When Allied troops swept into Germany and its conquered territories, they confronted the horrific atrocities taking place in the Nazi concentration camps. The capture of death camps such as Auschwitz, Belsen, and Buchenwald revealed a genocidal war of unimaginable scope and savagery. Hitler had sought to create a "master race" through the systematic destruction of all Jews and other so-called racial and ethnic inferiors. Political dissidents, the mentally ill, Gypsies, and homosexuals, were also "incidental" targets of Nazi eugenic policies. In particular, however, the Jews were the intended victims of this "Final Solution." As many as 6 million Jews perished at the hands of Nazi executioners.
The Holocaust was perhaps the starkest manifestation of the inhumanity of the Nazi regime. Rumours abounded from even before the war that the Nazis were perpetrating detestable atrocities on European Jews and other so-called Untermenschen ("sub-humans"). However, most Canadians dismissed these rumours as mere propaganda. Some German Jews certainly understood what was going on and tried to escape. The case of the passenger liner St. Louis provides a poignant example of the difficulties they faced in finding a safe haven. The German Jews aboard the ship could find no country to accept them. The St. Louis, which travelled the Atlantic stopping at ports in Canada, the United States, South America, and Europe, eventually ended up back in Germany because no one would let its passengers land! When Canadian and other Allied soldiers liberated the death camps and witnessed first-hand the enormous evil that had taken place, their lives were changed forever. Published reports and pictures of the mass graves and malnourished bodies of Jews in filthy rags informed a sickened world of the tragedy.
The Holocaust would have a profound and lasting effect on the psyche of Western civilization. The extent of this campaign of racial extermination shocked Canadians and others around the world. The largely liberal attitude towards differences of race and creed that emerged in North America and Europe after the Second World War was a positive product of this enduring tragedy. The moral indignation that characterized the American civil rights campaign of the 1950s was predicated on lessons learned from the Holocaust. To this day, memories of the Holocaust are so powerful that they discredit theories of racial inequality as a subject of serious intellectual inquiry and make racism and anti-Semitism abhorrent.