The Second World War has left an unmistakable impression on the whole of Europe that will never be forgotten. Whether visible to the naked eye, or hidden in the consciousness of its people, the war has scarred Europe indelibly. Historically, the foremost recognizable perpetration against Europeans was Adolf Hitler’s “Final Solution to the Jewish question”. This sophisticated operation of systematic mass execution was calculated, organized, and carried out with such horrifying efficiency that only a madman could have been responsible for such an act, and Hitler was indeed mad. However, Anti-Semitism had been long a part of German history, and this religious intolerance had its roots firmly planted long before the rise of the Third Reich. Although the sheer magnitude of the loss of life during the holocaust is simply impossible to grasp, these horrors were the culmination of generations of anti-Semitism, brought to the boiling point by the decision of one power-crazed man.
Dating back several centuries, anti-Semitism was prevalent throughout Germany barring rare instances where communities were tolerant religiously or socially of Jewish inhabitants. However, the belief that Jews were selfish, manipulative, ignorant heretics bound only for hell was still a popular one, even in communities such as these. The Catholic Church only enforced these views, and German Jews had difficulties seeking equality. “To Christians, the Jews were an obdurate people who had refused to recognize Jesus as the promised Messiah, and who not only still persisted in that error but were burdened with the guilt of deicide…” (Craig, 127) By the arrival of the reformation, anti-Semitism was commonplace among Germans and even justified by the Catholic Church. Jews during this era perhaps saw the coming of a new idealism with Martin Luther, or at least believed that mass split from the Catholic Church would at least increase tolerance to their people. However this was only a myth, for Luther saw the reformation to be a perfect opportunity for German Jews to renounce their religion and join the newly sprung Christian assemblage. Luther’s plan didn’t quite come to fruition as Jews found this to be just another attempt to destroy their religious autonomy under the facade of a new and better idealism. Luther’s ignorance and self-righteous fanaticism was soon revealed, as he would eventually write “..We know about their lying and blasphemy and cursing, we cannot tolerate them”(Craig, 128) Therefore, The Reformation did nothing for the Jews except create another organized faction that officially detested them.
These hatreds became the demonic roots imbedded in Germany, and were inescapably destined to touch even the most divine of the country’s richly gifted artists. Centuries later, one of Germany’s most respected and admired composers would emerge from the same soil-Richard Wagner. The composer openly voiced his dislike of the Jewish people, and according to Gordon Craig, “ (Wagner) prided himself on his services to the anti-Semitic cause”(139). Even Hermann Levi, a Jewish conductor who after a performance of “Parsifal”, was apparently presented by Wagner with the notion that he take a baptismal.
By the 20th century, anti-Semitism was sprouting in Germany in a much more violent fashion, as right wing popularity would reach a fevered pitch. Jewish scientist, philosopher, politician and businessman Walther Rathenau served Germany in World War I as a supplier and administrator of raw war materials. After the war, Rathenau sought out to change some of stipulations of the Versailles Treaty. His goal was to gain the help of western powers in hopes of forming a stronger, more unified Germany. His savvy as a political mind soon gained him a job as Germany’s Foreign Minister. Rathenau’s unpopularity among German patriots followed him throughout his political Career, and this appointment would soon have drastic consequences. After serving only four months as Germany’s Foreign Minister, Walter Rathenau was assassinated.
This event was a prelude to the politically radical events to come, and also made evident that being Jewish in Germany was “more than a handicap or social embarrassment; it was a danger and, not impossibly, a sentence to death”(Craig 143).
Centuries of anti-Semitic sentiment and action were propagated in the land that is now Germany. However, the actions of history’s most recognizable demon would result in the extermination of millions of lives. These people were not war criminals, spies, military prisoners, or resistance fighters; they were simply people who had been struggling for generations to acquire religious freedom and autonomy. The 20th century’s most heinous offense would be perpetrated against a people who, like Walther Rathenau, were murdered because they were guilty of being Jewish.
Source: “The Germans” by Gordon C. Craig, Meridian Publishing, New York City, 1983.