World War II provided the Nazis with a greatly expanded platform on which to carry out their racial ideology. This article examines the Holocaust in the context of World War II. It is reprinted courtesy of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, Washington, DC.
On September 1, 1939, Germany invaded Poland and World War II began. Within weeks, the Polish army was defeated, and the Nazis began their campaign to destroy Polish culture and enslave the Polish people, whom they viewed as "subhuman." Killing Polish leaders was the first step: German soldiers carried out the massacres of university professors, artists, writers, politicians, and many Catholic priests. To create new living space for the "superior" German race, large segments of the Polish population were resettled, and German families moved into the emptied lands. Other Poles, including many Jews, were imprisoned in concentration camps. The Nazis also "kidnapped" as many as 50,000 "Aryan"-looking Polish children from their parents and took them to Germany to be adopted by German families. Many of these children were later rejected as not capable of Germanization and were sent to special children's camps where some died of starvation, lethal injection, and disease.
As the war began in 1939, Hitler initialed an order to kill institutionalized, handicapped patients deemed "incurable." Special commissions of physicians reviewed questionnaires filled out by all state hospitals and then decided if a patient should be killed. The doomed were then transferred to six institutions in Germany and Austrian where specially constructed gas chambers were used to kill them. After public protest in 1941, the Nazi leadership continued this euthanasia program in secret. Babies, small children, and other victims were thereafter killed by lethal injection, pills, and forced starvation.
The "euthanasia" program contained all the elements later required for mass murder of European Jews and Roma (Gypsies): a decision to kill, specially trained personnel, the apparatus for killing by gas, and the use of euphemistic language like "euthanasia" that psychologically distanced the murderers from their victims and hid the criminal character of the killings from the public.
In 1940 German forces continued their conquest of much of Europe, easily defeating Denmark, Norway, the Netherlands, Belgium, Luxembourg, France, Yugoslavia, and Greece. On June 22, 1941, the German army invaded the Soviet Union and by late November, was approaching Moscow. In the meantime, Italy, Romania, and Hungary had joined the Axis powers led by Germany and were opposed by the main Allied powers (British Commonwealth, Free France, the United States, and the Soviet Union)