The term "Holocaust," from the Greek for "a burned offering," has been used since the 1960s to refer to the murder of approximately 6,000,000 European Jews by Nazi Germans and their collaborators during World War II (1939-1945). Since the 1970s, the Hebrew word "Shoah" (catastrophe) has entered common usage as a synonym.
Hatred of Jews was the center of Nazi ideology. Hitler and his associates preached what the scholar Saul Friedländer calls "redemptive anti-Semitism": the belief that Jews were the root of all evil, and Germany could be saved from collapse only by destruction of Jews and Jewish influence. Religious prejudices were just one element in Nazi Anti-Srefitism , with its pseudoscientific notions of "blood" and "race" and its paranoia about international conspiracies, but for many Christians in Germany and throughout Europe, old habits of Christian anti-Judaism helped normalize the new strain of hatred.
Debate continues over whether the label "Holocaust" includes persecuted groups other than Jews. Jews were the main target of Nazi genocide; against the Jews National Socialist Germany mobilized all of its resources: bureaucratic, military, legal, scientific, intellectual, and religious. But the Nazi German state also initiated systematic mass killing of people deemed handicapped and European Gypsies (Roma). These programs shared with the genocide of the Jews personnel, methods of killing, and goals of so-called racial purification. In these cases—Jews, Gypsies, and the handicapped—the perpetrators sought out children for killing, an indication that the intention was total annihilation.
National Socialist Germany also persecuted, incarcerated, and killed Communists, homosexual men, Jehovah's Witnesses, and African-Germans, as well as many Polish gentiles and Soviet prisoners of war. Often members of these groups shared the torments heaped on Jews, Gypsies, and the handicapped. These cases are not usually included under the term "Holocaust," however; they were either less massive in scope and less total in intention than the Jewish genocide—for example, Jehovah's Witnesses, of whom about an estimated 2,000 were killed in German camps—or, as with the three million Soviet POWs killed or left to die of hunger and disease, those targeted did not include children.
It is difficult to determine when the Holocaust began, because a series of steps culminated in the slaughters Nazi jargon labeled the "final solution" to the "Jewish problem." In January 1933, Adolf Hitler was appointed chancellor of Germany. Within months his regime introduced measures to crush Communists, exclude Jews from public life, and sterilize supposed bearers of hereditary diseases. Hitler also began preparing for war in search of Lebensraum—living space in eastern Europe for the allegedly superior "Aryan race."
Only 37 percent of Germans ever voted for Hitler's National Socialist German Workers' Party, and in 1933 many Germans had misgivings. However, Hitler proved masterful at engineering foreign policy successes and organizing shows of public support that generated enthusiasm. Moreover, key elites—Protestant church leaders and many top Catholics, conservatives, university professors, and civil servants— welcomed the new regime. They applauded its hard line against "godless Bolshevism" and praised ...