A travel course on German political history inevitably confronts the holocaust. Of the 11 million humans killed, six million were Jews and the rest were Slavic, gay, gypsi (Roma and Sinti), pacifist, socialist or otherwise “ungerman.” Yet its very easy to fall for caricatures. To believe that the Germans were somehow seduced into a kind of unique evil, undertaking an unbelievably heinous crime while delivering Europe into the most destructive war in human history. Or that Hitler was an inhuman pathological monster with super human seductive skills, and Germans were driven by racial bigotry and anger at the Versailles treaty!
Alas, history is not so simple. Germany wasn’t that much different than other states in Europe, and anti-semitism has a long history full of pogroms and extermination efforts. Hitler wasn’t that much different than other people; indeed, it’s dangerous to think such people must have been obvious monsters, that would prevent us from recognizing them in our midst today! The technology of the past wasn’t sufficient to create the kind of holocaust experienced in the 20th Century (not to mention Stalin’s purges and various other mass killings/genocides of the last century), but in a real way WWII and the holocaust was a culmination of hundreds of years of European history.
That’s why we visited the museum and memorial at Judenplatz in the old Jewish section of Vienna, ordered destroyed in the so called Vienna Geserah of 1420-21. Up until the first crusade in 1096 Jews had lived relatively normal lives in Europe despite real anti-semitism. They performed services that Christians could not, and thus were protected by nobility. As the Catholic church gained power and reach after the embrace of Aristotle in the 13th Century, Jews soon became a convenient scapegoat.
Hapsburg Duke Albrecht V, accusing Jews of colluding with the enemy in a war, ordered the elimination of the Jewish population in Vienna. While many Jews escaped down the Danube, others were tortured, killed and their property confiscated. Albrecht decreed that no Jews should ever live in Vienna again. They did come back, but that event was for all intents and purposes a holocaust. The technology and reach was not as far, but the goal and brutality was much like that of the Nazi SS 520 years later.
The history of Jews in Europe is complex. Which country seems more anti-Semitic: France during the Dreyfuss affair from 1894 to 1906, when Alfred Dreyfuss was falsely accused of treason, in part because of he was Jewish, or Germany in 1898 when the Kaiser paid a state visit to Jews living in Palestine? Indeed, one reason that Hitler could arouse passion is that Germany let Jews achieve higher positions than in many other parts of Europe – though contrary to claims by Nazi propaganda on average they did no better than the rest of the German population.
Even after the Nazis came to power they got support from people like American flying ace Charles Lindbergh, who praised the unity of purpose of the German people, and dismissed the virulent anti-semitism as a mere annoyance. The British sent ships filled with Jewish refugees back to Germany when they attempted to go to Palestine. The US rejected Jewish refugees as well – antisemitism is part of the western cultural tradition.
Walking around Dachau near Munich it’s easy to forget that the first victims of Nazism weren’t Jews, but rather political opponents of Hitler’s who were round up and sent to concentration camps which were created because of the mass increase in people incarcerated. Hitler’s first opponents were the socialists, democrats, internationalists and pacifists. Later, outside of Germany actual extermination camps were created to do on a broader scale what Albrecht V did in Vienna in 1420-21.
One wants to believe that this centuries long on again off again persecution of Jews is over, that the holocaust was a wake up call to the world. Indeed, right wing radicals in Europe tend to rail against Africans, Arabs and more prevalent minorities, though anti-semitism remains a part of their perverse nationalism.
If history teaches us anything, it’s that cultural baggage persists. Despite the racist ideologies popular throughout Europe and the US in the early 20th Century, something like National Socialism would only be embraced when people were really desperate. In 1928 the Nazis got only 3% of the vote and Hitler was a joke. Then came the great depression, massive poverty, unemployment at near 40%, and a country riddled with internal conflicts and a dysfunctional government.
On the day before our Dachau visit, the European Union had EU Parliamentary elections. These elections are viewed as rather meaningless by Europeans who often use EP elections to register protest votes. Marine Le Pen’s racist National Front got nearly 25% of the vote, the first time it came in first in a French election. Right wing radicals made gains in Denmark and Austria – but got only 1% of the vote in Germany.
Now, throughout the West, we have to stay alert to racism and bigotry, be it against Latinos, gays, blacks, Jews, or any group signaled out because of their identity. It may seem to be a harmless fringe, but given the right circumstance a harmless fringe can become a virulent cancer, destroying a society from within. Unfortunately racism, anti-semitism, and bigotry remain part of the culture heritage of the West. We should not tolerate it.