryan race promoted by Hitler and the reality of particular Germans’ blood status. Once tested, gypsies were subject to the treatment that students are most familiar with in association with the Holocaust- starvation, death via gas chamber and forced labor in concentration camps until their expiration.
Homosexuals were targeted during the Third Reich as “enemies” of the “disciplined masculinity” that Hitler sought to promote in his master German race. Also fearing their inability to reproduce, Hitler and the Nazi state chose to imprison and terrorize homosexual men into sexual and social conformity. By the end of the Second World War, 50,000 homosexuals had been imprisoned and many of the 15,000 that were sent to concentration camps were killed. However, because of the general intolerance towards homosexuality across the globe, it wasn’t until the mid-1980’s that their sufferings under the Third Reich began to be recognized.
It is our duty as citizens of an ever-increasing globally-minded society to foster a knowledge of the historical events of the Holocaust and to develop an understanding of the contemporary implications and relevance of this genocide. There are several essential questions to be considered when analyzing the resources regarding Nazi practices in relation to the gypsies, homosexuals and disabled persons during the Holocaust. What series of events cause a people to develop this state of anti-Semitic, anti-gypsy, anti-homosexual and anti-disabled hysteria? How do these prejudices and discriminatory practices escalate into a widespread state of violence?