Exterminating the Elusive

For Hitler the destruction of the Jews was a sine qua non, a fundamental precondition for the re-creation of the Germans as an Aryan master race in a new thousand-year Reich. What he meant by his calls for eliminating the Jewish influence in Germany may have changed over the years, but he always maintained that “Judaism” must be removed, uprooted, or annihilated in order to preserve Germany from degeneration and decline. This was an extreme position, espoused even in the 1920s by a relatively small minority. Hitler himself was hardly in a position to envision Auschwitz when he wrote Mein Kampf (1925). But many others of his generation in Germany and elsewhere were haunted by exterminatory fantasies. Moreover, if most Germans in the 1920s were probably not particularly preoccupied with the “Jewish question,” antisemitic sentiments of varying intensity were becoming increasingly prevalent in the Weimar Republic, fed by economic hardship and political turmoil in the aftermath of the war and soon thereafter the Great Depression.

The tendency to perceive the Jews as somehow related to all the evils that beset postwar Germany greatly facilitated the Nazi party’s antisemitic propaganda and the popular appeal of the Third Reich’s subsequent anti-Jewish policies. Eventually, it meant that the regime never faced any difficulties in recruiting personnel to organize, administer, and perpetrate genocide, and could count on the implicit support for, or at least general indifference to, these policies by the rest of the population. This was achieved in part thanks to the regime’s ability to present the Jews as the real, albeit elusive, enemy lurking behind all other evils that plagued Germany. Thus, while widespread circles in Germany saw Communism and Bolshevism as the greatest domestic and foreign danger, the Nazi argument that the Jews were the “real” instigators of Bolshevism could both popularize antisemitism and offer the not insignificant minority of Communist Party supporters in Germany a convenient rationale to rejoin the emerging racial community (Volksgemeinschaft)as they “liberated” themselves from Jewish influence. Similarly, by arguing that plutocracy was also part of a Jewish world conspiracy, the Nazis could attract at least some members of the working class (and apparently more than has been estimated until recently) without thereby antagonizing big capital and industry, on whose cooperation Hitler’s expansionist policies were largely dependent. The argument that Hitler had played down antisemitism in the years immediately preceding and following his nomination as chancellor because it was far less popular than his promises of economic recovery and national reassertion is insufficient. Rather, the very image of “the Jew” as the “real” but elusive enemy of the German nation enabled the regime to maneuver between contradictory ideological assertions and policies. Hence antisemitism, even when it was least discussed, served along with economic anxiety and hardship, fear of revolution, a longing for national unity and greatness, and a generally xenophobic climate as an important adhesive that kept together an otherwise incoherent and irreconcilable ideological hodgepodge.

The elusive and yet ubiquitous presence attributed to the Jews by the regime played an even more important role in creating an inverted perception of victimhood throughout the Nazi era. While the regime glorified both nation and race, it invariably presented Germany as a victim of its enemies, among whom the Jews stood out most prominently. In January 1939 Hitler “prophesied” that if the Jews were once more to unleash a war aimed at the “Bolshevization of Europe,” this time their attempt to victimize the Germans would lead to their own annihilation. He never budged from this position, asserting in his testament that it had indeed been the Jews who had caused the destruction of his thousand-year Reich. The impact of this view can be seen just as clearly in individual Germans’ perceptions of reality. Soldiers tended to ascribe massacres perpetrated by their own units to Jewish criminality, even when the actual victims of such atrocities were Jews, and civilians in the rear similarly attributed the destruction of cities by aerial bombing to Jewish thirst for revenge. Indeed, fear of “Jewish” retribution was very much at the back of Germany’s stubborn resistance in the last and desperate months of the war, when the invading “Asiatic hordes” in the East and the Materialschlacht (war of attrition) in the West were presented as an expression of the Jewish will for world domination.

In this context, it should be stressed that, even while they were murdering Jews in unprecedented numbers, many of the perpetrators perceived themselves as acting in their own defense against their past and potential victimizers. That the Jews appeareddefenseless and helpless seems only to have enhanced the need among the perpetrators to view themselves as the “real” victims and those they murdered as the culprits. The children, if allowed to survive, would take revenge; the women would bear more children; the elderly would tell the tale. Hence Germany’s misfortune could only end by means of a terrible, final solution, whose execution merely proved the German nation’s determination to survive against all odds and enemies. As early as October 10,1941, the commander of the Sixth Army, Field Marshal Walther von Reichenau, called upon his troops to understand that killing the Jews was “a harsh, but just atonement of Jewish subhumanity.” By October 4, 1943, Heinrich Himmler spoke to a gathering of SS soldiers in Posen of “the extermination of the Jewish people” as an action that “appalled everyone, and yet everyone was certain that he would do it the next time if such orders should be issued and it should be necessary.” And at a meeting of army generals in Sonthofen on May 5, 1944, Himmler further elaborated:

You can understand how difficult it was for me to carry out this military (soldatisch) order which I was given and which I implemented out of a sense of obedience and absolute conviction. If you say: “We can understand as far as the men are concerned but not about the children,” then I must remind you of what I said at the beginning. In this confrontation with Asia we must get used to condemning to oblivion those rules and customs of past wars which we have got used to and prefer. In my view, we as Germans, however deeply we may feel in our hearts, are not entitled to allow a generation of avengers filled with hatred to grow up with whom our children and grandchildren will have to deal because we, too weak and cowardly, left it to them.

While it is impossible to establish how many Germans shared this view, indeed, what proportion of the population was even aware of the Holocaust, it would appear that it was prevalent among those directly involved in perpetrating genocide. Recent research on some of the most important sites of the Holocaust has amply documented the extraordinary extent to which all representatives of the Reich were involved in the killing of Jews and has shown the intentional selection of known antisemites to positions of power in such territories. This massive participation in genocide has also led these scholars to conclude that both Germans not directly involved in the killing and the population in the rear could not have possibly remained unaware that mass murders were taking place, although precise details were not always known. Moreover, the kind of reasoning reflected in the statements made by Reichenau and Himmler had much deeper roots. The fact that the genocide of the Jews was planned and executed by German bureaucrats, soldiers, and policemen, just as much as the manner in which it was both carried out and rationalized, tells us a great deal about the crucial role played by the fabricated image of the elusive enemy in preparing German society to take the path to inhumanity and barbarism. It could be argued that the very notion of elusive enemies—who especially in the German case were invariably the Jews—is a crucial precondition for atrocity and genocide, since it postulates that the people one kills are never those one sees but merely what they represent, that is, what is hidden under their mask of innocence and normality. Thus the encounter of Germans with “authentic” Jews in Poland and Russia, who conformed to the anti-semitic imagery of a traditional garb and way of life, only confirmed the suspicion that “their” German Jews were merely hiding behind a westernized facade. Moreover, even these Polish and Russian Jews were not the old men, women, and children they appeared to be but pernicious enemies in no way different from fanatic Red Army commissars and vicious partisans. When Franz Stangl, the death camp commander, was asked by Gitta Sereny how he had felt about killing children, though he himself was a father, he said that he “rarely saw them as individuals. It was always a huge mass . . . they were naked, packed together, running, being driven with whips.” On another occasion, he noted that on reading about lemmings he was reminded of Treblinka.

Central to the worldview and functioning of the Third Reich was the assertion that its elusive enemies were both ubiquitous, indestructible, and protean. That is why Nazism was not only committed to killing all the Jews but was predicated on the assumption that there would always be more “Jews” to kill. This is the crucial link between the “euthanasia” campaign and the Holocaust, quite apart from the well-documented fact that the killing of the mentally and physically handicapped, which began before the “Final Solution,” provided the expertise and experience, as well as the crews and the psychological make-up, necessary for the launching of a vast genocidal undertaking. For if there was always a fear of “the Jew within,” the urge to cleanse society of all deformity and abnormality was truly a promise of perpetual destruction. In this quest for perfection, everyone was potentially tainted, and no proof of ancestry could protect one from allegations of pollution. Even in a totally judenrein universe, the definition of health could always exclude more and more members of society, whose elimination would promise a better future for the rest. The boundless definition of purity thus made for an endless pool of potential victims certain to feed the nihilistic dynamics of Nazism for as long as it survived self-annihilation. Nor has this urge for purity and health in modern civilization wholly disappeared with the final destruction of the Nazi regime.

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