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Hitler’s ideology about the Jews

LAURENCE REES: Whilst one might categorise Hitler’s view as essentially hating the Jews, he was very careful about how he delivered that message to the German population in the elections of the early 1930s and then throughout the 1930s. So can it really be said that he wanted to kill the Jews from as far back as that time?

CHRISTOPHER BROWNING: Certainly the way in which policy gets put in place is fairly indirect. In private circles and to the faithful, Hitler assures them of his anti-Semitic good faith, and they then feel free to exert pressure from below in terms of anti-Semitic activism. In the spring of 1933 this pressure meant chasing Jewish judges and lawyers out of the courtrooms, boycotting Jewish stores, and Hitler sanctioned this spontaneous people’s will, from above. If it seems to go too far then he will temporarily bring it to a halt, but he will then use that as the leverage for an ordinary legal way to deal with this rather than a disorderly spontaneous way, so almost every one of these upsurges in popular anti-Semitism from below results in legislation. We see this pattern in the spring of 1933, we see it in 1935, and we certainly see it in 1938 with the Kristallnacht riots  culminating in the legislation that expropriates all Jewish property. In these steps Jews lose their rights, they lose their social standing and they lose their property; it is a kind of a civic social and economic death of German Jewry. Despite the fact that half of the Jews leave, are either driven out, expelled or forced out by 1939, it created in a sense a totally isolated, helpless, defenceless group, that is fair game for legal persecution, even if some Germans have reservations about rowdy, physical or riotous kinds of persecution. When Hitler lets things go a little too far and pulls them back slightly, people breathe a sigh of relief and then later you start the whole process over again and get another major, quantum leap, in terms of the encroachment on the Jewish ability to stay alive in Germany.

LAURENCE REES: So to what extent is it the case that Hitler always wanted to exterminate the Jews, and he was simply holding back for the moment for when it was possible?

CHRISTOPHER BROWNING: Well, the phraseology he uses in his very first political letter in 1919 is that he believes the Jewish question is a racial question not a religious question, that it must be handled through legislation not through riot, and that the ultimate goal is the removal of the Jews altogether. Now that phrase – what does it actually mean?  Well, if you read this letter through hindsight, starting at Auschwitz and looking backwards you can read into it an intent that 'removal' means murder. In reality, during most of this period, certainly between 1933 and 1939, the clear goal of Nazi Jewish policy is to force Jews out of Germany, what we now call ethnic cleansing, to create a Germany without Jews, and a removal of the Jews altogether. However, if you’re driving them out you can’t kill them, so this is a contradiction. Therefore, 'removal' of the Jews altogether should be seen up to 1939 as a vision of Germany in which Jews no longer reside, that they have been driven out.