‘A World Without The Jews’: Nazi Ideology, German Imagination and The Holocaust[1]


Erna Petri née Kürbs, a farmer’s daughter from Herressen in Thuringia, arrived in Ukraine with her three year old son to join her husband Horst in June 1942. Horst, an SS leader inspired by Nazi ideologue Dr Richard Walter Darré, settled in the plantation of Grzenda, just outside today’s Lviv, to become a German Gentleman-Farmer. Erna saw Horst beating and abusing the workers in the plantation within two days of arriving there, which was, as Horst explained, necessary for establishing authority. Erna joined in enthusiastically, settling into a combination of roles of ‘plantation mistress, prairie Madonna in apron-covered dress lording over slave labourers, infant-carrying, gun-wielding Hausfrau.’[2] However, there were clear rules in the plantation, and Erna was very much expected to play the woman’s role of being a Cake-and-Coffee hostess. When four Jews were caught in the estate while trying to escape from a transport to a death camp, Horst told Erna and her female guest that ‘this was men’s work, nothing that women should be concerned about’: They heard four Pistol shots as they walked away.

However, in Summer 1943, on her way home on a horse-drawn carriage, when Erna discovered a group of semi-naked Children crouching on the side of the road - she knew these were Saschkow Jews breaking out from the transports to extermination camp as they were naked - she beckoned them and took them home. She fed them and waited for Horst, who was not at home, and when he failed to turn up in the evening, she

told the children to line up facing away from her, in front of the ditch. She held up the pistol about ten centimeters from the first child’s neck and shot the child, and then moved on and did the same to the second. After she shot the first two, “the others were at first shocked, and began to cry. They did not cry loudly, they whimpered”. Erna would not allow herself “to be swayed”; she shot “until all of them lay in the gully. None of the children tried to run away since it appeared that they already had been in transit for several days and were totally exhausted”.[3]

Erna’s story is jarring not just because she was a woman, but also because she did not have to do it. One of the dominant postwar explanations of perpetrator behaviour was that they were acting on orders, and the perpetrators in public imagination became the bureaucrats, mindlessly sending docile Jews to gas chambers without thinking about their actions.  In 1961, when Horst and Erna were tried for these murders, she did not deny that she killed the children. But she pointed to the circumstances, that she was young, not in contact with other women, and surrounded by an environment where Jews were shot with regularity. She said she ‘did not want to stand behind the SS men’ and ‘wanted to prove (herself) to the men’.[4]

However, the situational explanation alone may not be sufficient to explain how a woman, herself the mother of two children by then, would kill the children without hesitation. When asked, Erna explained

Earlier I had been so conditioned to fascism and racial laws, which established a view towards the Jewish people. As was told to me, I had to destroy the Jews. It was from this mindset that I came to commit such a brutal act.[5]

This interpretative essay is an attempt to understand the role of Nazi ideology in the perpetration of Holocaust. Erna’s narrative is somewhat totemic for this approach: Her case conflates the questions of personal and collective will, the ideological and situational motivations and the inexplicable yet predictable participation. And that is just as well: Due to the legalistic origins of much of the insights into perpetration, many of these issues have commonly been presented in form of binary choices. Besides, the question of Nazi Ideology and Perpetration had itself become an ideological battleground during the Cold War, and the priorities of pragmatic assimilation of the perpetrators had often overshadowed the historical understanding of Perpetration.[6] This discussion that follows, therefore, would aim to place the stereotypes of perpetrators and the binary nature of the ideological-versus-situational explanations in its historiographical context, and explore the issue of Perpetration within the broader context of ‘ideology as a cultural system’[7] and of the ‘German’ imagination of nationhood, war and history.

The Fanatic and The Functionary

The historian’s understanding of the role of Nazi Ideology in Holocaust has evolved over time with the perception of the Perpetrator personality, which, at least in the years before the German unification, was often shaped by prosecutions of the perpetrators in different countries, deliberate turns of policy owing to pragmatic concerns of the Cold War as well as theoretical developments and empirical investigations in social sciences.   

At the International Military Tribunal (IMT) at Nuremberg after the war, the American prosecutors presented the Nazi mass murder as a premeditated conspiracy that the Nazi leaders launched with the war itself, with the objective of designating some German organisations and institutions as ‘criminal’, primarily to simplify the task of the prosecution in the face of a large number, hundreds of thousands, of perpetrators. Within this framework, individual crimes were to be judged in their ‘political, ideological and institutional context’ and ‘the crimes of those directly and personally involved in the mass murder of Jewish men, women and children appeared not just as isolated actions, but as part of state-sponsored policy.’[8]

The prosecution strategy acknowledged the key role of ideology and made it easy to secure indictment of some of the key accused, including Julius Streicher, for preparing the ground for murder through the anti-semitic propaganda in the Stürmer. The prosecution approach, however, put Himmler’s SS as the key agency that carried out the Mass Murder, solely for ideological reasons. Thus defined, the decisions about mass murder was made by the top Nazi leadership, and carried out by fanatical SS members, limiting the scope of personal responsibilities of rank-and-file perpetrators outside the apparatuses of the Nazi Party and the SS.

It also mattered which agencies the IMT did not designate as Criminal. The Wehrmacht, the Judiciary, German Police and State Bureaucracy, as well as the SA, were ‘let off the hook’[9]. The majority decision to acquit the High Command (OKW) and the General Staff of the Wehrmacht, despite mounting evidence of its active participation was highly contentious (as the Soviet member of the Tribunal, I T Nikitchenko, would point out in his dissenting opinion, the OKW was active participants in ‘the conspiracy against peace and humanity, issued the ‘most brutal degrees and orders’ and was guilty of ‘most brutal police action in the occupied regions’[10]) and showed that the pragmatic considerations of rebuilding a German army and the State took precedence over considerations of historical evidence. While the Commanders of each branch of the Armed forces, Keitel, Goring and Doenitz, were sentenced, the High Command, hundreds of Senior Officers of the General Staff and OKW, were considered to be merely carrying out orders from above.

The Nuremberg proceedings revolved around an idea of Nazi Germany’s internal structure, and assumed a kind of ‘superior order’ at the heart of the murderous enterprise of the Holocaust. The ‘Order from above’ theory also formed the basis of defence of many accused of War Crimes. At Nuremberg, Otto Ohlendorf, the Commanding Officer of Einstazgruppe D, admitted to killing 90,000 people between June 1941 and June 1942, but saw ‘no atrocities or brutalities’ as they were ‘carried out in military fashion’ (and he saw ‘an adult’ in every child, simplifying the conundrum). Ohlendorf argued that he carried out the orders of mass shooting in spite of his own ‘scruples’ - as ‘it is inconceivable that a subordinate leader should not carry out orders given by the leaders of the state’[11]. While Ohlendorf was sentenced to death, the line of argument that the Perpetrators were merely carrying out orders was employed successfully for others at Nuremberg as well as in a number of successor trials.

This approach placed Nazi ideology at the heart of Europe-wide mass murder, and placed the responsibility of this on the high officials of the Nazi Party and the SS. Thus defined, the responsibility of the mass murder was somewhat limited to ‘the Fanatics’ and allowed the German society to draw a line around the ‘Nazi crimes’.  Eugen Kogon noted in 1946 that ‘the majority his compatriots denied any deeper involvement in historical guilt and dismissed the Nazi era as anomalous and isolated interlude in German history’.[12] SS became the ‘the alibi of the nation’, as Gerald Reitlinger called it. Matthäus maintains, at this point, ‘while not every SS man was regarded as a killer.. every killer had to be an SS man’.[13]

The SS members were also come to be viewed as a group of social misfits, based on survivor accounts such as Eugen Kogon’s Theory and Practice of Hell, based on his own experiences at Buchenwald. Kogon portrayed the SS guards as ‘people who had not advanced in normal police service, and a number of newly-hired wash outs, most of whom had had no qualifications in terms of character or specialised training’[14]. Even “the intellectuals in the ranks of the SS”, Kogon held, were people without college degrees, and a “disproportionate number of failed elementary school teachers”. In Kogon’s portrayal, the SS guards compensated for their professional shortcomings through arrogant treatment of the prisoners.[15] Gerald Reitlinger also presented the SS members as ‘social misfits’ and ‘lost legion of unemployed intellectuals’.[16]

The presentation of the Nazis and the SS in a ‘demonic guise’ in German Newspapers, with stories about the flights of Martin Bormann and Josef Mengle into remote corners of South America, allowed a narrative of a criminal, conspiratorial cult responsible for mass murders to develop. Michael Wildt (2009) maintains

In this way, the evil was successfully partitioned off. Respectable men and women rebuilt Post-war Germany from the rubble, while inhuman criminals who had, so to speak, occupied an innocent country in 1933 remained in hiding overseas.[17]   

Such distinctions were, however, rendered untenable after the publication of Raul Hilberg’s The Destruction of European Jews in 1961. Hilberg, a Political Scientist, focused on the the mechanism of the mass murder, presenting detailed evidence of the participation of wider German bureaucracy and the population. For Hilberg, the perpetrators “were not different in their moral makeup from the rest of the population. The German perpetrator was not a special kind of German”, but rather represented “a remarkable cross-section of the German population” and participated in a machinery that “was structurally no different from organized German society as a whole.”[18]

The new image of the Perpetrator was further shaped by Adolf Eichmann’s capture in Argentina and 1963 trial in Jerusalem. Eichmann did not deny his role, but presented himself as a ‘mere cog’, convincing Hannah Arendt that ‘everybody could see that this man was not a “monster”, but it was difficult indeed not to suspect that he was not a clown’ [19] and that

Except for an extraordinary diligence in looking out for his personal advancement, he had no motives at all. And this diligence in itself was in no way criminal; he certainly would never have murdered his superior in order to inherit his post. He merely, to put the matter colloquially, never realized what he was doing. [20] 

Adolf Eichmann’s televised appearance, like a ‘middling office worker’, helped create a new Perpetrator type in public imagination: The Functionary or Bureaucrat. Further, Stanley Milgram’s experimental studies on Obedience to Authority, inspired by Eichmann trials and conducted at Yale in 1963, presented a new argument for Perpetration: They were obeying orders, without considering the consequences of their actions (Arendt called it, memorably, ‘the banality of evil’). The West German legal system, which treated existence of an ideological motive critical for indictment for Nazi era crimes, also encouraged self-portrayal for many perpetrators, SS and non-SS alike, as Functionaries carrying out the orders without an ideological commitment of their own.

However, both ideas of the Perpetrator-as-a-Fanatic and Perpetrator-as-a-Functionary, as it developed through the sequences of post-war trials, empirical and experimental studies in Social Science, were connected with a consistent idea of the role of Nazi ideology. The Historians’ view of the role of ideology, up to this point, would later be called ‘Intentionalism’. ‘Intentionalism’ emerged in a way from the approach of IMT at Nuremberg [21] and presented a top-down explanation of the Third Reich in general, and of Holocaust in particular. At the centre of the intentionalist argument was the ideological position of Hitler, and the Third Reich as a regime motivated by the objective of elimination of the Jews from Germany, and later, from its European domains. Lucy Dawidowicz writes in 1975, “Once Hitler adopted an ideological position, even a strategic one, he adhered to it with limpetlike fixity, fearful lest he be accused, if he changed his mind, of incertitude, of capriciousness on ‘essential questions’. He had long range plans to realize his ideological goals, and the destruction of the Jews was at their center.”[22]

The challenge to this view, and its presentation of Third Reich as a coherent, purposeful regime came from a new generation of German Historians from Munich’s Institute of Contemporary History, who would be later called ‘Functionalists’. Writing in 1977, Martin Broszat, while acknowledging Hitler’s ‘fanatical, destructive will to annihilate’, presented the emergence of the ‘Final Solution’ as a process that emerged ‘bit by bit’, rather than from one ‘superior order’.[23] Rather than an ideological pursuit of annihilation of the Jews regardless of the realities of the war, this alternative view presented the emergence of mass murder as a series of practical steps and local initiatives trying to find a solution to the ‘Jewish Question’. In the functionalist universe, the Functionary leads the Fanatical, expanding the programme of mass murder as the realities of war set in and defined what could be done. The technocrat was no longer at odds with the Ideologue, as presented in self-exculpatory accounts such as Albert Speer, but at one, and was following Hans Frank’s formulation of what Arendt called the ‘categorical imperative of the Third Reich’: “Act in such a way that the Fuhrer, if he knew your action, would approve it”.[24] Brutality, rather than being long planned and directed from above, emerged from below as well as above, and followed a process of ‘cumulative radicalisation’, a process of learning when a new ground was broken - such as the use of Zyklon B - and competition between individual and departments to outdo one another.

While it was possible to take the functionalist argument too far and present the Holocaust as a result of many ground-level initiatives unrelated to the ideological ‘Jewish Question’ that the Nazi leadership set out to solve, the key contribution of the functionalist ideas in understanding of the Holocaust can be seen in two areas: First, in the increased focus on local initiatives and individual perpetrators that followed, particularly after the opening of Soviet and East European archives, after the end of Cold War; and second, in greater scrutiny of Nazi Ideology as a top-down, irrational pursuit, driven by a small clique of fanatics and carried out by a group of obedient bureaucrats. Instead, a number of empirical studies, involving different institutions and sections of German society, quickly emerged, presenting a more multi-dimensional view of the Holocaust beyond premediation of the Nazi elites. German army’s role in the Eastern Europe became subject to new research, free of ideological considerations of the Cold War (though it remained contentious in Germany). Also, as Sir Richard Evans points out in a recent article [25], a second generational change, ‘as the senior members of the German professions (medicine, law, education and so on), who had started their careers during the Nazi period, reached retirement age and relinquished power to younger colleagues, who had not been implicated in the crimes of the Third Reich’ , allowed a large scale reckoning with the past, and explorations of the roles of the doctors in killing mental patients, of judges and lawyers in the persecution of homosexuals and asocials, of academics planning large scale extermination programmes, of the police and civil servants in the Holocaust. Women’s role, presented by Robert Kempner in Nuremberg and which was largely ignored in Historical Research since, were examined in new studies such as Wendy Lower’s, cited above. The distinctions of Fanatics and Functionaries became blurred as new evidences emerged. Adolf Eichmann, the arch-type functionary, came across a more complex, ideologically motivated antisemite that his deliberate defence strategy in Jerusalem would have suggested [26]. Group biographies such as Michael Wildt’s study of the leadership of the Reich Security Main Office (RSHA) presented a more ‘mainstream’ image of the SS leadership - mostly college educated, many with Doctoral degrees in Law and Humanities, most in a profession better than their fathers - a group not of misfits and failures, but as socially mobile young men shaped by the experiences of the Great War and Hyperinflation[27]. A new perpetrator type - The Ordinary - came increasingly into view.

The Ordinary Men and The Question of Ideology

In the pioneering work about the policemen of Reserve Police Battalion 101, who were collectively responsible for 38,000 executions and 45,200 deportations in Poland[28], Christopher Browning explored the question of motives of these middle aged reserve policemen - who he called ‘Ordinary Men’ - in carrying out the massacres. In one early case where they were initiated to Mass Murder, in the Polish village of Jozefow on the morning of July 13 1942, they were exhorted to do kill women and children for Germany, as the ‘bombs were falling on women and children’.[29] The battalion conformed:  They were not to be functionaries like Adolf Eichmann, or what he pretended to be, but killed in cold blood. They had a choice too: When Commander Wilhelm Trapp offered that those who were not willing to participate in killing of women and children could step forward, only a dozen people, out of the 500 people stepped forward [30]. Browning attempted to explain this behaviour using the social psychological insights into Obedience to Authority, as well as that of role adaptation from Philip Zimbardo’s Stanford Prison experiment, as well as the situational factors of group dynamics and Comradeship. As to why the Police Battalion carried out the massacres in cold blood, away from the Front Lines, ‘distancing’ - from the victims - was at the centre of Browning’s explanation, an outcome of war-time brutalisation and negative racial stereotyping combined together. Browning’s situational explanations are not aimed at absolving the men of their crime, but rather to approach the question of ideology from the viewpoint of empirical research.

The most stringent criticism of Browning came from a political scientist, Daniel Jonah Goldhagen, who looked at the same sources - the records and testimonies of the Reserve Police Battalion 101 - as Browning, and yet, arrived at the opposite conclusion. For Goldhagen, the central explanation for the atrocities was not to be found in situational factors and social psychological insights, but rather in the medieval roots of the German antisemitism. He called Ordinary Germans ‘Willing Executioners’ : In Goldhagen’s view, antisemitism was widespread in Germany and was not limited to the Nazis and the SS; the Conservative elite and even the Liberals (‘philosemitic antisemites’)were equally susceptible to anti-Jewish prejudice[31]. Goldhagen, therefore, put antisemitic ideology at the centre of perpetrator character, and claimed that ordinary Germans were universally guilty of ‘eliminationist antisemitism’ and complicit of the Nazi mass murder. These assertions were based on a different kind of empirical evidence than Browning’s: A more selective pick of brutalities, which showed the pervasive nature of violence, particularly murderous treatment of the Jews and aspects of the Holocaust, such as the Death Marches, which made less sense in the absence of an overarching ideological affiliation.

Goldhagen’s intervention was criticised on empirical grounds - for use of sparse and selective evidence, for making large theoretical leaps (such as the disappearance and reappearance of German Antisemitism) without adequate explanation, and in general, for broad-brushing all Germans as antisemites. However, it was perhaps more valuable for the questions it raised than the answers it provided. Its monocausal explanation might have fallen short of convincing, but its focus on violence - the ‘Holocaust by Bullets’, the death marches - brought out the grim realities that faded in public imagination behind the metaphors of the gas chamber and the rail car.

Peter Hayes observes that there may be more to be said about the motives of Ordinary Germans, based on and beyond the contributions of Browning and Goldhagen.

In the first (theoretical) place, Goldhagen and Browning probably tried to be too precise in capturing motives that may have been diverse, mixed and variable over time. Moreover, given the assignments doled out to the shooting units and ideological environment in which they lived, many shooters may have embraced antisemitism at the time as as a conveniently available form of legitimizing what they had been ordered to do. In other words, they did not kill because they hated their victims, but they decided to hate them because they thought they had to kill them. [32]

And, further,

In the second (empirical) place, Edward Westermann has demonstrated conclusively that Police Battalion 101 was not typical of the police units sent east to kill Jews. Some 80 percent of these personnel were not reservists at all, as the men in Police Battalion 101 were, and most units did not consist, as it did, of middle-aged men who had matured before Hitler came to power. On the contrary, the battalions generally comprised young, heavily indoctrinated career policemen who saw themselves as “political soldiers” in service to Nazi ideology. [33]

Once the ‘Ordinary German’ as a Perpetrator type has emerged into view, neither the situational explanations nor the idea of a singular cause masterminded by the Nazis is sufficient to explain the participation of so many and so diverse participants, in many different situations and contexts. The micro-view of Perpetrator analysis at once blurs the explaining factor of ideology, at the same time highlighting the necessity of it as an unifying explanation. However, this may mean abandonment of the static conceptions of ideology, and look for more dynamic forms of ideology.

In our understanding of the nature and role of ideology, there are two main approaches. As Clifford Geertz explained in his celebrated 1963 essay

There are currently two main approaches to the study of the social determinants of ideology: the interest theory and the strain theory. For the first, ideology is a mask or a weapon; for the second, a symptom or a remedy. In the interest theory, ideological pronouncements are seen against the background of a universal struggle for advantage; in the strain theory, against the background of a chronic effect to correct sociopsychological disequilibrium. In the one, men pursue power; in the other, they flee anxiety. As they may, of course, do both at the same time - and even one by means of the other - the two theories are not necessarily contradictory; but the strain theory (which arose in response to the empirical difficulties encountered by the interest theory), being less simplistic, is more penetrating, less concrete, more comprehensive. [34]

In the context of this theoretical framework, it is possible to argue that the explanations about the role and function of Nazi ideology evolved, from the early Historiography, where it was presented in terms of Interest Theory, and later, including in Goldhagen’s analysis, in terms of Strain Theory. But, as Geertz suggested, the strain theory, while ‘diagnostically’ convincing, it is functionally limiting: Hating those who they killed as a legitimation strategy is reasonable, but that would insufficiently explain why new recruits, without the ‘brutalisation’ through war, would arrive in Poland, Ukraine and Soviet Territories already wanting to kill, as Westermann’s, and more recently, Waitman Beorn’s Marching into Darkness (2014) [35] , show. Geertz’s solution was to offer, within the Strain Theory, an explanation based on Symbols and Cultural system, positing Ideology as a Culture System. At this point of turn in Historiography, it is appropriate to position Nazi Ideology not so much in terms of the implicit intentions and explicit pronouncements of the Nazi leaders and actions of the SS, but as a part of German imagination, co-opting its symbols and ideas as well as innovating new ones, that ordinary Germans could sign up to.

Conclusion: Nazi Ideology/ German Imagination

The question of Nazi Ideology - its nature and role in Holocaust - has been, to a significant degree, an ideological question in itself, shaped by Cold War considerations and the imperatives of Post-War, divided, German Society: It is appropriate to embark on a new understanding of it as those considerations disappear. The focus on Perpetrator Research in the 90s and the early part of the new millennium has also created new priorities: The new conception of ideology must bestride the conceptual fragmentation - between the cognitive and the situational factors, between faith and pragmatism, between personal and collective considerations - that inevitably accompanied the inclusion of many different types of perpetrator and perpetration.

The need for such a synthesis is already quite apparent. For example, James Waller, and separately, Leonard Newmann, who Browning cites, ‘rejected the “false dichotomy” of cognitive versus situational or dispositional versus contextual’ explanations, and suggested a more dynamic relationship between dispositions and situational, from the context of social psychological explanations of the Holocaust [36].  Peter Hayes, Edward Westermann, Jurgen Matthaus and a number of other historians have gone beyond the Ideology-or-Situation explanations of various forms of Perpetration.

It is important, however, to develop a view of Nazi ideology that can enable such synthesis. One such attempt was Michael Burleigh’s thesis of Nazism as a ‘political religion’, which presents Nazi ideology as a system of symbols and imperatives, that combined popular antisemitism with a doctrine of enmity and violence. However, this thesis falls short in explaining that many of the perpetrators ‘far from coming from the fringes of the German society, came from its very centre’ [37]. This, a theory of Nazi Ideology that seeks to present it not as a break from the Second Reich and Weimar but as a continuation, can do. Such a theory would not deny the role of radical ideas of Hitler and the radicalising effect of the Nazi Capture of Power in 1933 and the War, but see them not as an ever-growing conspiracy but as a realisation of a German imagination, that looked possible, due to economic recovery and accommodation by European powers (in Munich as well as Stalin’s continuous accommodation, right until 22nd June 1941).

From this perspective, the Nazi Ideology wouldn’t simply appear as one of violence directed towards the Jews and a narrowly defined racial doctrine, but one made of three distinct elements of German Imagination: A belonging, An enemy and A hope.

First, the belonging of Volksgemeinschaft, and the spirit of July ‘14, and its idealised narrative of all Germans united in a common cause. Hoffman’s discovery of Hitler in the crowd was a major breakthrough, capturing the moment, as Peter Fritzsche states, “when the Third Reich became possible”[38]. That a large number of Germans protested against the war[39] was not remembered as well. However, it was a moment when the authoritarian, paternalistic state allowed people to march, to congregate and to show their political affiliation (as long as they supported the cause of war). The memories of later privation, of starvation and communal kitchens of the winter of 1916-17, was also central in Nazi imagination, and as Wildt shows, several prominent members of RSHA, were conditioned by those experiences.[40] This was juxtaposed with the experiences of November 1918, with revolution and defeat, that led to the crisis years of Weimar Republic. The revolution might have been based on communities based on class solidarity, but this was antithetical to the nationalist imagination. Where the Nazi ideology and national imagination co-opted one another is the memories of July 14 and November 18, in the explanation that ‘the mutineers and the revolutionaries.. were led by egoistic demagogues, acting out of selfish interests instead of complying with national needs’[41]. That Commander Trapp exhorted Police Battalion 101 to ‘do it for Germany’ is an appeal to this sense of belonging.

Second, the Enemy as the Jews. As many researchers have confirmed, antisemitism persisted in Germany in many different forms, just like some of the other European nations. It has been argued that the Nazi antisemitism was fundamentally different as it was racial rather than religious, but as Alon Confino (2014) [42] shows, Nazis drew upon religious antisemitism in terms of symbols and actions, burning the bible and imagining the Germans rather than the Jews as the Chosen People. The symbols of exclusion of the Jews were everywhere in Germany during the Nazi years, being the cultural symbols of what is desirable and what’s not that remains at the heart of an ideology. Not all Germans may have been ‘eliminationist antisemite’ as Goldhagen saw them as, but the Nazis built an ‘antisemitic consensus’[43], which grew through the Nazi years and the experiences of war. The Nazi exclusion of the Jews from Social and Economic life received support from general population, and though sympathies for Jewish individuals one might have known was common (Nazi leaders would often complain that every German had his or her ‘good Jew’) but the wide knowledge of extermination of the Jews in Eastern territories would be treated with a ‘Spiral of Silence’, a kind of private censorship of a subject that everyone knew about but no one wanted to talk about it. [44]

Third, the East as Hope. Lebensraum and imperialism were central to Wilhelmine imagination and the German geopolitical thinkers, such as Friedrich Ratzel and Karl Haushofer [45]. However, Hitler transformed the Wilhelmine thinking of overseas empire (and the competition with British empire on the sea) into an original idea of German East, to be Germany’s India [46] and positioned himself as a geopolitical thinker, particularly after 1928 [47] but the ‘Raumfrage’ became his central obsession. The imagination of the East as an empty space - like American West - was something that the Army leadership was co-opted into, and the extraction of food and natural resources of Ukraine formed a key part of both of Nazi ideology and the German imagination during the war-time years. This was central to the project of Holocaust, as the ‘East’ provided a ‘stateless’ space where everything was possible, as historians such as Tim Snyder and Donald Bloxham argued.

In conclusion, the Nazi ideology as a cultural system had key elements of continuity that were often overlooked, and yet, these elements both provide an internal cohesiveness of the Nazi doctrine and help explain the phenomena of ‘voluntarism’. The belonging, the fear and the hope, that the Nazis offered building on the German imagination, objectifying these through symbols and rituals, messages, organisations such as Strength Through Joy, ubiquitous signs of social exclusion of the Jews, and the ever-present imagination of a ‘German East’. Going back to the very beginnings of this essay, and the question, “how does one explain a perpetrator like Erna Petri?”, the ideology as a  cultural system, built around Belonging and Germanness, Master Race and Empty Space, drawing upon and giving shape to a German National Imagination, provides explanations for a ‘genocidal ethics’ that was at the heart of the Holocaust.


    1.    This essay is written as a response to the question “How important was Nazi ideology in driving the perpetrators of the Holocaust?”. The title is influenced by Alon Confino’s work.

    2.    Lower, W. (2014) Hitler’s Furies, Pp 131 - 3. Erna Petri makes one of the thirteen case studies of women participating in Nazi Mass Murder in Wendy Lower’s portraiture of women perpetrators and accomplishes.

    3.    Ibid, Pp 131 -3.

    4.    Ibid, P 155

    5.    Ibid, P 156

    6.    See Stackelberg, R and Winkle, S (2002), The Nazi Germany Sourcebook, Pp 379 - 382

    7.    See Geertz, C (1973), The Interpretation of Cultures, Pp 193 -233

    8.    Matthäus, J, Historiography and the Perpetrators of the Holocaust; in Stone, D Ed. (2004), The Historiography of the Holocaust, P 198

    9.    Matthäus, J (2004), P 199

    10.    See Stackelberg et al (2002), Pp 386 - 391

    11.    Nuremberg Trial Proceedings, Volume 4, Twenty-sixth Day, Thursday 3rd January 1946, from Avalon Project, http://avalon.law.yale.edu/imt/01-03-46.asp, accessed 25th December 2017

    12.    Matthäus, J (2004), P 199

    13.    Ibid.

    14.    Kogon, E, quoted in Wildt, M (2009), An Uncomprimising Generation, P 5. While Kogon’s portrayal was perhaps accurate based on his own experience, this was hardly representative, as studies such as Wildt’s, would show.

    15.    Ibid, P 5

    16.    Reitlinger, G, quoted in Wildt, M (2009), P 6

    17.    Wildt, M (2009),. P 6

    18.    Hilberg, R, quoted in Browning, C (2017), Ordinary Men, P 192

    19.    Arendt, H (1994), Eichmann in Jerusalem, Pp 54

    20.    Ibid, P 287

    21.    Marrus, M R (2000), Holocaust in History, P 36

    22.    Dawidowicz, L, quoted in Marrus (2000), P 35

    23.    Marrus (2000), P 41

    24.    Arendt, (1994) P 136

    25.    Evans, R, From Nazism to Never Again, Foreign Affairs, January/February 2018

    26.    See, for example, David Cesarani’s Eichmann: His Life and Crimes (2005) and Bettina Strangneth’s Eichmann Before Jerusalem (2016).

    27.    See Wildt (2009), P 37 - 55

    28.    Browning (2017), P 231

    29.    Ibid, P 2

    30.    Ibid, P 71

    31.    Goldhagen, D (1997), Hitler’s Willing Executioners, P 59.

    32.    Hayes, P (2017), Why?: Explaining The Holocaust, P 139

    33.    Ibid, Pp 139 - 140

    34.    Geertz, C (1973), The Interpretation of Cultures, P 201

    35.    Cited in Hays (2017), P 140

    36.    Browning (2017) P 233.

    37.    See, Gregor, N (2005), Nazism - A Political Religion, P 14 in Gregor, N (Ed), Nazism, War and Genocide, Exeter University Press.

    38.    Fritzsche (1998), Germans Into Nazis, P 5

    39.    Ibid, P 19

    40.    Wildt (2009), P 21 - 22

    41.    Kuhne, T (2010) Belonging and Genocide: Hitler’s Community, 1918 - 1945, P 16

    42.    See Confino, A (2014), A World With Jews, Pp 115 - 141

    43.    See Herf, J (2006), The Jewish Enemy, P 17 - 49

    44.    Stargardt, N (2015), The German War, Pp 245 - 248

    45.    See Kakel, C P (2013), The Holocaust as Colonial Genocide, P 12 - 17

    46.    Ibid, P 46

    47.    Kershaw, I, Ideologue and Propagandist: Hitler in light of his speeches, writings and orders, 1925 - 1928, in Kershaw, I (2008), Hitler, The Germans and The Final Solution, P 53


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