Tuesday this week saw Ephraim Mirvis, Britain’s Chief Rabbi,...
What is the background to the Holocaust?
In 1942, at the height of the Second World War, a German reserve police battalion from Hamburg was given the mission of rounding up and massacring over 38,000 Jews in a village in Poland. The average age of these Germans was 39; they were middle class and most had no particular hatred of Jews. About a dozen out of the 500 refused to take part and some more refused to carry on once the shooting had started, but the majority got on with it. Later on, some actually developed a taste for the job and actively volunteered to take part in other death squads. They had acquired a taste for killing and it didn't concern them.
One of them said this: "It was possible for me to shoot just the children. It so happened that the mothers led the children by the hand. My neighbour shot the mother and I shot the child, because I reasoned that the child couldn't live without its mother. This soothed my conscience."
They were just following orders. As one man later admitted, it was not until years later that he began to consider that what he had done had not been right. He had not given it a thought at the time.
I thought that I would start with this unsavoury episode because, rather than absolving the indescribably evil Nazi leaders, it demonstrates that evil, to the extent of taking human lives without conscience, is contagious. This story was taken from a book, "Ordinary Men" and demonstrates just how many of the Jews who died in the Nazi holocaust were killed at the hands of ordinary men.
But first, the facts in a nutshell. The Holocaust was the systematic, bureaucratic annihilation of at least six million Jews by the German Nazi regime and their collaborators as state policy during World War II. In 1933, approximately nine million Jews lived in the countries of Europe that would be occupied by Germany during the war. By 1945 two out of every three European Jews had been killed. Although Jews were the primary victims, other Nazi targets included Gypsies, the mentally or physically disabled, Slavs, homosexuals and political and religious dissidents.
To understand how the Holocaust could happen in a country known for its sophistication and civilization, we need to explore some history.
Anti-semitism had found fertile soil in the 19th Century, in Germany. The Nazis may have provided practical 'solutions', but all the groundwork and theory had been laid in the 19th Century. German philosophers such as Ghillany, Arndt and Jahn were now producing work of the most venomous nature towards the Jews. Ludwig Feuerbach said, "Eating is the most solemn act or even initiation into the Jewish religion" (Some truth in that!) He then continues, "... When the seventy elders climbed the mountain with Moses, 'they saw the God of Israel ... they stayed there before God; they ate and they drank'". (Yes, this is more or less what it says in the Bible.) But then he concluded, "The sight of the highest being therefore only amused their appetite". This is contempt for Judaism, just a small step from fully blown anti-semitism.
German philosophers and scientists now confounded all logic and began to put forward strange new theories about racial origins. It was summed up in the phrase "purity of the blood". These people considered themselves of the Aryan race, a people originating in India. They even put forwards such ideas that Adam and Eve, in the Garden of Eden only spoke German to each other! Well, anyway, this Aryan race was 'the most superior of all, the race to conquer all before them'. The problem is that, in their long history they were in constant battle with the inferior ... the "sub-human" ... the evil Jew! Yes, the sub-human and inferior and tainted Jewish chosen-race, always seemed to thwart the intentions and destiny of the superior Aryan master-race!
In 1899, Houston Stewart Chamberlain put all these myths together in a book called Foundations of the Nineteenth Century. It was a 1500 page book and was packed with attacks on the Jews, such as "The Jewish race is altogether bastardised, and its existence is a crime against the holy laws of life." This book sold almost 1 million copies, almost a million hearts willing to be diseased by lies and hatred. One could also imagine thousands of young German hearts and consciences anaesthetised in advance against the horrors of the Holocaust, 40 years later!
Chamberlain wasn't the only anti-semite in his family. His father-in-law was Richard Wagner, Hitler's favourite composer. Wagner, whether composing music or writing books, dedicated his life to anti-semitism. It became a driving obsession and in 1881 he wrote this to the King of Bavaria: "I regard the Jewish race as the born enemy of pure humanity and everything that is noble in it; it is certain that we Germans will go under before them, and perhaps I am the last German who knows how to stand up as an art-loving man against the Judaism that is already getting control of everything."
So the scene was set for Hitler and his wickedness.
(This is an abridged extract from Steve's book Outcast Nation)