In 1945 two out of every three of the nine million Jews who had lived in the twenty-one European nations when the Nazis came to power in 1933 were dead ("Historical Summary" 1). Families were dead, communities where hundreds of thousands of Jews had lived for centuries were destroyed. The occurrence was known as the "disaster" or the "great catastrophe" before it was named ha-shoah in Hebrew or the Holocaust. The Holocaust was defined later as "the systematic, bureaucratic annihilation of six million Jews by the Nazi regime and their collaborators" ("Historical Summary" 1). The Holocaust was genocide that rattled the world. The term genocide was coined in 1944 by Rapheal Lemkin to denote the attempt to destroy a nation or ethnic group by depriving them of the ability to live and procreate or by killing them directly or indirectly (through starvation) and by the extinction of the culture distinguishing a people (Fein 3). The holocaust is well defined, but the questions that the world ponders are: "Where did such hatred arise?" and "What societal conditions allowed for the murder of millions of people?".
Why were ordinary Germans not alarmed by the annihilation of Jews? The answer may be that they were conditioned for decades to be disgusted by the very presence of Jews. As the dominant group, German Christians felt Jews were "outside the sanctified universe of obligation" - that group of people with reciprocal obligations to protect each other, whose bonds were formed from the relation to a deity or sacred source of authority (Fein 4). The Holocaust cannot be understood without reviewing the troubled relationship between the Jews and the Christians since the birth of Christianity. Jews were "collectively defined by the Roman Catholic Church as a people capable of the greatest crime in history, the killing of the son of God, and their exile from their ancient homeland was commonly explained as God's punishment" (Issac 8). Having been defined as outside the Christian universe of obligation, Jews were constantly vulnerable to victimization. Between the eleventh to the thirteenth centuries, roaming Crusaders murdered the "infidels" seeking to gain spiritual credits. From the twelfth to the fourteenth centuries Jews were expelled as the competitors against the rising bourgeoisie in western and central Europe. From the middle ages to modern time they were intermittently lynched after being accused of false crimes such as poisoning wells and murdering Christian children. During the Protestant Reformation hatred against Jews continued to be preached. Martin Luther's urging of violence against the Jews was an eerie foreshadowing of Nazi practices four centuries later. He advised his congregation:
First, to set fire to their synagogues and schools, and to bury and cover with dirt whatever will not bum so that no man will ever again see a stone or a cinder to them.
In Deuteronomy 13 Moses writes that any city that is given to idolatry shall be totally destroyed by fire and nothing of it shall be preserved. If he were alive today, he would be the first to set fire to the synagogues and houses of the Jews. (Berenbaum 14)
Even during the open thinking of the enlightenment movement of the eighteenth century "Diderot and Voltaire pilloried the Jews as a group alienated from society, who practiced a primitive and superstitious religion" (Berenbaum 14). In France during the French Revolution Jews were given the opportunity for civic and legal equality. This, however, did not reduce anti-Semitism, instead it was transformed into racial overtones. Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, the leading French socialist theoretician, wrote: "The Jew is the enemy of the human race. One must send this race back to Asia or exterminate it . . .by fire or fusion or by expulsion. The Jew must disappear . . . Tolerate the aged who are no longer able to give birth to offspring" (Berenbaum 15). In the late nineteenth century the Russian Czar deflected revolutionary unrest through the organization of pogroms- episodic massacres sometimes staged to appear spontaneous. Throughout history Jews were subjected to hate crimes inspired by simple Jew-hatred, xenophobia, greed, theological and secular anti-Semitism.
What conditions allowed years of hatred to be organized into the devastating genocide of the Holocaust? Germany was in a time of turmoil, nationalism was suffering, it had been defeated in World War I, the catastrophic inflation of the early 1920s and the world depression that generated insecurity in the middle class, and the payment of reparations through the Versailles Peace Treaty all symbolized Germany's national subordination. In this climate Hitler was able to achieve power by promoting German nationalistic ideologies which united romantic nationalism with anti-Semitism and modern racism. These beliefs "assumed an underlying mythic identity of homogeneity among the German people, or Volk, based on blood" (Fein 20). They legitimized immoral actions as the method to obtain the destiny of the group by which the victims, Jews, were excluded from by definition. As was earlier stated, Jews were outcasts, forced into the margins of society where they accepted their minority status because of their own religious belief that they were chosen by God for a special purpose. Jews were especially vulnerable because they did not have the protection of a nation-state that might deter aggression. The Volk's mission was to expand and join other nations of German blood together, destroying other races and nation-states in the way of its goal. According to the Nazis, the Germans belonged to the superior Aryan race while "Jews where non-human; bloodsuckers, lice, parasites, fleas, bacilli" (Fein 20). The message expressed is that Jews were organisms to be destroyed or exterminated by chemical means. Hitler declared, "Jewry means the racial tuberculosis of the nations" (Fein 20). Even considering the angry climate of Germany in the 1930s, how was Germany able to institute the mass destruction of a people, an event that would invariably excite the reactions of the world's great nations? The major nations had never banded together in the implementation of disciplinary actions against countries who had attempted to destroy a people. Hitler saw that the world's nations, although denouncing the annihilation of the Armenians in Turkey, did not take any action against the cause's leaders. In his speech to his chief commanders before the September 1939 Polish invasion, he is said to have to justified the extermination of Polish civilians as a war aim by referring to his predecessors' success: "Only thus shall we gain the living space (Lebensraum) which we need. Who, after all, speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?" (Fein 2). Even after World War II genocide was viewed as novel and defined as a crime against humanity rather than a war crime at the Military Tribunal at Nuremberg. Another international aid to Germany's attempt at genocide was the start of World War II which reduced the obstructions against the Holocaust because it obscured the visibility of action and insured the perpetrators freedom from sanction. The persecution of the Jews served to release the anger and frustration of the German people during a difficult time and banded the nation together promoting its pride and giving it a national goal. The annihilation of a people was allowed to occur because Germany knew of the weak international sanctions and the war prevented accurate accounts to the Allies of Hitler's plan of destruction.
The tragic event of the Holocaust was centuries in the making. The Christian-perpetuated hatred of the Jews led to years of violence against them. In Germany in the 1930s this hatred was used to unite the nation and elevate the self-worth of the dominant group during a difficult time in their history. There were few barriers to the attempted annihilation of a people because the great nations of the world were not sufficiently united to enforce disciplinary action. World War II allowed Germany to hide its sadistic acts behind the veil provided by lack of military intelligence and poor communication. The result of Germany's hatred and anger and the world's naivete was the ultimate expression of genocide, the Holocaust.
Berenbaum, Michael. The World Must Know. Boston: Little, Brown and Company, 1993.
Burnston, Deborah. The Good Old Days: The Holocaust Seen by Perpentrators and Bystanders.
New York: The Free Press, 1992.
Fein, Helen. Accounting For Genocide. New York: The Free Press, 1979.
Isaac, Jules. The Teaching of Contempt: Christian Roots of Anti-Semitism. New York: Holt,
Rinehart, and Wmston, 1975.
The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. "The Holocaust: An Historical Summary."
Online. America Online. Released 12-11-97.
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