Hitler and the Holocaust: Alan Farmer Assesses the Personal Responsibility of the Fuhrer

By Farmer, Alan | History Review, September 2007 | Go to article overview

Hitler and the Holocaust: Alan Farmer Assesses the Personal Responsibility of the Fuhrer


Farmer, Alan, History Review


On 30 April 1945 Adolf Hitler committed suicide in the bunker beneath the Chancellery in Berlin. From November 1945 until October 1946 over a score of the chief Nazis who had escaped death in the last few days of the war faced trial at Nuremberg for crimes against humanity. Let's for a moment suspend disbelief. Let's suppose that Hitler had not taken his life but had instead been taken alive by Russian troops in the last days of the war. Let's suppose that he too faced trial at Nuremberg. Leaving aside his responsibility for causing the Second World War, what would his defence have been with regard to the Holocaust?

Hitler's Defence

Hitler's defence lawyers would have had a difficult task. They could not have pleaded insanity: Hitler, consistently (and brutally) rational, was not mad. Nor could they put him in the witness box. Had they done so, he would most certainly have incriminated himself. Far from denying the Holocaust, he would have accepted full responsibility for it. In his last political testament in April 1945 he claimed with pride that the extermination of the Jews was his legacy to the world. What now seems totally illogical and evil seemed to Hitler logical and good.

Hitler's Actions: 1933-41

However, some points could be made in Hitler's defence. Although he often spoke of 'eliminating' the Jews from Germany, it is not totally clear what he meant. Did 'elimination' mean mass slaughter or simply mass deportation? And did Hitler have any clear ideas about how 'elimination' was to be achieved? His actions between 1933 and 1939 suggest that he was not intent on mass murder. While Jews had been turned into pariahs, relatively few had been killed by 1939. The policy of forcing German Jews into exile was an odd policy to adopt if he was set on genocide. It would surely have made more sense to keep them corralled.

Germany's military success in 1939-40 resulted in a dramatic increase in the number of Jews under Nazi control. In the German controlled areas of Poland alone there were some two million. The evidence suggests that until 1941 Hitler did not envisage--let alone order--an extermination programme. The forced emigration of all German-controlled Jews, whether to the General Government or to Madagascar, remained the Final Solution until early 1941. There is little basis for the claim that such plans were simply designed to conceal the regime's genocidal intention. The Madagascar plan was taken very seriously. Hitler's speeches in public and private in 1939-40 give no indication of any extermination plans. Until 1941 all the leading Nazi officials concerned with the Jewish issue--Himmler, Heydrich, Frank and Goring--declared that a policy of compulsory emigration offered the only real solution to the Jewish question.

Himmler in May 1940 accepted that deportation could be 'cruel and tragic'. But he went on to write that 'the method [deportation] is still the mildest and best, if one rejects the Bolshevik method of physical extermination of a people ... as un-German and impossible'. If Himmler was not thinking of extermination, it is unlikely that anyone else was. Hitler and Himmler had a close and sympathetic relationship in the formulation and implementation of racial policy. Thus to discover what Hitler was thinking, it is best to look at what Himmler was doing.

In 1939-40 Himmler was deeply involved in a massive (but hastily improvised) plan to racially restructure much of eastern Europe. Nazi Jewish policy in Poland was part of this demographic project and did not yet have priority within it. The resettlement of ethnic Germans from the USSR and the Baltic States was the centrepiece of Nazi racial policy. Polish peasants (rather than urban Jews) were more likely to be moved to the General Government to accommodate incoming Germans. If Hitler was thinking in terms of mass slaughter of all European Jewry in the years 1939-41, why were German Jews still encouraged to emigrate? …

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