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Much of Europe was destroyed in the war. Survivors of the camps were in terrible condition, both physically and psychologically. Trials were held in Nuremberg in 1945 at which top surviving Nazi leaders were tried for war crimes. Similar trials followed, but thousands of war criminals eluded justice, and some even remain at large today. The State of Israel opened its doors to all Jews and is a positive legacy of the Holocaust. Neo-Nazi groups today continue to spout hatred for Jews and other minorities, and insist that the Holocaust never occurred.
Students will learn:
1. About the concept of war crimes and “crimes against humanity.”
2. That the loss of Jewish life and the destruction of an entire culture was the goal of the Nazis, and was almost a complete success in Europe.
3. About the conditions of the survivors from the camps when liberation finally occurred and what happened to them after liberation.
4. How the world community dealt with the perpetrators of Nazi war crimes.
5. How many Nazi war criminals escaped justice and received haven in many countries, including the United States.
World War II devastated Europe. Railroads, bridges, water systems, sanitation systems, electric lines, and other infrastructure were in ruins. Millions of homes were reduced to rubble. Manufacturing plants, businesses, farms, and other places where people would ordinarily work were unusable. Millions of people who would have been working in those facilities were dead.
Sixty million refugees were made homeless by the war. Millions of other civilians had been caught in the cross-fire of war, unintended victims. And there were an estimated eleven million intended civilian victims, murdered by the Nazis because of their race, religion, sexual preference, physical or mental handicap, ideological opposition, or resistance to Nazi genocide.
After the surrender of the Nazis, Germany was divided into four zones of occupation, controlled respectively by the United States, Britain, France, and the Soviet Union. Authority over Germany was vested in the Allied Control Commission, composed of representatives of those four victorious nations. The Allies liberated the camps, and what they found there left an indelible impression. The camps were littered with thousands of corpses. The German army had apparently tried to murder as many prisoners as possible one step ahead of the advance of the Allies. Many other thousands of prisoners were found, most of them clinging precariously to life. Most of these victims were literally skin and bones, having wasted away from years of hunger, starvation, and forced labor. Once healthy human beings who had weighed 160 pounds before their deportation now weighed less than 75 pounds.
Disease was so rampant that many of the camps had to be burned to the ground to prevent epidemics. Thousands of these survivors were in such poor condition that despite the offering of medical care and sufficient food, they died within days of their liberation.
Displaced Persons (DP) Camps
By the end of World War II, there were eight million persons who had been driven out of their native countries by the hostilities. By the end of 1945, as many as six million were able to return. There remained two million who were unable to be repatriated, and were put into Displaced Persons (DP) camps administered by the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration. Among them were 50,000 Jews who had been liberated from the concentration camps. Many from Germany or Austria had no desire to return to their homes, and many from other countries had nothing to return to entire Jewish towns and villages had been wiped out. Many of these Jews were the sole survivors of large families. The DP camps were for the most part former military camps. Conditions were overcrowded and far from luxurious. Jews who escaped the Nazis by hiding or by fighting in partisan units made their way to the DP camps after the war.
In August of 1945, a report commissioned by President Truman to investigate the status of stateless persons in Europe gave special recognition to the plight of Jews. The President requested that the British grant 100,000 visas to Jews to enter Palestine, under the British Mandate. The British, seeking to limit Jewish immigration, granted only 6,000 visas. But 40,000 other Jews, including 30,000 who had lived in the DP camps, emigrated to Palestine illegally.
As early as October 1943, the Allies had scheduled formal conferences to discuss future legal actions against German war criminals once the Axis Powers were vanquished. Within weeks after the German surrender, an International Military Tribunal was established in the German city of Nuremberg to try captured Nazi war criminals and other high-ranking Nazis who had eluded capture. The Tribunal consisted of eight judges, two each from the countries of the U.S., Great Britain, France, and the Soviet Union. Twenty-one of 24 indicted Nazi leaders stood trial in the first series of what became known as the Nuremberg Trials. The charges brought against these men were conspiracy, crimes against peace, war crimes, and crimes against humanity.
– A common plan to commit a crime in the future.
Crimes against peace
– Launching a war of aggression.
– Violations of international agreements governing the conduct of war, such as mistreatment of prisoners, murder, or forced labor of occupied civilian populations.
Crimes against humanity
– Committing crimes against people, such as murder, deportation, and religious persecution, regardless of whether the action violated domestic law at the time.
The first trial lasted ten months. Eleven of the defendants were sentenced to death, seven received long prison sentences, and three were acquitted. A year later, 24 more war criminals were sentenced to death, and 117 others received prison sentences. The scope of these trials was limited to punishing those leaders who had instigated and carried out the Nazi master plan to enslave the world. The judges refused to take jurisdiction over individual “barbarities and perversions,” which may have occurred, according to the Chief American prosecutor. For many of the defendants, the legal defense was that they were “only following orders.” The Nuremberg judges rejected that justification.
Individual nations which suffered under Nazi occupation were encouraged to bring to justice thousands of other war criminals who had committed atrocities against their citizens. Many nations did so, and thousands of other war criminals were sentenced to death or received prison terms. In one celebrated case, Israeli agents tracked down Adolf Eichmann in Argentina and kidnapped him to face trial in Israel. The person most responsible for finding Eichmann was Simon Wiesenthal, who hunted down and brought to justice more than a thousand Nazi war criminals. Eichmann, who was in charge of the Nazi deportation units which sent millions of Jews to their deaths, was tried in 1961 and hanged. This was the only case up to that time in which a Nazi war criminal was tried and accused solely of committing a crime against Jews.
Thousands of Nazi war criminals escaped the clutches of justice, settling in friendly countries and living under assumed identities. The United States government participated in several conspiracies to help war criminals elude justice. Many of these criminals were talented scientists and engineers, and the U.S. government at that time made a policy decision that it was in the interests of this nation to exploit that talent rather than see that justice was done. The U.S. rocket program in the 1950s and 1960s was heavily influenced by the work of German rocket scientists who had participated in war crimes.
Only about 20% of the 150,000 Nazi war criminals were ever put on trial. Millions of others whose complicity was necessary in order to bring about the “Final Solution” and to put the master plan into effect escaped punishment. Today, a half century after some of these war crimes were committed, the search continues to bring perpetrators to trial.
Following the surrender, the Allies required the German government to begin making payments to war victims and agencies representing and providing services to war victims. In time, many Jews who survived the death camps were compensated for the value of their property which was confiscated. In 1952, West Germany, the newly-formed democratic nation created out of the fusion of the U.S., British, and French sectors of Germany, signed a treaty with Israel to pay reparations of about $1 billion over a 12-year period. In February 1990, East Germany admitted for the first time that it was also responsible for war crimes committed by the German people during World War II and agreed to pay reparations.
For survivors of the Holocaust, the establishment of the Jewish State of Israel was a positive legacy of this tragedy. Declared a sovereign nation on May 14, 1948, many of its first citizens were survivors of the Holocaust. Prior to its status as a nation, Israel was part of Palestine, under control of the British. The British had severely restricted Jewish immigration into Palestine in an effort to appease Arabs of that area. Arabs, like Jews, had claimed Palestine as their own land. A United Nations resolution in 1947 had recommended that Palestine be partitioned into a Jewish section and an Arab section. The Jews accepted this partition plan, but the Arab League rejected it.
When the Jews declared the birth of Israel, six Arab nations who were opposed to the creation of a new Jewish state invaded, hoping to drive the Jews into the Mediterranean Sea. Although many Arabs stayed, hundreds of thousands of them fled Palestine during the war. The invasion was repelled, and a nation was born whose citizens consisted of many people whom the Nazis had tried to murder.
American Neo-Nazis and Revisionists
There exist in the United States organizations, vocal, yet small in membership, whose message of racism, anti-Semitism, and bigotry against all minorities parallels the doctrines of the Nazi party of Germany in the 1930s. Many of the members of these organizations were not even born when Hitler was alive. Some leaders of these organizations deny that the Holocaust ever occurred, claiming that it is a fabrication of Jews to defame the “Aryan” race. This view of denying that the Holocaust ever occurred, despite the overwhelming documentation to the contrary, is called “revisionism.” Many other leaders of these groups assert that if the Holocaust did occur, it was justified then and would be justified now. African-Americans, Hispanics, and other minorities would be invited to join the Jews in the ovens according to Neo-Nazi doctrine.
On occasion, Neo-Nazis have been convicted of crimes ranging from murder, vandalism of synagogues and churches, to the intimidation of Jews and other minorities by threats of violence and actual physical attacks. Membership in these organizations nationwide may be no more than several thousand.
United States Holocaust Memorial Council
The United States Congress enacted legislation in 1980 to establish the United States Memorial Council. The purpose of the Council is to plan and build the United States Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. and to encourage and sponsor observances of an annual, nationwide civic commemoration of the Holocaust, known as the “Days of Remembrance.” The Memorial Museum was designed by James I. Freed and will be located 400 yards from the Washington Monument in the nation’s Capital. As required by law, it will be built entirely with private contributions.
The Commonwealth of Pennsylvania participates in the Council’s Holocaust observance program. The Governor of Pennsylvania annually schedules a ceremony in the Capitol, in cooperation with the Pennsylvania Jewish Coalition, to commemorate the “Days of Remembrance,” which includes appropriate songs, poetry readings, and a proclamation signing, among other activities.
United Nations Genocide Convention
On February 19, 1986, the United States Congress ratified a United Nations Treaty outlawing genocide. The 1948 treaty had been signed by President Harry Truman that year, but was stalled in the Senate because of concerns about how the treaty would affect U.S. sovereignty. When the treaty was finally ratified, it was amended to address these concerns. A law to implement the treaty was enacted by the Congress on October 19, 1988. The law provides penalties of up to life imprisonment and a fine of up to $1 million as punishment for certain actions with a “specific intent to destroy, in whole or in substantial part, a national, ethnic, racial or religious group.”
More than 90 nations, including the Soviet Union, had previously ratified the treaty.
Atrocity – An act which is shockingly brutal or outrageously cruel and barbaric.
– A plan to commit a crime.
“Crimes against humanity”
– A type of crime newly defined by the Nuremberg Tribunal which included crimes against individuals and groups, such as enslavement, mass murder, or mistreatment of civilians regardless of whether the actions were violations of the domestic law where the crime was committed.
Displaced Persons (DP) camp
– A temporary shelter of tents or other housing established by the Allies to serve the needs of refugees.
– Persons living today who sympathize with the views of the Nazis.
– A series of trials held in Nuremberg, Germany, conducted by the victorious Allies, which charged high-ranking Nazis and German leaders with war crimes and “crimes against humanity.”
– A person who participated in atrocities and other crimes against the Jews, including those such as bureaucrats, lawyers, and railroad officials, whose actions indirectly resulted in those crimes being carried out.
– Payments made by the losers of a war to the victors or to war victims to compensate for damages.
– Those who rewrite history for political or ideological purposes.
– Crimes committed in war time against the enemy or prisoners of war which violate international agreements on the conduct of war.
- Research newspaper accounts of the election of David Duke in 1989 to a seat in the Louisiana State Legislature.
- Write a report on the history of the founding of the State of Israel, and the role of the British in the history of that nation.
- Obtain a list of prominent war criminals who may still be alive and in hiding. Find out what they were accused of, and what efforts are being made to locate them.
- Research the activities of the Office of Special Investigations (O.S.I.) in the U.S. Justice Department which is charged with the task of identifying and deporting Nazi war criminals. When and how was this office established?
- Research the role of the U.S. government in bringing Nazi rocket scientists to the United States.
- Research the case of convicted Nazi war criminal John Demjanjuk. Did he receive a fair trial?
- Research the kidnapping and trial of Adolf Eichmann. Discuss whether this kidnapping was legal, and whether it was justified.
- Did the Nuremberg Trials accomplish what they were supposed to?
- Should the United States have permitted Nazi war criminals safe haven here in exchange for their scientific expertise?
- Is there any value in continuing the search for and the prosecution of Nazi war criminals, most of whom are feeble old men, or should they be left alone to die in peace?
- Is the response, “I was only following orders” ever a legitimate response for those who committed atrocities under the belief, real or assumed, that they would face punishment or even execution for not carrying out that order?
- Should Neo-Nazis have the right to form organizations, run for office, and hold public rallies?
1. Define the following:
- Displaced Person Camp
- war crime
2. What was the purpose of the Nuremberg Trials? What was different about the defendants that did not apply to many other perpetrators who were not tried?
3. Name three of the crimes with which the defendants of the Nuremberg Trials were charged.
4. When was Israel established? What form of government does it have? Why is it not yet accepted by the nations in the region?
5. How did many Nazi war criminals find their way into the United States?
6. Who is Simon Wiesenthal?
7. What was unique about the trial of Adolf Eichmann?
8. What was the job of the Office of Special Investigations in the U.S. Justice Department?
9. What were the conditions like in the Displaced Persons camps?
10. Compare post-war Europe to pre-war Europe, and discuss three major problems facing the Allies after their victory.
- Recreate a discussion between a staffer in the U.S. State Department, former U.S. Rep. Elizabeth Holtzman (who was the sponsor of legislation to create the Office of Special Investigations), a lawyer for a former S.S. member hiding in the United States, a Holocaust survivor, and Simon Wiesenthal.
- The government of East Germany in 1990 began considering the question of providing war reparations for Holocaust survivors. Let the students discuss the reasons why East Germany never provided such payments in the past. Then permit the students to research the issue and discover if their reasons were consistent with those of the East German government.
Copyright 1990 Gary M. Grobman
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