The Holocaust: Laurence Rees explains “Nazi logic” in racism

As I am currently reading Laurence Rees‘ so far brilliant brand-new book “The Holocaust: A New History“, I’m drawing some obvious and horrid comparisons with how Donald Trump works, and also in regards to how extreme right-wing associations, such as the Sverigedemokraterna party in Sweden has become the third biggest political party.

As Rees shows in his book, there was no single ‘decision’ to start the Holocaust – there was a series of escalations, most often when the Nazi leadership interacted with their grassroots supporters.

The quotes below show how inconsistent, illogical and xenophobically insane the Nazis were when trying to decide who was a ‘Jew’ and who was a ‘Gypsy’. While it’s easy to scoff at this, and perhaps think ‘Oh, this happened almost a hundred years ago, we’ve evolved!’, really think about it – and then know that this is happening over and over; trying to find easy solutions while stopping to think critically is, at the base of the thinking process, what strung us on to the deaths of millions during the Holocaust.

In 1895, Alfred Ploetz, a German supporter of eugenics, or ‘race hygiene’ as he called it, raised the possibility of doctors deciding whether babies should live or die based on their racial worth. He also said that ‘Advocates of racial hygiene will have little objection to war since they see in it one of the means whereby the nations carry on the struggle for existence.’ He even suggested that during a battle ‘inferior’ people could be used as ‘cannon fodder’ and placed in positions of particular danger.

Many of the pioneers in the eugenics movement were not anti-Semites — Ploetz, for instance, thought the Jews were ‘racial Aryans’ — but their teaching were of enormous use to those who were. The idea that ‘racial hygiene’ was central to the health of a nation, combined with Houston Chamberlain’s notion that the Jews were a racial threat to ‘Aryan’ people, added a potentially catastrophic element to the anti-Semitic brew. Traditional anti-Semitism had been based on religion. If the Jews converted to Christianity then they had a chance of escaping persecution. But the idea that ‘Jewishness’ was something inherent in an individual — that it was present, as the Nazis came to believe, in the blood — meant that there was no escape. Your ‘race’, over which you had no control, was your destiny. You could be the kindest, most generous person imaginable, but if your ‘race’ was assessed as inferior or dangerous then you were at risk of persecution.

Hitler explicitly stated in his September 1919 letter that ‘the Jews are definitely a race and not a religious community.’ This was fundamental to his anti-Semitic belief. It meant, for him, that if the question of what religion ‘Jews’ practised scarcely mattered, since ‘there is hardly a single race whose members belong exclusively to one particular religion.’

However, despite a desperate search to identify a test for Jewish ‘blood’, the Nazis — not surprisingly — never managed to find a scientific way of telling whether or not an individual was a member of the Jewish ‘race’ or not. As a result, once the Nazis started to persecute and eventually exterminate Jews, they had to rely on a ‘Jewishness’ test that was religious. They assessed whether or not you were a Jew according to how many of your grandparents had practised the Jewish faith. Nonetheless, the Nazis still believed that the Jews were a ‘race’ and not a ‘religion’. The primacy of ‘race’ in human history was so central to Hitler’s worldview that he would never let the small matter of science get in the way of his belief.

In 1935 the Nazis created and implemented the Nuremberg laws.

Then there was the continuing problem, for the Nazis, of working out who was a Jew and who was not — information that was vital in order to enforce the new legislation. But despite the opening sentence of the Law for the Protection of German Blood and German Honour declaring that ‘purity of German blood’ was ‘essential’ for the ‘continued existence of the German people’, the Nazis could not tell by examining ‘blood’ just who was a Jew and and who was not, and there was no other definition of ‘Jewishness’ anywhere in the Nuremberg legislation. As a consequence the laws as passed on 15 September 1935 were unenforcable. Only in the middle of November 1935 were regulations finally announced which defined who was a ‘Jew’. This document talked about ‘Jewish blood’ and ‘racially full Jews’, but it had to resort to a religious definition to describe who was Jewish and who was not. It stated: ‘A Jew is anyone who is descended from at least three grandparents who are racially full Jews.’ But then it said that a ‘grandparent shall be considered as full-blooded if he or she belonged to the Jewish religious community’. So the Nazis determined your ‘race’ by the religious affiliation of your grandparents.

The question of what to do about those Germans who had mixed ancestry occupied a great deal of the drafters’ time. Some Germans who were ardent nationalists — and appeared to be living an ‘Aryan’ life — had two Jewish grandparents. Yet other people with two Jewish grandparents were, to Nazi eyes, obviously Jews. The solution the Nazi officials devised was complex. It relied, once again, on examining the religious affiliation of the individuals concerned. So if you had two grandparents who were Jewish — by the definition of the decree — but you yourself had not married a Jew and were living a non-Jewish religious life, then you were not Jewish. However, if you had two Jewish grandparents and had married a Jew, or were worshipping as a Jew, then you were Jewish.

It was a mess. What the decree exposed was the utter fallacy of a blood or racial definition of Jewishness. For if the Nazis were serious in their racial beliefs, how could one person who had two Jewish grandparents be considered not Jewish, whereas another who had two Jewish grandparents be considered Jewish? Their background ought to mean that the same amount of ‘Jewish blood’ flowing within their veins was exactly the same.

Nonetheless, Hitler proclaimed the Nuremberg Laws a success and called for the nation not to ‘stray from the straight and narrow path of the law’. He clearly saw these anti-Semitic measures not only as an ideological statement of the values of the Third Reich, but also as a means of restraining the wilder elements in the party who sought to pursue their own attacks. The day after the laws were passed, he reminded the party faithful that they should ‘continue to refrain’ from ‘taking independent action’ against Jews.

The Sinti and Roma were persecuted in Germany since long before Hitler, but…

Hitler, however, did not appear to be much concerned about the Sinti and Roma — they are not even mentioned in Mein Kampf. Only gradually did measures directed explicitly at the Sinti and Roma population come to be implemented by the Nazis. One reason for this lack of urgency was almost certainly that many Sinti and Roma were already often caught up in moves against ‘beggars’ or ‘antisocials’. Only as an afterthought were they included within the Nuremberg Laws. Wilhelm Frick, the Interior Minister, stated in a decree of 26 November 1935 that the Nuremberg Law prohibiting Jews from marrying ‘pure’ Germans also extended to a ban on Gypsies marrying them. Frick subsequently clarified this restriction on 3 January 1936 by saying that if an individual Gypsy had a ‘quarter or less of alien blood’ then he or she could marry an ‘Aryan’ German.

By this legislation the Nazis created another immense definitional problem for themselves. It was all very well to talk theoretically of percentages of ‘Gypsy blood’, but in practice there was no way of implementing such an idea — for the simple reason that it was impossible to work out how much ‘Gypsy blood’ any individual possessed. We have seen how, since they couldn’t find a racial way of distinguishing between Jews and non-Jews, the Nazis fell back on a religious-based definition of ‘Jewishness’. But such a method could not be used in the case of the Sinti and Roma, since those that practiced a religion were overwhelmingly Christian.

In the wake of this extension of the Nuremberg laws, the Nazis urgently needed to find a way of determining the percentage of ‘Gypsyness’ in an individual, just as they had previously needed to assess the percentage of ‘Jewishness’. To this end a new research organisation was created early in 1936 within the Reich Health Office under the leadership of Dr Robert Ritter. He and his team now set out to create a vast card index containing information on every potential Sinti and Roma in Germany — eventually around 30,0000 people would be detailed. Ritter and his colleagues decided who was and who was not a Gypsy by inspecting birth and family records, and by investigating the lifestyle of each individual.

The above register is wholly compatible with the illegal register of thousands of Roma that Swedish police maintained for a long time – until it was discovered in 2013. Nobody has been charged for this crime.

To continue from the last quoted paragraph:

Ritter’s conclusions about the nature of Gypsy life informed the first pronouncement from Himmler on the subject, a circular entitled Combating the Gypsy Plague, issued on 8 December 1938. The document stated that the ‘Gypsy problem’ should be treated as a question of ‘race’ and called for both ‘settled and non-settled Gypsies’ to be registered with the police. The life of Gypsies needed to be ‘regulated’, said Himmler, not least in order to prevent ‘further intermingling of blood’.

One of the many curious aspects of Himmler’s circular was the statement that ‘experience shows that part-Gypsies play the greatest role in Gypsy criminality’. This strange assertion was based on Dr Ritter’s belief that the small minority of ‘racially pure’ Gypsies who carried on the traditional wandering life, travelling from village to village in horsedrawn caravans, were less dangerous than Gypsies who had decided to settle in one place and marry into the ‘Aryan’ German population. Though there was no reliable empirical evidence to support this proposition, Ritter maintained that the distinction was important. The theory was that some ‘pure Gypsies’ might be considered as a type of ‘Aryan’, since they had originated in the Indian sub-continent. But because large numbers of Gypsies had intermarried with non-Gypsies, they had ‘polluted their blood’ and so were especially dangerous. This convoluted logic led to the bizarre situation — implied in the circular on Combating the Gypsy Plague — that ‘pure-blood’ Gypsies were less of a problem to the Nazi state than ‘mixed-blood’ Gypsies. This state of affairs was precisely the reverse of the one in which the Jews found themselves, where the more Jewish an individual was perceived to be the more he or she was at risk. In practice, once the war began and the persecution of the Sinti and Roma escalated, the distinction between ‘pure’ and ‘non-pure’ Gypsies was to have little practical effect, but it nonetheless remains a valuable insight into the mentality of the perpetrators.

We may laugh at the crude and vile caricatures that were spread through Nazi propaganda before and during WW2, but remember that many Germans who willingly joined the Nazis were first just as discerned and disgusted by those images as many of us are, today; it’s a question of never letting the abhorrent become the norm. How? I believe that we have to apply critical thinking everywhere, and point out what we think is wrong. Don’t let people get away with xenophobic idiocies; let’s confront them, discuss their ideas and make them see that every human has equal value.

I’ll finish this post as Charlie Chaplin played out in “The Great Dictator“:

Transcript of the speech:

I’m sorry but I don’t want to be an emperor. That’s not my business. I don’t want to rule or conquer anyone. I should like to help everyone if possible; Jew, Gentile, black men, white. We all want to help one another. Human beings are like that. We want to live by each others’ happiness, not by each other’s misery. We don’t want to hate and despise one another. In this world there is room for everyone. And the good earth is rich and can provide for everyone. The way of life can be free and beautiful, but we have lost the way.

Greed has poisoned men’s souls; has barricaded the world with hate; has goose-stepped us into misery and bloodshed. We have developed speed, but we have shut ourselves in. Machinery that gives abundance has left us in want. Our knowledge as made us cynical; our cleverness, hard and unkind. We think too much and feel too little. More than machinery we need humanity. More than cleverness, we need kindness and gentleness. Without these qualities, life will be violent and all will be lost. The aeroplane and the radio have brought us closer together. The very nature of these inventions cries out for the goodness in man; cries out for universal brotherhood; for the unity of us all.

Even now my voice is reaching millions throughout the world, millions of despairing men, women, and little children, victims of a system that makes men torture and imprison innocent people. To those who can hear me, I say “Do not despair.” The misery that is now upon us is but the passing of greed, the bitterness of men who fear the way of human progress. The hate of men will pass, and dictators die, and the power they took from the people will return to the people. And so long as men die, liberty will never perish.

Soldiers! Don’t give yourselves to brutes, men who despise you and enslave you; who regiment your lives, tell you what to do, what to think and what to feel! Who drill you, diet you, treat you like cattle, use you as cannon fodder! Don’t give yourselves to these unnatural men—machine men with machine minds and machine hearts! You are not machines! You are not cattle! You are men! You have a love of humanity in your hearts! You don’t hate! Only the unloved hate; the unloved and the unnatural.

Soldiers! Don’t fight for slavery! Fight for liberty! In the seventeenth chapter of St. Luke, it’s written “the kingdom of God is within man”, not one man nor a group of men, but in all men! In you! You, the people, have the power, the power to create machines, the power to create happiness! You, the people, have the power to make this life free and beautiful, to make this life a wonderful adventure. Then in the name of democracy, let us use that power.

Let us all unite. Let us fight for a new world, a decent world that will give men a chance to work, that will give youth a future and old age a security. By the promise of these things, brutes have risen to power. But they lie! They do not fulfill their promise. They never will! Dictators free themselves but they enslave the people! Now let us fight to fulfill that promise! Let us fight to free the world! To do away with national barriers! To do away with greed, with hate and intolerance! Let us fight for a world of reason, a world where science and progress will lead to all men’s happiness.

Soldiers, in the name of democracy, let us all unite!

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One Response to “The Holocaust: Laurence Rees explains “Nazi logic” in racism”

  1. Niklas' blog » Blog Archive The foreword to Sergey Yarov's "Leningrad 1941-42: Morality in a City under Siege" - Niklas' blog Says:

    […] to Laurence Rees‘s tweet below I just started reading Sergey Yarov’s “Leningrad 1941-42: Morality […]

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