The Holocaust — A Tragedy of Circumstance?



The debate around the horrific crimes committed against the Jews, the infirm and the old in Nazi Germany sparked almost immediately after the end of the Second World War. Eventually, a major strand of the ensuing debate became a contest between two contrary approaches- namely, intentionalism and functionalism. Both these schools of thought attempt to estimate just how far Hitler intended for the Holocaust to happen, and whether circumstantial factors played any significant role in its facilitation.
Intentionalists contend on the basic idea of Hitler having a deliberate plan of annihilating the Jewish community within Germany. In contrast, functionalists put forth a more bottom-up approach wherein they try to put emphasis on the role of the bureaucracy and implementing forces. These approaches have often been seen as typically one-sided, which led to the propping up of a synthesis of both these schools of thought. Several theorists, such as Ian Kershaw, sought to assert the active role of Hitler, as well as the agreeability of the bureaucratic forces and other extraneous circumstances in the ultimate culmination of the Holocaust.
What circumstances were these, and how far were they responsible in helping Hitler carry out the mass extermination of an entire community?
One major cause was, of course, the economic conditions within and outside Germany. The harsh Versailles Treaty crippled Germany by imposing a huge amount of war debt. The end of the First World War had already taken a toll on the losing side, and Germany was in no position to recuperate. Shortly before the onset of the Great Depression, things actually started to look for the better as Germany began establishing international treaties, and even getting some amount of leverage in the payment of the war reparations. However, the Wall Street Crash flooded all hopes of a peaceful coexistence, and desperation raved in major countries across the world.
Germany undoubtedly was one of the most adversely affected countries. At this time, the Nazi Party gained widespread popularity through its rampant propaganda and promise for bringing forth a stronger Germany. Hitler came to power in 1933, and delivered on several of his promises, making what was then seen as ‘minor’ compromises. Historians note that property confiscated from the Jews was often given out to the Germans. The enrollment of the SS and SA brought a lucrative employment offer that most of the German population was in no position to deny.
Gotz Aly, one of the extreme functionalists, posited a simple question-what drove ordinary Germans to tolerate and commit unprecedented crimes against humanity? His answer was that ordinary Germans cooperated in genocide because they benefitted from it in material terms. Leaders of big businesses and factory owners were willing to take advantage of the cheap labour provided by the camp inmates; others were grateful to get their hands on confiscated Jewish property and other assets; medical experts were prepared to use Jews in experiments.


Some historians such as Goldhagen and Burleigh go as far as to assert that the genocide plan was carried out because the German people had some amount of inherent anti-Semitism that the Nazis only had to tap into. While these assertions are positively far-fetched, a more moderate approach would still permit us to view the bureaucratic forces as responsible for going along with plans. It would be unfair to blame the general German populace even if it is agreed that at least a portion went with the plan simply because of the economic and political duress they were under. After all, Nazi Germany was a dictatorial regime and opposition was not taken lightly.


War conditions was another essential circumstantial factor that facilitated the extermination plan. Increased victories meant more territories were acquired. Using Poland and the USSR as sites for the Final Solution meant censorship was much easier, and the German public as well as the world would not have a hint of what was being carried out. Some functionalists also contend that the mass extermination programme began due to the sheer pressure of numbers. The need for living space for the ‘pure’ Germans meant that the Jews had to be packed off and sent to camps.


It must be remembered, however, that the delineating of these circumstantial factors, does not absolve Hitler or the Nazis of the terrible atrocities that they committed. It reminds us that behind every historical event is the heavy influence of socioeconomic and political conditions, and whether we choose to accept this or not, it is these conditions that have been responsible for the making and breaking of nations at large.


Picture Credits: TabletMag

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