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Historian Raoul Hilberg has summed up the pattern of anti-Semitism as follows:
12th century Crusades – “You have no right to live amongst us as Jews”.
16th century ghettos – “You have no right to live amongst us”.
20th century Nazis – “You have no right to live”.
With reference to the above quote, place the Holocaust in its historical context
This essay will examine the rise of anti-Semitism from ancient times to the Holocaust in Germany in the 1930s and 40s. This essay will examine the origins of anti-Semitism, the rise of Zionism and the role of Nazi Germany in the persecution and extermination of the Jews. It was also acknowledge that the end of Nazism did not mean the end of anti-Semitism by looking at more recent examples of anti-Semitism and Holocaust denial.
The Jewish people have been persecuted throughout history. Judaism originated in about 1600BCE when Abraham founded the first monotheistic faith in the ancient Babylonian Empire. Before this time polytheistic faiths were normal. Legend has it that God made an offer to Abraham that if he would leave his home and his family then God would make him a great nation and bless him. Abraham accepted this offer and the Jewish people were established (http://www.jewfaq.org/origins.htm 1999). In 722BCE, the Assyrians invaded what was then the Jewish people’s homeland. They practised polytheism and did not agree with the Jewish idea of monotheism. This led to the Jews being persecuted and forced away from their homeland. In 301BCE, the Greeks invaded, followed by the Romans in 63BCE. Again both these peoples did not agree with the Jewish idea of worshipping one God so the Jews felt compelled to flee further away from Palestine.
This is known as the Diaspora and leads to the idea of “the wandering Jew”. By 1500BE, the Jews had spread throughout Europe, North Africa and parts of southern Arabia and many cities had big Jewish populations (class notes 2010). During the Middle Ages anti-Semitism in Europe was based on religious hostility, the Jews were viewed with suspicion and blamed for the death of Christ and for not accepting Christianity. Medieval Europe saw Jews forced to live in ghettos and in Venice in 1516, the world’s first ghetto was established, confining and segregating them and prohibiting the jobs they were allowed to do.
The conditions were harsh, their property could be destroyed and they faced threats of violence but the Jews survived and built up a thriving community (http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org 2010). This sense of community, stemming from their shared experience of persecution, meant that most Jews kept a strong sense of ethnic identity regardless of where they lived but meant that they stayed as outsiders and scapegoats (Farmer, A., 2009, pp 14-15). However by the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries in Western Europe many countries had accepted Jews and they were integrated into society and indeed, in 1871 the new German Empire gave Jews total civil equality (ibid pp 16).
However, political conditions in Europe after 1870 saw much disruption as newly independent nations emerged who fought against supposed threats from minority groups living within them. This included the Jews who were seen as aliens and extrinsic. It was against this backdrop that Wilhelm Marr, a German journalist, invented the phrase “anti-Semitism” in the 1870s. Previously, anti-Jewish sentiment had been largely based on religion, but Marr’s concept was focussed on biological descent. Marr thought that Jews had corrupted society, dominated business and ruled cultural life bringing about an ongoing struggle between the Jews and native Germans. This idea of the biological threat of Jews to the German nation was further argued by Eugen Duhring, an economist and philosopher, who felt that Jews infiltrated society causing harm, even if they were not practising members of the faith and said “…I return therefore to the hypothesis that the Jews are to be defined solely on the basis of race, and not of the basis of religion” (Cohn-Sherbok, D., 2003. pp 273-274).
This marked a turning point in the rise of anti-Semitism as the persecution was no longer based on religion, but race. In Germany the idea of “Volk” or Germans being the superior master race, gave rise to a militant form of nationalism. In their eyes, the Jews stood for all that “volkisch” ideologies despised: liberalism, socialism, pacifism and modernism (Farmer, A., 2009. pp17). By the late nineteenth century, despite only making up one percent of the German population, the Jews in Germany were regarded as a problem. Increasing economic and social change easily encouraged those affected by this transformation in society, the peasant farmers, shopkeepers and skilled workers, to blame the Jews for all that was wrong in Germany. However, despite the presence of anti-Semitism in Germany, Jews here were more favourably treated than those in France or Russia where pogroms and legal discrimination were the norm (ibid pp 18-19).
The rise in anti-Semitism at this time corresponded with a rise in Zionism or Jewish nationalism. Pogroms in Russia in the 1880s had forced many Jews to emigrate. Many ended up in the United States but several thousand also went to Palestine where they became shopkeepers and craftsmen. Other Jews, combining Marxist ideals with ardent Jewish nationalism, became farmers and labourers. It was during this time that Leon Pinsker (1821-91), a famous Russian physician, published his significant work “Autoemancipation”, which called for the establishment of a Jewish homeland in Palestine which would secure the liberation for the Jewry. By the 1890s, the idea of Jewish nationalism had spread to other European countries and one it’s most famous proponents was Theodor Herzl (1860-1904), who convened the first Zionist Congress in Basle in 1897. Herzl began a series of negotiations with other nations to find a place to found the Jewish homeland.
Herzl was adamant that the Jews needed a permanent homeland, saying “economic distress, political pressure, and social obloquy already drive us from our homes and from our graves. The Jews are already constantly shifting from place to place” (http://www.60israel.org). To this end, he met with Joseph Chamberlain, British Secretary of State for Colonial Affairs who suggested to Herzl that the Jews be permitted to settle in Uganda. Herzl reluctantly accepted this proposal as a temporary solution, but at the next Zionist conference, Eastern European delegates walked out as they were unprepared to accept this offer, preferring to hold out for settlement in Palestine. Eventually this idea was abandoned because of English opposition. By 1904, Herzl died and under the presidency of David Wolffsohn, it was decided that Palestine was the only place to settle (Cohn-Sherbok, D., 2003, pp 278-280).
The First World War had a dramatic effect on the fortunes of Germany. At the end of the war the German nation had lost much of its pre-war territory. Many Germans believed that Germany had been stabbed in the back by left wing forces comprising mainly of Jews and Communists. This was also the belief of a former soldier called Adolf Hitler. The war had had a huge impact on Hitler. He had gone into the war as an aimless failed artist and emerged the other side as a determined man with a sense of purpose. Hitler gained respect and credibility in right wing circles as he had fought bravely during the war, earning the Iron Cross.
This must have helped his political career take off. By 1919 Hitler had already formed some opinions which became the basis of National Socialism. These were a fanatical sense of German nationalism, a racially inspired view of society, encompassing extreme anti-Semitism and a belief in the German Volk as the superior race, and finally a rejection of democracy in favour of despotism. In 1919, Hitler joined the small German Workers Party (DAP – Deutches Arbeiterpartei) in Munich. This party adhered to the “volkisch” point of view and was committed to anti-Semitism and anti-capitalism. Hitler became the driving force behind the party and his skills as an orator and propagandist soon helped to increase membership (Layton, G., 2008 pp 86).
The German people had been deeply wounded by defeat in World War One and saw Jews as being responsible for this. Jews were seen to be hand in hand with communists and they were blamed for their harmful influence on popular culture. Conservative Germans saw Jews as decadent and many ordinary Germans openly held anti-Semitic values, believing Jews and Communists were plotting to overturn the existing social order. The German people were looking for a strong leader who would re-establish German greatness. Against this background it is possible to see how the DAP, and Hitler himself, appealed to ordinary Germans and gathered support (Farmer, A., 2009 pp 26-27).
The DAP became the NSDAP (Nationalsozialistishe Deutsche Arbeitpartei) in 1920 and by 1923, Hitler had become convinced that the time was right to seize power. He had seen Italian Fascist leader, Mussolini, take Rome and was encouraged that the same could happen in Germany. The Weimar Republic, plagued by economic and social crisis, was seen by Hitler to be weak and therefore easily defeated. Hitler garnered support from the head of the Bavarian Government, mobilised the military, and marched into a political convention in Munich on 8th November 1923 to seize control. However the putsch failed, largely because of a lack of planning, a lack of support from the military, and an overestimation of public backing for the Nazi Party. Hitler was put in jail for his actions and whilst here he wrote “Mein Kampf” which formed the basis of future Nazi ideology. Although the putsch failed, in some ways it could be seen to have been a success as it raised the profile of the Nazi Party and Hitler in particular. Other right wing nationalist groups began to respect and follow the Nazi Party.
Between 1924 and 1932, the Nazi Party grew to become the strongest political party in Germany and in 1933 Hitler became Chancellor. Germany became known as The Third Reich, a country not only under the dictatorship of Hitler, but also a one party totalitarian state which controlled all aspects of German life. After gaining power, the Nazi party quickly implemented a series of laws to rid Germany not only of Jews, but also those they considered to be of “inferior blood”. This included Roma Gypsies and the mentally and physically handicapped. Hitler had made his views on ridding The Third Reich of those people he saw as weakening the German people at the Nuremberg rally in 1929 saying that “…As a result of our modern sentimental humanitarianism we are trying to maintain the weak at the expense of the healthy. Degenerates are raised artificially and with difficulty. In this way we are gradually breeding the weak and killing off the strong” (Farmer, A., 2009 pp 40-41).
In 1935, a series of discriminatory laws, known as the Nuremberg Laws, was introduced which deprived Jews of their rights as citizens and forbidding them from marrying or having sexual relations with Aryans (http://www.historyplace.com 1997). The Nazi takeover and subsequent implementation of these laws resulted in large number of Jews fleeing Germany, many to neighbouring European countries, from where they would later be caught when the Nazis invaded these countries during the war. Life for Jews in Germany became increasingly difficult as more laws were passed restricting their education and employment opportunities and forcing them to emigrate. Effective use of propaganda gave a negative image of the Jews. Goebbels used the stereotypical example of eastern European ghetto Jews as an image to reinforce the idea in Germans’ minds that the Jews were foreigners despite most Jews being well integrated into German society at the time.
During 1937 the SS was keen to establish themselves as having an important role in the formation of anti-Jewish policies. The SS had been formed in 1925 as an elite bodyguard for Hitler and in 1929 Heinrich Himmler had become their leader. Himmler was an ambitious and efficient Party member who was a virulent anti-Semite, believing totally in Hitler and the aims of National Socialism (Farmer, A. 2009 pp 34-35, pp 58-59).
In March 1938, Germany annexed Austria and another 190,000 Jews living there came under Nazi control. The Munich Agreement of September 1938, made to appease Hitler’s threats to takeover Czechoslovakia, ceded the Sudeten area of the country to Germany. This was part of the Nazi Lebensraum policy to provide living space for the Aryan nation and resulted in the Jews living in these countries being stripped of their possessions and jobs, and resettled in ghettos.
The German invasion of Poland in September 1939 meant that the sizeable Jewish population now came under the control of the Nazis too. Most major Polish cities had large Jewish populations with the Jews already living in separate areas quite naturally. It was not until 1940 that Jews were forced to live in ghettoes, with the first “sealed” ghetto being established in Lodz (Farmer, A., 2009 pp 85). Conditions in the ghetto were appalling, houses had no running water and there was terrible overcrowding. Food was scarce and the Jews were made to give up their money and possessions to ensure they did not starve. Ruthless ethnic Germans and Poles capitalized on this by selling food at vastly inflated prices in exchange for whatever valuables the Jews would give them (Rees, L., 2005 pp139). Disease and starvation were rife and a lack of medicine made illnesses impossible to treat meaning death was a common occurrence, with corpses being left out in the street (Farmer, A., 2009, pp 87).
On 22nd June 1941, Hitler launched his invasion on the USSR. To begin with the invasion went well, the Germans won a series of major battles and captured much territory. As they advanced deeper into Russia, special police units and the SS waged an exceptional campaign of murder against native Jews and Communists. These murders were the responsibility of the “Einsatzgruppen” or mobile killing units. The Einsatzgruppen followed behind the Army as they invaded and it was their job to murder those seen to be political or racial opponents of the Nazi regime. Victims included Jews, gypsies, Soviet State Officials and the physically and mentally disabled. The killings were brutal, victims were made to dig their own graves, hand over their valuables, stripped and then shot in front of the trench they had dug.
Killing Battalions murdered right across the Eastern front, sometimes thousands were murdered at a time. For example, in Kiev, over two days in September 1942, 33,771 Jews were killed (class notes). Einsatzgruppen soldiers were not elite soldiers, but comprised mainly of ordinary men from the Order Police who had joined to avoid conscription into the army. One particular unit, the Reserve Police Battalion 101 from Hamburg, was given the task of clearing the village of Josefow in Poland of its 1800 Jews.
The officer in charge, Major Trapp, having been given the orders to murder the resident Jews from his superiors, relayed the details to his men. Trapp, unhappy and emotional about the orders himself, explained that the task was unpleasant whilst reminding his men that the Jews sided with enemy partisans to gain their support. However, Trapp went on to make his men a remarkable offer; he would allow them to be exempt from the job if they did not feel able to carry it out. Only one man took up his offer. The others, despite being given the option not to kill, chose to carry out orders. As the killing began, more and more men found themselves unable to continue and dropped out. Of those that did shoot, not all did so happily. Many tolerated it but resorted to use alcohol to numb their memories of it (Browning, C., pp 166-175).
Eventually the Nazi regime realised that these mobile killing centres were psychologically burdensome and inefficient. The sheer number of Jews in Poland that needed to be dealt with meant that a more efficient way of killing needed to be found. Concentration camps had existed since 1933 as enforced labour institutions and prisons to hold those the Nazis deemed a threat to The Third Reich. But by 1941 the concentration camps had to take on a much more sinister role.
Killing by gas had proved to be highly effective in the euthanasia programme, so this became the method used in the mass murder at the camps. One of the most notorious camps was Auschwitz, where Jews, forcibly deported from Nazi occupied countries, arrived passing under the cynical motto “Arbeit Macht Frei” or “work liberates”. By Spring 1943 Auschwitz had four gas chambers which, at the height of the deportations, were killing 6000 people a day. As the killing camps were considered top secret, corpses were cremated to make sure all traces of the operation was covered up (www.ushmm.org 01/04/10).
In order to solve the Jewish problem for once and for all, the Nazi leadership assembled at the Wannsee Conference in January 1942 and decided to implement the Final Solution. This was a euphemism for the elimination of the remaining European Jews who had become a drain on Germany’s resources as well as being racially unwanted. The meeting was attended by top Nazi officials and chaired by Reinhard Heydrich, Himmler’s right hand man. It was decided that deportees considered fit to work would be given temporary reprieve to work in labour gangs. It was not made clear what would happen to those who were not fit, but the inference was made that they would be killed immediately upon arrival. The Final Solution had already begun with the mass transportations and killings, but the conference was significant as it was the moment when the answer to the problem was approved in official circles. There were some objections on the legality and practicality of mass extermination, but no-one argued that it was inhumane or immoral.
The killing at the extermination camps was highly effective in carrying out the Nazi’s wish to eliminate all those deemed undesirable. The fact that in mid-March 1942, 75% of all Holocaust victims were still alive and 25% already dead, but less than one year on this situation had completely reversed, only 25% remained alive, illustrates how successful the camps were and how determined the Nazis became to act out the Final Solution (Farmer, A., 2009 pp 136).
During the time the Third Reich was in existence, European Jewry was reduced by nearly 70%, see figure 6, with most victims coming from Poland. The bunker suicide of Adolf Hitler in April 1945 spelled the end of Nazism. By May 1945, Germany lay in ruins, leaderless and under the control of the Allied nations. Nazism had been destroyed and disappeared from Germany completely. The liberation of Europe and the remaining Jews in concentration camps resulted in many thousands of Jewish refugees who had lost their livelihoods and homes under the Nazi regime. This intensified calls for the creation of a separate Jewish State as Theodor Herzl had demanded at the beginning of the 20th century. As a result, the State of Israel was created in 1948 with David Ben Gurion, a leader of the Zionist movement who settled in Palestine in 1906, becoming Prime Minister. Sadly, the end of the Holocaust did not mean an end to anti-Semitism.
Holocaust deniers, including British historian David Irving, continue to peddle the story that the Holocaust is a myth perpetuated to justify the Allied occupation of Germany in 1945 and to extract huge compensation for the Jews. They claim that the Holocaust is a conspiracy concocted between the Jews, Allies and Israel to meet their own ends. Anti-Semitism continues to emanate from the Arab world. In April 2007, President Ahmadinejad of Iran, openly questioned the reality of the Holocaust and the existence of a Zionist conspiracy, prompting a mass walkout of delegates at a UN convention. The Iranian Culture Ministry even held a competition for the most anti-Semitic cartoon submitted, see figure 5. Whilst the Holocaust remains the single most tragic event to happen to the Jews, it seems that historical lessons have not been learnt and anti-Semitism still exists. As Rabbi Jonathan Sacks said, “Fascism came and went. Anti-Semitism came and stayed.” (http://www.independent.co.uk 27/01/05).
Figure 1 Germany before World War One
Figure 2 Germany after World War One
Figure 3 Map showing Jewish population of Europe circa 1933
Figure 4 Map showing Jewish population of Europe after the Holocaust