The Holocaust
The Holocaust

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The Holocaust

2.3 The significance of Volksgemeinschaft in Nazi ideology

Hitler made no reference to Kristallnacht in his speeches at the time of the event. Less than three months later, however, on 30 January 1939, he gave a two-hour address to the Reichstag. The speech focused principally on the international situation but contained the ‘prophecy’ that a new war would bring about ‘the destruction Vernichtung of the Jewish race in Europe’. The ‘prophecy’ was singled out in newsreel coverage of the speech, yet neither the official reports on the impact of the speech nor the SOPADE reports comment on this section in their assessment of its impact. What people appear to have been most interested in was Hitler's discussion of the chances for peace or war.

By the outbreak of World War II, Jews in Germany had been deprived of citizenship. In addition they had been the victims of boycotts, intimidation, physical violence and brutality, some of which had been organised by Nazi Party officials, some of which was the work of local Nazi thugs acting on their own initiative. With hindsight we know that the situation was to get infinitely worse, but, prophecies about ‘the destruction’ of European Jewry aside, was there anything yet to suggest the creation of death camps and genocide?

The treatment of the Jews between 1933 and 1939 was one aspect of a policy which sought the creation of a racially homogenous, focused, national community – the Volksgemeinschaft. Other countries which emerged out of the First World War with multi-ethnic populations also looked for ways of dealing with their minorities, and few of these were particularly generous or pleasant. There are two things which stand out about Nazi Germany, however: the ethnic minorities within the territory of Germany were relatively few in number; and Nazi policy during the 1930s set out to incorporate into the Reich many of those territories occupied by ethnic Germans outside the frontiers of 1918 – Austria, the Sudetenland, and so on. The mystic Utopia of the Volksgemeinschaft required that all its members be centred on the same goal, dedicated to hard work and prepared for self-sacrifice. Those who would not fit in – the ‘asocial’, the ‘workshy’, homosexuals, political opponents – and those who could not fit in – ‘aliens’, the ‘ineducable’, the ‘incurable’ – had to be excluded, even eradicated. Anthropology, biological sciences and eugenics were deployed to identify both these groups of outsiders and even to suggest ‘treatment’. As noted above, the treatment of the ‘insane’ and ‘incurable’ was more violent in Germany than elsewhere and, from 1939, involved murder. Furthermore, in Nazi thinking Jews were not merely people who practised a particular religion; they were a ‘race’. Given thinking that was not unique to interwar Germany, the Nazis believed that as a ‘race’ Jews could be identified scientifically. The Nazis did not only present the Jew as someone who could be identified biologically; they also put forward a series of artificially constructed manifestations of the Jew as an enemy of the Volksgemeinschaft. In the words of Detlev Peukert, one of the most authoritative commentators on everyday life in Nazi Germany:

The very diversity of actual modern Jewish experience was taken to point to the existence of the mythical hate-figure of the essential ‘Jew’ lurking behind the most disparate surface appearances. The intellectual, culturally assimilated Jew stood for detested modernity; the religious Orthodox Jew matched the traditional hate-image of Christian anti-Semitism; the economically successful Jew stood for ‘money-grubbing capital’ and liberalism; the Jewish socialist represented abhorrent ‘Bolshevism’ and ‘Marxism’; the ‘Eastern Jew’ from the alien culture of the ghettos was a suitable target for the aggression and arrogance of the civilising and colonialist missions of the imperialist era.

(Peukert, Inside Nazi Germany, 1987, p.209)

Activity 3

Many, indeed most, of these images were not confined to Nazi thought. Can you suggest why, in the context of Nazi Germany, they may have formed the basis for genocide?

Discussion

It is, of course, a truism to say that the Nazi regime was ruthless and brutal; it had demonstrated itself as such both in the treatment of some of its own (Rohm and the SA for example), and in the treatment of the ‘insane’ and ‘incurable’. While the abstract image of the ‘Jew’ was not specifically German, it constituted an all-encompassing opponent of the Volksgemeinschaft, the Nazi Utopia. It might be argued that, having created this ubiquitous monster, ultimately only an all-encompassing ‘solution’ to the problem would suffice. Moreover, once Germany had embarked upon war, and once therefore the Volksgemeinschaft had to be fully focused and prepared for determined effort and self-sacrifice, the removal of any internal ‘alien’ threat – especially this threat – became all the more imperative.

This answer relies heavily on Peukert's analysis. You may have come up with something very different. When Peukert gave a conference paper arguing that the Final Solution was ‘a systematic, high technology procedure for "eradicating" or "culling" those without "value"’ he was criticised for refusing to afford primacy to the attempt to exterminate European Jewry – the Jews were, after all the principal victims of the mass killing – and for seeming to reduce Nazism to ‘biological politics’ (T. Childers and J. Caplan, Reevaluating the Third Reich, 1993). Explaining mass murder is not easy. The point to note, I think, is that there was a change in the Nazi persecution of the Jews during the war, and it is to this change that I want now to turn.

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