Annual Holocaust Remembrance Essay Contest
2nd place: Max Ramage
School: Durham Academy
Mao Zedong, former Communist dictator of China, wrote of his policy of “killing the chicken to scare the monkeys,” or weeding out randomly selected people on his “black list” in order to frighten the rest into submission. In Germany over twenty years earlier, however, Adolf Hitler set out to exterminate an entire race–the Jews of Europe–and not merely kill some to scare the rest. Furthermore, Hitler had the support of a large majority of German Christians while attempting to carry out his “Final Solution” of sending all Jews to death camps to be killed during the Second World War (1939-1945). According to Hitler, Jews were the root of all misfortune in Germany at the time. So, what made Hitler’s unhuman plan for genocide unite so many ordinary German citizens with its cause? The answer lies in the racial undercurrents that ran beneath the exterior of Germany and the world.
The first racial element in the Holocaust to examine is that of propaganda. Joseph Goebbels, propaganda director for the Nazi Party, implemented a strategy that polarized the German populace against Jews, scapegoating them for the economic and political troubles Germany was experiencing. In reality, such effects had been caused by Germany’s defeat in the First World War, the Treaty of Versailles, and the political unease of the Weimar Republic after 1928. Goebbels said at the Nuremburg Party Congress, “[A Jew] is the enemy of the world, the destroyer of cultures, …the plastic demon of the decay of humanity.” (The last item in the list was in fact a paraphrasing of the anti-Semitic composer Richard Wagner, who was an inspiration for many Nazi ideas.) This sort of racially driven propaganda was not the first of its kind. In an effort to spread Catholicism in Europe, King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain had instituted an Inquisition designed to find, torture, and kill all heretics in their realm, including Jews. The rulers told their people that they were trying to purify Spain of its bad influences. Such propaganda that is similar to that used by Hitler and Goebbels four hundred years later. However, why did it work?
The main reason is that there had been a strong current of anti-Semitism in Europe for many years when Hitler began his genocide. Prior to the Second World War, the last religious conflict in Europe had been the Thirty Years’ War, which had concluded in 1648. European countries and states emerged from the war with a strong sense of absolutism and nationalism. The raison d’état of Cardinal Richelieu had prevailed over the Universalism of Emperor Ferdinand II, and the resulting ethnocentrism exacerbated Europe’s xenophobia, which had already been present on the continent due to the discoveries of the Age of Exploration. According to historian Robert S. Wistrich in his book Hitler and the Holocaust, the immigration of Polish Jews into Germany in the 1920’s also increased the level of anti-Semitism in the country, for they were often unemployed and were seen as alien outsiders. As Hitler wrote in his autobiography Mein Kampf, the first time he saw a Jewish person, in Vienna, he did not believe that the person could possibly be a German (Austria being controlled by Germany at the time), simply because of his dress and hairstyle. Such deep and misguided mistrust of foreigners or unfamiliar people perhaps had been aggravated in Germany by its humiliation during and after the “Great War” of 1914-1919, and indeed, certain believed that the country’s Jewish population had somehow profited from the outcome. In addition, Wistrich comments that because most of the Jews in the Weimar Republic held left-wing political views, many Gentiles in Germany viewed them as a Communist threat. Hitler exploited this fear by asserting that the Jews were secretly plotting a Soviet-Bolshevik revolution against Europe. No matter the cause of the anti-Semitism in Germany before and during the Second World War, the racist propaganda implemented by the Nazis was used to unite their subjects under the common cause of defeating the imaginary specter of a savage and threatening Jewish race.
Finally, race also influenced the reactions of outsider nations to the Holocaust; and more specifically, racism. In Russia after its revolution of 1917, for instance, Jews ostensibly kept their freedoms established in 1907, but over one hundred thousand were slaughtered in pogroms by anti-Bolshevik activists in Russia and the Ukraine. Also, nationalism, as mentioned previously, played a role in newly independent European countries. Wistrich mentions how nations like Romania, Hungary, and Poland developed powerful nationalist tendencies after they were granted independence by the Treaty of Versailles (1919). Xenophobia emerged in these countries as well as Germany, and both their universities and their economic policies began to discriminate against Jews. Anti-Semitism was also present in the United States (and, to a lesser extent, in the United Kingdom). Racism or anti-Semitic tendencies, having gained more hold in the American population during the Great Depression, were perhaps one factor that led this world power to talk around the topic of the ongoing genocide, instead focusing on halting Germany’s militaristic imperial expansion. Their decision to largely ignore the Holocaust in Europe until many innocent lives had already been lost has relevance today, as we in the U.S. criticize Presidents Clinton and W. Bush for not doing more about the Rwandan and Sudanese genocides. However, their motives for inaction are slightly different from those of the U.S. and the U.K. in the 1940’s. And certainly, other countries like Poland, Hungary, and Romania also possessed anti-Semitic tendencies to a greater extent that allowed them to ignore the deaths of six million people until it was already too late.
The facet of the Holocaust in Germany that most differs from the Cultural Revolution in China is race and its role in a mass killing. While Mao Zedong organized his cause based solely on exterminating those whom he perceived as threats to his power, Adolf Hitler actually believed what he told his people. Granted, a side benefit of the Holocaust to Hitler was the polarization of Germans to his side made possible by scapegoating a minority ethnic and religious group, but his core motive was in fact racial. Virulent anti-Semitism in Germany had existed for many years; yet Hitler was not merely a product of his culture, but also orginated personal ideas that placed him in a class of evildoers the likes of whom one hopes the world will never see again.