Did the Nazis intend to annihilate Jews from the beginning?

Ebensee Concentration Camp Prisoners (1945). Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Policies and measures directed against the Jews can be divided into three periods or phases: persecution and forced emigration of German and Austrian Jews between 1933 and 1939; a period of ghettoisation and repression in the Eastern territories occupied by Germany between 1939 and 1941; and a phase of systematic extermination from the middle of 1941 to the end of the war. Scholars have disagreed about the motivations and intentions behind these policies.

Initially, in the 1940s and 1950s, scholars argued from an [intentionalist] viewpoint that the annihilation of the Jews had proceeded from Hitler’s personal hatred of Jews. They argued that the consistency in his statements against Jews, from the very beginning of his political activity in 1919 to his final “Testament” in 1945 suggested that he came to power with a very clear aim of at least eliminating Jews from Germany.

As time went on, however, other scholars pointed to the need for structuralist or [functionalist] interpretations which took account of the effort across German society to drive the Jews out of German everyday life through increasingly oppressive legislation and [cumulative radicalisation]. These scholars also pointed to the plans to encourage or force Jewish emigration from Germany in the late 1930s and (by extension) pointed to the failure of the rest of the world to offer safe haven for the thousands who tried to flee. International efforts to devise a solution to the refugee crisis were at best half-hearted and woefully inadequate.

With the outbreak of war, the situation of German Jews deteriorated while those in the newly-conquered territories in occupied Poland found themselves often concentrated in ghettos. After the invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941, however, the activities of the Einsatzgruppen, the expansion of existing camps like Auschwitz and the construction of killing centers accompanied the deportation of Jews from Germany to killing sites. Although there is no document in which Hitler explicitly ordered the “Final Solution of the Jewish Question”, making an exact date impossible, the consensus is that the summer of 1941 saw a transition to a more systematic program of killing.

[intentionalism: the belief that the Nazis were acting on the basis of a long-term plan or conspiracy based on identification, concentration and finally killing of Jews, devised before they came to power in 1933.]

[functionalism: the argument that many of the decisions to kill evolved in response to local challenges and shortages of housing or food, and were taken by officials and SS officers at lower levels rather than centrally directed.]

[cumulative radicalisation: a term coined by the German historian Hans Mommsen to describe how German businesses, professional organisations and even localities exceeded the directives of the Nazi regime in excluding Jews from German society.]