Background to the Holocaust

Milton Kleg

If learning about the Holocaust solely means reading the Diary of Anne Frank, if it means learning about the period from 1933 to 1945, describing the death camps, and the processes of human extermination, then it serves a very limited purpose. The Holocaust did not occur in a vacuum. It was predicated upon a foundation of anti-Semitic beliefs and occurrences whose legacy remains to this day. It would seem, therefore, that if the study of the Holocaust is to provide a meaningful lesson, these foundations and their linkage to the present require consideration.
The historical foundations of the Holocaust can be traced to a number of sources. Among those that will be addressed here are Judenhass (Jew-hating), the rise of racial theory, and the myth of Jewish domination in Germany's political and economic life. It is through an understanding of these that we can begin to understand some of the implications of this conflagration of human souls. As a caveat, the reader should understand that the purpose of this article is to introduce these selected foundations. For a more complete understanding of these and other antecedents to the Holocaust, one is encouraged to consult the scholarly and related works that are referenced in this article as well as others.

Described by such terms as Judenhass, Judaeophobia, or anti-Semitism, the history of Jew-hating parallels the development of Christianity. It is a hatred that continues to be visible today, and certainly played a role in the systematically planned extermination of Jews during the Second World War. The German destruction of European Jewry may be viewed as a continuation of this hatred taken to its "logical," yet unique extreme. (See Katz, 1994, regarding its uniqueness.)
The relationship between Jews and Christians has been peculiar throughout history. The Church fathers well recognized and appreciated the fact that Judaism was the bedrock of Christianity; yet Jews also were seen as a nation of deiciders (in this case, "Christ-killers") worthy of punishment. Furthermore, it was the conversion of the Jews that, at various times, the Church believed was necessary for their salvation and the second coming of the Messiah. Jews were regarded as both the chosen and the rejected of God. This paradigm, promoted by the Church, encouraged a lasting hatred for Jews. It was this hatred that resulted in periodical mass killings1 long before the names of Auschwitz, Treblinka, and Sobibor were entombed in the history of Western civilization. The mass murder committed in the Holocaust, by contrast, was the result of a systematic plan to exterminate an entire nation.

As non-Christians, Jews remained social, political, and economic outcasts in the development of mainstream European institutions. During the feudal period, they were excluded from land ownership and certainly had no part in that system's hierarchy. Their economic existence in Christian Europe relied mainly upon commerce and handicrafts. Since money lending for interest was deemed sinful, this was left to the Jews. This practice was used time and again to portray Jews as usurers and exploiters (Poliakov 1975; Kisch 1949). While many Jews did experience assimilation at various intersections of time and place, they remained the object of discrimination and violence.

The history of official acts taken against Jews paralleled many of those actions taken by the Nazis. Periodically throughout European history, Jews were confined to ghettos or the Pale of Settlement in eastern Europe and were required to wear a badge of shame.2 Their religious scrolls and other written works were destroyed along with synagogues. Entire populations of Jewish men, women, and children were decimated. In 1555, Paul IV's bull, Cum Nimis Absurdum, forbade Jews from engaging in any trade or skilled crafts and prohibited them from buying real estate (Gregorovious, 1853/1966, 67-68).

Jews were required to wear a yellow hat or, in the case of women, a veil when moving about outside the ghetto. The bull also prohibited the right of Jews to employ Christians as servants.

On the Protestant side, Martin Luther, dismayed by the refusal of Jews to accept Christ, vigorously lashed out against them. Luther recommended that Jewish synagogues, homes, and holy writings be destroyed. Referring to Jews as those "poisonous bitter worms," the father of the Reformation suggested that Jews be banished from the country (Luther, On the Jews and Their Lies as cited in Gilbert, 1985, 19). With one major exception, the history of European Jewry included nothing new in terms of what lay in store for them at the hands of German National Socialism. Prior to the rise of Nazi Germany, there was no pursuit of a policy for their global extermination (Katz 1994).

The treatment of Jews included both demonization and dehumanization (Trachtenberg 1983; Poliakov 1975). These are reflected in the blood libel accusations and degradation as found in the Corso races3 from 1468 to 1668. The blood libel accused Jews of murdering Christians, usually children, in order to prepare unleavened bread used during their Passover holy days or for other rituals.

This false accusation became a standard cause for the slaughter of Jews well into the twentieth century. In fact, on July 4, 1946, only eighteen months after the death camp at Auschwitz had been liberated, a blood libel charge resulted in the murder of over forty Jews in Kielce, Poland, less than ninety miles away (Kleg, 1993, 4-5).

Blood libel accusations continue to be characteristic of anti-Semitism in different parts of the world. A Saudi Arabian delegate to the United Nations was reported in 1985 to have declared at a U.N. meeting that, if a Jew did not drink the blood of a non-Jewish man annually, he would be damned for eternity. (National Review, March 8, 1985, 16). In the early 1990s, a flyer was distributed in the St. Cloud, Minnesota, area accusing Jews of killing children for ritual purposes (Kleg, 1993, 5).

Throughout much of European history, the killing of Jews was not uncommon. Blamed for the Black Death that plagued Europe in the 14th century, whole communities of Jews were rounded up and burned. In the twentieth century, just a few decades prior to the Holocaust, Jews of eastern Europe were mercilessly slaughtered in a series of pogroms. In the Ukraine, from 1919 to 1921, between 100,000 and 200,000 Jews were slaughtered in an estimated 1,300 pogroms (Baron, 1976, 184; Weinryb, 1972, 298).

Emancipation of the Jews began in the eighteenth and continued into the ninteenth century.4 Ghettos were abolished, and civil and human rights were extended. Official decrees against Jews lapsed or were relaxed. This new freedom brought Jews into the political and social arena. While institutionalized

Judenhass was being eclipsed, there still remained a strong disdain and xenophobia toward Jews. The concept of the satanical and deicidal Jew would now merge with that of the racial Jew as usurper of the world's wealth and power. Together these would manifest themselves in the "Final Solution."

Because this overview has focused on the negative experiences of Jews in western history, it does not offer a complete portrayal of Jewish-Christian relations. It omits many of the positive interactions experienced by Jews with their Christian neighbors. It has, however, been necessary to focus upon the hate and violence because these eventually culminated in the machinations to totally exterminate Jews during the Holocaust, a concept that had been alien in almost two millennia of Christendom.

Race and Racism
The process of defining objects by categorization is basic to learning about the world in which we live. It should be no wonder, therefore, that this process of per genus proximum et differentiam (categorization through nearness of class and differences) was applied in the study of human variations or race. Unfortunately, as we shall see, the resulting judgements about racial differences included more imagination than fact.
Race can be explored from two perspectives. One is race as a scientific or biological concept and the other as a social concept which connects culture and race. It is the latter that is essentially synonymous with racism. Both perspectives appear to have the same historical roots. Indeed, it was not until near the end of the twentieth century that many anthropologists began to concede that the race concept, even in its scientific context, was virtually useless.

Nevertheless, to this day, race is the heart and soul of the racially proud, and it is misunderstood by many who would eschew notions of racial supremacy. Indeed, in 1993, a survey of 135 middle school teachers indicated that 97 percent believed having racial pride did not mean that one is a racist, and 90 percent accepted the statement that "White people should be proud of their white heritage" (Kleg, Karabinus, and Farinholt, 1994).

Race as a Scientific Concept
The modern concept of race incorporates a number of classifications, including those presented by Linnaeus, Blumenbach, and Cuvier. In 1738, Linnaeus (Scheidt 1925/1950) identified five racial types. In his description of each group, Linnaeus provided both physical and psychological characteristics. The white Europeans were described as physically muscular with yellow hair and blue eyes. They also were depicted as inventive, active, and governed by custom. The American Indians were identified as reddish, choleric, contented, and free. Asians were yellow, inflexible, miserly, and ruled by opinion. Black Africans were characterized as indulgent, crafty, lazy, and ruled by caprice. The fifth group, identified as Monstrous, included various groups, e.g., the silly notion of "Hottentots with one testicle to limit reproduction" (ibid.: 367).
Near the end of the eighteenth century, Blumenbach (1749/1950) established a taxonomy that relied mainly on physiological attributes. About seventy years later, Cuvier (1817/1950) suggested three distinct groups, Caucasian, Mongolian, and Negro. In time, many other subclassifications or systems of identifying racial groups were to be developed by anthropologists, and the process took on a scientific orientation. But our concern here is with the development of race as a social concept as it developed in the eighteenth century. Suffice it to say that these early classifiers reflected ideas that would set the stage for the development of a scientific concept of race as well as for the social concept, racism.

Race as a Social Concept
Joseph Arthur Gobineau is often regarded as the father of modern racial thought. His contribution to racist thought appeared between 1853 and 1855. According to Gobineau (1853/ 1915), the decline of civilizations was due to the disease of degeneration. Degeneration was the result of interbreeding between superior and inferior racial groups. Furthermore, he noted that some races in their pure state such as the "yellow" and "black" could not develop a civilization. All previous and current civilizations were, he alleged, formed by some interbreeding with members of the white race-Aryans.
The civilizations of Egypt, Assyria, Rome, Greece, India, and China were made possible by Aryans who settled in these places and interbred with the original inhabitants. The European civilizations of his day, he thought, could only survive so long as Aryan blood was not exhausted. Gobineau expressed pessimism as to a continual decline of Aryan blood and superiority.

Critical of Gobineau's pessimistic view, but certainly maintaining racist ideology, Houston Stewart Chamberlain (1899/1910) argued that a "noble race does not fall from Heaven, it becomes noble gradually ... and this gradual process can begin anew at any moment" (p. 263). Chamberlain exalted the Teutonic race and its potential superiority, if undiluted. He also stressed the incompatibility of the Jewish and Teuton races. Lauded as a prophet by the Führer, Chamberlain's racism, in part, may help explain the basis for Third Reich institutions designed to create racially pure Aryans. Within such a paradigm, it was natural that seeds of impurity would have to be uprooted and destroyed.

Social Darwinism
Following on the heels of the works of Charles Darwin, there arose a school of social thought identified as Social Darwinism. Social Darwinism applied the concept of evolution to the development of cultures. In essence, it adhered to the belief that superior races created superior cultures. Just as Gobineau is regarded as the father of modern racist thought, so Herbert Spencer may be regarded as the father of Social Darwinism.
Spencer (1866) explained that the process by which cultures evolve successfully is through natural selection and "the survival of the fittest" (p. 444). Spencer reasoned (1897) that groups with physical, mental, and cultural superiority would dominate lesser or inferior groups. Spencer provided yet another intellectualized foundation for the beliefs that would be reflected in the racism of Nazi Germany as well as racist thought in other western nations, including the United States.

In addition to Social Darwinism, the rise of racism laid the basis for the eugenics movement in the early twentieth century. This form of pseudo-scientific racism was introduced by Sir Francis Galton in 1880. It formalized into an international movement by 1907. According to Stefan Kühl (1994), the International Society for Racial Hygiene was "dominated almost exclusively by German racial hygienists" (p. 13). The idea of racial improvement, through breeding people with superior traits and sterilizing those with inferior traits, received its strongest support from American and German scientists. As early as 1923, the first attempt was made to enact legislation in Germany calling for the sterilization of the "hereditarily blind and deaf, the mentally handicapped, the mentally ill, sexual perverts, and fathers with two or more illegitimate children" (Kühl 1994, 23). It would not be until the Third Reich was in place that eugenicists would have their "moments of glory." After the war, the movement diminished somewhat; however, The Pioneer Foundation in the United States continues to support research related to eugenic ideology - especially studies dealing with race and intelligence.

Hitler's Machinations and Jewish "Domination" in German Economic and Political Life
With a fervor for accepting a grotesque self-image of supremacy and for finding scapegoats to be blamed for subverting this greatness, Germany turned to National Socialism in 1933. By 1936, Germany had become the "anti-Semitic country par excellence" (Valentin 1936, 5). Traditional Christian-based anti-Semitism combined with scientific racism, economic woes, and political instability to set the stage for what would eventually culminate in the Holocaust.
Hitler made no pretense as to what Germany would look like under his control. He expressed his vision of a greater, racially pure Germany and his virulent hatred of Jews and others in Mein Kampf, published in 1925.

Mein Kampf, which served as the blueprint for the Third Reich,5 was widely distributed, even if not widely read. Approximately 9,500 copies were sold from the late summer to the end of 1925 (Bullock 1964, 123). Annual sales until 1930 ranged between three thousand and seven thousand. Sales were over 50,000 in 1930, and jumped to over 90,000 in 1932. One million copies were sold during 1933, when Hitler became Chancellor. By 1940, no less than six million copies had been sold. Along with speeches and other hate material, Mein Kampf served as a book of citations to buttress lingering anti-Semitism and the desire for a greater Fatherland.

William L. Shirer (1959, 122-123) notes that "What makes it [Mein Kampf] important is that it was embraced so fanatically by so many millions of Germans ..." The book was, in fact, so poorly written that relatively few Germans completed reading it. According to Steven T. Katz (personal communication, July 26, 1995), "As a practical matter, it had no influence" on the population, when compared with other forms of Nazi propaganda. Relatively few people had read the book before Hitler came to power, and by the time sales reached into the millions, "the Nazis controlled the state, the state education apparatus, and they had passed the Nuremberg Laws." Much more effective hate propaganda was found in textbooks, teacher's guides, films, speeches, newspapers, and on the radio.

The anti-Semitism in Hitler's blueprint for a greater Germany was embedded within his Weltanschauung of Social Darwinism-survival of the fittest, and Gobineau's conceptions of Aryan superiority and racial degeneration due to race mixing. In line with the thoughts of Gobineau and others of the same ilk, Hitler proposed that the Aryan nation could be cleansed and purified by preventing interracial mingling. Unlike Gobineau, he expressed confidence that it could be done.

Hitler (1925/1943) viewed Jews as the source of evil. Marxism, Socialism, white slave traffic, and most other national maladies were described as Jewish. He viewed himself as engaged in a struggle against a Jewish menace. His tirade against Jews included the charge that they dominated the economic and political life of Germany.

That Jews dominated the political, social, and economic life of pre-Nazi Germany (especially during the Weimar period) remains to this day an accepted myth by many. It serves as a convenient way to avoid the uncomfortable examination of those roots discussed above. It also reflects the stereotype of the "rich and clever" Jew. In reality, Jews did not dominate any of these areas in Germany or any other state of Europe.

Germany's pre-war Jews accounted for just less than 1 percent, or between 500,000 and 600,000, of the population. Furthermore, it was projected that by 1970, the number of Jews would be almost halved due to their low birth rates and assimilation through intermarriage and conversions (Valentin 1936, 196). In 1925, the total number of Jewish officials in the German government, including the judiciary, accounted for less than 5 percent. Yet, in Nazi propaganda, this percentage was inflated to 50 percent and then 62 percent. By 1930, less than 8 percent of directors of German banking companies were Jews. In 1932, there were less than ten Jewish editors from among 85 major German papers (Valentin 1936, 200-204). In summarizing the influence of Jews on the German economy, Valentin (1936) stated, "... there are no doubt many Jews who are rich, and many who take an important part in economic life, but nearly half the Jewish people are not merely poor, but desperately poor" (224).

Some may suggest that seeking a means to regain their rightful place among the nations, the German people were more than willing to build upon what they believed was reality-that the Fatherland was the bastion of a greatness deferred. From their Weltansehen, this deferral no doubt was due to the evil amongst them. This included the Jew. They proclaimed, "Die Juden sind unser Ungluck"-the Jews are our misfortune.

The development of modern racist thought and centuries of Judenhass combined to form what we may call racial anti-Semitism. Along with the rise of nationalism, racist thought also created a form of racist nationalism. These ideologies were not unique to Germany in the thirties. National Socialism with its racist and anti-Semitic underpinnings had its advocates in other states of Europe (e.g. Sir Oswald Mosley in England) and the United States (e.g. William D. Pelley).
While racism and anti-Semitism furnished one of the foundations for the Holocaust, centuries of Jew-hating and traditional stereotypes were also an important basis for this destruction. Given this perspective, Jews were conceptualized as subhumans, and connected to the evils in German social, economic, and political life. Elements of hate and racism had to be linked to a perception that the Jew was a viable political, economic, and social threat.

Within the larger context of the anti-Semitic foundations of the Holocaust as presented here, one should begin to understand that this genocide was not something that just happened. While the extent of its goal-total, global destruction of a group-was unique (Katz 1994), it was inextricably tied to the past.

Nor did the racism and anti-Semitism that led to the Holocaust cease to exist with the fall of the Third Reich. They have survived Nazi Germany. In the United States alone there are over three hundred hate groups that support or embrace the same beliefs that spawned German National Socialism. Nor have these beliefs ceased to exist in Germany, Italy, or England. A similar ideology with all of the trappings of anti-Semitism exists in Russia. Although such groups constitute a small minority, one would be remiss to forget that in 1922 there were fewer than one hundred members of what was to become the ruling party of Germany within eleven years.

Past, Present, Future
The concepts of time-past, present, and future-serve as artificial constructs that permit us to compartmentalize our temporal existence and experiences. While useful and made necessary, they also create a means by which we can dissociate ourselves from past events. This dissociation can allow us to ignore the recurrences of the same type of event.
The Holocaust has been referred to as a watershed in our history. But a watershed in history is created by what people do after the event. If teachers are to somehow use a knowledge of the Holocaust to educate for a better world, then it is not the Holocaust in isolation that must be understood. Rather, it must be studied in terms of its foundations, historical context and its linkages to the present.

1 Mass killings included the murder of entire populations of Jews. The following are select examples. In 1096, at least 25,000 Jews were murdered in what is now France and Germany. In 1270, the Jews of Armstadt, Coblenz, Erfurt, Madgeburg, Sinzig, and Weissenberg were exterminated. Over a six month period in 1298, 100,000 Jews in approximately 140 communities were murdered. The total extermination of a community by fire occurred intermittently. The Crusades and Inquisition also contributed to the murder of Jews, and the list goes on and on.

2 The badge of shame or Jewish badge was designed to identify Jews and in some cases to serve as a reminder of their rejection of Jesus. It often was circular and worn over the left breast. Colors varied from black and red to green.

3 The Corso races were part of the annual Carnival games of Rome. According to Gregorovious (1853/1956), "the custom was gradually established that Jews should be abused for the amusement of the people . . . Jews were richly fed, so as to make the race more difficult for them and more amusing . . . Jews were forced to run . . . wearing only a loin cloth. For exactly two hundred years the Jews of Rome suffered this revolting indignity. . ." (51).

4 The emancipation of Jews in German states and later in the Kingdom of Germany (1871) often involved the conflict between liberals and conservatives. The former argued that, if emancipated, Jews would be more prone to dissolve their archaic and alien ways of Judaism. The latter argued that this must be accomplished before emancipation.

5 An in-depth account of Hitler's worldview of the Jew, Mein Kampf, and the Holocaust is provided in Stephen Katz's forthcoming third volume of The Holocaust in Historical Context to be published by Oxford University Press.ReferencesBaron, S.W. The Russian Jew under Tsars and Soviets. 2d ed. New York: Macmillan Publishing, 1976.Blumenbach, J.F. "On the Nature and Variety of Mankind." In This Is Race: An Anthology Selected from the International Literature on the Races of Man, edited by E.W. Count, 25-39. New York: Henry Schuman, 1950. (Original work published 1749 et seq.)Bullock, A. Hitler: A Study in Tyranny. New York: Harper & Row Publisher, 1964.Chamberlain, H.S. Foundations of the Nineteenth Century. Vols. 1-2. Trans. J. Lees. London: John Lane, The Bodley Head, 1910. (Originally published in 1899)Cuvier, G. "Varieties of the Human Species." In This Is Race: An Anthology Selected from the International Literature on the Races of Man, edited by E.W. Count, 45-7. New York: Henry Schuman, 1950. (Original work published in 1817)Gilbert, M. The Holocaust: A History of the Jews of Europe during the Second World War. New York: Henry Holt & Co., 1984. Gobineau, J.A. The Inequality of Human Races. Trans. A. Collins. London: Heinemann, 1915. (Original work published 1853 et seq.)Gregorovious, F. The Ghetto and Jews of Rome. New York: Schocken Books, 1853/1966.Hitler, A. Mein Kampf. Trans. R. Manheim. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1925/1943.Katz, S.T. The Holocaust in Historical Context. Vol. 1. New York: Oxford Press, 1994.Kisch, G. The Jews in Medieval Germany: A Study of Their Legal and Social Status. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1949.Kleg, M., R. Karabinus, and R.W. Farinholt. "Middle School Teachers' Ethnic and Racial Attitudes." CSERV Bulletin Journal of the Center for the Study of Ethnic and Racial Violence 3, no. 1 (1994): 44-53.Kleg, M. Hate Prejudice and Racism. New York: SUNY Press, 1993.Kühl, S. The Nazi Connection: Eugenics, American Racism, and German National Socialism. New York: Oxford Press, 1994.National Review (March 8, 1985): 16.Poliakov, L. A History of Anti-Semitism. Vols. 1-3. New York: Vanguard Press, 1975.Scheidt, W. "The Concept of Race in Anthropology and the Divisions into Human Races from Linnaeus to Deniker." In This Is Race: An Anthology Selected from the International Literature on the Races of Man, edited by E.W. Count, 354-91. New York: Henry Schuman, 1950. (Original work published 1925)Shirer, W.L. The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich: A History of Nazi Germany. Greenwich, Connecticut: Fawcett Publications, Inc., 1962.Spencer, H. Principles of Biology. New York: D. Appleton & Co., 1866.Spencer, H. Principles of Sociology. 3d ed. New York: D. Appleton & Co., 1897.Trachtenberg, J. The Devil and the Jews: The Medieval Conception of the Jew and Its Relation to Modern Anti-Semitism. Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1983.Valentin, H. Antisemitism. Trans. A.G. Chater. New York: Viking Press, 1936.Weinryb, B.D. "Antisemitism in Soviet Russia." In The Jews in Soviet Russia since 1917, edited by L. Kochan, 288-320. New York: Oxford Press, 1972.

Milton Kleg is Professor of Social Science Education at the University of Colorado at Denver and Director of the Center for the Study of Racism and Ethnic Violence in Edgewater, Colorado.