January 27, 2020, marks the 75th anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz concentration camp and killing center by units of the Soviet Red Army. Throughout the world, political dignitaries, museums, and memorials will commemorate this solemn occasion by honoring the six million murdered Jews as well as other victims of Nazi persecution. They will pay tribute to the Holocaust survivors who refused to let the world forget and to the soldiers who liberated the Nazi camps.
Especially in light of the recent upsurge of antisemitic rhetoric and violence, this anniversary compels us to reflect upon the warning signs that led to the Holocaust.
A Place of Infamy
Auschwitz was neither preordained nor a historical accident. Indeed, it was part of a horrific social experiment carried out by Nazi Germany to radically reorder Europe according to its racial and ideological goals. When the Nazis acquired power in 1933, they envisioned a Europe dominated by Germans and free of Jews, but industrial-scale killing centers had not been conceived. Yet, in just a few short years, the Nazi SS transformed a Silesian town in German-occupied Poland into a place of infamy, the single largest site of mass killing the world has ever known. A place we know as Auschwitz.
Of the 1.3 million people who were deported to the massive concentration camp and killing center complex there, about 1.1 million were murdered. The vast majority of them were Jews from all over Europe, who died primarily in the gas chambers created exclusively to kill them. But Auschwitz was more than the world’s largest Jewish graveyard. Other prisoners, including Poles, Soviet prisoners of war, Roma and Sinti (Gypsies), Jehovah’s Witnesses, homosexuals, and political prisoners, found death at Nazi hands there.
How did it come to this? The path to Auschwitz was paved with not only events but crucially with words and ideas, many of which predated the Nazis.
A Deadly Ideological Mix
Hitler and his followers exploited preexisting notions of race, geopolitics, and antisemitism, crafting them into a deadly ideological mix that ultimately led to Auschwitz and the Holocaust. Social Darwinist notions, coupled with the growing interest in “race hygiene” and eugenics, had adherents among both cranks and academics at major universities. Improving one’s “race” or nationality through selective breeding and preventing those deemed “biologically unfit” from reproducing was a notion acceptable on both sides of the Atlantic.
Fatefully, the Nazis built upon centuries of antisemitism in Europe, appropriating and manipulating well-established anti-Jewish tropes, symbols, and rhetoric, to create a frightening vision of the “Jew” as an existential threat to western civilization.
Of course, the Nazis did not enjoy a monopoly on many of these ideas; they were commonplace on the German far right. What Hitler and his cronies succeeded in doing was to package them for mass consumption using their abundant skills as propagandists. The Nazis understood that significant part of the German public thought their antisemitic views were too radical and violent. Therefore, selling a positive image of the Nazi Party as a viable alternative to Germany’s established political parties required, at times, soft-pedaling antisemitism. They promoted the “Hitler movement” as an organization dedicated to uniting all ethnic Germans in a “national community,” where regional, religious, and class differences would be overcome. Sadly, many Germans were willing to overlook or not care about the party’s rabid antisemitism and racism.
These ideas gained significant traction when the Great Depression struck, leaving millions of Germans unemployed and disillusioned with the “system.” The Nazis undermined democracy, portraying the young democracy as “illegitimate,” the result of a treasonous “stab-in-the-back” by Jews, liberals, socialists, pacifists, and other “internal enemies,” who caused Germany’s defeat in World War I. The Nazis siphoned off voters from mainstream parties and won over first-time voters with emotional political messaging. The Nazi Party went from being a minor irritant in German politics to becoming the single largest political party represented in the German parliament in just four years — a feat unmatched in the nation’s history.
A Long and Winding Road
What is too often overlooked is that in 1933 the Nazis, then only a minority in Hitler’s cabinet, destroyed democracy in less than six months. This was accomplished through edicts, terror, and the acquiescence of many of the country’s political parties and citizens. Antisemitism and racism became state policy.
Hitler had a vision of what he wanted to accomplish, but he could not predict how his adversaries would act, on either the domestic or the international scene. He was constantly testing to see what he could get away with, and learning from his successes. At various stages, the Nazi Party and later Nazi Germany could likely have been stopped, if the danger signs had been accurately read and concerted action taken.
Too often the Nazis succeeded because others were willing to comply or collaborate, out of fear or out of mutual benefit. During the war, when Nazi policy grew more extreme, with deportations and systematic murder of Jews from across Europe, there always were more than enough helpers, including many who were not wide-eyed fanatical Nazis or German.
As these events recede further into the past, and the survivor generation diminishes, we must jealously guard this history to ensure that those who deny or distort the Holocaust do not attain final victory. Remembering the victims and heeding the warning signs that marked the path to Auschwitz must be part of our collective responsibility.
Steven Luckert, Ph.D., is senior program curator at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.