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

This argument calls for a revision of our understanding of what the Nazis meant by the phrase “the war against the Jews.” Since the publication of Lucy Dawidowicz’s classic work with that title, the phrase has come to be synonymous with the Holocaust. Dawidowicz’s work succeeded in drawing attention to the Holocaust, which in 1975 still stood in the shadows of the main historical event, the Second World War. Yet the evidence of the public assertions of Hitler and other Nazi leaders is clear. When they spoke of the war against the Jews, they were not referring only to the Final Solution. Rather, in their public statements and private diary entries and personal conversations, they asserted that war against the Jews comprised the war against the Allies, led by the United States, Great Britain and the Soviet Union, as well as against Europe’s Jews. These were two components of a single battle to the death between Germany and international Jewry. On numerous occasions, Hitler and other leading officials publicly threatened—and later proudly announced that they were accomplishing—the extermination of Europe’s Jews as an act of retaliation against the war that, they claimed, “the Jewish enemy” had launched against Germany and the Germans. When they spoke in this manner to justify mass murder, they had in mind a racially defined political subject active in contemporary history, whom they were attacking because of what they alleged it done, not primarily because of its alleged physiological features. In reality, of course, Nazi Germany attacked the Jews because they were Jews—that is, because of who they were rather than what they had actually done. The public and private justifications for the genocide reversed this elementary truth. While caricatures of the Jewish body filled the pages of Der Stürmer, the distinctively genocidal components of radical anti-Semitism dealt above all with what “international Jewry” was alleged to have done, not how Jews looked. The Jews, as Goebbels asserted in one of his most important anti-Semitic tirades, practiced “mimicry,” that is, they were experts at camouflaging their actual identity and passing as non-Jews. It was precisely because the Nazis did not believe that they could tell who was and was not a Jew by reference to biological features that they required Jews in Nazi-occupied Europe to wear the yellow star. It was what the Nazis accused the Jews of doing, not their physical features, that stood at the center of the Nazi commitment to mass murder.

The Nazis’ anti-Semitic conspiracy constituted for them a paranoid, explanatory narrative that seemed to solve key riddles of history. Why did Britain ally with the communist Soviet Union after Germany attacked in June 1941? Why did Roosevelt help the English and do all he could to prevent an early Nazi victory? Why did an alliance emerge between the Soviet Union, on the one hand, and the arch-capitalist societies, England and the United States, on the other? Why did the anti-Hitler coalition persist even after 1943, as the Red Army began to move towards and then into Europe and Germany?

WITH AN internal consistency that proved immune to empirical refutation, Hitler’s conspiracy theory appeared to account for a central paradox of the Second World War in Europe, namely how the “unnatural alliance” between the Soviet Union and the Western democracies emerged and persisted. In the eyes of common sense, Franklin Roosevelt and Churchill had decided to make a pact with the lesser evil of Stalin to defeat Hitler. From the perspective of Nazi anti-Semitic propaganda, the Western-Soviet alliance and the United States’ entry into the war were two powerful pieces of evidence that international Jewry had created and sustained the anti-Hitler coalition.

This narrative emanated foremost from Hitler himself. Goebbels elaborated it in weekly essays and radio addresses. Otto Dietrich, the chief of the Reich Press Office, worked every day in Hitler’s office and presented him with a daily digest of the international press every morning. Hitler then offered suggestions, which Dietrich conveyed as orders to his staff in Berlin. They in turn elaborated these into Presseanweisungen—press directives—to be handed out at a daily noon “press conference.” They were telexed to editors at hundreds of newspapers and periodicals each day or week. Journalists and editors who did not follow the directives risked losing their jobs or worse. Government control of the press was thus a daily and highly detailed exercise in dictatorial control.

The directives included broad themes regarding the power of the Jews as the driving force of the anti-Nazi coalition, as well as detailed instructions about word choice. For example, in the Zeitschriften-Dienst of June 13, 1939, the Press Office instructed editors not to use the term “anti-Semitism” because doing so undermined efforts to establish friendly relations with the Arab world. Instead the terms to describe Nazi policy were “defense against the Jews” or “hostility to the Jews” (Judengegnerschaft), while that for the Nazis themselves was Judengegner (“adversaries of the Jew”).