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?





Technology and Instincts: Modernizing Genocide

The Holocaust may not have been an unpredictable genocide in regards to the potential extremes of human nature, but when compared to other large scale pogroms it remains an anomaly through its modernized nature. The Holocaust does not elicit the usual genocidal imagery often characterized by a type of primitiveness and chaos, but is marked by a bureaucratic industrial system in which the organization of upscaled executions became reminiscent of a pragmatically scheduled business model. How should we expect our ethical values to progress relative to industry?

Zygmunt Bauman explores the pathology behind the Holocaust in Modernity and the Holocaust, an attempt to make sense of the psychology and behavior of modern constructs applied to genocide. Bauman concludes that science has become increasingly distinguished by a “self-imposed moral silence” (29) and that science seems to be making strides in efficiency while simultaneously abandoning morality. Bertrand Russell, a renowned British philosopher (1872-1970) came to a similar conclusion in his prediction of science’s relationship with ethics in his piece ICARUS or The Future of Science in 1924. Briefly put, Russell states that mankind can produce equal good with the power of science as potential harm, but there is a pattern between his observations of men’s passions revolving mainly around “evil” desires, which makes him highly wary of advance technology in the hands of mankind.

So far it seems as though humans have held onto our instinctual ethics while developing more efficient ways to pursue them. The Holocaust remains a perfect example of this. Oddly enough, calamitous events such as this provide short term devastation, but eventual enlightenment. Could it be argued that events like the Holocaust are actually societal building blocks to understanding human behavior and preventing genocide in the future? Or will violence always be as certain as death and taxes?