Intentionalist v. Structuralist and the Final Solution

Both Nicholas Stargardt’s “The Holocaust” and Ian Kershaw’s “Hitler and the Holocaust,” address the various interpretations surrounding Hitler and his ideology, and how (and to what extent) this translated into the “Final Solution,” the mass extermination of the Jewish people in the name of achieving an ideal race. The two main categories of classification for scholars studying this topic include “intentionalist” versus “structuralist” responses.

Also referred by Kershaw as “Hitlerism,” intentionalists believe that Hitler was at the forefront of anti-Semitic ideology and its execution. Scholars argue that Hitler had always possessed the specific desire to exterminate the Jewish population, and that the policy changes implemented by the Nazi Party were all purposeful in achieving that end goal. They cite evidence such as Hitler’s Mein Kampf, as well as personal anecdotes from his life to demonstrate the presence of these desires as early as 1918. In contrast, structuralists assert that to place the blame solely on Hitler and his desires is too simplistic, and that there is a need for greater analysis. They argue that Hitler may not have possessed the specific idea of mass extermination, citing his use of common vague phrases such as “getting rid of the Jews.” However, structuralists believe that policies implemented as a result of vague directions by Hitler, as well as the subsequent actions of the lower bureaucrats within the Nazi system are what instigated the “Final Solution”.

The structuralist approach suggests that the haphazard and unplanned shaping of Nazi policies towards Jews resulted in the implementation of the “Final Solution.” After reading about Hitler’s leadership style and reflecting on the structuralist versus intentionalist theories, can we consider the Holocaust an event that would have happened inevitably?





4 thoughts on “Intentionalist v. Structuralist and the Final Solution

  1. Before I dive into your question, I must consider the term ‘inevitability’. What does that mean? To me, that means that events were or are going to happen with certainty. It also means that there can be nothing stopping that event from happening. For us in the present day, it is easy for us to say that something was inevitable or bound to happen. We are looking at an event that occurred over 70 years ago. I do not like the term ‘inevitability’ because I do not believe in the idea that events were bound to happen. I believe in the idea that certain events ‘just so happen’ to occur that lead to a bigger event. In a way, the events on a broad and individual scale that occurred beforehand allowed for this event to happen. It was like a perfect mixture of events. One must ask themselves this question. What would happen if that mixture was changed just by a little bit? How would the future benefit or suffer if was off by a slight margin? How would history be different? What would have happened if Hitler was allowed into Art school or if he wasn’t exposed to a great deal of anti-semitism? We can only speculate on what the consequences would be if the events that occurred before the holocaust were different.

  2. Henry, I think that is the exact point to Claire’s question concerning the inevitability of the Holocaust. Intentionalists would be more prone to assert that the Holocaust was an inevitable event. However, few historians, intentionalists included, tantalize the notion of inevitability exactly for your points. To address Claire’s question, I do not think that the Holocaust was inevitable. I found that many of Stargardt’s points lead me to this conclusion. His examination of the wide spread cooperation of the not only Hitler’s underlings but the larger German professional population; doctors, lawyers, and other bureaucrats; show that the Final Solution was dependent upon actors not directly associated with Nazism. Although Stargardt also acknowledges the widespread division within the Nazi party and the seemingly random evolution of anti-semitism from the bottom up, he asserts that the Holocaust was “a bureaucrat’s solution to the logistics of a problem” and thus ties the Holocaust to the nature of Nazism, an ideologically driven form of Fascism (350-351). I disagree with this notion specifically for the point he brings up, that anti-semitism and violence towards Jews grew out of the lower ranks of the Nazi party only to be approved by Hitler. This development actually depicts Hitler’s weakness, his role as a political tool rather than a motivator. This reflects Bosworth’s depiction of Mussolini in “Everyday Mussolinism,” a leader that actually lacked control over his state. With this in mind, why didn’t Fascist leaders under Mussolini radicalize or manipulate the goals of the State like those under Hitler? Is Nazism actually more effective than Mussolinism simply because it overcame the logistical hurdles presented by the Final Solution?

  3. The holocaust was not inevitable. In very simple terms, had the Madagascar plan gone through (i.e if Germany had enough money to deport), the gas chambers of Auschwitz would not have existed. There are many junctures in German history throughout the mid to late 1930s where the people of Germany had a chance to stop the snowball of antisemitism as well, and in a more direct sense, the tacit complicity of members of einzengruppen, and other bureaucrats across Europe proves that opportunity was there to stop this event. It was not inevitable. The people of Germany simply did nothing to stop it.

  4. I agree with both the points of made by horanp and Gibson, the Holocaust was inevitable. The Holocaust was a culmination of a multitude of interrelated factors. The Holocaust cannot solely be blamed on the long-standing beliefs of Hitler or the fragmented bureaucratic processes of the Nazi Party. Kershaw is writing after the works of historians such Dawidowicz and Mommsen who placed themselves entirely in either the intentionalist or structuralist camps. After his analysis of the two historiographical schools of thought he concluded that “…one would have to conclude that neither model offers a wholly satisfactory explanation” (169).

    Kershaw provides a contemporary and blended explanation for the genesis on the Holocaust. Hitler’s role in the genesis of the Holocaust was both crucial and indispensable, however the bureaucracy within the Nazi Party was also at fault for the increasingly radical anti-Semitic legislation. Therefore because of the connection between Hitler and the mechanisms of the Nazi party one would not have happened without the other.

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