Understanding the Holocaust

In”Hitler and the Holocaust,” Ian Kershaw begins his historiography stating,

“Explaining the Holocaust stretches the historian to the limits in the central task of providing rational explanation of complex historical developments. Simply to pose the question of how a highly cultured and economically advanced modern state could ‘carry out the systematic murder of a whole people for no reason other than they were Jews’ suggests a scale of irrationality scarcely susceptible to historical understanding.” (Kershaw, Ian. “Hitler and the Holocaust.” In Hitler, the Germans, and the Final Solution, 237 – 281. Binghamton, New York: Vail-Ballou Press, 2008).

In both Kershaw’s and Nicholas Stargardt’s pieces, the central point is the discussion that currently surrounds the Holocaust. Many historians are and have discussed how anti-Semitism became a key component in the practice of government and what role Hitler played throughout the implementation of anti-Semitism on a national level. Both Kershaw and Stargardt discuss the different points that are made in the current controversy on the Holocaust. The two main arguments for the questions posed above are the ‘Hitlerist’ or ‘intentionalist’ point-of-view and the ‘structuralist’ or ‘functionalist’ point-of-view.

Intentionalists or ‘Hitlerists’ argue that Hitler was the central actor who planned the murder of the Jews. The ‘Hitlerist’ interpretation stresses Hitler’s personal anti-Semitic attitude and his notions of scientific racism, as well as his personal vendetta against Jews when it comes to blaming them for Germany’s defeat in WWI. Generally, the systematic killing of Jews in Europe was Hitler’s intention from the very beginning and was central to the ideology of the Nazi party. Functionalists or ‘structuralist’ view the bigger picture and take other factors and agents such as, timing that led to the eventual systematic killings of millions of Jews. Although, these two points defer from each other, according to Stargardt, historians have generally accepted that 1941 was a crucial year. Would you say the same?  Which argument do you find the most convincing – ‘structuralists’ or ‘intentionalists’? Why?


4 thoughts on “Understanding the Holocaust

  1. I really align myself with the structuralist perspective. I acknowledge, like many other structuralists, that Hitler maintained antisemitic views throughout his political career. Nevertheless, these sentiments escalated and evolved throughout the years. Until 1941, Hitler still encouraged Jews to emigrate. There is an important distinction between antisemitism and mass murder. The latter, endorsed by Hitler, actually developed out of the ability of his generals to liberally interpret Hitler’s orders.

  2. Structuralism makes the most sense. Timing is the biggest factor here. The economic woes of Germany at the time required a scapegoat in the population. Antisemitism, as we have discussed in class, was deeply rooted throughout Europe. It therefore makes sense that the Jews in Germany would be made a scapegoat during times of economic and social upheaval. Society as a whole is to blame for the evolution of the “Final Solution”- Hitler created the vehicle of National Socialism and his ministry of propaganda to change the minds of Germans. He did not indoctrinate the Germans with a “kill all the Jews” mentality. The people of Germany made their own decisions.

  3. The structuralist view seems to make the most sense here. If one examines the rhetoric of Mein Kampf, it is apparent that Hitler did not initially intend for the Jewish race to be purged entirely, rather deported or dismissed. The mass murder was a result of increasing state and societal momentum.

  4. While I agree with Kershaw that neither the structuralist or intentionalist point of view adequately describe the all the factors that allowed the Final Solution to develop, if I had to choose one explanation over the other, I find the structuralist point of view more convincing. Structuralists emphasize the timing and escalation of policies. They also recognize the importance of power structures within the Nazi Party. If you look at the work done by Dawidowicz in War Against the Jews, she all together ignores the fact that there were plans to “deal with” the Jewish Problem before extermination policies (ex: the Madagascar Plan). Dawidowicz and other intentionalists are focused on the “grand design” of Hitler’s ideology. Like Kershaw, I argue that it is problematic that intentionalists conclude that because Hitler campaigned for the destruction of the Jews from an early age, this therefore “expressed intention that caused” the Holocaust (Kershaw, Hitler, the Germans, and the Final Solution, 246). In my opinion there are too many oversights with the intentionalist perspective.

    The structuralist view is also related to your question about the importance of the year 1941, this year clearly shows that there was an escalation in the persecution against the Jews. Kershaw cites the planning of Barbarossa, the move to genocide in the Soviet Union, and the USA entering the war acted as catalysts for Hitler’s approval of the killing of the Jews. However, much of his actual decision making is still unclear (Kershaw, Hitler, the Germans, and the Final Solution, 269). The escalation of policies as well as the timing support the structuralist case.

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