In short

In Modern History, by the term “Shoah” we mean the genocide perpetrated against the Jewish population and culture following the racist, anti-Semitic ideology preached by Adolf Hitler, and implemented by the German Nationalist Socialist Party in Germany from 1935 to 1945 and in the countries occupied by the Rome-Berlin Axis during World War II. Anti-Semitism was adopted by the Italian fascism, after the anti-African racism, with the Racist Laws of November 1938 for the defence of the Italian race (pursued by the National Fascist Party and signed by Vittorio Emanuele III of the Savoy dynasty).

The terms: Shoah and genocide

The term Shoah is there in Hebrew in the book of Isaiah 47,11: Disaster will come upon you, and you will not know how to conjure it away. A calamity will fall upon you that you cannot ward off with a ransom; a catastrophe you cannot foresee will suddenly come upon you.

The legal term genocide was instead coined by Raphael Lemkin in 1944 and by this we mean any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such:
(a) killing members of the group; (b) causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group; (c) deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part; (d) imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group; (e) forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.
As such it was defined as an international crime on 9 December 1948, with the United Nations’ approval of the Convention for the Prevention and Punishment of the crime of genocide.

Key executioners and stages of the genocide

Anti-Semitism has been a pillar of the program of the Nazi party ever since the publication of the Mein Kampf (my battle), a collection of thoughts put together by Hitler in jail, after the failed coup of Munich, in 1925. The Jews were conceived as the absolute evil, responsible for the defeat of the II German Reich in 1918 and the subsequent social and economic crisis.
Since 1935 the Jews, with the Nuremberg Laws, lost their right to German citizenship and were subject to a thorough series of obligations and exclusions that isolated them from the life of the civil society. The goal of this first stage, which had its apex in the so-called “crystal night” or Kristallnacht (9-10 November 1938, in which a thousand synagogues were destroyed, 7.500 shops and properties were ravaged by youths of the Hitlerjugend and Nazi paramilitary groups incited by the chief of the Nazi propaganda Joseph Goebbels, and thousands Jews lost their lives, 30.000 were interned in concentration camps) was that of depriving the Jews of their belongings and compelling them to pay for an escape. All this, was carried out in the absence of significant international response.

From the beginning of the war to 1942

With the outbreak of the war and the occupation of Poland (September 1939) and then with Operation Barbarossa and the attack with Italy and Romania against Russia, in June 1941, the targeted Jews became millions of people, often in lower social conditions.
The Jews from Poland and the Baltic countries were amassed in unlivable conditions in the ghettoes of the Polish towns, those who were previously residing in the lands occupied by the USSR (Belarus, Russia and Ukraine), were slaughtered by the Einsatzgruppen, operational death units led by officials of the German Security Police (Sicherheitspolizei, Sipo) and the German Security Service (Sicherheitsdienst, SD), which started shooting at the Jewish males and then, since September 1941, to slaughter Jews of every condition, shooting them dead at the edge of the mass graves that the victims themselves were forced to dig.

This task though proved to be too cumbersome for the German troops, and Himmler demanded the adoption of a more comfortable method to eliminate the Jews. Thus the Nazis, at the end of autumn of 1941, built some makeshift gas chambers: they were mounted on trucks for the transportation of goods, and with a modified exhaust pipe, they were used to asphyxiate the prisoners with carbon monoxide.

The Final Solution

With the conference of Wannsee in January 1942, the expression Endlösung der Judenfrage, the Final Solution of the Jewish question, was introduced; it indicates the Jewish genocide organized and run by modern means and cost-effectiveness by devoted and diligent bureaucrats like Adolf Eichmann, previously responsible for the forced migration of Jews and then for the transfer, prevailingly in railway cattle wagons, from the ghettoes of Poland, and from the imprisonment and transit camps of Western Europe to the death camps (Vernichtungslager), true factories of deaths where the Jews were concentrated and sent to death into the gas chambers, exploiting the man work of other Jews who had temporarily been spared from the selection.
At an early phase, like in Treblinka, the corpses were interred in mass graves, then after the Stalingrad defeat (February 1943) they were re-exhumed and thrown into crematoria that worked steadily until the liberation of the camps by the Soviet Red Army (for instance Auschwitz on 27 January 1945), or the US armies (Buchenwald, 11 April 1945) or the British soldiers like in Bergen Belsen on 15 April 1945. The cremation of the corpses was part of the strategy of concealing and silencing the whole Final Solution of the Jewish question.
And the silence was for long the side effect in the guilty criminals and willing executioners, in the cowardly collaborators, in the victims, in the survivors of this huge and unspeakable crime, which weighs as a negative prophecy on the fate of the European humanity.

Extent of the extermination

The extermination was implemented by the German party, army and civilian apparatus, in particular by the special corps of the SS (acronym for the Schutz-Staffeln («protection squads ») run by Heinrich Himmler in Germany, Austria, Bohemia and then the territories which were annexed or occupied by the Axis powers from 1939 to 1945. The SS stood out grimly for their role in the extermination and persecution of the Jews, the arbitrary murders perpetrated in the concentration camps, and the abuse perpetrated in the occupied territories.
In the memory of the Jewish people and in the final judgment of the International Military Tribunal, the estimate of the extermination is 6,000,000. In fact, the most accredited historians, including Raul Hilberg, believe that the figure is around 5,200,000.

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