In the annals of human barbarism, the cruelties practiced by the Germans over the Jews in Nazi Germany are among the worst remembered. The Holocaust stands out so vividly because it was so recent and also because it was so well documented. Through film footage and meticulous records, we have been witnesses to the Germans’ methodical mass-murder and their complete abandonment of compassion. As to the shameful scar left upon western civilization, there is no question. However, a few questions do remain. Why was the Nazi party so attractive to the German people? Were the people of Germany seduced by Hitler’s incredible charisma and hypnotized by the Nazi’s relentless propaganda, or were they generally following their own desires? If they were following their own particular desire as a nation, what was the source of that desire which led to such brutality?
The Nazi Party was attractive to the majority
of the German people because Hitler and his party proposed a solution
to nearly every problem that was facing the various segments of the population.
For example, the Party agenda addressed the problem of Germany’s loss of
WWI. The Nazis exploited the popular myth that Germany’s army was
“stabbed in the back” by the Weimar Republic’s first politicians.
In this way they seduced the German people into associating the loss of
the war with Democracy.
Adolf Hitler speaks out…Come and protest against Germany being burdened with the war guilt. Protest against the Peace Treaty of Versailles which has been forced upon us by the sole culprit of the war, the Jewish international stock exchange capitol…1To every German, the idea of tearing the treaty up would bring a sense of empowerment and elation. The Nazi party promised a political means to do that.
In many of his speeches during his rise to power, Hitler often spoke about the “treasonous” attitude of the Weimar government with its policies of fulfilling the treaty’s terms. On February 24, 1920, in the first public meeting of the German Worker’s Party (later to be named NSDAP), Hitler outlined the party program. The first point addressed the concept of a unified Germany enjoying “self-determination.” The second point spoke directly on the Paris Treaty: “We demand equality of rights for the German people in its dealings with other nations, and abolition of the Peace Treaties of Versailles and St. Germain.”2 Thus the Nazis adopted a popular position which would ensure the German people a way to build back their nationalistic pride and remove the knife from the army’s back. Without the treaty, Germany could rebuild their military, which had always played a major role in the country’s identity.
Another reason the Nazis were so attractive to the German people was the extreme economic hardships after WWI. The hyper-inflation of 1923 reached such ethereal heights that housewives used the valueless German currency to kindle fires.3 Such was the condition under which the Weimar Republic had its beginnings, making the Social Democrats, who were in majority at that time, easy prey for Hitler’s party in future years. With each uphill swing of the economy, growth in Nazi membership stagnated. As the economy began a downslide, Nazi enrollment swelled. The Nazi’s electoral breakthrough in 1932 owed much to the 1929 depression whose virus spread throughout Europe.
The extreme poverty of the time caused hardship in rural communities among farmers. Traditionally, much of the village life was filled with community and people helping one another. But the harder it became financially, the more the communities began to break down. National Socialism was able to appeal to these fragmented communities with notions of blood, land and national unity.4
An appealing attribute of the Nazi Party to Germany’s Bourgeois and its elite was its competition with Marxism. In the 1930’s, a desperate, urban working class was beginning to organize with the German Communist and Socialist parties. This posed a serious threat to the middle and upper class. Hitler created a movement that was more aggressive, organized and radical than the far left of the Reichstag. The Bourgeois and the elite did not want a revolution like that of Russia. A fascist state would require its payment, but at least it would not demand total redistribution of all private property.5
Yet another way the Nazis appealed to the Germans was by exacerbating the already existing trends in anti-semitism. The history of anti-Semitism is very extensive in Germany. One source the Nazi movement drew upon was a conspiracy theory that was based on a publication called “Protocols of the Elders of Zion.” This document originated in the late 1800’s. It outlined an alleged international conspiracy to take over and rule the world. According to Protocols, the Jews were going to use various weapons, such as: invoking the French Revolution, liberalism, socialism, communism, and anarchy to undermine European society. According to historians for the Encyclopedia of the Holocaust,6 the document was allegedly forged at the time of the Dreyfus Affair (1894) by Pyotr Ivanonich Rachkovski, head of a foreign branch of the Russian secret police based in Paris. The French Right wanted a document that would implicate Richard Dreyfus in the alleged conspiracy. The Czar further used the protocol to support his anti-Semitic policies in Russia. Later, the Protocol found its way into Germany. Between 1919 and 1923, Alfred Rosenburg, a Nazi ideologist, wrote five widely distributed pamphlets about the conspiracy. Also, Julius Streicher’s newspaper, Der Strumer (the attacker), often cited the protocols.
Hitler, in his twisted logic, believed
that because Jewish leaders claimed that the Protocols were forged, then
they certainly must be true. Hitler even boasted that he had learned
much from the Protocols about political intrigue, camouflage, diversion
and methods of organization. Alfred Rosenburg built many of his philosophies
on the acceptance of the “truth” of the Protocols. These ideas
brought many Germans and other Europeans into the Nazi party.
The family head empties a few drops of the fresh and powdered blood into the glass, wets the fingers of the left hand with it and sprays, blesses with it, everything on the table. The head of the family then says, ‘Thus we ask God to send the ten plagues to all enemies of the Jewish faith.’ Then they eat. And at the end the head of the family exclaims, ‘May all Gentiles perish, as the child whose blood is contained in the bread and wine.’7Der Strumer was a widely read weekly newspaper. Its most striking feature was its front-page cartoons sometimes depicting Jews as vampires and rapists. It was highly influential in shaping German public opinion against the Jews. Streicher also wrote and published a children’s book to train youth to hate Jews from an early age.
Another means of capturing the German psyche was the notion of a pure race – genetically homogenous populations. The Nazis projected the Aryan ideals, which promoted pride in having German blood. The worth of being German was increased because they were stereotyped as being superior intellectually and physically. They were naturally more gifted than other races in morality as well. A role for the German citizen was projected, suggesting that by their work, if they were men, and by their fecundity, if they were women, the German people could create a pure and harmonious society. After experiencing the cynicism that was the national mood in the 1920’s, such simplistic traditional notions were evidently very seductive.8
The Nazi Party combined the issues of Germany’s
betrayal in WWI, the treaty of Versailles, the Weimar Republic’s ineptness
at handling the economy, national unity, fear of Marxism, anti-Semitism
and the German people’s ethnic identity into a masterfully crafted propaganda
package. Its primary aim was to work on the German people’s fears
and hopes until they were mesmerized by the Nazi ideology. Hitler’s
true genius laid in his ability to use propaganda like a surgeon’s scalpel.
He knew how to target specific groups and appeal to them on an emotional
level. Since the masses were largely uneducated, this was where he
made his greatest efforts. He wrote in Mein Kampf that in
order for propaganda to be used effectively, it must be adjusted to the
intellectual level of the most limited: “the greater the mass it is intended
to reach, the lower its purely intellectual level will have to be….we must
avoid excessive intellectual demands on our public…” Here we see
how Hitler’s mind worked. He targeted the largest possible audience
and tailored his running platform and his propaganda to the lowest common
denominator of intelligence. In this way he captured mass appeal
and was able to manipulate public opinion.
propaganda that aims at winning people over….It is not enough to reconcile people more or less to our regime, to move them towards a position of neutrality towards us, we would rather work on people until they are addicted to us.9This quote reveals the cynical, manipulative characteristics of the Fascist mindset.
Does the Nazis popularity and their expert
use of propaganda explain how a “civilized people” could become the mass
murderers of millions of harmless, innocent men, women and children?
Yes, but this is only part of the answer. It has also been suggested
that Germans have traditionally had a propensity to obey authority.
The combination of an unyielding respect for authority and Hitler’s charisma
could have caused the Germans to abandon their moral responsibility.
This proposal suggests that the German people were mesmerized into a spell
of non-questioning obedience.
Another explanation holds that the perpetrators were under incredible social and psychological pressure to conform to the expectations of the state. It was, so this proposal suggests, very hard for the individual to resist because human beings naturally want to fit in and be accepted. Acting as part of a group, the individual participates in acts they would never do on their own.
Another explanation sees the Nazis as hungry for money and power, Each had careers to attain and pursued their goals with total disregard for the victims. They were but spokes on a large wheel in which each sought advancement. This explanation could apply to the bureaucrats, prison guards and soldiers. Caught up in the momentum in the vast institution of which they were a part, the perpetrator’s sense of personal responsibility was absolved.
Another explanation asserts that individual perpetrators did not have the big picture of what was taking place. Each was involved with their own town’s war against the Jews and was unaware of the vast extermination policy their country was embarked upon.. The fragmentation of tasks allowed them to avoid comprehending what the real nature of their actions was.
All of these explanations are strongly
contested by Daniel Goldhagen in his book Hitler’s Willing Executioners.
He refutes that the Germans’ propensity to obey orders was their motivating
force by reciting examples of generals who willingly contributed to the
extermination of Soviet Jews, but who also conspired against Hitler.
Sometimes Germans disobeyed orders not to kill Jews. They
were insubordinate in order to satisfy their lust for savagery. For
example, army soldiers sometimes disobeyed orders to stay away from massacres
so that they could participate in the killing.
In this connection, I remember that the chief of my company, Hoffman, became very agitated at my having stepped forward. I remember he said something to the effect: ‘This fellow ought to be shot!’ But Major Trapps cut him off…12After seeing that their major was willing to stand behind them, other men from the battalion stepped forward. Up and down the ranks of the Battalions hierarchy there appeared to be formal and informal understanding that those who didn’t want to kill didn’t have to. However, it was only a handful of men who stepped forward that day. On their first day of killing Battalion 101 murdered 1200 Jews. Most of these victims were women and children and the old and the sick. Strong men were to be saved for labor.
Goldhagen gives further evidence that refutes that coercion was a primary motive for mass murder by the Nazis. He writes that in all the history of WWII there were only fourteen accounts of Germans who were punished for refusing to carry out orders to kill Jews: nine were executed, four were sent to concentration camps, one was transferred to a military penal unit. Therefore, claims of coercion by force are almost completely unsubstantiated.
As far as the issue of social/ psychological pressures to conform to the group mentality, Goldhagen cites an example of a noteworthy refusal to kill by one of the battalion’s officers. Beginning with the killings at Jozefow, Lieutenant Heinz Buchmann avoided being directly involved in the killings and managed to get himself assigned to other duties. He led an escort as the so-called “able bodied” to a work camp near Lublin. His commanding officer, in future massacres, gave orders to the Lieutenant’s subordinates to do the killing. There appears to have been acceptance for choosing not to kill. Other soldiers saw this example of an officer not being ostracized or outcast socially, yet most chose not to follow this example.
Of the explanation that holds that Germans pursued their self interest, be it career advancement or financial gain, in total disregard for the suffering of their victims, Goldhagen writes that this may be true of bureaucrats in position of responsibility. One such example is the Germans who were involved in making policies against Jews. These people could hope to advance their careers by writing very popular laws, laws which, for some of them, provided financial gain. But this does not explain the actions of foot soldiers or prison guards who could only expect to return to their working class lives at the same level that they had left it in.
The explanation that the German’s tasks
were so fragmented that they could never comprehend the significance of
their actions or could displace responsibility to a higher authority is
also refuted by Goldhagen. This explanation does not address the
Germans who were killing Jews face to face, after being told of the Furher’s
dream of a Jew-free Europe. It is also a flimsy excuse for the so-called
“desk murderers” who knew all too well the results of their policies.
with its wild hallucinatory accounts of the nature of Jews, their virtually limitless power, and their responsibility for nearly every harm that has befallen the world- is so divorced from reality that anyone reading it would be hard-pressed to conclude that it was anything but the product of the collective scribes of an insane asylum.14Goldhagen believes that the insane perspective about the Jews that the people of Nazi Germany held was a longstanding cultural orientation. The undercurrent of German anti-Semitism whose history started with Christianity has never been absent from German society. In Nazi Germany, the existing model was accentuated, intensified and elaborated upon. According to Goldhagen, Hitler’s evil genius lay not in his ability to seduce and hypnotize, but it lay in his ability to guide Germany to fully express her long heritage of Jew-hating.
Because it is essential to understanding how the Holocaust could have happened, it is necessary to trace anti-Semitism to its origin. Germany’s long-standing cultural orientation of anti-Semitism has its roots in the earliest days of Christianity. As Christian leaders consolidated their power over the Roman Empire in the fourth century, they encouraged their followers to separate themselves from the Jews. They knew that as long as the Jews refused to recognize that Jesus was the Messiah whom God had promised, their existence would always challenge the Christians’ faith in their savior. Either the Messiah was false or the Jews had gone gravely astray. The Christians chose to believe the latter. What better way could there be to increase faith in one’s own religion than inducing fear and hatred of another? Their antagonism toward the Jews was expressed in emotionally charged condemnations such as this one by John Chrysistom, a fourth century church Father whose theology and teachings had lasting influences,
Where the Christ killers gather, the cross is ridiculed, God blasphemed, the Father unacknowledged, the Son insulted, the grace of the Spirit rejected…. If the Jewish rites are holy and venerable, our way of life must be false. But if our way of life is true, as indeed it is, theirs is fraudulent.15The leaders of the Church believed that Judaism had to be discredited in the eyes of Christians. Calling the Jews “Christ killers,” John held not only the Jews of Christ’s time as responsible for his death, but Jews for all time. John also wanted to point out the inexorable opposition of Christian and Jewish doctrine when he said, “If the Jewish rites are holy and venerable, our way of life must be false.” This is but one example of the early Christians’ relationship to the Jews, which, as we shall see, was to endure into modern times.
The medieval Christian Church believed that the Jews posed a threat to the lives and souls of the members of its people. They equated Jews with the Devil. With its totalitarian control over Europe’s moral culture, the Church synthesized the view of Jews as creatures of the Devil, barely human, if human at all.16 All calamities of society were attributed to the Jews:
Not merely had the Jews occupied a focal position for centuries in the world view of Christendom, they were also visible everywhere – as merchants, property holders, and money lenders. The convergence of these two factors, the ubiquitous activity of Jews interpreted by the overpowering concept of the Jews as sons of the devil, was from there on to place them at the flash point of any social upheaval. A wide variety of political and social movements, countless currents in the endless flux of life, could find a convenient target in the Jews.17A reflexive action to a physical or social ill was to look to a Jew for it as source. It was only logical to therefore blame the Jews for the Black Death. In Germany, many Jewish communities were completely exterminated because they wee blamed for causing the plague. Expulsion of Jews in the medieval period was so common that by the 1500’s, Christians had forcibly emptied Western Europe of them. The Church recognized Christianity’s and Judaism’s common heritage and accepted the Jews right to exist. The Church’s deepest hope was to convert the Jews, rather than kill them. But as long as the Jews rejected Christ, they would be condemned to degradation.
Werner Keller’s Diaspora: The Post – Biblical History of the Jews, describes how in 1215 Pope Innocent II mandated in his fourth Lateran Council that Jews, “whether man or woman, must in all Christian countries distinguish themselves from the rest of the population in public places by a special kind of clothing.”18 In the same year, these decisions of the council later became law. The law was aimed at preventing “criminal” sexual intercourse between Jews and Christians. Legislators of each country were to execute this law as they saw fit. In England a badge depicting two stone tablets inscribed with the Ten Commandments was to be worn. In France, St. Louis ordered a badge in the shape of a yellow wheel to be worn. Also, in Germany, the same type of patch, yellow in the shape of a wheel was to be worn. The displaying of a sign on the lapel was a prelude to the yellow star that the Jews of Nazi Germany were required to wear. It marked the Jews of medieval Europe against becoming sexually involved with the Christians, but also for abuse and violence. In some places, at Easter it was regarded a privilege to pelt Jews with stones.19
In nineteenth-century Germany, the character and content of anti-Semitism metamorphasized from its medieval religious incarnation to its modern racial one. The underlying emotional attitude was the same. For hundreds of years, anti-Semitism had bolstered the esteem and given definition to the Christian world. Now anti-Semitism became a political ideology based on race. In the early part of the nineteenth century, Jakob Friedrich Fries in his publication expressed a racial view of the Jews in Germany On the Endangerment of Prosperity and Character of the Germans by the Jews.20 Fries expressed a secularized anti-Semitism emphasizing the debased moral character of Jews. They were seen by Fries as immoral “asocials” whose primary goal was to undermine the order of society and take control of Germany away from the Germans. He saw the Jews not so much as a religious group, but as a nation within a nation, and as a political movement.21
The notion of Jews being a “nation” was bandied about in the second half of the nineteenth century as well. There seemed to be a consensus that the Jews were incompatible with purist German Nationalism. Virtually all participants in the discussion of the Jews agreed that they were “noxious” and that Jewishness and Germanness were incompatible. Jewishness was seen as life threatening to all things that were German. Even those who were seen as the defenders of the Jews’ rights expressed opinions such as this: “The Jews… as a distortion, a shadow, the dark side of human nature.”22
Thus we see the enduring hatred of the
Jews in Germany that was derived from the beginnings of Christianity.
We also see how it evolved into its nineteenth century expression.
We now have a more well rounded understanding of anti-Semitism. The
manifestation of this hate came to its full fruition under the Nazis in
the twentieth century.
Members of the Grenzpolizeikommissariat were, with a few exceptions, quite happy to take part in shootings of Jews. They had a ball!….There was so great a hatred against the Jews; it was revenge…23The Good Old Days gives many other accounts describing the gruesome “work” of the Germans. It is indeed a difficult book to read. In most of the accounts, the rationale of the perpetrators is clearly one of needing to rid the world, once and for all, of Jews. A statement by Maximillian Grabner reflects his Jew hating motive: “I only took part in the murder of some three million people out of the consideration for my family.”24
In conclusion, the fundamental motive underlying
the perpetrators of the Holocaust was Germany’s ancient roots of anti-Semitism.
It is true that many conditions worked together to aid the Nazi’s rise
to power and their subsequent brutal regime. Germany was a nation
with a damaged pride and a very unhealthy economy. The Nazis were
virtuoso propagandists and opportunists and they seized the nation while
it was at its most vulnerable. Yet if it were possible to take away
any of these elements that made up the Holocaust, it still could have happened
through overcompensation in another area. However, if Germany’s deep
hatred of the Jews was removed from the equation, the Holocaust could never
Hitler, Mein Kampf (Massachusetts: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1939).
Return to Text.
1.) Hitler, Adolf, Mein Kampf, (Massachusetts: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1939).
2.) Sax, Benjamin C. and Kuntz, Deiter, Inside Hitler’s Germany, (USA: D.C. Health and Company, 1992), From Gottfried Fedat, “The Programme of the Party of Hitler,” tran, F.T.S. Dugdale, in U.S. Dept. of State, National Socialism: Basic Principles (Washington D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office, 1943).
3.) Carmichael, Joel, The Satanizing of the Jews; Origin and Development of Mystical Anti-Semitism, (New York: Fromm International Publishing Company, 1992).
4.) Goldhagen, Daniel Jonah, Hitler’s Willing Executioners, (New York: Alfred A. Knopp, Inc, 1996).
5.) Housden, Martyn, Resistance and Conformity, (New York: Routledge, 1997).
6.)Katz, Jacob, Prejudice to Destruction; Anti-Semitism, 1700-1933, (Cambridge University Press, 1980).
7.) Keller, Werner, Diaspora; The Post-Biblical History of the Jews, trans: Richard and Clara Winston, (New York: Harcourt, and World, Inc., 1969), @ http://www.igc.apc.org/ddickerson/Jewish-badge.html works cited from this article
8.) Klee, Ernst and Dressen, Willi
and Riess, Volker, The Good Old Days, (New York: The Free Press,
A Division of MacMillan Inc., 1991).
10.) Bytwerk, Randal, Julius Streicher;
A Man Who Persuaded a Nation to Hate Jews, (New York: Stein & Day,
1983). HTML translation @ http://www.calvin.edu/academic/cas/faculty/streich3.htm