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Tarek El Zein



                     Jesus or Hitler?

Anti-Semitism was widespread in Europe at the time Hitler came to power. Much of this anti-Semitism was rooted, first, in religious beliefs that arose more than 1500 years before Hitler came to power, and second, on political beliefs, often cynically exploited for political gain. Though it was not accepted by everyone, this existing anti-Semitism was common and provided a receptive audience for Hitler's anti-Semitic claims.

     Hitler did not just exploit the existing anti-Semitism in Germany; he changed it and built on it until it became an all-consuming obsession both for himself and for the rest of the National Socialist leadership. The most significant difference between traditional anti-Semitism and the philosophy of the Nazis was that the basis for the anti-Semitism was distorted and changed. Previous anti-Semitism had been based upon religious convictions - primarily on the questionable fact that Jews were responsible for the execution of Jesus - and political attacks to exclude Jews from the rest of society.

     Although he exploited this religious anti-Semitism, Hitler and the other Nazi leaders, who were opposed to traditional religions, found another basis for their hatred of the Jews. They relied on the theories of "eugenics" and "social Darwinism" which were then common in Europe and transformed them into "race science." They also used the political expression of anti-Semitism coupled with the myth of the Aryans. This myth had developed in Europe the last part of the 19th century. According to Hitler's philosophy the Germanic peoples called "Aryans," were superior to all other races and had the right to rule over them. Hitler and the other Nazis claimed that other races, such as the Slavs and the Poles, were inferior species fit only to serve Aryan man. The Jews were even lower than the Slavs. Hitler believed that "Aryans" were the builders of civilization while Jews were parasites fit only for extermination. This racism had a political agenda as well. Hitler blamed the Jews for the loss of World War I, which he called "the stab in the back" and made the focus of his political campaigns. The combination of religious anti-Semitism and political anti-Semitism with patriotism led many German people to accept Hitler's message.

     One of the stumbling blocks to even wider acceptance of the Nazis' racism was the assimilation of Jews into German life. Unlike the Jews of Eastern Europe, German Jews considered themselves no different from other Germans, but in religion.

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They were merchants and scholars and professional people who went to the same schools and gathered in the same places as other Germans. And, for their part, the other Germans were used to dealing with Jewish businessmen and having their ailments treated by Jewish doctors. As Heinrich Himmler stated in a speech to SS officers long after the actual extermination began, every German had a "favorite Jew." When Hitler came to power he could not expect the masses of ordinary German people to agree to his program of extermination. Instead the Nazis led them to that end by gradual steps. From the day that Hitler took power in January 1933 there were efforts to terrorize Jews and exclude them from German life. As soon as Hitler eliminated his political opposition in Germany and suspended the Weimar Constitution, he and his associates started to build a brick wall between Jews and the other Germans. Jews were expelled from schools and fired from their jobs because of their beliefs. There were organized boycotts of Jewish businesses enforced by brown-shirted thugs known as "stormtroopers" or the SA. These early measures were only the beginning.

     The second step in isolating German Jews from the rest of the country were the Nuremberg laws passed in 1935 which fashioned the anti-Semitic agenda of the Nazis into the law of Germany. The Nuremberg laws forbade Jews from practicing professions such as medicine, law, and teaching. These laws also regulated interaction between Jews and other Germans. Jews were forbidden from employing non-Jews and it was a criminal offense for a Jew to have a relationship with a non-Jew. Even the act of kissing a non-Jew could bring a long prison sentence. The courts and the feared SA enforced these laws. During this period Jews were also encouraged to emigrate from Germany, as long as they left their property behind.

After five years of Hitler's regime German Jews were isolated and terrorized. They were no longer a part of German life. All that really remained of their former position were Jewish merchants to which Germans remained patrons. This ended on November 10, 1938, when, at the instigation of Joseph Goebbels, gangs of thugs attacked Jews and vandalized Jewish businesses. About two hundred Jews were murdered and thousands of businesses wrecked in a pogrom called "Kristallnacht”. After Kristallnacht the courts failed to punish the criminals. Instead 30,000 Jews were kidnapped and sent to concentration camps.     

The third step was to lead the German people into co-operating with the Nazis. It began with Kristallnacht. For a brief period after Kristallnacht, the Jews in Hitler's Germany were encouraged to leave Germany. This ended with the conquest of Poland in September 1939, when the Third Reich had about 2,500,000 more Jews with which they had to deal. Instead of isolation and forced emigration, the Nazis began to concentrate Jews in ghettos. Locked behind high walls, the Jews were even more invisible. It had been hard to hate a person that the average German dealt with on a daily basis, but the absence of the Jews and the different culture of the masses of Polish Jews made the anti-Semitic propaganda of Hitler, Rosenberg, Streicher and Goebbels even more effective.

     One of the reasons it was effective was the change in all aspects of German life and ideas wrought by the Nazi regime. The intellectual leaders of German culture who did not agree with the Nazis, including church leaders, were either silenced or forced to leave the country. The German people were subjected to a constant barrage of propaganda designed to convince them that Jews were evil. In Hitler's totalitarian state no argument or refutation of this hate literature was permitted, and the people who could have raised their voices were gone. A generation of young people grew up under the influence of Nazi propaganda that they had never heard contradicted.

     By the time of the invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941, Jews had become isolated and despised in the Third Reich. The situation was ripe for the final step in Hitler's program - the extermination of the Jews. The extermination began with mass shooting by groups known as the Einsatzgruppen, which followed the German armies invading the Soviet Union, and gradually evolved into to the gas chambers of concentration camps. Although there were concentration camps in Germany, all of the mass shootings and extermination camps were located far from the heartland of Germany.

     While many people knew what was happening, the reality of the extermination was not immediately apparent to the average German. It was something that was occurring far away and, about which they knew very little other than a sketch of what was happening. The almost unbelievable crimes of the Holocaust meant very little to the average German. It was something tolerated without really understanding to what extent the horror went to.

The situation of those carrying out the plan of extermination was different from the people at home. They were directly involved with the real horrors of murdering many people and could not just conveniently ignore what that meant. The men assigned to this task did it for a variety of reasons which ranged from a feeling that all orders should be obeyed to complete compliance with Nazi philosophy. Even for these men, the effects of participating in mass murder were so noticeable that the leaders decided to begin the use of poison gas instead of the direct method of shooting at the extermination camps.

Personally I do not think that a 1900 year ‘grudge’ against the Jews is enough to give rise to the Nazi regime and thus the sudden rise of hatred against the Jews. The Jewish populace was evidently still a scapegoat in those times as evidenced by the unjust trial of the French Officer, Dreyfus. But the French liberals and intellectuals led by the novelist Anatole France and the poet and essayist Charles Peguy denounced the trial with passion. Even Emile Zola entered the arena with his publication of the very much controversial “J’accuse” which received him a prison sentence. In 1906 Dreyfus was pardoned and reinstated to his rank after the French State and Church separated in 1905. This is just to prove that had the Nazi Regime not expelled or censured the German liberals and intellectuals they would not have been able to coerce a population with lies, absurdity and propaganda against the Jewish community without opposition.


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