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Hitler and the Holocaust

LAURENCE REES: And to what extent could the Holocaust, as we know it, not have occurred as it did, if it hadn’t been for the decision to prosecute this war against the Soviet Union in this way?

SIR IAN KERSHAW: Well, the aim of destroying the power of the Jews, shall we say, was there right from the very beginning. How this would be undertaken nobody knew, not even Hitler. But obviously during the 1930s the big aim was to expel the Jews from Germany as far as possible. Once you got into the war it wasn’t just the Soviet Union – once you were into the war and you attacked Poland, for example, then, at one fell swoop, another two and a half million Jews were in the hands of the Nazis. And they had to devise policies to deal with those. Those policies became more extreme, more radical and more genocidal as the 18 months went on between the invasion of Poland in September ’39 and the invasion of the Soviet Union in June of 1941. So in those 18 months an immense radicalisation in the direction of genocide had already taken place on Polish soil.

Then you come to the invasion of the Soviet Union, and right from the beginning Jews were now being slaughtered in their thousands, and by the summer of 1941, by the end of July into August, then decisions were taken to escalate this killing and to turn it now into killing of Soviet Jewish women and children as well. So the genocide against the Soviet Jews was taking place and you could say that was absolutely central to the invasion of the Soviet Union. From thereon the problems, the self-imposed problems the Nazis have created then, led in all sorts of other further radical steps in the autumn and the winter of 1941-2 into total all out genocide on the European continent in so far as it was controlled by the Nazis. So the question: ‘does the invasion of the Soviet Union mean genocide?’ can only be answered by saying 'yes it did'.

And the 'Final Solution' as it came about might have come about in different ways, because the original notion was you deport Europe’s Jews into the Soviet Union and there they will starve to death or they will be worked to death or whatever, over a long period of time in the icy wastes of the Soviet Union and they will die out. It was genocidal by a different route. And, of course, in the meanwhile the Soviet Jews had largely been shot. So genocide was there implicit in that attack on the Soviet Union and nobody really attempted to hide this at all in the German leadership. But once it didn’t work out in terms of the Nazi vision of totally destroying the Soviet Union and having this option of pushing the European Jews into it then, of course, the actual genocide that came out with this so-called 'Final Solution' took place in extermination units on Polish soil which was something that was devised as the war in the East didn’t go according to plan in the autumn and the winter of 1941-2. But genocide was there absolutely as a central point of this war in the East and therefore you could say that genocide was a central component of the Second World War itself.

LAURENCE REES: But did Hitler, from before the war, always intend at some point to exterminate the Jews? Hitler had always wanted to deal with this Jewish ‘problem’, as he saw it, in some way, but isn’t it right that he didn’t actually formulate this notion of widespread extermination until once the war against the Soviet Union is underway?

SIR IAN KERSHAW: Well, I don’t think anybody, even Hitler, could have envisaged quite what came in detail, so you’re talking back in the early 1920s, he’s not then thinking in concrete terms about Treblinka and Auschwitz and so on. But he does use extreme – he’s not the only one actually – but he does use extreme violent language such as the German word ‘Vernichtung’, which means destruction, quite literally means annihilation. He uses this language and it doesn’t necessarily mean at that time the physical eradication of every Jew that the Germans could lay their hands on. But implicit, it was a proto-genocidal notion. And as that became then turned through a whole set of policies in Germany itself in the 1930s, then much radicalised in Poland after September 1939, then finally in the Soviet Union – what you have is a stage of progressive steps whereby this proto-genocidal notion becomes converted then into policies of outright genocide, in which Hitler is absolutely crucial and central in providing authorisation for this.

But the actual practical steps are taken by his leading figures in the police – by Himmler, the head of the SS and the German Police, and by Heydrich, the head of the Security Police. But if you want to use a building metaphor you could say that Himmler was the architect of the 'Final Solution', Heydrich was maybe the master builder, but it needed somebody to commission the plan, and that was Hitler. So Hitler is there and the proto-genocidal then genocidal intent is there all the way through. But the actual policies, of course, take time to materialise and develop and shape up.

LAURENCE REES: And what is difficult, I know, for many people to begin to understand is how is it possible that one individual so hates millions of people - who he has never met - that he wants to see them all murdered?

SIR IAN KERSHAW: Well that, of course, is a question about why not just this one person but many people, and not just in Germany, saw the Jews as a malign influence and wanted to destroy their power, or thought they were extraordinarily powerful groups who were running big business in the City of London and in Wall Street and at the same time running Bolshevism in the Soviet Union. And there was this so-called ‘Protocols of the Elders of Zion’ which was this notion about a world conspiracy run by Jews. It was actually a complete fabrication, a forgery produced by the Tsarist police. But this was believed in these right-wing circles in the early 1920s and the 1930s and believed by Hitler that this was actually then the case.

So what you have are a whole number of things which lead to anti-Semitism being a crucial component in that, and just to mention them, it’s obvious what they are, but just to mention them very rapidly: one is the sense of Jews as being always the antagonists of the Christians, of the killers of Christ, this notion which has run through history. And a second thing, economic envy against the Jews – when times are bad this came up to the fore. The third was then these racial ideas that came up in the middle and the later part of the Nineteenth Century of racial, biological racial, distinctions between groups and of whom then the Jews were seen as a particular force and a negative force. And so you put all these together and then you have the First World War, which is absolutely crucial to understanding Hitler and what came afterwards. In that the Jews were seen as the groups who had fermented the first war in the first place and brought about this almighty conflagration, and were responsible at the same time for profiting from the war in massive fashion, and then not least were responsible in the eyes of Hitler and those who thought on similar lines to him for Germany’s defeat in that they had fermented the unrest that had brought the German defeat in 1918 and with it then the revolution and everything that had followed.

So, in this sense the Jews were responsible for the First World War and, if it came to a Second World War as Hitler said in his notorious prophecy in January 1939, if it came to a Second World War which they’d fermented – actually he was the main author of this war, but in his warped view they had produced another war – in the event of a Second World War, he said, the result would be not the victory of Bolshevism and therefore of Jewry, but the destruction of Jewry throughout Europe. So, he saw the Jews as very much integrally connected with the First World War and then with another war which he would be waging for Germany.

LAURENCE REES: And worth mentioning that all of those things Hitler thought about the Jews weren’t the case at all were they?

SIR IAN KERSHAW: No, no, no, absolutely not, no. Of course it was a complete figment this. A bizarre vision.

LAURENCE REES: But all the same, there’s a gap still there, isn’t there, between a sense of prejudice, a sense of, ‘well, these people are to blame, we’ve got to deal with it, we’ve got to sort it out in some way’ and actually having every child killed?

SIR IAN KERSHAW: Well, if the prejudice is a pathological prejudice as it became: that’s the ideological position. But then this person who was a pathological anti-Semite and also a radical nationalist as well, then also becomes by 1933 the leader of the German state. So you have the entire apparatus of the state now directed towards this ideological goal of removing the Jews, whatever that term meant, removing the Jews meant different things to different people at different times. But the state now has that as a central goal and the operations of the state and the machinery of the state is geared to this, so every agency of that Nazi state is now wedded to the notion that the Jews are a malign force that have to be got rid of and increasingly destroyed.

And the key agency in this, of course, is that of the police and the SS and the security forces. Once you get into that then you’re on a series of steps that doesn’t need Hitler all the time to take an initiative and say this is what needs to happen now, but these initiatives start coming increasingly from within the police and the organisation of the Nazi apparatus in occupied Eastern Europe, who then take their own steps towards making things happen.

So by the time you get to this crucial period from the time of the invasion of the Soviet Union in the summer of 1941 down to the spring of 1942 – we’re talking about the best part of a year – in that year now rapid initiatives are taken. They all need Hitler’s blanket approval and his authorisation, and Hitler does approve it, does authorise the main steps of this, but they’re not all coming from this sense of just one man’s hatred which is totally unintelligible, rather this has become now implanted and has developed a flower and flourished within a state system which is now directed to that goal.

LAURENCE REES: But since there is no written order linking Hitler with the Holocaust, is it possible to argue that all of this might possibly have been originated at the Himmler, Heydrich level? Originated by them in the hope of pleasing Hitler? How certain can we be that Hitler is ultimately responsible for the Holocaust?

SIR IAN KERSHAW: Well, he’s the head of that state so could be regarded as having overall responsibility for what happens in that state. In particular in that type of leadership state where the leader’s word is actually taken more or less as law. But actually it goes beyond that, because it’s not just a matter of Hitler’s rhetoric and the fact that, as the death camps are involved in their grisly business in slaughtering millions of Jews in 1942 and ’43, Hitler actually repeats his so-called prophecy, publicly, on several occasions. But even that then is a rhetorical statement you could say. But beneath that then there are things which everybody from Himmler downwards says – he speaks about a commission, he’s following up a commission, he speaks about – as always people do – about following the wishes of the Fuehrer and so on.

This is a regime that doesn’t write down things – Hitler is a very un-bureaucratic type of leader so what you will not expect from this is a set of cabinet minutes where Hitler has said ‘right, now I’m taking the decision here and now to exterminate the Jews.’ It just simply didn’t work like that, but Hitler’s fingerprints are all over all the main steps in that. And also when it comes to all the crucial steps, such as deporting the Jews from Germany to the East into the Lodz Ghetto for example, the deportation of the Reich Jews could not be taken without Hitler’s authorisation. The imposition of the yellow star on the sleeve of German Jews in September 1940 couldn’t happen unless Hitler approved of it.

So all these steps also needed Hitler’s authorisation and approval, so it is actually just stretching credulity too far to believe that in this absolutely critical development of moving to all out genocide, where Hitler’s been speaking throughout his entire career about the need to destroy the Jews, that this somehow happens without him approving of it, authorising it and just not even knowing about it, just is not believable.

LAURENCE REES: Could we put it the other way round then, and say that this simply couldn’t have happened, if it hadn’t been for Hitler?

SIR IAN KERSHAW: Again I think you say that if you put the proposition that way: ‘no Hitler no Holocaust’, I would agree with that. By the time we’re speaking about, now in 1941 and ’42, of course you’ve got a momentum we’ve been talking about that’s built up of, in particular, the police apparatus which has its own momentum, but that momentum itself has come from a whole number of steps prior to that which Hitler has backed and approved of and ok’d at every stage and given his imprimatur to, given his authorisation to, has legitimised.

So, as the head of the state he’s actually represented these policies which have been carried in that way, so in this sense you can, I think, truly say that Hitler was absolutely essential to the carrying out of the Holocaust. So Hitler is a necessary but not sufficient cause of the overall explanation but still you’d say or I would say ‘no Hitler no Holocaust.’