ITS CAUSES AND PREVENTING
"Holocaust" – the very word causes a shudder to run up and down the spine. Horrific images spring to mind: railroad cars packed so tightly the passengers can hardly breathe; rabbis forced into burning synagogues; mothers screaming as their children’s brains are dashed out against a brick wall. How, in a modern and civilized society, could such horrible deeds occur? How could neighbors betray their friends, many of whom they had known for most of their lives? How could so many people stand by while nearly six million Jews, and almost as many other minority group members, were systematically murdered (Michel, p. 276)?
In order to answer these questions, another question must first be answered: why were the Nazi troops, the policemen, even the common people filled with such hate? What were its origins? Unfortunately, there is no single, simple answer to this question. There are several relevant factors.
First of all, the government encouraged and fed this animosity. Prospective Gestapo members were carefully screened to identify those with a pathological hatred for the Jewish people (Gilbert, p. 117). The most important reason for encouraging this hostility was to provide a scapegoat, someone to blame for the national and economic problems Germany was experiencing. Later, during the war, hatred was again useful as a distraction from the problems facing war–stricken Germany. Hatred has always been a powerful tool in the hands of those willing to do anything to gain and keep power. But why were the Jews selected as the particular objects of this hate? Again, there are several reasons. History demonstrates a long history of anti–Semitism in Central and Eastern Europe. Records describe barbarous acts directed toward the Jews throughout the Middle Ages (www.holocaust.com.au/jn/antisemitism.htm). As late as the First World War, pogroms continued to occur, especially in Russia, Ukraine, and Lithuania. In 1919, the followers of Simon Petlura, the Ukrainian Nationalist leader, slaughtered more than 60,000 Jews (Gilbert, p. 22).
There is another, more basic reason for this hatred. Quite simply, some Europeans were jealous of the Jews. In Europe, many of the intelligentsia – doctors, lawyers, writers, and philosophers – were Jews. The Jewish people, especially in Germany, were also quite successful economically. Poorer Germans were envious of them, inexplicably blaming the Jewish race for their own economic woes. Neville Chamberlain, Prime Minister of Great Britain, once wrote in a letter, "I believe the persecution arose out of two motives: a desire to rob the Jews of their money and a jealousy of their superior cleverness" (Gilbert, p. 81).
In spite of these biases, it seems unlikely that the Holocaust could have occurred without Hitler. He was unable to accept the German defeat in World War One. He believed that the Aryan race was supreme, destined to rule, and should not have lost the war. Therefore, another ‘inferior’ race, envious of the Aryans, must have betrayed them. He blamed the Jews. Filled with hatred himself, Hitler exploited the prejudices of others for his own gain. He directed their anti–Semitism toward its eventual, horrific end.
It is essential to understand how Hitler developed such animosity toward the Jews. He did not seem to have had such feelings as a child (Hitler, p. 39). It may be, as his childhood friend August Kubikez suggested, that the first seeds were planted by teachers during middle school (Kershaw, p. 54). However, Hitler appears to have been on friendly terms with several Jews a few years later. Another of his friends even said Hitler believed that "Jews were better businessmen ...than `Christian’ dealers" (Kershaw, p. 54). As a young man, he was undoubtedly attracted to the ideas of the anti–Semitic Austrian Georg Ritter von Sch6nerer (Kershaw, p. 62). Hitler probably got some of his racist beliefs from von Sch6nerer. It is certain that by the time he wrote Mein Kampf he blamed the Jews for all of the problems rife in Germany. He even blamed them for the fact that Germany had lost the First World War (Hitler, p. 119).
While considering this subject, another perhaps more important question presents itself could something so horrible ever happen again? And if so, can it be prevented? One of the main causes of the Holocaust, perhaps the main cause, was the anti–Semitic bias so common throughout Europe. This racial and religious prejudice allowed the Holocaust to occur. Of course, not everyone was filled with anti–Semitism. Italian soldiers refused to turn Jews over to the Germans to be killed (Gilbert, p. 505). Other nations allied with Germany reacted in a similar way. Nonetheless, bias against Jews, whether for religious or racial reasons, was widespread. Had there been no prejudice, there would have been no Holocaust This is part of the answer to preventing a recurrence of the Holocaust. It is vital not to discriminate against others because of their race or system of beliefs. Disagreement with the beliefs or views of others is a good thing, so long as this disagreement results in a friendly exchange of ideas. Discrimination against someone because of this disagreement, however, is simply not right.
One factor that allowed the Holocaust to continue with so little opposition was widespread ignorance of the truth. The Nazi government was enormously successful in keeping their murderous actions a secret, often even from their victims (Michel, p. 278). They used propaganda to deceive the people. The media, if they were aware of the truth, kept the secret lest they also be tortured and killed. Frequently, even when people were made aware of the horrors being perpetrated in the concentration camps and elsewhere, they refused to believe what they heard. It seemed incomprehensible that human beings could do anything so hideous to other human beings. Fortunately, some people realized what was happening. They hid Jews and others who were being persecuted. Thanks to these brave men and women, some of whom paid with their own lives, many Jews escaped Nazi–occupied Europe entirely.
These facts reveal a final truth. If people will refuse to acknowledge the facts, if they will ignore the obvious, then something as terrible as the Holocaust could indeed happen again. However, if they will accept the truth –no matter how horrible it may be perhaps a repetition of the evils of this dark period can be prevented.
Hitler, Adolf. Mein Kamnf. New York: Hurst and Blackett Ltd., 1942.
Kershaw, Ian. Hitler: 1889–1936: Hubris. New York: W. W. Norton and Co., 1998.
The opinions, comments, and sentiments expressed by
the participants are not necessarily those of Holland & Knight LLP or the
Holland & Knight Charitable Foundation, Inc.