These are Jewish women photographed just before their murder on Skede beach near Liepaja, Latvia in 1941. They were photographed by one of their killers just before they were led off and shot over a mass grave that extended for a kilometer along the beach. The Germans together with Latvian collaborators began killing off the Jews of Liebaja in a series of massacres as soon as they succeeded in taking the town. This photograph is one of many that were stolen or illicitly copied from German troops by the local townspeople, and kept hidden away until the end of the war.
There are no exact figures on the total number of dead in the Holocaust, no final agreed upon list of all the casualties. Though these numbers are still contentious, the current consensus among scholars for the total number of dead is 17 million, out of which 6 million were Jews. At first that would appear to argue against the particularly Jewish nature of the Holocaust. But there is another way to look at that number. Six million was two thirds of the total Jewish population of Europe at the time. There was not a single Jewish inhabitant of continental Europe who was not affected by the catastrophe. Over a thousand years of Jewish civilization in Central and Eastern Europe was completely destroyed in 4 years or less. The centers of Jewish life moved from Europe to Israel and the Americas. Before the Holocaust, the dominant language of the Jewish world was Yiddish. After the Holocaust, the dominant languages of Jewish culture would be English and Hebrew. Few other groups have experienced so profound an uprooting and transformation in recent history.
There certainly were other victims: the Romani (i.e. Gypsies) lost millions in numbers still unknown, millions more Russian Prisoners of War perished, as did other POWs from the east; political dissidents of all kinds were massacred; Jehovah’s Witnesses were singled out, as were homosexuals; millions of the mentally and physically handicapped were the first victims. The numbers of all of those groups and more add up. And yet, it remains true that the primary target of the Nazis was the Jews.
The Nazis considered the Jews to be the first front of the war that they started. Even as late as 1945 with defeat and destruction staring them in the face, the Nazi regime gave first priority of railroads and resources to transports of Jews to death camps, even over desperately needed military transportation. The Nazis sold the German population, and others, on an apocalyptic vision of a great historic death struggle between the Jews and the “Aryans” for the domination of the world. One people must win, and the other must die.
There is a certain amount of revisionist history now about the Holocaust that seeks to minimize the event, or to deny its particularity. Some revisionist historians point out, very reasonably, that there were other larger massacres in the 20th century. Body counts under Stalin and Mao Zedong were larger than Hitler’s (though no one seems to count the casualties in the World War that Hitler started against him); the death toll from the famine that followed Mao’s Great Leap Forward, a catastrophically incompetent drive for industrialization motivated by ideology, may have cost the lives of 20 million people, the worst famine in recorded history. The brief reign of the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia cost the lives of a relatively meager sum of people, about 3 million. But that was a quarter of Cambodia’s population at the time. In the United States in the 19th century, the Westward Expansion cost the lives of unknown thousands of indigenous peoples whose land and resources were seized. The proponents of Manifest Destiny inherited the Puritan view of the Indians as part of the wilderness to be cleared. Part of that clearing effort for settlement included numerous massacres. Millions of Africans perished in the Middle Passage, abducted from their homelands to be shipped to the Americas as slave labor. Unknown numbers died from the brutal conditions of their servitude. The USA as a White Christian Republic was built on the corpses of millions who were neither white nor Christian.
And yet, I remain convinced that the Holocaust was uniquely evil and a central formative event of the 20th century and modern history.
A state made its central mission, its first policy before all others, to physically destroy an entire people, not to steal their land or resources, but simply to wipe them off of the face of the earth. The Holocaust was not a by-product or an effect of the Nazi regime, it was the heart and soul of the whole movement. The Nazis wanted to remake the human species in the image of their racist ideology. That could only be accomplished beginning with the total annihilation of the Jewish people. For the first time in history, modern technology and industrial methods, all the resources of an advanced and powerful industrial state, were applied to destroying a whole people. The Nazi war on the Jews was the culmination of nearly a century of populist antisemitism in Central and Eastern Europe. That antisemitism didn't end in 1945. In 1946, about 40 returning Jews were murdered in the town of Kielce in Poland initiating a mass exodus of Jewish survivors from Poland to other parts of Europe and to British Palestine.
The Jews were the primary victims, but they were not the only victims.
I once knew a veteran of the Second World War who was a veteran of the Wehrmacht, and a gay man. He died some years ago, and I will call him Hans. Hans found himself drafted in 1943 at the age of 17 soon after the disastrous German losses at Stalingrad. Hans had long counted on his mother’s Swiss passport to protect him and to be his ticket out of Germany should the war affect him. He had every intention of leaving for Basel on the first train out the next day. His father who was no Nazi party member or sympathizer refused to let him go telling him that he must stand by the Fatherland in its hour of peril. Hans was inducted into the army and never spoke to his father again.
Hans grew up fast back then. At 17, Hans was already a sexually active gay man, and very attractive. He used that attractiveness and sexual availability to survive the war. He cultivated relationships with influential officers who protected him.
Hans was sent to Occupied Italy to help fight the partisan forces and the invading Americans in 1943 – 44. He was at the Battle of Monte Casino mostly watching the fighting from an artillery placement on a nearby hill. Hans painted a very different picture of the German Army from the one depicted in the movies. Far from the robotically efficient evil fanatics of fiction, the German Army was rife with corruption and incompetence in the War’s last days. Hans said that everyone knew the war was lost, but no one could say so for fear of being accused of “defeatism,” a capital offense. Hans himself was arrested for “defeatism,” but was saved from a kangaroo court and summary execution by the intervention of one of his officer-lovers. Most officers and soldiers were anxiously preparing for the inevitable end, trying to place themselves in the way of the advancing Americans and British, and as far away as possible from the oncoming Russians. Hans described sitting in a bunker above the Battle of Monte Casino below. Some soldiers and officers sat playing cards while a bunker portal remained opened. Hans told them to close it, but they refused saying that the summer heat was unbearable. As soon as Hans left that room in the bunker, an American shell burst through that very portal and exploded killing all the men in the room and badly injuring Hans.
Hans survived the War and worked for the American Occupation government in southern Germany. He began an affair with an American officer, and left Germany with him to live at Fort Leonard Wood in Missouri. Hans decided that he would never live in Germany again, and for a long time refused to go back to even visit. When his lover left the military, the two of them moved together to New York where Hans went into business. His lover predeceased Hans who spent the rest of his life in New York. How much of this is exactly true, I can't say, but this is the story Hans always told me.
Hans always said that if you take all the official estimates of the numbers of gay men and lesbians murdered by the Nazis during their reign, and doubled those numbers, then you would have a conservative estimate of the numbers who actually died. He pointed out that most of those deaths were not recorded since most of them did not die “officially.” Most were murdered by fellow troops, by police, by the Gestapo, or by their neighbors. In a world where people were dropping dead like autumn leaves everywhere, where all semblance of law and order had completely devolved and criminality was everywhere, who would notice one more corpse, especially a gay one? He reminded people that gay men alone among all the concentration camp survivors were sent back to prison under Paragraph 175 of the German penal code (millions of Russian POWs who survived German death camps were sent straight to the Gulag by Stalin upon return).
Millions upon millions of people died for no crime, no reason other than simply being themselves.
Among them was Erwin Schimitzek, a store clerk from Breslau (now Wroclaw in Poland) who died in Auschwitz in 1943 at age 24 for the crime of being gay.