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The Holocaust was not planned from the beginning, it was the result of a chain of circumstances Do you agree?

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“The Holocaust was not planned from the beginning, it was the result of a chain of circumstances” Do you agree?

The Holocaust is an extremely difficult historical event to analyse and interpret for a number of reasons. The connotations of inherent evil and destruction the word has come to be associated with following the Second World War has made any attempts to pragmatically and objectively discuss the subject a complicated task. Historians who attempt to research and dissect one of the most poignant and significant events of the 20th Century are faced with an emotive and delicate area which needs to be approached in an according manner. In response to such a huge loss of human life by ridiculously inhumane means, it has become commonplace for the public, and certain historians, to accredit the guilt and blame for the catastrophe at the door of Adolf Hitler, and place his pathological and undoubted hatred of the Jewish race as central to the cause and effect of the systematic extermination of 6 million Jewish people. For many, attributing the event to the satanic evil and wickedness of one man is a comfortable way of coming to terms with the Holocaust, and makes it somewhat more believable. The notion that only the concerted evil efforts of one man could be to blame for the plight of the Jewish citizens of Europe is more appealing to many, when contrasted with the notion that Hitler was a product of an anti-Semitic atmosphere, rather than the pretext to one.                                                                                                 Another issue facing the historian when formulating responses to the Holocaust is the often vague and ambiguous evidence left behind by the Nazi leadership following the Second World War. Hitler in particular was notorious for his distinctly un-bureaucratic manner of governance, preferring verbal instructions and orders to a more formal manner of written policies. Furthermore, much of the evidence left behind, and notably with regards to the Holocaust, usually refrained from referring to the process specifically, and used ambiguous language to disguise involvement.[1]  This has provided difficulties in attaining an understanding of the logistics such as the timing of implementation.                                                                                 Despite the complex issues which can prevent a clear understanding of the Holocaust and its causes, historians have formulated a number of interpretations of the Nazi persecution of the Jews, and the reasons for its inception. Their work has tended to fall into two categories of thought. The ‘Intentionalist’ approach tends to focus upon the centrality of Hitler and his ideology for a pure Germany, coupled with his consistent hatred for the Jewish people. As mentioned above, this is a popular approach as it places the guilt firmly at the door of one individual. It does, however, suggest that the mass genocide of the Jews in Europe was a planned and orchestrated intention of Hitler from the beginning of his political career, which has been difficult to prove. The other main approach is known as the ‘Structuralist’ approach. Whilst acknowledging the undisputed role of Hitler in the Nazi state, its advocates a lean towards presenting  the Holocaust as a solution to the ‘Jewish Question’ which developed over time, in response to the individual and distinct circumstances of Nazi Germany. Emphasis is placed upon the fragmentary nature of Nazi leadership, and the initiative shown to interpret Hitler’s desires by lower level local Nazi officials. In short, there was no intention to exterminate the Jewish race at the beginning of Hitler’s tenure, it was an idea that developed over time as situations changed and complicated. The aim of this essay is to understand and respond to the Holocaust from an objective perspective, and discover whether it was a planned and organised series of events, or whether it was a result of distorted and complex interplay of circumstances.

        In his study of the Third Reich, Geoff Layton suggests that Hitler was “the product, not the creator”[2] of a German society which was permeated with clear and distinct anti-Semitism. He suggests that the emergence of anti-Semitism in Nazi Germany was more a response to intellectual developments and social conditions than something initiated by Hitler individually. This viewpoint is supported in the J.Noakes text, ‘Nazism, The Rise to Power, 1919-45’ which also refers to the growing anti-Semitism within Germany prior to Hitler’s ascension to power. For Noakes, the social dislocation caused by rapid urbanisation of the late 19th Century led to a rise in anti-Semitism in groups who had been disrupted by this. Jews widely became to be seen as representative of the new international economic world, and this served to create a dislike of the Jews and what they represented from broad sections of German society. This indicates a milder version of the controversial viewpoint adopted by Goldhagen, who suggested that a certain degree of anti-Semitism was implicit in German people for generations, and Hitler was merely carrying out their social will. This idea seems excessive, but it is without doubt that Hitler was operating in a political climate where anti-Semitism was certainly not unheard of. What made Hitler’s brand of anti-Semitism distinct, apart from its violent and unparalleled implementation, was its basis upon race and Darwinist theory. Previous anti-Semitist mantra in Germany had revolved around religion, but new “pseudo-biological”[3]  anti-Semitism focused on the Jews as a race with distinct differences to the superior Aryan race. This gave rise to the analogy of the Jews as a parasite, which Hitler would exploit in numerous speeches during his political career. Anti-Semitic discrimination on religious grounds could be avoided by conversion; however there was no escape from racial discrimination based on biological differences. Hitler was an advocator of anti-Semitism based on “reason rather than emotion”[4]. He stated “its final aim, however, must be the uncompromising removal of the Jews altogether”[5]. This Darwinist language and parasite analogy gave Hitler’s basic racist ideology a scientific weight, and indicate that a systemic extermination of a race could have been an aim for him, even at the early stage of 1919.                                                                                                         Point 4 of the initial NSDAP party programme of 1920 leaves very little to the imagination with regards to Hitler’s views on Jews. “no Jew may be a member of the nation” demonstrates a clear understanding of the Jews as “other” to Germany even at this early stage of Hitler’s political career. In the following years, Hitler consistently referred to the Jewish problem and repeated his intention to “remove” them from Germany and eventually Europe. This repetition of the word removal has led discussions as to what form of removal Hitler was actually referring to. The Nazi leader was known for his vague and broad ideological aims in politics. He tended to set the overall tone of government aims, rather than outlining specific policies. This opened the door to numerous interpretations of what Kershaw refers to as “The Fuhrer’s Will”. Nazi policy makers, local leaders and indeed the civilian public at large were encouraged to act in the best interests of the Fuhrer’s will. In this respect, they were expected to use initiative and act according to the broad outlines that Hitler offered. There is the argument that it is this very notion of ‘working towards the Fuhrer’ which led Nazi officers and leaders to formulate progressively wild initiatives in the realm of the solution to the Jewish question, ultimately leading to the ‘Final Solution’ or the Holocaust. With regards to the ‘removal’ of Jews Hitler was very unspecific, he just simply acknowledged that was his desire, and it would rest on others to formulate ideas for its implementation. Richard Evans notes in his text that Hitler demanded a racial utopia and a Jewish free Germany, yet “How this was to be done was a matter of secondary importance”.[6] This attitude of allowing others to formulate concrete practical means for broad ideological beliefs tells us about Hitler’s informal manner of governance, but also about his desire to remain personally not responsible for anti-Jewish activities and legislation. To say that others formulated ideas and policies is not to detract from Hitler’s blanket approval of radical initiatives, such as the ‘Final Solution’, and also his personal desire for such initiatives. But it does open the door to a Holocaust explanation in terms of ideas and policies which were developed in progressive fashion, growing in radicalisation as they were tailored to the Fuhrer’s will.  

        Anti-Jewish legislation in the Third Reich developed in a cumulative and gradual fashion. Rather than introducing severe policies towards his most clear cut enemies immediately after his seizure of power, Hitler took slow and small steps first towards reducing their rights as citizens, and secondly towards forcing them out of Germany. His ability to alter the tone and velocity of anti-Jewish sentiment depending on his own political standing gives an indication of the political nous that Hitler possessed. Anti-Semitic sentiment and actions came in waves, and was notably toned down throughout 1935-36 due to the approaching Olympic Games. Hitler was conscious of his own, and Germany’s portrayal overseas and it was only in 1939 when war was almost inevitable that he advocated the most extreme anti-Semitic measures, as his standing could not be harmed any more than it already was. Any idea that Hitler was mellowing in his approach to the Jews by not implementing any direct discriminatory laws within his first 2 years of leadership is unfounded. Kershaw states “His inactivity was tactical, not temperamental”[7]. He also goes on to state that Hitler was aware that he didn’t need to be specifically active towards the Jews. Party activists and SA leaders knew that removal of the Jews was Hitler’s chief aim, and he simply did nothing to hinder their activism. Indeed their actions “provided its own momentum”.[8] Although policy formation was gradual and progressive towards Jews, the self-imposed notion that this was a pursuit of a legal and bureaucratic manner of dealing with the Jewish problem is insufficient. Hitler cared little for the legal rights of Jews, and the reason for legislation such as the Nuremburg laws was to curb the negative effects of over aggressive anti-Semitic action from below. There was civilian unrest and agitation towards the unregulated SA violence towards Jews, and Hitler felt a legal system of anti-Semitic laws would satisfy the party extremists as well as the general public. In reality, the laws helped legitimise serious discrimination and violence against Jews by party members, and were met by general indifference from the public. This suggests that Hitler could rely upon party hardliners to take their own initiative, in pursuit of achieving his intended will, and any focus of Jewish policy on legal or bureaucratic means of settlement does not indicate a diversion from an overall idea of extermination, as Hitler was almost certainly aware that violent radicalisation would happen regardless in the Third Reich, due to the overall tone of the climate he had initiated.

        One area which contests any ‘intentionalist’ notion of the Holocaust being a inevitable and planned event is the apparent policy of emigration which was adopted by the Nazi’s in the 1930’s. The ‘removal’ of Jews from Germany followed a series of measures which appeared to force Jews to emigrate, whilst also making it increasingly difficult for them to do so. The removal of citizenship rights for Jews following Nuremburg in 1935, and numerous edicts preventing them from cultural activities and certain professions led to increasing emigration levels. After ‘Crystal Night’ on November  11th, 1938, remaining Jews in Germany were left in no doubt with regards to the regime’s intentions for them to leave. The widespread violence of ‘Crystal Night’ which was made to appear as a spontaneous public reaction to the murder of a German diplomat by a young Jew saw most Jewish citizens clamouring for emigration in any way possible. The Reich Centre for Jewish Emigration was founded, which was solely for organising Jewish emigration, and the controversial ‘Haavara Transfer Agreement’ allowed Jews to emigrate to Palestine without the staggering ‘Reich flight tax’ rate which accompanied all other Jewish emigration. This agreement was, however, beneficial to Germany in the form of important exports and fee’s received. For the most part, all Jewish emigration was met with crippling fees and abandonment of wealth. The Nazi’s were not content with Jews leaving Germany, they wanted to join their new country as poverty stricken people. Germany consistently demanded a return from other nations for allowing Jews to leave, whilst most nations were not keen on an influx of Jewish migrants anyway. There was a paradoxical situation of the Nazi’s pursuing complete emigration of the Jewish people, but also making it inherently difficult for Jews to leave. The bureaucratic difficulties of attaining emigration papers was contrasted with events such as Heydrich ordering all Jewish concentration camp prisoners with emigration papers to be released and allowed to leave Germany.[9] This makes it difficult to assert the regimes true intention towards the Jews. Emigration was pursued, but also prevented. And just like the idea of resettlement, pursued up until 1940 in the Madagascar idea, emigration did not necessarily rule out the idea of genocidal beliefs. Hitler was intent on the idea of Jewry being forced out of existence, whether that be through poverty in another nation, or through the mass extermination in concentration camps. What is clear, is that Nazi policy towards Jews in the 1930’s developed in waves, intentionally or not, and provided contradictory ideas with regards to emigration.

        Hitler’s pathological hatred of the Jews was intrinsically linked to themes of war and defeatism. During the happiest years of his life, serving in the army during World War 1, Hitler dreamed of a returning to a racially pure Germany. His realisation of defeat in a hospital bed, and return to a depressed society, made him attribute his negative feelings to the Jewish race. Ian Kershaw points out that a serious phase of radicalisation in anti-Semitic attitudes from Hitler, and thus acceleration towards the Holocaust, came when a second world war became apparent to Hitler. Kershaw focuses on Hitler’s prophetic quote in 1939, which he referred to consistently in his remaining years. “if international Jewry inside and outside Europe should succeed in plunging the nations once more into a world war, the result will be ... the annihilation of the Jewish race in Europe!”. As Kershaw outlines, this prophecy attained an almost symbolic status amongst the Nazi’s, and served as a further pointer towards the Fuhrer’s blanked approval for a solution to the growing Jewish problem, especially in the light of the war. The ‘prophecy’ was used as a tool by Goebbels, in order to make the Holocaust appear as part of a grand scheme, or master plan, which had been prophesised and pre-determined. All the Nazi’s could do was follow the path already laid for them. The outbreak of war also revived fears, genuine or not, in Hitler of a repeat of the ‘stab in the back’ treachery he perceived following the First World War. He saw the German defeat as solely attributed to the Weimar Republic’s readiness to accept a defeat and sign defeatist treaties. This was a Jewish cowardice and a stab in the back for pure blooded Germans, and Hitler strived to prevent a repeat in his war by removing the Jewish problem entirely. The implication is that upon the outbreak of war, whether in order to fulfil a threat and prophecy, or out of genuine fear of Jewish ‘stab in the back’, Hitler had to find a way to solve the ‘Jewish Question’ in Europe. This link is explicitly explored by Kershaw, who states “the implicit genocidal link between war and the killing of the Jews was there”[10].

        Robert Wistrich, in his study of the history of anti-Semitism, declares emphatically “The ‘Final Solution’ ... was the direct outcome of the ideology and policies adopted by Adolf Hitler”.[11]Although this has become  a fashionable position to adopt, in Hitler-centric understandings of the Holocaust, it ignores the actual nut and bolt workings of the Third Reich administration. Hitler’s role in anti-Semitic outcomes, as with other economic and social issues, was to set a general tone for the political climate, and allow others to formulate practical ideas. This inevitably extends the burden of guilt to wider participants in the Third Reich. There can be no ignoring the obvious connection between Hitler’s repeatedly announced intentions at the beginning of his political career to remove the Jews, and its subsequent realization. If one states in 1919 that the removal of the Jews from Europe is of the highest priority, and this bears fruit in 1942, there is undoubtedly an intention which was been followed through. However, it appears unlikely, in light of the evidence, that a policy of extermination was consistently planned and adhered to. It is more likely that the outbreak of war, and the self-imposed logistical problems caused by this, alongside a desire to see a ‘prophecy’ bear fruition, led Hitler and his state to pursue the Holocaust. The outbreak of war made the Holocaust possible, and indeed an inevitability considering the number of Jews who came under Nazi control. This is not to say it is an inevitability that was not pursued actively. Hitler’s foreign policy was the leading force behind the Second World War, and this indicates he was willing to plunge the Nazi’s into a program of extermination all along, bearing in mind his prophetic promise. In conclusion, Hitler and the Nazi’s always wanted to destroy Jewry in some form or another, but the actual reality of the Holocaust was only crystallised by the realities of war.


[1] Kershaw, Ian. Hitler, the Germans, and the final solution (electronic resource), Yale University Press, 2008, pg 61

[2] Layton, Geoff. Germany: The Third Reich 1933-4, London, 2005

[3] Noakes, J. Nazism 1919-45, Vol 1: The Rise to Power, Exeter, 1998

[4] Noakes, J. Nazism 1919-45, Vol 1: The Rise to Power, Exeter, 1998

[5] Noakes, J. Nazism 1919-45, Vol 1: The Rise to Power, Exeter, 1998

[6] Evans, Richard. The Third Reich in Power, London, 2006, pg 577

[7] Kershaw, Ian, Hitler (Hubris) Vol.1, London, 2001, pg 559

[8] Kershaw, Ian, Hitler (Hubris) Vol.1, London, 2001, pg 559

[9] Evans, Richard. The Third Reich in Power, London, 2006, pg 598

[10] Kershaw, Ian. Hitler (Nemesis) Vol 2. London, 2001, pg 151

[11] Wistrich, Robert, Anti-Semitism: The Longest Hatred, London, 1991, pg 66

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