Section 1- intentionalist/Functionalist Debate



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Section 1- Intentionalist/Functionalist Debate

When trying to understand the true reason and course of action for the Holocaust, historians tend to cluster into two main viewpoints- intentionalism versus functionalism. The views explain different reasoning behind the Holocaust and have an impact on understanding why the Holocaust occurred and what events led to the mass murder of millions of Jews and other undesirables. The Intentionalist view was popular from the 1950’s to the 1970’s, while the Functionalist view emerged in the late 1970’s.

The Intentionalist view claims that Hitler had a long-range plan he had concocted by the mid 1920’s. This view focuses mainly on Hitler, and that extermination of Jews was the end of a long-term plan to purify and strengthen the Aryan race. The Intentionalists claim that the Nazis were able to act upon this plan because Germany was a monolithic society, being controlled from the top by only Hitler and the Nazi Party. The destruction of Jews was not only preordained, but the Holocaust was fully planned and methodically carried out at the behest of Hitler’s leading associates: from the laws and boycotts aimed against Jews in the early 1930’s, to ghettoization, to Mobile Killing Squads wiping out millions, and eventually to death camps. The impact this had on the Holocaust was that because Hitler and his regime directed the master plan, Jews did not stand a chance of survival.

The “Functionalist” view came about in the late 1970’s, and argued that Hitler had no planning or foresight –the Holocaust was characterized by complete administrative chaos. Throughout the 1930’s, Hitler had issued many policies continually stripping Jews of rights, wealth, employment, and shelter in the hopes that they would emigrate and his dream of a Jew-free Germany would become a reality. Functionalists argue that when the failure of the Nazis’ emigration plan was evident, they had no plan beyond that because they had counted on it being successful.

Hitler was incredibly vague when issuing statements; so Nazi leaders often took it upon themselves to interpret Hitler’s “off-the-cuff” remarks, which led to a lack of coordination and communication among leaders. Evidence indicates that Hitler was not overly involved in the daily duties of the Nazi regime, which suggests that he could not have been the single force behind the Holocaust. The vagueness and misdirection of directives issued by Nazi leaders led to policy radicalization, which eventually led to the Holocaust. The example of Kristallnacht is useful evidence for this view. Neither Hitler nor Heinrich Himmler (Hitler’s second in command) were involved in or had knowledge of Kristallnacht- it was perpetrated by Joseph Goebbels, Minister of Propaganda. On November 9 and 10, 1938, SS men, Nazi Party members, and people on the streets destroyed Jewish synagogues and businesses and burned buildings across Germany and Austria. This devolved into violence, rape, and murder, and 26,000 Jews were sent to concentration camps as a result of these events. Kristallnacht resulted from chaos- there were competing powers in Nazi leaders and no one knew who was in charge, so Goebbels took it upon himself to orchestrate this event.

Depending on which way the Nazi regime and the Holocaust are regarded, these different views can change how people remember these events. Through the Intentionalist viewpoint, the destruction of Jewish people during the Holocaust can be remembered as a product of tyrannical dictator Adolf Hitler and his Nazi associates. This puts the blame mainly on Hitler’s shoulders, and it perhaps makes this event easier to digest knowing that the Holocaust had been the plan all along, and there was not much people could do to stop it. However, regarding the Holocaust through the functionalist viewpoint can be remembered as a chaotic unfolding of events. There was no master plan on this “crooked road” to genocide, and the Nazi regime can be characterized by sporadic decision making with no single person to blame for the Holocaust.

Another way these opposing viewpoints impact the way the Holocaust is viewed is that they can change the perspective that different events in the Nazi timeline can be seen- for example, when the leap was made from ghettoization to mass murder. Through the Intentionalist view, this may be seen as a stepping-stone on a long path that was preordained. Perhaps Hitler knew he could become increasingly radical as time went on and as the magnitude of the war intensified; so he started by implementing anti-Jewish policies, then ghettoization, and then eventually mass murder. However, this leap is seen differently through Functionalist eyes. There was such lack of cooperation and coordination between Nazi leaders that as German occupied territories were displacing millions of Jews, the ghettos became too overcrowded and there seemed to be no other solution besides genocide.

I believe that the most correct view is that of moderate functionalism. This view is similar to that of Functionalism in that its premise is, by 1933, the Nazis did not have a plan and did not come to power with a blueprint solution for the Final Jewish Question. Moderate functionalists believe that it took both Nazi leader direction as well as the German population to allow for horrific events like the Holocaust to take place, and it was only during wartime that the radicalization of the Nazi party reached its fullest extent and mass murder was seen as the only answer to the Jewish problem. With each step that Germany took in conquering Europe, mere emigration of Jews got seemingly more impossible, and by 1941, mass extermination was seen as the only solution. Hitler and the Nazi leaders were well aware that policies, which were unthinkable in peacetime, could be carried out during the war with little or no resistance from the German population. Between 1939 and 1941 Hitler was indeed active in the decision-making process, and not a single significant change in Nazi Jewish policy occurred without his approval, so it is incorrect to say that Hitler was not involved at all; but it was not only Hitler who drove the Holocaust. Hitler, lower-ranking German bureaucrats, and to an extent the German population were all to blame for the Holocaust. Germany as a whole’s anti-Semitic beliefs and willingness to harass and kill Jews are central to the genocide as well. Anti-Semitism, made more extreme by Hitler and the Nazi party, moved thousands of regular Germans to murder Jews. Once ordinary Germans were involved in this process, extreme radicalization could occur with much more manpower to support it, and much less manpower to resist it.



The genocide was not a long, drawn out plan that Hitler concocted in the 1920’s, but instead was a series of escalating, circumstantial events that took the collaboration of everyone in Germany. Hitler was indeed an insane, tyrannical dictator, and it is easy to think that he caused all this damage. However, the Holocaust did not come to fruition by Hitler exclusively, and it is frightening to see that regular citizens cooperated with him and the Nazi party, resisting minimally, and conforming to authoritarian beliefs.




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