By Dr. Catherine Chatterley
Founding Director, CISA
Adjunct Professor of History, University of Manitoba
Holocaust history and the history of Nazi Germany are two of the most solidly established and thoroughly documented fields in our study of the human past. Among the reasons for this reality are: 1) the enormous evidentiary record provided by the Germans themselves, which includes 12 years of fastidious documentation as well as an elaborate photographic and film record, and 2) the legal and testimonial record based upon the experiential witnessing of Nazism’s Jewish victims and survivors. Here there is the public witnessing of the postwar period and also an internal process in the form of Jewish Historical Commissions in Europe from 1943-1949 and the reams of Yizkor Books produced after the war.
The consensus among historians of the Holocaust and of historians of Nazi Germany is that antisemitism was a central fixation for Adolf Hitler and that his obsession with “the Jews” determined Nazi anti-Jewish policy from 1933-1945. Hitler’s antisemitism is clearly documented in writing from his Letter to Herr Gemlich (September 16, 1919), throughout his autobiography Mein Kampf, in his electoral campaigns, his speeches, in Nazi propaganda and legislation, to the final words of his Last Will and Testament (April 29, 1945).
Through the work of historians, we now know that Hitler’s anti-Jewish policies evolved over time, with changing circumstances and new possibilities given those changes. Looking at the history of the period one sees the policy evolving in Germany from 1933-1939 from one of social and economic death (Marion Kaplan clearly illustrates this process in her book Between Dignity and Despair: Jewish Life in Nazi Germany) to expropriation (better known as Aryanization) and forced emigration. The idea was to make life so impossible for Jews in Germany—who constituted less than 1% of the population—that they would leave. All of these policies were legal in Germany under the Nuremberg Laws, which were first passed on September 15, 1935, and then supplemented by numerous anti-Jewish decrees until the end of the war. Almost half of German Jewry had left the country by Kristallnacht, the pogrom of November 9/10, 1938, which convinced the remaining Jews that there was no future for them in Germany.
As Hitler occupied other European countries, beginning in the fall of 1939, he came to control millions of Jews. The regime began to plan for the removal of these Jews, first to the far reaches of the eastern end of the Reich, then to the French island of Madagascar, off the coast of Africa, where they would be forced to live under a German mandate. That plan was finally discarded when the Germans failed to cow the British into submission in September 1940. The Nazis forced the large Jewish populations of Eastern Europe into over 1,100 ghettos and sealed them from the outside world. With the invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941, Jews were murdered en masse by mobile killing units of the Einsatzgruppen, who followed the German army into Eastern Poland and the USSR.
That fall, probably in October, the decision was made to annihilate the Jews of Europe. We have no written order from Hitler (as we do with the so-called Euthanasia program signed in October 1939 and backdated to September 1939). Historians believe Hitler gave an oral order to begin the complete destruction of Europe’s Jews, which can be followed through subsequent correspondence between Goering, Heydrich, and Himmler. Again, we know from Sir Ian Kershaw, the leading historian of Hitler, that “Hitler’s personalized form of rule invited radical initiatives from below and offered such initiatives backing, so long as they were in line with his broadly defined goals.”
(Kershaw, Hitler: 1889-1936 Hubris, p. 530)
Think of a CEO providing ten managers with a demand to find the best, most efficient, least expensive, strategy to achieve his increased profit margins for the next year. “Working toward the Führer” is how it is understood.
The coordination of this continental strategy to annihilate an estimated 11 million European Jews was announced and discussed among the Nazi administrative leadership at the Wannsee Conference on January 20, 1942. Prior to this, approximately one million Jews had been murdered.
After experimenting on Jews with a number of killing methods—including mass shootings and gas vans—the Germans settled on an industrialized assembly line process and built six killing centers in Poland for the specific purpose of exterminating the Jews of Europe. The three Operation Reinhard death camps were named for Reinhard Heydrich, head functionary of the Nazi Final Solution and host of the Wannsee Conference. Belzec began killing operations in March 1942; Sobibor in May 1942; and, Treblinka in July 1942 (with mass deportations out of the Warsaw Ghetto). Over two million Jews were murdered in these camps by November 1943. Birkenau was designated a killing facility in the spring of 1942, and this site at Auschwitz would facilitate the murder of one million Jews. On July 19, 1942, Himmler had ordered that the Final Solution to the Jewish Question be completed by December 31, 1942 in the region of the General Government. This order explains the “eleven-month wave of murder,” between mid-March 1942 and mid-February 1943, during which 80% of the Jewish Holocaust victims were killed.
One cannot possibly explain the Holocaust of 1933-1945, which historian Christopher Browning defines as “the total historical experience of the Nazi persecution of the Jews culminating in the Final Solution," without accounting for the specific targeting of Jews. (Browning, Oxford Handbook of Genocide Studies) In a recent lecture in Florence, Professor Browning, stated that the genocide and colonialist frameworks that are sometimes employed today to try to explain the Holocaust fail to account for the specific targeting of European Jewry.
While Nazi Germany was no doubt imperialist, colonialist, racist, and genocidal within Europe, why would we look to examples of European colonialism outside Europe to understand the Nazi desire to annihilate the Jews of Europe and not to the history of the millennial phenomenon of antisemitism? The continuum of European thought and feeling about Jews is not colonial but antisemitic, as Raul Hilberg made clear in his study, The Destruction of the European Jews:
“Since the fourth century after Christ there have been three anti-Jewish policies: conversion, expulsion, and annihilation. The second appeared as an alternative to the first, and the third emerged as an alternative to the second . . . The Nazi destruction process did not come out of a void . . . the missionaries of Christianity had said in effect: You have no right to live among us as Jews [conversion]. The secular rulers who followed had proclaimed: You have no right to live among us [expulsion]. The Nazis at last decreed: You have no right to live [annihilation].” (Hilberg, 1985, pp. 6-8)
If a solution is deemed final, as was Die Endlösung der Judenfrage (The Final Solution to the Jewish Question), then it is logical to understand that other solutions to the same so-called “problem” must have been attempted. There is a historical continuity here and it is to the history of antisemitism that we look for such understanding.
As for the murderers, we know from historical research that they were under pressure to conform, concerned for their own welfare and careers, sometimes under the influence of alcohol (provided by their superiors), and so on. The degree to which each individual murderer hated Jews is difficult to assess; however, it is reasonable to assume that their views would reflect the general sentiments of the German people at the time. Studies of German public opinion during the Nazi period reveal that by 1936 “the belief that Jews were another race was widespread.” (Kaplan, 1999, 46.)
It is also reasonable to assume that most Germans believed the propaganda—directed at them ad nauseam—that Jews were engaged in a conspiracy against Germany and that they were behind the communism the Germans were intent on destroying. There were also the traditional forms of anti-Jewish animus (Christian and economic) that would have been at work in men of this age, who had been raised in Weimar Germany or more likely in the Kaiserreich (German empire). The fear of, and contempt for, the Ostjuden (Jews of Eastern Europe) was centuries old in Germany and that would also have been present in these individuals. In the end, though, regardless of their own personal motivations these men did exactly as they were ordered—they murdered the Jews they were told to murder—and that returns us to the antisemitic ideology at the heart of the regime, which determined the war of annihilation perpetrated by these individuals against the Jews of Europe.
Christopher Browning’s study of the murder of the 1500 Jews of Józefów by German Ordnungspolizei (Order Police) reveals precisely this fact:
“Crushing conformity and blind, unthinking acceptance of the political norms of the time on the one hand, careerism on the other—these emerge as the factors that at least some of the men of Reserve Police Battalion 101 were able to discuss twenty-five years later. What remained virtually unexamined by the interrogators and unmentioned by the policemen was the role of antisemitism. Did they not speak of it because antisemitism had not been a motivating factor? Or were they unwilling and unable to confront this issue even after twenty-five years, because it had been all too important, all too pervasive? One is tempted to wonder if the silence speaks louder than words, but in the end—the silence is still silence, and the question remains unanswered.
Was the incident at Józefów typical? Certainly not. I know of no other case in which a commander so openly invited and sanctioned the nonparticipation of his men in a killing action. But in the end the most important fact is not that the experience of Reserve Police Battalion 101 is untypical, but rather that Trapp’s extraordinary offer did not matter. Like any other unit, Reserve Police Battalion 101 killed the Jews they had been told to kill.” (Browning, Path to Genocide, p. 183)