Luther -- Gobineau -- Treitschke -- Chamberlain -- Gunther -- Hitler -- Streicher -- Rosenberg



Why did the Holocaust occur? Why did the Germans permit it to occur? Why did so many of them help in the killing of millions? These questions have consumed a half century of historical, sociological, psychological, religious and philosophical inquiry.

Present in Europe long before the advent of Adolf Hitler and the Nazis, anti-Jewish prejudice was a complex phenomenon that stretched across the continent and existed among all the peoples of Europe. The Jews were a people apart, not only by virtue of the fact that they maintained separate religious beliefs but because of distinct cultural practices as well. Klaus Fischer, a German historian of the roots of Nazism, has stressed that the Jews were "an ancient cultured people" who practiced a reverence for learning and philosophical thinking centuries before the existence of the early Greek city-states or the Roman republic. When Jews entered into Europe in large numbers during the Middle Ages, "they found themselves living among primitive Western people who were repelled by their superior intelligence and their clever business acumen. There was mutual contempt and hate . . . the two peoples were living geographically alongside each other, but they were immersed in different cultural stages." If Fischer is correct, then the Europeans' responses toward the Jews involved religious differences, cultural differences, the suspicion of one group of people toward 'outsiders,' and not a little envy. It was a volatile mixture that readily could be fanned into violence.

All of these responses and motives can be discerned in the remarks below, made by Germans about the Jews, from the 1500s to the advent of Hitler's Nazi movement. Hitler thus could draw upon a long tradition of anti-Semitism in making the Jews his special scapegoats for Germany's troubles.


"Let the magistrates burn their synagogues and let whatever escapes be covered with sand and mud. Let them be forced to work, and if this avails nothing, we will be compelled to expel them like dogs . . ."

Martin Luther, "Concerning the Jews and Their Lies", 1543.

Originally, Martin Luther had no animosity against the Jews in Germany, but hoped to convert them to his beliefs. When few Jews embraced his teachings he attacked them more and more in his writings. Four hundred years later, his remarks were frequently quoted in Nazi newspapers and pamphlets.

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As a people who lived apart from the rest of Europe -- partly by choice in order to protect their own beliefs and values, partly by laws and regulations that prevented them from entering into many parts of European society -- they made convenient scapegoats during crisis times. During the Black Death of the 14th century, Jews were massacred because many had believed that they had somehow caused the plague, perhaps by poisoning thousands of wells across the continent. In times of economic collapse, Europe's poor took their frustrations out on the Jews. They were often encouraged to do so by the ruling classes (frequently because the wealthy feared that the poor might turn on them instead).

Anti-Semitism -- new kind of prejudice:

In the 19th century, more Jews began to enter increasingly into the mainstream of European society, particularly in many of the western nations. In exchange for greater legal rights and greater acceptance in society Jews in France, Britain, Germany and elsewhere discarded many of their older customs. Ironically, this "assimilation" helped give rise to a newer form of anti-Jewish prejudice. As Judaic historian Robert Seltzer has noted, the new prejudice "was a backlash against Jewish success upon entering the mainstream of European society, and in that the acculturated rather than the traditional Jew was the main focus of fear." Just as liberal thinkers began to believe that anti-Jewish tendencies would gradually fade, renewed prejudice appeared in France, Britain, and elsewhere. Wilhelm Marr, a German writer, was probably the first person to use the term"anti-Semitism"in his pamphlet "The Victory of Judaism over Germandom." Marr argued that acculturated Jews would eventually subvert traditional German culture; they would corrupt "all [German] standards ... dominate commerce, push themselves ever more into state services." With the rise of economic difficulties in Europe in the mid-1870s, thousands among the poor and the small business owners who worried about their futures were influenced by Marr's pamphlet.

"The Jews are our misfortune."

Heinrich Treitschke, "A Word About Our Jews," 1881.

In 1871, Germany became a unified nation. A new nationalist fever, coupled with additional strains as the young nation struggled to balance rapid industrial growth, social change and traditional ways, led to an increase in social stress and class division. Several respectable German leaders exacerbated traditional anti-Semitism by pointing to the Jews as a principal cause of the upheavals. Historian Heinrich Treitschke wrote a long essay in 1879 in which he claimed that the fundamental differences between German Jews and Christians could not be reconciled, and that the Jews had "usurped too large a place in our life."

Soon, readers of Treitschke's essay and other anti-Semitic tracts were advocating legal measures against Germany's Jewish population. By the mid-1890s several laws had been proposed in the German Reichstag to limit Jewish education, participation in the professions, and other rights of German citizens. Although none of these measures had been enacted, prejudice against Judaism in Germany was growing.

In times of economic or social upheaval, those who most feared change were apt to strike out at the "other," the "outsider," or the different. An example of this type of prejudice can be found in the memoirs of a member of the slowly declining British aristocracy, who wrote that her social class resented the Jews "not because we disliked them individually, for some of them were charming and even brilliant, but because they had brains and understood finance." Similarly, Adolf Stocker, chaplain to the German emperor, found that he could attract more followers to his conservative Christian Social political movement by attacking the Jews in Germany.

Anti-Semitism took on an even uglier tone when it was tinged by the issue of "racial purity." An unfortunate byproduct of the scientific work of Charles Darwin, a movement known as "social Darwinism"spread in the late 19th century. Social Darwinians preached the doctrine that all life was engaged in a struggle for existence in which only the "fittest" survived. The "fittest," to many, meant those with the so-called "purest" bloodlines. Like anti-Semitism, the racial purity movement was not confined to the Germans.

"There is no true civilization, among the European peoples, where the Aryan branch is not predominant . . . and when the Aryan blood is exhausted stagnation supervenes."

Arthur de Gobineau, The Inequality of Human Races, 1854.

Gobineau, a French aristocrat,argued that racial differences determined the progress of peoples and that history showed that "all civilizations derive from the White race." He believed that the purest members of his white race were those of Aryan blood (and included most western Europeans). Gobineau was not especially prejudiced against Jews, but his widely distributed essay on racial inequality, with its core belief in the superiority of "Aryan blood," would influence many others.

"Aryan" was a linguistic term, denoting one sub-category of the Indo-European family of languages. But Gobineau's decision to use the term to denote a physical characteristic fundamentally altered the use of the word.


"Everyone must give his all to the holy Cause [for Germanic Superiority]; if they do not - if there is a chink in the armor, or if domestic discord saps the pure Germanic strength, as heretofore - then Germany is doomed."

Houston Stewart Chamberlain, wartime essay on German superiority, 1915.

Houston Stewart Chamberlain was an Englishman who had married Richard Wagner's daughter. In 1900, Chamberlain published his work, "The Foundations of the Nineteenth Century," in which he contrasted the "average" German as honest and loyal, the beneficiary of the German "race-soul" -- this was in marked contrast to Chamberlain's portrait of German Jews as greedy and immoral. He concluded by warning that before the "pure" Germans could become "lords of the world" they must defeat and suppress the German Jews. He reiterated his views with more force during World War I.

By the opening of the 20th century, ample "documentation" existed for the development of National Socialist racial and anti-Semitic ideology.


The Great war and German Defeat -- the rise of Nazism:

Their defeat in World War I gravely accelerated anti-Semitism among the German people. Many German writers and public figures (encouraged by the German Army General staff) explained the defeat with the "stab in the back" argument -- that Jews and communists had undermined morale at home when the army was still winning the fight in the field. This was of course far from the truth, for the German army was collapsing by November 1918 and much of the navy was already in mutiny. But thousands of Germans, unwilling to believe that defeat was inevitable after 1917, accepted the argument.

No person embraced the stab-in-the-back thesis with more enthusiasm than Adolf Hitler.

"...if the international Jewish financiers in and outside Europe should succeed in plunging the nations once more into a world war, then the result will not be the Bolshevizing of the earth, and thus the victory of Jewry, but the annihilation of the Jewish race in Europe."

Adolf Hitler, Speech to the Reichstag, January 30, 1939.

Historians have tried for decades to explain Adolf Hitler's murderous anti-Semitism. No complete answer has ever been discovered, but as a young man in Vienna, Hitler read numerous anti-Semitic pamphlets and books and incorporated what he absorbed into his own book, Mein Kampf.

Ultimately, as absolute ruler of Germany and the territories he seized, Hitler set the tone for the persecution of the Jews under his control.


"Without Julius Streicher and his Stürmer, the importance of a solution to the Jewish question would not be seen to be as critical as it actually is by many citizens."

From letter of Albert Forster, Gauleiter of Danzig, published in Der Sturmer, no 11, 1939.

No one ever accused Der Sturmer of subtlety in its anti-Semitic attacks. The newspaper of Julius Streicher, Der Sturmer employed cartoons frequently to portray Jews as being less than human. Here, in a 1934 issue, the cartoon praises the Nazi Ministry of Culture for removing Jewish teachers from German classrooms.

Streicher was convicted at Nuremberg for crimes against humanity and hanged in 1946.

"The Nordic race is tall, long-legged, slim, with average height, among
males, of about 1.74. The face is narrow, with a rather narrow forehead, a
narrow, high-built nos
e, and a narrow lower jaw and prominent chin. The hair
colour is blond."

Hans Gunther, "Short Ethnology of the German People," 1929.



Hans Gunther, a professor of anthropology, became one of the premier racial theorists of Hitler's Germany. A fervid disciple of Gobineau and Chamberlain, Gunther believed that the "Nordic Aryan" was the "ideal type" of person for furthering the progress of civilization.

Gunther blamed gypsies for "introducing foreign blood" into Europe, but he also regarded Jews as inferiors, and his writings certainly contributed to the emotional climate that produced the Holocaust. Because he could not be linked to specific atrocities, no legal action was taken against him after the war. He lived on in Germany until 1968.


"Europe will have its Jewish question solved only after the very last Jew has left the continent."

Alfred Rosenberg, "Myth of the Twentieth Century," 1934.

In the early years of the Nazi movement, Rosenberg was one of Hitler's premier racial theorists. Like Hitler, he was very familiar with the works of Gobineau, Chamberlain and many others. During the war, as "Reich Minister of the Occupied Eastern Territories" (that is, land seized from Russia), Rosenberg helped plan and carry out the murder of hundreds of thousands of Jews in eastern Europe.

Rosenberg was convicted, at the Nuremberg Trials, of crimes against humanity. Like Julius Streicher, Rosenberg was hanged in 1946.

Sources: Klaus P. Fischer, Nazi Germany: A New History (1995); Saul Friedlander, Nazi Germany and the Jews (1997); Horst von Maltitz, The Evolution of Hitler's Germany (1973); John Milfull, editor, Why Germany: National Socialist Anti-Semitism and the European Context (1993); Robert M. Seltzer, Jewish People, Jewish Thought: The Jewish Experience in History (1980); Barbara Tuchman, The Proud Tower (1966).
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