Though it had ancient roots, Nazi ideology was far from a primitive, medieval throwback - it was capable of appealing to intelligent and sophisticated people. Many high-ranking Nazis had doctoral degrees and early supporters included such eminent people as philosopher Martin Heidegger, theologian Martin Niemoeller, and commander-in-chief of German forces in the First World War, General Erich Ludendorff. Hitler appealed with a powerful vision of a strong, united and 'racially' pure Germany, bolstered by pseudo-scientific ideas that were popular at the time.
The Nazis brought their own strain of radical ruthlessness to these ideas. They glorified war and saw the uncompromising struggle for survival between nations and races as the engine of human progress. They rejected morality as a Jewish idea, which had corrupted and weakened the German people. They maintained that a great nation such as Germany had the right and duty to build an empire based on the subjugation of 'inferior races'. They looked eastwards to Poland and Russia (where, as it happened, the great majority of European Jews lived) for the territorial expansion of their 'living space' (Lebensraum).
Nazism was thus an unscrupulous and warlike ideology, which always had the potential for genocide. But it took some time for an organised killing programme to evolve.
By late 1938, the Nazis could claim an impressive series of successes. Germany had staged the 1936 Olympics, annexed Austria and part of Czechoslovakia, and was in the midst of a strong economic recovery fuelled by rearmament. These triumphs had increased the Nazis' popularity and their confidence. President Hindenburg had died and all opposition parties had been abolished. The last conservatives in the cabinet had been replaced by Nazis. The way was clear for radical action.
On the night of 9-10 November 1938, Nazi Propaganda Minister Dr Josef Goebbels organised the violent outburst known as Kristallnacht ('Crystal Night', the night of broken glass). While the police stood by, Nazi stormtroopers in civilian clothes burned down synagogues and broke into Jewish homes throughout Germany and Austria, terrorising and beating men, women and children. Ninety-one Jews were murdered and over 20,000 men were arrested and taken to concentration camps. Afterwards the Jewish community was fined one billion Reichsmarks to pay for the damage.
After Kristallnacht, Jewish businesses were expropriated, private employers were urged to sack Jewish employees, and offices were set up to speed emigration. Imprisoned Jews could buy freedom if they promised to leave the country, abandoning their assets. By the outbreak of war in September 1939, half of Germany's 500,000 Jews had fled, as had many Jews from Austria and the German-occupied parts of Czechoslovakia.
When the Nazis occupied western Poland in 1939, two-thirds of Polish Jews - Europe's largest Jewish community - fell into their hands. The Polish Jews were rounded up and placed in ghettos, where it is estimated that 500,000 people died of starvation and disease. Nazi policy at this point was aimed at forced emigration and isolation of the Jews rather than mass murder, but large numbers were to die through attrition.
Mass killing begins with the invasion of the Soviet Union on June 22 1941, the Nazis launched a crusade against 'Judaeo-Bolshevism', the supposed Jewish-Communist conspiracy. Behind the front lines, four police battalions called Einsatzgruppen (operations groups) moved from town to town in the newly occupied Soviet territories, rounding up Jewish men and suspected Soviet collaborators and shooting them. In subsequent sweeps, making heavy use of local volunteers, the Einsatzgruppen targeted Jewish women and children as well. In total, the Einsaztgruppen murdered some two million people, almost all Jews.
More camps opened in the spring and summer of 1942, when the Nazis began systematically clearing the ghettos in Poland and rounding up Jews in western Europe for 'deportation to the East'. The killing of the Polish Jews, code-named 'Project Reinhardt', was carried out in three camps: Treblinka, near Warsaw (850,000 victims); Belzec, in south-eastern Poland (650,000 victims); and Sobibor, in east-central Poland (250,000 victims). Some Jews from western Europe were sometimes taken to these camps as well, but most were killed at the biggest and most advanced of the death camps, Auschwitz.
But Auschwitz-Birkenau became more than a concentration camp. In the spring of 1942 gas chambers were built at Birkenau and mass transports of Jews began to arrive. Some of the new arrivals were inducted into the camp as registered prisoners, but the great majority were gassed immediately. These gassing operations were greatly expanded in the spring of 1943 with the construction of four purpose-built gas chamber and crematorium complexes, which included such refinements as electric lifts to carry bodies up to the crematoria. Each crematorium could handle 2,000 victims daily. In a nearby group of barracks, nicknamed 'Canada' by the prisoners, victims' belongings were sorted for transportation to the Reich. The victims' hair was used to stuff mattresses; gold teeth were melted down and the gold deposited to an SS account.
In all about 900,000 people were gassed at Birkenau without ever being registered as prisoners, almost all of them Jews. This brought the total death toll of the Auschwitz complex to about 1.1 million, of whom one million were Jewish.
Jewish prisoners were concentrated at Bergen-Belsen, hitherto not known as one of the worst camps; but in the chaotic final months of the war conditions were allowed to deteriorate catastrophically. When British troops came across the camp on 15 April 1945, they encountered 10,000 unburied corpses, a raging typhus epidemic and 60,000 sick and dying prisoners crammed into overcrowded barracks without food or water.
In June 1942, a report from the Jewish Workers' party in Poland reached London. The report described the massacres in the east and estimated that 700,000 Jews had been killed; but when a Polish courier mentioned this number to a British journalist he was advised to 'drop a zero or two' if he wanted to be believed.
Another Polish courier, Jan Karski, reached the west in November 1942, carrying messages from Jewish leaders in Poland. He had himself witnessed the conditions in the Warsaw ghetto and in what he believed to be the Belzec death camp, and was eager to inform the world. Karski saw the British foreign secretary, Anthony Eden, and US President Roosevelt, but they seemed to be more interested in military intelligence than in atrocity stories. Partly as a result of Karski's mission, however, the Allies agreed to a joint declaration, read to the British Parliament on 17 December, which acknowledged Nazi war crimes and threatened punishment for the perpetrators. Subsequently millions of leaflets were dropped in the course of bombing raids on German cities to inform Germans of the facts, but these had little or no effect.
By the spring of 1944, detailed descriptions of the killing operations at Auschwitz-Birkenau received from escaped prisoners were published. This prompted calls for the camp or its railway approaches to be bombed, but these proposals were rejected on technical grounds.
Britain's attitude to Jewish refugees from Nazi-controlled areas was strongly influenced by its role as the mandatory power in Palestine, where it had to mediate between Jewish and Arab interests. In December 1941, the Struma, a ship carrying 769 Jewish refugees, left the Romanian port of Constantsa hoping to reach Palestine. Towed into Istanbul harbour when its engines failed, it became the subject of diplomatic discussions between Britain and Turkey. Britain's chief concern was to discourage what it regarded as an undesirable traffic, and it proposed that the ship be returned to Romania. After ten weeks of wrangling the Struma was towed out to sea, its engines still disabled, where it was sunk by a Soviet submarine. There was one survivor.
Jewish refugees were the subject of two international conferences, at Evian in 1938 and Bermuda in 1943. Neither conference resulted in any concrete action. In general, Britain treated refugees from Nazi Germany as economic migrants, and took in only those who would be of economic benefit to the country. About 10,000 Jewish children were brought to Britain in 1939 under the Kindertransport scheme, and placed with British families, but their parents were excluded and had to pay for their children's support. The best that can be said for Britain's refugee policy is that it was less ungenerous than that of most other European states at the time.