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How Much Information Was Known About the Destruction of European Jewry?

Linguistic Subterfuge to Obscure Intention

There is a great deal of confusion about how much information was known about the destruction of European Jewry, and for good reason. Historian Peter Longerich asserted the Germans used linguistic subterfuge to obscure the actual intention of their anti-Jewish policy, which changed in meaning as the intensity of the persecution became more extreme over the years. Since mid-1941, and particularly from the spring of 1942, Hitler and other Nazi leaders used terms such as “annihilation” (Vernichtung), “extirpation” (Ausrottung), “final solution” (Endlösung), “removal” (Entfernung), “resettlement”(Umsiedlung) and “evacuation” (Evakuierung) to conceal the mass murder of the Jews.

Prior this period, Longerich said that when these terms were used with regard to Jews, they did not mean mass murder. When they were applied to other minorities, they had other very distinct meanings. When attempting to analyze what these words meant, one must consider during which phase of the war against the Jews they were applied. Without taking the time frame into account, these words have no meaning. From the 1920 to the mid-1930s, the Nazis undermined the legal and economic position of the German Jews to compel them to emigrate. First, they wanted Jews removed from German civic life, and then from Germany.

When the Nazis used the word Vernichtung (annihilation) during this early period, Longerich said, they meant to terminate the dominant role Jews supposedly played in German society. Nevertheless. Longerich asserted that even at this stage, the “term already had a violent and even murderous component to its meaning, however vaguely defined this might have been. … The perspective of mass murder was already present.”


Did the Term ‘Extermination’ Mean Physical Killing in the Early Period?

Historian Eberhard Jäckel believed that during this early period, “Hitler did not … mean the physical killing of human beings every time he spoke of extermination.” In 1927, when he condemned the “extermination of Germandom” in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, it is quite evident he meant only about the “process of de-Germanization,” a “policy of the slow squeezing out of Germandom.” Jäckel cautioned that “one should not interpret his words too readily, nor should one always accept at face value Hitler’s brutally strong language.”

To recapitulate. From the early 1920s to the mid -1930s, the Nazi’s Jewish agenda was the “final solution”—removal (Entfernung) from Germany’s public arena and ultimately from Germany altogether, according to Longerich. To this end, the German Interior Ministry formulated the first anti-Jewish decree allowing for the dismissal of Jewish civil servants. The decree of April 7, 1933, declared that those of “non-Aryan descent” were to be discharged, noted political scientist Raul Hilberg.


Who Is a Jew?

The regulation of April 11, 1933, defined the term “non-Aryan descent” as any individual who had a Jewish parent or grandparent under the assumption that the parent or grandparent belonged to the Jewish religion, Hilberg said. (Hilberg, op.cit. 64-65). Hilberg, who helped us understand how the Nazis organized the administrative machinery to systematically murder six million Jews, pointed out that this definition is not founded on racial criteria such as physical characteristics or blood type, yet for propaganda purposes, the Nazis classified them as “racial laws” (Rassengesetze). This definition, which non-German journalists and others adopted, and referred to as “racial,” was based solely on the religion of the ancestors, not the religion of the person involved. Why? Because the Nazis were interested in “Jewish influence.”

This also explains why the non-Aryan definition included three-quarter Jews, half-Jews, and one-quarter Jews, so that those who might be carriers of “Jewish influence,” even in the most minimal manner would be discharged. (Hilberg, 64-65).

In defining the Jew in this way, the Interior Ministry succeeded in overcoming the same challenge that had confronted earlier generations of antisemites and Nazis—a concrete definition “of the concept Jew.”


The Law for the Protection of German Blood and German Honor

On September 13, 1935, prior to the Nuremberg party rally, Hitler ordered a decree be written under the name The Law for the Protection of German Blood and German Honor (Nuremberg Laws), which prohibited marriages and extramarital intercourse between Jews and Germans and prohibited “German females under 45 from working in Jewish homes.”

The Nuremberg Laws, which were promulgated on September 15, 1935, deprived Jews of their civil rights as German citizens and removed them legally, socially and politically from German society. Longerich noted that by the end of the 1930s, the Nazis passed laws to force the Jews either to leave or be expelled. By using phrases like “annihilation” (Vernichtung), “removal” (Entfernung) or “final solution” (Endlösung), Hitler and his followers concealed the mass murder European Jewry. One cannot understand the implication of these terms without considering which phase of anti-Jewish policy is being considered.

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

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