Can the Holocaust be Explained?

Lecturer: Elly Dlin
Lecture 7: Can the Holocaust be Explained?

"Sometimes days passed and stupid Ludmila did not appear in the forest. Lekh would become possessed by a silent rage.  He would stare solemnly at the birds in the cages, mumbling something to himself.  Finally, after prolonged scrutiny he would choose the strongest bird, tie it to his wrist, and prepare stinking paints of different colours which he mixed together from the most varied components.  When the colours satisfied him, Lekh would turn the bird over and paint its wings, head, and breast in rainbow hues until it became more dappled and vivid than a bouquet of wildflowers.

Then he would go into the thick of the forest.  There Lekh took out the painted bird and ordered me to hold it in my hand and squeeze it lightly. The bird would begin to twitter and attract a flock of the same species which would fly nervously over our heads.  Our prisoner, hearing them, strained towards them, warbling more loudly, its little heart, locked in its freshly painted breast, bleating violently.

When a sufficient number of birds gathered above our heads, Lekh would give me a sign to release the prisoner.  It would soar, happy and free, a spot of rainbow against the backdrop of clouds, and then plunge into the waiting brown flock.  For an instant the birds were confounded.  The painted bird circled from one end of the flock to the other, vainly trying to convince its kin that it was one of them.  But, dazzled by its brilliant colours, they flew around it unconvinced.  The painted bird would be forced farther and farther away as it zealously tried to enter the ranks of the flock.  We saw soon afterwards how one bird after another would peel off in fierce attack.  Shortly the many-hued shape lost its place in the sky and dropped to the ground.  These incidents happened often.  When we finally found the painted birds they were usually dead.  Lekh keenly examined the number of blows which the birds had received.  Blood seeped through their coloured wings, diluting the paint and soiling Lekh's hands." (Jerzy Kosinski, THE PAINTED BIRD, London: W.H. Allen, 1966, pp. 52-3).

The first theory that we will look at suggests that evil is in the basic nature of people. We all hate, especially "the other", i.e. people different than we are.  The jargon term is xenophobia.


Not without substance, it alone cannot explain the Holocaust.  By explaining everything, it actually explains very little.  If the universal characteristic of all of us is to be evil, to hate, to attack and to be cruel, then why don't Holocausts happening all the time?  Why wasn't there a Holocaust at work this morning, or in the bus?  And why was THE Holocaust perpetrators by Germans?  Against Jews - especially given the fact that German Jews, assimilated and steeped in German culture were strong local patriots and some of the least "unlike" of any Jews, anywhere in the world.) Is it coincidental that it began in the East, in 1941 and not elsewhere?

To push this theory to the absurd, why not a Holocaust by Swedes against Danes or by left-handed soccer players against red-headed bicyclists?  And if this were the true nature of man, then how can we explain the Righteous Among the Nations who acted so differently?


The focus here is on a particularly violent and deadly strain of antisemitism that is seen to be inherent in German society.  From Luther to Hitler, it expresses itself on occasion in speeches, writings and in violent outbursts and, when married with the supposed "authoritarian personality profile of Germans", is able to produce a Holocaust.  Versions range from the crude (Lord van Sittart), to the popularist (William Shirer), to the academic (Erich Fromme), to the newest bestseller (Daniel Jonah Goldhagen).

But the second theory also tends to universalize too much; history is very particular.  The idea of a single, homogeneous, constant and immutable character which explains national behaviour is at the same time too narrow and too broad.  Not all (or even the very worst) of the mass murders were Germans, whereas the German stereotype of strict obedience, blind discipline, militaristic Prussian aristocrats more accurately fits the July 1944 plotters against the Fuehrer than it does Hitler's closest followers who were South Germans. 

The theory of a German national character is a bad example of "reading history backwards", i.e. knowing what happens at the end and then selectively searching the historical record in order to pluck out ONLY those pieces of the puzzle that conveniently fit into the picture that has already been set.  Pieces from the same past that do not fit the theory are totally ignored.  Where are Lessing, Beethoven and Goethe?  Are they any less a part of the German character?


The Holocaust is explained in theory 3 as the personal mania of a totalitarian dictator who manipulated people to do his bidding.  Through the force of his personality he "brainwashed" or "hoodwinked" others into blind obedience.  

His own antisemitic hatred was personal and may not have been shared widely. Perhaps it could be traced to his relation-ship to his mother who died of cancer under the care of a Jewish doctor and to a psychological shift in Hitler's mind to seeing all Jews as lethal cancers infecting the body-politic of Germans. Or perhaps it's related to doubts regarding his own ancestry since Hitler's paternal grandmother became pregnant while serving as a domestic in a Jewish home.  Regardless of the reasons for Hitler's obsession with killing the Jews, this theory assumes that he was able to foist his full agenda (including the Final Solution) on a passive, submissive, hypnotized people.

Clearly proponents of this theory must either rule out "free will", at least among people born in Europe, or assume that it was temporarily eclipsed under the Third Reich.  Since no one else fully shared Hitler's personal psyche, the basic question being asked here is "Why did WE KILL?" and that has been dealt with in the 4th lecture of this series.


The Second World War was an extraordinary situation and the war in the East was particularly brutal on all sides (which goes some way to answering the question: why there and why 1941?).  The fate of the Nation lay in the balance.  Surrounded by enemies who wished its destruction, the defenders of Germanhood were convinced that it was "kill or be killed".  Brutalized by the mass deaths of the First World War and numbed by the anonymity of death in modern warfare, a decisive pre-emptive strike was required to hit the common source of the enemies of the Reich - Judaism.  Destruction and death was all around them; huge numbers of people were being uprooted, were on the move.  The fighters were told that the Jews were behind both plutocratic capitalism and godless communism, behind prostitution and international crime.  The Jews were a powerful, yet invisible lobby that worked behind the scenes to exploit and pervert the people Yet just as in previous theories and not discounting it completely, this theory is too all-encompassing.  It is overgeneralized and inexact.  Must total war bring about scapegoating and an increase in inter-group hatreds?  No!  Antisemitism that was on the rise in turn of the century  Czarist Russia but yet it was put on hold during the Russo-Japanese War of 1905.

More importantly, the Final Solution was NOT a result of World War II but it was a "separate war", arguably the core of the whole phenomenon.  It was not a mere by-product of War but it is argued by many that the War developed out of Hitler's obsession with solving the Jewish Problem.


The Holocaust might be explained "because Esau hates Jacob", because until the arrival of the Messiah, the chosen people are burdened with antisemitism, hatred, exclusion from the rest of society, denomination in history and the occasional pogrom that, if it gets out of hand may kill millions.

In the second lecture I dealt with the relationship between antisemitism and the Holocaust and so it is not necessary to add much.  Suffice it to say that historical studies consistently show that antisemitism may not have been a useful means for recruit Nazis or even for motivating the killers (hence the controversy of Daniel Jonah Goldhagen).


Several aspects of the relationship between Modernity and Holocaust was raised in the 4th lecture and again there is validity to the theory, but it is not complete.  The Allies were also deeply in Modernity yet they fought against the Nazis.  They used the very same tools of social order, bureaucracy,  technology, etc. to rid the world of Nazism, not to institute it.

More than that.  As a rule, the mass murders in the Holocaust were NOT products of Third Reich indoctrination; they were the proponents of that propaganda.   The Nazi leaders had all grown up and matured during the democratic and liberal Weimar Republic or in the Empire that had preceded it.


This theory postulates that the Holocaust occurred because of the personal interests of the perpetrators, mostly greed, ambition or the settling of accounts.

Whereas it may explain some of the actions, it does explain all of them.  It may explain some of the shooters and looters but it does not explain the ideologically committed, or the comprehensive bureaucratic machine, or the passion of the top-level planners who did not need to kill Jews in the Holocaust in order to gain personally.


Odilo Globocnik was a principal planner in the murder of Polish Jewry.  As the man responsible for killing more than 2 million Jews in Aktion Reinhard he later reported on a meeting with Hitler about the progress of the killing operation.  "'And what did the Fuehrer say?'" he was asked.  "'Faster, get the whole thing over with faster!'" came the reply.
"Then Ministerial Director, Dr. Herbert Linden of the Ministry of the interior asked 'Would it not be better to burn the corpses rather than bury them?  Perhaps another generation will think differently of the matter...' Globocnik then replied 'But, gentlemen, if a generation coming after us should be so cowardly and so corrupt as not to understand our deeds, which are so beneficial and so necessary, then, gentlemen, the whole of National Socialism will have been in vain.  Rather, we should bury bronze plates with the corpses on which we should write that it was we who had the courage to accomplish this gigantic task"'  Hitler then commented, 'Yes, my dear Globocnik, that is the truth of the matter.  I entirely agree with you.'" (Benno Mueller-Hill, MURDEROUS SCIENCE).

What Goldhagen argues so powerfully is that free will DOES exist, that people HAVE choices and MAY act differently.  The executioners killed because, deep down, they were willing to do so or at least they did not want to say "no!".  In the Third Reich murdering Jews became the highest good, helping them was a moral sin, and few chose to transgress.


Ultimately, if we combine elements from all of these theories and mix them together wherever they do fit together (and these possibilities are rich) then we can go a long way towards explaining the Holocaust.  But the bottom line remains that it happened because those who had the power to do it wanted to and those who had the power to stop it reacted too little and late, and those who were targeted could not stop it from happening to them.





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07 Jul 2008 / 4 Tamuz 5768 0