The end of World War II in Europe brought freedom for many and more oppression for others. It seems that “liberation” meant different things to different people. From the West, American and British forces moved swiftly across Germany to the Elbe river, and the peoples freed in their path have enjoyed freedom under democratic governments ever since. From the East, meanwhile, Soviet forces moved through Poland toward Berlin, taking possession of all in their path. They subsequently incorporated many peoples in what would become the communist bloc, to be cut off from freedom by Soviet oppression for almost 45 years until the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989.
Despite the differing political goals of the three main Allied powers, one thing they agreed on was their revulsion at the incomprehensible horror of the Nazi concentration camps, discovered as they swept across German-held territory. Auschwitz-Birkenau in Poland became the sickening symbol of the Holocaust, or Shoah, and humanity began to count the cost of unprecedented inhumanity. The world recoiled in disbelief at the extent of the fascist state’s terror against Jews and others, while traumatized nations set about the task of rebuilding devastated lives and shattered communities.
In the aftermath, many searching questions have arisen. For example, how could the aberrant Nazi regime have received sufficient popular support to achieve power in the first place? What is it about human nature that makes the monstrous evil of genocide possible? How can we ensure that such wickedness never happens again?
Sixty years on, after interminable numbers of books have been written, not to mention the countless television documentaries, articles and websites that are devoted to exploring the events of that time, the world has another chance to reprise the lessons that should have been learned. The war generation is rapidly dying out—soon there will be only historians and public memorials and museums to remind us of the facts of one of the darkest periods in human history.
As the world remembers the end of the world conflict, Vision examines Adolf Hitler’s rise to power, the unprecedented cruelty he unleashed, and the lessons to be remembered.
The Lead-Up to World War II
Rehearsing some of the background to the outbreak of World War I helps us understand not only that war, but also the even more catastrophic one that followed. It has been said that the two world wars were in fact one interrupted war. If that is true, there is even more reason to trace the origins of the first to understand the second. Though some historians would lay the blame for the German militarism of the two wars at the feet of the Prussian “Iron Chancellor,” Otto von Bismarck, contemporary analysis takes a different view. Bismarck, who oversaw the unification of Germany in 1870 and whose achievements certainly included restoration of German pride in the economic and military spheres, also effected the peaceful stabilization of Central Europe through wise diplomacy. In the process, he won a level of respect and admiration from other leaders around the world.
In terms of blame for the war within Germany, then, it is to another man that we must look for more proximate causes. In Bismarck’s final years, a new emperor came to the throne. William II (Kaiser Wilhelm), grandson of Britain’s Queen Victoria, was young, impulsive and inexperienced, and thought himself thoroughly modern. He was also filled with ambition to make Germany great. Within 18 months, he took advantage of a political opportunity to push the old chancellor to retire from public office. With what appears to have been great foresight, Bismarck’s resignation letter warned the emperor that his policies would lead the nation into war.
But the kaiser, now free to pursue his idealism, became more aggressive and irrationally turned his hostility toward the British, on whose trust and neutrality Germany and the European balance of power depended.
At the same time, German society was subject to many contrary currents as the 19th century ended. Politics was very much in flux, not least because of the advent of new parties. The Marxist Social Democratic party became the largest political group after 1890, winning one third of the vote in 1912. The role and influence of religion was diminishing under the weight of German rationalism and the secularization of society. New philosophies and ways of looking at the world were in vogue, from Nietzsche and Freud to Einstein, Wagner and Weber. As historian Stephen Ozment describes the social ferment, “young Germans wandered from soapbox to soapbox, on which influential demagogues, militarists, nihilists, and racists increasingly climbed.”
The stability of Europe was further threatened by William II’s passion for military buildup and colonization. In Africa and the Middle East, the emperor challenged the British and the French; in the Far East, the Russians. In Europe itself, the German army was soon the largest. The planning of 38 new German battleships by the time the 20th century began was bound to be perceived by Britain as a challenge to her naval superiority. As a result, Britain, France and Russia allied themselves against Germany.
But it was not the emperor alone who provided the grounds for war. In the restive Balkans, the Austrians, the Serbs and the Turks were at odds. Russia was allied with Serbia; Austria with Germany. The assassination of the Austrian archduke Francis Ferdinand and his wife by Bosnian terrorists in Sarajevo brought Germany into conflict with Serbia on Austria’s behalf. So began the war that would quickly expand to all of Europe, Africa, the Middle East and Asia. At the outset, no power, not even Germany, aspired to dominate Europe, but by 1917 many conflicting ambitions had come to the fore.
When the war ended, the Allies were determined to punish Germany severely. The Treaty of Versailles inflicted heavy financial reparations on the defeated nation—at first cut, 480 billion marks but later reduced to 132 billion, to be paid over 30 years. It took away various economically valuable possessions, including parts of West Prussia to create the Polish Corridor to the Baltic Sea. The coal-laden Saarland and the Rhineland were placed under French authority (but not jurisdiction). Germany’s colonies were taken. The armed forces were limited to 100,000 army and 15,000 navy. Heavy weapons were forbidden. These punishing terms, together with loss of national pride, unemployment and unfathomable rampant hyperinflation, brought Germany to her knees by 1923. The resultant bitterness, which swept the nation, fueled further resentment toward the victorious powers and set the stage for the emergence of the previously unremarkable social misfit, Adolf Hitler.
The Hardening of Hitler
Among the Austrian soldiers on the Western Front during the First World War, Hitler had been assigned the duties of a dispatch runner. There he had managed to achieve two decorations for bravery, in both cases the Iron Cross. But his development during the later war years and immediately afterward was more in his ability to argue his convictions against Marxists, liberals and Jews, and to consolidate his bitterness over the failure of imperial Germany to win the war.
On November 9, 1918, as the First World War came to an end, the emperor and the crown prince abdicated. Power was now in the hands of the Social Democratic Party, whose leader became the first president of Germany’s newly coined Weimar Republic. The transitional government signed the armistice, admitting unconditional defeat. At the news, Hitler, who was in a hospital recovering from temporary blindness induced by a mustard gas attack, sobbed with bitter disappointment that quickly turned to hatred. Returning to Munich on November 21, he remained in the pay of the army as no other job was available. His year in the army in 1919 proved to be a further turning point in the hardening of his ideological beliefs.
While he was still in uniform, Hitler began to involve himself in politics, and so began his rise to power. Employed as a propagandist and lecturer by the army, he discovered that he could hold an audience spellbound with his speaking. And he frequently spoke against the Jews.
Historian Ian Kershaw notes that Hitler’s lasting worldview was first expressed during this period. It was “antisemitism resting on race theory; and the creation of a unifying nationalism founded on the need to combat the external and internal power of the Jews.” In September, he joined the small German Workers’ Party. In 1920, along with a colleague, Ernst Roehm, he engineered its name change to the National Socialist German Workers’ Party and personally designed its swastika symbol. Hitler rose through its ranks to become, within four years, adored by nationalists across Germany.
In November 1923, he headed an attempt to take over the country from the Weimar rulers in the infamous Munich putsch. Though he failed, his name became nationally known. Imprisoned from 1924 to ’25, he dictated Part One of his seething autobiographical, anti-Semitic manifesto, Mein Kampf. On his release, he was banned from public speaking for up to three years but engaged in many private discussions about his ideas. During this time, Germany’s fortunes improved, thanks to the diplomatic skills of Chancellor Gustav Stresemann and the Weimar Republic’s second president, Paul von Hindenburg.
Then came the Great Depression of 1929. Germany was hit nearly as hard as the United States, leaving the nation ripe for political change that would address the chronic economic issues. Membership in the fledgling Nazi party surged. Hitler now appealed to industrialists, landowners, farmers, war veterans, and the middle class, who had been hurt by the inflation of the 1920s and the high unemployment caused by the Depression. In this climate, he openly expressed his own intense anti-Semitism, capitalizing on feelings that were already widespread throughout Germany. Eventually, he set in motion an extremely effective propaganda machine through which he convinced the majority of the nation that he was their savior, not only from the Depression but also from the Treaty of Versailles, the communists and the Jews.
Why did Germans vote for Hitler’s party? Not because they supported the future the Nazis put in place, but as Ozment says, “for what it promised to do by way of ending the present political and economic crisis.” Hitler seduced a majority into believing that he was “more outraged over their plight than they, and possessed of the will and wit to end it.”
Hitler became chancellor in January 1933, and parliament put in place the Enabling Act, giving him dictatorial authority. The Act specified that the cabinet could approve only measures submitted by the chancellor. Hitler’s popularity soared as the unemployment rate dropped dramatically and Germany realized great expansion in the civil sector and industrial production.
In 1935, Hitler rejected the Treaty of Versailles and introduced military conscription, initiating the buildup of a massive military machine. Meanwhile, the campaign against the Jews intensified. With the passing of the Nuremberg Laws, they lost their German citizenship and could no longer work for the government, in the professions, or in most types of economic employment.
Germany reoccupied the demilitarized Rhineland in 1936. As Britain and France stood idly by, with efforts toward appeasement going nowhere and Winston Churchill’s warnings falling on deaf ears, Hitler grew bolder and sent troops to support Franco’s rebellion in Spain. This eventually led to the creation of the Axis Powers, headed by Germany, Italy and Japan. In November 1937, Hitler held a secret meeting to plan his next major move: securing Lebensraum or “living space” for the German people by invading other countries.
The persecution of the Jews continued to grow, and between November 1938 and September 1939 more than 180,000 fled the country, with the Nazis confiscating whatever they left behind.
The Final Solution
On September 1, 1939, Germany invaded Poland and the war in Europe began. As the conflict spread, Hitler classified the Jews as enemies of the state.
Believing his propaganda, the Nazi leadership shared in his implacable anti-Semitism, based on the outlandish view that Jews were a kind of demonic infestation—the “poisonous mushroom”—who wanted to dominate the world. They were seen as an obstacle to the Nazis’ aspirations of Aryan dominance. Believing themselves to be the superior race, the Nazi high command considered it their duty to rid themselves of the perceived Jewish threat. Did the average German or Austrian soldier fight because of anti-Semitism? Ozment comments: “The original motives for the war were completely self-centered, not Judeocentric or anti-Semitic. Germans wanted to avenge and repair, by total victory, the draconian reparations they had been compelled to pay and the terrible suffering they had endured since World War I.”
After the German invasion of Russia in the summer of 1941, Hermann Göring, nominally in charge of anti-Jewish policy since 1939, ordered Reinhard Heydrich, head of the Reich Security General Command, to prepare for implementation of the “final solution of the Jewish question.” In January 1942, at the Wannsee Conference in Berlin, all major SS chiefs met to coordinate the destruction of a people. Records of this meeting survived the war and provide the clearest evidence of the central planning for the Holocaust. The number of Jews sent to eastern extermination camps increased dramatically.
In all, there were 1634 concentration camps and their satellites, and more than 900 labor camps. The extermination camps, or death camps, numbered just six. They were built at Chelmno and Auschwitz-Birkenau in the Polish territories that became part of the Third Reich, and at Belzec, Majdanek, Sobibor and Treblinka in the remaining central region of Poland, known as the General Government. But to differentiate between concentration camps and death camps in terms of what happened to most people who entered their gates is an argument without merit: in either type of camp, the death of inmates occurred on a vast scale. Whether worked to death, starved to death, shot to death or gassed to death is not the point. The Nazi machine was designed to exterminate Jews—and anyone else singled out as an enemy of the state—by brutal means.
Although various groups had been labeled as enemies, including Slavs, gypsies and homosexuals, only Jews were isolated for systematic annihilation. Between 1942 and 1945 the Nazis began to implement the plan in earnest. Every Jew in Nazi-controlled Europe was to be killed.
“In one six-week period alone, 222,269 sets of men’s suits and underclothes, 192,652 sets of women’s clothing, and 99,922 sets of children’s clothes, collected from the gassed at Auschwitz, were distributed on Germany’s Home Front.”
Auschwitz-Birkenau is the best known of the extermination camps. Perhaps one reason is that it was more international than the others: people were sent there from all over Europe—from as far away as Norway in the north to the Greek island of Rhodes in the south. Another reason may be that it was also a concentration camp; survivors from the slave labor force there were ready and able to tell the story when the war was over.
The camp became the site of the single largest mass murder known in the history of the world. Most authorities estimate that between 1 and 1.5 million men, women and children perished there—more than the total British and American casualties during the entire war. From 1940 to 1945 the Nazis sent more than a million Jews, nearly 150,000 Poles, 23,000 gypsies, 15,000 Soviet POWs, and more than 10,000 prisoners of other nationalities to Auschwitz-Birkenau. The vast majority died there.
Consequently, the name of Auschwitz has become infamous as a symbol of extreme brutality and of the genocide of more than 11 million victims of the Nazi creed. This includes the deaths of approximately 6 million Jews killed in the various extermination camps, concentration camps and ghettos, and through mass executions.
Exploring the Causes of Genocide
Today most would agree that the greatest outbreak of evil in the 20th century found expression in one man: Hitler.
“Hitler’s name justifiably stands for all time as that of the chief instigator of the most profound collapse of civilization in modern times.”
But the evil of Hitler is surely only part of the story. Certainly there would have been no Holocaust without Hitler’s evil vision and obsessive leadership. But neither would there have been the Holocaust without a committed cadre of leaders and followers who shared Hitler’s vision and who were willing to carry out his murderous directives. Hitler was technically not a mass murderer but the archconceiver of atrocities that others then carried out.
Analysis of the causes of the Holocaust has proved controversial. In his 1992 book Ordinary Men, Christopher R. Browning sought to explain that those Germans who actually perpetrated the evils of the Holocaust were not manifesting some unique German trait but were average human beings who, caught up in the historical moment, became pitilessly inhumane. Browning’s definitive 2004 book The Origins of the Final Solution argues that the Nazi genocide was not so much the fulfillment of a premeditated plot as an opportunity that presented itself and unfurled as the war progressed.
By contrast, Daniel Goldhagen’s 1996 work, Hitler’s Willing Executioners, while rejecting notions of a defective German “national character,” attempted to prove that the Holocaust nonetheless was unique and resulted from three interlocking factors. First was the rise to state power of virulent anti-Semites, who adopted the extermination of the Jews as state policy; second, the willingness of average Germans to support official state policy; and third, the fact that Germany alone had the military prowess to conquer the European continent. Therefore, only a German leadership could begin to slaughter Jews with impunity on an industrial scale, without fearing the reaction of other countries.
Both authors’ arguments deserve consideration. It is hard to imagine the death of so many innocent people happening in any other context. The cry “never again” has been heeded. Today Germany’s political culture is vastly different: democracy with appropriate safeguards reigns. The few outbreaks of anti-Semitism are recognized as the work of an extremist fringe who have been rejected as such.
Nonetheless, Browning’s point is the more telling: average, ordinary people are just as capable of genocidal atrocities given the “right” unfortunate confluence of circumstances. Ethics professor Jonathan Glover would argue that the additional flaw in these ordinary people is their lack of moral education. “The sense of moral identity is one relevant aspect of character. Those who have a strong sense of who they are and of the kind of person they want to be have an extra defence against conditioning in cruelty, obedience or ideology.” In this sense, the cry of “never again” has sadly gone unheeded. Genocidal killing has been attempted several times since 1945—in Cambodia, Serbia, Bosnia, Rwanda and Darfur.
“Hitler’s dictatorship . . . showed how a modern, advanced, cultured society can so rapidly sink into barbarity, culminating in ideological war, conquest of scarcely imaginable brutality and rapaciousness, and genocide such as the world had never previously witnessed. . . . It showed what we are capable of.”
The point is that the capacity for human nature to do evil will vary according to individual circumstances. Freedom to do evil is both limited and abetted by others in authority. Today one could murder only so many people before being arrested and incarcerated or executed. Because Hitler and his high command were the supreme authority over the German nation, they had the capacity to murder millions of Jews. And before the Allied powers finally defeated Hitler’s regime, they themselves avoided intervention of the kind that would have slowed the death camp killings. Allied bombers knowingly passed within a few miles of Auschwitz and its railway lines on several occasions and did nothing to disrupt the camp’s operations. The reasons are hotly debated, but the weight of evidence indicates that by their inaction, the Allies cooperated in cold evil with the Nazis, while the Nazi camp authorities practiced hot evil by direct involvement.
The Fundamental Lesson
Today’s world is very different in some respects from that bygone era: it has been largely immunized against the evils of fascism. Germany today is anchored in a politically stable European Union. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War, a new era of peace—with more democratically oriented governments, globalized trade and communication, and material development—has become possible.
But we should never forget the fundamental lesson: the price of peace and freedom is eternal vigilance accompanied by appropriate personal and collective action. Sound and stable governments committed to peace, freedom and the welfare of all their peoples and in their relationships with others are, at one level, the antidote to genocide. Yet, as noted, the world has experienced many additional attempts at genocide. Invariably this happens where law-abiding, compassionate government is lacking and elemental forces conspire to stir up the baser elements of human nature in the absence of personal moral certainty. This highlights the importance of individuals and collective bodies to act morally. The international community must commit to doing everything in its power to forestall conflict wherever it appears, and individuals must recognize the need for personal moral development in order to prevent the ultimate expression of violence.
Regrettably, in an imperfect world the possibility of genocidal acts can never be completely dismissed. Indeed, it is likely to occur unless actively restrained at the individual level, where we can all act. Human nature itself needs to change. Only when the collective deficiencies of human nature can be fully addressed will the prospect of genocide finally be erased. Until then countries, institutions and individuals can only do their best to limit and, if possible, defeat the forces of evil wherever and whenever they rear their ugly heads.
One obvious way to do our part on an individual level would simply be to conduct our lives based on the Golden Rule: to treat others as we would like to be treated. Though a biblical maxim, this was recently voted in Britain as the number one candidate for a new set of secular “commandments” for 21st-century life. Within such standards of behavior, the ultimate antidote to the violence of human nature can be found. In such a world neither hot evil nor cold evil would find a place.