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One of the disconcerting aspects of totalitarian regimes is how speedy their descent into evil can be. France and Russia went from venerable monarchies to revolutionary genocide in a short time. No sooner had the Khmer Rouge marched into Phnom Penh than they were marching people out to agricultural fields and killing fields. Then, of course, there is Nazi Germany.

Exactly how Nazi Germany descended into the Holocaust remains a matter for scholarly debate although that time has been examined extensively. There is no question anti-semitism plagued Europe from medieval times. There is also little question that Hitler had many “willing executioners” as Daniel Goldhagen has documented. The excuse “We didn’t know” has been well debunked. And most of the chronology of the descent is very well known.

But Goldhagen and others may be partially errant in positing that pre-Nazi German culture possessed such virulent anti-semitism that it was only short steps to the Holocaust. Claudia Koonz in The Nazi Conscience suggests that was not the case – which should make what afterwards transpired that much more alarming.

Although there was certainly an undercurrent of European anti-semitism, along with fanatical anti-semites at the fringes of German politics, Koonz states that in a number of ways Germany was among the least anti-semitic European nations in the years before 1933. That is one reason, full of tragic irony, that persecuted Jews often fled to Germany before 1933. And “anti-Semitism played little role in attracting voters to Nazism” in 1933 beyond the hardcore earlier Nazis. Deep and justified frustration with incompetent Weimar German government and fear, also justified, of Communism were primary in attracting the mass of new voters. And even then those who voted for the Nazis were well short of a majority. It wasn’t until after the Nazis gained power and wielded more influence on society that German anti-semitism began to exceed what was mainstream among Europeans. As Koonz put it, “Germans did not become Nazis because they were anti-semites; they became anti-semites because they were Nazis.”

That most Germans did not initially concur with hardcore Nazi anti-semitism is reflected in Hitler’s political strategy in the early to mid-30’s. Ever sensitive to public opinion, Hitler in his long speeches and media bombardments said little directly against Jews. Further, after reading the proposed texts of speakers at the 1933 Nuremberg Rally, he had some of the more blatant anti-semitic passages deleted. Yes, his earlier Mein Kampf was very much in circulation, but when the Nazi government under Walter Gross’ Office of Racial Politics published a pamphlet of quotations from Mein Kampf suitable for gift giving, racism was for the most part deleted.

Koonz examines Walter Gross’ views and methods although he is not as well known as other Nazi leaders. Towards the end in April 1945, he burnt his files then killed himself, so he has not been an easy target for researchers. But Koonz took up the challenge. One of her notable findings is how he tailored his message for his audience. Broad audiences heard of preserving the Volk of Germany; committed Nazi audiences were the ones to hear more overt anti-semitism. And this was the policy of pre-war Nazi propaganda as a whole. The infamous propagandist Joseph Goebbels himself approved of Gross’ approach. Nazi leaders frequently took the pulse of public opinion and knew Germans as a whole were not virulent anti-semites and were not interested in harsh persecution of Jews. SA guards trying to encourage a boycott of Jewish-owned stores early on in 1933 found this out first hand as many housewives walked right past them into said stores to shop. Gross himself was often discouraged by how unreceptive Germans were to Nazi anti-semitism.

In the long speeches of his successful campaigns and early Chancellorship, Hitler also restrained himself from fully venting his anti-semitism. It wasn’t until January 30th, 1939, in a speech celebrating the sixth anniversary of his appointment as Chancellor, that Hitler became more overt. Apparently he was confident enough that six years of Nazi propaganda against Jews had done enough work to come out and say, “If the international Jewish financial establishment in Europe and beyond succeeds in plunging the peoples of the world into yet another world war, then the result will not be a Bolshevization of the globe and thus a victory for Jewry, but the annihilation of the Jewish race in Europe.”

Oddly, this passage of his speech did not get much notice at the time. By late 1941, methodical genocide against European Jews had begun.

I do recommend Claudia Koonz’s The Nazi Conscience to see how this could have happened in eight years. She does not excuse Germans (Nor do I.) and also debunks the “We didn’t know” excuse. But she also lets us know the causes of this descent were complex and that the views of everyday Germans in the mid-1930’s were hardly genocidal outside of the most hardline Nazis.

But for now we will note that a supposed pre-Nazi or even early Nazi Germany societal consensus eager for murderous persecution of Jews did not exist; it is not why Nazi Germany descended so quickly from a relatively rational and civilized society into a genocidal one – which, again, makes the descent that much more alarming and a warning to us.

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