[APRIL 20, 1889PRIL 30, 1945]
German Führer, 1934 to 1945
Adolf Hitler's very first political document foreshadowed the Nazis' massive, ghastly genocide. In a letter dated September 16, 1919, the thirty-year-old lance corporal, then serving outside Munich in a political unit of the recently defeated German army, answered an inquiry about the Jews in postwar Germany by cautioning that they belonged to a deadly race scattered worldwide; national defensive measures against them, though needful and urgent, would be mere palliatives pending their "total removal." Five years later, in his self-mythicizing Mein Kampf, Hitler claimed that he came to his deadly anti-Semitism through observation and reflection while a day laborer in prewar Vienna. However, just as no day labor has ever been documented for the street artist in Vienna, no credible evidence of anti-Semitism is on record for Hitler before the German military defeat of 1918.Outwardly seen, nothing in Hitler's distinctive early circumstances or upbringing predisposed him to mass-murder Jews. His father, Alois, was born to an unwed housemaid in Graz and, according to rumor, her Jewish employer; reportedly a skeptical Hitler attempted to disprove the rumor in 1930, but the effort backfired. In any case, his genocidal goal was set earlier. Alois grew up on a farm, and then made a career in the Austrian customs service, where he was reputedly bossy but liberal-minded. At age forty-seven, twice widowed with two young children in his charge, Alois married his twenty-five-year-old resident housekeeper and already pregnant mistress, Klara. She promptly bore him three children, all of whom perished in a diphtheria epidemic. Next came Adolf on April 20, 1889, and, after a five-year hiatus, a boy who died of the measles, then a girl who outlived Adolf. During the interlude following her tragic triple loss, Klara fretfully
Hitler's intense involvement the rest of that year with his mother's suffering and death at the hands of her kindly but inept Jewish doctor, Eduard Bloch, was the point of departure for his later genocidal animus against the stereotype he called "the Jew." Her cancer having metastasized to the lungs since, or even before, a mastectomy the previous January, Bloch duly pronounced it incurable. But Hitler persuaded Bloch that, if the patient was dying otherwise, a desperate remedy might as well be tried. Bloch obligingly packed iodoform onto her surgical wound almost daily for six-anda-half weeks toxic, even lethal, regimen. She succumbed on December 21 after a prolonged agony. Just after her funeral, on Christmas Eve, Bloch collected the large balance due on his bill. Consciously Hitler felt only warm gratitude toward the hapless, compassionate doctor. However, all his later genocidal raging turned on three main themes, all dated 1907: the Jewish parasite (or cancer), the Jewish poison, and the Jewish profiteer.
Hitler's deadly hate for "the Jew," his take-off on Bloch, remained latent during his prewar years as a modest, self-taught view-painter in Vienna and later Munich, then his four years as a runner in a Bavarian regiment on the Western Front. He enjoyed good relations with Jewish comrades-in-arms including his last regimental adjutant, obtained for him an Iron Cross First Class in August 1918. His drastic turnabout dates from his gas poisoning near Wervicq in Flanders early on October 15, 1918. His eyes blindingly inflamed, Hitler suffered a nervous breakdown marked by depressive memories of his mother's death. Unlike several buddies gassed with him and treated topically close by the battlefield, Hitler was sent across Germany to Pomerania for psychiatric care. There Professor Edmund Forster, himself recently discharged from four years' service in Flanders, diagnosed Hitler's blindness as hysterical despite the regimental report that specified gas poisoning, perhaps because after some healing he relapsed into blindness at the news of the armistice on November 11. Through hypnosis, Forster called on Hitler to regain his eyesight by force of will because Germany needed him to triumph over her own disablement. He experienced Forster's therapy as a call from on high to save his mortally ailing Motherland. Within a year this summons took him into politics with the express aim of undoing Germany's defeat by removing the Jew from Germany and the world.
Hitler began by stressing the removal of Jews from Germany. Having infiltrated the small German Workers Party (soon to be renamed National Socialist German Workers Party) in September 1919 as an army spy, he fast became its star speaker, then its leader; spewing infectious rage in trenchant slogans and throaty accents, he blamed the parasitic, poisonous, profiteering Jew for Germany's defeat. Removing the Jew would reverse defeatuch was his key precept. Because the defeat had come from the west while German armies were triumphing in the east, this precept already hinted at a renewed eastward push. Hitler began calling outright for eastward expansion in the spring of 1921paringly for starters, but when he transformed himself from a local Bavarian agitator to a would-be national leader after a year in jail for his failed Beerhall Putsch of November 1923, he scaled back his rhetoric against the Jew and instead talked up a supposed German need for more land. Hitler's new victory formula ran: Remove the divisive, destructive element from the body politic to restore its inner strength for eastward conquest. Shortly after the Nazis' electoral leap forward in September 1930 he muffled his expansionism in turn to call simply for regaining outward strength. Finally he stressed the "national community," his middle term between removing the Jew and expanding eastward, as a cover term for both. The two diluted end terms registered no less effectively with his listeners, however blurrily. Together they were the long and short of Hitlerism, its single message. That message above all else fueled Hitler's rise to total personal power over Germany by the mid-1930s, the ground rule of his regime being that his word was law.
Meanwhile, in Mein Kampf (1925926) and especially in an unpublished untitled book (1928), Hitler theoretically reconciled those two end terms of his politics. Whereas other peoples compete for land and ultimately for world conquest, he argued, the Jew breaks this law of nature, being stateless, parasitic, egalitarian, and unwarriorlike; accordingly, nature mandates a "land grab" and a "Jew kill" both at once. The logic of this construction on its expansionist side was for Germany to ease Jews out, preferably to rival nations, so as to gain an edge in the struggle for the global reach needed to destroy the Jews altogether. It was emphatically not for Germany to kill Jews at home straightaway and thereby invite foreign reprisals, nor to push anti-Semitism abroad for the benefit of other peoples, let alone expend German resources ridding other nations of Jews. But logic could not always contain the animus against the Jew that took Hitler into politics in the first place. Thus he often called for destroying the Jew in Germany, or even abroad, before the expansionist battle was even joined. Mostly, though, he settled for ambiguities in his rhetoric such as "removing the Jew."
During his twelve-year dictatorship Hitler's policies betrayed the same tension between his hate for the Jew and its rational control for the sake of German expansion. Control predominated for roughly the first half of his rule, from the Havaara agreement of 1933 to the mission by Reichsbank President Schacht to London in late 1938, both aimed at facilitating Jewish emigration financially. Even the Nazis' internal discriminatory measures, including the much-publicized Jewish boycott of 1933 or Nuremberg Laws of 1935, served to induce Jews to emigrate voluntarily. Most such measures originated with lower authorities, though Hitler might intervene, as he did to prevent the crass marking of Jews or Jewish shops before 1941. However, he failed to curb the Reichskristallnacht pogrom of November 9, 1938, mounted by propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels, which besmirched the regime even in German eyes. Thereafter, Jews were officially murdered only out of sight. At the same time, Hitler's Jewish policies took an impolitic turn overall: he stopped Schacht from sealing a deal on Jewish emigration, switched to exporting anti-Semitism rather than Jews, and on January 30, 1939, prophesied to the Reichstag "the annihilation of the Jewish race in Europe" should war come. With this prophecy midway between easing Germany's Jews out and a world pogrom, hate definitively gained the ascendant.
By then it was evident that induced emigration was coming short: the Reich's Jew count was roughly cut in half by 1938, the Anschluss that March brought it back near its starting point. The absorption of the Sudeten-land that fall, then the establishment of a protectorate over Bohemia and Moravia the following March, and especially the occupation and partial annexation of western Poland beginning in September 1939, ruled out the emigration option conclusively. There are signs that Hitler considered starting mass exterminations during the Polish warhat he could hardly uphold his expansionist logic against so many helpless Jews already within his reach. But the noise and smoke of battle needed to cover mass shootings dwindled too fast. Open killings risked provoking the United States and even, as Hitler saw it, the Soviet Union, not to mention arousing the Germans themselves, whose reactions he feared even while the Holocaust was an open secret. He scrapped his doctrinaire subordination of his Jewish to his expansionist policy once and for all with the invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941, which enabled for mass executions of Jews in the guise of anti-partisan warfare. The exterminations were next mandated for all of German-controlled Europe and then only (reversing Hitler's original victory formula) for Germany itself.
A scholarly controversy developed in Germany in the 1970s between so-called "functionalists," who saw the Holocaust as having developed out of separate, often local, initiatives, and "intentionalists," who saw it as having been planned by Hitler from the first. The functionalist case is plausible insofar as Hitler did ordinarily allow events to take their course so long as they went his way. It remains that he aimed from his political beginnings to kill Jews even if he vacillated about which Jews to kill and when to kill them. In the end he used his war in the east as cover for his war on the Jewsis controlling political purpose. After first billing a Jew-purge in Germany as a means to German expansion, then implementing Jew-purges across Europe at the expense of German arms, he exited history in the resultant rubble and ashes, still enjoining Germans to keep the genocidal faith.
SEE ALSO Anti-Semitism; Germany; Gestapo; Himmler, Heinrich; Holocaust; Kristallnacht; Nuremberg Laws; United States Foreign Policies Toward Genocide and Crimes Against Humanity; Wannsee Conference
Binion, R. (1979). Hitler among the Germans, 2nd edition. New York: Elsevier North Holland.
Jäckel, E. (1981). Hitler's World View. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press.
Jäckel, E., and A. Kuhn, eds. (1980). Hitler: Sämtliche Aufzeichnungen 1905924. Stuttgart: Deutsche Verlagsanstalt.
Lewis, D. (2003). The Man Who Invented Hitler. London: Headline.
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