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Understanding Hitler’s Anti-Semitism

tues0007It wasn’t about German nationalism, the historian Timothy Snyder argues. It was about the whole world.

Delman: How did you arrive at this analysis of Hitler? Are you building upon prior scholarly literature to form this diagnosis? Or are you working off of new sources?

Snyder: It started with an intuition, which was actually present in my earlier book, in Bloodlands: that ecology was much more central to Hitler’s thinking than we had realized. And that was just an intuition from practice, from looking at what Hitler actually did. And another intuition, which was that the destruction of the state was very important. In practice, as I argue in the book, Jews die where states are destroyed.

So those were intuitions, but then I went back and reread [Hitler’s manifesto] Mein Kampf, and reread the second book, and read all the major Hitler primary sources, and I was really astonished at how clearly these ideas came out—that, in fact, Hitler’s quite explicitly an ecological thinker, that the planetary level is the most important level. This is something that he says right from the beginning of Mein Kampf, all the way through. And likewise, I was struck that Hitler explicitly said that states are temporary, state borders will be washed away in the struggle for nature. In other words, the anarchy that he creates was actually there in the theory from the beginning. He says from the very beginning, what we have to do is destroy the Jews; strip away the artificial political creations that the Jews are responsible for; and let nature just take its course. And what he means by nature’s course is [that] the stronger races destroy the weaker races. … “Hitler saw the only good thing as removing the Jews who pervert, as he said it, human nature and physical nature.”

Delman: We all think of Hitler as the prototypical nationalist, and being one who utilized nationalism and was a fervent nationalist in his own right, but according to you, Hitler doesn’t believe in the state as an institution. He thinks it’s an abstraction, possibly even a Jewish invention. He only believes in the race. So, in your view, what was Hitler’s relationship with the German nation-state?

Snyder: … [I]f we think that Hitler was just a nationalist, but more so, or just an authoritarian, but more so, we’re missing the capacity for evil completely. If Hitler had just been a German nationalist who wanted to rule over Germans—if he was just an authoritarian who wanted to have a strong state—the Holocaust could not have happened. The Holocaust could happen because he was neither of those things. He wasn’t really a nationalist. He was a kind of racial anarchist who thought that the only good in the world was for races to compete, and so he thought that the Germans would probably win in a racial competition, but he wasn’t sure. And as far as he was concerned, if the Germans lost, that was also alright. And that’s just not a view that a nationalist can hold. I think a nationalist cannot sacrifice his entire people on the altar of the idea that there has to be racial competition, which is what Hitler did, and that’s what made him different from a Romanian nationalist, or a Hungarian nationalist, or what have you. At the end of the war, Hitler said, ‘Well the Germans lost, that just shows the Russians are stronger. So be it. That’s the verdict of nature.’ I don’t think a nationalist would say that.

And with the state, if anything that’s even more important. Hitler doesn’t so much make the German state stronger as prepare the German state to be an instrument for destroying other states, which is what the SS [Nazi paramilitary organization] does, and what the concentration camps are models for. And insofar as German power reaches outward, beginning in 1938, and destroys Austria, Czechoslovakia, and Poland, and then tries to destroy the Soviet Union, it creates a zone where the escalation of the Final Solution is possible. And again, that’s only possible—killing Jews is only possible—because states are destroyed. And the idea in the end, which is not true of course, … [is that] this racial struggle is going to eventually transform the German race until there’ll be some kind of final revolution at the end. That of course never happens.

Delman: In your view, Hitler’s anti-Semitism and beliefs were all completely genuine? They weren’t a cynical ploy to play off of popular frustrations and consolidate power?

Snyder: It’s the other way around. So, Hitler uses popular frustrations to come to power. He uses the Great Depression to come to power. He presents himself precisely as a German nationalist who is going to get the German economy going, who is going to bring Germans inside the borders of Germany. That’s how he presents himself, but that is a lie. He’s quite consciously manipulating German national sentiment to get to power and then to start the war, which he thinks will transform the Germans, as it were, from a nation into a race. So he’s aware that German nationalism is a force in the world, but he’s just using it in order to create the world that he wants, which is this world of racial struggle. And he’s actually pretty explicit about that, which is pretty striking. So he knows that the Germans care about Germany, but he doesn’t. He actually just wants to manipulate their attachment to Germany—to toss them out into this struggle, which will purify them and so on.

Delman: You have this leader of a major power. He’s a racial anarchist—he doesn’t believe in the validity of states, or laws, or ethics, or even history, and claims them as either Jewish lies or abstractions that get in the way of the “law of the jungle,” as you put it and as he put it. In your view, could a leader who thinks this way ever be rational? Could they understand cause-and-effect and cost-and-benefit?Snyder: … It’s certain at a tactical level that he was quite rational, because he was able to say, ‘My goal is coming to power and starting this war,’ and then he was able to do things rationally to attain that goal, including tamping down the expression of his own views. So clearly he was politically rational, or he was means-ends rational. Whether he could see the world in an entirely rational way—there I would say no.

But the problem is that you don’t have to see the world rationally to be very powerful, and in fact certain kinds of circular ways of seeing the world, like anti-Semitism, can inform you day to day. They can keep you going—they can bring in the population—even though they’re not really true. You can create what Hannah Arendt talks about, “a fictional world”—we use the phrase today “alternative reality” to mean the same thing. You can create this fictional world in which you live, and which guides you and which allows you to move forward. In fact, it can even be a source of your success. So in December of ’41, when Hitler faces this unbeatable alliance basically of the British, the Americans, and the Soviets, he interprets that as the Jewish international conspiracy, which of course it wasn’t—the Jews had nothing to do with that whatsoever. But he interprets it that way, and he says, ‘Ah-hah! This is what I’ve always said, that all the world powers are controlled by the Jews, therefore they’re lining up against us,’ and then that becomes an argument for escalating the Final Solution. So the fictional world provides arguments that you then use to change the real world, because it’s at that point that the Final Solution becomes a total policy of killing all throughout Europe.

“If we think that Hitler was just a nationalist, but more so, or just an authoritarian, but more so, we’re missing the capacity for evil completely.”

Delman: [Hitler’s] actions during those first six years [before he invaded Poland]—he put in place the Nuremberg Laws and other discriminatory acts, but he also, as you said, worked to build up the German state. You’re saying that those domestic and foreign policies were all part of this strategy to prepare the German state for this war that would then lead to racial struggle?

Snyder: … What I’m trying to suggest in this book is that Hitler, [Hitler’s deputy Heinrich] Himmler—they weren’t really thinking only about transforming Germany. They were mainly thinking about the future revolution, which would be possible once the war got started. And if you look at the ’30s in that light, then everything starts to make a lot more sense. The huge Wehrmacht [German army] makes sense as an instrument to destroy other armies. The SS makes sense as an instrument to destroy other states. Concentration camps make sense as a model for how you’re going to rule other states once you’ve gotten rid of their institutions and declared those institutions never existed and never had any validity.

So as I see it, it’s not so much that Hitler built up the German state in a conventional sense. He built up this new capacity to impose a racial worldview on other countries. And the paradox is that he couldn’t really do it in Germany. I mean, what happened to German Jews was dreadful, but German Jews were not actually killed in significant numbers in prewar Germany. The total is a couple hundred. Jews could only really be killed once Hitler got himself out of the box of Germany and used this German racial power that he created over the six years to wipe out other states. It’s at that point that all kinds of things are possible in those other states. But also, you can then send German Jews east, to places like Minsk or Riga where you’ve wiped out the political order, and have them be killed there. That’s one of these things that I think Holocaust historians have to explain. Sure, there was lots of anti-Semitism in, for example, Vienna, but the Jews of Vienna were murdered in Belarus. Why is that? And the answer is that the German state couldn’t actually murder them inside Germany—not in very large numbers. To carry out mass killing, it had to first create this zone of anarchy out in the east and then physically take the Jews and send them out there. …

Delman: You mention that Nazi Germany was not the only anti-Semitic regime in power at the time—Poland, Hungary, and Romania were all governed by anti-Semitic regimes. How did Polish official anti-Semitism, for example, differ from Hitler’s, and how did that affect their decision-making and policies?

Snyder: So in the Nazi case, you have a leader who is much more radical than his population, right? Hitler’s goal is to spread anti-Semitism within the German population, and he succeeds in doing that, but he comes to power much more radical than the population, and he comes to power in part by concealing just how anti-Semitic he is.


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