World War Two was the deadliest war to take place in history, with over 70 million lives lost over the course of 6 years. Not only did the war see millions of soldiers and civilians losing their lives, it also saw mass murder on an unprecedented scale; a genocide that continues to haunt us today – The Holocaust.
The atrocities committed during the war led to the foundation of the United Nations, through which the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) was born. It was created in the aftermath of the Holocaust, acknowledging that basic human rights are not always protected. The declaration is formed of 30 human privileges that everyone should be entitled to regardless of their identity, ranging from basic freedom entitlements to the right for artistic involvement.
Although the UDHR was not created until after the Holocaust, it is not hard to believe that almost every single right listed in this policy was taken away from millions during the Nazi period. Certain human rights violations immediately spring to mind when looking at genocide: the right to life, the right to be free from slavery, and the right to never be subjected to torturous or inhumane treatment. When looking at the Holocaust however, there are violations that are not immediately considered as they are not particularly obvious and took place years before the murder of Jews and ‘asocials’ began.
From the beginning it was the Nazi aim to dehumanise the Jews, to make them lose their faith, and to label them as outcasts and sub-humans who did not belong in German society. As early as April 1933, Jews had their right to an employment of their choosing taken away. A nationwide boycott of Jewish businesses was organised, and shortly following, Jews were expelled from the civil service, the judicial system, public medicine, and the army. Books were burnt that were written by Jews, or seen to be Jewish in any way, violating Article 27; the right to have all our works protected. Even education for Jewish children was limited due to the Law against Overcrowding in Schools and Universities. Article 26 states that children should be taught to respect everyone around them no matter what their ethnicity, religion, or background. However, schools were used to spread Nazi propaganda to the youngest members of society, whether this was propaganda targeting the disabled, Jews, or some other ‘asocial’ group.
Arguably one of the most overlooked aspects of the Holocaust – discrimination against the disabled – began with the Law for the Prevention of Genetically Diseased Offspring. Passed in July 1933, this law allowed the forced sterilisation of those with incurable physical or mental disabilities to prevent them from reproducing. Not only does this law violate the right to have a family, it is also inhumane and cruel. It also led to the creation of the T4 programme, whereby hundreds of thousands of disabled people were murdered by those trusted with their care.
Articles 15, the right to citizenship, and 16, the right to marry whoever we want regardless of our ethnicity or religion, were both violated in the 1935 Nuremberg Laws. These regulations stripped Jews of their German citizenship, forbade Jews from marrying or having sex with anyone non-Jewish, and once again segregated them from German society. Removing their citizenship not only stripped them of their rights as members of society, but also removed their identity, something that would have been incredibly traumatic for Jews, or indeed anyone.
The Evian Conference in July 1938 is in hindsight perhaps the most regrettable part of the build up to war in terms of Allied actions. With the refugee crisis growing, and thousands of Jews seeking to flee Germany before it’s too late, delegates of 32 countries gathered to discuss whether their country could accept Jewish immigrants facing persecution. In a disappointing, but perhaps all too familiar decision, almost none of the countries attending agreed to soften their immigration policy for fleeing Jews, with Britain, the USA, and France all opposing unrestricted and increased immigration. In hindsight of what followed, this conference was a dark day for Jews of Nazi-occupied land. Soon enough, Jewish passports began to be confiscated to prevent emigration, a move that went against Articles 13 and 14 of the UDHR: the right to move freely within our own country and others, and the right to seek protection in another country if we are at risk of harm.
Looking back, it is clear that the Nazi regime sought to demoralise and dehumanise their Jewish citizens from the minute they attained power. From restrictions violating their right to have a family, to marry whom they please, and to flee their country of persecution, there is no denying that Jews were to be seen as outcasts, as separate members of society, and as such were treated differently not only by the regime that propagated this agenda, but by ordinary Germans. Friends, family, and neighbours were pitted against one another. Although no one could have predicted the genocide that would take place, it is not hard to see that the road to the gas chamber was one filled with human rights violations and dehumanising treatment. In retrospect, perhaps the mass murder of millions by the Nazi regime was not such a surprise at all.