Semitic tribes in the Middle East: from 3000 BC

When Prehistory shades into history, in the Middle East, there has already occurred the first identifiable movement of a group linked by their language - the Semitic tribes.

Probably originating in southern Arabia, Semitic people have spread by 3000 BC along the desert caravan routes, up through Sinai and into Syria. Five hundred years later they are an integral part of the culture of Mesopotamia, where there is a great Semitic dynasty as early as 2350 BC.

This is the dynasty established by Sargon. He makes his capital at Akkad, but on the way to forming his empire he has conquered the greatest of the earlier Mesopotamian cities - the city of Ur.

Ur is named in the Bible as the place from which Abraham and his family set out on their travels. This departure (legend but with a probable historical basis) marks the beginning of the story of the Hebrews, or Jews. The Semitic influence in the Middle East will be profound, from Babylonians, Assyrians and Phoenicians through to the Arabs. But no group has played a role in the area over such a long span as the Jews.

Abraham's people: 18th - 13th century BC

In Genesis Abraham is the patriarch of a nomadic tribe. The story has him moving through Mesopotamia (from Ur to Harran) and then down into Canaan - a land which, God promises, his descendants will inherit.

Many tribes move with their flocks among the settled cities of Mesopotamia and Phoenicia. No doubt several, from time to time, have charismatic leaders long remembered by their descendants. There is no reason to doubt that a figure such as Abraham exists, and scholars put his likely date at about 1800 BC. What makes him significant is the idea of his pact with God, by which God will help Abraham's people in return for their fulfilling God's law. This is the covenant at the heart of the story of the Hebrews.

Abraham's grandson is Jacob, whose story provides the origin of the tribal division of the Hebrews. When God renews the covenant with Jacob he gives him a new name, Israel. Jacob eventually has twelve sons, from each of whom a tribe descends - the twelve tribes of Israel.

In Genesis the sons of Jacob cause his family to move to Egypt - first by selling one of their number (Joseph) into slavery there, and then by moving south themselves in a time of famine. People called habiru feature in Egyptian records. They have been identified by some scholars with the Hebrews, but there is no firm evidence to prove the link.

It is probably in Egypt that the Jews discover a custom which becomes a central ritual of their religion - circumcision. The Egyptians practise it when a boy is between 6 and 12 years old (see circumcision in Egypt). The Jews change this to a time soon after birth and make circumcision a symbolic contract between each Jew and his God.

In Genesis God declares to *Abraham that every Hebrew boy must be circumcised when he is eight days old, and that this will be 'the sign of the covenant between me and you'. The divine help implicit in the covenant is desperately needed in Egypt, where Abraham's people sink to the status of slaves. God and Moses together free them from their bondage.

From Egypt to Canaan: 13th - 11th century BC

The story in Exodus of Moses bringing the Hebrews out of Egypt begins with miracles and ends with the seeds of real history, probably in the 13th century BC. The miracles include the ten plagues of Egypt sent by God and the parting of the Red Sea (the biblical text has a 'sea of reeds', perhaps meaning a marsh of Papyrus).

History seems to begin with the new sense of unity which Moses gives the Hebrews during the years in the Sinai wilderness. He does so by his insistence on their covenant with God, renewed in the Ten commandments. He dies just before they enter Canaan, but he has prepared them well for their inheritance.

Joshua Judges Samuel and Kings: 11th - 8th century BC

The historical books of the Bible begin with two, Joshua and Judges, which describe the attempts of the Hebrews to enter the promised land. In spite of the resounding story about the walls of Jericho falling down when Joshua (the chosen successor of Moses) marches round them, the texts make it plain that the move into Canaan is a long and fiercely contested process - with the various tribes achieving their own small victories and glorying in their own local heroes.

The most famous of these heroes is Samson, a great slayer of the people who are the Hebrews' main rivals for this land of milk and honey. They are the Philistines.

The peak of the Israelite achievement is described in the two books of Samuel. These tell how the tribes of Israel finally unite against the Philistines. Samuel, a combination of priest, prophet, soldier and politician, anoints Saul as king and thus creates the Israelite monarchy.

Saul's success is limited, and it is not until the throne has been usurped by David that the monarchy in Israel is secure. It then seems to go into a steady decline, from Solomon onwards (as described in Kings). Even so, David's dynasty will rule for 400 years. And moral decline has certain attractions, as a theme, for the stern prophets.

Israel and Judah

The kingdom of Israel: 11th century BC

No real progress is made against the powerful Philistines until the Hebrews are united under a single leader. This is Saul, chosen and anointed by Samuel as the first king of Israel. Saul reigns from about 1020 BC. He makes his headquarters in a small fortress at Gibeah, some 3 miles (5 km) north of Jerusalem. From here he has a great victory over the Philistines, a little further north at Michmash, followed by successes against other tribal groups.

The new kingdom of Israel is establishing itself. But internal politics are less satisfactory. Disagreement over several issues has lost Saul the support of Samuel. And he has a dangerous rival in the young David.

David, a native of Bethlehem, distinguishes himself at the court of Saul - mainly as a warrior, as shown in the story of his fight with Goliath. Saul at first encourages David, making him head of the palace guard, but later he becomes jealous, even to the point of plotting his murder. David escapes into Judah, a desert area to the south of Jerusalem.

This region, though occupied by Israelites, is outside Saul's control. It is separated from the kingdom of Israel by a strip of territory, including Jerusalem, which is still in Canaanite possession. David is therefore free to build a new power base. By the time of Saul's death David is the effective leader of the Israelites in Judah, mainly nomadic herdsmen.

While David is in rebellion, Saul has been losing ground again to the Philistines. He has also been showing increasing signs of paranoia about his young rival. (The biblical account is written centuries later by priests for whom David is the heroic ideal.)

Saul's reign ends in disaster with defeat by the Philistines on Mount Gilboa in about 1000 BC. Three of his sons die in the battle - including his eldest, Jonathan, loved by both Saul and David. The king himself, severely wounded, commits suicide. When the news reaches David, he makes his famous lament: 'How are the mighty fallen!... Saul and Jonathan were lovely and pleasant in their lives, and in their death they were not divided.'

In the region south of Jerusalem, the people of Judah choose David as their king. North of Jerusalem, in the kingdom of Israel, a surviving son of Saul struggles to maintain his inheritance against the Philistine threat.

After seven years of chaos the northern tribes invite David to become their leader. Anointed now king of Israel, and already king of Judah, he gathers into one realm, for the first time, all the tribes which consider themselves the descendants of the twelve sons of Jacob.

David's city and empire: 10th century BC

Between the territories of Israel and Judah lies the walled city of Jerusalem. This has been the stronghold of a Canaanite tribe, the Jebusites, since long before the arrival of the Israelites.

David's first act as king of Israel is to seize Jerusalem and to make it his capital, as a central point between the two halves of his kingdom. To give it religious significance for the Israelites, he brings here the Ark of the covenant. But he also adopts a ritual, associated with Jerusalem, which has no precedent in the story of Israel. The Jebusites have been ruled by priest-kings and David now presents himself in this new role. Jerusalem is to be the holy 'city of David'.

David's next task is war with the Philistines. He defeats them convincingly, bringing their territory within the region occupied by the tribes of Israel. He then conducts a series of successsful campaigns beyond the borders of his kingdom. David is described in the Bible as creating an empire of tributary states, stretching north beyond Damascus to the Euphrates and south to the gulf of Aqaba.

If this is indeed an empire in the full sense, it does not long survive David's death in about 965 BC. From among his sons, by many wives, he selects Solomon, the son of Bathsheba, to be his successor.

Solomon in all his glory: 10th century BC

Solomon, inheriting a stable and united kingdom of Israel, is free to indulge in the arts of peacetime. The Bible describes his court as one of oriental wealth and splendour (there is no independent archaeological evidence of this). This wealth is achieved not by conquest but by trade, using a fleet of ships which bring to Israel 'gold, silver, ivory, apes and peacocks'. The Bible story also credits the king with great wisdom. Rumours on both counts - intellectual and material - prompt the Queen of sheba to visit Solomon, bringing some 'hard questions' and much gold.

She is impressed - just as readers of the story are meant to be.

One undoubted fact about Solomon is his building of the first Temple in Jerusalem. This powerfully reinforces the city's new importance as a religious centre. But it is not entirely welcome to the majority of Israelites, in the northern kingdom of Israel. For Jerusalem is associated with the southern kingdom of Judah. It is clear from the Bible that the northern tribes are resentful at the taxes imposed to pay for Solomon's building programme.

David, the charismatic leader, had the authority to unite Judah and Israel. In his son's reign old tensions reappear. In his grandson's the two kingdoms will split apart.

The lost tribes of Israel: 9th - 8th century BC

Solomon dies in about 920, and his son Rehoboam is unable to prevent the ten tribes of the northern kingdom of Israel from seceding. They select as their king an officer, Jeroboam, who has previously been in rebellion against Solomon. In his northern kingdom Jeroboam allows the worship of Yahweh to become associated with a local Canaanite bull cult (the 'golden calf'), a blasphemy considered so heinous in the biblical account that all the disasters in store for the ten northern tribes seem richly deserved.

Meanwhile Rehoboam is now king of only two tribes, Judah and Benjamin, in a much reduced southern kingdom. But he has Jerusalem.

The disaster awaiting the northern kingdom of Israel comes in an invasion by Assyria under Sargon II. In 722 his army conquers the region. In the following years large numbers of Israelites are deported elsewhere and other people are moved into Israel - a favourite practice of the Assyrians in the administering of conquered territories.

As a result the ten tribes of northern Israel become merged with local populations (perhaps because their worship of Yahweh is no longer sufficiently distinctive to be worth fighting for). They vanish from history - giving rise to the persistent legend that the descendants of the 'lost tribes of Israel' may still survive somewhere as an identifiable group.

Jews and Judaism: 8th - 5th century BC

After the fall of the kingdom of Israel, in the late 8th century BC, the history of God's chosen people becomes that of the two tribes - Judah and Benjamin - which together comprise the kingdom of Judah. From now on these people are not Hebrews or Israelites but Jews, the people of Judah. And their religion is Judaism.

One of the great defining events in the history of the Jews is a disaster as great as that which struck Israel in 722. A century and a half later, in the 580s, Judah comes to an even more violent and sudden end. But the reaction of the two southern tribes is very different.

By the 6th century Babylon, rather than Assyria, is once again the dominant power in Mesopotamia. The Babylonian king Nebuchadrezzar II (called Nebuchadnezzar in the Bible) besieges Jerusalem for several months. When the city falls, in 586, it is systematically destroyed. Of Solomon's famous Temple, in particular, not a trace can later be found.

Some of the leading inhabitants of the city escape to exile in Egypt, others are carried off to captivity in Babylon. Between them, in adversity, these two groups establish a lasting and powerful concept - the ability of Jews to retain their own identity, in whatever place or circumstance.

The Jews taken into captivity in Babylon form a Jewish community in Mesopotamia of such vigour (the first of the Diaspora) that it will survive in an unbroken tradition until our own century, indeed until the regime of Saddam Hussein. After the fall of Babylon, conquered by Persia in 539 BC, part of this community returns to Jerusalem to re-establish it as a holy city.

The Jews in exile in Egypt are equally tenacious of their Jewish inheritance. On an island far up the Nile, opposite Aswan, documents have been found written on papyri in the 5th century BC. They are part of the archive of a regiment of Jewish mercenaries.

After 539, when the Persians allow the Jews back to Jerusalem (and encourage the rebuilding of the Temple in Jerusalem), the priestly scribes set about editing the existing holy books of Judaism and bringing the historical part up to date. Ezra and Nehemiah recount the story of the exile and the return to Jerusalem.

In Jerusalem the high priest of the Temple is now the ruler of the small territory of Judah, and the community lives by a strict and legalistic version of the old Hebrew religion. This is the period when the Torah takes its lasting form. The Bible is set to become the unifying agent of Judaism, in no matter what place or language.

The synagogue: from the 6th century BC

The synagogue is believed to derive, as an institution, from the years of Exile in babylon. Public worship has previously been performed in the Temple at Jerusalem. The synagogue, no doubt at first a temporary solution, proves in the long term a crucial element in the Jewish ability to worship anywhere. A room and the Scrolls of the Law are all that is needed.

After the return to Jerusalem, synagogues develop in Judah alongside the more elaborate Temple ceremonies. The Temple will be destroyed again, and the synagogue will prove its value in the Diaspora (the dispersed community of Jews). The earliest dated evidence of a synagogue is far from Jerusalem - in Alexandria, in the 3rd century BC.

The Messiah: from the 6th century BC

The concept of the Messiah also enters Judaism during the Babylonian exile, when the hope develops that a descendant of David (like him an 'anointed' king, which is the meaning of messiah), will emerge to restore the Jewish people to Jerusalem.

This encouraging theme - a beacon of light in dark times - acquires even greater appeal during the next period of disaster for the Jews, under Roman occupation from 63 BC. It is an important part of the belief of the community of Essenes whose documents survive as the Dead Sea Scrolls. And it is closely involved with the beginnings of Christianity, identifying Jesus as the messiah.

Greece and Rome

Judah and the Greeks: 4th - 3rd century BC

Judah remains a province of the Persian empire until 332 BC when a new conqueror, Alexander the great, passes by. The high priest of Jerusalem makes him welcome.

Jerusalem suffers a certain amount of turmoil during the warfare which follows the death of Alexander in 323, but by 301 it is firmly under the rule of the Ptolemaic dynasty in Egypt. The Ptolemies prove benevolent - so much so that a thriving community of Jews develops in their capital city, Alexandria.

The Jews of Alexandria demonstrate the ability of a Jewish community to flourish in a new context without losing its identity. They integrate so fully with the secular life of the city that their own first language becomes Greek. It is they who first use the word diaspora (Greek for 'dispersion') to describe Jewish communities living outside Israel.

Soon many of them no longer understand Hebrew. But they refuse to let this diminish their strong sense of a shared identity as God's special people, according to the covenant revealed in a book which they now cannot read. They commission, with Ptolemy's support and approval, the first translation of the Bible, the famous Greek version known as the Septuagint. And their Synagogue is the earliest of which there is evidence.

Sadducees and Pharisees: 200 BC - AD 70

After the return from exile in Babylon, in the late 6th century BC, the Jewish community in Jerusalem is ruled by the Temple priests. Control of the Temple has remained with the descendants of Zadok, high priest in the time of David and Solomon. This priestly family is the central element of the party of the Sadducees, formed in about 200 BC and deriving its name from Zadok.

Linked with the priests are the aristocratic families and leading merchants of Jerusalem. Priests, aristocrats and the rich often form an alliance of this kind, conservative in mentality and intolerant of opposition. But from 141 BC the Sadducees find themselves confronted by an opposing party in the new Sanhedrin.

The members of the Sanhedrin include scholars and teachers who are learned in the Jewish law but are not themselves priests. They tend to be more flexible than the Sadducees in their understanding of the Torah, arguing that the Mosaic law must be interpreted in a way relevant to contemporary life. They also give much greater weight than their rivals to the large body of oral law and custom which has developed over the centuries.

The Sadducees, who insist on a literal reading of the Torah, describe their opponents dismissively as Pharisees - a word meaning 'dissenters'. As often with religious dissent (the Methodists among Christians, for example), the reformers proudly adopt the abusive name.

The Pharisees become associated with the piety of the synagogue (where words are central, in the reading of holy texts or in prayer) as opposed to the rituals of Temple worship (blood and sacrifice).

The pattern of development in other religions suggests that the future must eventually lie with the Pharisees and with their new form of priest - the rabbi (meaning 'master' or 'teacher'), a man distinguished by his learning rather than his caste. Rabbinical schools will later become the heart of Judaism.

Zeus in the Temple: 2nd century BC

Judah benefits during the 3rd century from the religious tolerance of the Ptolemies. But it suffers, subsequently, from the aggressively Greek attitude of the other great Hellenistic power in this region - the Seleucid empire in Persia. The Seleucid rulers attempt on several occasions to dislodge the Ptolemies from the whole region of Palestine. They finally succeed in doing so in about 200 BC.

At first the priests in Jerusalem may not notice the difference. But a king who comes to the Persian throne in 175 makes it very plain what he thinks of their religion. Antiochus IV gives himself the Greek title Ephiphanes - meaning 'god revealed'. In this he identifies himself with Zeus.

In 168 Antiochus sets up a statue of Zeus above the great altar in the Temple in Jerusalem, and sacrifices are made to the idol. He employs an Athenian philosopher to supervise the temple worship, and (a necessary precaution in view of all this) he instals a Greek garrison in a new fortress in Jerusalem, on the site of the Citadel of david.

Similar Greek rituals are organized in provincial centres. One of them provokes violent resistance. An elderly priest, Mattathias, refuses to sacrifice to the idol and kills a colleague who is willing to do so. Mattathias has five sons, three of whom play leading roles in the resulting revolution.

The dynasty of the Maccabees: 2nd - 1st century BC

One of the sons of Mattathias is Judas, who has the surname Maccabaeus or the Maccabee (it is thought to mean either the 'hammer' of the Seleucids, or the 'appointed one' of God). After a rapid series of victories over Seleucid armies, Judas is able in 165 BC to cleanse the Temple in Jerusalem of Greek abominations. He then rededicates it to the one God - an event celebrated each year in the Jewish festival of Hannukah.

Judas is killed in battle in 160. His brother Jonathan picks up the torch. He is succeeded, after his death in 143, by a third brother, Simon. In 142, after twenty-five years of warfare against the Seleucids, Simon secures a treaty which gives Judah political independence as well as religious freedom.

The people of Judah (or Judaea as the Romans will call it) appoint Simon Maccabaeus political leader and high priest. Both positions are declared hereditary within his family. He therefore becomes the founder of a ruling house sometimes known as the Maccabees but more often called by historians the Hasmonaean dynasty (from Hasmon, a distant ancestor).

The Hasmonaean rulers bring prosperity to Judah, though not without a considerable amount of internal strife and drama. Opposition to them appears to have driven the Essenes into the desert. And an innovation of 141, the Sanhedrin, becomes the forum for hostility between two religious sects, Sadducees and pharisees.

Judaea and the Romans

The Jews and their former persecutors, the Seleucids, fall in successive years to a far greater power - the Romans. In 64 BC Pompey annexes Syria, the last remaining territory of the once great Seleucid empire. In 63 he takes Jerusalem.

Roman rule starts brutally, with priests slain at the altar of the Temple. For the next two decades the Hasmonaean family try to lead a new rebellion, fired by the same sense of outrage as prompted their ancestors a century earlier, but in 40 BC Mark Antony captures and executes the last of the dynasty. Their line does nevertheless continue in the next Judaean dynasty - that of Herod, who marries the Hasmonaean princess Mariamne.

Herod's position is anomalous. He is a Jew, but he has been appointed king of Judaea by the conquering Romans. His reign involves a constant balancing act between Jewish religious sensibilities (a Roman eagle above the Temple gate is taken as inflammatory evidence of idolatry) and Rome's demand that he control this troublesome region.

On the whole Herod balances well. The Jews are free to practise the religion which he shares with them. The Romans are grateful for peace in the region. Step by step they extend Herod's kingdom until it includes all of Palestine together with modern Jordan and much of Lebanon.

Herod and his successors: 37 BC - AD 66

Herod proves a great builder. He founds new Roman cities, in particular Caesarea (now Qesari, on the coast south of Haifa), which later becomes the capital of Roman Palestine. And he creates a spectacular new Temple on the holy mount in Jerusalem (see the Temple in Jerusalem).

But many of his actions are violent. In an outburst of jealousy he kills not only a favourite wife, Mariamne, but also her grandfather, mother, brother and two sons. He could well have been capable of the Massacre of the infants of Bethlehem (if so in about 4 BC, the last year of his life), but the gospel account of this incident is inherently improbable as history - and no mention is made of the atrocity until Christian documents of a century later.

In his will Herod divides his large kingdom between three of his sons. Their inability to control an increasingly turbulent Palestine prompts Rome to give more power to its provincial governors, or procurators. But they have no greater success in pacifying the Jewish people, resentful of Roman rule and horrified by any encroachment of Roman religious symbolism (which by now includes the idolatrous theme of a divine emperor).

This is the period when the Zealots emerge - a radical political group committed to the ending of Roman rule in Palestine, using terrorism as one of its main forms of argument.

The impossibility of a working relationship between the Jewish and Roman authorities is well suggested in the New Testament account of the last days of Jesus Christ. The Jews of the Sanhedrin are determined that he shall die for blasphemy, but they want the Roman governor of Judaea (Pontius Pilate) to condemn him. Jerusalem is in Pilate's province, but he tries to shift the responsibility on to Herod Antipas, a son of Herod the Great who is ruling Galilee - on the grounds that Galilee is where Jesus comes from.

The lack of effective government implicit in this story is now typical of Palestine, apart from a brief period starting in AD 41. In that year Herod Agrippa is appointed king of Judaea.

Herod Agrippa is a grandson of Herod the great and of the Hasmonaean princess Mariamne. He therefore has a direct link with a great Jewish dynasty. He also, like Herod the great, has valuable contacts in Rome. He has been friendly since childhood with the family of Claudius, and Claudius - in his first year as emperor - appoints Agrippa to the kingdom of Judaea.

For a while, under the rule of this devout Jew who has the confidence of Rome, Palestine seems set to enjoy again the stability associated with the long reign of Herod the great. But Agrippa dies after only three years, in AD 44. The region returns to Roman governors and revolutionary ferment.

Civil unrest: AD 44-66

The violent creed of the Zealots now acquires growing support, reinforced by their assassination of Jews who collaborate with the Romans. The Zealots have an alarming habit of wandering among the crowd on public occasions, with short daggers under their garments, and stabbing opponents before melting away unseen among a populace increasingly supportive of their aims (or else plain terrified).

Zealots are prominent in a popular uprising which in AD 66 expels the Romans from Jerusalem, and in the revolutionary government which then briefly rules Palestine. Their violent behaviour in power outrages many of their previous supporters. But they remain at the heart of resistance to the Romans.

Vespasian and Titus: AD 67-70

Nero sends a veteran general, Vespasian, to put down the rebellion in Judaea; and Vespasian involves his own son, Titus, in the campaign. Together father and son make steady progress in recovering Palestine, until the suicide of Nero in Rome prompts the crisis which has caused AD 69 to become known as the 'Year of the four emperors'.

The last of the four candidates, and the only survivor of that year, is Vespasian. Marching back to Rome, he leaves Titus in command of the campaign in Judaea.

By the year 70 Titus is besieging Jerusalem. With an impressive array of Battering rams and catapults, he succeeds in demolishing parts of the city wall against strong resistance from the Jews. The siege lasts six months. Josephus, a Jewish historian who is with the Roman forces, provides vivid details of famine and cannibalism within the beleaguered city.

Those who attempt to escape, as refugees, fare little better. Appalling horrors follow the discovery that one such fugitive has swallowed his wealth in the form of gold coins.

Josephus claims that Titus, no doubt aware of the Temple's contents, attempts to save it from harm. He says that Jewish partisans first set fire to the Temple colonnade after enticing Roman soldiers into a trap. Whatever the truth, the great building with its golden trimmings is soon destroyed by fire and by looting Romans. The best loot, taken by Titus himself, later features prominently on Titus's triumphal arch in Rome.

So ends the central shrine of Judaism. In the words of Josephus, 'neither its long history, nor its vast wealth, nor its people dispersed through the whole world, nor the unparalleled renown of its worship could avert its ruin'. The destruction of the Temple is another turning point in Jewish history (see the Temple in Jerusalem).

The rabbi at Jamnia: AD 70

The end of the Temple is also a beginning, dramatically captured in a story from the siege. It is said that the learned Rabbi Johanan ben Zakkai has himself smuggled out of the city in a coffin. Coming into the presence of Titus, he prophesies that the young man will become emperor and asks for a favour - to be allowed to establish a rabbinical school at Jamnia (modern name Yavne).

He is granted what seems like a small concession. But the resulting college (which soon moves elsewhere, and prompts the founding of other similar establishments) is of great importance in the history of Judaism. In such institutions, known as yeshiva, the Jewish sense of identity is nourished by intense scholarship.

The tradition of the yeshiva spreads round the world and through the centuries. In yeshivoth (the plural of the word) Jewish scholars compile the Talmud, an encyclopedic collection of oral traditions and customs. Ranging over the wide fields of law, history, religion, legend, folklore and philosophy, these texts encapsulate the Jewish experience.

For a people scattered and persecuted, as the Jews are after the destruction of the Temple, the Talmud - along with the Torah and the Synagogue - makes it possible to put down roots no matter how alien the soil.

Masada: AD 73

For three years groups of Zealots hold out against Roman domination in a few rocky fortresses in Palestine. The last to fall, Masada, is the most dramatic site of all.

Standing high and sheer on the western shore of the Dead Sea, Masada is a natural stronghold. Its top forms a large flat area of some 20 acres. Herod the great has recently added to the defences of the summit, providing powerful walls, an administrative building, storehouses for grain and massive reservoirs for natural water. A Roman garrison here is massacred in the Jewish rebellion of AD 66. The Zealots, occupying the fortress, build a synagogue, ritual baths and family houses.

After the fall of Jerusalem in AD 70, the Jews of Masada - under an inspirational leader, Eleazar ben Jair - prepare for a siege by the Romans. In 72 the tenth legion arrives in the plain below, armed with elaborate Siege engines. For several months they make little impact on the stone defences. But eventually flaming torches, catapulted against a temporary wall, succeed in starting a fire.

Eleazar decides that the time has come to make a dramatic end. In the words of Josephus, 'he had a clear picture of what the Romans would do to men, women and children if they won the day; and death seemed to him the right choice for them all'.

Without any sense of irony, Josephus - who has himself escaped deceitfully from a suicide pact urged upon his followers - describes with admiration the oratory by which Eleazar persuades the Jews of Masada to die, and the courageous discipline with which the deed is carried out.

Each man, after final caresses and tears, kills his wife and children. He then lies down beside them, for his own throat to be cut by one of the ten men selected by lot for this task. Then the ten draw lots as to who among them shall die first. The final survivor kills himself - the only case of suicide in the death of 960 men, women and children. Two women, who escape by hiding, live to tell the tale.

It is a matter of controversy, particularly in Israel, how much reliance can be placed on Josephus' account of these events. Archaeological excavations in 1963-5 were at first assumed to provide evidence of his heroic version, though the findings of human remains or artefacts were relatively scanty. Thirty years later doubt is cast by some on the reliability of the first archaeological assumptions.

Underlying the controversy is the debate about Israel today. Was Eleazar ben Jair a heroic nationalist or a bigoted extremist preferring death to compromise? The question of whether peace was possible with Rome becomes transferred to opposing ideas of the peace process in Israel in the 1990s.

The last Jewish rebellion: AD 132-135

For two generations an uneasy truce prevails between the Jews and their Roman conquerors. Although there is no Temple in Jerusalem and the city has been largely destroyed, the Jews continue to worship freely in their synagogues.

But any suggestion of calm is shattered after the emperor Hadrian, visiting Jerusalem in AD 130, decides to rebuild it as a Roman city. It is to be called Aelia Capitolina, echoing the Capitoline Hill in Rome. Most offensive of all is the emperor's plan for Jerusalem's most prominent hill, the Temple mount.

On the ruined Temple mount there is to be a shrine to Jupiter, in which Hadrian himself will be honoured. Jewish opposition to this sacrilege is led by Simon Bar-Cochba, calling himself the prince of Israel. Simon's prestige increases dramatically when a leading rabbi recognizes him as the Messiah. In 132 his Jewish forces defeat a Roman legion and capture Jerusalem.

Not till 135, after a large army has been sent to regain control, is Jerusalem recovered by the Romans. In a bitter campaign, fought village by village throughout the region, half a million lives are lost. The whole area of Palestine is devastated. Aelia Capitolina becomes, for the moment, an unimportant provincial town.

In the reprisals after Simon Bar-Cochba's revolt, the Jews are forbidden to set foot in Jerusalem. They even seem to have been expelled from the surrounding region of Judaea. Only further north, in Galilee, do they retain a presence within their ancient kingdom of Israel.

There is by now another significant community in Jerusalem - the Christians, who have played no part in the recent rebellion. They survive within the Roman city of Aelia Capitolina. Two centuries later these Christians in jerusalem, and the city, benefit from a change of religious policy in the Roman empire.

Middle Ages

Jews under Christian rule: from the 4th century AD

The Jews of the Diaspora have spread throughout the Roman empire long before its rulers become Christian, in the 4th century AD. The change of imperial religion does not benefit the Jews. In spite of their struggles against the Roman authorities in Palestine, the Jews in other cities of the empire have won a considerable degree of acceptance.

Judaism is referred to in Roman legal documents as insignissima religio, certe licita ('a well-known religion, certainly lawful'). In Christian imperial pronouncements Jews are more often described as secta nefaria, a 'nefarious sect'.

Once the Roman emperors are Christian, the blame for the Crucifixion of Jesus is naturally laid more at the door of the Jews than of the Roman authorities - although it is Pontius Pilate, the governor of Judaea, who orders the deed. But St Matthew's Gospel contains one terrible line, responsible surely for much suffering in subsequent centuries. It reports that the Jews, clamouring for the death of Jesus, cry out to Pilate: 'His blood be on us, and on our children'.

The pretext is in place for centuries of persecution. Not until 1965 does the Vatican formally declare that the Jewish people are not to be held collectively responsible for the death of Jesus (in the declaration Nostra Aetate, approved by an overwhelming majority of the Second Vatican Council and promulgated by Pope Paul VI).

Wandering Jews: from the 7th century AD

Over the centuries the treatment of the Jews within the territory of the old Roman empire ranges from outright persecution to occasional encouragement. The variation, unpredictable and often sudden, greatly affects the distribution of Jewish communities.

A wave of persecution and forced conversion in the early 7th century is at its worst in Visigothic Spain. Later in the same century there is a welcome swing in the other direction, not so much in Europe as in the Asian and African parts of the old Roman empire.

The Muslims, conquering half the Roman empire, tolerate the 'people of the book' on principle. Jewish communities thrive under Islam in the oldest regions of the Diaspora, such as Egypt, and they acquire important new areas of settlement - in particular Muslim Spain, soon to be the region in which Jews are more fully integrated than anywhere else. One of the strangest details of Jewish history dates also from this period - the conversion of the Khazars.

In northern Europe encouragement by Charlemagne and his successors brings Jewish communities to the Rhine. Spain and Germany become the two great centres of European Jewry. But a large and prosperous population in good times tends to attract the worst of any subsequent persecution.

A wide range of circumstances make the Jews dangerously exposed to persecution. The Christians claim a religious Motive for hostility. The Jews, both by preference and by necessity, tend to live as a separate and easily identifiable community - an easy target in times of stress. And the economic role of the Jews aggravates the situation.

Arriving peacefully in fully settled areas, the option of living on the land is not open to Jews. Their first activity in a new area is usually that of the merchant, making use of their international network of contacts. But Christian merchants tend to crowd out their Jewish rivals.

Soon the richer Jews have only one way to use their wealth - lending it on interest, in the practice of usury which is forbidden by the Christian church but is tolerated (since the function is needed in any mercantile society) if carried out by non-Christians.

No debtor loves his creditor (even today banks are not universally popular). The Jewish moneylender and his entire community can easily fall victim to mass hysteria. The first catastrophic example of this is in 1096, when undisciplined mobs in Germany make the Jews the first target of their crusade.

The German crusade and the Jews: AD 1096

No great feudal lord in Germany answers the pope's call to go on crusade. Instead three lesser figures gather large bands of simple German pilgrims and then inflame them with hatred of the Jews in their own communities - using the argument that before going to punish the Muslims who have seized Christ's sepulchre in Jerusalem, it makes sense to punish the Jews, closer to hand, whose ancestors are held responsible for his actual death.

In Spier in early May, in Worms and Mainz later in the month, and in Cologne, Trier and Metz in June, communities of Jews are seized and massacred by crusaders on their way east.

Prague is reached at the end of June and the city's Jews are killed. In most of these places the local bishops make efforts to protect the Jewish population, but they prove unable to do so. The king of Hungary, Kálmán, shows greater resolve.

Each of the three German crusading rabbles tries to makes its way onwards through Hungary. Kálmán at first attempts to give them peaceful passage, but they soon provoke violence - after which the Hungarian army annihilates all three groups. Many thousands of Jews and Christians die in Europe in this first summer of the first crusade. It is an ominous setback to the crusading ideal.

Dark centuries: 12th - 14th century AD

Persecution of the Jews becomes increasingly a feature of European life during the later centuries of the Middle Ages. The imagination of gullible Christians is seized by a succession of hysterical slanders. One, surfacing in the 12th century, is the belief that Jews engage in the ritual murder of Christian children. The most common charge in the next century is that they desecrate the Host, or communion wafer.

This follows the church's adoption of the doctrine of Transubstantation, stating that the body of Christ is physically within the consecrated Host. To desecrate this is seen as ritual murder and blasphemy. At times of stress any of these charges can become the pretext for a massacre.

The economic status of the Jews declines in the same period. Their position as money-lenders to the rich and powerful is eroded from the 13th century when merchants from northern Italy (collectively described as Lombards) develop banking activities. The Jews, no longer indispensable, are expelled from England in 1290 and from France in 1306.

Elsewhere they survive by engaging in a lower level of usury, as pawnbrokers to ordinary citizens - a dangerous situation, since debtors often welcome an excuse to turn on their creditors. In these circumstances, when Europe's town face the terrifying crisis of the Black Death, the Jews are the almost inevitable victims.

Poisoned wells: AD 1348-1349

As Europe's citizens succumb in vast numbers to the plague, a rumour spreads that the cause lies in polluted water. The wells, it is said, have been deliberately poisoned by the Jews. The first massacres of Jews occur in France in the spring and summer of 1348. The situation rapidly becomes worse after a Jewish doctor, tortured on the rack at Chillon in Switzerland, says that he has poisoned wells with powder sent to him for the purpose by a rabbi in Spain.

Basel burns all its Jews later that month. In November the hysteria spreads to Germany.

In town after town during the next nine months, through Germany and up into Flanders, Jews are burnt in their tens of thousands (in addition to those dying anyway of the plague). Jews fleeing from this horror make their way mainly into Poland, where they are protected by the king, Casimir III. He is said to be influenced in the direction of tolerance by Esther, his Jewish mistress.

This migration brings into Poland, and subsequently into Russia, large communities of Jews speaking Yiddish - their own version of German, developed in the medieval centuries.

The Spanish Inquisition: AD 1478-1834

In 1478 the pope, Sixtus IV, allows Ferdinand and Isabella to establish a special branch of the Inquisition in Spain. There is believed to be a danger to the church from Jews masquerading as Christians.

Such Jews are referred to as marranos ('swine'). Their conversion is the result of anti-Semitic violence during the previous century. To escape the likelihood of death at the hands of Christian mobs, many Jews (probably about 100,000) accept baptism. But a considerable number continue to practise their Jewish faith in secret. The concept of secret groups of heretics particularly alarms the church; and the remarkable tenacity of the Jews of Belmonte, in maintaining their faith behind a Catholic facade, proves that there is good cause for the inquisitors' suspicions.

The first Grand Inquisitor is appointed in 1480. He is Tomas de Torquemada, who himself comes from a family of converted Jews. His dedication to his task will become legendary. And the public much appreciates the great ceremonies which he stage-manages - the famous auto-da-fés.

The auto-da-fé (Spanish for 'act-of-faith') is a solemn religious ceremony in a tradition going back to the inquisition against the Cathars. The inquisitor and those accused of heresy process into a public place, such as the main square of a town. After the holding of a mass, the verdicts on the accused and the sentences on the guilty are announced.

In 1492 Torquemada persuades Ferdinand and Isabella to expel from Spain all Jews who are unwilling to convert to Christianity. About 160,000 of them leave the country. Ten years later the same demands are made of the Spanish Muslims. From being one of the most tolerant countries in Europe, in the heyday of Cordoba and Toledo, Spain becomes the most intolerant. The Inquisition extends its sway to Latin America, to Portugal and to the Spanish Netherlands. It is not finally suppressed until 1820 in Portugal and 1834 in Spain.

The expulsion of the Jews in 1492 coincides with the completion of the Reconquest. Muslim power in Spain is at last brought to an end with the fall of Granada.

In 1492 Torquemada persuades Ferdinand and Isabella to expel from Spain all Jews who are unwilling to convert to Christianity. About 160,000 of them leave the country. Ten years later the same demands are made of the Spanish Muslims.

From being one of the most tolerant countries in Europe, in the heyday of Cordoba and Toledo, Spain becomes the most intolerant. The Inquisition extends its sway to Latin America, to Portugal and to the Spanish Netherlands. It is not finally suppressed until 1820 in Portugal and 1834 in Spain.

15th - 19th century

A new diaspora: AD 1492-1510

The Spanish expulsion of the Jews in 1492 has wide repercussions, because of the growing power of Spain at this period. The Portuguese king is forced to expel his Jews in 1497 as a condition of marrying a Spanish princess. Spanish rule in Sicily and naples means that from 1510 Jews have no place in the Italian peninsula south of the Papal states. No Expulsion of jews is perpetrated by the papacy, but from 1555 the Jews even here are forced to live in ghettos and to wear a distinctive badge.

Meanwhile, copying the Spanish example, France expels its few remaining Jews. In England there have been no Jews since 1290. By the early 16th century the entire west of Europe is out of bounds to the Jewish people.

The majority of the Jews displaced in this wave of state persecution are those with a background in Spain. They become known as the Sephardim (from Sepharad, the Hebrew word for Spain) by contrast with the Jews of Germany and central Europe (the Ashkenazim, from Ashkenaz meaning Germany). The Sephardim, fleeing from the hostility of Christian Europe, make their way east to the more welcoming Muslim communities of north Africa, Palestine and above all Turkey.

The Ottoman sultan Bayazid II positively encourages Jewish settlement in the newly Muslim city of Istanbul.

In their new homes around the eastern Mediterranean the Sephardim continue the traditions and rituals of Spanish Jewry.

In particular they preserve through the centuries the language known as Ladino. This derives from medieval Spanish, mixed with a certain amount of Hebrew, and is usually written in Hebrew characters. It is the equivalent of the Yiddish of the Ashkenazim, which has its roots similarly in medieval German.

The ghetto: from AD 1516

For three centuries, from the 16th to the 18th, the ghetto becomes the environment of Jewish communities in Europe. Part of the reason is the Christian community's wish to control the Jewish minority in its midst; and part is the need of the Jews themselves for protection from Christian mobs. Each of the great waves of persecution - at the time of the Crusades, or the Black death - is followed by a tighter isolation of Jewish quarters.

The word ghetto is first used in Venice, where from 1516 the Jews are forced to live in a particular area of the city, with access controlled by Christian janitors. The name is said to derive from the Venetian term for an iron foundry which was previously on the site.

Within the ghetto the Jewish community is allowed control over its own affairs, through law courts, schools and other such institutions. The enclosed nature of the community, with safety and opportunity inside the perimeter and danger outside the gates, causes an intense and self-aware culture. Here, particularly in northern Europe through the medium of Yiddish, there thrives the rich Jewish tradition of story-telling and music.

Intolerance is the usual attitude of the surrounding Christian community. But sometimes a ruler favours the Jews. One example is Stephen Báthory, in Poland in the 1570s.

Appreciating the value of the skills of the Jews, Stephen Báthory takes special steps to protect their interests - restricting, for example, the trading rights of merchants and pedlars arriving in Poland at this time in large numbers (rather surprisingly) from Scotland.

He also grants the Polish Jews their own parliament, which meets twice a year and has tax-raising powers. It remains in existence for nearly two centuries, till 1764.

The ghettos of Italy, Germany and Poland begin to be demolished in the Napoleonic period, when the notions of the French Revolution make such segregation seem medieval. The ghettos of modern times, such as Warsaw, are deliberate revivals by the Nazis of a long disused system.

The European countries which never had Jewish ghettos have little reason to be proud of that distinction. They are the ones - England, France and Spain - which at one time or another expelled every Jew.

New beginnings: 17th century AD

With the development of trading empires in northwest Europe in the 17th century, Jews begin to be appreciated again for their commercial skills. The Dutch, having rid themselves of the fervently Catholic Spaniards, encourage the return of the Jews. The English, during the Commonwealth, repeal the law of 1290 which made Jewish residence in the country illegal. Similarly Protestant colonies in North america welcome Jewish immigrants.

The Jews become gradually better placed to play a full role in Christian countries. But the process is one of long and painful struggle, extending well into the 19th century.

The Rothschild dynasty: AD 1801-1815

William IX, ruler of the German state of Hessen-Kassel and possessor of a vast fortune, has for some years consulted in a private capacity his friend Mayer Amschel Rothschild, a Jewish banker and merchant of Frankfurt. He values Rothschild's advice both on matters of finance and on additions to his art collection. In 1801 he formally appoints him his court agent, and encourages him to offer his financial skills to other European princes in these troubled years when Napoleon is unsettling the continent.

Rothschild responds energetically to this opportunity. By 1803 he is in a position to lend 20 million francs to the Danish government.

The Danish loan is the first of many such transactions on behalf of governments which rapidly establish the Rothschild family as Europe's most powerful bankers, rising to a pre-eminence comparable to that of the Medici and the fugger in earlier centuries.

The family is soon represented in all the important centres of the continent. Mayer Amschel has five sons. He keeps the eldest, Anselm Mayer, at his side to inherit the Frankfurt bank. The four younger sons establish branches elsewhere: Solomon in Vienna, Nathan Mayer in London, Karl in Naples and Jacob in Paris.

The Rothschild family gambles heavily on the eventual defeat of Napoleon. Their loans are all to his enemies (surprisingly Napoleon allows Jacob, operating from Paris, to raise money for the exiled Bourbons). Their network of contacts enables them to move money around Europe even in wartime conditions. A famous example, but only one of many, is Nathan's transfer of large sums of money from London to Portugal to pay the British troops in the Peninsular War.

By the end of the war the Rothschild family has a vast reputation among the allies, and a close involvement in the government finances of many nations.

The qualities soundly underpinning their good fortune, in addition to undoubted financial flair, are that they are trustworthy and very well informed.

An example of the former is the fortune left in Mayer Amschel Rothschild's care when his patron flees from Hesse-Kassel after Napoleon's victory at Jena in 1806. It amounts to perhaps half a million pounds in the money of those days. In spite of every attempt by Napoleon's agents to make him make him hand it over, Rothschild keeps it safe and returns it, with interest, to its owner in 1815.

As to reliable information, the most famous incident concerns that same year, 1815. On June 20 Nathan Mayer Rothschild calls on the government in London, during the morning, with a startling piece of good news. The duke of Wellington, he informs the officials - who are at first somewhat incredulous - has two days earlier won a decisive victory over Napoleon at Waterloo.

Confirmation arrives that afternoon through the government's own channels. The Rothschild network of communication includes, famously, the use of homing Pigeons. But on this occasion their success is due to one of their couriers, who was waiting in the harbour at Ostend for the first scrap of news.

This History is as yet incomplete.

Sections are as yet missing at this point.

20th century

Sections missing

Sections are as yet missing at this point

Hitler and the Jews: AD 1933-1938

Immediately after the Enabling Act is passed, the world is given clear warning that the anti-Semitism of mein kampf is not merely the raving of a theorist. It is a basis for action. The German government declares an open-ended boycott of all Jewish shops. The announcement receives wide international attention. On March 27 (just four days after the passing of the act) a mass rally is held in New York. A resolution is taken to boycott all German goods if Hitler's measure is put into effect.

Hitler compromises, revealing his sure touch in international diplomacy. He announces that the boycott will be limited to one day. On the designated day Brownshirts stand outside every Jewish establishment in Germany, warning people not to enter.

But the underlying policy remains unaltered. On April 7 a law is passed ordering the immediate 'retirement' of all civil servants 'not of Aryan descent'. This requires the dismissal of Jewish teachers in schools and universities as well as all those employed in government departments. Some of the German towns, in their enthusiasm, develop the policy beyond the immediate demands of the law. They ban performances by Jewish actors and musicians.

A 'non-Aryan' is defined as anyone with one or more Jewish grandparents. At first some exceptions are made, because of the insistence of the president, Hindenburg, that the law should not apply to Jews who had fought in the 1914-18 war or had lost a father or son in that conflict. But the law of April 7 is amended in 1935, after Hindeburg's death, and by the end of the following year there are no 'non-Aryans' in public employment.

Meanwhile, in 1935, even harsher measures are imposed, in the so-called Nuremberg Laws. At a Nazi rally in Nuremberg in September of that year it is announced that Jews are to be deprived of German citizenship, and that any sexual relationship between a Jew and a German citizen is henceforth illegal. The penalty, where the Jew in question is male, is to be death.

As yet there is no systematic and coordinated violence against Jews, but this changes drastically in November 1938. The pretext is the murder by a Jew of a diplomat in the German embassy in Paris. This occurs on November 7. Two days later a nation-wide pogrom is unleashed on the Jews of Germany and Austria (recently annexed by Hitler in the Anschluss). Organized bands of Nazis rampage through the towns, burning synagogues, smashing the windows of Jewish shops and looting their contents.

The smashed windows provide Germans with a name for this night of terror - Kristallnacht, the night of cut glass. Hitler personally orders the violence to continue throughout the night, telling Goebbels (who notes it in his diary) that 'the Jews should be made to feel the wrath of the people' and ordering 20,000 or 30,000 Jews to be arrested immediately. Approximately 20,000 are sent to the concentration camps during the next few days.

To pile on the agony, it is decreed that insurance money due on the damaged buildings is to be paid to the state. The Jews themselves are to bear the cost of repairs to their premises. And for good measure a fine of one billion marks is imposed on the German Jewish community.

Some 7500 Jewish shops are looted during Kristallnacht. At first sight it seems an anomaly - in view of Hitler's anti-Semitism - that so many Jewish firms are still trading in 1938. Yet it is entirely consistent with his cautious economic policy.

Hitler is invariably careful not to damage Germany's economy or upset those with influence in commerce and industry. In this conservative approach he is at odds with the more radical members of the Nazi party, who are eager to unleash the power of the Brownshirts to sweep away all that remains of the fusty old Germany of pre-war days. Hitler, by contrast, has a romantic notion of Germany's past. He dreams of reviving the nation's ancient greatness, in the form of a New reich.

The Holocaust: AD 1941-1942

The term holocaust, originally meaning a sacrifice consumed by fire in a Greek temple, has been used since the early 19th century for the murder of a large number of people. In recent decades it has acquired a much more specific significance. It now defines, almost exclusively, the systematic attempt by Hitler and the Nazis to exterminate the Jewish people. In the 20th century, which far outstripped all others in the horrors perpetrated by humans on their own kind, the Holocaust has come to stand as the defining atrocity.

It is also the atrocity, in the whole of world history, most deliberately planned as the fulfilment of a theory. A flawed and fanatic theory, but one of fatal potency.

The theory, articulated by Hitler in mein kampf and in frequent ranting speeches, taps into a deep-rooted European tradition of Anti-semitism, blends in some 19th-century fantasies about ethnic identity and racial purity, and finally adds a dash of 20th-century neurosis about socialism. The troubles of Germany and Austria are thereby blamed on a conspiracy of Jews , working like a virus in all spheres of national life to take over the economy and even, through sexual intermingling, to degrade the pure Aryan stock.

The misfortune underlying the tragedy of the Holocaust is that someone with these views succeeds in becoming the leader of a powerful nation and then, for a brief while, the conqueror of Europe.

From achieving power in 1933 until the outbreak of war in 1939 (an event for which he holds the Jews responsible), Hitler's ambition is to rid Germany and Austria of the nations' long-resident Jews by making them move elsewhere. But with his invasion of Russia in 1941 he begins to conceive a more drastic outcome. The 'final solution of the Jewish problem' (a phrase used in Nazi documents from early in 1942) will be death.

Within the first few days of the Russian campaign Hitler's Special task forces round up and shoot large numbers of Jews. In two weeks of continual executions in early July, in the city of Kishinev alone, one such task force kills 10,000 people.

On June 27, in Bialystok, German soldiers chase Jews through the narrow streets around a blazing synagogue, like devils in a medieval scene of the Last Judgement. Hundreds of Jews have been locked into the synagogue before it is set on fire. Once it is blazing, the doors are broken down and others are shoved into the cauldron.

But the Nazis are already working on a less visible and more efficient method of achieving their purpose. It is first employed at Chelmno, in Poland, during 1941. Three vans are specially adapted for the killing of people through exposure to lethal gas. During the first six months 97,000 Jews die in these vans. The scheme is considered highly successful. So steps are taken to provide larger-scale death camps with permanent buildings.

These death camps are built on Polish or Russian soil. One of the first and largest is Treblinka (in Poland) where more than 750,000 Jews are killed during 1942, most of them brought there from the Warsaw ghetto.

The placing of the concentration camps in the east, relatively out of sight, is a practical measure of discretion by the Nazi high command. On 20 January 1942 a meeting is convened at Wannsee, a lakeside villa near Berlin, by Himmler's second-in-command in the SS, Reinhard Heydrich. Heydrich has been put in charge of the 'final solution'. The purpose of the meeting is to discuss the practical arrangements.

It is taken for granted by now in these high Nazi circles that the solution must apply to Jews in all the nations occupied by the Germans. But death camps in France or the Netherlands will be more exposed to view. So it is decided that Jews from such countries must be brought to the Polish camps.

Thus begins one of the abiding images of the holocaust - trains of cattle trucks into which Jews are crowded, heading for an unknown destination. The programme is described as 'transportation of the Jews towards the Russian East'. Early in 1942 the prospect facing these people is immediate death. But later there are two possibilities - immediate death by gas, or slow death by hard labour and deprivation.

The Holocaust: AD 1942-1945

During 1942 it occurs to the Nazis that, as with the Soviet prisoners of war, they are wasting valuable slave labour in their policy of automatic murder of the Jews. So a new form of camp is planned in which those on the trains will be classified, on arrival, as 'fit' or 'unfit' to work. The fit go one way, to the prison huts where they will live for a while as unpaid and underfed labourers. The unfit go the other way, to the gas chambers.

The first camp of this kind, ready for use in March 1942, is built at Auschwitz in Poland. An unknown number of people (certainly well in excess of a million) die in this camp in the next three years. More than half of them - the unfit, the elderly, the children - are killed in the four gas chambers within a day or two of their arrival.

Those judged fit 'to be worked to death' (a phrase used by Himmler) are put to the service of Germany's war production. Factories are moved from the vulnerable Ruhr, in the west, to the neighbourhood of Auschwitz - beyond the range of Allied bombers. Several of Germany's great industrial enterprises tarnish their reputation by benefiting during these years from Jewish slave labour.

By the end of 1942 knowledge of what is going on is not limited to those actively involved on the German side. On December 17 Anthony Eden tells the House of Commons in London that reliable reports have been received 'regarding the barbarous and inhuman treatment to which Jews are being subjected in German-occupied Europe'.

Eden is putting before the House an international declaration, published on that day, which is more direct in its account of what is actually going on. Issued jointly by the USA, the USSR, Great Britain and the governments in exile of nine occupied European countries, the declaration condemns in the strongest possible terms Germany's 'bestial policy of cold-blooded extermination'.

This is straightforward language, in stark contrast to the terms used in Nazi documents about a solution to the Jewish question and journeys to the east. But it is this veil of German euphemism which has enabled a few extreme right-wing historians to argue the preposterous theory that Hitler did not know what the terms meant and so was perhaps personally unaware of the Holocaust.

This History is as yet incomplete.

Although by far the largest group of victims to die because of Hitler's theories (about 6 million), the Jews are not alone. Gypsies too are considered a polluting threat to an Aryan society. Rounded up and sent to the camps, most of them are marked down for Sonderhandlung ('special treatment' - another Nazi euphemism, meaning murder). It is calculated that in all some 400,000 Gypsies are killed.

Even 'Aryans' are not immune from the obsession with purity and perfection. In 1939 Hitler signs an ultra-secret decree authorising the death of any German judged 'incurably ill'. This covers mental illness, and the victims (probably about 100,000 in the next two years) are later described as 'useless defectives'. They too should be considered victims of the Holocaust.
Arrow Arrow
Page 1 of 6
Arrow Arrow