Rereading German History: From Unification to Reunification, 1800-1996

By Richard J. Evans | Go to book overview

13

ANTI-SEMITISM

Ordinary Germans and the longest hatred’

I

Ever since the full horror of Hitler’s death camps dawned upon the world, historians, sociologists, political scientists and philosophers from many countries have been trying to understand how and why it was in Germany rather than anywhere else that antisemitism, one of the longest-lasting and most widespread of ethnic and religious hatreds in European history, led to the deliberate mass murder of Europe’s Jews. For what distinguished Hitler’s so-called ‘Final Solution of the Jewish Question’—in reality, as many observers have noted, not really a Jewish Question but a German one—was not so much its brutality, violence and fanaticism, though this was indeed extreme (similar cruelty and barbarism has been seen in more recent times, in Rwanda, Bosnia and Iraq), but two rather different factors. The first of these was its mechanized and bureaucratized character. In no other case of genocide has a state devoted such vast resources of central planning and administration to the total extermination of an ethnic minority. The second factor that made it unique was the fact that it was intended to eliminate the Jews not just of the country where the policy of extermination originated, but of the whole of Europe, indeed ultimately the world. The lists of prospective victims drawn up at the Wannsee Conference in January 1942, when the implementation of the extermination policy was organized, included many Jews in countries such as Britain and Ireland which had not yet fallen under Germany’s sway. The sheer scale of the operation, and the fact that a major European state was prepared to devote massive resources to it at a time when it was fighting a major world war against powerful and well-resourced opponents, has posed a supreme challenge to the historical imagination. It has elicited many different responses, and provoked many fine, thoughtful, occasionally even inspiring works of history. Not only the specific policy of extermination but also its wider context of antisemitism is one of the most intensively studied, most written-about subjects in modern German, indeed European history.

It is a bold scholar, therefore, who claims, as Daniel Jonah Goldhagen does in his book Hitler’s Willing Executioners (1996), to have found an

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