Hitler’s antisemitism and the Holocaust
But what about Hitler’s policies towards the Jews? How do we explain those? Towards the beginning of this paper, I quoted Dietrich’s (1988) conclusion that Hitler’s antisemitism was only a minor part of his popular appeal to Germans. One reason for this view is the important but seldom stressed fact that there was nothing at all odd or unusual about a dislike of Jews almost anywhere in the world of the 1930s. Hitler was to a considerable degree simply voicing the conventional wisdom of his times and he was far from alone in doing so. The plain fact is that it was not just the Nazis who brought about the holocaust. To its shame, the whole world did. That part of the world under Hitler’s control in general willingly assisted in rounding up Jews while the rest of the world refused to take Jewish refugees who tried to escape — just as the world would later refuse many Vietnamese and Cambodian refugees and will in due course refuse to take other would-be refugees from other places. Racial affect is now recognized as universal in psychology textbooks (Brown, 1986) and Anti-Semitism is, sad to say, an old and widely popular European tradition. There seems to be considerable truth in the view that the Nazis just applied German thoroughness to it.
Nonetheless, Hitler was undoubtedly more than usually obsessed by the Jews. What made him so obsessed? What in particular made him BECOME antisemitic? Mein Kampf is unreliable as objective history but there can be little doubt that it is good psychological history — i.e. it records Hitler’s own history as he saw it. And what he says there is that in Linz — where he grew up — there were few Jews and he saw them at that time as no different from other Germans. So when he moved to Vienna he was horrified at the antisemitism of much of the Viennese press. As he says in Mein Kampf:
“For the Jew was still characterized for me by nothing but his religion, and therefore, on grounds of human tolerance, I maintained my rejection of religious attacks in this case as in others. Consequently, the tone, particularly that of the Viennese anti-Semitic press, seemed to me unworthy of the cultural tradition of a great nation”.
That’s a pretty odd beginning for the man who became history’s biggest antisemite, is it not? So there must have been a powerful force to bring about such a radical change. And the force concerned was nothing other than the “love” relationship that I have noted above as existing between Hitler and most of the Germans under his rule. As any reader of Mein Kampf should be aware, the book is largely a love-song to the German people. And that most Germans eventually returned that love is rather vividly borne out by the way they stuck with Hitler to the bitter end — long after it was at all reasonable to do so. Compare Germany 1945 with the unrest in Germany prior to the 1918 surrender, the collapse in resistance in Western Russia and Ukraine in the first year of the German invasion, the collapse of Dutch, Belgian, Danish, Norwegian, Czech and French resistance under German invasion or the collapse of Italian resistance under Allied invasion.
As already mentioned, both Roberts (1938) and Heiden (1939) — prewar anti-Nazi writers — portray Hitler as widely revered and popular among the Germans of their day. As Heiden (1939, p. 98) put it: “The great masses of the people did not merely put up with National Socialism. They welcomed it”. And Madden (1987) presents modern-day scholarly evidence derived from archival research to show that Nazis came from all social classes in large numbers.
I am inclined to the view that Hitler’s love for his fellow Germans was sincere but, whether or not that was so, there was one huge problem with it — Germans at the start of Hitler’s political career immediately after World War I were at one-another’s throats. A civil war between the “Reds” and other Germans was a very lively possibility at the time. How could you love a people who hated one-another? How could you love a people who were NOT one people in important senses? That was a major dilemma that Hitler had to solve. And we see from Mein Kampf how he solved it:
Although he was, like most German second-rate thinkers of his time, much influenced by the ideas of Marx and Engels, Hitler despised the destructive and divisive “class war” aspect of Marx’s thinking and when he found that practically every preacher of Marxist class-war that he encountered in Vienna was a Jew, he began to see Jews as bent on the destruction of the German people he loved. So the great divisions that he saw among Germans in the anarchic conditions immediately after World War I could now be explained satisfactorily: They were the work of non-Germans — Jews. It was Jews who were creating divisions among Germans by their preaching of class war. Germans were only divided because they were being deceived by outsiders. Jews were the scapegoat for German disunity just as they have been the scapegoat for many other problems throughout history. And it may be noted that Hitler describes his conversion to antisemitism as “a great spiritual upheaval” — i.e. he abandoned his previous “cosmopolitan” (tolerant) views only with great reluctance. It was only his romantic love of his semi-imaginary German people (Volk) that brought about the big shift in his views.
And once the Marxist Jews of postwar Vienna had fired him up, Hitler began to see a malign influence of Jews everywhere, as later chapters of Mein Kampf reveal and as at least some historians document and as was common in Germany anyway.
In a speech delivered at the Berlin Sportpalast shortly after being appointed Chancellor on February, 1st, 1933, Hitler summed up his thinking about his German Volk with his characteristic passion as follows:
“During fourteen years the German nation has been at the mercy of decadent elements which have abused its confidence. During fourteen years those elements have done nothing but destroy, disintegrate and dissolve. Hence it is neither temerity nor presumption if, appearing before the nation today, I ask: German nation, give us four years time, after which you can arraign us before your tribunal and you can judge me! ….
“I cannot rid myself of my faith in my people, nor lose the conviction that this people will resuscitate again one day. I cannot be severed from the love of a people that I know to be my own. And I nourish the conviction that the hour will come when millions of men who now curse us will take their stand behind us to welcome the new Reich, our common creation born of a painful and laborious struggle and an arduous triumph — a Reich which is the symbol of greatness, honour, strength, honesty and justice.”
His love of his German people and his belief that they had been misled are certainly eloquently proclaimed there — and by that stage no-one doubted whom he saw as the “decadent elements”.
Sadly, however, Hitler’s anti-Jewish views actually made him unremarkable in the Germany of his day The general acquiescence in them needs no great explanation beyond a reference to the general attitudes of the times. As far as the average German knew, Hitler was just running (yawn) a Pogrom. The Russians did it all the time, didn’t they? It was Hitler’s national glorification and socialist policies that were really interesting and attractive.
The conventional account of the origins of Hitler’s animosity towards Jews is that his rejection from the Vienna Art Academy (in which Jews were prominent) embittered him. But that is not remotely what he says in Mein Kampf. He does not even mention the word “Jew” in connection with the Academy. He says that the Rector rejected him from the painting school because his main talent and interest was in architecture — a judgement with which Hitler emphatically agreed!
Finally, it might be noted that much of Hitler’s rhetoric about the Jews was based on exactly the same assumption that Leftists to this day use in talking about racial matters. The affirmative action warriors of today are fanatical about proportional representation. They constantly claim that the proportion of (say) blacks in the general population should be reflected everywhere — in every occupation and in every institution. If there is a smaller proportion of (say) blacks in banking than there is in the general population, this is taken as proof that there is discrimination against blacks in banking. Hitler used exactly the same argument about Jews. As they are in America today, Jews in prewar Germany were very much overrepresented in the top echelons of German society. So, in good Leftist fashion, Hitler took that as proof that good, ordinary Germans were being systematically excluded from such positions in society by malign Jewish machinations. If Hitler was illogical in such thinking, so are most Leftists today. And in fact complaints about Jewish over-representation in (say) top U.S. universities do rumble on at a low level among Leftists today. “The more things change, the more they stay the same”.
Fascism & Mussolini
Hitler was not however original in being both a socialist and a nationalist. The first police State that was both Leftist and intensely nationalist was of course the French regime of Napoleon Bonaparte. (Even the personality cult surrounding Napoleon prefigured similar cults in the later Leftist tyrannies of Hitler, Stalin, Mussolini, Mao, Kim Il Sung etc.) Bonaparte’s regime was as short-lived (1802-1814 vs. 1933 – 1945) and as salutary a warning as Hitler’s however, and it was not until the 20th century that such a concept again came prominently to the fore in the hands of the Italian dictator Mussolini. Mussolini came to power much before Hitler but was in fact even more Leftist than Hitler. Although generally regarded as the founder of Fascism, in his early years Mussolini was one of Italy’s leading Marxist theoreticians. He was even an intimate of Lenin. He first received his well-known appellation of Il Duce (“the leader”) while he was still a member of Italy’s “Socialist” (Marxist) party and, although he had long been involved in democratic politics, he gained power by essentially revolutionary means (the march on Rome). Even after he had gained power, railing against “plutocrats” remained one of his favourite rhetorical ploys. He was, however, an instinctive Italian patriot and very early on added a nationalistic appeal to his message, thus being the first major far-Left figure to deliberately add the attraction of nationalism to the attraction of socialism. He was the first 20th century far-Leftist to learn the lesson that Hitler and Stalin after him used to such “good” effect.
It is true that, like Hitler, Mussolini allowed a continuation of capitalism in his country (though the addition of strict party controls over it in both Italy and Germany should be noted) but Mussolini justified this on Marxist grounds! He was, in fact, it could be argued, more of an orthodox Marxist than was Lenin. As with the Russian Mensheviks, it seemed clear to Mussolini that, on Marxist theory, a society had to go through a capitalist stage before the higher forms of socialism and communism could be aspired to. He believed that capitalism was needed to develop a country industrially and, as Italy was very underdeveloped in that regard, capitalism had to be tolerated. What some see as Rightism, therefore, was in fact to Mussolini orthodox Marxism. Mussolini held this view from the early years of this century and he therefore greeted with some glee the economic catastrophe that befell Russia when the Bolsheviks took over. He regarded the economic failure of Bolshevism as evidence for the correctness of orthodox Marxism.
Nor was Mussolini a socialist in name only. He also put socialist policies into action. Thanks to him, Fascist Italy had in the thirties what was arguably the most comprehensive welfare State in the world at that time (Gregor, 1979).
It could be said, in fact, that Italian Fascism was noticeably closer to Communism than Nazism was. This is not only because of the influence of Marxism on Mussolini’s ideology but because Mussolini’s nationalism was sentimental and nostalgic rather than the intellectual and ideological nationalism of Hitler. Thus it is primarily the degree of ideological focus on nationalism that distinguishes the three forms of authoritarian socialism: Nazism, Fascism and Communism.
That Nazism and Fascism are commonly called Right-wing when in fact they were Right-wing only in relation to Bolshevik “Communism” does, then, tell us much about the dominant perspective of intellectuals in most of the 20th century.
As an historical summary, then, Nazism and Fascism had great appeal simply because they stole the emotional clothes of both the Left and the Right.