The road to Auschwitz

Review: A scrupulous examination of the lack of resistance among the German establishment to the Nazi rise to power in the early 1930s posits that, without their acquiescence, history may have taken a different turn.

A defaced Jewish Shop, 1933, Credit: Chronicle / Alamy Stock Photo.
A defaced Jewish Shop, 1933, Credit: Chronicle / Alamy Stock Photo.

Before the Holocaust: Antisemitic Violence and the Reaction of German Elites and Institutions During the Nazi Takeover, by Herman Beck, Oxford University Press, 2022, 596 pages, hardcover, £22

Almost immediately upon Adolf Hitler’s ascent to power in Germany on 30 January 1933, the state-sponsored persecution of Germany’s Jews commenced and was widely perceived as a brutal attack against the tenets of Western morality. With the solidification of Nazi power in the elections of 5 March, the dam broke. On 25 March, The Manchester Guardian reported: ‘The antisemitic outrages of the last few weeks are far more horrible than could reasonably have been imagined at first … hundreds of Jews have been beaten … Jewish shops have been closed and raided, Jewish homes have been searched and thrown into disorder … The police have either not interfered at all, or with deliberate ineffectiveness, when these outrages have been committed.’

Or as Herman Beck sums it up in his latest work Before the Holocaust: Antisemitic Violence and the Reaction of German Elites and Institutions During the Nazi Takeover: ‘Looking back on the late winter and spring of 1933, the speed and character of the events are difficult to fathom: exactly five weeks to the day after Hitler had become Chancellor, Germany was inundated by a wave of anti-Jewish violence … including pillory marches, assaults with robbery, grievous bodily harm, abductions, extortions and murder.’

One would think that violence of this kind would have been duly registered and investigated by the relevant German authorities, since most of them took place in full view of society and during a period when some semblance of judicial order still existed, but as Beck soon discovered, most of them were not. Police records state ‘barely any evidence of antisemitic attacks.’

Nevertheless, no-one could fail to note what was happening to the Jews in Germany during the first weeks of the Nazi regime. On record are hundreds of complaints from foreign embassies in Berlin detailing violent attacks against Jews who were citizens of their countries. In cities and villages all over Germany, people considered Jews or friends of Jews were forced to march through the streets with humiliating and dehumanising placards around their necks, visible to all. As Beck writes, ‘in 1933 most adults in Germany would at least have heard of this very conspicuous form of public humiliation.’

Among them, the pillory march in central Frankfurt am Main on the morning of Thursday, 30 March 1933, when the Jewish vice-president of the Chamber of Commerce was arrested and ‘a large number of the most respected members of the Jewish business community were marched in single file with their hands raised through the busiest streets of the town.’

In early April, the on-going assault on Germany’s Jews made headlines all over the world and stirred reactions of shock and dismay; the violent boycott of Jewish shops and businesses, the banning of Jewish lawyers from practicing law, the dismissal of Jewish professionals from universities, hospitals, courts and other state-controlled institutions, the burning of ‘Jewish’ books. On 1 April 1933, the large Swedish newspaper, Dagens Nyheter, characterised the anti-Jewish policies of Nazi Germany as ‘a crime against civilization,’ and a member of the Högsta Domstolen, the Swedish High Court of Justice,  described the dismissal of Jewish judges from Germany’s courts ‘as a stab in the heart of the [Western] constitutional state.  Local newspapers reacted in similar terms. ‘One almost fears that our species is sliding back into barbarism,’ Eskilstuna-Kuriren wroteon 3 April.  ‘A purer form of barbarism cannot be imagined,’ said Oscarshamns Nyheter.‘This is a barbarism which hardly had any equivalent even in the Middle Ages,’ Östersunds Länstidning added.

On 26 April, a Christian-inspired manifesto, published in several Swedish newspapers, among them Dagens Nyheter, appealed ‘to Swedish Christians of all denominations to assert the human dignity and brotherly love of Christ against racial hatred.’

No doubt then, what the Germans were witnessing first-hand and increasingly became party to, was perceived as a civilizational earthquake. And as the world reacted with protests and appeals, one would expect that at least a part of the traditional ‘elites’ of the German society, the heirs of Kant and Goethe, would do the same.

Why then, didn’t they? How come, that from the very first days of the Hitler regime, the traditional ‘elite’ institutions of German society: the courts; universities; schools; the churches, and academia, not only failed to resist the rapid break-down of the traditional moral and legal order, but all too soon became accomplices to it.

The inability or unwillingness of prominent leaders of the influential Protestant church, to firmly dissociate themselves from the racial and antisemitic tenets of the Nazi regime was perhaps most disturbing. Instead, a significant faction of the Church, under the name of German Christians, Deutsche Christen, would turn to Nazism, expelling long-time Church members of the Jewish ‘race,’ declaring Jesus to be Aryan, eradicating the Jewish sources of Christianity, and making anti-Jewishness a foundation of a new national German Church.

As Protestant and Catholic churches around the world pleaded with the German churches to raise their voice in protest, central representatives of the Protestant Church in Germany reacted with defiance. On 24 March 1933, the chairman of the Committee for the Evangelical Churches in Germany, [Deutscher Evangelischer Kirchenausschuss], Hermann Kapler, responded with indifference to a concerned appeal from an American church leader, Dr Samuel Cadman, that the accusations against the German government were ‘based on false reports’. And another member of the committee, Georg Burghart, cabled the American Lutheran Council: ‘Warn urgently not to believe exaggerated and invented reports about terror in Germany.’

When some regional church leaders, such as Johannes Kübel in Frankfurt, asked the common representatives of the Church to speak out in protest, they were largely ignored or even rebuked. Kübel begged Hermann Kappel to consider steps by which ‘our Christian scruples [can be brought] before the leading men of the government,’ while a church leader in Bavaria, Wilhelm von Pechmann, in a cable to the Federal Church Office in Berlin [Kirchenbundesamt] on March 30 1933, warned it would be ‘calamitous if our Church would decide to remain silent at such a time,’ but to no avail.

There were appeals from individual church members as well. A woman married to a man of Jewish background, apparently converted, wrote on 3 May 1933: ‘Mortally wounded inside, I wait for a word from the church … which raised no racial objections when we entered it, but administered the sacraments, baptised our children, and now repudiates us all … Does anyone appreciate the sorrow of those declared outlawed and without a homeland?’

In spite of numerous similar appeals, the Protestant Church assumed a position of cagey caution, muffled indifference, or worse. A leading official of the Federal Church Office in Berlin, Johannes Gisevius, responded to yet another appeal for action, from the theology professor Gustav Krüger, by exculpating and defending the policy against the Jews. ‘German citizens had been placed at a severe disadvantage because of exaggerated preferences shown to Jews in State service, in science and scholarship, in the free professions,’ Gisevius wrote. The time had come ‘to remedy deeply felt defects and abuses.’

Beck is careful to emphasise that during this early phase of the Nazi regime, the exculpations and outright defences of anti-Jewish measures did not emanate only from the pro-Nazi ‘German Christians,’ but also from the traditional establishment of German Protestantism. ‘Strikingly,’ Beck notes, established Church leaders were not even prepared to speak up in defence of their own members of Jewish origin and uphold the morality of the Ten Commandments. They blatantly failed to stand up for the most basic of their self-proclaimed beliefs and tenets.

Beck scrupulously uncovers a similar lack of protest and resistance, and a similar tendency to exculpate and explain away the anti-Jewish outrages amongst other traditional elites in German society, and his conclusion is straightforward; they were highly impregnated with historic anti-semitic notions and stereotypes and therefore predisposed to understand the Nazi attitude towards the Jews, even if they might have disagreed with its more violent and lawless expressions.

As ever more moral barriers were crossed — the racial laws of 1935, the pogroms of November 1938, the public ostracisation and dehumanisation of former neighbours and friends, a new Nazi morality was established, and ever more Germans became silent bystanders, willing accomplices, or active perpetrators, which arguably prepared the moral ground for ‘the final solution to the Jewish problem.’

This raises the disturbing question, how innately German were the events that eventually led to the Holocaust? Could the moral foundations of Western society have been blown away as easily elsewhere? Could something similar have happened in, let’s say, France or Britain?

This, we can never know, of course. What we can know, or should know, is that a similar process of creeping moral numbing — the accommodation to policies and actions that only recently had caused widespread shock and dismay — could be observed in Germany’s surrounding countries. The common reluctance, tacitly tinged with antisemitism, to provide safe havens to the outlawed Jews of Germany and Austria, culminating in the failed conference of Evian in the summer of 1938, is a case in point.

Although the circumstances that made for Hitler’s ascent to power undoubtedly were particular to Germany, Beck’s documentation of the conspicuous lack of resistance to the outrages throughout the West nevertheless raises the question of whether there was an innately more German factor at play after all. The Church could have raised its voice but did not. Or as Konrad Adenauer, the incoming leader of West Germany, wrote on 26 February 1946: ‘I believe that if all the bishops … had protested from their pulpits on a given day, much could have been avoided. This did not happen, and there is no excuse for it.’

Beck thus seems to approach the claim made by Daniel Jonah Goldhagen in his controversial 1996 study, Hitler’s Willing Executioners, where he stated: ‘After January 1933, no public institutionalized support existed in Germany for any views of Jews other the one already long dominant in Germany … Every important national institution or forum of expression promoted the notion that the Jews were unalterably hostile and dangerous for Germany.’ Goldhagen further contended that an ‘eliminationist antisemitism’ with ‘a genocidal potential’ had existed in the German society long before Hitler came to power. But as the critics of Goldhagen were careful to point out, the process of demonising and dehumanising Jews, and thus erasing the moral and social barriers for their persecution and elimination, was not German — and it was not new. It is true that the Holocaust as it happened, was conceived, planned and executed by Germans, but the Germans had no difficulty in recruiting ‘willing executioners’ in whatever country the mass killing of Jews took place. With a different outcome of the war (the irresistible contra-factual temptation) they might very well have been recruited in many other countries as well. Indeed, the swift deportation of Norwegian Jews in late November 1942 would hardly have been possible without the participation of willing Norwegians.

Beck concludes his study with the claim that during the first months of the Nazi state, opposition and resistance from traditional German elites to anti-Jewish acts were not only feasible, but would have made a difference. And although this claim is hard to verify in hindsight, it brings forth the perhaps most lasting lesson from the events in Germany that paved the way for the Holocaust: traditional elites, ‘respectable people’ in Beck’s parlance, silently acquiescing to, or actively colluding with a leader and a movement that openly manifested its contempt for the rule of law, and openly demanded the elimination of Jews from society. As so it might be today: traditional elites and institutions hoping to tame the political beasts of our time, ending up being devoured by them.

For anyone trying to understand how the traditional elites of a major political party in a major Western society could turn into spineless sycophants of an egomaniac political leader bent on destroying the constitutional and moral foundations of their own society by means of scaremongering and hateful propaganda, the study of Germany before the Holocaust might provide an insight or two.


Göran Rosenberg