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The Holocaust as a Moral Choice
Part II

By Alex Grobman


An Ideological War of Annihilation 

Historian Yehuda Bauer notes that the Nazis initiated an ideological war in order for the German-Aryan race to gain superiority over Europe by extending their rule to the East and to acquire Lebensraum (living space)—the territory and material resources that would preserve their control.[1] In addition, the conquest of Lebensraum was designed to become the foundation to “further biological expansion of the ‘Aryan race,’” and thus provide “the ‘human resources’ for future wars of conquest.”[2]  

Hitler believed the epoch of the maritime empires such Portugal, Holland, and Britain ceased to exist according to historian Trevor-Roper. There was a period in which sea had provided the most efficient and economical means to reach faraway lands. With the advent of railroads, cars, planes, and extensive roads, the mode of travel had drastically changed. The era of “land power” had ushered in the opportunity to establish the new empire, which would conquer, and supersede Western society and be “bound together not by ships and trade, but by giant roads and massive armies, the real nexus of the new age.”[3]  

The war would enable the Germans to destroy the power of “international Jewry,” which controlled the enemies of Germany (France, Britain, and the U.S.) and facilitate their removal, a goal Hitler articulated already in 1919. Thus, the obvious conclusion Bauer said, is that anti-Semitism was one of the two primary ideological motives influencing the Nazi leaders to start a war in which tens of millions of people lost their lives and produced endless misery.[4]  

The Jews were not merely victims, as Bauer points out. They are a people, a community, and a nation, “which was in some significant ways, central to the self-understanding of European and not just German society.” This is why the Jews became the focus of an unprecedented assault that has transformed the western, and progressively also the non-western world’s “perception” of itself. The essence of National Socialism is not its bureaucratic culture or “modernistic structures”—which clearly contributed—but an ideological commitment to abolish not just a government or a political system, “but the basic order of the world.”[5] 

The Goal of the War Against the Jews 

The goal was to construct “a utopian society organized in accordance with the principles of race.” A fundamental concern was the “purification of the body of the nation from ‘alien,’ hereditary ill,’ or ‘asocial’ ‘elements.’” Racial purification was an essential part of comprehensive “social” policies designed to produce a “healthy” focused on achievement, ‘Aryan’ ‘national community.’” Race would replace class as the foremost unifying principle of the German nation This would reduce prevailing social classifications and increase the divisions between the ‘healthy,’ ‘Aryan’ national comrades’ and those ‘elements’ that were described as being  racially inferior, ‘unfit’ or ‘alien.’ They would therefore be “destined for exclusion and eventual extermination.” The millions of Jews who were annihilated prove the length to which the Germans were driven to establish a “functioning racial state.”[6]  

The Holocaust is the first example where murder “was not an end in itself, but a means to an end, even though the perpetrators, victims, and bystanders differed on whether those ends were good or evil,” opined historian Lucy S. Dawidowicz. With the annihilation of European Jewry, the ends and the means were the same. The Germans presumed the right to determine who should live and who should die. As a result, the “parameters of the Holocaust have defined the universe of evil and of good, have marked the limits of human bestiality and human arrogance, set the measure of human endurance and courage.”[7] 

Operation Barbarossa

On June 22, 1941, the Germans invaded the Soviet Union. It has been called the “most monstrous war of conquest, enslavement and extermination “ in modern times.[8] More than three million German soldiers were involved in Operation Barbarossa, which found the Russians surprised, confused, and unprepared.[9] The next day, SS Obergruppenführer Reinhard Heydrich, chief of the Reich Main Security Office (RSHA), unleased approximately 3,000 men of the Einsatzgruppen (mobile killing units, A, B, C, and D) to seek out and destroy the 5,000,000 Jews in Russia, and those in Estonia, Latvia, Lithuania, Eastern Poland, the former Russian territories under German occupation, and vanquish civilian resistance. Ninety percent of the Jews in Russia were concentrated in the cities. The Einsatzgruppen followed behind the advancing Wehrmacht, the German army, to gain the element of surprise. “The Jews are remarkably ill-informed about our attitude towards them,” reported Sonderführer (Detachment Commander) Schröter from White Russia on July 12, 1941. Thus the effect “was all the more cruel as a result.” [10]  

Within hours, the German military commanded every bridge across the border rivers from the Baltic Sea to the Carpathian Mountains. The Luftwaffe destroyed many Russian planes still parked on the ground, while German tanks sped their way to the East. Western experts were convinced Germany would be victorious within a few months.[11] In early July, Moscow, Leningrad, and Kiev were expected to be in German hands within days.  On July 4, Reinhard Heydrich asked Einsatgruppen B for the names of all soldiers of the Einsatzkommando who would be accompanying the advance troops as they entered Moscow.[12]   

Hitler did not envision this be a conventional war asserted historian Jürgen Förster. He planned and organized a Vernichtungskrieg, (a war of annihilation) to achieve his concept of Lebensraum by conquering Russia. The “idea of acquiring living space,” Förster said, was “inextricably intertwined with the extermination of Bolshevism and the Jewish people, with the doctrine of economic self-sufficiency, and with the strategic necessity of thereby winning the war against Great Britain.” The difference between the attack against Poland and Operation Barbarossa was that the “line between military and ideological warfare was erased before the first shot was even fired.” Hitler had pardoned the soldiers and SS in Poland after the campaign. In the Soviet Union, “a preemptive amnesty for crimes” had been declared.[13]. 


[1] Yehuda Bauer, “Who Was Responsible and When?” Holocaust and Genocide Studies Volume 6 Number 2, (1991), 138. 

[2]Peter Longerich, Holocaust: The Nazi Persecution and Murder of the Jews, (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010), 179. 

[3] Hitler’s Table Talk, 1941-1944: His Private Conversations (London, England: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1973) Introduction by H.R. Trevor-Roper), xxi-xxii). 

[4] Yehuda Bauer, “Who Was Responsible and When?” Holocaust and Genocide Studies  Volume 6 Number 2, (1991) 138; Randall L. Bytwerk, “Believing in ‘Inner Truth’: The Protocols of the Elders of Zion in Nazi Propaganda, 1933–1945,” Holocaust and Genocide Studies, Volume 29, Issue 2, (Fall 2015): 212–229. 

[5] Yehuda Bauer, “Overall Explanations, German Society and the Jews or: Some thoughts About Context,” in David Bankier, Ed. Probing the Depths of German Antisemitism: German Society and the Persecution of the Jews, 1933-1941 (Jerusalem, Yad Vashem; Jerusalem Leo Baeck Institute and in association with Berghahn Books in (New York, 2001), 15-16. 

[6] Michael Burleigh and Wolfgang Wippermann, The Racial State: Germany, 1933-1945 (New York:‎ Cambridge University Press, 1991),3-4; George L. Mosse, The Crisis of German Ideology: Intellectual Origins of the Third Reich (New York: Grosset & Dunlap, 1964),315; George L. Mosse, Toward the Final Solution: A History of European Racism, (New York: Howard Fertig, 1978), xii-xiii; Michael Wildt, Hitler’s Volksgemeinschaft & Dynamics of Racial Exclusion: Violence against Jews in Provincial Germany, 1919–1939 (New York: Berghahn Books, 2012). 

[7] Lucy S. Dawidowicz, “The Holocaust As Historical Record,” in Dimensions of the Holocaust (Evanston, Illinois: Northwestern University Press, 1977): 28,32; Steven .T Katz, The Holocaust in Historical Context, Volume 1, (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994), 8. 

[8] Jürgen Förster, “The Wehrmacht and the War of Extermination against the Soviet Union,” Yad Vashem Studies XIV (Jerusalem: Yad Vashem, 1981):7. 

[9] Richard Breitman, The Architect of Genocide: Himmler and the Final Solution (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1991), 167. 

[10] Heinz Höhne, The Order of the Death’s Head: The Story of Hitler’s SS (London: Secker & Warburg, 1970),359; Ronald Headland, Messages of Murder: A Study of the Reports of the Einsatzgruppen of the Security Police and the Security Service, 1941-1943 (Teaneck, New Jersey:  Fairleigh Dickinson University Press, 1992),11; Michael Wildt, “An Uncompromising Generation: The Nazi Leadership of the Reich Security Main Office. (Madison: Wisconsin University of Wisconsin Press, 2009); Omer Bartov, Hitler’s Army: Soldiers, Nazis, and War in the Third Reich (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992), 29; Jürgen Förster, “The Wehrmacht and the War of Extermination against the Soviet Union,” Yad Vashem Studies Volume 14 (Jerusalem: Yad Vashem, 1981): 7-34. 

[11] Breitman, op.cit. 167. 

[12] Christian Streit, “Wehrmacht, Einsatgruppen, Soviet POWs and Anti-Bolshevism In the Emergence of the Final Solution,” in The Final Solution: Origins and Implementation, David Cesarani, Ed. (London: Routledge,1994), 105. 

[13] Jürgen Förster, “The Relation Between Operation Barbarossa as an Ideological War of Extermination and the Final Solution,” in The Final Solution: Origins and Implementation, David Cesarani, Ed.(London: Routledge,1994): 89; Förster, “The Wehrmacht and the War of Extermination against the Soviet Union,”op. cit.13-16; Ian Kershaw, Hitler: 1936-1945 Nemesis ‎(New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2001), 47-49; Eberhard Jäckel, Hitler’s World View: A Blueprint for Power (Cambridge, Massachusetts, Harvard University Press, 1981),  91-96,106. 

Source: Courtesy of Alex Grobman.

Dr. Alex Grobman is the senior resident scholar at the John C. Danforth Society and a member of the Council of Scholars for Peace in the Middle East. He has an MA and Ph.D. in contemporary Jewish history from The Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He lives in Jerusalem.