What the rest of the world knew about the Holocaust

During World War II, how aware was the rest of the world about the true extent of the Holocaust? How aware was the average German citizen?

The average German citizen might not have known, as I understand it. The German govenment and Nazi loyalists brushed any such talk off as mere propaganda. Even today, there are many still living in denial about the horrors. If the German citizens knew anything, I WAG they only knew (at best) about watered-down stories of “labor camps”…or whatever story the Nazis wanted the public to know. - Jinx

Here in Germany, this has been a heavily debated issue - how much did (or could, if they did a bit of research) German citizens know about the holocaust? Every German of today sooner or later starts talking with grandpa, and grandpa assures they didn’t know anything. But historians don’t buy that, and if one thinks about it, not even a totalitarian regime as the Nazis could keep something as big as the holocaust secret.

First of all, Hitler’s attitude towards Jews and other “inferior” races was well-known - he wanted to wipe them off the surface of the Earth, as a quick glance into “Mein Kampf,”, millions of which were printed and sold during the Third Reich, shows. There has been the obvious holocaust outside the concentration camps, like the pogroms (the largest of which was the November 9, 1938, one, when synagogues and Jewish-owned shops throughout Germany were attacked and partially burnt down) and racial legislation (which banned marriage between Germans and Jews) and other everyday forms of discrimination everybody was able to see, and many Germans agreed with it.

Then, the concentration camps. If you arrest millions of people and deport them to the camps, there will always be witnesses - employees of the railway organizing the transports; police and army forces herding the victims together; bureaucrats administrating the thing; and many more. There are just far too many people involved. The fact that there were deportations was not a secret, but Nazi propaganda told people they were just relocations. If, however, millions of people get relocated and nobody ever hears from them again, one would have to start to wonder.

So, all in all, the most plausible theory says the majority of Germans knew, or at least had vague impressions, that there was something going on, and if they had kept their eyes open they would have seen. But most people decided to look away.

The following is all, of course, IMHO.

I don’t think the Germans wanted to know what was going on. They were already so totally turned against the Jews that they were simply grateful they were gone - or going - or on the way.

You have to understand the predicament the Jews found themselves in during the 1930’s. Jews could not hold many jobs that Germans could. They were restricted to distinct endeavors, such as money-lending (banking) - and they did just that - financing homes and businesses in great number. During the worldwide depression, when people could not pay their bills, the Jews, of course, began to foreclose on these properties. After all, that was the deal. So, it was very easy for Hitler to point to the Jews as the source of everyone else’s problems. This burgeoning of hostility culminated in Krystalnacht (sp?) where Germans went rioting through the Jewish neighborhoods vandalizing everything they could get their hands on. It was all downhill from there.

It’s easy for an entire nation of people who suddenly do not have to pay their debts to not only ignore the people they once owed but to breathe a sigh of relief to have them out of their sight and mind.

There is no way it’s believable that the people who admit knowing and tried to help in many ways - putting their own lives and livelihoods on the line - did not make others aware. If the German people did not know what was happening with the Jews (and other peoples), it is because they actively chose not to know. They weren’t interested and they really didn’t care.

“Kristallnacht,” or “night of (broken) glass” was an event very much centrally organized and conducted by Himmler’s SS and SA. I suppose it could be described as “Germans rioting,” but it was mostly specific Germans with specific assignments.

I think that, in order to understand the willingness of many Germans to look the other way as their Jewish neighbors disappeared, you have to consider the abysmal depth of the economic depression that ravaged Germany through the 20’s and into the 30’s. “Economic collapse” is pretty close. I’ve read one account of a woman walking to her local bakery for a loaf of bread, carrying a large basket overflowing with paper currency, when a young thug mugged her, stealing the basket and leaving the money. The devaluation of the German mark in the wake of the Treaty of Versailles was breathtaking – on the order of billions (with a “b”) to one.

Along came Hitler with a magic bag of solutions and the perfect – and manageable – scapegoat, the Jews. For the average Johann, the disappearance of a Jewish neighbor or two was a small price to pay for, if not outright prosperity, then at least economic stability.

How much did the average German know? How much did the average German want to know? It’s beyond silly to think that nobody knew anything – too many people going away and never returning. But I doubt that any “average” German had knowledge of the true scope and purpose of the “Final Solution.” Even within the Nazi government and military, most of the details were kept out of circulation.

The official version was that the Jews were being resettled in the occupied East. There were occasional propaganda efforts to that effect, e.g. the 1944 movie “Der Führer schenkt den Juden eine Stadt” (The Fuehrer gives a city to the Jews) about Terezín/Theresienstadt The experience of neighbours being deported and nothing being heard from them later could theoretically be reconciled with that version, assuming they were just not allowed letters. My personal speculation is that most people chose not to inquire further because not knowing exactly was the more comfortable alternative.

A lot of families would have had visits from soldiers on leave from the East, and a significant part of them would have witnessed or known of massacres perpetrated by army or Einsatzgruppen. I doubt, though, that this is what a typical soldier on home leave told his family about.

What I cannot figure out is why the Allies chose not to deny the German population the benefit of real or professed ignorance. The German-language programmes of the BBC were a popular source of information about how the war went, even when being found out listening to them carried draconian penalties. Telling about the operation of the death camp system in the East would have put the German population on the spot.

Consider the following: How informed is the average American about what goes on at Camp X-Ray, or whatever they’re calling the “terrorist holding facility” on Guantanimo Bay in Cuba?

All we see on the news are pictures of swarthy-looking men being herded around behind a wire fence, or photos of intent-looking soldiers with guns. We don’t know who is there; we don’t know what happens to them, but our government assures us that these people are “enemies of the state” and are being treated ‘appropriately’.

And the US has a more informed population than 1940s Germany; we’ve got more news channels, more newspapers, we even have Geraldo.

But if in 20 years, it comes out that unspeakable things were happening there and the general population did nothing, we’d be in the same situation.

No, I’m not suggesting that Camp X-Ray is a death camp (Closed captioned for the hard-of-thinking).

[ nitpick ] The hyper-inflation described was limited to the very early 1920s. Hitler was still in prison when they got that under control. What Hitler was able to do in the 1930s, was point back to that time at the same time that the World Depression (and French intransigence about restructuring the debt) began interfering with Germany’s recovery. [ /nitpick ]

As noted, above, there was probably a fair amount of willfull ignorance among the German people, that was aided by several things:

  • the death camps were all built outside Germany, so no local German population would have immediate contact with the events (and Germany’s Jewish population, while large, was only about 10% of the Jews murdered in the camps–most of the people killed were taken from other countries, so the “deportation” of the German Jews was plausible if one did not look too closely);
  • the propaganda such as the films noted by tschild;
  • the fact that death camps were not completed until Germany had already begun losing the war.
    The Wannsee Conference directing the building of the camps was held in January, 1942. By the end of the year, the Germans had been stymied in their attempts to take Egypt, Moscow, and Stalingrad and by the anniversary of Wannsee, they had lost the battle of Stalingrad, and had suffered over 2,000,000 casualties in the war to that point. Simultaneously, the RAF had begun a campaign against the German cities, including a big propaganda strike against Cologne that included over 1,000 planes.

While the war does not excuse the Germans from their complicity, it is a bit understandable that seeking out the truth about what happened to their Jewish neighbors fell to a lower priority in their daily lives.

Weren’t most if not all of the death/concentration camps adjacent to major metropolitan areas? How could people in these areas not know what was going on?

Sorry. That was sloppily written. Many of the camps had been built prior to the Wannsee Conference–but as labor camps, POW camps, or concentration camps. The gas chambers and “mass production” facilities to process the bodies were not completed until after Wannsee. (And, of course, the killing had begun much earlier, although it was generally aimed by the Einsatzgruppen at the recently conquered Eastern peoples rather than at German or Western European Jews.)

They were not in Germany. The two most notorious camps in Germany were Dachau and Buchenwald. Each had been built as a labor/concentration camp. They were the sites of many murders, but their numbers ran to the tens of thousands, rather than into the millions. I have not been to Buchenwald, but Dachau was not really “near” a major city (as such distances would have been reckoned in the 1940s). Even in the early 1970s, Dachau was out by itself in the countryside, not tucked into a suburb of Munich.

There is one Camp X-Ray, there were many, many camps in Europe. X-Ray’s inmates number in the hundreds, the Nazi camps held several million, well over 10 million people actually (not just Jews). X-Ray’s inhabitants came from half way across the world, the Nazi camp inhabitants came from the general population. In a nutshell, this analogy doesn’t hold a drop of water.


Is it true that the allies did not have any idea as to the true extant of the slaughter until they actually captured the camps?

Did Hitler, knowing that he was going to lose, speed up the machinary of death in the camps?

Last question first. It is said that Hitler did speed up the extermination process, however, that may have been coincidental because as someone else mentioned, the genocidal killing was the “Final Solution” and instituted late in the game. It’s possible it was just getting “up to speed.”

The Allies had surely heard stories of what was happening in the Reich and probably directed troops to known concentration camp sites to investigate. From every documentary I’ve seen, it seems the troops were pretty much unprepared for what they encountered.

Yes, the hyper-inflation in Germany was limited to the early 20’s, a period that could be described as being “in the wake of the Treaty of Versailles.” (I’ll be sure to describe it just that way the next time…) My point was that Germany’s post-WWI economy was bad beyond description – Germans had to look sharply up to see the bottom of “shambles.”

If you are claiming that one of the transitional German governments of the time got the fiscal thing “under control,” please provide some cites. I know that a new “mark” was issued, with a paper value some millions or billions that of the old mark, but that hardly qualifies as getting things “under control.” Germans were still broke; they just had a lot less paper to carry around to prove it.

And there was no “recovery” for Germany, at least not one anticipated or desired by either France or Great Britain. The entire purpose of the Treaty of Versailles, on its face, was to emasculate Germany, to relegate that nation to the status of, say, Belgium. Small, quiet, benign, powerless.

Recommended book: The Holocaust and History : The Known, the Unknown, the Disputed, and the Reexamined, edited by Michael Berenbaum and Abraham J. Peck. Indiana University Press, 1998.