I’ll be honest. I really didn’t want to write this part of the episode. Partly because it makes me sad and uncomfortable but more so because I know I can’t do it justice. There are so many better resources than me to explore in depth the various aspects of the Holocaust, one of the best being the U.S. Holocaust Museum and Memorial website. So I’m not going to attempt to do a less good version of what they’ve already created. Instead, I want to talk about something a lot of classes don’t cover but should: Why was there so much anti-Semitism in the world by the 1930s?
Throughout most of history Jews have been a minority group in whichever empire or country they have lived. And historically, Jewish communities typically maintained a distinct culture and did not assimilate into the larger community. This caused them to be seen as outsiders even in places where they had lived for centuries. Because of this, they were often easy scapegoats when things went wrong.
In the ancient era, the Kingdom of Judah was conquered by the Babylonians and the Jews were forced into exile or captivity. They were eventually freed by Cyrus the Great and allowed to return home but they never again established their own independent state.
During the classical era, the Jewish people were one minority group who experienced ethnic discrimination. Typically the Greeks and then the Romans were fairly xenophobic and believed other ethnicities were beneath them. But during the Roman Empire the Jews became a privileged minority. They were way more united than other subjugated groups and a series of semi-successful rebellions allowed them to be given rights that other groups were not given by the Romans. For one, they were allowed to worship their one God instead of the Roman Pantheon. This was good for the Jewish people, but it put a target on their backs for other subjugated groups who were resentful of their privileged status.
As the Islamic Empires conquered the Middle East, the Muslims viewed tax collecting as a job too “low” for themselves and so Jews stepped into this typically unpopular occupation as a way to make a living. This was mirrored in medieval Europe.
The medieval Christian Church said that usury – or the charging of interest – was a sin. Because of this, Jews stepped into the fields of tax collecting and banking. This often made Jewish communities wealthy but highly unpopular. It also generated a few problematic stereotypes over time.
Think about it: Jewish communities were often separated from Christian society in Europe. So if you were a Christian you would never interact with a Jewish person except when he was knocking on your door to either collect taxes or ask for their loan back. A stereotype arose of Jewish people as greedy or tricking “good” Christians out of their money. Add on top of this the Biblical interpretation that the Jews were responsible for the death of Jesus and you’ve got a lot of hatred brewing across Europe.
Another problem with Jewish communities being physically separated from the Christian majority was that when disease swept across Europe, the Jews were less affected. Again, this was good for the Jews. But, superstitious Christians who didn’t understand the science of disease blamed the Jews for events like the Black Plague. In one town, 900 Jews were burned alive because Christians believed this could prevent the plague from reaching them.
By the 1700s, rising nationalism contributed more to the problem. As European nation-states grew more unified and proud of their shared heritage, the fact that the Jewish communities maintained a distinct culture separated them from this unifying experience. And by the 1800s, scientific racism began classifying Jews as a race instead of just a religion.
Now, this isn’t entirely unreasonably because Judaism has historically been an ethnic religion. This means that Jews don’t view it as their duty to go out and convert everyone to their faith. And in other eras, Jews were encouraged to marry within their same ethnic group to keep the community united. But, by seeing Judaism as a race, Europeans have passed a crucial milestone that will make it hard for Jews to save themselves in the Nazi Third Reich.
Adolf Hitler was born in 1889 in Austria. In the late 1800s Jewish minorities across eastern Europe and Russia were being violently attacked and forced out in pogroms. Some Jewish families left Europe altogether and came to the United States. Turns out my great grandfather was one of these people, thanks Ancestry.com! But a lot of the Jews fled Russia into countries like Poland, Germany, and Austria. They were viewed with distrust and often as illegal immigrants who were diluting the historic Aryan culture of central and western Europe.
Hitler was a teenager in Vienna when the city was ruled by a very conservative mayor. He repeatedly won elections by blaming these new Jewish immigrants for the bad economic times and other social problems in Austria. Hitler learns that blaming a perceived “outside group” can united a nation together against a common enemy. He also just grows up in a time of rampant anti-Semitism where hatred, or at least distrust, of Jews was very common.
At the end of World War I, the German government led by the Kaiser was overthrown. A new democracy called the Weimar Republic was established and in this new era, Jews and other minority groups were respected and given more rights and equality. Jewish intellectuals were also welcomed into universities that had previously been closed off to them. To far-right nationalists, this looked suspicious.
A conspiracy theory arose in the years after World War I called the “Stabbed in the Back” theory. The idea was that the Jews, along with other liberal, unwanted elements like the communists, had orchestrated the terrible Treaty of Versailles. Some people on the far right even believed that Germany was winning the war but these subversive elements betrayed the military by negotiating with the Allies. To be clear, this is completely untrue. But this idea takes hold in the more radical, conservative groups in Germany. And the Nazis capitalize on this resentment for their own gain.
By the time Hitler and the Nazis rose to power in 1933, the Jews were regarded as completely non-German. They were linked with the global communist movement and blamed for the destruction and economic collapse of Germany, especially since they still were very influential in the global banking industry. So it was not a difficult leap for many Germans to make that the way to make Germany great again was by uniting “true” ethnic Germans in Germany, Austria, and other parts of central Europe against the rising Jewish threat.
Throughout the 1930s, Hitler gradually stripped Jews of their rights. In 1935 he passed the Nuremberg Laws that deprived Jews of German citizenship, including the right to vote. Jewish stores were boycotted and they were forced to carry ID cards.
In 1938, the Nazis orchestrated an event known as Kristallnacht, or the Night of Broken Glass. At the time this was portrayed as spontaneous acts of violence against synagogues and Jewish businesses and homes. But in reality, the Nazi Party organized the event and just made it look like an impulsive act by mobs of Germans.
At this point, the Nazi Party reasons that the Jewish people need to be separated from German society for their own safety. Jewish parts of town are walled off with guards out front. Any Jews who didn’t already live in the Jewish quarters are forced to move to these ghettoes.
When the war begins in 1939, Jews are rounded up and shipped out of the cities. Again, the justification is that they need to be separate for everyone’s safety. There is a general concern that the Jews are spies for the communist Russians. This is pretty similar to the way the U.S. treated its Japanese citizens during WWII, especially on the west coast. After Pearl Harbor, Japanese-American citizens were forced to live in internment camps for the duration of the war out of fear that they might spy for Japan.
There were many people across the Third Reich who actively supported the Nazi Party and its policies. There is no denying this. But, it’s important to acknowledge that there were also a lot of people who chose to support the Nazis out of fear for their own safety. People who resisted were often sent off to the camps themselves. This doesn’t mean they had no choice. They could have chosen to resist and risked their lives, but that’s something that’s easier said than done, especially from the comfort of the 21st century.
Throughout World War II, the Holocaust was occurring. By the end, over 11 million people were systematically murdered in the camps. This number included 6 millions Jews but also 5 million other “undesirable” groups like gypsies, homosexuals, communists, the disabled, and religious and political opponents of the Nazis.
Who knew and who didn’t? That’s the question the Allies were tasked with figuring out after the end of the war. And it’s impossible to know for sure. Obviously, those who worked in the camps knew what was going on. But, the further away you lived from a camp – which were often located in remote rural areas – the more reasonable it is that you might not have known exactly what was happening. German newsreels during the war gave citizens tours of the concentration camps. In these videos, the Jews are shown swimming, playing sports, and performing in orchestras. The Nazis explained that they were being well cared for in this summer camp environment just for the duration of the war.
Members of the Red Cross even visited some of the concentration camps during the war. And the Nazis put on a good show. They paraded them in front of healthy-looking inmates who performed for the visitors and spoke about how well they were being treated. There were articles published in the New York Times throughout the war referencing prisoners who had escaped. But their stories of gas chambers and experimentation on children were generally viewed as too outlandish to be true. These stories never made front page news.
After the war, the high-ranking Nazi officials, especially those who organized the so-called Final Solution, were punished at the Nuremberg Trials. Unfortunately, many of the highest officials escaped and were never brought to justice. Josef Mengele, the brutal doctor who performed horrific experiments on twins at Auschwitz, fled to Argentina and lived for a few more decades before he died during an ocean swim. Jewish Nazi Hunters spent the rest of their lives tracking down Nazis and bringing them to justice, often in the newly created state of Israel.
Today, the German government has fully come to terms with the horrors of the Holocaust. Concentration camps have been preserved as living museums and there is a general German shame that is referred to as “struggling to come to terms with the past.” Every year, my high school hosts German exchange students and they always visit right around the time of the year that we’re talking about the Holocaust. These students are always surprised at the fact that we only spend a few days on World War Two and the Holocaust.
In Germany, students are mandated to learn about it every year and there is an entire year of social studies in high school dedicated just to World War Two. The equivalent would be if all American students in their sophomore year spent the entire year learning about slavery. For the record, I’m all for it.