International Holocaust Remembrance Day 2020: Timeline of Events From Hitler's Rise to Power to Nuremberg Trials

Monday marks the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz, a day that's been designated International Holocaust Remembrance Day, but recent polling shows there's a lack of knowledge about the Holocaust among Americans.

On Wednesday, the Pew Research Center released findings from a survey of 13,000 Americans. Less than half the majority of those respondents could correctly answer multiple-choice questions about the number of Jews who were killed and how Adolf Hitler took power in Germany.

Only 45 percent of people accurately selected "approximately six million" when asked how many Jews were killed, while 29 percent were unsure. Meanwhile, 12 percent underestimated the death toll by half, and 12 percent overestimated it by double.

Even fewer people, 43 percent, knew Hitler became chancellor of Germany through a democratic political process. A quarter of those surveyed thought he violently overthrew the German government.

Pew couldn't definitively answer if the incorrect answers showed people were Holocaust deniers or if they were uninformed, but it said the data suggested few people expressed negative feelings toward Jews. This is far from the first poll that found people lacked knowledge about the Holocaust, and as the years create a greater distance from that period, education becomes increasingly important.

Hitler's Rise to Power

Germany slipped into a depression after its defeat in World War I, leaving people out of work and discontented with their leaders. The Nazi Party, formally referred to as the National Socialist German Workers' Party, capitalized on the country's grim state, promising change that would improve people's lives and restore Germany's place as a world power.

In 1930, the Nazi Party won 18.3 percent of the vote, a stark contrast from the 2.6 percent the party received in 1928. Two years later, the party became the largest political party in Germany, with 37.3 percent of the popular vote, according to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM).

On January 30, 1933, Hitler was appointed chancellor of Germany. After Weimar Republic President Paul von Hindenburg, who issued the Reichstag Fire Decree suspending constitutional protections, died in 1934, Hitler became president. After abolishing the presidency, he became absolute dictator of Germany.

Restrictions on Jewish Life

On April 1, 1933, a general boycott against German Jews was declared, according to Yad Vashem, the World Holocaust Remembrance Center. People stood outside Jewish-owned stores and businesses to prevent customers from entering. About a week later, Jews were banned from the civil service, the judicial system, public medicine and the army. Soon after, they were banned from public schools and working in journalism.

In September 1935, the Nuremberg Laws were passed, enacting anti-Jewish policies. Jews were stripped of their citizenship and forbidden from marrying or having extramarital relations with Germans, raising the German flag or employing a German maid under the age of 45, according to Yad Vashem. The laws also defined a "Jew" as someone with three or four Jewish grandparents.

Within the first six years of Hitler's reign, German Jews were affected by more than 400 decrees and regulations that restricted nearly every aspect of their public and private lives, according to the USHMM.

While top Nazi leaders decided how to implement their plans, they created ghettos where Polish, German, Austrian and Czech Jews were forced to live.

holocaust remembrance day timeline
A visitor at the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial center in Jerusalem looks at uniforms worn by prisoners in Nazi concentration camps. Emmanuel Dunand/AFP/Getty

Kristallnacht

Beginning on the night of November 9, 1938, a wave of violent anti-Jewish pogroms took place, a time known as Kristallnacht. People damaged an estimated 7,500 Jewish-owned homes, schools and businesses and burned synagogues in Germany, Austria and Sudetenland in Czechoslovakia.

Jewish people were also attacked in their homes and forced to perform public acts of humiliation, according to the USHMM. At least 91 Jews were murdered, and 30,000 Jewish men were rounded up and sent to concentration camps.

Concentration Camps

In March 1933, the Nazis established Dachau, the first concentration camp, located near Munich. At first, prisoners were mainly people the Third Reich deemed dangerous, such as Communists and socialists, but in 1935 the Nazi regime began to imprison people it considered racially or biologically inferior, including Jews. Between 1933 and 1945, more than 188,000 people were incarcerated at Dachau.

Auschwitz, located in German-occupied Poland, was the largest establishment of its kind and consisted of three camps. One of the most well-known concentration camps, it was the site of more than 1.1 million murders, including nearly 1 million Jews, according to the USHMM. Between 1940 and 1945, the USHMM estimates, 1.3 million people were deported to Auschwitz.

Auschwitz was also where Dr. Josef Mengele, known as "the Angel of Death," conducted experiments on prisoners. About 400 miles from Auschwitz was the Ravensbrück concentration camp, an all-women's camp where some prisoners were the subjects of medical experiments and came to be known as "Ravensbrück rabbits."

Upon arrival at concentration camps, prisoners were stripped of their belongings, issued ill-fitting uniforms and an identification number that was often tattooed onto their forearm.

The Final Solution

Nazi official Adolf Eichmann is credited with being the main organizer of the "Final Solution," a term used to refer to the systematic mass murder of Europe's Jewish population. By the time Eichmann finalized the details of it at a conference in 1942, large numbers of Jews had already been killed.

To carry out the extermination goals of the Final Solution, Nazis primarily used six death camps. Unlike other camps, where able-bodied prisoners were used for forced labor, death camps didn't perform such selections. Most people were sent directly to gas chambers, although, a small percentage were chosen to complete tasks in the extermination process, according to Yad Vashem.

Between 1943 and 1944, at the height of the deportations, an average of 6,000 Jews were sent to the gas chambers each day at Auschwitz-Birkenau. Belzec, Sobibor and Chelmno were responsible for the deaths of at least 773,508 Jewish people, according to the USHMM.

In total, 6 million European Jews, about two-thirds of the Jewish population at the time, were killed during the Holocaust.

Germany's Takeover of Europe

From 1939 until 1942, Hitler's forces took control of most of Europe, with some invasions lasting only weeks. Their invasions began with the conquering of Poland in September 1939, and the timeline continues as follows, according to the USHMM:

  • Denmark and Norway: April 1940
  • Belgium, Netherlands, Luxembourg and France: May 1940
  • Yugoslavia and Greece: April 1941

In June 1941, Germany invaded the Soviet Union, a move that, in conjunction with the Allies efforts to defeat the Reich, would bring the Nazis' downfall.

Liberation

In July 1944, Soviet troops arrived at Majdanek, an extermination camp located outside Lublin, Poland. It was the first major concentration camp to be liberated, according to the USHMM, and Soviet officials invited journalists to come to the camp to witness evidence of the atrocities. On January 27, 1945, Soviet forces liberated Auschwitz and found only about 6,000 prisoners alive, as many had been forced to move westward in what became known as "death marches."

However, they did find more than 800,000 women's outfits, hundreds of thousands of men's suits and more than 14,000 pounds of human hair.

As the Soviets advanced from the east, liberating camps as they discovered them, American forces moved westward. They liberated Buchenwald on April 11, 1945, followed by the liberation of Dora-Mittelbau, Flossenburg, Dachau and Mauthausen.

Hitler Kills Himself

On April 29, 1945, Hitler married Eva Braun and named Martin Bormann as his deputy. He banished Nazi Party leaders Hermann Goering and Heinrich Himmler from the Nazi Party for reasons of disloyalty and named Grand Admiral Karl Doenitz as president of the Reich and commander in chief, according to Yad Vashem.

The next day, Braun swallowed a cyanide capsule. Hitler did the same, as well as shooting himself in the head. Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels and his wife also committed suicide after they killed their six children.

Himmler also killed himself before Germany surrendered on May 7, 1945, and Eichmann escaped to Argentina. He was later found, captured and smuggled back to Israel, where he was convicted and executed by hanging in 1962.

Nuremberg Trials

On October 6, 1945, chief prosecutors of the International Military Tribunal indicted 24 leading Nazi officials. Each of the four Allied powers supplied two judges, one main judge and one alternate, and prosecutors and defense attorneys were used in accordance with American and British law.

In total, 199 defendants were tried at Nuremberg for their role in the Holocaust, according to the USHMM. Of those defendants, 161 were convicted and 37 were sentenced to death.

Although these are some of the events that transpired during Hitler's horrific reign, it's far from a complete account of that time. Generations of people have been affected by the mass killings of the Holocaust. To learn more, visit the USHMM and Yad Vashem websites.

International Holocaust Remembrance Day 2020: Timeline of Events From Hitler's Rise to Power to Nuremberg Trials | U.S.