raul hilberg on german motivations – 2

German Motivations for the Destruction of the Jews


[See Part 1 here.]

    Broadly speaking, three kinds of breakdown have been proposed in malfunction theory: an intellectual failure, a cultural disruption, and a psychic disturbance. Propagandistic fabrications, upsetting a rational order of thought, may lead to indoctrination; the floundering of a culture may result in regression; personality disorders, produced by a series of frustrations, may yield abnormal behavior with compulsive, paranoid, masochistic, or anxietal manifestations.
    The history of anti-Jewish propaganda in Germany is conspicuous because of its duration, volume, and nature. Anti-Jewish sentiments have been voiced in German speaking lands for centuries. They were poured out in pamphlets and newspapers and codified by political movements and parties. In its contents, much of that propaganda left all bounds of observation. It became hallucinatory and fantastic, devoid of any factual basis whatever.[21] The presence of that anti-Semitic tradition, largely unopposed by the German intelligentsia which at times abetted and supported it, has led a number of observers to the view that the population at large picked up an anti-Jewish bias and that, provided with a hostile goal, it struck out in the direction of that target as a matter of “logical consequence.”[22]
    There is at least some oblique evidence for the contention that the continuous bombardment of propaganda had left a haze of anti-Jewish sentiment in Germany. In a poll conducted by the Institut für Demoskopie twelve years after the events, respondents were asked what they thought of the Jews. Twenty-three per cent gave “anti-Semitic” answers and 15 per cent replied “cautiously.” A second question was phrased in terms of whether National Socialism had increased anti-Jewish tendencies in Germany (die gefühlsmässige Einstellung gegen die Juden verstärkt), Sixty-five per cent said yes. The third inquiry was put to elicit an opinion about the “fundamental cause” of anti-Semitism: was it the character of the Jewish people, their religion, anti-Semitic propaganda, or something else? Respondents, who were permitted to list several reasons, divided as follows: “characteristics of the Jewish people” 53%, the “Jewish religion” 12%, “anti-Semitic propaganda” 30%, other grounds 8%, undecided 14%.[23]
    We must, nevertheless, suspect two major limits to the effectiveness of propaganda. One concerns the implantation of beliefs; the other affects their power to induce action. In regard to actual convictions, there are indications that the perpetrators themselves did not really believe their own words. Thus, the German plenipotentiary in Denmark, Best, explained to the Foreign Office in 1943 that his charges of Jewish sabotage were without any “concrete foundation.” The chief of military administration in Serbia, Staatsrat Turner, writing to the Higher SS and Police Leader in Danzig, admitted that “if one had to be exact about it” the hostages in the camps should have been Serbs rather than Jews. Reichsfiihrer SS Himmler instructed Security Police Chief Kaltenbrunner to manufacture ritual murder stories. When ranking perpetrators were caught after the war, it turned out that many, including camp commanders like Höss, had disdained to read publications like Der Stürmer and that none of the major war criminals was acquainted with Rosenberg’s The Myth of the Twentieth Century.[24]
    The anti-Jewish make-believe is coupled with another difficulty: the effect of actual anti-Jewish convictions. This problem was illustrated by two curious statements cited by the Dutch historian Louis de Jong. One reads in part as follows:

We did not like the Jews…. Even as children we were impressed by the strange, very peculiar atmosphere of Jewish family life.

The other is more elaborate:

Aren’t the Jews pretty well unbearable? That cannot be denied; they are completely different from us, they are of a different kind, in type a different race. One is conscious of this as soon as one comes into contact with them: we have good reason to speak of “Jewish tricks.” They are indeed importunate and domineering; we always had to be on our guard against them in business; they were often incalculable and unreliable.

The first quotation was from a Dutchman in the rural northeast who had risked his life for Jews during the occupation, the second from a Dutch clergyman who had spent time in the concentration camp Amersfoort for sheltering two Jews.[25] One might well wonder then about the essentiality of beliefs as a motivation for destruction: for Germans, they were not sufficiently necessary; for Dutchmen, they were not necessarily sufficient.
    How may we account, then, for the strength and persistence of an anti-Jewish atmosphere in Germany? The answer is that German propaganda did not exist so much for the purpose of indoctrination as for the maintenance of rationalizations, The anti-Jewish words were required less for an inducement to action than for its justification. The words and their volume varied with the pace of activity. This may also explain why Jewry was unable to convince its tormenters of its good qualities. Germany’s beliefs were ultimately not founded on perception. They could not be shaken or altered by logical proof, for they stemmed from a psychological need which they were designed to shield and protect. With the passing of that undercurrent of guilt, the rationalizations should gradually decay and disappear.

MORE BASIC than the assumption of intellectual impairment is the possibility of a cultural malfunction. Two forms of this hypothesis have emerged in literature. One is the notion of a backslide to the Middle Ages, the other the postulation of a split into modern-technological and archaicprimitive components. Although both of these theories refer to a regression, their contents and implications are quite different.
    The idea of a reversion to an earlier period in German development is backed by the comparative recency of Germany’s accession to Christianity and Roman civilization. Germany was “badly Christened,” said Freud, and the philosopher Hans Weil points out that the civilizing influence of Rome had stopped too long west of the Rhine and south of the Danube. When Christianity crossed these rivers, the ancient gods did not disappear. The Teutonic deities which had populated Germany’s woods and meadows were turned into dark and satanic larvae; the German pantheistic view was transformed into a pandemonic one.[26] In centuries to follow, that dualism of divine and devilish forces has persisted, and the overthrow of the gods was repeated. Several writers saw in the Nazi movement a peculiar “manichean” quality:[27] its redeemer—total in his power, perfect in his decisions—Adolf Hitler, the evil incarnate—the Jew.28[28] Thus it came about that Jewry was offered in a great auto-da-fe as a human sacrifice to the Nordic gods.[29] Hitler, the supreme usurper, is now gone—a new devil banished to the Teutonic deities that long preceded him, and the new German turns once more with Christian reparation and homage to the mother religion, Israel.
    A dichotomy of another kind appears in a comparison between the sudden demands of a technological age with the moral restraints of western civilization. The technical culture has accelerated so rapidly that moral criteria cannot be widened fast enough to cover complex modern decision making. The result is “schizophrenia,” or organized behavior with technical tools obeying rules which no longer resemble earlier teachings still applicable to direct relations in private life. The machine-like bureaucrat, sheltered and impersonal, can now engage in “primordial narcissism” or “unrestricted aggression” against any and all. As technocratic decision maker, he has become “innocent” in the original sense; he literally “knows not” what he is doing.[30] Not unnaturally, in war crimes trials and denazification proceedings, he would approach the bench somewhat bewildered and dazed.
    We shall not deal in extenso with these basic, but difficult formulations of regression. There is, however, one fact which we must note. The perpetrator was not altogether unaware of the nature of his acts. He did not fail to see the reach of his decisions. His intelligence was not confined to the mere operation of a machine; he understood that operation and his part as a cog in it. All this is bared by the elaborate psychological defenses which the bureaucracy set up and which pervaded its offices and correspondence. In euphemisms, the bureaucrats sought to blot out the deed, in anti-Jewish accusations they attempted to rationalize it on a massive scale. They wanted to, but could not escape from fundamental moral norms. They did not, therefore, forget the law; rather they chose to defy it.

MALFUNCTION theory contains, along with explanations stressing distortions of perceptions or an imbalance in the culture, a large body of writings which emphasize a psychic breakdown. Indeed, even before the onset of Nazism, the German was thought to be a frustrated individual. While there is surprisingly little evidence for the oft-mentioned harshness in German upbringing,[31] it is conceivable that institutional organization as a whole should accentuate deprivation and discipline to the point of producing a stringent society in which the freedom of all of its members is continuously apportioned, rationed, controlled, or withheld. Such a society may take on the symptoms of psychic disorders, functioning until skewed and tilted it crashes into the domain of neighboring nations.[32]
    The Germans have developed a number of behavior patterns which are symptomatic of psychological disturbance. Some of its primary characteristics are (1) rank consciousness or ego preoccupation tending to paranoia, (2) rigidity to the extent of compulsion, (3) romanticism to the point of self-inflicted suffering and masochism, and (4) endless philosophizing betraying a persisting and irremovable anxiety.
    The paranoid structure emerges from an aggregation of habits and peculiarities which take the form of suspiciousness, the lack of a sense of humor, non-toleration of criticism, the notion of “insult” and its corollary “honor,” self-reference, status emphasis, medals, language referring to “enormity” and “immensity,” astronomical terminology in general, the non-admissibility of defeat (Niederlage) and the substitution of a “collapse” (Zusammenbruch) or “catastrophe” (Katastrophe), plus revenge (Rache).[33]
    Two features particularly noticeable in anti-Jewish activity were megalomania and projective accusation. The perpetrator clamored to be recognized. Once the world found out what he had in store for it, he would never again be ignored. In one of his speeches, Hitler said these words:[34]

In my life I have often been a prophet and most of the time I have been laughed at. During the period of my struggle for power, it was in the first instance the Jewish people that received with laughter my prophecies that some day I would take over the leadership of the state and thereby of the whole people…. I believe that in the meantime that hyenous laughter of the Jews of Germany has been smothered in their throats.

    Having embarked on a path of destruction, the German administration attributed to its victims the very characteristics it had made its own. Jewry was bent upon “world conquest.” It was “criminal” and killed children. In its very existence, it was “parasitic,” feeding upon the resources of the community which it sought to weaken, adapt, and destroy. These projections were a feed-back device. The very attempt at justification called for additional measures. The perpetrator could never really stop. He was always “behind” the victim in the severity and destructiveness of his deeds. When he awoke, after the end, to the nature of his act, he stood like Ajax before his slaughtered sheep.

MORE PRONOUNCED even than the paranoid indication was the compulsive one. Germany was—and to an extent still is—the land of titles, ranks, duty, order. In their actions, Germans are given to meticulousness, cleanliness, and also squeamishness.[35] All this was displayed in the destruction of the Jews. Viewed as an administrative development, it was consistent, complete, uncompromising. A German commentator applied to it the term Folgerichtigkeit—a chain of sequential steps in a single direction.[36]
    The annihilation of Jewry became compulsive in the very manner of its implementation. The persecutions of earlier epochs had generated classifications, restrictions, and ghettoizations, only to stop at the brink. The Nazi movement crossed the threshold to a “final solution.” In this advance, the discriminatory measures of the past had found their logical conclusion. The act, once done, was also the last; death rendered the process irreversible. The second compulsion was the translation of words into deeds. Hitler “prophesied”; he committed himself by announcement. On January 30, 1939, well over a year after the Hossbach conference during which he had enunciated his plan for attacking Czechoslovakia and France, he said: “If international finance Jewry inside and outside of Europe should succeed once more to plunge nations into another world war, then the consequence will not be the Bolshevization of the earth and thereby the victory of Jewry, but the annihilation of the Jewish race in Europe.” A third manifestation was speed. In the words of a Nazi party circular dated 1942, the “problem” had to be solved by the “present generation.” It was. The activities of the perpetrators during the crucial years 1941 through 1944 were marked by haste and feverish completion. Finally, the German administration reached for a “total solution.” Deportation experts were active in satellites all over Europe. Infants were killed, half-Jews were liable unless Christian or intermarried, and older people, no longer capable of reproduction, were shoved into gas-chambers, if they had not received high decorations or severe wounds in World War I. The protected and exempted Jews were a thorn in the eye of the bureaucrat and he sought to destroy them.
    If the paranoid-compulsive pattern was salient and conspicuous, the masochistic tendency was more subtle and submerged. Thomas Mann, in a classic essay on the nature of Germany, pointed to its romanticism. It was especially difficult for him, who loved romanticism to the core, to accept Goethe’s “laconic dictum” that the classic form was “healthy” and the romantic “sick.” Yet, romanticism was classicism in excess and dissolution—the revolt of intellectualism against rationalism, music against literature, mysticism against cIarity.[37] It was a painful process, self-reinforcing and perpetuating, even accelerating to the abyss. The German, observed an English specialist, is “abnormally sentimental and melancholy; incurably romantic, overserious and mystical, pessimistic to the point of the ‘death-wish.’”[38] These were qualities which revealed themselves also in the destruction process.
    One of the strangest symptoms of the perpetrator was his “suffering.” He suffered with official approval. Himmler would not have like it if German men did such things “gladly.” The doubts, sleeplessness, nausea, and breakdowns, were to a degree protected. One of the more remarkable SS men, General von dem Bach-Zelewsky, suffered a nervous collapse, complete with hallucinations of dying Jews, only to return to duty as chief of the anti-partisan command to kill some more. As a matter of policy, the SS men were to derive satisfaction, comfort, and even solace from their psychological burdens. The damage was to steel and harden them, it was to bring them greater strength. In Himmler’s words to his generals: “Most of you know what it means when 100 corpses are lying there, or 500 or 1,000 …”
    Perhaps the most basic, if also least obvious, of the psychic malfunctions was a characteristically German confrontation with existence. In that contemplation, there was real fear.
    The German expression for existence is Dasein, and Heidegger, ungluing the word, rendered it Da-sein, or “being here.” The opposite, “not being here,” is to become “homeless,” literally un-heim-lich. Agglutinated, this word is unheimlich, the German for “weird.”[39]
    The glimpse of non-existence is unsettling; all hold is lost. Germans, overcome by the tension, grasped for mastery of life by extinguishing it.[40] That mastery, as even the perpetrators could see, was but an apparition. The perpetration became a cosmic joke.
    At the death camp of Treblinka, the guards had mounted a Star of David on the roof of a gas-chamber as an expression of a little humor. In 1945, Eichmann remarked that, having killed five million enemies of the Reich, he would jump into his grave laughing. Hitler himself thought of the total destruction process as a trick. Giving vent to the thought, he called his victims “stupid.”
    Those who were closest to the killing operations were often prone to refer to their work as their “fate.” They knew the war was lost. During all of their doings, they could watch the constricting and narrowing circle of Adolf Hitler’s Reich and of their own lives in their entrapment.

THE PSYCHIC MALFUNCTIONS and their effects are distinctly visible in the history of German behavior, but this was not a case of illness in a conventional sense. These were symptoms distributed among seventy million people and observable in the continuous action of masses of them. The magnification of anyone of these tendencies would instantly have obstructed all possibility of co-operative performance. True paranoia would have undermined trust and confidence within the administrative apparatus; extreme compulsion could easily have been extended to prohibitively wasteful consumption of administrative energy; excessive masochism would have been turned inward into self-destruction; pronounced anxiety would have brought the bureaucracy to the border of chaos. In fact, these propensities were were almost always under control. They were channeled into bureaucratic assignments and directed at Jewish target groups. They were “nationalized” into a sublimated, sloganized philosophy and promulgated as official virtues. Thus, paranoia was reserved for the perception of “threats” to the German people; compulsion was to spur a sense of “duty” and the accomplishment of “difficult” tasks; masochism became “sacrifice” for the nation; and anxiety was turned into a psychic force propelling the bureaucracy into an unknown from which there was no return. While the destruction process may thus have fed upon and utilized these disorders, it would have disintegrated under an overdose. Whichever way that quantity of disturbance may possibly be ascertained, its measurement will register within “normal” limits.
    When we view the malfunction theories as a whole, we may note that in their ultimate formulation the perpetrator is the sufferer. The destruction process is happening to him. He is stricken by intellectual failure, cultural disruption, or psychic afflictions. He is a delinquent, an animal, or a patient. He has to be reformed, humanized, or cured. In fact, the perpetration was something more than a series of outgrowths of such malfunctions. It was a concerted act with a unified structure and a definite configuration.

    When one examines the administrative unfolding of the destruction process, one may note that it consisted of the diverse activities of a sprawling bureaucratic machine. In spite of that decentralization, there was purposeful action with few interruptions and little waste. One can see a striking pathfinding ability in the absence of blueprints or programs, congruous activity when there were no express directives, common understanding without explicit reports. That kind of integration had to be the product of a conception which had directional and structuring capability.
    Let us give specifications for this thought pattern. It was old, for it had meaning to all Germans. It was basically simple, since it was grasped in all the strata of the bureaucracy. It was unfinished, because it was actualized in a new technological environment. Substantively, the whole formation is dimly discernible in three familiar fixations: the will to make “history,” an elevation of “blood,” the passing of almost supernatural “tests.”
    The mobilization of these images was begun in the streets. During the nineteen thirties, a wave of demonstrations and pageantry swept Germany. Flags, drums, torches, and voices of command conveyed the nearness and immanence of what was to come.[41] Thus, from the first days of the Hitler regime, people could sense that Germany stood on the threshold of events which were to have “world-historical” significance.
    To that population, Nazism was not so much a system of government as a movement (Bewegung) which was to cross geographic and psychological boundaries as they had not been trod over before. The German idea of history was to shake mankind to its foundations. The bureaucrats in particular stood at the helm of that historical march. The German shadow which covered Europe was cast from their height. As wearers of the uniform and the holders of titles, all Europe was to stand in awe of them. By 1939, Germans understood that the banner of the swastika was a pointer to an attack which was to stop nowhere and to spare no one. The understanding was not always put easily into words. Charged with that job, German Security Police Personnel Chief Streckenbach explained to the assembled commanders of the mobile killing units about to move into Russia that they were expected to proceed ruthlessly there (dass dort rücksichtslos durchgegriffen werden müsste). The Jews were a half of Germany’s civilian victims, the largest community to be crushed by that movement, the group most completely annihilated.
    It was in 1941 that an emphasis on finality and irreversibility crept into secret correspondence and open speech on the “solution of the Jewish problem.” Blood was to be shed. This act—this work—was never to be undone. It was not to be forgotten. A landmark in history, it was cast in “monumental” proportions. Who would henceforth be able to overlook the disappearance of one of the oldest historical people in the west? This was no episode. It was a deed.
    In the middle of the end, a final cognition was felt. The perpetrator was gazing upon a forbidden vista. Under the murky huts of Auschwitz, Germans stood alone as they lined up their victims, herding them into gas-chambers. These guards were living through something ultimate. Experience-Erlebnis-was reaching its outer limits. The act had become knowledge, and that knowledge was unique, for the sensation of a first discovery is not repeatable.

THE THOUGHTS which had drawn these men to such polar ends were present long before their realization. Hegel had spoken of a world-historical unfolding and of world-historical men who comprehended that which was ripe for their time. In Goethe, there is a pact of blood with a “demonically intoxicated” professor to delve into experiences never before witnessed by man.[42] Nietzsche preached transcendence and Heidegger intoned “Become what you are” (Werde was du bist).[43] We know, of course, that Hegel had no “Führer,” Goethe no “special treatment,” Nietzsche no “subhuman.” The German bureaucrat used ponderous and cumbersome language. But when the imagery of German philosophy, poetry, mythology, and music is lined up against the totality of the German destruction process, there is nevertheless a resemblance. The likeness is thematic. The old words and the new deeds are photographs of the same mind, mirrors of the same thoughts, expressions of the same idea.[44]
    The Nazi revolution was a technological concretization of the old ideational material. Coming upon the conclusion of the greatest outpouring of the German arts, it duplicated in a layout of administrative acts that series of verbal, tonal, and color creations. It reproduced their content, rhythm, and atmosphere. Indeed, there were moments when the German perpetrator was prone to look back upon his handiwork as an aesthetic accomplishment. Thus, the very enormity of the conception endowed the deed with dimension. The flow of blood gave it its own peculiar permanence. Its unprecedented character lent to’ the event a quality of uniqueness.

    The destruction of the Jews was a tour de force. An alignment of all the motivation theories against the available facts yields that conclusion as a residue. We are thus left with a crude contour of the hypothetical German mind. It is the image of a German who walked with fleeting fantasms. Frustrations nurtured and reinforced them. In a technological bureaucracy he found an impersonal medium for their realization. Obscure memories of a medieval heritage shrouded him with protective symbols. Propaganda supplied him with rationalizations. Ambitions spurred him on. And below, a helpless victim, twitching in pain, was ready for the fatal blow.


[22] See the comment by Erich von dem Bach-Zelewsky, “Das Leben eines SS-Generals,” Aufbau (New York), August 30, 1946, p. 40. The general, a highly intelligent man, killed many thousands of Jews. See also Gerhart Saenger, The Social Psychology of Jrejudice (New York, 1953), p. 139.
[23] Questions and statistics quoted in Aufbau, October 18, 1957, p. 18. Not indicated are sample area and sample sizes.
[24] It would seem that the crude propagandist has not been respectable in Germany for quite some time. Nietzsche had expressed contempt for the anti-Semites of his day and even the Nazis looked down on Streicher.
[25] Louis de Jong, “Jews and Non-Jews in Nazi-Occupied Holland,” in Max Beloff, ed., On the Track of Tyranny (London, 1960), pp. 139-55.
[26] See the essay by Heinrich Heine, “Zur Geschichte der Religion und Philosophie in Deutschland,” written in 1834, in his collected works. Also, R.L. Sedgwick, “The German Character,” Blackwood’s Magazine, June 1962, pp. 537-47.
[27] Sartre, Anti-Semite and Jew, p. 43. H.G. Adler, Theresienstadt 1941-1945 (Tübingen, 1955), pp. 643-44.
[28] Adler, Ibid., p. 650. For the medieval antecedents of the satanization of Jewry, see Joshua Trachtenberg, The Devil and the Jews (New Haven, 1943).
[29] Leschnitzer points to the apparent “interchangeability” of witch burnings and anti-jewish outbursts in German history. See his Magic Background.
[30] See primarily Ernst Simmel, “Anti-Semitism and Mass Psychopathology,” in Simmel, ed., Anti-Semitism—A Social Disease (New York, 1946), p. 33-78, and Gunther Anders, “Reflections on the H Bomb,” Voices of Dissent (New York, 1958), pp. 359-68.
[31] See the anthropological study at Bremen by David Rodnick, Postwar Germans (New Haven, 1948), p. 17: “The German child comes into the world wanted…” and note also patterns of family life in such neighboring countries as Denmark, Holland, and Switzerland.
[32] See Richard M. Brickner, Is Germany Incurable? (Philadelphia and New York, 1943), pp. 135-36: “It looks as if it were theoretically possible to develop a more or less stable culture out of practically any set of emotional postulates.”
[33] Ibid., pp. 63, 67, 196, 215, 246, 248. Also, Gerhard Nebel, Die Not der Götter=Welt und Mythos der Germanen (Hamburg, 1957), pp. 14, 54, 93, 216.
[34] Hitler speech, January 30, 1939, German press.
[35] Compulsion is the symptom which appears to show up most consistently in psychological tests. See David C. McClelland, “The United States and Germany; A Comparative Study of National Character,” in his Roots of Consciousness (Princeton, 1964), pp. 62-92, and Henry V. Dicks, “Personality Traits and National Socialist Ideology,” Human Relations, III, Ill-54.
[36] Rudolf Hagelstände, “Metamorphosen des Antisemitismus,’ Deutsche Rundschau, XII, 1260.
[37] Thomas Mann, “Deutschland und die Deutschen,” in his Sorge um Deutschland (Frankfurt, 1957), pp. 73-93.
[38] Sedgwick, op. cit., p. 539.
[39] Martin Heidegger, Sein und Zeit, (Tübingen, 1957), pp. 142-48, 184-91.
[40] See Eric Fromm, Escape from Freedom (New York and Toronto, 1941), pp. 183-84. Franz L. Neumann, “Anxiety and Politics,” in his The Democratic and the Authoritarian State (Glencoe, 1957). pp. 270-300. On the choice of Jewry as the stand-ins for God. see Hans Ornstein, Der antijüdische Komplex (Zurich, 1949), pp. 43-44.
[41] The mechanics in a single German town are described in detail by William Sheridan Allen, The Nazi Seizure of Power (Chicago. 1965).
[42] Thomas Mann renderedi that figure the German of our time. See his essay, “Deutschland,” op. cit., p. 78.
[43] Heidegger, op. cit., P: 145.
[44] See Morris Ginsberg, Reason and Unreason in Society (London, 1948), p. 143. William S. Schlarnm, Die Gremen des Wunders (Zurich, 1959), pp. 65-66. Walter Hofer, Geschichte zwischen Philosophie und Politik (Basel, 1956), pp. 32-34. Thomas Mann. “Nietzsche’s Philosophy in the Light of Recent History,” in his Last Essays (New York, 1959), pp. 141-77, and particularly William S. Bossenbrook, The German Mind (Detroit, 1961).

Midstream, Vol. XI, No. 2, June, 1965, pp. 30-40

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