University of Bucharest
Department of Political Science
The main causes of the Holocaust
The focus of this paper is to highlight the main converging elements which led to the systematic and industrial mass extermination of millions of people during the Nazi dictatorship, an ”event” that was registered by history under the generic term of Holocaust. I consider that a mono-causal approach of the Holocaust will throw only a dim light upon the subject and that in order to understand the phenomenon you have to take into consideration a multiple set of factors, like: Nazi ideology, anti-Semitism, racial ideology, motivations. All these elements are undoubtedly tightly linked together and even if they are studied individually one must always have in mind this aspect. No one can actually explain how was it possible, what we can do, and many historians and scholars have done already, is to explain what made it possible. As Wolfgang Sauer puts it “we can work out explanatory theories, but, if we face the facts directly, all explanations appear weak.”1
When it all began? With the birth of Italian fascism? With Hitler’s seizure of power in January 1933? With the breaking out of the Second World War in 1939? Was it something accumulating and growing over decades and reaching full maturity with and during the Nazi regime? The answers are diverse and the interpretations vary from one writer to another.
First and foremost I will refer to the nature of the regime itself. Was Nazism a form of fascism, a brand of totalitarianism, or a unique phenomenon? Fascism was a latecomer, making its entrance on the political scene only after the First World War, at a time when, in most countries the party system had already crystallized.2 In most cases, in their beginnings, the fascist parties couldn’t raise a solid support, remaining in many countries minority movements with little or no electorate appeal. Their success, or failure, depended on the particular historical, social and political context in which they found themselves.
We can thereby understand that fascism was the generic term for the different forms in which it had manifested, like, for example, Nazism in Germany or Legionarism in Romania, incorporating National Socialism as early as the 1930’s,“National Socialism was in the 1930s already a different pole of ideological attraction and influence for fascist parties.”3. So it was far from being just an Italian movement and then, a regime under Benito Mussolini’s rule. This approach on the Nazism, as a form of fascism, dates back to the 1920’s communists’ definition of fascism. In the spirit of the Marxist ideology, the definition relates the fascism’s birth with the capitalist and bourgeois social system’s crisis.
Totalitarian theories concerned this time with Nazism and Soviet Communism were soon to follow, but only managed to reach their hey-day during the Cold War, when left-wing interpretations of Nazism as a form of fascism lost their influence, while totalitarianism theories gained momentum. The central point of these theories was that Nazism and Soviet Communism were “as two sides of the same totalitarian coin”.4 Later on, Jürgen Kocka would start his debate on the causes of the raise of National Socialism in Germany from the same premises as the Marxists, but only to stress the fact that in Germany’s case there were some peculiarities that made it different from any other type of fascism. But from this, to declaring that Nazism was a sui generis phenomenon, a product of the peculiarities of Prussian – German development over the previous decades, evidently outrunning the Italian fascism in intensity, it is only a step.
What I wanted to emphasize is that there is no contradiction between these theories set up around Nazism, because in fact, Nazism was an extreme manifestation of fascism and also an extreme manifestation of modernity, it presented itself under a totalitarian form, having unique characteristics, which can only be understood within the framework of German national development.5 Moreover, there is an intricate link between National Socialism, the Holocaust and modernity which cannot and should not be easily dismissed.
The modernization theories were reaction to the Marxist explanation of the National Socialism, first drew their arguments from Thorstein Veblen 1915’s remark that the German society had acquired characteristic features in the course of the nineteenth century because it had modernized unevenly. This meant that the political structure and value system were outrun by the rate at which the industry was evolving. The resulting crisis produced among all those groups which had failed to adjust to modernization, consequently crystallized in the form of National Socialism with all its “bundle of anti-modern resentments”.6 The main problem here is whether Germany during the Nazi rule was or not, a modern society, and whether it was or not, undergoing some intended or unintended modernizing processes. And the stakes are high, because if this proves to be true then all modern societies hold in their actual nature the causes of the Holocaust.
It is true that the German society had all the characteristics of a modern society: it was an industrial society, it had an educational system, a voting and party system, and hence we can conclude that Germany was in fact a modern society until 1933. After that year, which brought the official consolidation of Hitler’s power we can not speak of any modernizing processes, but only of a progressive radicalization of the German society. Hitler did modernize the army, by increasing social mobility, and by doing so, he tried to stretch his power over the army as well.
If we accept the modernity argument in the form stated by Zygmunt Bauman, then we accept the fact that the Holocaust was a modern phenomenon,7 and the product of a modern society, as opposed to the “mythic view which necessitates seeing the Holocaust as a reversion to barbarism resulting from a temporary failure of civilization”.8 But this argument, even if it is logical and acceptable, failed to explain why modernity did not produce a Nazi-like regime and a murderous ideology in other modern countries, or why murderous regimes developed in less-than-modern countries.9 Even so, the “modern” world we live in keeps producing genocide despite the educational and political programs directed against xenophobia or racism.10
Nonetheless, the German state during the Nazi rule was not a modern one. Students of fascism tend to neglect the fact that the regime was first and foremost one promoting terror and that it was characterized by political control of every aspect of society in the quest for power and racial, social and cultural purity. There was no liberal and democratic political system, hence lacking political modernity which would have made it a modern state.
Most of the debates on the causes of the Holocaust place anti-Semitism and the anti-Semitic policies of the Nazi party among the central factor which lead to the “Final Solution”. First used in Germany in the 1870’s by Wilhelm Marr, the founder of the Antisemitic League, the term underwent major changes from its primary meaning. Anti-Semitism implied “prejudice against, hostility toward, and, at times, persecution of Jews”. 11 Only later it comes to incorporate the direct reference to “hatred of Jews”. The anti-Jewish legislation was one of the expressions of the Nazis’ antisemitic policy. It was a series of laws passed on September 15th, 1935 designed first, to clarify the requirements of citizenship in the Third Reich, second to assure the purity of German blood and German honor and third, to clarify the position of Jews in the Reich. These three laws, , and the numerous auxillary laws which followed them are called the Nuremberg Laws. The Jews were no longer citizens of the Reich, they were cornered and gradually taken out of the German society and sent first to ghettos, than to labor and death camps.
Although the racial ideologies and their related theories were not an exclusively German discovery, the Third Reich is the first state in history whose dogma and practice was racism. The racial ideologies claimed that the physical and psychological differences between individuals and races are an indication of their relative worth.12 Representatives of racial theories, like J. Forster and J. Reitemeier stressed the historical-messianic quality of Germans, “bearers of civilization” and thus entitled to resettle territories once inhabited by ancient Germanic tribes. Other emphasized the superiority of the German blood in order to give a historical legitimacy to the process of “Germanizing Prussia’s Polish minority”, but one of the most famous and circulated racial theory belongs to Gobineau who argued that the fall and rise of civilizations was racially determined and that all high cultures in history were the work of “Aryans”.
The racial theories as part of the system which made the Holocaust possible, took shape under the form of the eugenics and racial hygiene policies. At first, these policies were not precisely oriented against the Jews, but against each and every individual who will prove useless to society, namely those suffering from mental deficiencies and/or physical peculiarities. Thus, the Nazi regime attempted to popularize euthanasia as a sacrifice that would prove a relief, a blessing for the victims but, with minor success. In spite of the intense propaganda to promote euthanasia, Hitler had to stop the program because of a combination of ecclesiastical protest and adverse public opinion. Of course that euthanasia continued in secret, but the fact still remains, as a possible precedent, that Hitler had to have the suppport of the German masses and strata for the implementations of his programs. But the negative reactions against the euthanasia program did not repeat in the case of the “Final Solution” of the Jews.
Mosse argues that not only that the Jews were singled out because of their so-called signs of physical degeneration, or their so-called lack of productivity, but because of their supposed criminality, based on the theories of Caesare Lombroso, who believed that the signs of criminality are visible in one’s behavior and features.13 An element that shouldn’t be omitted is that the Nazi literature and films were filled with these ideas about the supposed criminality of Jews, and the belief in this theory of criminality made it easier to accept the murder of the Jews, because it had sunk so deep into popular consciousness. Still this does note explain German reactions to the events of the Kristallnacht (November 9th, 1938). Of course that among the Germans there were many bystanders, but most of the German society proved to be against such violent actions toward the German Jewry. Some argue that Kristallnacht was in fact a test rationally planned to measure the degree of acceptance of the implementation of the “Final Solution” among the German people. Mosse then considers that the Germans were fully conscious of the Jews’ fate. This position is both accepted and reinforced by historians like Goldhagen, and of course, disapproved.
Goldhagen’s “willing executioners” theory presents the German people as being deeply anti-Semitic, characterized by an eliminative anti-Semitism, which made them all the future perpatrators of the Holocaust. But the victims were not only Jews, there were also Roma, Slaves, homosexuals, disabled people, POW’s, and the perpetrators were not only Nazi (Germans), but also French, Hungarians, Romanians, Ukrainians, Poles , Croats.
Even though he was much criticized for his mono-causal “eliminationist anti-Semitism” theory, Goldhagen highlights the importance of motivations. Were the motives behind the Holocaust rational or irrational? Was the Holocaust planned or the idea of the Final Solution developed with the Nazi party? There is no proof in this respect, that the Nazis followed a predetermined program. What is certain is that the outbreak of the Second World War brought a radicalization in the Jewish policy which finalized with the “Final Solution”.
A vast debate on the Jewish Leadership and Jewish Resistance has produced a new set of answers to our initial question, what made the Holocaust a reality? Writings on Jewish resistance during the Second World War hardly differ from writings on anti-Nazi resistance in general. Only after the 1960’s Eichmann trial in Jerusalem begun the discussion from a more pertinent point of view of the Jewish resistance. Until then, most of the writings on this topic had been those of the ones who had experienced the Holocaust firsthand.
In order to understand whether there was a Jewish resistance or not, first we have to define resistance itself. Can we consider the battle to maintain humanity in the extreme conditions of the ghettoes, concentration and death camps a form of resistance, or we need something more? “The challenge was to distinguish between different kinds of opposition, ranging from causal, every day grumbling at one end of a scale, to full-blown efforts to overthrow the Nazi regime.”14 Michael Marrus identifies five types of resistance (Symbolic, Polemic, Defensive, Offensive and Enchained Resistance) according to the commitments of resister and what they managed to do. Because most, if not all the Jewish resistance had trouble organizing, finding supporters and funds, their actions to limit or end the exercise of power of the oppressor had lead to minor or no results. We cannot deny that the Jewish resistance helped to save many lives, but it could reach the central goal of a resistance, to end the oppression.
There are voices who condemn the Jewish leadership of being the henchmen of the Nazi authorities, or even collaborators assisting in mass destruction. Initially, the Jewish leaders lived under the illusion that the Nazi regime won’t last very long, so the reaction was to intensify Jewish life and demonstrating Jewish self-assertion. Then, their effort concentrated on sustaining the immigration. With the outbreak of the war, Jewish officials had to play the role of an administrative organ of the Nazi regime, assisting with registration, forced labor and group housing: “The Jewish apparatus became entangled in the wheels of the Nazi machinery of destruction”.15 In fact the action of the Jewish resistance was parallel with that of Jewish leadership, an obvious lack of communication which facilitated the implementation of the “Final Solution”
This factors presented above are only a few of the myriad of elements, which aggregated and made Holocaust possible. Furthermore, I think that no one at the beginning of the Nazi regime had imagined the proportions it would reach, maybe only the “prophetic” and visionary Hitler and the handful of people who surrounded him.
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