To what extent was the Nazi persecution of the Jews the result of Hitler’s personal animosity towards them and to what extent was it due to German social attitudes? (Pre-Nuremburg Laws)

The Nazi treatment of the Jews was to a minor extent the result of Adolf Hitler’s personal animosity towards them and to a more major extent due to German social attitudes of the time. There are a good many theories in this area which suggest varying levels of Hitler’s direct involvement in the Jewish persecutions. Some historians suggest that the persecution was a result of the actions of the Jews themselves , others suggest that they were they victims of circumstances, some would argue that previous and deep running prejudices were to blame whilst many would suggest that Hitler personally hated the Jews and so used his power to attempt to “disinfect Germany of the Jewish problem”.

To assess the extent of the effect of Hitler’s personal animosity, I must first look into the motives of Hitler throughout his life and where they stemmed from. There has long been a suggestion that Hitler hated the Jews because his mother was treated by a Jewish doctor and that he blamed him for her death. This view first emerges in writings shortly after the war which often seek to neutralise the role played by the German peoples in the persecutions. This obviously places a high degree of bias on the sources and perhaps explains the decision to remain anonymous made by the majority of their authors. If this view was reliable however it would seem that Hitler’s personal hatred would be a significant factor in Nazi persecution of the Jews in later years, as it is conceivable that Hitler would be looking to avenge her death in some way, or punish all Jews for the mistake of one doctor. There is in fact some evidence to support these claims, and many historians use the well known statistics that some 25% of all doctors in Germany were Jewish. There is also evidence in “Mein Kampf” that Hitler’s family doctor was Jewish. There seems no reason for Hitler to lie about this unless to make a political point and other contemporary evidence confirms that the doctor was Jewish. However, the argument that Hitler hated the Jews because of the treatment of his mother has a good number of pieces of strong evidence against it. The main bulk of these being in the form of letters written by Hitler shortly after his mother died. In these letters, Hitler does not seem consumed by hate as some would suggest, but instead seems extremely grateful of the assistance that the doctor gave him. In his first letter to the doctor after her death Hitler wrote: “I shall be forever grateful to you”. This seems to rule out the argument that the Nazi treatment of the Jews was because of Hitler’s experiences relating to his mothers death.

A stronger school of thought is that Hitler learnt from other political and social leader’s ideologies which he later used on the road to power and once he had control of Germany. The majority of historians are supportive of this theory but there are however two camps with regards to the question.

Some historians suggest that Hitler was educated during his life by experiences and actions which led to him to feel a dislike of Jews, he then realised that his ideas were aligned with the political activists of the time, such as Karl Leuger, and forwarded his policies to rid Germany of a genuine cultural problem. Should this theory be accurate, it would suggest that Hitler had a deep running personal animosity towards to Jewish people. This would obviously shape German policy against the Jews once he assumed near total power. This camp gains the notable support of historians such as Bracher and Sachar . The second camp however suggests that Hitler had a desire to steer Germany to prosperity and realised he needed to be in power to do this. As such he saw the examples set by Leuger in Vienna and his contemporaries whereby anti-Semitic policies on the election trail were openly used in a manner in which to stimulate populist opinions among the working and lower-middle classes. Should this theory be true, it would suggest that Hitler had little or no animosity towards to Jews and that the Nazi treatment of them was a public relations exercise taken to extremes.

Both theories carry some logical reasoning. Hitler spent an amount of time in Vienna at the time in which Carl Leuger was the mayor of the city. Leuger was openly anti-Semitic in his policy choices. This gave him an electoral win backed by what has now been described as a wave of “anti-Semitic mob mentality” . It is possible that the young Hitler, who was around his mid twenties at this point, was influenced in either of the two theories expressed above. Hitler was in the lower-middle class in Vienna and so it is easily possible to link him with the group of people who had been influenced against the Jews by Leuger. Historians such as Elon would argue that this is probably where he picked up the majority of his anti-Semitic feelings. Others, such as {Albert S Lindemann|Lindemann] may well be inclined to suggest that Hitler saw the power which Leuger gained by simply suggesting that he would rid Vienna of the Jews. Hitler must also have noticed that while Leuger talked a good anti-Semitic policy, his actions were minimal. This suggests that Leuger was simply using the Jews as a tool, if Hitler was copying this method to gain power, it would suggest that there was very little personal animosity but rather a desire for control.

Further room for historical debate is given after Hitler’s period of residence in the Viennese Doss House. Hitler spent five years in the Viennese Doss House before participating in the Beer Hall Putsch. In Mein Kampf Hitler writes about his experiences in the Doss House, stating “In this period my eyes were opened to two menaces of which I had previously scarcely known the names, and whose terrible importance for the existence of the German people I certainly did not understand: Marxism and Jewry.” Evidently Hitler himself believed, or at least wanted to others to believe, that his Anti-Semitic views were developed in Vienna. It must be remembered however that Mein Kampf was later used as a piece of propaganda and so the writings within it must be closely scrutinised. One must also realise that Hitler was writing directly before attempting to seize control, perhaps these lines were written to use in the Putsch. This indicates that he was looking for power before (we are led to believe) he discovered his dislike of the Jews. This adds weight to the arguments of Lindemann but does not discount the theories of Elon.

There are however a good number of other factors which contributed to the treatment of the Jews throughout Germany and the Reich. Between 1915 and 1925, a massive economic collapse struck Europe and especially Germany. Inflation soared to demonstratively high levels, particularly in 1922 and 1923, to the extent where workers were paid with wheelbarrows of money, and took wages at lunch and the evening to buy things with the currency whilst it still had value. At the same time a number of philosophers and theorists who disliked the Jewish people started to make links between the German Jewish population and the economic problems in Germany.

The reasoning behind this is technically sound. The Jews, being able to lend money, had been extremely successful since their arrival in Germany in the early 14th century. In a time of economic prosperity, as was seen between 1500 and 1800 in Germany this was not taken to be a problem. There were larger problems such as Protestant-Catholic battles. However, the Jews soon became associated with the prosperity and became entrenched in the upper echelons of German society and government. When the Great Depression arrived the government as a whole was criticised. It was at this point that Germans became hostile to the Jews who had profited greatly from their prosperity and were therefore seen to be to blame for all that had gone wrong. The situation was not helped by the fact that most banks were Jewish owned and had acted in the only way they could, to raise interest rates, and therefore had compounded the crisis. The Jews also occupied a highly visable social position within German society and as such were more easily identifiable as a group. As a young Adolf Hitler began to take power over Germany, the recovery had begun. It was again noted that the Jewish financiers had gained greatly from the recovery and it seemed that they had not suffered the hardships of the common Germans. Thus they began to be seen as economic parasites, making money from the sufferings and prosperities of the German peoples.

The economic dislike of the Jews began to fuel a common movement against them. Jewish shops were often boycotted and ransacked. This was less of a move against the Jews and more an expression of public dissatisfaction in the fall of German prosperity. However, as with all economic collapses, a scapegoat is selected and flogged heavily. It can be seen with the Black Wednesday crisis in England where the Conservative government was blamed, in the Wall Street crash where zealous accountants and brokers were blamed and in Japan where powerful bankers and directors were blamed. In 19th and 20th century Germany, it was the Jewish people who were blamed. Perhaps this is partly because they formed the government, brokers, bankers and company directors, but also it is because there was a cultural difference between the German Protestants and German Jews. As such, there was a deep seated suspicion.

It was not only the economic troubles of Germany which the Jews were blamed for. The defeat of Germany in the First World War was blamed on the Jews. It was proposed, though there is little or no proof that this is true, that the Jews all tried to avoid conscription, traded secrets with the enemy and deserted from the front. These unfounded allegations struck a chord within an embarrassed Germany. Many were deeply angered by the Treaty of Versailles which had left Germany with less land, minimal military force and a ban on expanding their forces above any given level. Interestingly, the government received a great deal of criticism but it was not they who passed the blame onto the Jews, it appears to have been an entirely genuine reaction from the people.

There were also a number of Communist rebellions and attempted coups between 1919 and 1923. Many of these were very nearly successful and as such terrified the broadly conservative and authoritative German political populous. Falsely the German population saw Jews as being highly involved in Russian communism because of high levels of Russian Jews migrating into Germany. This was a misconception however as the Jews were fleeing because of the Soviet suppression of Jews in Russia. However, this still gave light to a new stream of anti-Jewish feelings.

At this point, a number of factors had singled out the Jews from the general German society. Their culture had been criticised, their religious practised ridiculed (especially circumcision which was labelled brutal and barbaric) and their appearance and cultural origins exaggerated. At this time further myths and legends reappeared. Firstly Lindemann points out that many religious preachers in Bavaria began to claim once more that the Jews were inferior and were being punished by God for their involvement or compliance with the execution of Christ. This is a Christian legend which had circulated throughout Europe whenever the Jews were singled out as the scapegoat, for example during the Black Death, and seems to have struck a chord with highly religious cultures in the past. Its emergence in the 20th century however seems to go a long to way to demonstrate the level of common dislike for the Jewish population. At the same time, the infamous “Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion” or “Protocols of Zion” as they are sometimes known re-emerged. The Protocols are a well known document, which was allegedly drawn up by a secret Jewish society and details the plans in which Jews can take of the world secretly. They were quickly proven to have been forgeries created by the Russians in order to justify the suppression of Jews in the higher levels of Russian society. However, Amos Elon notes that they surfaced in Germany in the late 19th century and so by the time Hitler assumed power; they were well known and almost whole heartedly believed. Elon and Lindemann both agree that this heightened level of anti-Semitic propaganda and writings no doubt influenced both Hitler and the German peoples as a whole.

Adding to this popular distrust of Jewish society was a new stream of intellectual thinking. The first person to put this thinking into a book was Wilhelm Marr. Marr is attributed the dubious honour of beginning the anti-Semitic movement by historians such as Elon and Bracher. It can be argued that Marr put into writing what the masses were thinking and saying, and so highlighted it as a tool for political manoeuvring. Certainly, politicians such as Leuger referred to Marr’s writings when outlining anti-Semitic policies. The work of Marr was also read by Hitler before and during his stay in the Viennese doss house. One can easily imagine that this either tainted Hitler towards anti-Semitic sentiment or at the least highlighted the populist German dislike of Jewish culture.

It is extremely difficult if not impossible to analyse accurately Hitler’s views on Jewish culture and Jews. All material written by him or his close associates was written when he was alive and the Nazi movement still in force within Germany. It is therefore highly biased to create propaganda. However, from the research I have conducted it does seem apparent that Hitler had a strong dislike of the Jewish populous within Germany. If this were not true, it is unlikely that he would have allowed the “Final Solution” to have been implemented. However, there seems to be a weight of argument and fact that suggests he inflated his anti-Semitic views greatly to gain political support within the working and lower-middle classes so as to assume power throughout Germnay. As such, Hitler’s personal animosity towards the Jews was not crucial to the Nazi persecutions to a great extent, though did have minor effects, such as allowing the severity after the Nuremburg laws. The populist dislike and distrust of the Jews however was responsible to a greater extent because without this popular support not only would Hitler have failed to gain power, but the policies would have made him so unpopular as to make them impossible to implement.

Bibliography and sources

  • The Pity of it all: A History of Jews in Germany, Amos Elon, Metropolitan Books, 2002

  • Anti-Semitism, Dan Cohn-Sherbok, Sutton Publishing, 2002

  • The Course of Modern Jewish Society, Howard Morley Sacher, Delta Publishing, 1958

  • The German Dictatorship, Karl Deitrich Bacher, Penguin Books, 1968.

  • Anti-Semitism Before the Holocaust, Albert S. Lindemann, Longman Publishing, 2000.

  • Mein Kampf, Adolf Hitler, online edition, 1995

  •, “Home of the British Nazi Party”, Various anonymous authors

  •, various authors and publishing dates