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.