From “Race to Racism” between 1933 and 1945, the Nazis murdered about one-third of all of the Jews in the world. Young and old alike were killed solely because of their ancestry. How could it happen in the twentieth century in the heart of Europe?
Historians, psychologists, and theologians are still debating that question. So are the survivors. One survivor traces the Holocaust to hate. In the documentary, Share Braun warns, “Don’t hate anybody. Just don’t hate anybody. Well, look what happened from the hatred. Because somebody has different religion or a different race, you shouldn’t look at that. You should look for the person, the human being, what is inside.”
For centuries, communities and nations have been divided over religion, culture, and ethnicity. In the 1700s and 1800s, a new idea deepened those divisions by strengthening prejudices and giving new life to old myths and misinformation. That idea was race. Until the 1800’s the word referred mainly to people who shared a nationality or were related to one another in some way. Now scientists used the term to refer to those who share a genetic heritage. Some scientists, however, were so certain that “race” explained all of the cultural differences they observed in the world that they distorted facts or make claims they could not substantiate.
Among these “scientists” was an American named Samuel Morton. In the early 1800’s, he hypothesized that there was link not only between skull size and intelligence but also between skull size and “race.” After measuring a vast number of skulls, he concluded that the “white race” had larger skulls and was therefore superior to the “African race.” He also maintained that each race is intrinsically different from others and incapable of being changed. Few white Americans questioned his research even though they were surrounded by people of “mixed races.” Many liked the idea that they were part of a superior race.
Many Europeans were also intrigued with that notion. They, however, looked for differences within the “white race.” some traced their ancestry to the “Aryans,” a mythical people that supposedly left India in the distant past and carried its language and culture westward. Increasingly, these Europeans believed that as descendants of the “Aryans,” they were superior to members of other “races,” including the Jewish or “Semitic race.”
In the past, Jews were considered outsiders because of their religious beliefs. Now, they were excluded because of their “race.” The word anti-Semitism, which literally means “against Semites,” described this new opposition to Jews.
Scientists who showed the flaws in racist thinking were ignored. In the late 1800’s, the German Anthropological Society studied seven million Jewish and “Aryan” children. They found the two groups were more alike than different.
Historian George writes: This survey should have ended controversies about the existence of pure Aryans and Jews. However, it seems to have had surprisingly little impact. The idea of race had been infused with myths, stereotypes, and subjective long ago, and a scientific survey could change little. The idea of pure, superior races and the concept of a racial enemy solved too many pressing problems to be easily discarded.
As racist ideas were preached from pulpits and taught in schools around the world, “race” increasing became the distorted lens through which people viewed the world. And as racist thinking became accepted, attacks against Jews and other minorities increased sharply. Some Jews responded by turning inward to their own community and their faith for support. Others tried to assimilate – become more like the majority. They were confident that as differences diminished, so would discrimination. When it did not, many became bitter and angry.
Walter Rathenau, a prominent German Businessman and politician, wrote in the early 1900s, “In the youth of every German Jew there comes the painful moment which he will remember for the rest of his life, when for the first time he becomes conscious that he has come into the world as a second-class citizen, and that no ability or accomplishment can liberate him form this condition.”
Some Jews tried to ignore the attacks. Others publicly protested. Neither approach worked. And as a worldwide depression deepened in the 1930s, prejudices and discrimination intensified. So did the separation between us and them. In times of stress and uncertainty, it was all too easy to blame them for the society’s problems. People responded favorably to such attacks in part because they tapped old prejudices and offered easy answers to complex problems.
In 1933, for example, a Protestant minister in Germany wrote, “In the last 15 years in Germany, the influence of Judaism has strengthened extraordinarily. The number of Jewish judges, Jewish politicians, Jewish civil servants in influential positions has grown noticeably. The voice of the people is turning against this.” Were such fears justified? Did Jews control Germany?
In 1933, Jews made up less than one percent of Germany’s population. And of the 250 Germans who held important government posts between 1919 and 1933, only four were Jews. The myth of a Germany dominated by Jews was fostered by groups like Adolf Hitler’s National Socialist, or Nazi, party. In speech after speech, they maintained that the Jews were everywhere, controlled everything, and acted so secretly that few could detect their influence. The charge was absurd; but after hearing it again and again, many people came to believe it.
Less than 1 percent of Germany’s population was of Jewish descent. In other parts of Europe, the percentage ranged from 10 percent in Poland to less that 1/2 percent in Sweden, Denmark, Italy, and Yugoslavia. Although a few European Jews were rich, many barely made a living. They disagreed on many issues, including the best way to counter discrimination. Some urged “a low profile,” while others challenged anti-Semites on the street, in the courtroom, and in the voting booth. Despite such differences, many Europeans saw Jews as united, rich, and dangerous.
What does this suggest about the vulnerability of minorities in times of economic or social stress? About the power of myths? What are myths? How do they help us find explanations for complex problems? How do they help us place the responsibility for those problems on someone else?
In July, 1932, Adolf Hitler ran for president of Germany against a Communist candidate and Paul von Hindenburg, the incumbent president. Although Hitler lost the election to Hindenburg, he did surprisingly well. He was so popular that in January of 1933, Hindenburg named Hitler chancellor, or prime minister. The man he succeeded had tried and failed to end the depression. Now Hitler would have a chance to end the depression. Hindenburg and his advisors were certain that Hitler, took would fail and when he did, they would step in to save the nation. In the meantime, they convinced themselves that they could control Hitler. They were wrong.
Within weeks, Hitler had set into motion a series of laws and orders that destroyed Germany’s democracy and replaced it with a dictatorship based on “race” and terror. In 1933, Martin Niemoeller, a Protestant minister, was among the supporters of Hitler’s Nazi party. By 1938, he was in a concentration camp. After the was he is believed to have said:
In Germany, the Nazis came for the Communists and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Jew. Then they came for the trade unionists, and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a trade unionist. Then they came for the Catholics, and I didn’t speak up because I was a Protestant. Then they came for me, and by that time there was no one left to speak for me.
What is the moral of Niemoeller’s words? How did his views affect the choices he made? What do the consequences of his decisions suggest about the ways individuals and groups in a society are linked? Find examples of the ways Niemoeller’s remarks relate to the choices people make today. How do those examples support the moral of Niemoeller’s words?
The above is the pre-study guide to the film 1996 film Surviviors of the Holocaust.