Professor David Cesarani OBE (1956 - 2015) was one of the world's leading historians of the Holocaust and a Research Chair in History at Royal Holloway, University of London. David was a former HMDT trustee and a Historical Consultant to HMDT. In this podcast Professor Cesarani OBE provides an authoritative introduction to the history of the Holocaust.
Definition of the Holocaust
The Holocaust is the word that’s most widely used to describe the Nazi persecution and mass murder of the Jews in Germany and the parts of Europe they conquered with the assistance of other countries that collaborated with them and collaborators in the countries that they occupied. Many people also see the other victims of Nazi persecution as falling under the heading of victims of the Holocaust. Some historians agree with this, others disagree, but it’s very important to remember that the Nazis persecuted a very wide range of groups, for what we call racial and biological reasons. The Jews were first and foremost on the list of targets, and the Jews occupied a very special place in Nazi thinking, in Nazi ideology. The Nazis, the true believers, the core of the National Socialist movement, the Nazi movement, believed that the Jews were an enemy, that they were an extraordinarily powerful race, a race that was trying to achieve the downfall of the German people, to drag down Christianity, to achieve world domination. The Nazis had a fantastic idea, of who the Jews were, they believed the Jews were all rich, all powerful, that they controlled politics and life, in many countries. The Nazis believed that they were in a crusade to stop the Jews, and to defeat them, and ultimately to destroy them. For the Nazis, they were in a war with the Jews. The Jews were the enemy of the German people and running through the history of the Second World War, the war of German aggression against many countries is a war against the Jews. The top German leadership, the Nazi leadership, the true believers were convinced that they were not just fighting a war, of conquest, a nationalistic war, but a racial war to destroy the enemy who were the Jews.
Where does Nazi ideology come from? Where do these ideas come from? Well, to a very large extent, they are rooted in a thousand years of animosity, mutual hatred, conflict between Jews and Christians. The Christian Church was hostile to Judaism from its very inception, from the beginnings of Christianity there were between the two religions, once they became separate religions, and when Christianity was adopted as the religion of states, those states persecuted the Jews. It wasn’t until the modern era that Jews were treated as equal citizens of the countries in which they lived, were freed of persecution. But the ideas that Christianity had nurtured: that the Jews had killed the Messiah, had killed Christ. That the Jews had betrayed Jesus for money, that they were obsessed with money. These kind of stereotypes became imbedded in European culture and were transmitted to ordinary people as pure, simple common sense. So even though the organised systematic state persecution of the Jews ended during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, because it was believed that to persecute people because of what they believed was medieval, was barbaric, the stereotypes that people had about Jews, the belief that Jews were obsessed with money, were hostile to Christians, that they stuck to themselves, they were clannish and even conspiratorial, these myths, these legends that had been nurtured in Christian culture for hundreds of years, remained part of everyday belief.
The Nazis were able to build on these beliefs, these ideas, but they brought to them something very special, something very modern. In the late nineteenth century, some scientists and anthropologists developed ideas of race. They invented the idea that the human species, humanity was actually divided into separate groups, races, which had different characteristics, and what’s more, they believed that certain races were superior to other races. The top race, European scientists believed, surprise, surprise, was the European race, and in Germany, surprise, surprise, the theorists of race believed that the German people, the Aryan Volk were the most superior race of all. These ideas that began in areas of linguistics and anthropology and biology, biological sciences, which had originally been value free, were taken up by German nationalists and given a new interpretation, and a hard edge. German nationalists believed that the Germans were a race, a superior race, that other groups, other peoples were different races, inferior races, and the most inferior race of all was the Jews, but the Jews were also a racial enemy, trying to weaken the Aryan Volk: the German people, to destroy them to take over Germany. These fantastic myths, these ideas were all circulating around German society, and German culture and politics in the decades before the First World War.
The Rise of the Nazi Party
What brought them from the margins of German society to the very centre were the events that occurred during the First World War. Germany lost the First World War, the defeat was traumatic. During the First World War revolution took hold in Russia, many Germans after the First World War were terrified that the Bolsheviks would come to power in Germany, and take away property, nationalise industry, launch class war. In this very febrile, nervy state, far right wing, nationalist movements in Germany, suddenly found a huge audience for their message. They blamed the Jews for defeat in the war, they blamed the Jews for the Russian revolution, it became an article of faith on the right-wing of German politics, where the nationalists were, that the Jews were the enemy, that to save Germany, it was necessary not just to take power in Germany, but then to expel the Jews, reduce their power, even to destroy them.
And that was the milieu, the world, in which a former corporal of the Bavarian infantry, Adolf Hitler, suddenly found a place for himself. Hitler was a not an inconsiderable thinker, he read a lot, he hadn’t been to university, his education was a bit patchy, but he was a sort of natural intellectual. He read a lot, he argued a lot, he was thoughtful and he had great skills as an orator. He discovered through working for the German army after the First World War, working for them as a spy, checking up on radical groups, infiltrating them, becoming part of their membership, giving speeches to them, he discovered that when he gave these speeches, he attracted audiences, people listened to him. He left the employment of the army; he stopped being a spy on the radical right-wing movements and became a leader of one of the radical right-wing movements. The party that became the National Socialist German Workers’ Party, the Nazi Party, for short. Now for many years, Hitler and the Nazi Party were just a fringe party. But whenever there was economic crisis, political instability in Germany, people turned to them, to the men with simple solutions. The men who had an easy culprit for all the country’s woes, someone to blame.
Between roughly 1924-1929, Germany enjoyed a period of stability and prosperity, but with the onset of the Great Depression, mass unemployment affected Germany, discontent began to broil, the Communist Party started to make advances in elections and popular support. And many Germans turned to the Nationalist right-wing parties, the Nazi Party in particular, to defend them against the Communists, against the old Bolshevik threat. In a series of hotly contested elections, beginning in 1930, the Nazi Party made a series of electoral leaps, their vote rose, they got more and more seats in the German Reichstag, until it became impossible for any German Chancellor (rather like the Prime Minister in England) to govern with the support of the Nazi Party. And in the end, the German President, President Hindenburg, in January 1933, invited Hitler to form a government, to become the Chancellor of Germany. Now, initially Hitler ruled a coalition government, there were the Nazis, and members of some of the more conservative, less radical, but very nationalistic right-wing parties. Hitler was a canny political operator as well as being a very powerful orator, as well as being very smart – and in a short time, completely out-manoeuvred the right-wing traditional nationalists, the conservatives who thought they were just going to exploit Hitler’s mass support to prop up their government. The thing that made it possible for Hitler to completely out-manoeuvre them was the so-called Reichstag fire. The German Parliament was set on fire by an arsonist, the Nazis claimed there was going to be a Communist coup d’état, they went to the Parliament, the German Reichstag and asked for special powers. An Enabling Act was passed that in effect turned Germany into a one-party State and gave Hitler dictatorial powers. Hitler used his powers to systematically destroy all his political enemies. The Communists, the Trade Unions, the Socialists, Liberals; the Jews surprisingly perhaps, were not at the top of the list of enemies at this point.
In the first year or so of Nazi power in Germany, the Nazi Party was interested in consolidating its power. Sure, there were disturbances on the streets, attacks on Jews, attacks on Synagogues, on Jewish property. These attacks came mainly from the Brown-Shirts, the Sturmabteilung, the SA, which was a sort of party militia. The SA had been a back-bone of the Nazi movement since the 1920s. It was a mass movement, millions of Germans belonged to it, it was the street-fighting arm of the Nazi Party, it engaged in [thuggery] and intimidation through the Party’s rise to power, and it was very active during the election campaigns in the early 1930s. But once the party was in power, the men of the SA – the Brown-Shirts thought their day had come. They thought they would get power, they were going to get influence, but Hitler wasn’t too keen on that. Instead he allowed them to organise a boycott of German-Jewish businesses in April 1933, sort of threw them a bone. The boycott wasn’t terribly successful, wasn’t terribly popular, and it was called off. It was the first stage of a series of intimidatory acts, legislation directed against the Jews, intended to make them feel not just unwelcome in Germany but un-German, as foreign, as undesirable. The German-Jewish population in 1930 numbered about half a million. The vast majority of them had lived in Germany for many, many, many years. They were totally assimilated acculturated, part of German society. Thousands had fought in the First World War with the German army, thousands had given their lives, lost limbs, fighting for the Fatherland, [and] they could not believe that Germany would turn against them.
Initially all the anti-Jewish measures that were passed by the new Nazi government did exclude German-Jewish veterans of the First World War. That was something that the President, Hindenburg, insisted upon. He had led Germany during the First World War; he had a good deal of respect for the part played by the Jewish soldiers in the trenches. But when Hindenburg died in 1934 that particular restraint was removed, and the Nazis began to persecute all Jews regardless of their background, regardless of how long they lived in the country, regardless of whether they had served in the German army during the First World War. There was constant pressure from the Nazi rank and file to hit the Jews, to destroy their alleged power, to seize their alleged wealth, to stop them from polluting German culture with their radical and cosmopolitan ideas. Hitler did not see this as their main priority, their main priority was consolidating his power against enemies inside and outside the party, he also wanted to protect Germany’s standing within the International Community, he wanted to avoid giving the impression that Germany was now being run by a bunch of criminals and thugs. So he held back the Brown-Shirts, the SA, the wild men of the Nazi party, but he had to offer them something and perhaps the most important thing that he did, that the regime did was in 1935, at the Nazi Party rally, a series of laws were passed called the Nuremburg Laws. They effectively reduced Jews in Germany to second-class citizen status. Prior to that, the Jews had been affected by legislation but the legislation was rather blurry.
It is important though to look carefully at early legislation; very soon after the Nazis came to power they set about building what some historians call a racial state. A state based on racial and biological principles. The State was now going to fortify the Aryan people, it was going to take the German Volk and make them strong through what we call pro-natalist policies – encouraging women to have lots of children, providing care for children, encouraging marriage, but of course, only of those who met all the criteria for good Aryans. Who were not foreign, who were not alien, and who were certainly not Jewish. The regime also expelled political enemies from the civil service, from all areas of government employment, and public service. Now, these two things in combination, steps to create a racial state, and the purging of the state of political enemies did have an enormous impact on the Jews. First of all, in the spring of 1933, thousands of young Jewish men and women who were working for the German State, the public sector, that includes teachers, university professors, doctors working for the state funded medical services, all of these people lost their jobs. The Welfare State, if one can call it that in Germany, also began to exclude Jews, because the measures were directed solely towards the benefit of Aryans. As an example of the impact, Jews who were kicked out of their jobs and made unemployed found it very difficult to get assistance from the State, which was now restricting the assistance it gave to Aryans. The Nuremburg Laws of 1935, however, were the first set of laws that spoke to the so-called ‘Jewish problem’, the Judenfrage, in Germany. It was an announcement to the world that the Jews were foreign, were alien, were not wanted in Germany. Jews in Germany began to create a kind of alternative life for themselves; they set up their own schools, they employed those who were unemployed, who had been sacked from their jobs, they strengthened their Jewish community, they thought they just had to tough it out. This attitude actually irritated the Nazi leadership, they couldn’t understand why the Jews did not go. They couldn’t understand why the Jews persisted in believing that they were good, loyal German citizens.