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HolocaustDecember 1941

Hitler and the Holocaust

What was Hitler’s role in the Holocaust?
An examination of Hitler’s contribution to the extermination of the Jews.

Video Transcript

Commentary: This is Adolf Hitler in the summer of 1941 when the war on the Eastern Front was going well for the Nazis. It was during this war against the Soviet Union that the Nazis would develop the killing factories of the Holocaust. And they would eventually murder six million Jews.

Professor Norbert Frei: Hitler’s will was central to this. I would say that without Hitler there wouldn’t have been a Holocaust. There would have been certainly persecution of the Jews, there was this rather thriving anti-Semitism, but I think it’s safe to say that there wouldn’t be a Holocaust without Hitler.

Commentary: But it was this war, the First World War, fought more than twenty years before the Second, that had been instrumental in shaping Hitler’s views about the Jews. Like all soldiers who served in the First World War, Hitler was exposed to a level of destruction that is almost impossible to exaggerate.

Words of Erich Remarque (German soldier): We see men living with their skulls blown open. We see men without mouths, without jaws, without faces. We find one man who has held the artery of his arm in his teeth for two hours in order not to bleed to death.1

Commentary: And once it became clear that Germany was losing this terrible war, soldiers like Hitler looked around for someone to blame.

Professor Sir Ian Kershaw: You have the First World War, which is absolutely crucial to understanding Hitler and what came afterwards. In that, then, the Jews were seen as the groups who had fermented the First World 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.

Commentary: The humiliation of the loss of the First World War was felt by many soldiers in the defeated German army. But perhaps most of all by one of them - Adolf Hitler.

Professor Richard Evans: With the defeat of Germany his world completely fell apart, and he himself describes a sort of psychological crisis. And out of this came, I think, this determination which you see from his very first public speech right through to his so-called political testament, the last thing he wrote, that the Jews are the source of evil, the Jews are destroying Germany, they had to be eliminated by one means or another.

Commentary: Hitler didn’t just blame the Jews for losing the First World War, he blamed the Jews for virtually all of Germany’s problems. His prejudice was boundless.

Words of speech by Adolf Hitler (7th August 1920): The effects of Judaism will never wane, and the poisoning of the people will never end until the cause, the Jews, are removed from our midst.2

Commentary: Just over twenty years after the end of the First World War, in March 1939, Hitler and his German troops entered Prague in triumph. Here, on the eve of the Second World War, Hitler was no longer an unknown soldier on the front line, but the Chancellor and Fuehrer of the German people. But his beliefs had not changed. He still hated the Jews and had presided over a Germany in the 1930s that had systematically persecuted them. 

Professor David Cesarani: I think Hitler had a murderous personality, in the sense that he had no conception of the value of human life. It’s hard to say why not, but he could order individuals and groups to be slaughtered without any compunction at all. He simply did not feel any compassion for most human beings.

Commentary: And just before the Germans marched into Prague Hitler had shown his pathological hatred of the Jews in this threatening speech.

Adolf Hitler (archive of speech in the Reichstag, 30th January 1939): Today I will once more be a prophet: If the international Jewish financiers inside and outside Europe should succeed in plunging the nations once more into a world war, then the result will not be the Bolshevization of the earth, and thus the victory of Jewry, but the annihilation of the Jewish race in Europe!

Commentary: Eight months later the German invasion of Poland brought two million more Jews under Nazi control. Thousands were shot, and many more were imprisoned and starved in ghettos. And as the war continued the Nazi treatment of the Jews grew worse and worse.

Professor David Cesarani: One reason that Hitler was keen to see the Jews segregated in Nazi Germany, and subjected to increasingly harsh measures once the Second World War began, and why he wanted Jews segregated and eventually destroyed throughout the Nazi sphere of influence while the Nazis were fighting the war, is that he believed if Jews were allowed to exist freely, to hold what he believed was economic and political power while Germany was at war, if they were within the German sphere of influence they would do what they did in November 1918 - they would stab Germany in the back.

Commentary: After the German invasion of the Soviet Union, Hitler spoke in private explicitly linking what he believed the Jews had done in the First World War with what was now happening in the Second.

Words of Adolf Hitler (25th October 1941): That race of criminals has on its conscience the two million dead of the First World War, now already hundreds of thousands more.3

Commentary: And by the end of 1941, at a meeting he held for Nazi leaders in December, Hitler talked of fulfilling his pre-war prophecy against the Jews as the Nazi propaganda minister, Josef Goebbels, recorded.

Words from diary of Josef Goebbels (12th December 1941): He prophesied that if they brought about another World War they would experience their annihilation. That was no empty talk. The World War is here, the annihilation of Jewry must be the necessary consequence.4

Professor Sir Ian Kershaw: 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.

Commentary: Six million dead. Men, women and children. This was the final consequence of Hitler’s hatred of the Jews, and the hatred felt by many of those who followed him.


1 John V. Denson, ‘Soldiers Against War: The Story of the World War I Christmas Truce’ [www.lewrockwell.com]

2 Peter Longerich, The Unwritten Order: Hitler’s Role in the Final Solution, Tempus, 2001, p. 21

3 Entry for 25th October 1941 in Hitler’s Table Talk, 1941-1944, Oxford University Press, 1983, p. 87

4 Ian Kershaw, Hitler, 1936-1945: Nemesis, Allen Lane, 2000, p. 490