Review by Claudia Moscovici, author of Holocaust Memories: A Survey of Holocaust Memoirs, Histories, Novels and Films (Rowman & Littlefield Publishing Group, 2019)
During WWII much of Europe was caught in a vice between fanaticism and terror; between Hitler and Stalin. The plight of tens of millions of people falling victim to Stalinism on the one hand and Fascism on the other is eloquently captured by a Polish prisoner in Russia: “I think with horror and shame of a Europe divided into two parts by the line of the Bug, on one side of which millions of Soviet slaves prayed for liberation by the armies of Hitler, and on the other millions of victims of German concentration camps awaited deliverance by the Red Army as their last hope” (Gustaw Herling, A World Apart, 175-76).
The similarities between the two dictators obsessed with acquiring unlimited power are far greater than their differences. Yet it’s worth noting that they selected their targets differently. Stalin’s purges covered every segment of society, almost indiscriminately: the Communist party; the Politburo; even the army, navy and air force in a time when preparations for war should have been a priority. On the other hand, Hitler honed in on one main target: the Jews. His single-minded focus on destroying the Jewish people could only be called, in his own words, “fanaticism”. He remarked: “Any violence which does not spring from a firm spiritual base will be wavering and uncertain. It lacks the stability which can only rest in a fanatical outlook” (Mein Kampf, 171). What could have led a human being to want to efface the Jewish people from the face of the Earth? There are many hypotheses about what might have caused Hitler’s hatred, ranging from psychological to sociological and biographical explanations. These explanations, however, only make sense in hindsight. Nothing in Hitler’s adolescence, when pathology usually shows up, gave any clear sign of the tremendous anti-Semitic hatred that was lurking within him.
Biographers state that Hitler was a mediocre student, receiving bad grades in physics, mathematics and German. His did better in art, but wasn’t that original. As a young man, he pursued his artistic career in Vienna for about six years. Some state that Hitler’s anti-Semitism grew out of his frustration that he wasn’t accepted to the prestigious Vienna Art Academy. They speculate that he may have blamed his failure on the Jews. Yet there’s evidence to the contrary as well. Hitler continued to sell his art and make a living from the art sales, supplemented by funds from his family. Interestingly, as Raul Hilberg states, “Apparently, two of the dealers were Jews.” (Perpetrators, Victims, Bystanders, 4).
WWII seems to have been a major turning point in Hitler life. Yet even then nobody could have guessed that this mediocre soldier would rise to absolute power—and wield destruction—throughout Europe. He was decorated the Iron Cross First Class during the war, but only the second or third time he was recommended for it: incidentally, by a Jew (Lieutenant Gutmann). At the end of the war, Hitler was gassed and spent time recuperating in a hospital. There he had time to contemplate what might have brought about the humiliating defeat of Germany. The company commander of the unit to which Hitler belonged in 1919 asked the question why Germany had lost the war. Hitler wrote down an answer that was to echo the major themes of Mein Kampf, his autobiographical treatise written in prison and published in 1925-26. He distinguished between an anti-Semitism based on reason, which would have staying power, and an anti-Semitism based on emotion, usually expressed in pogroms, which wouldn’t efface the Jews from the face of the Earth. (Perpetrators, Victims, Bystanders, 5)
So to return to our earlier question: why did Hitler target the Jews as the main scapegoat and object of his vitriol? He himself offers a direct answer to this question in Mein Kampf:
“The art of leadership,” Hitler states, “as displayed by really great popular leaders in all ages, consists in consolidating the attention of the people against a single adversary… Where there are various enemies… it will be necessary to block them all together as forming one solid front, so that the mass of followers in a popular movement may see only one common enemy against whom they have to fight. Such uniformity intensifies their belief in their own cause and strengthens their feeling of hostility towards the opponent” (Mein Kampf, 110).
This statement reflects the cold and calculated reasoning Hitler alluded to as early as the note of 1919. He targeted the Jews as his scapegoats and victims for strategic reasons. Hitler’s explicit intent is to simplify the root of all social and economic problems to the Jews—outsiders in practically every European culture–and coalesce all forces and people against this common enemy. This choice isn’t primarily a matter of genuine emotion, nor only of a pathological, sick hatred. As for Stalin during the Great Terror, it’s primarily the product of an insatiable, malicious will to power. This ultimate answer–which boils down to evil for its own sake–could have never offered a satisfactory response to the question most often scribbled by victims on cell walls, in prisons, concentration camps and gulags, a question which still echoes to this day: “Zachto—Why?”
Claudia Moscovici, Holocaust Memory