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Katelyn Harrell
The Reasons Behind Nazi Mass Murder
Emerging in the late 19th century, Social Darwinism explained “the evolution of humans
from monkeys and described how the fittest and strongest of the species always survive. The
inferior species degenerate and are not necessary. In fact they are a threat to the higher level of
creation and can be destroyed” (Supple 26). When the Nazi Party applied this theory to German
society, the “fittest and strongest” were members of the Aryan race, and the “inferior species”
referred to the Jews, whose influence over business, participation in politics, and hand in the
economy constituted “a threat to the higher level of creation.” To this effect, anti-Semitic
propaganda became the focus of German pseudosciences during the pre-war years and was
intended to encourage German solidarity against the Jews as their common enemy. It is difficult,
however, to understand the progression from social propaganda spouting racial theory, to the
eventual murder of six million Jews. And yet race theory, at its most pervasive, convinced Nazi
officials that the only answer to the “Jewish Question” lay in mass murder, the extermination of
European Jews. For centuries, European countries had persecuted Jews and expelled them to
other parts of the continent under the guise of various political, religious, or social reasons; but
for Germany, traditional diaspora would only briefly deflect, and not eliminate, the consequences
of Jewish existence. Supported by race theory, which endorsed the dominance of stronger
species, the mass extermination of Jews, as well as that of other social menaces and outcasts, was
seen as the only recourse to secure the economic, political, and social future of the Aryan race.
Over the course of centuries, Europe witnessed numerous incidences of anti-Semitic
violence in the form of political discrimination, pogroms, crippling economic oppression, and
countrywide expulsions. To many, Germany’s preliminary measures against Jews seemed
merely a continuance of that tradition, a nation’s personal exercise of familiar methods of anti-
Semitic persecution. Yet the world and many European Jews underestimated the scale of Nazi
ambitions; these were no ordinary acts of discrimination, no short-term reaction to the post-war
economy. The Nazi Party’s ambitions operated on a much larger scale and boasted its intention
to wipe Jews from the face of the earth; and yet the decision to commit mass murder developed
only progressively, and its state-of-the-art methodologies were a leap from the traditional antiSemitic framework provided by Europe’s past. Yet, as Robert Wistrich writes, “The Nazis…
had no specific plan to ‘solve the Jewish question’ in 1933…the annihilations…had a largely
improvisatory character and did not derive from a specific Hitler order or from a clear ‘will to
exterminate’” (Wistrich 226). By 1941, the Nazis had initiated mass deportations of Jews to
concentration camps and begun implementing familiar methods of abuse and execution; but the
program quickly gained momentum and soon developed alternative means of killing large
numbers with greater efficiency. Wistrich notes, “Once the practice of liquidation was
established, it gained prominence and eventually evolved in an ad hoc manner into a
comprehensive ‘program’ that was subsequently approved and sanctioned by Hitler” (226-7).
The Armenian Genocide, which lasted from 1915 to 1918, had led to the deaths of between one
and 1.5 million Armenians and provided Nazi Germany with ample precedent; but Hitler’s
Germany developed its own trials in 1939 with its “euthanasia program,” in which “physicians of
the Reich massively collaborated in using poison gas and lethal injections in the murder of
80,000 mentally and physically handicapped Germans” (224). The program’s success
“convinced the Nazi leadership that mass murder was technically feasible, that ordinary men and
women were willing to kill large numbers of innocent human beings, and that the bureaucracy
would cooperate in such an unprecedented enterprise” (225). For some historians, the
experimental attitude with which these murders were carried out indicates a specific rationale for
why Nazi Party members complied with orders demanding that they commit murder: Hans
Mommsen suggests that “using bureaucratic and technocratic methods successfully repressed
any moral inhibitions among the perpetrators, turning the death of Jews into a technical problem
of killing-capacity” rather than an ethical dilemma of murder (225). The rhetoric of science
instilled Nazi officials with notions of academic integrity and allowed for a clinical approach to
In fact, one may argue that scientific rhetoric was the foundational idea behind many
aspects of the Holocaust, including Nazi ideology and propaganda, especially those geared
toward proving biological differences between the Aryan and Jewish races. Adolf Hitler
believed that “all groups, races, or peoples (he used those terms interchangeably) carried within
them traits that were immutably transmitted from one generation to the next. No individual could
overcome the innate qualities of race” (“Victims”). Charles Darwin’s teachings in regards to
race, which came to be known as “Social Darwinism,” encouraged the idea that people of a
certain race demonstrated unique characteristics that were passed on through subsequent
generations. To justify the application of racial theory, Jews were regarded not as members of a
religion or cultural tradition but, inaccurately, as a race. In Nazi ideology, these inherited traits
not only related to “appearance and physical structure, but also shaped internal mental life, ways
of thinking, creative and organizational abilities, intelligence, taste and appreciation of culture,
physical strength, and military prowess” (“Victims”). This belief raised Germans, or Aryans, to
a powerful position, one of superior intellect, ability, and moral fiber. Jews, conversely, were
regarded as uniformly morally corrupt, physically repulsive with characteristic large noses and
fleshy lips, and vulnerable to nonconformist social and political ideas, such as communism and
socialism. According to this belief, one’s racial identity was permanent: “For the Nazis,
assimilation of a member of one race into another culture or ethnic group was impossible
because the original inherited traits could not change: they could only degenerate through socalled race-mixing” (“Victims”). If Jews were merely expelled from Germany and sent to other
parts of Europe, the threat of interracial marriage and breeding would continue to exist; only in
death would Jews and other minorities be rendered incapable of contaminating Aryan racial
Survival of the Fittest, another component of Darwinism, became a popular and attractive
theory during the 1930s. It not only justified the dominance of the Aryan race, but also validated
the subjugation, and perhaps extermination, of the Jews. Darwin spoke of natural selection, or
the process by which organisms best suited to their environment would survive and reproduce
while weaker organisms would be winnowed out due to an ability to adapt. The Nazi Party
instigated its own method of selection by choosing groups – Jews, gypsies, homosexuals, and
many others – that they believed to be inferior and reducing them to an environment in which
few humans could survive, in the ghettoes and concentration camps. Oberleutnant Helmut Mann
agreed with the use of such areas to separate the Jewish disease from German citizens; he
reported, “Isolating them from the rest of the population seems imperative… The elimination of
the Jews is… the key to the total political and economic pacification of the region” (Knopp 11).
By quarantining such groups from civilization, the Germans were able to eliminate competition
during their takeover of Eastern Europe. Lebensraum sought the creation of a nation fit for
“physically perfect and genetically German people” (Dwork 280); “Since each ‘race’ sought to
expand, and since the space on the earth was finite, the struggle for survival resulted ‘naturally’
in violent conquest and military confrontation. Hence, war -- even constant war -- was a part of
nature, a part of the human condition” (“Victims”). Because the Nazis defined Jews as a race
rather than a religious or cultural group, they believed this same natural instinct to expand and
dominate “‘drove the “Jewish race,’ like other races, to struggle to survive by expansion at the
expense of other races” (“Victims”). This alleged plot, deemed “the Jewish Conspiracy,”
justified the literal elimination of the competition, mass murder under the guise of racial and
national security. General Major von Bechtolsheim expressed the pervasiveness of this belief in
a report made on October 10, 1941:
In the event of a successful Bolshevist invasion of Europe, the Jews would have
wiped out absolutely everything German, [which points to] a very clear and
unambiguous solution, and that is, especially here in the east, the complete
annihilation of our enemies. These enemies are, however, no longer human
beings in the European cultural sense, but animals who from an early age have
been brought up and trained as criminals. And as such they must be eradicated.
(Knopp 5)
Racial tension elevated quickly in Germany, moving from persecution to imprisonment and
finally to deportation and annihilation. The Nazi government “sought to eliminate domestic nonconformists and so-called racial threats through a perpetual self-purge of German society”
(“Victims”). Saul Friedländer writes, “Volkstumskampf did not mean mere military victory and
political domination; it aimed at destruction of the vital sinews of the enemy national-racial
community; in other words it implied mass murder” (Friedländer 13). The Nazi Party did not
regard the murder of Jews as a German attack on its own citizens, but rather as the justified and
necessary annihilation of a national threat.
This same rhetoric was used in Nazi reports that were intended to outline and explain the
implementation of the Final Solution. Marion Kaplan writes, “In 1941, probably in late spring,
the Nazis decided upon the ‘Final Solution,’ the annihilation of European Jewry… By the fall,
the Nazis set into motion the extermination of Jews in all of German-occupied Europe” (Kaplan
179). The Nazi Party spent a considerable amount of time and effort posing Jews as Germany’s
enemy in the national Rassenkampf, or race war. Jewish men were persecuted for a number of
supposed reasons: “extermination was first aimed at Jews as carriers of the Soviet system, then at
Jews as potential partisans and finally as hostile elements living in territories ultimately destined
for Germany colonization” (Friedländer 237). The purpose for their elimination became
generalized to accommodate the increasingly large-scale death camp operations. The
relationship that Germany had with European Jews was “defined as a deadly struggle of men not
just against men – such as in traditional military war, but also, and particularly against women as
mothers” (Crew 132-3). In the 1940s, women still occupied a sheltered position in society, and
Jewish women were spared, at least initially, from most public violence. Once deportations to
concentration camps began, however, women, and especially pregnant women, were among the
first to be murdered. Additionally, compulsory abortions, Nazi experiments with X-ray
sterilization, genital mutilation, and coerced ovariectomies developed as alternative,
experimental means of destroying Jewish motherhood. Heinrich Himmler, Reichsführer of the
SS, explained the logic behind the executions:
We came to the question: what about the women and children? I have decided to
find a clear solution here too. In fact I did not regard myself as justified in
exterminating the men – let us say killing them or having them killed – while
letting avengers in the shape of children… grow up. The difficult decision had to
be taken to make these people disappear from the face of the earth. (Ringelheim
Himmler’s speech does not merely suggest an attack on Jews. He directly targets women, not
only because they are Jewish, but because of their ability to produce Jewish children. As the
speech continues, he refers repeatedly to a larger racial conflict to show that Nazi actions against
Jews in general, and Jewish women specifically, were necessary and for the future benefit of the
German people. When explaining the necessity of ordering that women as well as children be
terminated, Himmler added, “Believe you me, that order was not so easy to give or so simple to
carry out as it was logically thought out… But we must constantly recognize that we are engaged
in a primitive, primordial natural race struggle” (Crew 132). In 1941, Himmler had written in a
letter to Rudolph Hess, lieutenant colonel of the SS, “The Jews are the sworn enemy of the
German people and must be eradicated. Every Jew that we can lay our hands on is to be
destroyed now during the war, without exception. If we cannot now obliterate the biological
basis of Jewry, the Jews will one day destroy the German people” (Supple 147). Indeed, the
liquidation of European Jews, and their obliteration of their future, became a government priority
and developed with disturbing efficiency in the next three years.
The alleged reason behind the murder of Jewish women and children indicates that the
government now truly operated under the belief that in destroying subsequent generations of
Jews, the Nazi Party was securing a healthier German future. Still, it is morally impossible to
understand the pervasiveness of that belief, the extremism of Nazi anti-Semitism and belief in
racial inferiority, or to grasp the shocking efficiency with which Nazi officials and soldiers
disposed of six million Jews, five thousand members of other perceived enemies of the state, and
tortured millions more. It all comes down to a belief in the Aryan right to rule, the right to
subject those of lesser strength, aptitude, and worth to a life befitting of their condition. Adolf
Hitler, Nazi officials, and many German citizens ascribed to the notion that the German people
were destined to occupy a dominant position in the world and that their success depended upon
the scourging of inferior peoples, not merely upon their dispersal or oppression, but upon their
complete annihilation.
Works Cited
Crew, David F. Nazism and German Society, 1933-1945. London: Routledge, 1994. Print.
Dwork, Deborah, and Robert Jan van Pelt. Holocaust: a History. London: Norton, 2002. Print.
Friedländer, Saul. The Years of Extermination: Nazi Germany and the Jews, 1939-1945. London:
Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2007. Print.
Kaplan, Marion A. Between Dignity and Despair: Jewish Life in Nazi Germany. New York:
Oxford UP, 1998. Print.
Knopp, Guido. Hitler's Holocaust. Stroud: Sutton, 2001. Print.
Ringelheim, Joan. “The Split Between Gender and the Holocaust.” Women in the Holocaust.
Ed. Dalia Ofer and Lenore J. Weitzman. London: Yale UP, 1998. 340-350. Print.
Supple, Carrie. From Prejudice to Genocide: Learning about the Holocaust. Stoke-on-Trent:
Trentham, 1993. Print.
“Victims of the Nazi Era: Nazi Racial Ideology.” United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. 6
Jan. 2011. Web. 26 Nov. 2011. <>.
Wistrich, Robert S. Hitler and the Holocaust. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2001. Print.