WHP Lesson 40: The Holocaust

The Holocaust was the horrific murder of millions of Jews and other persecuted groups in Nazi-occupied areas of Europe during the Second World War. Fascist ideas applied to age-old hatreds convinced many people— including ordinary Europeans—to commit horrendous acts. The Nazis justified such extreme violence using the promise of empire, a pure race, and imagined victimhood. The result was a tragedy of unprecedented scale.

Driving Question: How can we explain the atrocities of the Second World War, in particular the Holocaust?

  • The Holocaust is a term used to describe the intentional campaign of discrimination, and eventually murder, of six million European Jews, as many as a million Roma people, millions of prisoners-of-war, and hundreds of thousands of additional civilians because of their race, politics, disability, religious conviction, or sexual orientation.  
  • We know a lot about the Holocaust: why it happened, who carried it out, where it happened, and how. We know this because the Holocaust left lots of records. It was in many ways the most carefully designed, intentional atrocity that had ever been devised or carried out by any country or organization, and it was only possible because of modern technologies and ideas. But the Holocaust wasn’t the first genocide in human history and it wouldn’t be the last attempt at genocide. In the seventy years or so since the Second World War, mass murder has been attempted in Cambodia, Iraq, Sudan, Bosnia, and Myanmar.

Word of the Day: Genocide

  • Definition: The intentional attempt to exterminate all members of a certain race, nationality, or ethnic group.
  • Many historians argue that before the 20th century there hadn’t really been highly organized, society-wide genocides. We sometimes use the word to describe some events in the distant past, like the massive deaths of indigenous Americans due mainly to diseases and theft of land, but scholars’ debate whether the term really fits these earlier events.


  • ReadThe Holocaust” in Lesson 7.3 on Khan Academy.
  • Optional: Watch Armenian Genocide in Lesson 7.1 on Khan Academy.
  • As you read and/or watch, think about who organized the genocides, who carried them out, and why people let them happen.

Historian’s Journal Prompt

  • Why do genocides happen and why has the world failed to stop them?
  • You may want to do a little research about recent genocides before you answer the question.