The Roots of Hitler's Hate

Ultra-Orthodox Jewish men visit the Yad Vashem Holocaust Museum in Jerusalem April 24, 2006. Israel marks the annual memorial day commemorating the six million Jews killed in the Holocaust of World War II on Monday. REUTERS/Gil Cohen Magen

From the beginning to the end of the war that he and his government had launched, Hitler and his associates concluded that their paranoid fantasy of an international Jewish conspiracy was the key to contemporary history.

May-June 2018

IN 1978, in Toward the Final Solution: A History of European Racism, the historian George Mosse emphasized the parallels between European white racism of the modern era towards blacks and European racial hatred of the Jews. Both the European pseudoscientists and racial ideologues such as Houston Stewart Chamberlain, and then various Nazi racial ideologues, like the advocates of white supremacy in the United States, purported to uncover connections between external appearances and body type with pejorative features of mind and character. Culminating in the caricatures that filled the pages of Julius Streicher’s Der Stürmer, they depicted a stereotyped Jewish body held to be physically inferior in every way to an idealized vision of the beautiful Aryan body. They viewed Jews’ alleged physical ugliness as innate evidence of moral inferiority.

The strand of anti-Semitism that imputed moral inferiority to the Jews, based on the assertion that Jews were a distinct biological race in conflict with another, Aryan race, found clearest expression in the Nuremberg race laws of 1935, especially the “Law for the Protection of German Blood and Honor.” This and other laws passed that year blurred the distinctions between biology, race and religion, and transformed the Jews from a distinct religious group into a racial category. It included detailed reflections on the dangers of “mixing” German and Jewish blood and elaborate rules defining who was and was not Jewish. It forbade Germans to marry or have sexual relations with Jews as well as with persons of “alien blood,” that is, “Gypsies, Negroes and their bastards.”

As James Whitman has recently pointed out, the German lawyers involved in drafting these laws found helpful models in American miscegenation legislation. The consequences of the Nuremberg race laws were immediate: Jews lost their civil and political rights. In December 1935, a supplementary decree ordered the dismissal of Jewish professors, teachers, physicians, lawyers and notaries who were state employees and had been granted exemptions. This German era of persecution and denial of citizenship rights to Jews bears comparisons with persecution based on the imputation of inferiority to African Americans. In both cases, obsessions with racial biology and notions about racial superiority and inferiority led to discrimination, denial of citizenship rights, impoverishment and periodic violence.

This kind of racial anti-Semitism, with its elements of physical revulsion, sexual panic and assumption of clear, easily recognizable physical differences, had obvious parallels with European and American racism towards Africans and, later, African Americans. Like other forms of racism, including that of the slaveholding American South, this anti-Semitism associated pejorative qualities of inward character with specific physiological attributes. The Jewish body implied a Jewish character, associated with cowardice, sexual rapacity, crime, murderous attacks on women and children, lack of patriotism and subversion of the nation. This kind of pornographic and biological anti-Semitism certainly fostered a climate of hatred and revulsion in which mass murder was a possibility. It was central to the murders of the mentally ill and physically handicapped, and to barbaric “medical experiments” undertaken by Nazi physicians. It played an important role in the development of techniques of mass gassing and lent the prestige of science to inhumanity, and in so doing contributed to a climate of opinion in which a genocide could take place. Yet arguments resting on racial biology were not the decisive ones made by Hitler when he launched and implemented the Holocaust, nor those made by other Nazi leaders, notably Joseph Goebbels, in justifying the ongoing extermination. The Nazi anti-Semitism of the 1930s was similar in its outcomes to the white racism that had justified slavery before the Civil War and legalized segregation and discrimination afterwards. Ideological assertions about the supposed physical and moral inferiority of the Jews, like comparable assertions about African Americans, were components of both eras of persecution, associated with both forms of racism.

Yet the Nazis’ anti-Semitism of the 1930s led to an era of persecution, not mass murder. It was not the ideology of the Holocaust. In Mosse’s words, this racial anti-Semitism merely led “toward the Final Solution”; it did not bring the Nazi regime “to” the Final Solution. The now well-known terms—völkisch ideology, cultural despair, redemptive anti-Semitism, the hour of authoritarian biology, reactionary modernism and more recently Saul Friedlander’s reference to “redemptive antisemitism”—bring us to the ideological world of the Nuremberg race laws and the November pogrom of 1938, but not to the kind of anti-Semitism that accompanied and justified the leap beyond to the Final Solution.

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