The Roots of the Holocaust

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Anti-Semitism is the common name for anti-Jewish sentiments.
During Hitler’s rule, anti-Semitism was implemented in its most grotesque form. The Nazis used anti-Semitism to carry out the Endlösung – the ‘Final Solution of the Jewish Question’. Through persecution and later extermination of the European Jews, the Nazis hoped to solve the ‘Jewish problem’ once and for all – strongly backed by anti-Semites in the Balkans, the Soviet Union and other eastern European countries.

But anti-Semitism is neither invented in Germany or a specifically German phenomenon. Through centuries, Jews were a persecuted people.  During the Middle Ages, such actions often took the form of pure mass murder. At the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century, Jews fell victim to frequent pogroms in Eastern Europe. But with the Nazi persecution in the 1930’s and 1940’s, Jews all over German-controlled Europe were systematically killed. More than 6 million were murdered.


Jews persecuted since the Middle Ages


ver since the Middle Ages, persecutions of Jews took place all over Europe. This was mainly due to the Christian Church’s persecution of Jews and Jewry, which was frequently followed by public pogroms. Jews were seen as strangers who represented a different religion in Christian medieval Europe. According to the Christians, the Jews were brash enough to deny that Jesus Christ was the Son of God.
Accordingly, the Church and the people frequently accused the Jews of all sorts of misfortunes: The Jews were accused of being responsible for the death of Christ, they were accused of killing Christian children, and they were accused of causing natural catastrophes. When the Plague (The Black Death) broke out in Europe in 1348, the Jews were also accused of having caused that to happen.
Often the anti-Semitic waves were rooted in economic problems. In the early Middle Ages, Christians were not allowed to work in the money lending business, and the Jews consequently took over this “dirty business”. But this meant that Christians came to owe money to the Jews, and this led to the Jews being viewed as loan sharks. Such sentiments were widespread even in Hitler’s days.
Towards the middle and end of the medieval period, due to economic development and internationalisation, the Jews’ monopoly in the money business and their economic importance diminished.



A nti-Semitism was also caused by xenophobia. The European populations turned their frustrations with their social and economic problems towards the “strangers” – a situation not that different from today.
At the end of the 13th century, anti-Semitic sentiments increased around Europe. In England, Jews were expelled in 1290, while in many other places Jews were massacred.
Following the Reformation (15-16th century), anti-Jewish sentiments continued to abound in Northern Europe. The man behind the reformation, Martin Luther, expressed strong anti-Semitic ideas, for instance in 1453, when he wrote that the Jewish synagogues should be burned, their houses destroyed and the Jews driven out of Germany “forever”.
In the following centuries, European Jews were in reality isolated from their surroundings in the European cities, in so-called ghettos. In 1648, a great massacre of Jews took place in Poland.


The 19th century

During the 19th century the conditions for Jews in Europe were greatly improved. Among the reasons for this were the Enlightenment philosophers’ plea for liberty and equality. The Jews were liberated under the impression of the ideals of the Age of the Enlightenment, and a process of assimilation commenced.
Simultaneously, however, the 19th century marked the rise of nationalism, which in turn aggravated the hatred of the Jews. The number of pogroms increased all over Europe. In the name of nationalism, ethnic and religious minorities were looked down upon. Also, the word ‘anti-Semitism’ was coined for the first time in 1879.
In Russia the Jews were strongly persecuted, often in the form of state-sponsored pogroms, following the murder of Tsar Alexander II in 1881. The result was that many Jews were murdered and a large number of Jews fled to Western Europe. Around 2 million Jews went to the United States, while Argentina, Canada and Great Britain received around 300,000 Jews. The persecution of the Jews lay the ground for the emergence of the Zionist movement, which reflected the Jews’ desire to establish a homeland for themselves.
The idea of a Jewish world conspiracy – later used in Nazi propaganda – was based on ‘The Protocols of the Elders of Zion’. This forged document, fabricated by the Russian Tsar’s secret police, listed Jewish plans to take over the world. The falsification turned up in Germany in 1919 and was seen by anti-Semites as proof of the ‘dark forces’ that had caused Germany to lose World War I.


Timeline – persecution of Jews in Europe

922 B.C. The Jewish kingdom is established
70 A.D. The Romans conquer the Jewish kingdom – the Temple of Solomon is destroyed.
11-12th Cent. Massacres on Jews in the Rhineland and by the Crusaders.
1215 Jews in Europe are forced to dress in a certain way or carry the Jewish mark.
1290 The Jews are expelled from England.
14th Cent. The Jews are expelled from France.
1492 The Jews are expelled from Spain, unless they are willing to be baptised. Many of them find refuge in the Ottoman Empire.
1648 Jews massacred in Poland and the Ukraine.
19th Cent. The Jews are gradually emancipated in Germany and in other Western European countries.
1881 Pogroms in Russia following the murder of the Tsar.
1919 Pogroms in Eastern Europe – 60,000 Jews are killed in the Ukraine.


Germany and anti-Semitism: the 19th century

A nti-Semitism gained ground in Germany during the 19th century. Anti-Semitic libels were published everywhere, and the economic crisis of the early 19th century was blamed on the Jews.
Thousands of Jews fled to Germany from the pogroms in Eastern Europe at the end of the 19th century – thus keeping up the level of German xenophobia.
In a climate of economic crisis in Germany towards the end of the 19th century, Jewish bankers were blamed. The Jews were seen as evil and exploiting capitalists, and several anti-Semitic parties were founded.
University teachers and other learned people also pleaded for anti-Semitism. In connection with the growth of modern nationalism and the motto of ‘one state, one nation’, the German author and philosopher Paul de Lagarde wrote, "I have long been convinced that Jewry constitutes the cancer in all of our life; as Jews, they are strangers in any European state and as such they are northing but spreaders of decay."
Friedrich Nietzsche’s theory of the “superman” – Übermensch – as a race biologically and intellectually better shaped than others, was misused by anti-Semites, and later by the Nazis. Some Germans felt like a part of this race of superior human beings at the end of the 19th century.
 “Scientific” race theories also surfaced as a new current in Europe and Germany in the 19th century. The Aryan myth came to play an important and terrible role during the Nazi era – including the idea of a special Germanic spirit and race that was superior to all else.
In spite of the anti-Semitism, Jews were awarded legal equality in Prussia in 1859, and later in the rest of Germany. This, however, did not significantly alter the popularity of anti-Semitism.
A fundamental myth about the Jews was the idea of them being in collusion with both capitalism and socialism. An abundance of Anti-Semitic writings tried to explain this alleged ‘conspiracy, which was to bring the Jews world supremacy. Hitler later used this myth as an argument for punishing the Jews.


Germany during the Weimar Republic

A fter Germany’s defeat in World War I (1914-1918), anti-Semitism reached new heights in that country. Defeated German soldiers returning from the front – among them Adolf Hitler – accused those on the home front of being responsible for the defeat.  They accused social democratic politicians, revolutionaries and especially the Jews of having “stabbed” the army in the back.
In his book, Mein Kampf, Hitler spoke of the existence of a Jewish conspiracy to take over the world. In this conspiracy, Jewish capitalists had joined forces with the Judeo-Bolshevist socialism.
Europe was in a state of economic crisis in the 1930s. The crisis hit the debt-ridden German nation particularly hard, causing economic impoverishment, high inflation, serious unemployment and poverty. The crisis was adding fuel to the flames of the anti-Semitic bonfire. A scapegoat had to be found: the Jews were chosen.


The Jews in Germany

A t the time of the Nazi takeover in 1933, Jews made up about 0.8% of the German population, 500,000 out of a total population of approximately 62 million (according to a public census in 1933). The Jewish population was largely concentrated in urban areas.
Most of Europe’s between 9 and 11 million Jews lived in Eastern Europe. But Germany had the largest number of Western European Jews.
In general, the German Jews were better educated and assimilated than was the case with the Jews in the Eastern European countries. Many felt more German than Jewish. But in spite of the high degree of assimilation of the German Jews, they fell victim to the Nazi regime’s policies of persecution and extermination.