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Echoes of the Past
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Germany Special Report

Excerpt from Hitler’s Willing Executioners from Goldhagen In this excerpt from Hitler’s Willing Executioners, Goldhagen explains part of the process by which Jews were made into “socially dead beings” in the 1930s, before policies of consistent violence and extermination came into force. His findings shed light on how the later and horrible events of the Holocaust became possible.

he initiative to eliminate Jews from social contact with Germans was also taken by municipalities and heterogeneous groups of Germans of all classes . . . such as when, on their own, cities and towns began to bar Jews as early as 1933 from using swimming pools or public bathing facilities. So many measures and assaults against Jews were initiated by small businessmen during this early period that this social stratum appears to have been the font of the majority of attacks originating from private German citizens. Yet the initiative to eliminate Jewish influence from society was also taken by the most prestigious and best-educated professionals. German medical institutions and groups, for example, giving expression to their hatred of Jews, on their own began to exclude their Jewish colleagues, even before the government mandated the measures. University administrators, faculty, and students across Germany similarly applauded and contributed to driving their Jewish colleagues out from their ranks.

     Judges and members of the legal profession were so eager to purge their institutions and their country of Jewish influence that they, beginning already in the first few months of Nazi governance, often outran the legal mandates that the regime promulgated. In October 1933, one Berlin court upheld the dismissal of a Jew from administering an estate, ruling that the people’s pervasive hatred of Jews “made it seem inadvisable to retain a Jew in office, even in the absence of a special law to this effect.” Earlier that year, in July, another Berlin court provided a more sweeping justification for judges taking such initiative in the battle against Jewry. According to Die Juristische Wochenschrift, the most important German legal periodical, the court, writing with obvious approval, pointed out “that a revolutionary legislature [the Nazis had been in office but six months] naturally leaves loopholes which ought to be filled by the Court in applying the principles of the National Socialist Weltanschauung.” The German judiciary – almost all of whom had taken the bench during Weimar and therefore were, at least formally, not “Nazi judges” —was composed of such ardent racial antisemites that leading Nazis (bound to the belief that the eliminationist program should be legally governed) chastised judges for having violated the law in their rampant eliminationist ardor. Interior Minister Wilhelm Frick similarly tried to rein in all those under his jurisdiction, including many holdovers from Weimar, from extending the eliminationist measures beyond the laws that the regime had made. The judiciary’s extensive contribution to the persecution of the Jews during the Nazi period reveals its members to have been zealous implementers and initiators of eliminationist measures. The judges composed a group that was obviously bristling with anti-Jewish hatred during Wiemar, and then, when Hitler took power, was freed to act upon these beliefs. In this sense, the judges, all their education and training in law notwithstanding, were like so many other groups in Germany. With the judges, this transformation is simply that much more glaring.

Black and White Picture

     The unsystematic nature of the legal measures taken against the Jews during the first few years of Nazism, and particularly the uncoordinated and often wild attacks upon Jews which, according to the government’s own reports, occurred in every administrative district and in almost every locality, did cause many Germans to feel unsettled. Some objected to the wanton violence, and many, in and out of government and the Party, were unsure what sorts of action against the Jews were to be taken or tolerated. The Nuremberg Laws of September 1935 and subsequent legislation brought order to the uncoordinated state of affairs, defining precisely who was to be considered a Jew, or a partial Jew, and enacting a broad set of prohibitions that provided a good measure of coherence to the eliminationist program. Above all else, the Nuremberg Laws made explicit and to a great extent codified the elimination of Jews from a civil or social existence in Germany, going a long way towards creating an insuperable separation between Jews and members of the Volk. Its two measures, the Reich Citizenship Law and the Law for the Protection of German Blood and German Honor, stripped Jews of their citizenship and forbade new marriages and sexual relations outside of existing marriages between Jews and Germans.

     The eliminationist program had received at once its most coherent statement and its most powerful push forward. The Nuremberg Laws promised to accomplish what had heretofore for decades been but discussed and urged on ad nauseam. With this codifying moment of the Nazi German “religion,” the regime held up the eliminationist writing on the Nazi tablets for every German to read. All were literate in its language. And many wanted the implementation of its program to be hastened, as a Gestapo report from Hildesheim covering February 1936, a few months after the laws’ promulgation, conveys: “It is said by many that the Jews in Germany are still treated much too humanely.”

Jewish family leaving      After the Nuremberg Laws, Germans’ attacks upon Jews declined and remained at a reduced level through 1937. During this period, Germans continued to assault Jews verbally and physically, and the ongoing legal, economic, social, and professional exclusion of Jews from Germany’s life proceeded, yet the sheer volume of violence diminished. The comparative quiet, however, gave way in 1938 to renewed attacks of all kinds upon Jews, with both state and Party institutions working hard to “solve” the “Jewish Problem.” To give an illustration of the intensity of antisemitic activity, during one two-week period, as part of a concerted Party campaign under the slogan “A Volk breaks its chains,” 1,350 antisemitic meetings took place in Saxony alone. An upsurge of Germans’ attacks on Jews, destruction of their property, public humiliations, and arrests followed by incarceration in concentration camps characterized this year. The hostility of ordinary Germans was so great that by this time Jewish life outside the big cities, the only places where Jews could hope for some anonymity, became untenable. According to a July 1938 Social Democratic Party summary report: “In consequence of the steady antisemitic barrage, German Jews can scarcely stay in the smaller provincial localities. More and more, localities announce themselves to be “Jew-free” (juden-rein). . . Not only did rural areas become practically empty of Jews, but as a welcome consequence of how unbearable both the regime and ordinary Germans were making the lives of Jews, Jewish emigration from Germany also increased. . . .

     However much the renewed violence of 1938 signaled to everyone that the relative peace of the previous two years had been a passing, aberrant phase, any notion of a continuing Jewish presence within Germany was shattered by the country-wide violence, unprecedented in modern German history, of Kristallnacht. In light of the widespread persecution and violence that had occurred throughout (especially rural) Germany, Kristallnacht was, in one sense, but the crowning moment in the wild domestic terror that Germans perpetrated upon Jews. Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels orchestrated the assault as putative retribution for the killing of a German diplomat by a distraught Jew whose parents the Germans had deported earlier in the year to Poland along with fifteen thousand other Polish Jews. On the night of November 9-10, Germans in cities, towns, and villages across the country were awakened to the sounds of shattering glass, the light and smell of burning synagogues, and the cries of agony emitted by Jews whom their countrymen were beating to a pulp. ‘The magnitude of the violence and destruction, the (by the still embryonic standards of the time) enormity of the Rubicon night, is reflected in the statistics. The perpetrators, principally SA men, killed approximately one hundred Jews and hauled off thirty thousand more to concentration camps. They burned down and demolished hundreds of synagogues, almost all of those that they and their countrymen had not destroyed earlier. They shattered the storefront glass of about 7,500 Jewish stores and businesses, hence the appellation Kristallnacht (Crystal Night). . . .

Nazi soliders and frightened Jews

     It is because factors other than exterminationist antisemitism shaped the Germans’ actions that the character of the interaction of the various influences, including strategic and material constraints, needs to be understood. This, as was detailed earlier, can be seen at the policy level in the evolution of the Germans’ eliminationist policies into exterminationist ones as the opportunities and constraints became more favorable for a “final solution.”

     Whatever the constancy of Hitler’s and other leading Nazis’ eliminationist ideals was, the Germans’ anti-Jewish intentions and policy had three distinct phases. Each was characterized by different practical opportunities for “solving” the “Jewish Problem” that derived – this was true both of the possibilities and the constraints – from Germany’s geostrategic situation, namely from its position on the European continent and its relations with other countries.

     The first phase lasted from 1933 until the outbreak of the war. The Germans implemented the utterly radical policies of turning the Jews into socially dead beings and of forcing most of them to flee from their homes and country. They did so by perpetrating ceaseless verbal and sporadic yet ferocious physical violence upon Jews, by depriving them of civil and legal protections and rights, and by progressively excluding them from virtually all spheres of social, economic, and cultural life. At a time when most of Europe’s Jews were beyond the Germans’ reach - rendering a lethal “solution” to the “Jewish Problem” unfeasible - and when a comparatively weak Germany was pursuing dangerous foreign policy goals and arming in preparation for the coming war, these were the most final “solutions” that were practicable, the only ones that they could prudentially adopt.

     The second phase lasted from the beginning of the war until early 1941. The conquest of Poland and then of France and the prospective defeat or peace with Britain created new opportunities for the Germans, yet fundamental constraints remained. They now had over two million, not mere hundreds of thousands, of European Jews under their control, so they could entertain some “solution” to the “Jewish Problem” more effective than anything possible while Germany remained confined to its 1939 borders. . . .

      Under these more propitious circumstances, the Nazis contemplated more radical “solutions"- bloodless equivalents of genocide. They began to explore the possibility of removing this good portion of all of European Jewry living under their dominion to some god-forsaken territory, where they could discard, immure, and leave the Jews to wither and expire. In November 1939, at a meeting devoted to expulsions, Hans Frank, the German Governor of Poland, expressed the underlying exterminationist motive that was already operative in and constitutive of the relocation schemes: “. . . We won’t waste much more time on the Jews. It’s great to get to grips with the Jewish race at last. The more that die the better. “During this second phase, the Germans pursued the most radical “solutions” that were practicable and prudent. Their proto-genocidal policies for handling Jews within their dominion gave a new lethality to their Jewish policies. Their bloodlessly genocidal eliminationist “solution” of vast deportations, however, did prove to be chimerical – the only major German initiative against the Jews that did – but to no great disappointment on the part of the Nazi leadership, for the impending conquest of the Soviet Union rendered such deportations undesirable, by offering them at last the opportunity for a truly final and irrevocable “solution.”

     The third phase began with the planning of the attack on the Soviet Union and the invasion itself. It was only during this phase that killing the Jews whom the Germans could actually reach would prove to be, from their hallucinatory perspective, an effective and not a counterproductive policy. It was only then that a “final solution” by systematic killing was practical. It was only then that the Germans no longer had major political and military constraints hindering them from pursuing such a policy....

Copyright© 1996, 1997 by Daniel Jonah Goldhagen. Reprinted by permission of the publisher, Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. , New York, NY

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