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Antisemitism in Twentieth Century Europe


Anti-semitism must be understood in its entirety before its role in the Holocaust can be understood. In many different forms, it has been in existence for up to 4,000 years, long before the rise of Christianity. Scorn against the believers of Judaism has ranged from religious hatred to social hatred and, finally, to racial hatred. From advent of Judaism, the Jewish people have been very community and family-oriented, even exclusionistic, believing themselves to be God's chosen people. It was this belief, in many cases, that began the persecution of Jewish people throughout history. For the Greeks, the Babylonians, the Christians, and many others, Judaism was a threat because its people refused to integrate into any other society. Jewish religion placed its people separately from the rest of the world, and was thus doomed to be segregated by political powers.

The Jews came into conflict with the Christians because they do not believe that Jesus is the son of God, but is instead a messiah. This is a many faceted difference that seemed irreconcilable. This divergence of thought between Judaism and Christianity developed into hatred on the part of many, and was widespread in the literature of early Christianity. Martin Luther, the father of the Protestant religion, published many anti-semitic statements during the Reformation of the sixteenth century. However, this Christian anti-semitism had been in existence long before the Reformation, even since the days of the Gospels and from the mouths of Christian saints. One of the most ardent in attacking the Jews was the early church father John Chrysostom, who called the Jews "lustful, rapacious, greedy, perfidious bandits" and "the most miserable of all men" (Wistrich, Robert S. Anti-semitism: The Longest Hatred xv). These feelings toward Jews, therefore, have long been very strong in Christiantiy as well as many other historical communities. They have developed over time to produce such appalling forgeries against Judaism as The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, which was claimed to have been written by the Zionists to outline the "Jewish plan for world takeover."

Anti-semitism only developed into a "racial" problem after Enlightenment thinkers caused Europeans to become more tolerant of religious differences. It was then more convenient to call the Jews a separate race in order to persecute them for something other than their religion. The Jews were called the "killers of God" and usurers, evil and impure, among many other insults. They were said to be committers of deicide, as it was felt that all Jews were responsible for the murder of Jesus Christ. Since Christian ethics forbade usury, or money-lending for profit, the Christians turned to the Jewish when they were in need of monetary assistance. However, they quickly forgot their own borrowing when it became convenient to label the Jews as sinners for their usury. Furthermore, of this hate developed a myth in whcih the hope of the Jews was to take over the world. This myth, along with the stereotypes placed on Jewish people, led many to fear the far-reaching Jewish diffusion into Europe and other parts of the world. From these fears and myths was born anti-semitism in the form we now know it, and in the form which Hitler developed to justify the Holocaust of World War II, as a Jewish "pollution" of superior races by spreading into the communities of European countries and "defiling" the "pure" races.



From the beginning of the Nazi rise to power, one of the highest items on the Nazi agenda was the elimination of Jews from German lands. This was a crucial aspect of the Nazi moevement, as Hitler's eventual plan was to rearm Germany and build up a force to invade other countries and spread the pure Aryan race. Thus, in Hitler's hope for absolute control, he needed to evoke strong feelings in the masses and in the minds of his soldiers so that he would be able to build up a "mob mentality" of support and gain vast support for his movement. German Nationalism was to be one of his major tools. He realized quite perceptibly that after the Treaty of Versailles, in which the German state had been horribly ridiculed, as well as in the following economic crises, the Germans were desperate for a symbol that would pull them back together and bring pride to their country. However, strong nationalism, in the form Hitler planned, required a common enemy for the people, or a "scapegoat." While he found this enemy in many groups, the most prominent was the Jewish community which he had so long abhorred. The Jews were blamed for the signing of the Treaty of Versailles and Germany's consequent embarrassment, and were also said to be responsible for all economic problems the country had endured. Further, the Jews, as Hitler described it, were planning a world take over by the "poisoning" of pure races with Jewish blood.

As soon as Hitler came to power in 1933, the Nazi government moved to eradicate Jewish influence in German political and business spheres. Law followed law as Hitler attempted to remove the Jews from any type of power, but he was also eager to comletely eliminate them from his National Socialist country. When Hitler invaded Poland in 1939, Germany had many Jews of its own, and each time he conquered land he was faced with the "problem" of more Jews, first in Poland, then Holland and Belgium, and finally Norway, France and Russia, not to mention a significant number of Jews from other countries of Europe. To segregate the Jews from the pure Aryan race, the Nazis re-established the Jewish ghettoes in Poland and other countries, which had long fallen out of use, and in which the Jewish famililes were forced to live. Piece by piece, all Jewish rights were removed. The Jews were eventually forbidden to attend theatres and schools, then forced to wear the Star of David at all times so that those of "pure Aryan blood" would immediately recognize them as Jews and thus avoid them. Finally, they were forbidden to walk on the sidewalks of German cities, and the ghettoes quickly became large prisons for entire communities. Even with the development of the ghettoes, however, the number of Jews that lived in Nazi lands could not be "brought under control." They were simply too many, and Hitler was not sure what to do with them. In fact, the Allied nations had met at the Evian Conference in July of 1938 to discuss the problem of Jewish immigration and revise the number of Jews allowed into their countries. For all the apparent effort, however, no nation could seem to agree to take on the burden, and the world turned away from Hitler and his "Jewish Problem."

Those Jews who were not in the ghettoes were placed in forced labor camps or similar institutions disigned to get them out of the way of the German plan. In fact, when Hitler invaded Russia in 1941, many Jews were were simply killed by mobile killing squads known as the Einsatzgruppen, who swept in behind the army and eliminated as many "undesirables" as possible in mass killings. Hundreds of the thousands of Jews and other "inferiors" were killed in this manner, but the majority of them were the Jews who had nowhere else to go and stood in Hitler's way of creating lebensraum (living space) for the pure Aryan race he dreamed of. Life in the ghettoes and concentration camps was harsh from the beginning, as there was no desire to provide for the Jews anymore than was necessary. The victims in concentration camps were, as the German soldiers termed it, "dehumanized," so that the camp leaders and workers would feel no remorse at watching them die. They were forced to give up all individual possessions, their heads were shaved and they were given uniforms, and their names were replaced with tattooed numbers. Many died in the ghettoes due to starvation, rampant disease, or even dehydration.

Finally, in January of 1942, fifteen prominent men of the Nazi government met to discuss a "Final Solution to the Jewish Problem." From this conference, the Wannsee Conference, the decision was made after little debate to terminate all of the Jews that could be of no use to the Nazis in labor camps. Thus began the "elimination" of almost six million Jewish people and over five million others of "undesirable" genetic or racial backgrounds. The hope of the Germans was now to rid themselves of the filthy ghettoes by sending the Jews to extermination camps, concentration camps organized for the purpose of efficiently killing in mass numbers. Within these camps the infamous gas chambers were built, in which hundreds at a time could be asphyxiated with the pesticide Zyklon B, and their bodies burnt in nearby ovens. This decision, this "Final Solution to the Jewish Problem," had made it state policy to simply eliminate the "inferior" people by mass murder.

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