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To what extent was Hitler Solely responsible for the Holocaust?
While undeniable the holocaust will forever remain as one of the darkest passages in history, an argument has emerged amongst historians concerning its origins and over who instigated it. Many historians view the path to Auschwitz and the massacre of the Jewry as a ‘straight road’, seeing Adolf Hitler (military and political leader of Germany 1933-1945) as the sole instigator of the event, while others claim that the responsibility of the Holocaust lies with numerous other perpetrators, such as the bureaucracy, architect of genocide Heinrich Himmler and the ordinary German citizens. This essay attempts to analyze who in bears the ultimate responsibility for one of the biggest crimes against humanity. Is Hitler the soul individual behind the genocide of the Jewry or can the responsibility be divided up with numerous other agencies involved.
In order to answer whether Hitler was central to the Holocaust and its occurrence, one needs to be able to understand why Hitler expressed such a vehement hatred towards the Jews. Although Historians have long debated where Hitler acquired his anti-Semitic views from, Hitler himself has stated that they were first developed in Vienna between 1908-1913. During this period, Vienna was ripe with traditional racial prejudice, and many historians have claimed that Hitler may’ve been influenced by the writings of ideologist anti-Semite Lanz von Libenfels and politicians such as Karl Lueger.
In addition the anti-Semite music of operatic composer Richard Wagner was said to have particularly profound effect on the youthful Hitler. Hitler’s own friend from that period of his life Augest Kubizek claimed that the ‘charged emotionality of this music’ provided Hitler a means for ‘self hypnosis’ and the ingredients to escape into a fantasy. Historian Gerald Flemming has also claimed that the very essence of Wagner’s anti-Semite music found its way through Hitler into the National Socialist Radical Doctrine (Weltanschauung). Hitler seemingly blamed Jews for every negative aspect in his life, even blaming them for his failure to get into the Vienna art academy, thus showing that Hitler was ‘gripped by a pathological hatred for Jews’. 1
Hitler also began to associate the Jews with certain forms of Bolshevism and Socialism, where he merged his hatred of the Jews with his own anti-Marxism. He even went as far to blame the Jews for Germany’s military defeat in World War I, claiming that the Jews were the culprits of Imperial Germany’s downfall. Scholars such as Lucy Dawidowicz argue that ‘plans for destroying the Jews were always part of Hitler’s thinking’.2 She insists Hitler had always been fixated on the total annihilation of the Jewish race. Her argument is supported by a number of passages in Hitler’s autobiography Mein Kampf, and his warning to the Reichstag: ‘if the Jewish financiers outside Europe should succeed in plunging the nations once more into a world war, then the result will not be bolshevization of the earth, and thus the victory of the Jewry, but the annihilation of the Jewish race in Europe.”3 This piece of evidence suggests that Hitler had always insisted on a definitive solution to the Jewish question. .
While Hitler’s hatred for the Jews was demonstrated through his speeches and of course their removal was core to his creed, how were his strong anti-Semitic views able to translate into policies which saw their ultimate extermination? Functionalist historians such as Hans Mommsen have stressed the view that there was no formal order given to carry out the final solution, with Martin Broszat also sharing a similar view claiming that there was no ‘comprehensive general extermination order at all’4. Mommsen sees Hitler as thinking about the Jews in propagandistic terms, without charting a course of action for their extermination. Instead, Mommsen believes that the implementation of the Final solution cannot solely be attributed to Hitler alone, and that the explanation lied in the ‘fragmented decision making process in the Third Reich, which made for improvised bureaucratic initiatives with their own inbuilt momentum’. 5
So to what extent were these bureaucrats responsible for the holocaust? Historians such as Raul Hilberg have argued that the genocide of the Jews was an administrative process, taken at the initiative of ‘countless decision makers in a far flung bureaucratic machine’. Hilberg believes that these perpetrators worked together in such a mechanized fashion that at a certain point, there was no master plan or blue print. Hilberg argues that a consensus for mass murder emerged amongst these bureaucrats and they developed a ‘shared comprehension of consonance and synchronization’,6 which meant they all had an unfailing sense of direction and were thus forth able to find the shortest path to the Final solution.
As early as 1933, laws were passed that saw Jews isolated and segregated from the rest of society, such as the Law for the Restoration of the Civil Service 1933 and the Nuremburg Laws 1935. However, the German bureaucracy was not only capable of implementing anti Jewish legislation, but was to play a vital role in the extermination of the Jews. At the Wannsee conference January 1942, Heydrich presented an exportation plan to top Nazi leaders. This plan would involve transporting the Jews from German-occupied Europe to SS extermination camps in Poland. Historian Peter Longerich writes that one of the purposes of the conference was to make top representatives of the ministerial bureaucracy accomplices and accessories, and co-responsible for the plan.
A number of bureaucratic agencies played a vital role in the Holocaust. For example, the German Foreign Office defended Nazi Jewish policy abroad and promoted anti-Semitic material which supported the Nazi theory of a communist-Jewish world conspiracy. In addition, civil servants also played an important role as different government agencies would help sever the ties that attached Jews with ordinary structures of life, while civil registries kept track of their addresses and personal backgrounds.
Furthermore in order for the final solution to be implemented successfully, cooperation from other bureaucratic agencies was vital. The transport of German Jews to extermination camps usually required the assistance of many local authorities, from the Finance Office (whom collected property inventories from deportees) to the House Office whom (would dispose of vacant apartments). In addition, the assistance of officials from the German railroad (Relchsbahn) was also crucial, as they provided a mean of transportation for the deportations.
The extent to which ordinary bureaucrats can be held responsible for the holocaust is best illustrated with a case study on one of the most significant bureaucrats Adolf Eichmann- Lieutenant Colonel of the Nazi Party, whose main job was managing the mass deportations of Jews to ghettos and extermination camps. Following his capture and during his trial, Eichmann claimed that he was never an anti-Semite and had nothing to do with the holocaust. Political theorist Hannah Ardent claims that despite wanting to improve his career, Eichmann showed no signs of being perverted or sadistic but was in fact in ‘terrifying normal’7 and was simply a cog in a vast administrative machinery. Eichmann himself like many other bureaucrats has also claimed that he had no responsibility in creating the administrative machinery of genocide, nor did he possess any control over its working. Instead, he claimed that he was forced to abandon his conscience in order to carry out his work, and that he never did anything without obtaining instructions from Hitler or his superiors.
The bureaucrats who have been implicated with the final solution have often been labelled as ‘desk murderers’, as each one of them was able to sit at their desks, drafting telegrams, scheduling trains and dispatching personnel, each individual task undertaken a small step towards the massacre of thousands. Hence forth, while many bureaucrats like Eichmann maintained knowledge of what they were doing, it was careerism that drove officials forward and an eagerness to demonstrate their initiatives. While each of the individuals involved in the bureaucratic system had their small (yet hugely significant role) in the holocaust, they would not have been able to implement any legislation (such as the hugely significant Nuremburg laws) without the Fuhrer’s approval.
Another individual seen as playing a vital role in the Holocaust is Heinrich Himmler. In many respects, Himmler’s ideology was very similar to Hitler’s-“If one wanted to know what Hitler was thinking, one should look at what Himmler was doing”8. Browning’s quote perfectly summarizes the relationship between Adolf Hitler and Heinrich Himmler. While Hitler was the author behind the Holocaust, it was in fact Himmler that was able to translate Hitler’s ideology into a concrete program. Himmler was the mastermind behind a number of concentration camps such as Austwhichz, which saw the death of over 2 million Jews. Like the Furher, the very idea of racial purity dominated Himmler’s mind and he too wanted to assert the authority of the Aryan race. In Himmler’s 1942 Posen speech, he claimed that only one decent Jew was found amongst ’80 million Germans’, so thus forth, a form of racial cleansing was indeed necessary. Himmler continued to say that the Nazi party’s program was based on the ‘elimination of Jew’s’ and that their extermination would indeed be carried out and remain as a ‘never to be written page of glory’.
While it is undeniable that figures like Himmler are central to the Holocaust, the idea that they bear ultimate responsibility is rather foolish. For example, Mein Kampf Hitler spoke about the gassing of the Jews but it was men like Himmler would show blind faith and loyalty in pursing Hitler’s ideology. While he was most defiantly the architect of genocide, Himmler’s ideas are perhaps seen as fully justified and legitimate as they are linked to the will of the Furher.
Furthermore, Himmler would have had to receive some form of authorization, (even if it were just a simple ‘nod of the head’9, as Browning has suggested) in order translate the Fuhrer’s will into an actual program. When Himmler put forward ideas regarding the extermination of the Jewry, Hitler would have to sanction any of these before they were given effect. For example, Himmler’s request to have 600’000-700’000 Jews in Southern France, ‘done away with’,10 could only have been implemented if Hitler acceded to this.
The argument regarding ordinary Germans and the responsibility they bore for the holocaust still rages today. Indeed, anti-Semitism in Germany long existed before Hitler came to power and was long embedded into the minds of perfectly ordinary Germans. Prior to the nineteenth century the ill-feeling towards the Jewry was primarily due to a religious nature, but the late nineteenth century saw the emergence of a numerous intellectual developments and sociological theories, such as the concept of Social Darwinism which was adopted and adapted by many scholars whom claimed that they were in fact leading races (the Aryans) and inferior races- the Jewry. The anti-Semitism at this time was further enhanced by a number of German scholars, whom made it seem fashionable and respectable.
For example, the Philosopher Paul de Lagarde, whom regarded Jews as ‘vermin’ and that there was a need to ‘remove the source of the infection’. 11 By the late nineteenth century, despite the fact they were less than 1% of the population many regarded the Jews as a problem. Anti-Semitism was later even fuelled by a number of economic factors, such as the great depression. Those whom were hit worst such as peasants, shop-keepers and skilled workers, blamed the Jewish financers whom held a powerful position in Germany. Hatred towards the Jewry was further enhanced through the use of Nazi propaganda, which was used as a tool to galvanize pro-Nazi sentiment. By the late 1920’s, the Jews had become and easy and convenient target who were blamed for everything that was perceived as wrong in Nazi Germany. Their underlying attitudes were exploited by Hitler and the Nazi-party who nourished their anti-Semitic ideology.
Historian Daniel Goldhagen, author of the controversial ‘Hitler’s willing executioners’, believes that the Jews not only supported the Holocaust, but possessed a number of unique ‘eliminationist anti-Semitism’12 qualities, which developed over the years and culminated to the point where ordinary Germans murdered Jews ‘willingly and zealously’. 13Goldhagen believes the ‘long existing’ and ‘virulent’ anti-Semitism in Germany meant that many ordinary Germans wanted to eliminate the Jews from society.
Although a controversial statement, there may be some truth to what Goldhagen has said, for many perfectly ordinary Germans from all walks of life did have a significant role to play in the holocaust. For example, in 1943, the SS had 900’000 members and the German national railways employed 1.2 million people to transport the Jews to eastern concentration camps. Furthermore, after Hitler came to power the SA was comprised of over 2 million men, (about 10% of the population) all of whom were committed to anti-Jewish campaigning. These figures clearly show that there was indeed no shortage of volunteers.
In addition, ordinary Germans were seen as implicated in various stages of Jewish persecution-for example, their role in Kristallnacht. Although orchestrated by party activists (in particular the SA), ordinary Germans also joined in the pogrom and the looting that accompanied it. Few Germans spoke out against Kristallnacht and no doubt, it was increasingly dangerous to do so, but there is no evidence to suggest that the Germans opposed the mistreatment of Jews- after all, not even leading Protestant and Catholic preachers condemned it. The fact that so many people supported Hitler’s anti-Semitic polices meant that it was easy for Nazi-party activists to carry out the will of the Furher, without any protest.
The opposing view put forth by German scholar Marliss Steinart has been that only very few people ‘new about the monstrous scope of the crimes’14 committed against the Jews, and despite the fact fragmentary reports, and other clues to mass murder existed, for most people these were hard to comprehend. In line with this argument is the view put forth by Ian Kershaw, whom studied the Bavarian opinion between 1933-45. Although Kershaw has limited his study to Bavaria -the largely catholic area and the cradle of Nazism- in his findings Kershaw concludes that the Bavarians knew very little about the final solution and the information about extermination camps non-existent.
Although there were rumours about shootings and other heinous acts inflicted upon Jews, the citizens of Bavaria had more others struggles to deal with, such as the worsening food conditions, the worry about those at the home front etc. Thus forth, perhaps one could say that it would be foolish to condemn the ordinary German citizens as accomplices of the Holocaust. After all, how can they be blamed when they knew nothing about it? Nevertheless, it is hard to believe that the average German man or women was totally unaware about the heinous atrocities inflicted upon the Jewry. Indeed, one can argue that it was their sheer ignorance and lack of interest in what was going on that cost thousands of innocent men women and children their lives.
Many historians tend to bear harsher views towards the Germans. The fact that they were able to withstand the policies of the Nazi regime suggests that many considered themselves as ideologically bound to the Furher. Goldhagen has argued that it was not impossible for the German society to protest against the actions of the Nazi regime and its persecution of the Jews, for they had expressed their discontent with the party on several other occasions. For one, when the Nazi’s attempted to remove crucifixes from Bavaria schools in 1936 and 1941, protests forced them to back down.
In addition, the best known example of a public protest against the totalitarian Nazi dictatorship was that against the euthanasia programmes, which was abandoned in 1941 due to protests led by the Catholic Church and members of the medical profession. Such an argument leaves one contemplating whether the ordinary German people did enough to stop the persecution of the Jewry. However, even if many Germans did feel that the purging of the Jews was wrong, there was a genuine fear amongst many Germans about what would happen to them if they spoke out against the Fuhrer and his regime. After all, as philosopher Karl Jaspers states, ‘Germany under Nazi regime was a prison’15, and this prison was certainly run by fear.
So, to conclude- does Hitler really bear ultimate responsibility for the holocaust? Well, first and foremost it is important to bear in mind that Hitler’s role in the Holocaust may forever ‘remain in the shadows’, given the paucity of documentation. Nevertheless, a number of interesting conclusions can be drawn from the observations made in this essay. For one, despite the fact that Hitler demonstrated an intense, deep hatred for the Jews, with an ideology fixated on their removal from society, Hitler himself didn’t play a large role in the formulation of policies before the Final solution or during it. Instead, his main role consisted or ‘setting the vicious tone within which the persecution took place’16. However, Hitler did delegate authority to a number of individuals, such as Himmler, Heydrich and numerous other top Nazi officials, whom were then able to justify their actions as legitimate by linking it to the will of the Furher.
Without Hitler’s dogmatic unwavering stance that all Jews in Europe be eliminated, which crystallized in 1941 as a realizable aim to physically exterminate the Jews, the Holocaust would most certainly not have come about. However, it would also not have become reality without the collaboration of a number of other s, such as his officials, the bureaucracy the SS, the Gestapo and to some extent the ordinary German people whom were able to turn Hitler’s sordid fantasy turned into a reality. Hitler’s initial intentions indeed played a fundamental role in bringing about the Holocaust, and indeed, the magnitude of mass genocide would no way have been possible without some form of authorisation from the Fuhrer, hence forth allowing us to conclude that ‘No Hitler, No Holocaust’.
1 Gerald Flemming: It is the Fï¿½hrer’s Wish
2 Lucy Dawidowicz: the war against the Jews
3 Michael R Marrus-The Holocaust in History
4 The Nazi Dictatorship problems and perspective of interpretations-Ian Kershaw
5 The Nazi Dictatorship problems and perspective of interpretations-Ian Kershaw
6 Destruction of European Jews-Raul Hilberg
7 Eichmann in Jerusalem-Hannah Ardent
8 Anti-Semitism in the Holocaust-Access to History
9 The Nazi Dictatorship-Problems and perspectives of interpretation-Ian Kershaw
10 http://www1.yadvashem.org/about_holocaust/studies/vol34/Kershaw%20E.pdf-Ian Kershaw
11 H.Gramml-Anti Semitism in the Third Reich
12 Daniel Goldhagen-Hitler’s willing executioners
13 Daniel Goldhagen-Hitler’s willing executioners
14 Michael R Marrus-The Holocaust in History
15 Michael R Marrus-The Holocaust in History
16 The Nazi Dictatorship-Problems and perspectives of interpretation