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?


A Twisted Path or Straight Path?

In Kershaw’s “Hitler and the Holocaust,” the main idea posses the question of interpreting Hitler and his relation to the ‘Final Solution’.  According to Kershaw there are two types of interpretation: ‘intention’ and ‘structure’.  Intentionalists believe Hitler fully intended to eliminate the Jews by created an elaborate plan, known as the Final Solution, in which was the central goal of Hitler’s dictatorship.  In contrast, structuralists believe Hitler played a minimal role in creating the Final Solution, instead it was the bureaucracy who were unable to agree on a single idea on how to eliminate Jews, creating lots of chaos.

Looking further into the ‘structuralist’ interpretation, Yehuda Bauer, an Israeli expert on the Holocaust, argues the bureaucracy caused the twisted path leading to the ‘Final Solution.’  With Hitler playing a minimal role in the planning of the ‘Final Solution,’ it is difficult to argue there was a straight, direct path leading to the annihilation of the Jews.  The bureaucracy was unable to agree on clear objectives and the answer to the ‘Jewish Question,’ therefore creating chaos within the government .

The structuralist interpretation argues Hitler was minimally involved which raises the question as to whether or not Hitler was necessary in organizing and constructing the ‘Final Solution’, or was any individual in a dictator role capable of doing so?  Is the radicalization of the individuals and bureaucracy to blame instead?

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?





Conflict of Perceptions: Intentionalists vs. Structuralists

In Nicholas Stargardt’s “The Holocaust” and Ian Kershaw’s “Hitler and the Holocaust”, many different interpretations as to the relationship between Hitler’s personal agenda and the “Final Solution” are presented. The two prevailing modes of thought in regards to Hitler’s influence in the mass extermination of the Jews within these texts are the “intentionalist” perspective and the “structuralist” perspective.

The “intentionalist” thinkers seek to place Hitler as the main fountain from which the anti-Semitic actions of the Nazi regime spilled forth. Intentionalism, also known as “Hitlerism”, assumes that Hitler had always desired and intended the annihilation of the Jews, and that the major policies of the Nazis in regards to the Jewish population was a result of his own aspirations. Structuralists, on the other hand, believe that there was a greater context than just Hitler’s own misgivings about the Jews that led to the eventual implementation of the Final Solution. They claim that it was the “improvised shaping” of Nazi policies towards Jews that led to the ultimate order for their extermination. ((Kershaw, Ian. “Hitler and the Holocaust” in Hitler, the Germans, and the Final Solution, 239.))

There is evidence for both interpretations; Hitler clearly despised Jews, which intentionalists use as support for the idea that individual autonomy can influence the course of history dramatically. On the other hand, historian Hans Mommsen pointed out that Hitler also despised decision making (though in my opinion, this could be used to detach him from all policies of the German state he was not explicitly involved in) and that the Nazi policy towards Jews went through multiple stages and considered several options before arriving at their Final Solution.

There is also a compromise between these two interpretations of history: that the plan to kill the Jews came from Hitler, but only after a long deliberation and this was not his original intent. ((Kershaw, “Hitler and the Holocaust”, 244-5)) This interpretation leans towards the intentionalist approach, however, as it directly involves Hitler whereas structuralists seek to incriminate a much large German participating audience.

A common falsity pointed out in “Hitler and the Holocaust” is that because Hitler made clear his desire for the eradication of the Jews, and because such an episode eventually occurred, many historians draw the conclusion that “Hitler’s expressed ‘intention’ must have caused the destruction”. ((Kershaw, “Hitler and the Holocaust”, 246)) Besides being an egregious oversimplification of the contingency of the Final Solution in a wider historical context, it also ignores vast amounts of evidence that the Nazi government was primarily responding to public demands with their increasingly hostile policies towards the Jews; to say that Hitler was the sole cause of their destruction is to cast away notable events such as the implementation of the Nuremberg Laws and the incorporation of Poland’s three million Jews at a time when the Nazis were attempting to rid the country of them. ((Kershaw, “Hitler and the Holocaust”, 252))

There is also a great deal of research supporting the intentionalist approach. According to Stargardt, Hitler and the Nazis “created an atmosphere in which this was discussable”. ((Stargardt, Nicholas. “The Holocaust” in German History Since 1800London: Arnold, 1997, 349)) However, the evidence presented in this text supports only Hitler’s hatred of Jews and his intent to remove them- not the contingency of the Holocaust on Hitler’s plans.

A particularly striking delineation I found was the attribution of a “traditional notion” of totalitarianism to intentionalists; that society bends to the will of its dictator. This is contrasted with the structuralist concept of the state bowing to the people. This contrast illuminates some of the deeper differences between the two schools of thought. As for myself, the structuralist approach seems to make more sense, as it takes into account the broader implications of the day.