Until recently, it was common sense that the Holocaust, the murder of almost six million European Jews, constituted a German crime, originated in German history, was planned by the German government, and executed by Germans. During the last decade, this interpretation has been challenged by researchers who claim that the Holocaust can only be understood on the basis of transnational undercurrents, of European antisemitism, of spaces of violence in Eastern Europe, the so-called "Bloodlands", and also participation of non-German regimes and collaborators.

The Holocaust and German History

It goes without saying that the Holocaust was first and foremost an event of German history, as the German state under Nazi dictatorship is held responsible for the mass murder of the European Jews. Nevertheless, there is constant debate on the origins of the Holocaust. Two major questions arise: What are the causes of the Holocaust, or to be more precise: how far can they be traced back in German history, and, secondly, are these German preconditions unique in Europe; thus, the questions of continuity and comparison.

The classic narrative starts with the 19th century, when traditional anti-Judaism was transformed into “modern”, racial antisemitism, and entered the political arena in the framework of antisemitic organizations or political parties. This transformation was multi-facetted: it is interpreted as a reaction to the emancipation and social success of German Jewry in the course of the 19th century, it is connected to the rise and popularisation of natural sciences, especially Darwinism and scientific racism, and it is put in the framework of societal change, especially the fear of modernization, but also the fundamental politicisation of societies at the end of the 19th century. Some historians saw the economic crisis in the late 1870s during the early Kaiserreich as the seedbed for modern antisemitism, others the whole 19th century, and some radical interpretations, like the ones by Daniel Goldhagen or Henry Walser-Smith, trace it back to the early modern period.

In recent times, it has been argued that other pre-histories of the Holocaust can be dated back to late 19th century German history, like the development of eugenic sciences. More importantly, the interpretation came up that a continuity of a specific German military violence evolved, which tried to evade the restrictions of international law. This is applied especially to German colonial warfare with its exterminatory violence, first and foremost, during the so-called Herero/Nama War in 1904, but also in the lesser known Hehe Wars of the 1890s and, much more brutally, in the Maji Maji War of 1905/7. While these campaigns have been considered as precursors of German warfare in 1941, the German colonial laws of racist segregation serve as an example for the continuity to the 1935 Nuremberg Laws.

Yet the question remains: how is it possible to establish actual continuities? In first place, personal and organizational continuities come into mind. There are some biographies which stretch from colonial practice in 1910 to the occupation in Eastern Europe in 1939/41. Some antisemitic organizations existed before and after the First World War, like the Alldeutsche Verband or the Deutschnationale Handlungsgehilfenverband, and played a role in establishing the new right wing extremism in 1919/20. Nevertheless, this paper argues, that the predominant continuity is the antisemitic and imperialist discourse, the lines of argumentation of which had been almost fully developed by 1900, even though it was supported by rather minor parts of the political spectrum.

Nevertheless, a fundamental shift in discourse, politics and practices of violence took place during and immediately after the First World War. There is still considerable doubt about the actual role of the First World War for the Holocaust, except that the mass dying enhanced the devaluation of life, and that the catastrophe of war shaped the post-war political world. But these were common effects for all European states. As major antisemitic step in German history, the so-called Jew-count (Judenzählung) of the Prussian Ministry of War in 1916, has been identified, a measure officially taken to counter allegations that German Jewish men would avoid military service. Yet since the results were never published, it fuelled antisemitic sentiment. Another specific feature of German-Austrian warfare were the reprisal executions, first in 1914/15 in Belgium and Northern France, then in Serbia and Galicia. Yet probably the most important patterns of German warfare, seen in retrospective, were the imperialist and somewhat racist plans for expansion, like military rule in North-Eastern Europe from 1915, or the invasion of Southern Russia in 1918, a precursor of the 1941 campaign.

Of course, the most convincing argument of continuity can be seen as of the early post-war period: The establishment of right-wing extremism in 1919/20, the rise of violence in German political life, and the deterioration of Jewish-Gentile relation during the Weimar Republic. Two new patterns of antisemitism, both of them no invention of the 1920s, gained support: the alleged Jewish World conspiracy, as allegedly documented in the infamous falsification of the “Protocols of the Elders of Zion”, and, even more importantly, the stereotype of so-called “Judeo-Bolshevism”, which circulated among German troops, German Freikorps militias, and German society from 1918 on. All of this flourished during the early Weimar crisis years of 1919 to 1923, and with diminishing success during the rest of the 1920s. Nevertheless, a broad antisemitic discourse entered the German political scene, not only in right-wing extremism, but also among the conservatives of the Deutschnationale Volkspartei, as well as among professional and students’ organizations.

From 1930 on, this antisemitic scenery gained momentum during the economic and political crisis. The Nazi party achieved considerable electoral successes, already participated in some Länder governments, as antisemitic propaganda and violence was on the rise. Antisemitism spread in societal organizations like Vereine (associations) but also in some enterprises, which no longer hired Jews. Thus, fertile grounds were already laid before Hitler came to power. On the other hand it is important to underline that Weimar Germany was a democracy and a Rechtsstaat (rule of law), with a self-confident Jewish population, with political defense against antisemitism among the liberal, socialist and communist parties and within their milieus. Compared to other European countries, especially in East Central Europe, the German Jews were in a quite better situation in 1930.

Thus there were decisive elements of continuity in German history in retrospective view, like the racist-völkisch and antisemitic discourse of the Kaiserreich, an imperialism radicalized in World War I, and a high organizational und cultural continuity in the right part of the political spectrum since 1919. Nevertheless, the question remains whether this was unique for Germany or not, in order to identify a “Sonderweg”, a specific path of German history towards the Holocaust. Antisemitism was not a German specialty, but could be found in one or the other form in most of Europe since the mid-19th century. Pogroms occurred in Russia and Poland, antisemitic scandals in Hungary, and the Dreyfus affairs almost split the political scene in France. Right-wing organizations and parties emerged in several countries, for example in 1909 in Romania, and the first international antisemitic congress took place in Budapest in 1881. New research demonstrates, that traditional anti-Jewish sentiment was transformed into a political and racist ideology not only in Germany, but in lots of societies. Antisemitism became an important strategy of nation building and of coping with modernization, especially in agrarian societies.

The same applies to the interwar period. Minority treaties were forced upon several East-central European states, both to protect the frontier minorities within their new borders, and the Jews. Nevertheless, Romanian Jews acquired citizenship only in 1923, and Hungary was the first country to adopt a modern antisemitic law, the Numerus Clausus, a restriction on the number of Jews allowed to study at the universities. During the early post-war period, waves of extreme anti-Jewish violence occurred: At least 40,000 Jews were killed during the pogroms of the Russian civil war and probably 3,000 during the crushing of the Hungarian Soviet Republic in 1920. Everywhere in East-Central Europe professional organizations fought for limitations on Jews in the national economy and education systems.

As in Germany, a decisive shift to the right occurred around 1930, with the rise of antisemitic Fascism in East Central Europe, especially in Romania and Hungary. It is paradox that most of the authoritarian regimes, which rose during the 1930s, suppressed these promoters of fascism violently, but still applied fascist practices by anti-Jewish policies. Nevertheless, it was only after Hitler’s Germany became more and more influential during the mid 1930s, by monopolizing foreign trade and by destroying the Paris post-war order, that antisemitic legislation was issued outside of Germany, first in 1938 in Italy, Romania and Hungary, and then also with the creation of the Slovak State in 1939.

Hence, what was unique about the German ‘road to the Holocaust’? I think it is most important for the interpretation to take into account the general specifics of the German position in Europe, as an economic and cultural power of extraordinary dimensions, with a central geopolitical position. The fact, that Hitler took over this power in 1933, actually as Germany was in a quite weak position, provided him with enormous potential if he succeeded in recovering economy and national self consciousness. Another, rather simple reason was that antisemitism stood at the centre of the Nazi worldview. The Nazi government was able to abolish the Rechtsstaat (rule of law) within one year, and to get rid of comparatively moderate conservatives by 1937. In 1932, one year before Hitler, Gyula Gömbös came to power in Hungary. Though Gömbös was an outspoken antisemite and admired by lots of leading Nazis, he failed to enact any anti-Jewish legislation in Hungary due to the resistance of the political system.

In Germany however, until 1940, a general antisemitic consensus emerged within society. This leads to my second point, the relationship between German society and the Nazi Regime with respect to the Jews. As said before, since the early 1930s antisemitism in Germany was on the rise, especially among students and teachers, and the in whole spectrum of völkisch-nationalist parties and organisations. On the other hand, opposing forces were on the decline, like the Social Democrats or the liberal parties, which almost disappeared. 30-40 % of the German electorate voted for an outspoken antisemitic party, and in March 1933 the antisemitic coalition won the elections, though against the background of anti-communist terror. A similar situation occurred within the Protestant churches: the antisemitic movement of the Deutsche Christen won the church elections in 1933 by almost two thirds. This does not mean that the electorate voted for antisemitism, but they did not refrain from voting for antisemites. The Nazi regime very quickly not only stabilized its power on all political levels, but also conquered the public sphere, and gradually the cultural discourses. Constant antisemitic propaganda and antisemitic actions like anti-Jewish economic campaigns, the firing Jews from the civil service etc., dominated the public sphere; all opposing voices were suppressed and expelled. Thus the majority of Germans gradually took over the Nazi style of behaviour, not only greeting with “Heil Hitler” and celebrating Nazi policy successes, but also dissociating itself from Jewish friends, colleagues and neighbours, refraining from any pro-Jewish statement, and showing its allegiance to the regime by participation in the discrimination or expropriation of the Jews. The Nazi regime itself integrated more and more parts of the projected “Volksgemeinschaft”, by mobilizing a major part of the population in Nazi organizations and by empowering low level functionaries like Blockwarte, who could interfere in all kinds of social relations. There were almost 3 mio. Nazi functionaries in all sorts of organisations, and more Germans empowered themselves, as Michael Wildt has called it, in order to act against Jewish inhabitants.

As outlined above, this consolidation of Nazi social power occurred only gradually, especially in connection to the disappearance of unemployment and the alleged foreign policy successes of Hitler, like rearmament or the remilitarization of the Rhineland. One can only speculate about the reaction of the Gentile Germans to the 1933 wave of violence, which was considered legitimate rather against communist than against the Jews. Evidence also underlines that a majority of Germans preferred “legal solutions” like the Nuremberg laws or emigration to open violence like that seen in 1933 in the Reich, in 1935 in Berlin, or during the 1938 pogrom. It was probably only within the context of war and wartime nationalism from late 1939 on, that violence against Jews was seen as legitimate under specific circumstances. Of course, within the Nazi core constituency there were lots of people who considered violence against Jews as legitimate and necessary.

It is astounding, how quickly the new Germans in Austria and in the so called Sudetenland, integrated into this consensus. Both areas had a long tradition of antisemitic currents, at times even stronger than in Germany. The antisemitic violence in Austria in 1938 has to be interpreted not only according to these traditions, but even more in the context of the year 1938, which occurred during a long-lasting economic crisis, and with Austrian Nazis who had themselves been suppressed by the Austrian state, especially between 1934 and 1936.

I would argue that there was a broad antisemitic consensus within the society of the German Reich in 1939/40, a consensus on the discrimination, expropriation and expulsion of the Jews, and, as Eastern European Jews were concerned, even more radical policies like ghettoization. When Germany attacked the Soviet Union in 1941, a majority of Germans who were deployed in the East soon extended this consensus to the killing of all those Jews who were considered dangerous, especially Jewish men between the age of 18 and 50; there apparently was considerable debate on the killing of women and children.

But who actually were the perpetrators of the Holocaust, and can they be considered as an integral part of society? This leads to the third point. The concept of perpetrators (“Täter”) is predominantly applied in German historiography and public debates. Raul Hilberg was one of the few from outside Germany who worked with this concept. Let me first try to define what I mean by perpetrator. I consider all those as perpetrators, who participated directly or indirectly in murder, and who had a certain latitude of action. These were the men, for they were by 97/98 % male, who organized deportations to death centres, mass executions, camps, ghettos, who guarded victims, or directly killed them. My estimate on the dimension of perpetrators, based on the strength of relevant organizational structures, is situated around 200,000 persons from the Reich, who participated in the murder of Jews. This figure is probably much higher, if we include crimes against other groups like Soviet POWs, the mentally ill, Roma, and victims of the violent anti-partisan warfare.

Most of the perpetrators acted within institutions, especially the SS and Police, the Nazi Party, but also within the Wehrmacht, the occupation administrations, specific administrations like labour exchanges, the railways, even agricultural and forest administrations, sometimes Organisation Todt, the German construction organization, or even the NSKK, the Nazi Motor organizations. But there were also employees of German firms in the occupied East, who participated in killings, or other individuals who denounced Jews or took part in shootings, like wives of German officials.

For analytical reasons, I would suggest to speak of a core group of perpetrators, who worked in the institutions directly responsible for the so-called Final Solution, especially Gestapo und Sicherheitsdienst, the leadership of the SS and Order police, departments of the interior and Jewish desks in all kinds of administrations, and those who worked elsewhere but were highly motivated to kill Jews. The latter often included their respective institutions in mass crimes voluntarily, though these were not primarily entrusted in dealing with the “Final Solution”. These core perpetrators amount to several thousands, maybe up to 10,000. They were the driving force behind the crimes.

As I said, the overall majority of the perpetrators were men. The major exception to this rule are the several thousand female concentration camp guards, the secretaries in all relevant institutions, and women of the SS Nachrichtenhelferinnenkorps, who were actual SS members. Most of the perpetrators were between 18 and 55 years old, with the exception of certain Hitlerjugend members and old men recruited for the Volkssturm in 1944/45, who took part in the mass murders of the final war period, killing the victims of the so-called death marches.

The perpetrators came from all regions of the Reich. Contrary to common belief, the Austrians apparently were not overrepresented among the perpetrators; they were overproportionately deployed in occupied South Eastern Europe, but rather underproportionately in the Soviet Union. Of course there were some very prominent Austrian mass murderers, like Ernst Kaltenbrunner as chief of the Reichssicherheitshauptamt, or Odilo Globocnik, the organizer of the “Aktion Reinhardt”, i.e. the organized murder of Jews from central Poland. There is only limited research on other groups of German speaking groups, like the Sudetendeutsche. Nevertheless, Herald Welzer has shown, that a Police Battalion consisting of Sudeten Germans killed Jews like any other police unit did.

The perpetrators came from all social strata, though the majority was from the middle classes, since these are the main recruiting pools for police and civil service. Still, there were also lots of men from working class background in Wehrmacht units which committed crimes, or for example in Reserve Police Battalions, like Christopher Browning has shown in his book on “Ordinary men”. And finally it is important to mention the crucial participation of academics in Nazi crimes, specifically lawyers, who made up a large part of the Security Police and Security Service leadership, but also physicians and other men with university degrees.

To return to our general subject: How German were these perpetrators? Of course, the majority of those were ardent German nationalists who conceived their crimes as dirty work for the sake of German nation or Volksgemeinschaft. This feeling was even underlined by the social milieu of the perpetrators. Most of them operated in an inimical environment in Eastern Europe, socially connected only to their “comrades”.

Nevertheless, it is quite obvious that not only Germans committed the crimes, they were joined by hundreds of thousands of so-called collaborators. The term collaboration, first coined for the Vichy-French cooperation with Nazi Germany, has a very negative connotation, it is connected to a violation of national loyalty, betraying ones fatherland with the enemy. Historians have tried to replace the term by the word “cooperation”, which is not fully convincing. This article distinguishes between collaboration and cooperation, the latter applies to other Axis states, even to some administrations under German occupation like Vichy, and to organizations which voluntarily acted together with German institutions in order to achieve political goals, like fascist or anti-communist and nationalist organisations under occupation. The majority of those foreigners who participated in German crimes acted on a rather asymmetrical basis in institutions or units under German leadership, were subordinated to German orders, and had very limited freedom of action. Those I would call “collaborators”, on a low level even “auxiliaries”.

But let us return to the cases of non-German cooperation in the Holocaust. It is necessary to distinguish several levels: The most exceptional case is the Romanian state, who fully participated in the mass murder of Jews until August 1942. Though there were some general negotiations, Romania not only entered the war against the Soviet Union on the very first day, but also enacted its own program of extermination, starting in Bessarabia and Northern Bukovina, then continuing together with German units in its own occupation area Transnistria, the strip north of Odessa. Bulgaria is considered as a similar almost autonomous case, though the image prevails that the Germans saved the Jews. Bulgaria, like Romania, did not extradite its Jewish citizens to the German extermination policy, but those foreign Jews who were under Bulgarian occupation in Yugoslavia and Greece, in Macedonia and Thrace. Furthermore, Bulgaria did so at a comparatively late date, in spring 1943, when it had become obvious that Germany would  lose the war. Of course in both cases Germany applied high pressure on the allied governments, but, as the Romanians’ exit from extermination in 1942 shows, withstanding this pressure was possible.

The next level is represented by the Hungarian government in 1944 under occupation and Vichy France. In both cases the German occupation force did have neither the manpower nor the administrative knowledge to apprehend everybody they considered Jewish. And again, both regimes had the ability to restrict the deportations, like the policy of Vichy Prime Minister Laval or the deportation halt by Admiral Horthy demonstrate.

The majority of collaborators did not have much of a choice if they wanted to work for the German occupiers. The local personnel outnumbered the Germans by far, especially, in police and administration. Unfortunately, we do not have a general overview on both collaboration and non-German participation in the Holocaust, yet. In all of Hitler’s occupied Europe, probably more than 2 million auxiliaries were employed by the Germans, predominately as local auxiliary police, in the Soviet Union also for the Wehrmacht. Hundreds of thousands of foreigners, ethnic Germans and others, were recruited for the Waffen-SS, an entity which systematically participated in many mass crimes.

Local auxiliary police registered Jewish inhabitants, guarded the ghettos, participated in ghetto raids and deportations, often guarded mass executions, sometimes also participated in them directly/actively. After the major killing actions in Poland and the occupied Soviet Union auxiliary police was entrusted with chasing Jews in hiding, and often killed them in place, as new research for example on the Polish Police in the General Government shows. As far as this can be analysed to this date, only a minority of those were highly motivated antisemites, or had been persecuted before under Stalinism.

In most cases these men had served as policemen already before the occupation, and thus, had been familiar with the general national discourse on Jews. The situation in the occupied Soviet territories was differently, auxiliaries were first recruited among captured Red Army soldiers, later among young locals. In Western Europe the auxiliary police systems preserved some autonomy under occupation, as the different behaviour of the Antwerp and Brussels police show. In Antwerp the Jews were deported by local police, in Brussels they were not. In the East the situation was different. There was no institutional protection of the individual policemen. In general, the overall majority executed the German orders against Jews, not so much out of fear to be punished, but rather by taking over the Nazi German perspective.

There were other collaborating institutions, especially the local and regional administrations. Those to date have only been investigated for Western Europe. They also participated in the persecution of Jews; in the East by organizing the ghettos and sometimes even supporting the deportations.

Considering the high proportion of foreigners in committing the crimes, can we still speak of a “German project”, or was it rather a “European” one? In my opinion German policy was absolutely crucial for the Holocaust, not only by developing the anti-Jewish project since 1933, but also either by committing the crimes themselves, or by supplying an umbrella for Axis states to expel the unwanted Jews under their domination, in the Romanian case by creating the framework for autonomous mass murder. Given the high priority the German leadership assigned to the “Final Solution”, they would have put even more resources in achieving it, even if the own allies would have complied less. But that is, of course, counterfactual. This paper works with the presumption that foreign cooperation and collaboration were crucial for the dimension of victimization, not for the Holocaust itself.

The question of the knowledgeability of the German society about the atrocities against European Jewry as well as their relationship towards the Holocaust remains. Though only a quarter of the German society acknowledged in the late 1950s that they had some sort of impression about the persecution of Jews, it seems that a larger proportion must have had some insights by the time of 1942 (may it be through stories of the soldiers or the broadcasts by the allies). The degree of knowledgeability of individuals is hard to assess, due to the subjectivity of the sources. The reasons why the majority accepted or at least remained passive about the killings are multifaceted. One might have been that the prolonging influence of the national socialist antisemitic propaganda and false information about massacres allegedly conducted by Jews within the Soviet Secret Police heightened the tolerance towards the extermination of Jews, as well as affiliates of the regime had internalised the antisemitic ideology of the national socialism and were thus convinced of the rightfulness of the crimes. Additionally, the fear of revenge, the sufferings from war and the connected radicalization of society, enhanced the tolerance towards the atrocities against Jews. Still, a certain threshold remained as for example acts against children were still perceived as cruelties. The dealings with the crimes after the end of war within German society came in waves, first of open discussion, followed by phases of silence and suppression. Only with the 1980s, the crimes against German and European Jewry came to broad public consciousness (For the more extensive coverage in the original lecture of the points discussed in this paragraph, see chapter C: A society of shared guilt?).

The Holocaust can be interpreted as a Nazi-German project with strong roots in 19th century history. A new antisemitism came up during the nation-building, not only in Germany and Austria, but almost all over Europe. The German specificity was threefold: Germany was a country in central Europe with enormous economic and cultural potentials; those were mobilized by the Nazi regime in a quite specific fashion, claiming to solve all problems by “solving the Jewish Question”. Most important was the combination of antisemitism and a radical continental imperialism, which not only exported the antisemitism, but also created new problems, which allegedly had to be solved at the expense of the Jews. And finally the imperialism in Eastern Europe, which created spaces unrestricted by legal boundaries, especially in those areas where most European Jews lived.

Large parts of German society were infested with antisemitism already during the 1920s and early 1930s. They positively perceived the Nazi discourse of solving social and political problems by persecuting Jews until the beginning of the war. The war itself offered a radicalized frame for the perception of the “Jewish question”: Now Jewish minorities came into focus, which were considered as uncivilized and even dangerous.

The dynamics, which led to systematic mass murder, by and large developed in the discussion between different Nazi agencies, the leadership, the occupied territories, and the radicals in the Reich. The new institutions, leadership, occupation administration, SS and Police, rather easily switched from a policy of suppression to a policy of mass murder in 1941/42. Approximately 200,000 Germans, among them 10 % Austrians and Sudeten Germans, executed this policy of extermination, on the basis of a broad consensus. The dimension of the crimes could not have been achieved without the cooperation of other Axis states, in first place Romania, and cooperating regimes like Vichy or 1944 Hungary. On a micro level, hundreds of thousands of non-German policemen detected the Jews, arrested them, and in Poland and the Soviet Union, also participated in their direct murder. In Romanian-occupied areas and in Croatia the Jewish victims often never met any German perpetrator at all.

The population of the Reich gradually received information about the mass murder in the East, but very few reactions have been found in the sources. All reactions focused on the fate of German Jewry and were rather ambivalent. From 1943 on the Germans, especially those exposed to aerial bombing or to the conquest of the Red Army feared retribution. Nevertheless, there is no change of attitude towards the Jews traceable in 1944/45. The History of the Holocaust now became a history of bad German conscience, either hidden or open.


Dieter Pohl

(Presentation at the EHRI Summer School 22 July 2013)

Next chapter: Historiography