A large amount of historic events throughout the past two decades provide more examples of how often the one sentence over-simplified answer is either misleading or not factually accurate. In the twentieth century, the simple answer is rarely the right answer and the oversimplification can often annoy or frustrate historians. One method of oversimplification often is based on putting an overemphasis on one person's actions or in-actions in relation to events that transpire or don't transpire. By using this method, people often overestimate the importance one person has on historic events.
By isolating on the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, prime examples (using US Presidents) of one sentence cause and effect explanations are as follows. Herbert Hoover caused the great depression. Franklin Roosevelt stopped the depression. Lyndon Johnson was to blame for the debacles of the Vietnam War. Bill Clinton orchestrated the economic boom in the 1990s. George W. Bush caused the 2008 recession. As the examples prove, isolating a dramatic event as being credited to one person provides a completely inadequate summary of what actual causes existed.
For casual studiers of history, the past decades have seen the birth of new media become the primary source for how people obtain news of current and historic events. The information age in the twenty-first century indeed has numerous benefits for relaying information to the public. But, there are dangerous problems inherent that historians and non-historians alike must be made aware of. As a result of this over abundance of information, in depth research and understanding of issues is at times more and more simplified. Simplification of history and current events creates an atmosphere of a mass misunderstanding in the minds of an uneducated public. The consequences, as history shows us, can be disastrous and even deadly, as stereotyping and scapegoating of villains when combined with oversimplification of events creates too simplistic of a picture of good guys versus bad guys. A concept of which makes it much easier for powerful figures to manipulate a populace into casting blame off of themselves and onto others for any misfortunes existing in a society.
In the following pages, a detailed examination of the origins of the holocaust will be be done. The argument will be made that it was not Hitler and a small band of his cohorts that meticulously planned and executed the holocaust. Instead, the great depression of the twenties, punishment on Germany following WWI, and most importantly, the underlying psychological state of the German people as a whole were more important factors in the eventual scapegoating and then murdering of Jews. Economic hardships, poverty, and depression, before the Nazi party came to power, made the German people even more susceptible to demagogues taking power via their promotions of a simple villain (being either Jews, Communists, and/or other ethnic minorities) being the sole perpetrators who caused all of the peoples misfortunes.
The holocaust indeed provides the greatest example of the dangers scapegoating and oversimplifying has in pointing out villains. The holocaust resulted from the Nazi parties ingenious use of propaganda and their ability to oversimplify and scapegoat either Jews, Communists, or (even worse) Jewish Communists as being the definitive cause for all of peoples problems. While Hitler was indeed influential in perpetrating the horrors, he would have been unable to do so without a willing and listening audience who easily believed his diabolical messages of hate.
In explaining and examining the causes of the holocaust, there are two main theories that historians generally debate. The first, intentionalists, argue that the holocaust was planned and executed to perfection, with the intent being the killing and extermination of all Jews. The second, fundamentalists, believe the holocaust was not planned and instead the intent of the Nazi leaders was originally deportation. Once deportation became inconceivable, fundamentalists believe the mass slaughter of Jews became inevitable.1
The question is often raised as to how and why so many millions of people willingly participated in the holocaust. Prior to answering that question, the psychological state of the German people must be further examined. Advances in the field of psychology have provided valuable insight of how the Nazis came to power and how the German population collectively accepted a racist government. Modern psychology theories have shown that individuals experiencing depressive episodes (because of either poverty, individual loss, or individual hardship) have a time period when one is more susceptible to influence and persuasion. The influencing factor, whether moral or immoral, often leads one to overcome their hardships easier because they now have a motivating and believable cause worth pursuing. Even more importantly, the greater amount of people subject to hardships, the more available the opportunity exists for individuals or groups (such as Hitler and the Nazis) to oversimplify and provide an easy answer that, if followed, will cure them of their ailments.2
The mass poverty that existed in Germany following the first world war was due to a massive amount of what can be summarized as punishment inflicted on Germany following World War One. As former German politician Leon Degrelle writes, "By the beginning of 1933, the misery of the German people was virtually universal. At least six million unemployed and hungry workers roamed aimlessly through the streets, receiving a pitiful unemployment benefit of less than 42 marks per month. Many of those out of work had families to feed, so that altogether some 20 million Germans, a third of the country's population, were reduced to trying to survive on about 40 pfennigs per person per day." He continues, explaining how the hardships after WW1 were much worse than the hardships in the decades after WW2. He writes, "Half a century later (the late '90s), few people understand the crisis Germany faced at that time. Today, it's easy to assume that Germans have always been well-fed and even plump. But the Germans Hitler inherited were virtual skeletons."3
As such, Degrelle provides an excellent explanation of how and why a mass populace sought out and found simple answers to their problems. The Nazi party provided the population hope. But, most importantly, they gave the population a scapegoat of which to assign blame. It was though this means that the communists and Jews were hunted down, prosecuted, imprisoned, or killed. In summary, it was a German audience receptive to believe, without question, that Jews and Communists were the cause of all of their problems.
Not only did the German people believe in Hitler and the Nazi party's rhetoric, the world in general took a blind eye to the racism they promoted. In Time Magazine, in 1938, Hitler was the man of the year for his outstanding transformation of German society out of the depression and into prosperity. At no time in the article is any criticism given to the dehumanizing human rights abuses that Nazi regime systematically imposed on Jews.4
As it is now known, the holocaust was the most extreme form of genocide and racism. But, the origins of such atrocious acts committed during the holocaust already existed in one way or another in the preceding centuries. The biological and genetic knowledge of our modern times did not exist before the first half of the nineteenth century. Simply speaking, it was a general consensus in all countries that some races were inherently inferior than others. Races and genders have throughout history have always had inferiority stereotypes. Example are numerous throughout world history. During the colonial period, European countries (most prominently Britain) colonized Africa and stereotyped African natives as being a population of inherently inferior humans. Furthermore, until around the second half of the twentieth century, African Americans (especially as viewed by southerners in antebellum America) were also considered by many to be a genetically inferior race. Finally, gender stereotypes have also been shattered in recent history. It is no longer assumed in industrialized societies that women are inferior and subject to subordination to male commands. Instead, women are now widely accepted to be of equal status with their male counter parts in the workforce as well as in family life.
In the grand scope history, only in recent decades in western countries have people transitioned to believe in the uniqueness and equality of of individuals regardless of race or gender.
However, in comparison to recently broken stereotypes, historically speaking, the group that has been demonized, stereotyped, and negatively stigmatized has been Jews.
In determining whether the holocaust was planned from the beginning by Hitler and/or Nazi leaders, one must answer the question of why it was the Jews which they singled out and not another ethnic minority. Hitler and Nazis used the Jews as scapegoats because the majority of non-Jewish Germans already had preexisting assumptions that Jews were the primary cause of the great depression. It must be remembered, that before WW2 it was generally accepted as scientific, genetic, and religious fact that Jews were a mass nexus of peoples with an overabundant focus on profiting from commerce. Thus, economic disparity and money believed centralized into rich Jewish hands made it natural for Germans to believe Nazis when they spewed forth their antisemitic messages.
It is no surprise that before and during the holocaust, Germans and even non-Germans alike were willing participants in rounding up Jews for deportation or imprisonment. Indeed, the scapegoating by the Nazis along with the socially accepted beliefs made most people who hunted down Jews have no remorse in their actions. The actions of all nations before, during, and after the holocaust can be symbolized by a slowly burning fuse. Of which, after burning after all the years, finally exploded with the result being the holocaust. Intentionalist historians, who believe it was Hitler and a small group of people who caused the holocaust, consider the fuse to have been lit in the late 1920s or 1930s. But, they fail to realize the fuse was lit decades and and even centuries earlier.
While some of the earliest basis for Jewish stereotyping exists in the Bible, a large portion was justified and advocated by Martin Luther in the sixteenth century. In fact, the similarities are staggering as the words of Martin Luther in his book On the Jews and Their Lies are almost identical to the racist words in Adolf Hitler's book Mein Kempf. Such similarities clearly provide evidence that the holocaust was definitely not planned but rather a result of centuries of antisemitic thought.
In Luther's writings, he shares the beliefs that were later held by Germans and further promoted by the Nazis. For example, he states "If I had to refute all the other articles of the Jewish faith, I should be obliged to write against them as much and for as long a time as they have used for inventing their lies, that is, longer than two thousand years."Additionally, he adds regarding the Jews "...that everyone would gladly be rid of them." Indeed, a haunting foresight of what would come to fruition centuries later. Perhaps the most antisemitic writings of Luther are represented when he writes about how a nation's powerful leaders should treat Jews. He feverishly states "Burn down their synagogues...force them to work, and deal harshly with them, as Moses, did in the wilderness, slaying three thousand lest the people perish."5
Religion has been a dominant moral guide for how all humans live their lives. As such, the writings of Luther provide an excellent example of how antisemitism has always existed. The racism is interwoven into the very fabric of the Christian religion. The result, a preconception among the majority of non-Jewish people in the WW2 era who shared a common bond of hatred and resentment against Jews.
Hitler's antisemitism grew out of his Christian education. Germany, in his time, took for granted the belief that Jews held an inferior status to Christians. When Jewish atrocities started in Nazi Germany the events were not a result of Hitler's plans. Instead, the underlying currents of antisemitism came from the preachings of Christian ministers throughout Germany for hundreds if not thousands of years. In effect, the audience was already existing to hear Hitler's warped messages. Hitler did not create the message of antisemitism, he simply capitalized on how Jews were perceived by the masses.
The similarities between Luther's writings and Hitler's writings, when compared to the statements in his book Mein Kempf are illustrated in the following examples. It makes one wonder if Luther were in a post-industrial depression riddled society, like Nazi Germany, perhaps his message also would also have led to the explosion and scapegoating of Jews as the cause of the nations problems.
As Hitler states about the entire Jewish race, "the founder of Christianity made no secret indeed of his estimation of the Jewish people. When he found it necessary he drove those enemies of the human race out of the Temple of God; because then, as always, they used religion as a means of advancing their commercial interests."6
The great depression was a global event that effected all industrialized capitalist nations. Throughout all of human history, commerce and capitalism were economic forces that took a back seat to self-sufficient agrarian farming. With the population of the world exploding during nineteenth and twentieth-centuries, no longer were most people dependent upon themselves to control their lives. Instead, the majority of the population now participated in wage labor. The preconceived stereotypes associated with Jews made them the an easiest representation of the peoples frustrations of having lost control of their ability to provide for themselves. Indeed, the downfalls of modern day capitalism were felt to the highest extremes by the largest amount of people at that time.
In Christianity, nineteenth-century evangelical movements also created an era when the modern day phrase "cleanliness is godliness" came out. In Mein Kempf, an example is given by Hitler when he stereotypes women as the caretakers and motherly figures of keeping a clean Christian household. Hitler stereotype Jews as needing to be figuratively "cleaned" out of the country. Thus, he was able to appeal to not only men but also women. As Hitler states, "Cleanliness, whether moral or of another kind, had its own peculiar meaning for these people. That they were water-shy was obvious on looking at them and, unfortunately, very often also when not looking at them at all. The odour of those people in caftans often used to make me feel ill. Beyond that there were
the unkempt clothes and the ignoble exterior."7
While Luther and Hitler both shared a common hatred of Jews. Hitler was also the beneficiary of and highly influenced by the writings of Charles Darwin.
One faces no consequences today and faces no penalties when legally hunting or laboring in the butchering business to provide food for survival. Basically, man is indeed at the top of the food chain in the survival of the fittest Darwinian theory. In Mein Kampf, there are several indications of how Darwin and his findings influenced many in the German and non-German populations to believe that through natural selection, Jews had to be destroyed or they would take over and eventually destroy or pollute native German bloodlines.
By stereotyping Jews as being animals and inferior to the pure-blooded divinely endorsed German people, Hitler was able to demonize Jews as well as glorify Caucasian non-Jews as being proudly superior. As historian George Victor states, "Hitler believed the ability to recognize one's own race and reject alien races was instinctive, as an animal distinguishes between its own species, and others, especially in choosing a mate."8
The fear of natural selection possibly leading to a Jewish world dominance created the necessity for Germans to secure their place as being superior to Jews. This was reflected when Hitler stated "History furnishes us with innumerable instances that prove this law. It shows, with a startling clarity, that whenever Aryans have mingled their blood with that of an inferior race the result has been the downfall of the people who were the standard-bearers of a higher culture."9
His viewpoint was shared by many others in the German population as Darwinism and survival of the fittest was something everybody could relate to as the massive unemployment and dilapidated German economy of the 1920s created a survival of the fittest mentality in the everyday lives of German citizens.
It is not uncommon that when people are experiencing hardships that they turn to religion for answers. By utilizing people's devotion to their most common passions, an audience existed and listened with open ears to obtain justification for things they already believed. When Hitler scapegoated Jews, it was justified on religious and scientific grounds. The majority of Germans were already convinced that their beliefs were moral and just. As such, many believed it was in their best interests to continue to spread their religion and prevent false religions (Judaism) from spreading. It leads to the obvious conclusion that people who participated in the holocaust were acting out of divine religious purposes to obtain praise, not from the fuhrer, himself but also the almighty.
The message of antisemitism required a charismatic leader indeed to spread the message. It's no doubt that Hitler played a major role in promoting the hatred against Jews. But, much like music, an audience is always listening for a good song to hear. In relation to the Nazis rise to power, Hitler simply sang the song that appealed to the most people. Luckily when he sang the song, the unemployed and depressed masses were furthermore excited to be hearing the message contained therein.
It is common that uniqueness of musical artists can be oblivious to the fact that an artists sound is derived from years, decades, and centuries of music that has already existed. In relation to the holocaust, intentionalists would fail to realize the great amount of music that already existed prior to hearing the song. As artists now say, their success is dependent upon the quantity of fans and the appeal they can create to the most people. Without a large audience of people with antisemitic beliefs, Hitler's messages would have probably fell on deaf ears. As such, the eventual holocaust was not planned all along by Hitler and Nazis because jumping to that much of an extreme would have been inconceivable and impossible for people to accept.
Victor summarizes Hitler and the Nazi parties lure excellently by indicating that Europe was hit hard by the depression and throughout history has had staunch times of prosperity and depression. As a result, he argues that Europeans were more susceptible to influence. As he writes regarding the relationship between Hitler and his audience, "While most Germans did not fully believe what he said about Jews, they did believe his words contained some kernel of truth. That belief, combined with the well-established practice of scapegoating, made Germany receptive to his message, as other European countries had long been receptive to such messages." He summarizes the arguments herein presented when he writes. "As the practice of scapegoating expanded, the basic idea became unconscious."10 Indeed, a precisely accurate statement.
Questions still remain in determining whether the holocaust was planned or came took on a life of it's own. One of the most relevant questions worth answering is determining why the holocaust started when it did.
An answer is thus provided as to why after over a decade in power, and only two years after the start of WW2, did mass killings against Jews finally occur. Not coincidentally, the killings started after the Nazi war machine over stretched its armies too far. The result was a necessity to maximize the size of military units in order to have the most manpower to support their acquired territories.
After the United States entered WW2 in 1941, eventually the allied powers became aware of the atrocities happening to Jews. Almost all countries did little if anything to come to the assistance of Jews or offer refuge to Jews fleeing Germany or their occupied territories. In fact, as historian David Engle writes, with the military buildups and fighting a global war, allied powers simply found it an "unaffordable luxury" to be able to help the Jews.11
Perhaps the greatest military blunder historians mention is Hitler's decision to invade the Soviet Union. While the blunder is indeed arguable, it is not arguable that after going east it created the infeasibility of deporting the massive amount of Jews due to the limited manpower existing in central European occupied territories.
While the commencement of mass killings of Jews started around September of 1941, there has now been a myth being spread by modern day popular media that there was a plan set in motion by a small group of highly influential German leaders to orchestrate the mass killings. The myth being spread concluded that mass killings started during a conference of the leaders in Wannsee, Germany on January 20th, 1942. The dramatization of the conference has led people to scapegoat a handful of German leaders as the puppet masters who pulled the strings at Wannsee to initiate the holocaust. There are numerous historically inaccuracies regarding the importance of the Wannsee conference.
The most recent example of the Wannsee conference was the movie Conspiracy released in 2001 by HBO films. The movie claims that in December of 1941, "in 2 hours these men (the high-ranking German officials) changed the world forever"12
While the statement is somewhat believable, the title of the movie itself indicates there was a conspiracy of which led to the holocaust starting. In actuality, there was no evidence of a conspiracy of high-ranking officials to enact mass killings. Primary sources analyzed by the Nazis still show no official declaration that authorized mass killings. Instead, as argued by many fundamentalists holocaust historians, it was simply an unspoken and generally accepted truth that the mass killings occurred. It was true that 1941 marked the beginning of the holocaust. But, stating the Wannsee conference as the definitive starting point of the killings has no evidence to back the claim. 13
Historian Francis DuPont provides outstanding criticism of the movie when he states, "In reality, the Wannsee Protocol never talked about extermination, gas chambers, or even suggests, in any way, mass murder of any sort...the Wannsee Conference only discusses a plan which entails the evacuation of Jews to the territory recently opened by the German invasion of the Soviet Union, which had started the previous June. It is worth repeating: Nowhere in the Wannsee conference, or in the minutes of that meeting, was a plan for the mass murder of all Jews discussed."14
It is possible that the Nazi leaders destroyed all of their evidence of planning the holocaust. But, that entails a conspiracy existed and the cause of the mass killings was set in motion at the Wannsee meeting. In effect, the tragic effects of the holocaust are offset with a cause of perpetration by a small group of conspirators. In reality, no such conspiracy existed. As Victor writes, "a historian once asked what had happened to Germans for them to accept a criminal government. Unfortunately, nothing needed to happen. In nations across the world, people accept government crime."15
Massive amounts of evidence kept by the Nazis has kept scholars worldwide in a constant state analyzing Nazi documents. But, to this day, no concrete evidence exists that the mass killings of the holocaust were specifically planned by a small group of people. With all the evidence that exists, it is unfeasible and illogical to believe otherwise.16
It is true that the most often discussed topic during the Wannsee meeting was determining the most effective methods for handling the "Jewish Problem". Research has shown that the method to be used was sterilization and mass emigration. Extermination, while hinted at in the transcript of the meeting, was never directly mentioned. Furthermore, before the conference, six concentration camps were already being constructed.17
After the Wannsee conference, in reviewing the events during the holocaust, it is general accepted that after the conference (not because of the conference) the final solution meant mass killings of Jews. It wasn't until 1942 through 1944 that the majority of the mass killings were was carried out in gruesome detail. Hitler never individually authorized mass murder of Jews. Rather, the events just happened by German soldiers, German officials, SS officials, and also even willing peoples in occupied territories. In fact, non-Germans from Norway, Slovakia, Croatia, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuanian are just some of the countries where willing citizens participated in rounding up Jews and sending them to the concentration camps. Hence, another example showing that people not directly under the influence of Hitler's hypnotic messages still had no remorse in leading Jews to their eventual deaths.18
Ultimately though, mass murder was not in the cards for Nazi officials. In the months shortly after the conference, Nazi plans still existed and were discussed to deport all of the Jews to the assumed acquisition of Siberia or even to the island of Madagascar. When this means to the end became unfeasible, gassing slowly developed into being the best means for a small number of Nazi concentration camp officials to remedy the highly out of proportion number of Jews they were receiving and had to supervise. Gas chambers also provided a way for Germans soldiers in the concentration camps to distance themselves from the psychological horrors of directly killing Jews. The people so the gas chambers became a way to not only kill the greatest amount of Jews in the shortest period of time, but also to desensitize soldiers from the tole directly killing took on their mental health.19
After WW2 ended, the aftermath of the holocaust was shown in great detail for all of the world to see. Indeed, scapegoating of Jews led to the most atrocious acts committed against them in history.
As Hitler and his Nazi followers scapegoated the Jews into gaining power, so too has Hitler and his henchmen now been scapegoated as being the sole masterminds behind the Holocaust. Indeed, it is an irony seldom noticed of which the consequences could be fatal if Hitler and Nazis are scapegoated themselves as being the simple cause of any unfortunate event that occurs. In effect, "playing the Jewish card" before WW2 is comparable to those who "play the Hitler card" to scapegoat evil-doers today.
Casting Hitler and prominent Nazi leaders as the perpetrators and masterminds behind the holocaust is too simplistic and misleading of an argument. That interpretation provides too easy of a cause and effect relationship that does not give credit to the preexisting underlying social forces that existed at the time. Scapegoating and simplifying, either knowingly or unknowingly causes further ignorance of the masses. Without paying close attention to these tendencies, the truth and context of the times gets lost.
Victor's summarizes, "Unable to end the oppression, humiliation, and chaos, Germans were ready to find a scapegoat." As such, Hitler grasped that and together with others formed the Nazi party."20 The result, of course, WW2 and the Holocaust and millions of lives lost. Scapegoating indeed is a dangerous action that left unchecked can have disastrous consequences.
In the end, assigning a large amount of blame to a small number of Nazi leaders who conspired to begin the holocaust casts the blame off of each person who is assigning the blame to the so called conspirators. In actuality, everybody was to blame at the time, whether they knew it consciously or unconsciously. The tendency to blame, stereotype, and scapegoat villains lies in the minds of us all. Only though tolerance of others differences and gaining insight into those differences can the roots of evil be contained.
Engle, The Holocaust: The Third Reich and the Jews (United Kingdom:
Pearson Education Limited, 2000), 27.
2 Susan Nolen Hoeksema, Abnormal Psychology (New York: McGraw-Hill, 2001), 55-67.
3 Leon Degrelle, "How Hitler Consolidated Power in Germany and Launched a Social Revolution," Journal of Historical Review 12, no. 3 (1992): 299.
4 "Adolf Hitler: Man of the Year" Time Magazine, Vol XXXIII, 1939.
5 Martin Luther, On the Jews and their Lies, trans. Martin H. Bertram (Minneapolis: Fortress Press), 1971.
6 Adolf Hitler, Mein Kampf, trans. James Murphy (London: Hurst and Blackett LTD, 1939), 240.
7 Hitler, Mein Kamph, 56.
8 George Victor, Hitler: The Pathology of Evil (Dulles: Potomac Books, 1998), 140.
9 Hitler, Mein Kamph, 223.
10 Victor, 134.
12 Conspiracy, prod. and dir. Frank Pierson, 1 hr. 36 min., HBO Films, 2001. DVD.
13 Engel, 32-37.
14 Francis DuPont, Tall Tales from the German Woods: The Myth of the Wannsee Conference. (United Kingdom: Historical Review Press, 2011). 8.
15 Victor, 221.
16 Engel, 63.
17 Nazi Party Top Secret Document, Minutes of the Wannsee Conference, 1942 (New York: Garland, 1982).
18 Engel, 73.
19 Engel, 37.
20 Victor, 134.
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Engel, David. The Holocaust: The Third Reich and the Jews. United Kingdom: Pearson Education Limited, 2000.
Hitler, Adolf. "Adolf Hitler: Man of the Year" Time Magazine. Vol. XXXIII, 1939.
Hitler, Adolf. Mein Kampf. Translated by James Murphy. London: Hurst and Blackett LTD, 1939.
Luther, Martin. On the Jews and Their Lies. Translated by Martin H. Bertram. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1971.
Nazi Party Top Secret Document. Minutes of the Wannsee Conference, 1942. Translated by John Mendelsohn. New York: Garland, 1982.
Nolen-Hoeksema, Susan. Abnormal Psychology. 2d ed. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2001.
Victor, George. Hitler: The Pathology of Evil. Dulles: Potomac Books, 1998.