Hitler’s role in the persecution of the Jews. The Development of the holocaust. As soon as the war started it took on a whole new dimension.
Between 1933 and 1949 the Jews were systematically driven out of German political religious economic and social and intellectual life. There are three keys questions here, what are the stages of persecution? Who instigated the persecution from stage to stage? And finally what effects did the war have on Jewish persecution?
In Hitler’s first propaganda letter he advocated for the rational versus emotional anti Semiticism, he said that the final objective must be the complete removal of the Jews altogether. Historians have interpreted the letter’s call for the “irrevocable removal [Entfernung]” of the Jews from German life as a prefiguring of the Holocaust. Huge amount of debate has grown around this statement. From this debate two theories have been developed; the intensionalist theory versus the structural/ functionalist one. Essentially this debate is around trying to explain the Holocaust. At this point I feel it is important to stress that the Holocaust did not only involve the persecution of the Jewish community gypsy’s the handicapped and the mentally ill were also targeted, however for the purposes of this paper I will be referring only to the persecution of the Jews. The intensionalist historians argue that there had been a blue print of the Holocaust from the very earlier on. Once the Nazi’s were in power, the rest followed from the logic of their ideology. It various from one historian to the other upon how far back this ‘blueprint goes.’ They argue that ‘The Final Solution’ was a pre-ordained as the language in Hitler’s Mein Kampf could not have resulted in anything other than the complete genocide.
Functionalist historians would argue that there hadn’t been a ‘solution to the Jewish problem’. These historians say that the Holocaust was evolving in a gradual process which came about due to the functioning of the third Reich and in connection with how the war was developing and many of the decisions relating to the ‘Jewish question’. This functionalist theory leads us on to another theory that the final solution was in fact a process of cumulative rationalization. This argument argues that there was no single command from Hitler, but the Holocaust was a result of initiative instigated from below, but that initiative was not only consent but encouraged by higher powers. Connected to this debate is the question of how do we characterize the Third Reich? It is an almost universally held that Adolf Hitler was the Holocausts prime mover. The Nazi’s understood that Jews should be eliminated from German life but not necessarily killed. Hitler never specified exactly what the plan of action was. It is argued that because of lack of clear direction from the top that allowed the various different power centres in the third Reich were able to formulate their own policies. This would allow for the process of cumunitive radicalization. Regardless of the extent of Hitler’s control it is certain that he could not have accomplished it alone. However how much control did Hitler possess? Was the third Reich a monocracy where one Adolf Hitler controlled all, or in fact was in a far more complex structure which had several power centres? If this was the case then this begs the question if we subscribe to this model, what role did Hitler play in this structure?
Much has been made of the questions of Hitler’s role in recent times. This is a rather difficult question to answer as Hitler himself hated and often refused to sign order personally. However Sarah Gordon argues that Hitler’s role was thus; Firstly he attempted to stir up public support for harsh measures against the Jews with the Boycott of 1933. When that was not so successful he settled for the removal of Jews from their professions. In 1935 he was responsible for installing the Nuremburg laws and these were generally well accepted. Over the next number of years these laws would be extended, getting a brief relaxation during the Olympics of 1934. Hitler often acted ambiguously in order for his goals to be achieved. He did not delegate one single authority to handle the Jewish question. This structure created anarchy often resulting in contradictory and competing policies. Hitler would then choose from these choices a policy that domestic opinion would accept. This in turn resulted in a power struggle for primary authority on racial matters amongst the agencies. This struggle would be won by the SS. However between 1940 and 1944 the actual deportation and extermination orders were almost exclusively instigated by Hitler himself. It is important to point out that this may have been to please more radical elements such as the SA in the Nazi party itself, however examining Hitler’s writings one comes to the conclusion that these decisions were in line with Hitler’s own desires. Also as early as 1941 Hitler charged Himmler with a secret decree which gave him a task to ‘strengthen Germanisim with the elimination of the injurious influence etc’. He also granted him wide powers which allowed him as such to make his own rules in the east. While Hitler left much of the detail up for interpretation, overall policy targets were indeed set by Hitler himself.
What effects did the war have on Jewish persecution? Sarah Gordon argues that in 1933 Hitler discovered from the boycott of 1933 that he could not act without taking both domestic and foreign opinion into account. His party already had a reputation for violence, which he was forced to curb in order to retain popular support. He was anxious to gain favourable international opinion in order to reverse the treaty of Versailles. However this situation was to dramatically change once war had broken out. In a diary entry Goebbels said ‘fortunately, a whole series of possibilities presents itself for us in war time that would be denied to us in peacetime’. Once war broke out the Nazi party accelerated the mass killing of Jews and Untermenchin (sub humans). As the Nazis conquered more land in Europe, more Jewish populations fell under their control: Jews of Poland, Ukraine, France, Belgium, Holland, etc. Theses Jews were placed in concentration camps and compelled to do forced labour. Ghettos were set up in Poland, Ukraine, and the Baltic states in order to segregate the Jewish population. In the camps and ghettos, great numbers of Jews perished because of impossible living conditions, hard labour, starvation, or disease. By June of 1941 up until the fall of 1943: the Nazis began carrying out the Final Solution. Systematic genocide of the Jewish people became official Nazi policy as a result of the Wannsee Conference. Special task forces, known as Einsatzgruppen, would follow behind the German army and exterminate the Jewish population of newly conquered areas. In this manner, entire Jewish communities were wiped out. At this point, many concentration camps which had been set up shortly after the Nazi rise to power, became death camps used for the mass-murder of Jews in gas chambers. Some of the more well-known extermination camps were Auschwitz, Bergen-Belsen, Treblinka, and Belzec. The beginning of 1943 was a turning point in the war. Despite the weakened position, the Nazis continued with their plan of destruction of the Jewish population in the ghettos and camps still under their control. As the Soviet army proceeded westward, the Nazis hastened the destruction of the Jews and then of their own facilities in order to cover the tracks of their crimes. In the fall of 1944, the Nazis began the evacuation of Auschwitz, and in January 1945, Himmler commanded to evacuate (by foot) all camps toward which the Allied forces were advancing. In this so-called “Death march”, tens of thousands of more Jewish lives perished.
The Nazi conquest of Poland in 1939 marked a transition from the semi coerced emigration of Jews to foreign states to their mass deportation and executions. The war closed down many options for legal flight. The existence of the war allowed the Nazi party to act in such a way. Hitler was no longer worried of how he might look on the international stage. Domestically many people accepted the extermination as necessary in order in win the war, perhaps also important people at this time were more fearful to speak out for their own safety. In times of war many ordinary people would have been worried about their next meal, or perhaps their home could have been destroyed by allied bombing etc. In many cases ordinary people would have been worried about their own survival instead of worrying on the fate of the Jews.