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Pre-World War II Germany and What Led to Holocaust

The Special Conditions and Situations in pre-World War II Germany that led to the Creation and Acceptance of the Idea of the Holocaust

The actual word holocaust simply refers to any widespread human disaster. However, The Holocaust has a much more powerful definition. It was the almost complete destruction of the Jews in Europe by Nazi Germany (Encarta). The beginning of the Holocaust can be traced back to 1935, when the Nazi regime came into power and produced the definition of the term “Jew.” Anyone with three or four Jewish grandparents was considered a Jew, regardless of current religious beliefs. Also, if an individual was descended from two fully Jewish grandparents and belonged to the Jewish religious community, was married to a Jew, or was a legitimate or illegitimate child of a Jew, he or she was considered fully Jewish (Reich Legal Gazette). From 1933 to 1939, Jews were eliminated from economic life.

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Businesses were taken away, Jewish lawyers and doctors lost their Aryan clients, and Jews lost their jobs at Aryanized firms. Jewish shops and synagogues were burned during the Night of the Broken Glass in response to the assassination of a German diplomat by a young Jew in Paris. After the Poland invasion in 1939, Jews were forced into filthy and overcrowded ghettos. Finally, in 1941, Jews were taken to concentration camps where many were killed in gas chambers or by slave labour. In total, over 6 million Jews, as well as millions of Slavs, Gypsies, homosexuals, Jehovah’s witnesses, communists and other targeted groups, were killed in the Holocaust through such instruments as concentration camps, ghettos, and orders to kill Jews on the spot (Encarta).

When looking back on the Holocaust, the question arises on how something like this could happen. Why was nothing done to stop the murder of millions of people? How could individuals simply sit back and watch this happen? The answer lies in the special conditions in pre-war Germany that allowed for the creation, acceptance, and practice of the idea of genocide. As a result of the creation of a group of outsiders, internal strife, powerful leadership, propaganda, extreme organization, and the failure of social controls, the scene was set for the Holocaust to occur (Mazian ix-x).

By creating a group of outsiders, the victim group is separated from the regular citizens and dehumanized. Only when the outsiders are not viewed as a human can their murders be accepted. Internal strife resulting from economic distress builds up hostility that, when released, can lead to the hatred of the outside group, allowing for their destruction. Powerful leadership allows for the acceptance of an influential leader’s ideas because of the enormous power and influence he or she holds over the population. Propaganda can lead to genocide because people are led to believe that they are actually doing the right thing by accepting the murder of others. The strict organization allows a plan for genocide to be carried out without a chance for question or rejection, thus leading to acceptance. Lastly, the failure of social control allows for genocide because if there is no one to speak against an idea, it cannot be rejected. These six conditions all existed in Germany at the time prior to the Holocaust and they allowed the idea of the Holocaust to be created and accepted (Mazian ix-x).

In order for German citizens to accept the idea of the Holocaust, they had to view Jews as a non-human group. A necessary ingredient of genocide is the “dehumanization” of the victim group (Weinberg 115). The Jews in pre-World War II Germany were dehumanized by being viewed as outsiders. The Jews were blamed for all of Germany’s social problems. This accusation served to sever the Jewish community from the social body and thus led to the perception of Jews as outsiders. If the Jews were seen as outsiders, then they were not considered of the same value as German citizens; therefore, it was not seen as wrong to treat Jews as if they were not human. This idea allowed for the acceptance of the mass killing of Jews (Mazian 129).

The severing of Jews from the social body began as early as 1781 with the completion of Christian Wilhelm von Dohm’s Uber die burgerliche Verbesserung der Juden (On the Civic Betterment of the Jews) which concentrated on the need to change the contemporary Jew and his religion. In the 1840s, Frederick William IV concluded that Jews constituted an unassimilable minority group in a Christian state. In 1871, the Imperial Constitution confirmed limited equal rights for Jews. The concept of Jews being different was laid down much earlier than the first thoughts of the final solution, but it provided a strong foundation for the acceptance of the genocide of Jews. In 1873, Germany suffered a financial collapse from the worldwide depression. Jews were blamed for this catastrophe. Anti-Semites said that Jews were engaged in financial manipulations and were thus undermining the country (Mazian 132-3).

The peasants and middle class who were extremely vulnerable to economic change easily blamed the Jews for their misfortunes. As a result of the accusations, the Jews were split from the social body and seen as outsiders. Later, when industrialization began to take shape, the traditional lifestyle of peasants and farmers was changed. Emphasis was no longer placed on the rural farms but on the urban industrial development. A “Jewish Conspiracy” was blamed for the change in tradition (Ddawidowicz 45-6). Jews were also considered outsiders because of their appearance. Their dark skin and dark eyes easily served to differentiate Jews from the Aryans.

The use of yellow stars on clothing to mark out the Jews simply confirmed the general view of Jews as being outsiders (Weinberg 115). Jews were seen in pre-World War II Germany as “an inferior race who corrupted past and present political affairs, economic life, social relations, and religious values” (Gordon 151). By identifying Jews as different, evil, and even non-human, German citizens had little problem accepting and even approving of the mass murder of Jews.

Internal strife is another necessary ingredient in the practice of genocide. Stressful social conditions, which beget internal strife, assimilate together and combine to ignite outbursts of hostility. The loss of World War I and an empire, changes in the norm in relation to war, post-war demobilization, and rapid institutional changes were all contributors to the internal strife in pre-World War II Germany. With anti-Semitism being long rampant in Germany, the internal strife brought hatred of Jews to extremely high levels.

The loss of World War I and the loss of the German empire brought poverty and humiliation to Germany. These two events frustrated and angered German citizens, thus increasing internal strife. It was much easier for Germans to blame the Jews for the loss of the war than to accept responsibility themselves. The German citizens were then able to direct anger and hostility at the Jews because they were thought to be responsible for the loss of the Great War (Mazian 145-6).

The severe economic strains due to World War I added to the internal strife. Unemployment and inflation were only two strains that served to increase Germany’s great number of problems. War reparations as specified in the Treaty of Versailles could not be paid as the main industrial areas of Germany had been taken away. Inflation, a result of the attempt to pay war reparations, severely crippled the population, especially the lower middle class. Unemployment rose to record levels and worker’s wages dropped incredibly, resulting in a decrease of buying power. There was disillusionment for soldiers upon their return from war and the ceded territory uprooted German citizens. All of these situations caused a great amount of internal strife and created vast amounts of hostility. This hostility could not be expressed in any facet of life so Germans eventually channelled it at the Jews who were already blamed for so many other problems (Mazian 146-53).

The serious economic and social problems, along with creating internal strife, created the need for an individual or group that would provide an answer to Germany’s problems. Adolf Hitler proved to be the solution to these problems. When Hitler became Fuhrer in 1933, he had two goals uppermost in his mind. One was the acquisition of more land and the other was to destroy the Jewish population (Mazian 157). There was no question as to how Hitler viewed Jews. “I shall judge the depth of people’s love for their country by the degree of hatred which they show this rabble” (Mazian 156). Hitler despised Jews, and he had the essential ingredient for the realization of his goal for their annihilation; complete power over Germany and the German citizens. With Hitler firmly in power sustained by popular support, the German citizens generally accepted his idea and his goals were attained (Mazian 157-63). Hitler himself was a special condition that proved to be essential to the acceptance and ultimate practice of genocide.

The power that Hitler held was unquestionable. “… the leader is absolute and infallible. Only he is endowed with ‘mystic’ qualities; only he knows what is best and how to achieve the ultimate good for his people” (Eisenberg 47). The National Socialist German Worker’s Party was governed by a fundamental law called Fuhrerprinzip, the leadership principle. It said that “according to the [leadership] principle, each Fuhrer has the right to govern, administer, or decree, subject to no control of any kind and at his complete discretion, subject only to the orders he received from above” (Mazian 159). Because of Hitler’s absolute power in Germany, anything he did could not be questioned nor criticized in any way. Therefore, his order to kill the Jews was not questioned and simply accepted.

Hitler increased his power as Fuhrer as well as Germany’s hatred for the Jews through propaganda, yet another condition that allowed for the acceptance of the Holocaust in pre-World War II Germany (Mazian 171). “…The Fuhrer became the substitute for the Savior…The Jews were depicted as always being enemies…parasites” (Bauer 9). The overriding theme of Nazi propaganda was that Jews were The Enemy (Gorden 151). In this way, Nazis, more specifically Hitler, were seen as the upright and ethical leaders while Jews were depicted as evil and harmful. Jews were seen as spiders, toads, vampires, rats, poisonous mushrooms, and vultures in a tabloid owned and operated by Julius Streicher called Der Stuermer. Children’s books compared Jews to tapeworms and bacteria (Mazian 178).

Children’s courses of study were determined by the Nazis and under this direction, the schools became propaganda mills. An example of a math problem follows: “The Jews are aliens in Germany. In 1933, there were 66,066,000 inhabitants in the German Reich, of whom 499,682 were Jews. What is the percentage of aliens?” (Raab 11). The Ministry of Propaganda, headed by Joseph Goebbels, eventually controlled the mass media throughout the Reich. Only things that Goebbles decided were politically expedient could be expressed on radio, cinema, the press, or party platforms. In this way, the media was manipulated to convince the German citizens of the evil of Jews and increase anti-Semitism (Mazian 178).

Propaganda was also used to make the war against Jews a holy struggle by saying “We know that this war is an ideological struggle against world Jewry. England is allied with the Jews against Germany…England is spiritually, politically, and economically at one with the Jews…For us England and the Jews remain the common foe” (Shirer 275). By using such an enormous amount of propaganda, the Nazis were able to effectively create a “psychological enemy” to make the German citizens hate Jews and actually believe that they were doing the right thing by supporting the inhumane treatment of Jews (Gorden 151).

The propaganda used to increase hatred of Jews convinced many Germans to follow the organized plan of Hitler. The incredible amount of organization present in the Nazi party in pre-World War II Germany provided the method for the mass murder of so many millions of people (Mazian 185). Neil Smelser said that the level of organization of aggression directly correlates to the degree of formal organization or a group (Smelser 255-7). This basically meant, the more organized the group, the higher the level of aggression.

The Nazi party was historically known as being extremely well organized. They had specific steps that were followed in the destruction of the Jews: definition of the concept of “Jew,” Jewish deprivation of possessions and jobs, concentration into ghettos, and extermination of European Jews (Hilberg 31-9). The fantastic leadership of the Nazi Party provided a chain of command in which administrators of these steps always carried out the orders of their superiors (Mazian 186).

Allegiance was very high as can be seen through the oath that German soldiers were required to take. It included the line “…I will render unconditional obedience to Adolf Hitler” (Mazian 159). With such an organized party, according to Smelser, the aggression should be very high. History attests to the extreme nature of the Nazi party’s hostility towards Jews. With such a high level of efficiency, there was not a chance to revolt against the genocide of the Jews. German citizens were forced to accept Nazi brutality towards Jews because there was nothing they could do to prevent this treatment.

The strict organization provided by the presence of a dictator prevented the normal social controls of society from functioning. Social control is very important in the development of genocide because it is the only factor that can prevent its actual practice. There are two accepted levels of social control, external and internal. External controls are those actions that could have stopped the genocide. Examples of external control are the authorities and civilian population failing to stop the violence and nations of the world not acting to stop genocide.

An interesting failure of external control in pre-World War II Germany is that the authorities themselves approved and took part in the violence. They took Jewish property, deported them to ghettos, participated in beatings, and ultimately sent Jews to death camps. Internal control can be thought of as the factors that weaken the ability of the victim group to defend itself. Examples are lack of a state, lack of opportunity to develop a cultural group, not realizing the intent of genocide, and the actual destruction of group members (Mazian 215).

Within the external controls, the authorities and citizens did nothing to prevent the Holocaust. During the Holocaust, authorities obviously were not going to stop or question the violence directed towards the Jews because they were the ones responsible for and supportive of the hostility (Mazian 215). Authorities never even stopped the violence towards Jews at the hands of German citizens before the Holocaust began. When goods from Jewish shops were thrown into the streets and Jewish shops ransacked, the authorities never interfered to stop the violence (Schteunes 218). Also, German citizens could have protested Jewish persecution, but they did not. Except for a few small groups, the German population generally did nothing. The utter lack of action leads to the question: Why did they do nothing? The tremendous amount of anti-Semitic ideas and the propaganda about Jews led the German citizens to think of Jews as different and non-human beings (Mazian 217). German citizens did not care about what happened to the Jews as is evident by their lack of protest.

Other nations around the world showed no signs of concern regarding the Jew’s situation as can be seen by their similar lack of protest. They could have stopped the mass extermination of Jews, but they did not. Instead, the signs were ignored (Mazian 218). America, a nation known for its offering sanctuary to the oppressed, closed its doors to Jews through measurers of isolationism, evasion, indifference, and bigotry (Mazian 219). America even maintained its trade relations with Germany (Fein 168). The world knew what was happening to the Jews in Germany as can be seen through the resignation letter of James McDonald in 1936. In it he spoke of the persecution of Jews, the distribution of hate literature, and the inability of Jews to be employed (Ross 84-6). As a result of the world’s apathetic response to the plight of European Jews, the Nazis felt secure in their plans of genocide (Mazian 223). The general thought among the Nazis was since the world was not offering any help to the Jews now, why would they try to help them later?

The lack of religious institution’s interference on the part of the Jews demonstrated yet another failure of social control. The religious institutions present in the world prior to World War II had perhaps the greatest opportunities to intercede on the side of the Jews. Religion was the one social institution that best-represented authority and morality. Religion is historically known for having a great impact upon the actions of individuals. The Crusades were fought as religious wars in order to preserve Christianity. The influence that the religious institutions potentially would have had on German citizens in order to stop the horrible treatment of Jews could have been enormous. The majority of the Jews killed in the Holocaust may have been saved if the churches had only interfered and protested against genocide. However, in most states, the religious institutions did nothing to help the Jews (Maizan 223).

The Catholic Church did not even raise their voices in protest against Kristallnacht, or Night of Broken Glass (Gordon 252). Protestants were even quieter than the Catholics on matters of Hitler’s war against the Jews (Weinberg 113). That is not to say that there was no Jewish support coming from the religious institutions. Many instances can be cited where individuals spoke out on the atrocities being committed against the Jews and acted to aid Jewish individuals. However the vast majority did not. The failure of German churches to protest against the racial persecution against Jews was a disgrace because of their unique position from which to speak. The Nazis feared the political power of the churches and would have perhaps altered their actions had the church leaders spoken out (Gordon 261). The refusal of the churches to interfere with the killing of Jews with their moral authority simply allowed genocide to proceed unchecked.

When looking at the Holocaust, one may ask how it is that the Jews did nothing to save themselves. The failure of the internal controls of the Jewish people also provided a situation that allowed the Holocaust to occur. The controls that could have saved the Jewish people were interference by their state, formation of self-defence groups, realizing the intent of the Holocaust, and retaliating physically. Every one of these controls failed during the Holocaust (Mazian 225-6).

The Jews had no state to protect them and no political voice in any country. If a Jewish state had been available, it could have threatened or actually attacked Germany. Since they had no one to protect them, the Holocaust proceeded unchecked (Mazian 226).

Another method of control that the Jews could have enacted would have been to form a large cultural group and rebel against the Nazi persecution. Ironically, they did not group together due to cultural reasons. Most of the European Jews did not have a common language, common faith in God, or common culture. If the Jews had organized a group and rebelled, the Germans would not have been able to maintain their high level of organization needed to destroy the Jews (Mazian 226-8).

Lack of awareness also proved to be a control that failed the Jews. The Jews did not realize the Nazi’s ultimate goal. Without that information, the Jews did not understand the need to fight back. Why then, did the Jews not understand that they were to be killed? First, they felt, as all people do, that it is not normal for people to be killed for no reason. They had done nothing wrong, so why should they worry about being killed? Second, the Nazis tricked the Jews into thinking that they were “winning” battles when some of their petitions against the cruel treatment they were receiving were approved.

Third, the Jews used denial to ignore what was happening. When faced with the gruesome reality of the Holocaust, the normal reaction would be to turn away and deny it, and this is exactly what they did. By not realizing the danger that they were in, the Jews did not comprehend that they should fight back, thus allowing the Holocaust to occur unchecked (Mazian 228-32).

After the Jews finally realized the danger of their situation, their last method of control, physical control, failed them. As a result of the Holocaust, many Jews were left sick or dead. This severe lack in number of individuals that could retaliate doomed the remaining Jews to the same fate as the others. Without the physical ability to fight the Nazis, the Jews were forced to submit and accept their genocide (Mazian 232-5).

The Holocaust was not simply a random act that could have happened in any set of situations. The destruction of an entire population cannot occur without structure. The specific conditions and situations in pre-World War II Germany gave this structure to the practice of genocide. Through the creation of outsiders, brought about by blaming one group of people for society’s problems thereby excluding them from the larger society, German citizens identified Jews as a non-human group and therefore did not view the mass murders of Jews to be wrong. Internal strife, the strain on society that leads to hostile outbursts directed towards the outsiders, gave Germans a target on which to release their frustration with the current economical problems.

Powerful leadership, a person with the power to harness the hostility of the masses and use it to attain their own goals, provided Germany with the idea of genocide and the direction with which to proceed. Propaganda, devices used to make citizens believe in a movement or goal, persuaded the Germans into believing the necessity and correctness of genocide. The extreme organization, necessary to attain a goal quickly and neatly, provided the method by which to carry out the Holocaust. Lastly, the failure of social controls contributed to the security that nothing would happen to thwart the achievement of the goal of the Holocaust. All of the conditions found in pre-World War II Germany created a situation in which genocide was a logical and acceptable action.

Works Cited

Bauer, Yehuda. The Holocaust in Historical Perspective. University of Washington Press: Seattle, 1978.

Dawidowicz, Lucy S. The War Against the Jews. New York: Bantam Books, 1975.

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Smelser, Neil J. Theory of Collective Behavior. New York: The Free Press, 1962.

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Works Consulted

Bauer, Yehuda. The Holocaust in Historical Perspective. University of Washington Press: Seattle, 1978.

Bauer, Yehuda. The Holocaust in Historical Perspective. University of Washington Press: Seattle, 1978.

Bergmann, Werner, Rainer Erb, and Hermann Kurthen. Anti-Semitism and Xenophobia in Germany after Unification. New York: Oxford University Press, 1997.

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Browning, Christopher R. The Path to Genocide: Essays on Launching the Final Solution. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992.

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Yinger, J. Milton. Anti-Semitism: A Case Study in Prejudice and Discrimination. New York, New York: Freedom Books, 1964.

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