Any discussion on the history of racism in Europe is not complete without going back to one of the darkest periods of humanity: World War II. At the height of the war, the Nazis deported, forced into labor, and massacred millions of people all across Europe in an event now known as the Holocaust. Records show that as many as 10 million people died during the Holocaust, 6 million of which were Jews (Taylor). It remains a puzzle even to this day how such an extreme atrocity could have been committed in the 20th century—right in the middle of a time often regarded as far more modern and civilized than before. Understanding why the Holocaust happened, however, requires understanding that there is no simple answer to this question. The Holocaust did not happen overnight; rather, it took decades to develop and much of it was a consequence of World War I and the very history of ethinic-racial relations in Europe itself. As this history paper will show, the Holocaust was the realization of long-standing racism in society made possible by the rise of Nazi Germany, which in turn was an aftermath of World War I.
In order to understand how the Nazis came into power, it is necessary to review the consequences of World War I. Imperialism was one of the root causes of World War I. But following the defeat of the Central Powers, Germany was forced to sign the Treaty of Versailles. The treaty’s provisions eventually proved to be highly controversial. The treaty limited Germany’s military power and appropriated its territories, thus ending Germany’s imperialist aspirations. But more than that, it also yielded the most controversial of all provisions. Per the War Guilt Clause, Germany was to take full responsibility for the war. The treaty also forced Germany to pay war reparations amounting to $35 billion at the time, which is roughly equivalent to over $450 billion today (Blakemore). While the treaty brought World War I to an end, it ultimately planted seeds of resentment among Germans. Many in Germany considered the terms of the treaty as unfair, especially the part that put blame on their country for the war.
The treaty’s imposition of responsibility upon the Germans was further aggravated by the economic disaster that the country went through in the 1920s. The staggering reparations that Germany had to pay resulted in hyperinflation (Schmidt 3-19). The worth of money declined so much that many people simply cannot afford even basic needs. A loaf of bread that cost 250 marks in the start of 1923, for instance, sold for 200,000 million marks towards the end of the same year (“The Weimar Republic 1918-1929”). The economic disaster that the Germans went through further deepened their resentment. The loss of the war, the dissolution of the German Empire, the imposition of responsibility, and the economic disaster that followed deeply humiliated Germany. Indeed, the treaty’s effects on Germany are often regarded as among the root causes of World War II.
The anger and resentment that the German public felt during the post-war years eventually paved the way for the rise of the Nazis. The Nazis were masters of propaganda. Adolf Hitler and other leaders like Joseph Goebbels were capable of rousing audiences through dramatic speeches and spectacular public events. One myth, in particular, was essential to their success. The Stab-in-the-Back myth, as this fabrication came to be known, claimed that Germans were not defeated in combat in World War I but rather were betrayed by forces from within German society. The Nazis singled out republicans and the Jews, accusing them of overthrowing the Hohenzollern monarchy in the Germany Revolution of 1918-1919. They were called the November Criminals. According to the myth, Germany lost because of disloyal politicians, mainly Jews and communists, who orchestrated Germany’s defeat (Kolb). While this claim was mere fabrication, it had the intended effect. Instability had left the Germans angry and confused. Pointing to the Jews enabled the Nazis to create a tangible enemy to which the public could direct their rage and thereby win the people’s support in the process. The Jews, of course, were the obvious scapegoats.
It is important to note that antisemitism was already rampant in Europe for centuries. The destruction of the Jewish homeland by the Roman Empire led to the exodus of Jews to Europe. By the late 19th century, Jews were spread out across Europe in thriving communities. But despite their prominent role in society, the Jews were considered as outsiders and were often targets of persecutions. For instance, Jews were expelled from England in the 13th century and from Spain in the 15th century. Jews were also made to live in their own enclaves known as ghettos and were periodically massacred in times of instability such as during the Black Death when hundreds of Jews were blamed for the spread of disease and subsequently executed (Barry and Gualde 47). Late 19th and early 20th century Europe was equally steeped in antisemitism, which was inflamed by the rise of Social Darwinist theories that promoted racial stratification and hierarchy. The Nazis were eventually among those who became vocal anti-Semites. The Nazi party included Dietrich Eckart and Alfred Rosenberg, who both wrote articles that framed the Jews as conspiring against the world. According to them, Jews were the driving force of communism. Many historians believe that the works of Eckart greatly influenced Hitler (Ullrich 105-107). In 1933, Hitler was made the chancellor of Germany and the solidification of Nazi power was almost complete.
With the anti-Semitic regime firmly in place, it was just a matter of time for the Nazis to pin the blame on the Jews. The Jews were blamed for betraying Germany and were perceived as undesirables. Persecution of the Jews became legal policy and millions of Jews were subjected to increasingly repressive and brutal actions such as the passing of the Nuremberg Laws. Hitler believed that for Germany to reclaim its glory it had to undergo racial purification. The myth of the Aryan race was propagated; Jews and other racial and ethnic groups such as Slavs, Poles, and Romani peoples were seen as inferior and were driven out of their homes, exploited for labor, and ultimately murdered. As the world already knows, antisemitism and general racism in Europe came to a head with the death of over 6 million Jews and millions of other people from various groups.
In the end, the death of millions in Europe in the hands of the Nazi regime was not an isolated case of extreme racial violence; rather, it can be seen as the culmination of a long-standing racism and the rise of a deeply racist regime. The rise of this racism regime, in turn, was made possible by the discontent engendered by World War I. The Nazis essentially exploited and furthered antisemitism in order to consolidate their power, and this resulted in the darkest hour in modern history. The Holocaust was a convergence of circumstances that enabled prejudices to commit the most brutal atrocities. Contemporary society could only hope that the passage of time will not erode the memory of the Holocaust. As horrifying as this event was, remembering is vital if people are to ensure that it will never happen again. If you need a history paper on this topic, do not hesitate to ask us for help.
Barry, Stephane and Norbert Gualde. “La plus grande épidémie de Histoire (The greatest epidemics in history).” L’Histoire, no.310, 2006.
Blakemore, Erin. “How the Treaty of Versailles Ended World War I and Started World War II.” National Geographic. https://www.nationalgeographic.com/culture/topics/reference/treaty-versailles-ended-wwi-started-wwii/. Accessed 1 December 2020.
Kolb, Eberhard. The Weimar Republic. New York, Routledge, 2005.
Schmidt, Carl T. German Business Cycles, 1924-1933. E-Book, National Bureau of Economic Research, 1934.
Taylor, Alan. “World War II: The Holocaust.” The Atlantic. https://www.theatlantic.com/photo/2011/10/world-war-ii-the-holocaust/100170/. Accessed 1 December 2020.
“The Weimar Republic 1918-1929.” British Broadcasting Corporation, https://www.bbc.co.uk/bitesize/guides/z9y64j6/revision/1. Accessed 1 December 2020.
Ullrich, Volker. Hitler: Ascent: 1889-1939. Translated by Jefferson Chase, New York, Vintage, 2017.