Why the Germans?

One of the questions that The Holocaust History Project is frequently asked is: why did ordinary Germans co-operate with Hitler's genocide? When the historical record is examined, the crimes are so inhuman and the scope so broad that is hard for most people to understand how ordinary people could take part in the shootings and gassings and deliberate starvation of so many human beings. At The Holocaust History Project we believe that Hitler and his henchmen built on an undercurrent of anti-Semitism common in Germany and led his people, step by step, to the point where they could accept and commit genocide in the name of the Third Reich. When looking at the manner in which the Nazis progressed from an undercurrent of hatred to the extermination of the Jews, it must be remembered that we are not looking at a deliberate plan carefully designed by Hitler and his associates but at a process as it occurred.

Anti-Semitism was common everywhere in Europe at the time Hitler came to power. Much of this anti-Semitism was rooted in religious beliefs about the Jews that arose more than 1500 years before Hitler came to power and some was based on political beliefs or cynically exploited for political gain. Even though it was not accepted by everybody, this existing anti-Semitism was common and provided a receptive audience for Hitler's anti-Semitic claims.

Hitler, however, did not just exploit the existing anti-Semitism in Germany; he changed it and built on it until it became an all-consuming obsession both for himself and for the rest of the National Socialist leadership. The most significant difference between traditional anti-Semitism and the philosophy of the Nazis was that the basis for the anti-Semitism was changed. Previous anti-Semitism had been based upon religious convictions - primarily on the questionable axiom that Jews were responsible for the execution of Jesus - and political attacks to exclude Jews from the rest of society. Both of these elements can be seen, for example, in Pope Innocent III who, at the beginning of the thirteenth century, stated that because of their involvement in the execution of Jesus, they were in a state of "perpetual subservience." He also required them to wear distinctive clothing and sanctioned barring Jews from certain professions.

Although he exploited this religious anti-Semitism, Hitler and the other Nazi leaders, who were opposed to traditional religions, found another basis for their hatred of the Jews. They relied on the theories of "eugenics" and "social darwinism" which were then common in Europe and transformed them into "race science." They also used the political expression of anti-Semitism coupled with the myth of the Aryans. This myth had developed in Europe the last part of the 19th century. According to Hitler's philosophy the Germanic peoples, called "Aryans," were superior to all other races and had the right to rule over them. Hitler and the other Nazis claimed that other races, such as the Slavs and the Poles, were inferior species fit only to serve Aryan man. The Jews were, they believed, even lower than the Slavs. Hitler believed that "Aryans" were the builders of civilization while Jews were parasites fit only for extermination. This racism had a political agenda as well. Hitler blamed the Jews for the loss of World War I, which he called "the stab in the back" and made the focus of his political campaigns. The combination of religious anti-Semitism and political anti-Semitism with patriotism led many German people to accept Hitler's message.

One of the stumbling blocks to even wider acceptance of the Nazis' racism was the assimilation of Jews into German life. Unlike the Jews of eastern Europe, German Jews considered themselves different from other Germans only in the religion they practiced. They were merchants and scholars and professional people who went to the same schools and gathered in the same places as other Germans. And, for their part, the other Germans were used to dealing with Jewish businessmen and having their ailments treated by Jewish doctors. As Heinrich Himmler stated in a speech to SS officers long after the actual extermination began, every German had a "favorite Jew." When Hitler came to power he could not expect the masses of ordinary German people to agree to his program of extermination. Instead the Nazis led them to that end by gradual steps.

From the day that Hitler took power in January, 1933 there were efforts to terrorize Jews and exclude them from German life As soon as Hitler eliminated his political opposition in Germany and suspended the Weimar Constitution, he and his associates started to build a wall between Jews and the other Germans. Jews were expelled from schools and fired from their jobs because they were Jews. There were organized boycotts of Jewish businesses enforced by brown-shirted thugs known as "stormtroopers" or the SA. These early measures were only the beginning.

The second step in isolating German Jews from the rest of the country were the Nuremberg laws passed in 1935 which made the anti-Semitic agenda of the Nazis the law of Germany. The Nuremberg laws forbade Jews from practicing professions such as medicine, law, and teaching. These laws also regulated interaction between Jews and other Germans. Jews were forbidden from employing non-Jews and it was a criminal offense for a Jew to have a romantic relationship with a non-Jew. Even the act of kissing a non-Jew could bring a long prison sentence. These laws were enforced by the courts and the brown-shirts. During this period Jews were also encouraged to emigrate from Germany, as long they left their property behind.

After five years of Hitler's regime German Jews were isolated and terrorized. They were no longer a part of German life. All that really remained of their former position were Jewish merchants with which Germans were continuing to patronize. This ended on November 10, 1938, when, at the instigation of Joseph Goebbels, gangs of thugs attacked Jews and vandalized Jewish businesses. About two hundred Jews were murdered and thousands of businesses wrecked in a pogrom called "Kristallnacht" from the broken glass that littered the streets from the vandalized businesses After Kristallnacht the courts failed to punish the criminals. Instead 30,000 Jews were kidnapped and sent to concentration camps where they waited for other Jews to pay a large ransom. Two thousand of the prisoners died while they were waiting for release.

The third step in leading the German people to co-operate with the Nazis began with Kristallnacht. For a brief period after Kristallnacht, the Jews in Hitler's Germany were encouraged to leave Germany. This ended with the conquest of Poland in September, 1939, when the Third Reich had about 2,500,000 more Jews with which they had to deal. Instead of isolation and forced emigration, the Nazis began to concentrate Jews in ghettos. Locked behind high walls, the Jews were even more invisible. It had been hard to hate a person that the average German dealt with on a daily basis, but the absence of the Jews and the different culture of the masses of Polish Jews made the anti-Semitic propaganda of Hitler, Rosenberg, Streicher and Goebbels even more effective.

One of the reasons it was effective was the change in all aspects of German life and ideas wrought by the Nazi regime. The intellectual leaders of German culture who did not agree with the Nazis, including church leaders, were either silenced or forced to leave the country. The German people were subjected to a constant barrage of propaganda designed to convince them that Jews were evil. This ranged from the pornographic scare literature of Julius Striecher's newspaper "Der Sturmer" to Alfred Rosenberg's complex explanation of Nazi philosophy, The Myth of the 20th Century. It included movies such as "Der ewige Jude ("The Eternal Jew") and books such as Henry Ford's anti-Semitic The International Jew. Much of this propaganda was based on "The Protocols of the Elders of Zion," a well-known forgery which claimed to be a plan to take over the world written by Jews. In Hitler's totalitarian state no argument or refutation of this hate literature was permitted and the people who could have raised their voices were gone. A generation of young people grew up under the influence of Nazi propaganda that they had never heard contradicted.

By the time of the invasion of the Soviet Union in June, 1941, Jews had become isolated and despised in the Third Reich. The situation was ripe for the final step in Hitler's program - the extermination of the Jews. The extermination began with mass shooting by groups known as the Einsatzgruppen, which followed the German armies invading the Soviet Union, and gradually was converted to the gas chambers of the concentration camps. Although there were concentration camps in Germany, all of the mass shootings and extermination camps were located far from the heartland of Germany.

While many people knew what was happening, the reality of the extermination was not immediately apparent to the average German. It was something that was occurring far away and, about which they knew very little other than the fact that it was happening. Some, of course, could not believe that the crime of genocide was being committed. Many were more worried about the war that was directly affecting their lives and unable to form a real opposition due to Hitler's repression. The almost unbelievable crimes of the Holocaust meant very little to the average German. It was something they tolerated without understanding just as it is difficult for us now to understand the horror of the Nazi crimes.

The situation of those carrying out the plan of extermination was different from the people at home. They were directly involved with the real horrors of murdering many people and could not just conveniently ignore what that meant. The men assigned to this task did it for a variety of reasons which ranged from a feeling that all orders should be obeyed to total agreement with Nazi philosophy. Even for these men, the effects of participating in mass murder were so noticeable that the leaders of the Third Reich decided to discontinue the shooting in favor of poison gas at the extermination camps.

In the concentration camps, some were brought slowly into cooperating with genocide, like Josef Kramer the last commandant of Belsen. He began his career in the concentration camps in an administrative position where he did not come into contact with the interior of the camp. As he was promoted inside the system, Kramer became accustomed to the brutality to the point where, when Belsen was liberated, he did not consider the inmates as human. Others like Rudolf Hoess, the commander of Auschwitz, were brutal individuals before they were recruited into the concentration camp system. Hoess was a convicted murderer who was so callous about the murders he committed that a psychologist examining him found that he was nearly a psychopath.

The road that led ordinary Germans to become participants in genocide was a long one. As one SS general, Erich von dem Bach-Zelewski, stated at the Nuremberg Trial when asked if genocide was a an outgrowth of National Socialist philosophy: "If for years, for decades, a doctrine is preached to effect that the Slav race is an inferior race, that the Jews are not even human beings, then an explosion of this sort is inevitable." The fact that ordinary Germans could be induced to cooperate with the Holocaust, either by silence or by active participation, is a clear warning about the ultimate effect of bigotry.

Where to start your research

Life inside the Third Reich is described in:

William Shirer, The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich, Simon & Shuster, New York (1960)

Albert Speer, Inside the Third Reich, Macmillan Press, New York (1970)

David Bankier, The Germans and the Final Solution: Public Opinion under Nazism, Blackwell Publishers, Oxford (1992)

How the Holocaust was perceived by the people who participated in it is described in:

Christopher Browning, Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland, HarperCollins (1992)

Tom Segev, Soldiers of Evil: The Commandants of the Nazi Concentration Camps, Domino Press, Jerusalem (1987)

Ernst Klee, Willi Dressen, and Volker Riess, ed., The Good Old Days, Konecky & Konecky, New York (1991)

Daniel Goldhagen, Hitler's Willing Executioners, Knopf (1996)

Rudolph Hoess (Steven Paluski, Ed.), Death Dealer: The Memoirs of the SS Kommandant of Auschwitz, Da Capo Books (1992)

A psychological evaluation of Rudolph Hoess can be found in:

G. M. Gilbert, Nuremberg Diaries, DeCapo Press (1995)

Books about the psychology of hate and the Aryan Myth include:

Ralph Ezekial, The Racist Mind, Penguin Books (1995)

Norman Cohn, Warrant for Genocide, Serif Press (1967, 1996)

Leon Poliakov, The Aryan Myth, Barnes & Noble (1971)

Albert Lee, Henry Ford and the Jews, Stein & Day (1980)

An archive of Nazi propaganda can be found at http://www.calvin.edu/academic/cas/gpa/.