Preconditions for the Holocaust: Prejudice in 20th Century Europe

Scholar Doris Bergen describes some of the preconditions that contributed to Nazi violence in World War II and the Holocaust.

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There's a lot of factors that go into making a society, I guess, potentially rife for extreme violence. In hindsight, you could identify many of them that— maybe they seemed quite normal at the time. But I think for Germany, for Central Europe, by the time Hitler came to power, there were a couple of factors that really did make— didn't make genocide or the Holocaust inevitable, but it made it possible.

In the decades preceding the Holocaust, certain social elements in Europe were building and gaining momentum as a result of previous events. These elements together created a climate wherein, we now know, the potential for deadly intentions could flourish.

You could think antisemitism— in some way a very, very old factor, right? People sometimes talk about the longest hatred. It's not like a gradual, sort of, progression— more and more intense, but more like a kind of ever-present noise that made Jews an obvious target. So if there was going to be mass violence for many non-Jews, Jews were familiar.

So it doesn't mean that antisemitism ramped up in some kind of a gradual escalation, but rather that— if there was going to be violence, this was a group that, for many people, already, kind of, had some stigma attached to them. The many accusations that developed over the years— Jews are supposedly the killers of Jesus, social accusations, cultural and economic— those came together. And I would add there the kind of prejudices that exist in every society that, like antisemitism, makes certain people particularly vulnerable in times of extreme violence.

Prejudices or bad feelings toward people with disabilities— a sense that they somehow weigh down society as a whole. Well, if you have a society that's focused on preparing for war, what place is there in a militarizing society for people with disabilities? So you can see that vulnerability connects together. Roma, Sinti— again endured longstanding prejudices associating Roma and Sinti with criminal behavior. These things were not invented by the Nazis, but they were conveniently there.

And when you have a society that normalizes attacks on certain groups, people with prejudices against other groups, they see an opportunity to implement those through law. And I think there's many other examples. You can think about homosexual men— the same thing. The Nazis did not invent homophobia. That you could find in lots of other places, too. But it was one way that they tried to create a normal image, you could say, of their own groups of men by saying, look, these are not homoerotic groups. We are the first ones to attack gays.

There's other factors, too, that are more specific, maybe, to central Europe. And one I think people often don't think about is imperialism. You think about the 19th century, a period of enormous European conquest, particularly in Africa— the so-called scramble for Africa— Europeans laid claim to almost the entire continent. Well they did it with an enormous amount of violence.

Over the course of the 19th century, seven million people were killed by colonizing European forces. From their experiences in Africa and beyond, Europeans learned how to enslave large groups of people. People whom Europeans considered inferior to themselves were also targets of abuse within Europe. The idea that humanity was separated into races that fought against one another for survival and dominance was a large outcome of the colonial experience.

Mass killing, forced labor, sexual violence, destruction of communities— all of these things were done by the Belgians in Belgian Congo; by the Germans in East Africa, Southwest Africa; by the British, the French, Portuguese, Dutch— they all had their territories, and they didn't control them without extreme violence. And a lot of those practices, too, they carry back over into Europe from those colonial settings into the period of the First World War and the Second World War, as well. Ideas of racism, racial superiority, Social Darwinism— they were part of a context of imperial domination.

I would also add the factor of the First World War itself— a war that brought, you could say, a lot of that violence from imperial settings home into Europe itself.

On June 28, 1914, Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Austro-Hungarian crown, and his wife, Archduchess Sophie, were assassinated in Sarajevo. This set off a war that would come to be known as one of the deadliest conflicts in history and one that would last for the next four years. It became infamous for its brutality, and massive loss of life, and paved the way for major political changes in many of the nations involved.

But I think a creation really of a sense of human life as cheap. The most important reason to have a big population— to have a lot of soldiers or a lot of women to give birth to a lot of soldiers; and the dislocation— changes in borders, movements of refugees, just the breakup of communities and solidarity; kind of a legacy of violence. That was also very important in creating some explosive, you could say, potential.

At the end of World War I in 1918, Germany was defeated. It had incurred massive economic losses and caused widespread destruction. In 1919, Germany was forced to accept the terms of the Treaty of Versailles, a peace treaty between Germany and the Allied powers.

Under the terms of the treaty, Germany lost approximately 10% of its territories and was forced to pay reparations. Germany's defeat cultivated a politics of resentment that led to a bitter sense of humiliation. Refusal to fully accept the reality of this defeat resulted in many Germans searching for someone to blame.

I don't think you can simply make a straight line from World War I to the Holocaust. Lots of countries lose wars all the time. The notion that supposedly there was humiliation, that the defeat was somehow terribly unjust or unearned, it was kept alive by school teachers, by pastors, professors— people for their own political interest kind of whipping up that resentment. It wasn't so much the defeat that caused somehow the rise of Hitler but a refusal by people in power— including military leaders, by the way— to accept the reality of that defeat, to take responsibility for it.

And instead, they used it as like a political football. It's simply not the case that the Germans were treated so punitively. But again, the resentment that was stirred up around that— it created a kind of hostile climate, you could say, toward Germany's neighbors. So there's another important notion, just preexisting prejudices that kind of adhere to, you could say, power.

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