Tarek El Zein
Jesus or Hitler?
Anti-Semitism was widespread in Europe at the time Hitler came to power. Much of this anti-Semitism was rooted, first, in religious beliefs that arose more than 1500 years before Hitler came to power, and second, on political beliefs, often cynically exploited for political gain. Though it was not accepted by everyone, this existing anti-Semitism was common and provided a receptive audience for Hitler’s anti-Semitic claims.
Hitler did not just exploit the existing anti-Semitism in Germany; he changed it and built on it until it became an all-consuming obsession both for himself and for the rest of the National Socialist leadership. The most significant difference between traditional anti-Semitism and the philosophy of the Nazis was that the basis for the anti-Semitism was distorted and changed. Previous anti-Semitism had been based upon religious convictions – primarily on the questionable fact that Jews were responsible for the execution of Jesus – and political attacks to exclude Jews from the rest of society.
Although he exploited this religious anti-Semitism, Hitler and the other Nazi leaders, who were opposed to traditional religions, found another basis for their hatred of the Jews. They relied on the theories of “eugenics” and “social Darwinism” which were then common in Europe and transformed them into “race science.” They also used the political expression of anti-Semitism coupled with the myth of the Aryans. This myth had developed in Europe the last part of the 19th century. According to Hitler’s philosophy the Germanic peoples called “Aryans,” were superior to all other races and had the right to rule over them. Hitler and the other Nazis claimed that other races, such as the Slavs and the Poles, were inferior species fit only to serve Aryan man. The Jews were even lower than the Slavs. Hitler believed that “Aryans” were the builders of civilization while Jews were parasites fit only for extermination. This racism had a political agenda as well. Hitler blamed the Jews for the loss of World War I, which he called “the stab in the back” and made the focus of his political campaigns. The combination of religious anti-Semitism and political anti-Semitism with patriotism led many German people to accept Hitler’s message.
One of the stumbling blocks to even wider acceptance of the Nazis’ racism was the assimilation of Jews into German life. Unlike the Jews of Eastern Europe, German Jews considered themselves no different from other Germans, but in religion. They were merchants and scholars and professional people who went to the same schools and gathered in the same places as other Germans. And, for their part, the other Germans were used to dealing with Jewish businessmen and having their ailments treated by Jewish doctors. As Heinrich Himmler stated in a speech to SS officers long after the actual extermination began, every German had a “favorite Jew.” When Hitler came to power he could not expect the masses of ordinary German people to agree to his program of extermination. Instead the Nazis led them to that end by gradual steps. From the day that Hitler took power in January 1933 there were efforts to terrorize Jews and exclude them from German life. As soon as Hitler eliminated his political opposition in Germany and suspended the Weimar Constitution, he and his associates started to build a brick wall between Jews and the other Germans. Jews were expelled from schools and fired from their jobs because of their beliefs. There were organized boycotts of Jewish businesses enforced by brown-shirted thugs known as “stormtroopers” or the SA. These early measures were only the beginning.
The second step in isolating German Jews from the rest of the country were the Nuremberg laws passed in 1935 which fashioned the anti-Semitic agenda of the Nazis into the law of Germany. The Nuremberg laws forbade Jews from practicing professions such as medicine, law, and teaching. These laws also regulated interaction between Jews and other Germans. Jews were forbidden from employing non-Jews and it was a criminal offense for a Jew to have a relationship with a non-Jew. Even the act of kissing a non-Jew could bring a long prison sentence. The courts and the feared SA enforced these laws. During this period Jews