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Anti-Semitism in Germany

LAURENCE REES: How would you characterise the major pre-war factors which contributed to the atmosphere in which the exterminatory 'Final Solution' was eventually to emerge?

CHRISTOPHER BROWNING: I think you have a conjuncture - a coming together - of a number of factors. First of all in the late 19th century, we know that the traditionally religious driven anti-Semitism which had faded with secularisation gets a new lease on life - partly as a reaction to the strains of modernization in which the Jews are the major beneficiary and therefore those who are hurting and are paying the social costs of modernization basically blame the beneficiary - blame the Jew. Religion isn’t in a sense the main legitimizer any longer – now, conveniently, science and particularly pseudo-sciences, and racial theory give the veneer of it being scientific. So that’s floating around but it’s a minority phenomenon, certainly in Germany we know that the anti-Semitic parties in 19th Century failed abysmally; we know that in Germany they passed persecutory legislation against Catholics in the 1870s, against the socialists in the 1880s, but not against Jews. Jews were emancipated and their equality before the law legally is still there even if they don’t have equal opportunity in other areas like the civil service or military officer corps.

There is an undercurrent, at least on one end of the spectrum, that the Jews have done too well in Germany. The Jew was also associated with what was happening in Germany in terms of pressures for democratisation and modernisation. This gets vastly aggravated, of course, after World War One, which was very pivotal in the collapse of the defences against anti-Semitism. At the end of World War One Germany faces problems of the humiliation of defeat, and the Versailles Treaty, and economic problems, immense problems, all countries in the war had problems but Germany, because it had lost it, had the additional problem of reparations which becomes a symbol for Germans who begin to think that if there were not any reparations everything would be okay. They also have a new government that does not function well, a liberal government, once again easily associated with Jews, that reaches political deadlock. The government barely functions in quiet times, and whenever there is an emergency it has to go to emergency powers to function, resulting in economic distress, political gridlock, national humiliation and a sense of old ways being eroded, of cultural degeneration. And what we consider the effervescence of Weimar culture this, to many people, was of course a degeneration and an assault upon all values of traditional Germany. And all of these things can be associated with the Jews.

On top of that, the looming threat of the Soviet Union, Bolshevism and the revolution in Germany at the end of the war, coupled with the threat of the spread of communism, was once again widespread in Europe. Added to this was the feeling of Judeo-Bolshevism and what’s happening when the Bolsheviks were tied to and identified with the Jews. And just about every ailment in Germany can be tied to the Jews: reparations, predatory Jews as financiers and national humiliation; the Jews were also the weakness behind the home front, the profiteers who didn’t fight in the war. Liberalism, considered to be a Jewish product, emancipation, equality before the law, Soviets and Judeo-Bolshevism, all make viable a far more radical and far more widespread anti-Semitism that has political clout. While lots of people may not have bought into the esoteric qualities of Hitler’s belief in race as the key to history, that pure race is strong and mixed race is weak - all of the racial theory that was certainly important to the Nazis -  most people accepted an association of the Jews with all of these ailments.

So no warning signals go up and no alarm bells go off when Hitler becomes obsessed about the Jews, because he’s making in an extreme form arguments that are, one might say, already in a kind of form. So, Hitler’s certainly appealing to Germans to end economic distress, to end political gridlock, to make Germany strong and proud internationally and to end the disintegration of German culture, and for him this is all tied together with anti-Semitism. For others it’s acceptable that it’s tied with anti-Semitism so long as they get remedies in these other areas. The Nazis do come to power as by far the most popular movement in Germany, the only political party that transcends narrow class boundaries, and it becomes a people’s party, a ‘volks’ party, a movement, as Hitler said, as opposed to a party, and he has the autonomy to give priority to Jewish policy that no one else is going to worry about. Much of what Hitler brings in the Thirties can be offered as beneficial to the vast majority at extreme cost to vulnerable and isolated minorities. So if you’re a gypsy or if you’re Jewish or if you’re Communist, you are going to suffer greatly, but the vast majority of Germans benefit and don’t feel threatened in any way by these things. So a culture of the isolation of the Jew, the de-emancipation of the Jew, the social isolation of the Jew and finally the total economic expropriation of the Jew, takes place with no cost to the regime and a broad acceptance in society that dealing with the Jewish question is a prerogative of the regime and a legitimate government policy. That there is a Jewish question and the government has given itself a free hand to do that.