New findings show Holocaust much more vast than notorious concentration camps

New findings show the Holocaust was a widespread phenomenon including more than 42,000 sites in Europe:

The researchers have cataloged some 42,500 Nazi ghettos and camps throughout Europe, spanning German-controlled areas from France to Russia and Germany itself, during Hitler’s reign of brutality from 1933 to 1945.

The figure is so staggering that even fellow Holocaust scholars had to make sure they had heard it correctly when the lead researchers previewed their findings at an academic forum in late January at the German Historical Institute in Washington…

The lead editors on the project, Geoffrey Megargee and Martin Dean, estimate that 15 million to 20 million people died or were imprisoned in the sites that they have identified as part of a multivolume encyclopedia. (The Holocaust museum has published the first two, with five more planned by 2025.)

The existence of many individual camps and ghettos was previously known only on a fragmented, region-by-region basis. But the researchers, using data from some 400 contributors, have been documenting the entire scale for the first time, studying where they were located, how they were run, and what their purpose was.

Two thoughts related to these new findings:

1. My Social Research class recently read a more detailed account of the Milgram Experiment of the early 1960s. (Milgram’s own book Obedience to Authority gives even more details.) College students are well aware of the Holocaust but often don’t know the lengths Milgram went to in order to verify his findings about how “normal” people might respond when given orders by authorities to hurt others. We also watched a 2009 replication from the BBC – watch here – that had similar results to Milgram. This tends to help make the 50+ year old experiment more real for students.

2. In my Culture, Media, and Society class, I use a chapter from Jeffrey Alexander’s The Meanings of Social Life that discusses how the Holocaust came to be a universal human trauma rather than one just limited to a trauma for Jews. Alexander argues that the United States approached the Holocaust as a moral superior since the act was committed by Germans and the U.S. helped liberate Europe and then emerged as the leader of the free world. But, a series of events, including the Milgram experiment, changed people’s minds about exclusivity of the Holocaust as even countries like the United States came to be seen as perpetrators of great violence. In other words, we are all capable of acting like Nazis under certain conditions.

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