Holocaust, The: History

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From the French Revolution to the 1860s, the Jews of western and central Europe experienced political emancipation. Unencumbered by ties to an agrarian way of life, many Jews also experienced economic prosperity and social mobility during the following decades of industrialization and urbanization, as they seized the opportunities that a period of rapid change offered. However, late nineteenth-century Europe also witnessed the emergence of radical protest movements by those who bore the cost of modernization. Such movements were usually anti-Semitic, as the Jew was an easy symbol of all that these people perceived to be the ills of modern society: urbanization; democratization; disruptive social mobility; and a large-scale, impersonal market economy undermining the livelihoods of tradesmen, artisans, and peasants. The adoption of the Jew as such a symbol was facilitated by a ready-made and widespread negative Jewish stereotype fostered by centuries of religious anti-Semitism. A racist brand of Social Darwinism that emerged at this time was quickly utilized to provide a veneer of pseudoscientific respectability suited to a more secular age. In this later view the Jews had such a baneful influence because they were by nature rootless and subversive cosmopolites who could never become true members of a national community shaped by "blood and soil."

In Germany and Austria this antimodernist protest was known as the völkisch movement, and it received added impetus after World War I from the humiliating defeat, revolutionary turmoil, and disintegrative inflation that afflicted central Europe. The most successful mobilizer of this discontent was the National Socialist German Workers' Party of Adolf Hitler, and the antimodernist, anti-Semitic völkisch tradition was the ideological force behind most of its early activists. For Hitler himself, however, the Jew was an even deeper psychological obsession. He saw the Jew not only as the cause of present ills, manifested above all in the rising Bolshevik threat, but also as the very metaphysical source of evil itself spanning the centuries. Thus, in addition to a war of expansion in the east assuring Germany of the territorial base (Lebensraum ) necessary for its status as a major power, Hitler also advocated the "removal" of the Jews from Germany. But Hitler did not come to power because of his promises for war and racial persecution. A much broader, often contradictory appeal for a "renewal" of German life underlay the Nazis' electoral breakthrough in the early 1930s. The hopes for the restoration of effective government to deal with the communist threat and the economic depression, the reconciliation of a highly factionalized German society into a unified racial entity with a common purpose, and a new meritocracy opening up careers to the professionally disadvantaged of Germany's tradition-bound society won votes from all sectors of the population but above all from the middle and lower-middle classes. With the votes of more than one-third of the German population behind Hitler, the old elites gambled that they could use him for their own purposes (many of which partially overlapped with Hitler's own goals). He was appointed chancellor in January 1933.

While Hitler consolidated his dictatorship in short order, an equally rapid solution to the Nazis' self-imposed Jewish problem was not forthcoming. Hitler's obsessive anti-Semitism provided sanction for various kinds of attacks upon the Jews but neither assured coordination of such attempts nor clarified the ultimate goal. Furthermore, Hitler and the Nazis had to take into account various inhibitive factors, such as the fragile state of the economy, foreign reaction, and the sensibilities of their conservative allies and the German public. What emerged was a cyclical pattern of intensifying persecution, as periodic pressure from party radicals for violent attacks upon the Jews was mollified with legislative discrimination more conducive to economic stability and less disturbing to the majority of the German public. In 1933 the Jews were deprived of civic equality and barred from various professions. In 1935 the Nuremberg Laws completed the social ostracism of Jews by forbidding marriage or sexual intercourse between Jews and "Aryans." In 1938 another wave of legislation impoverished the Jews by systematically stripping them of their property.

The party radicals made one last attempt to take control of Nazi Jewish policy when Joseph Goebbels incited the Kristallnacht riots of November 910, 1938. The arson of synagogues and vandalism of Jewish businesses throughout Germany caused dismay among many Germans who did not want to be confronted with a choice between their loyalty to and illusions about the regime on the one hand and their innate respect for property and order on the other. Heinrich Himmler and Hermann Göring joined forces and, with Hitler's approval, centralized control of Jewish policy, effectively excluding Goebbels. Henceforth the persecution of the Jews would be carried out through the orderly administration of the German bureaucracy, not through the violent pogroms of local party activists. Unobtrusive but relentless, this bureaucratic persecution proved far more conducive to the indifference of the German public and far more dangerous to the Jews.

With the growing role of Himmler's Schutzstaffel (SS) (a complex and expanding conglomeration of elite party organizations, police forces, and eventually even military formations) in shaping Nazi Jewish policy, one clear vision gradually emergeda Germany free of Jews through emigration. But it was a vision unrealized. Faced with mounting immigration barriers in a world gripped by economic depression and thus decidedly unsympathetic to impoverished refugees, German Jews were reluctant to abandon career, property, and a country to which they were deeply attached. Emigration proceeded slowly, and the addition of Austrian and Czech Jews in 19381939 brought more Jews into the Reich than had emigrated over the past six years. The Kristallnacht had removed any remaining illusions of waiting out the Nazi regime, and almost all German Jews were now desperate to leave. The SS conducted experiments in coerced emigration organized by Adolf Eichmann to get rid of the Austrian and Czech Jews as quickly as possible. Nevertheless, time ran out. The outbreak of war in September 1939 closed most borders, and the acquisition first of two million Polish Jews and then another half million Jews in western Europe by June 1940 shattered any expectation of a solution to the Jewish question through emigration.

The Nazis now sought a solution to their Jewish "problem" through increasingly ambitious expulsion schemes. First the Jews of Germany, especially the additional 550,000 of the newly annexed Polish territories, were to be expelled to a "Jewish reservation" in the Lublin region of Poland. Then, with the defeat of France the Nazis conceived a scheme for expelling all the Jews of Europe to the French island colony of Madagascar. Neither plan proved feasible, but in the meantime the Polish Jews were herded into the major cities of Poland and gradually ghettoized. With economic ties severed and most of their property confiscated, the Jews of these frightfully overcrowded ghettos seemed destined to extinction through starvation and disease. One-half million Jews died in the ghettos between 1939 and 1941. The rest survived while Jewish leaders, forced into Jewish councils on German orders, tenaciously struggled to restore minimal communal life and above all a viable ghetto economy that would keep the Jews alive by giving the Germans a stake in the productive potential of Jewish labor.

Germany's decision to invade the Soviet Union posed once again the dilemma engendered by military success, which inevitably would bring more Jews into the expanding German empire. To break this vicious circle, Hitler called for an unprecedented "war of destruction" in the east, that was simultaneously a campaign for territorial conquest, an ideological crusade against Bolshevism, and a racial struggle against the Slavs and Jews. In the first month following the June 22, 1941, invasion of the Soviet Union, the Germans experienced spectacular success. In the euphoria of seeming victory, the mass murder of "potential enemies" by mobile SS firing squads (Einsatzgruppen ) as well as other police and military units quickly escalated to include the killing of all Soviet Jews. The previous policies of expulsion and ghettoization had at least implied a decimation of the Jewish population, but now the leap to systematic mass murder, at least on Soviet territory, had been taken.

Intoxicated by victory and the prospect of a whole continent at their feet, Hitler and other leading Nazis contemplated extending the "final solution" to all European Jews. The firing-squad method was proving inadequate even on occupied Soviet territory because of the lack of secrecy of the mass executions, the psychological burden on the killers, and the staggering number of victims to be murdered. The technocrats of the Nazi regime solved these problems, however, by inventing the death camp. Secrecy, efficiency, and psychological detachment were to be achieved by deporting the victims to "factories of death" where a small staff would apply assembly-line methods to rob, gas, and cremate thousands of arriving Jews within a few hours. This vision was approved by Hitler in late September or early October 1941, and construction of the two earliest death camps, Belzec and Chelmno, was soon underway. The construction of four additional death camps eventually followed: the Birkenau section of Auschwitz, Sobibor, Treblinka, and Majdanek. When Reinhard Heydrich met with representatives from the various German ministries at the Wannsee Conference on January 20, 1942, to coordinate the deportation of all European Jews "to the east," the "final solution" to the Nazis' self-imposed Jewish problem was at hand.

In Poland the Germans descended upon the ghettos in savage "ghetto-clearing" operations, taking off the nonworking population first. Everywhere Jewish leaders faced the same excruciating dilemma. Resistance in the ghetto invited instant and overwhelming German retaliation against the entire community. Escape of the young fighters to the forests involved the abandonment of families. Compliance meant the incremental destruction of the community but at least initially held out hope that a remnant of workers would survive. This course was thus generally followed by Jewish leaders as the least intolerable evil, until family members had been lost, along with the illusion that the Germans were sufficiently utilitarian to preserve skilled labor. Only then did armed resistance seem rational. The Warsaw ghetto uprising, for instance, broke out in April 1943 when only seventy thousand of its nearly one-half million Jews were still alive.

Outside Poland and Russia the number of prospective victims was much less but the political obstacles to deportation to the death camps were much more complicated. Within the Third Reich both the police and a wide variety of local authorities handled the uprooting process. In the areas of German military administration and among Germany's allies and satellites, help from local collaborators was essential to identify and round up the Jews. Throughout all these regions the complex deportation program was coordinated by Heydrich's specialist, Eichmann. Deportations began from the Third Reich in the fall of 1941, and from Slovakia, France, Belgium, the Netherlands, and Norway in 1942. In 1943 the deportation effort spread to Greece, Bulgaria, Denmark, and Italy, though it faltered in Bulgaria and was thwarted almost entirely in Denmark through local obstruction. In Romania and Yugoslavia most of the Jews perished locally without resort to deportations. Finally, in May and June of 1944, nearly one-half million Hungarian Jews were the victims of the largest single deportation of the war.

As the Holocaust ran its course within the German empire, the outside world gradually learned of but never truly comprehended the magnitude and significance of the disaster. The first reports of a German plan to murder the entire Jewish population of Europe reached the West in the summer of 1942 through contacts in Switzerland. By November the reports had been fully confirmed, and an Allied declaration followed that condemned the Nazi actions and threatened punishment after the war. But little more was done. Old bureaucratic attitudes and patterns of behavior, shaped in an era when policy had been to turn back the tide of refugees from Nazism, did not change quickly. Rescue through military victory provided an easy excuse for inaction, and Allied leaders did not insist upon a fundamental change in priorities necessary to alter this situation. The vast majority of Hitler's victims were beyond any rescue effort, but inability to stop the murder of millions was only made more horrifying by the pervasive passivity of the Allies concerning the possible rescue of additional thousands of threatened Jews.

When the Nazi regime finally collapsed in defeat, between five and six million Jews (approximately one-third of world Jewry) had perished in the Holocaust. A nearly equal number of non-Jews were also murdered by the Nazis: more three million Russian prisoners of war, the physically and mentally handicapped, the Roma and Sinti, the Polish intelligentsia, political opponents and resisters, homosexuals and others defined as "asocials," numerous slave laborers kept in unlivable conditions, and countless victimsespecially Russians, Poles, and Yugoslavsof mass reprisals and indiscriminate terror aimed at subduing the civilian populations of occupied territories. The Nazi regime showed itself capable of mass murder against virtually any group of people. But no other group of victims occupied the role in Hitler's mind of metaphysical evil incarnate as did the Jews. No other victims were threatened so totally and pursued so relentlessly. And no other victims died so helpless and abandoned.

See Also

Anti-Semitism; Persecution, article on Jewish Experience; War and Warriors, overview article; Zionism.


On anti-Semitism in late nineteenth-century Europe, see P. G. J. Pulzer, The Rise of Political Anti-Semitism in Germany and Austria (New York, 1964); and Albert Lindemann, Esau's Tears: Modern Antisemitism and the Rise of the Jews (New York, 1997). George L. Mosse, The Crisis of German Ideology (New York, 1964) discusses the völkisch origins of Nazism. Eberhard Jäckel, Hitler's Weltanschauung (Middletown, Conn., 1972) is the best treatment of the shaping of Hitler's ideology in the 1920s. Also on Hitler, see Ian Kershaw, Hitler 18891936: Hubris and Hitler 19361945: Nemesis (New York, 1998 and 2000). Sarah Gordon, Hitler, Germans, and the "Jewish Question" (Princeton, 1984) examines German attitudes toward the Jews, which is also the subject of David Bankier, The Germans and the Final Solution: Public Opinion under Nazism (Oxford, 1992) and David Bankier, ed., Probing the Depths of German Antisemitism: German Society and the Persecution of the Jews, 19331941 (New York, 2000). For the experience of a single German Jew, see Victor Klemperer, I Will Bear Witness: A Diary of the Nazi Years (New York, 1998). The evolution of Nazi Jewish policy in the 1930s is treated in Karl A. Schleunes, The Twisted Road to Auschwitz (Urbana, Ill., 1970); Uwe Adam, Judenpolitik im Dritten Reich (Düsseldorf, 1972); and Saul Friedlander, Nazi Germany and the Jews: The Years of Persecution (New York, 1997). For Nazi population policies and "ethnic cleansing," see Götz Aly, "Final Solution": Nazi Population Policy and the Murder of the European Jews (London, 1999). The definitive study of the Einsatzgruppen is Helmut Krausnick and Hans-Heinrich Wilhelm, Die Truppe des Weltanschauungskrieges (Stuttgart, 1980). For the death camps, see Yitzhak Arad, Belzec, Sobibor, Treblinka: The Operation Reinhard Death Camps (Bloomington, 1987), and Robert Jan van Pelt and Deborah Dwork, Auschwitz: 1290 to the Present (New York, 1996). For contrasting studies of the motivations of the members of the killing squads: Christopher R. Browning, Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland (New York, 1992); and Daniel Jonah Goldhagen, Hitler's Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust (New York, 1996).

For an analysis of various arguments concerning the decisions for the "final solution," see Christopher R. Browning, The Path to Genocide (New York 1992), and the same author's Nazi Policy, German Workers, German Killers (New York, 2000).The classic analysis of the implementation of the "final solution" is Raul Hilberg, The Destruction of the European Jews (1961), rev. & exp. ed. 3 vols. (New York, 1985). Other comprehensive studies include Leni Yahil, Holocaust: The Fate of European Jewry (New York, 1990), and Peter Longerich, Politik der Vernichtung: Eine Gesamtdarstellung der nationalsozialisstichen Judenverfolgung (Munich, 1998). For ghetto life, the dilemma of the Jewish leadership, and Jewish resistance, see Isaiah Trunk, Judenrat: The Jewish Councils in Eastern Europe under Nazi Occupation (New York, 1972); Yisrael Gutman, The Jews of Warsaw, 19391943: Ghetto, Underground, Revolt (Bloomington, Ind., 1982); The Warsaw Diary of Adam Czerniakow, edited by Raul Hilberg et al.; and The Chronicle of the Lodz Ghetto, 19411944, edited by Lucjan Dobroszycki (New Haven, Conn., 1984). Allied reaction to the Holocaust has been studied in a series of important books: Henry L. Feingold, The Politics of Rescue: The Roosevelt Administration and the Holocaust, 19381945 (New Brunswick, N.J., 1970); Bernard Wasserstein, Britain and the Jews of Europe, 19391945 (Oxford, 1979); Walter Laqueur, The Terrible Secret: Suppression of the Truth about Hitler's "Final Solution" (London, 1980); David S. Wyman, The Abandonment of the Jews: America and the Holocaust, 19411945 (New York, 1984); and Tony Kushner, The Holocaust and the Liberal Imagination: A Social and Cultural History (Oxford, 1990).

For the fate of the Soviet prisoners of war, see Christian Streit, Keine Kameraden: Die Wehrmachtd und die sowjetischen Kriegsgefangenen (Stuttgart, 1978). For the fate of the handicapped, see Henry Friedlander, The Origins of Nazi Genocide: From Euthanasia to the Final Solution (Chapel Hill, 1995). For the fate of the "Gypsies" or Roma and Sinti, see Michael Zimmermann, Rassenutopie und Genozid: die nationalsozialistische "Lösung der Zigeunerfrage" (Hamburg, 1996), and Guenter Lewy, The Nazi Persecution of the Gypsies (New York, 2000). For the wider context of Nazi racial persecution, see Michael Burleigh and Wolfgang Wippermann, The Racial State: Germany 19331945 (New York, 1991).

Christopher R. Browning (1987 and 2005)