July 24, 2024
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Germany and the Jews: From Casual Social Hatred to Annihilation

“It is not, in Christian countries, with the Jews as with other peoples. Men say, ‘This is a bad Greek, but there are good Greeks. This is a bad Turk, but there are good Turks.’ Not so with the Jews. Men find the bad among us easily enough—among what peoples are the bad not easily found?—but they take the worst of us as samples of the best; they take the lowest of us as presentations of the highest; and they say, “All Jews are alike’.”—Charles Dickens, “Our Mutual Friend.”

If we had lived in 1914, and someone foretold that Jews would be exterminated in Europe one day, the obvious conclusion would have been this would occur in France, not Germany, observed George Mosse, one of the world’s leading historians of European intellectual and cultural history. National Socialism first developed in France, not Germany, he said, where it “had depth, and had a large following among the workers.” In “Toward the Final Solution,” he added, “Germany had no Dreyfus Affair or Panama scandal and no Third Republic…”

 

Racial Ideology

Although racial ideology and theories did not originate exclusively in Germany, the Third Reich was the first country in history whose canon and practice were founded on racial hatred, according to historians Michael Burleigh and Wolfgang Wippermann. Racial hatred of Jews was the attempt to identify “man’s place in nature and of the hope for an ordered, healthy, and happy world,” Mosse said. Hitler’s Volksgemeinschaft (people’s community) had the “appeal of modernity” and its ability to unleash a “transformative dynamic that contributed decisively” in providing legitimacy to the Nazi regime, specifically to the younger generation, according to German historian Michael Wildt.

The Germans alleged that differences in the physical and psychological nature of every individual and race were an indication of their inherent “racial value,” and proceeded to create a complete racial order reflecting this doctrine, contended Burleigh and Wippermann. Racial-anthropological concepts, they claimed, offered the legitimacy to justify control over the European races and to legitimize “claims to hegemony by particular classes within society.” The ultimate of goal of the Nazi regime was to construct a “utopian society” designed in harmony with the principles of race. In the process, it sought to destroy the prevailing social structure by repudiating European heritage, and form a society founded on race rather than class.

 

Very Real Grievances

Had there not been genuine grievances and exasperations on the individual and the national level, Mosse noted, Germany would have developed in an entirely different way. This brings us to the question raised by historian Henry Friedländer. To what degree did the Nazi party and the German population participate in “Hitler’s obsession” with the Jews?

Extreme antisemitism “was not unusual,” he said, in agencies that played a key role in executing anti-Jewish policies, such as Reinhard Heydrich’s Security Service of the SS (Sicherheitsdienst, or SD). Party radicals were stirred by “social and economic resentment” conveyed in severe anti-Jewish proposals. Within the party and at times outside of it, there were areas of adamant antisemitism “powerful enough” to communicate and disseminate the “impact of Hitler’s own drive.” Among established elites, and within the “wider reaches” of the German population, anti-Jewish sentiments were either “tacit acquiescence or varying degrees of compliance.”

 

‘True Believers?’

Even when the German population was completely aware of the progressively punitive measures promulgated against the Jews, there was only some minimal dissent. The majority of Germans, who were unquestionably affected by diverse forms of traditional antisemitism, readily accepted Jews being segregated. They “shied away from widespread violence against them,” and did not urge their expulsion from Germany or their physical destruction.

In “Hitler’s Beneficiaries: Plunder, Racial War, and the Nazi Welfare State,” German historian Götz Aly suggests that one reason for only “marginal resistance” by Germans was because so many of them benefited from “Nazi Germany’s campaigns of plunder” of Jewish assets, not only in Germany but in France, Holland, Romania, Serbia, Poland and elsewhere. The Germans stole billions of Reichsmarks from the Jews. After the intense Allied bombing of Bremen, the Germans were given furniture stolen from Dutch Jews, who were deported and then murdered. Just in Bremen alone, there were many hundreds of freight cars and dozens of ships filled with Jewish furnishings.

Friedländer said that after the Germans attacked Russia in June 1941, however, “hundreds of thousands of ‘ordinary Germans’ (as distinct from the … SS units, among others) who actively participated” in the mass murder did not act any differently from the equally numerous and ‘ordinary’ Austrians, Rumanians, Ukrainians, Balts, and other Europeans who became the most willing operatives of the machinery in their midst.”

 

A Final Note

What is the legacy of the Shoah? Mosse asked. “The Holocaust has passed. … Contrary to popular belief, the Holocaust was not “the history of an aberration of European thought or as scattered moments of madness, but an integral part of the European experience.”

What does this legacy mean for us today? The German-Swiss philosopher Karl Jaspers warned: “That which has happened is a warning. To forget it is guilt. It was possible for this to happen, and it remains possible for it to happen again at any minute. Only in knowledge can it be prevented.”


Dr. Alex Grobman, is senior resident scholar at the John C. Danforth Society, member of the Council of Scholars for Peace in the Middle East.

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