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Nowadays, it became a commonplace practice among many historians to suggest that the Jewish Holocaust accounts for the most important and yet strongly phenomenological episode of the WW2. The reason for this is that the concerned event did not only prove to the whole world that a modern state is fully capable of exterminating people en mass on an industrial scale (simply because they have been proclaimed ‘undesirable’), but also that the willing perpetrators, in this respect, may consist of the morally upstanding and socially productive citizens.
Moreover, the sheer number of the murdered Jews (6 million) poses a question – how was it possible for the Nazis to achieve such a ‘feat’ within a matter of three years (1942-1945), in the first place – especially given the fact that at the time Germany needed just about every available resource to be used for the continuation of its war-effort? In my paper, I will analyze the concerned phenomenon at length while promoting the idea that there was the combination of three main prerequisites for the Holocaust to take place.
They can be outlined as follows: the historical legacy of anti-Semitism in Europe, the particulars of the German national character (mentality)/the fact that the Nazis did succeed in dehumanizing the Jews, and the irrational (bestial) hatred of Jews, which used to be experienced by people in Eastern Europe throughout the WW2.
Body of the paper
When it comes to expounding on the Holocaust-related subjects, most modern authors emphasize that it would prove quite inappropriate referring to the 20th century’s most infamous act of genocide outside of what accounted for its major prerequisite – the fact that up until the end of the WW2, it used to be a commonplace occurrence among Europeans to experience anti-Semitic anxieties. There are quite a few reasons for this to have been the case.
Probably the most important of them has to do with the theological differences between Christianity and Judaism – something that resulted in prompting Christians to perceive Jewish people as being nothing short of ‘infidels’ while assigning them with the collective blame for the crucifixion of Jesus. The Catholic Church contributed rather substantially towards bringing about such a state of affairs –especially throughout the 15th-17th centuries when one of the Inquisition’s priorities was to hunt down the Jews.
Therefore, there is indeed nothing too surprising about the fact that, as Bergen noted: “All of the false accusations… that Jews were traitors and conspirators, that they killed Christ—remained familiar in Europe into the twentieth century” (5). Partially, this explains why up until the beginning of the 20th century, European Jews used to suffer from being subjected to a number of different governmentally endorsed forms of discrimination. For example, the Jews were allowed to settle only in the designated (predominantly urban) areas, while effectively prevented from being able to move freely across most European countries.
This, in turn, naturally resulted in causing more and more European Jews to end up affiliating themselves with what at the time used to be deemed the highly ‘intellectual’ professions of bankers, shoemakers, tailors, journalists, etc. While referring to the German town of Bischberg in the mid-1800s, Silbermann pointed out that: “The (town’s) Christian population made its living primarily from farming, while the Jewish family heads were partly engaged in business of every kind, and partly practiced trades” (82). Later in history, the fact that the Jews were overrepresented in the economy’s banking sector will be proclaimed to be yet another proof of these people’s tendency to ‘scheme’.
Nevertheless, as it appears from the available eyewitness accounts, prior to the Nazi’s 1933 seizure of political power in Germany, the Jews and ethnic Germans were able to coexist peacefully, with the former continuing to assimilate into German society, as its integral part. The reason for this is simple – as these accounts indicate, despite their essentially formal association with the religion of Judaism, most Jews in the pre-WW2 Europe used to be the highly secularized and intellectually advanced individuals (Esther 326).
Consequently, this resulted in inducing these people’s adherence to the values of a civic living – just as it used to be the case with the most progressive Europeans at the time. According to Lovinson: “We (Jews), as a religious minority, had to take the interests of the state into account… Before the invention of social and racial anti-Semitism, the views of our Christian environment completely coincided with our own” (113). What helped the matter even further is that throughout the historical period in question, more and more secularly minded Jews were choosing in favor of becoming Christianized – something that was supposed to eliminate the remaining obstacle on the way of their social integration.
The European Jewry did succeed in this undertaking rather spectacularly. As the indirect proof of the validity of this statement can serve the fact that following the outbreak of the WW1, most Jews in Germany, France, Britain and Austro-Hungary ended up being overwhelmed with the patriotic fervor – just as it was the case with their non-Jewish compatriots (Tanzer 271). At that time, the issue of anti-Semitism in most European countries had effectively ceased being considered even slightly acute (Geissmar 159).
Such a state of affairs, however, did not last for too long. Because Germany was forced to accept the terms of the 1919 Treaty of Versailles, which produced a heavy blow on the functioning of the economy and consequently resulted in triggering the hyperinflation of 1923 in what came to be known as the Weimar Republic, the country’s public discourse started to grow increasingly anti-Semitic. The same development was taking place in other European countries, as well. The main reason for this had to do with the fact that, in the aftermath of the WW1, it began to occur to Europeans that the war’s only de facto winners were the rich and powerful (bankers and industrialists) – regardless of what happened to be the specifics of their national affiliation.
As Bergen pointed out: “There were also big winners in 1923, as is true of every inflationary situation: people with property in forms other than money, speculators, and above all debtors” (46). Given the Jews’ traditional affiliation with the banking sector, and also the fact that the representatives of the ‘chosen people’ played an important role in bringing about the Russian Communist Revolution of 1917, the postwar rise of anti-Semitic sentiment in Europe continued to gain an exponential momentum.
Adolf Hitler and his political party NDSAP were quick enough to take practical advantage of the concerned tendency. The Nazis proclaimed that all of Germany’s problems were caused by what Hitler and his cronies used to refer to as the influence of the ‘Jewish plutocrats’, who they believed were on the mission of conquering the whole world by the mean of economic and spiritual subversion (Bergen 37).
The seeds of Nazi propaganda fell on the moistened soil – due to being utterly frustrated with the Weimar Republic as a ‘failed state’, many Germans were naturally predisposed to believe that the key to their country economic and geopolitical betterment was the reduction of Jewish influence in Germany. It must be noted that throughout the thirties, many people in other European countries were turning increasingly anti-Semitic, as well. The validity of this suggestion can be illustrated, concerning the fact that along with Germany and Italy, there were many other explicitly fascist states in Europe at the time, such as Poland (headed by the ardent anti-Semite Pilsudski), Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, Spain, and Finland.
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Before the outbreak of the WW2 in 1939, the top-officials from these countries considered it thoroughly appropriate to raise their concerns about the ‘dangers’ to the world, posed by the ‘international Jewry’. Anti-Semitism was also gaining strength in France and Britain. Many members of the British Royal family (such as Unity Mitford) were outspoken admirers of Hitler and of his intention to ‘cleanse’ Germany of the Jews.
It did not take too long for the Nazis to begin setting the ground for what will later become to be known as the ‘final solution of the Jewish question’ – that is, a physical extermination of European Jews. The enactment of the so-called ‘Law for the Restoration of the Professional Civil Service’ in 1933 marked the beginning of the process of German Jews being stripped of their constitutionally guaranteed rights and freedoms – something that eventually has led to the ‘disfranchisement’ of Jewish Germans, as human beings (Kaplan 24).
The decision to exterminate the Jews en masse was made by the Nazi governmental officials during the 1942 Wannsee Conference. The concerned event marks the beginning of the most gruesome phase of the Jewish Holocaust, when the Jews within the Nazi reach used to be rounded up, transported to the extermination camps (such as Auschwitz), murdered with the help of the poisonous gas Zyklon B, and burned to ashes (Bergen 175).
Even today, many people continue to wonder how the perpetration of such a horrible crime by the Germans (the representatives of probably the most intellectually advanced and culturally refined nation on Earth) proved possible, in the first place? After all, it does not represent any secret that Germany’s contribution to the worldwide development of philosophy and music remains unsurpassable. Whatever improbable this may sound, but the answer to this question relates to the above-stated.
The reason for this is apparent – one’s ability to excel in philosophy/music presupposes that the concerned person is capable of operating with the highly abstract mind-categories. In its turn, this process is usually initiated after he or she manages to become mentally detached from the surrounding physical reality. Therefore, there is nothing too surprising about the fact that the Nazi ‘final solution’ lexicon is rich with the abstract and emotionally neutral sounding euphemisms, such as ‘resettlement’, ‘special treatment’, ‘vermin’ (concerning the Jews), etc. Apparently, to be able to proceed with implementing their murderous plan for the Jews, the Nazis needed to distance themselves from the former as ‘subhumans’.
In the Nazis’ mind, they have never killed any Jews as human beings – rather, they have been subjecting the Jews to ‘special treatment’, because this is how ‘vermin’ should be dealt with. In its turn, this explains a striking paradox, often observed by those who study the Holocaust – most of those Nazis that were in charge of organizing the ‘final solution’ never exhibited any signs of mental deviation. As a rule, they used to consist of the socially conscientious individuals who held family values in a particularly high regard. While referring to the war-criminals who served in the Reserve Police Battalion 101, infamous for having been deployed during the mass shootings of Jews in the USSR, Browning noted: “Never before had I encountered the issue of choice so dramatically framed by the course of events and so openly discussed by at least some of the perpetrators.
Never before had I seen the monstrous deeds of the Holocaust so starkly juxtaposed with the human face of the killers” (xvi). Therefore, it will make much more sense referring to the Holocaust as not merely the byproduct of Nazism, but also as something would not have taken place if the Germans were not quite what they are (or at least what they used to be). Hence, the unmistakably German features of the genocidal atrociousness, directed against the Jews – emotional unengagement (coolness), the heavy use of euphemisms when referring to the acts of genocide, and reliance on the latest technologies to make the mass-murder procedures more efficient.
Nevertheless, the Germans would not be able to progress quite as far implementing the ‘final solution’, if it was not up to the enthusiastic collaboration, on the part of the representatives of many other European nations. For example, quite a few upstanding citizens in Vichy France considered it an honor helping the authorities to discover the hiding places of Jews so that these people could be rounded up and sent straight to Auschwitz to be slaughtered, in a similar manner with cattle (Levi 15).
Nevertheless, it were specifically the Latvians, Ukrainians and Poles that proved themselves the most reliant helpers of the Nazi cause of ridding humanity of ‘Jewish vermin’ – despite the fact that the Germans used to consider these nations utterly inferior. For example, the Ukrainians made the bulk of the SS-Hiwi (Hilfswilliger – willing helper) units, the members of which were entrusted by the Nazis to perform the most gruesome tasks, such as carrying out the mass-executions of Jews and pulling golden teeth out of the executed victims’ mouths: “The Hiwis… did most of the shooting” (Browning 18).
In fact, as it appears from Browning’s book, the SS officers themselves were utterly appalled by the sheer cruelty with which Hiwis used to treat their Jewish victims – as if the representatives of these nations in Hiwi service were experiencing an acute emotional pleasure out of being allowed to kill Jewish civilians in the most sadistic manner. In part, this can be explained by the fact that killing the Jews just for the sake of doing it has always represented nothing short of ‘national hobby’ among the Ukrainians and Latvians – the history of both nations validates the soundness of this suggestion better than anything else.
Even though the Poles used to be murdered en mass by the Nazis, as well, this did not seem to have had much effect on the Polish people’s willingness to contribute to the cause of ‘liberating humanity from Jews’. After all, by the year 1939, Poland represented the Europe’s most fanatically Catholic and yet most impoverished and uneducated nation. One does not have to be particularly smart to realize that when combined, these factors create a particularly nutritious soil for anti-Semitism to take a strong root.
Therefore, there is nothing too odd about the fact that the Poles have been reported strongly anti-Semitic as far back, as in 1920 – the year when Poland managed to retain its independence from Soviet Russia: “The Poles had taken charge (of the town). This led to a spate of arrests. Some Jewish boys were detained, supposedly on suspicion of being communists. They were savagely tortured” (Etonis 8). As it was mentioned earlier, throughout the 20th century’s thirties, Poland has been turned into a classic fascist state, in which the propaganda of anti-Semitism enjoyed a semi-official status. Therefore, there is indeed nothing incidental about the fact that during the WW2, many Poles exhibited as much fervor in killing the Jews, as it was the case with Ukrainians.
The massacre of Jedwabne, which resulted in the deaths of at least 500 Polish Jews at the hands of the raging mob of Polish peasants, exemplifies the validity of this statement perfectly well. As the event’s eyewitness, Julia Sokolowska (quoted in Gross’s book) recalled: “Germans did not beat the Jews; the Polish population bestially massacred the Jews, and Gentians only stood to the side and took pictures, and later they showed how Poles killed the Jews” (80). As of today, Poland continues to deny that the Poles had anything to do with the massacre.
The three major ideas, developed throughout the paper’s entirety, can be summarized as follows:
- Even though by the end of the 19th century, the Jews did manage to integrate into most European societies, there was nothing too stable about these people’s newly attained social status. This explains why after the end of the WW1, they ended up being turned into nothing short of ‘escape goats’ for all of the war-related carnage in Europe.
- The rise of Nazism in Germany, as well as the practical implementation of the ‘final solution’ by the Nazis, appears to have been innately concerned with the functioning of what can be referred to as the Western ‘collective’ or ‘archetypal’ psyche. In its turn, this explains why the Nazis were able to succeed in dehumanizing the Jews with apparent ease.
- The Ukrainian, Latvian and Polish Nazi-collaborators seem to have been just as active in inducing the Holocaust, as the German Nazis themselves. This, of course, calls for the application of some appropriate discursive amendments to the official historiography of the Holocaust.
I believe that the provided insights into the issue at stake, and the deployed line of argumentation as to what predetermined the perpetration the 20th century’s greatest crime against humanity, are fully consistent with the paper’s initial thesis. Apparently, there is indeed a strongly defined phenomenological sounding to just about any research that aims to uncover the deep-seated driving forces behind the Holocaust. What also emerges from the paper is that it is much too early assuming that all of the guilty parties have been properly identified and forced to face criminal charges.
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Esther. “12.” Awakening Lives: Autobiographies of Jewish Youth in Poland before the Holocaust. Ed. Jeffrey Schandler. New Haven: Yale University Press. 321-418. 2002. Print.
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Kaplan, Marion. Between Dignity and Despair: Jewish Life in Nazi Germany. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998. Print.
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