The Holocaust and the Crisis of Human Behavior by George M. Kren and Leon Rappoport is one of the rather considerable number of recent publications that attempts to assess the Holocaust, place it within the stream of contemporary history, and comprehend the phenomenon in relation to the nature of Western man, society, and values. The authors attempt these tasks with skill and insight. It is a thoughtful account that brings together many ideas useful for the assessment of the Holocaust and its significance.
The Holocaust was absolutely unique in the history of European civilization. The long tradition of European and German anti-Semitism, documented by George L. Mosse, Leon Poliakov, Malcom Hay, and others, does not provide an inevitable sequence of events culminating in the “final solution.” According to the authors, anti-Semitism, although part of its background, “cannot be accepted as a primary cause” of the Holocaust. The Holocaust, seen as the culmination of anti-Semitism, represents only a quantitative “final solution” or difference from what preceded it. It becomes only another historical event that is not qualitatively unique. On the other hand, by viewing the Holocaust as a metahistorical manifestation of some mystical truth, interpretation is lost in contemplation of the absolutistic concept which is its source. Either way, the significance of the Holocaust as a unique historic event is lost.
The uniqueness of the Holocaust may be discerned in the inability to see similar events and motives in history. The Jews of Europe represented no challenge to authority, sought no territory, and represented no religious or cultural threat. Nor were Jewish and non-Jewish victims killed to overawe or terrorize other peoples, because the Nazis kept secret the work of the death camps and the killing squads. The technology of mass murder—an organized administrative structure basing its operation on principles of efficiency and utilizing human beings reduced to raw materials—was also unique to the history of Western civilization. The ability to organize the human beings that ran the apparatus of this technology of death carefully enough to reduce the anxiety of the Nazis and other workers in the death camps so that they could awaken in the morning, spend each day involved with multiple killings, and be able to sleep at night is remarkable and unique in history. How could they “just follow orders”? Moreover, the Holocaust was unique because the victims could in no way save themselves. The machine of murder was relentless.
The Holocaust was, then, unique, but it was also a human experience. It was an example of rationality totally separated from feelings. Taking this view in the 1940’s, the rationality of the enlightenment was severely criticized by Max Horkheimer and Theodore Adorno in Dialectic of Enlightenment and The Authoritarian Personality. The first example of mass murder initiated by the Nazis was the euthanasia program started in 1939 to rid Germany of mental defectives. The program proved to be a pilot program for the Holocaust and clearly indicated that Hitler and the Nazis were deeply committed to the idea of racial purification. Having concluded that racial purification was needed, the Nazis set about methodically eliminating all perceived human sources of racial pollution. Such sustained rationality and long-term escape from humaneness is also unique in human history. Finally, the Holocaust may also be regarded as a historic crisis—“the major historical crisis of the twentieth century.” It was, based on many considerations, a fundamental crisis of human values and behavior. All of these aspects of the uniqueness of the Holocaust focus on a series of issues relating to this tragedy.
One issue that must be addressed is the question of why Germany, of all European nations, should produce the Holocaust. Three major reasons may be suggested. First, the nature of German culture from the time of the Reformation combined curious dichotomies. One of these dichotomies involved romantic mysticism, on the one hand, and rationality on the other. This split took the form of extreme private sentimentality and extreme public authoritarian rationality. The deep chasm between public and private life permitted Germans to participate without human concern or remorse in the activities of the Nazis and the extermination camps. The abiding commitment to romanticism also contributed to support of nationalism and racial theories, romantic anti-intellectualism, and charismatic leadership by the Nazis.
World War I was a second source of the Holocaust. It left Germany with a legacy of material and psychological depravation. Such depravation was traumatic, and eventually Hitler helped the German people resolve that trauma and overcome the sense of disillusionment felt by all Germans following the Treaty of Versailles. The third source of the Holocaust was the nature of Adolf Hitler. His major invention was the idea of the total destruction of the Jews. Without Hitler, “there could not have been a Holocaust.” German culture, World War I, and Adolf Hitler serve to explain why Germany produced the Holocaust.
A second major issue that helps to explain the reasons behind the Holocaust is the SS as an institution. Originating in 1923, the SS passed under the leadership of Heinrich Himmler in 1929, and he retained control of the organization until the end of World War II. The SS in 1934 served as Hitler’s personal guard in attacking the leadership of the SA and other political groups that were a threat to Hitler’s control of Germany. By destroying the leadership of the SA, the SS was placed in charge of the larger organization. This change necessitated reorganization of the SS into a tightly knit and powerful security agency under the control of Himmler. The reputation of the SS as devoted to Hitler and able to undertake the most difficult tasks expanded in the course of the 1930’s and 1940’s. That reputation spread as the SS grew, as it staged a publicity campaign to establish itself as a military elite, and as it developed an effective training program.
The beginning of World War II imposed additional responsibilities on the SS. The invasion of Poland was accompanied by the creation of Einsatzgruppen or mobile killing squads to murder Polish political, social, religious, and business leaders and eventually, as well, to kill Jews. This was a new responsibility of the SS and that organization expanded to meet the requirement. In this period, 1939 to 1941, the SS undertook responsibility for killing and the period 1942 to 1945 was essentially only an extension of the activities of the SS to include a more fully articulated technology of death. As efficient and skillful as were the...
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