“Yesterday all of my family were living and now – all are dead. Each of us stands as if turn to stone. I weep for my fate, for what I have left to see,” wrote Chil Rajchman, a Holocaust survivor, describing how his life seemed to change within the blink of his eyes. Sadly, it was not only Rajchman that had to experience such changes, but millions of people all over Europe. How this happened still remains a mystery to many, and many possible explanations can be offered. When looking deeper into the situation, it becomes clear that this devastating occurrence was a double-effort, both from the leaders and the common people. Over the course of a decade, the Nazis gained success due to pre-existing anti-semitism, Hitler’s tactics of gaining power in the government, and the lack of resistance or awareness shown by the people of Germany.
Firstly, Hitler would not have been able to turn the masses of people in Europe against the Jewish people if it was not for Europe’s history of anti-semitism, beginning all the way back from the crucification of Jesus. Although there was a much more logical group of people to take the blame for this act, the Romans, fingers were pointed towards the Jews, sparking a hatred, division, and bias against the Jews that would last for centuries.
Two other periods of time in which Europe showed strong feelings of anti-semitism was during medieval times, as well as the early 19th and late 20th centuries. In the first of these two, many European countries would confine Jews in ghettos, and treat them with less respect and value than the rest of the population. The latter occurred in Russia, where Jewish communities were mistreated and massacred in a series of events that would later be known as Pogroms. These normalized the segregation, oppression, and violent treatment of Jews, making it harder for the people of Europe to recognize just how far Hitler would eventually go. Since Jews had been treated with such cruelty in Europe previous to Hitler, the Holocaust seemed much less inhumane than it truly was, and didn’t gain significant attention until much farther down the road.
Alongside Europe’s pre-existing bias against the Jews, an event as large as the Holocaust needed a strong and powerful leader, which is what made Hitler himself so significant. However, some may wonder how a man with such an extreme background and radical ideas won the support of the public. While saying that the public stood alongside Hitler would not be far from the truth, it is important to point out that Hitler was never elected into power, but rather utilized clever tactics in order to climb up the political ladder.
Firstly, Hitler was appointed as Chancellor by the President of Germany. While he was under this position, a fire occurred in the Reichstag, a governmental building in Germany. Hitler was quick to blame the Communists for this fire, which not only helped severely undermine his political opponent, but also showed how much influence he had on the public even at this point of time. Further, he used the fire as an excuse to declare a national emergency, which granted the President executive and final power under Article 48 of the Weimar Constitution, Germany’s code of law at the time. After this, the President passed this right onto Hitler, which marked the start of Hitler abusing his power as Chancellor. While his official position did not appear to be too powerful, in reality, he had a large amount of governmental control. Finally, after years of being in office as Chancellor, then assuming the combined position of Chancellor and President after the President’s death, Hitler passed the Enabling Act, which granted him dictatorial power over Germany for a period of four years. He was now officially the most powerful man in Germany without ever being publically approved.
The final step to the devastation of the Holocaust was not a series of specific events, but rather a mindset of a group of people, that group being the common people of Germany. Throughout all of the occurrences under Hitler’s control, from the isolation of the Jews to the mass murder of them, the German people showed little to no resistance, beginning with the lower ranking Nazis, around whom there is avid debate about whether or not they should be blamed for the Holocaust. Many of these Nazis were average people in Germany who were working for Hitler under the excuse that they were simply “following orders.” In a series of psychological experiments conducted around human tendencies with obedience, it became clear that a vast majority of humans would partake in extreme actions as long as they did not take the official blame for it. Under their logic, this meant that they were not doing anything wrong, as they were simply carrying out the wishes of their authority. This mentality was most likely the one that was followed by the Nazi employees.
As for the people who were not associated with Hitler whatsoever, and possibly even disagreed with his ideas, they did not stand up to him or show resistance towards the Nazis in any way. This in of itself was enough to help the Nazis succeed. Why they committed the act of “non-action” can be explained for a number of reasons, the most popular being fear. However, another explanation is simply a lack of attention. In an interview with a German professor, he stated that at the time, the German people did not think about the true severity of the events that were occurring around them. He explained, “Nazism gave us some dreadful, fundamental things to think about and kept us so busy with continuous changes and “crises”… that we had no time to think about these dreadful things that were growing, little by little, all around us. Unconsciously, I suppose we were grateful. Who wants to think.” It is clear that the German people possessed a degree of ignorance, alongside the fear, that kept them from standing up to the Nazis, making it so much easier for the Holocaust to be as “successful” as it was.
While the details of how this event escalated so quickly will always be discussed and disputed by many, it can be agreed that the cause of the Holocaust did not happen due to a single entity, but rather a combination of different people with different ideologies. Without Europe’s long history of anti-semitism, paired with Hitler’s fast and cunning ascend into power, and finally, the obedience and lack of attention shown by the German People, the Holocaust would not have reached such great peaks. Without the contributions of leaders and their silent followers, the lives of people like Rajchman, as well as the entire country of Germany, may not have changed just as negatively and rapidly as it did.