Chapter 2: Nazis

The planners of the Holocaust were Nazi Germans, while the Nazi leadership made the killing season possible by sanctioning it. Adolf Hitler readily confessed his contempt for Jews in his cumbersome biography Mein Kampf, as he recalled encountering them as a young man in Vienna. Hitler was a person utterly incapable of self-critique. His many disappointments were always someone else’s fault, and early in life he drew upon anti-Semitism—a hatred for Jews—to help explain his persistent and conspicuous failures.

After the Second World War a myth emerged: that Hitler himself might have been partly Jewish. Hans Frank, a captured Nazi anxious to curry favor with the allies, suggested this in testimony at the Nuremberg Trials of Nazi leaders in 1946. He claimed that Hitler’s grandmother worked as a maid for a wealthy Jewish family and had an affair with either the father or son. Frank’s facts regarding the location and circumstances of these happenings were completely wrong, but such a lightning bolt lit fire in the popular imagination and the rumor persisted. Hitler had been secretive about his family and personal history—an element that fueled the flames. But his secrecy was about creating a myth of superhuman destiny, not about Jewish connections. He was also undoubtedly aware that his broader family history had a couple of taboos: a suicide, and a case of mental illness with treatment in an asylum. Inconclusive DNA tests performed on descendants of Hitler’s relatives reinvigorated the myth in the western press in 2010. These tests did suggest that Hitler, like most people, had a wide range of biological DNA markers and was by no means a ‘pure’ German; they by no means indicated that he was partly Jewish.

Hitler was not actually born in Germany; he was the fourth child of a lower-middle class Austrian family which lived right on the German border. In childhood young Adolf drew close to his mom but kept distant from his occasionally abusive father. His dad was 23 years older than his mother, and died when he was just fourteen. A loner, moody, troublesome in school, like many teens of his age he migrated from a small town to the city. Vienna enthralled him. Enamored by Richard Wagner’s fantastic operas and the Austrian capital’s stately buildings, young Adolf dreamt of becoming an architect, designing whole cities by himself. His immediate reality, however, was bleak. Listless, he drifted from one mundane job to another, working seasonally shoveling snow and cleaning carpets (at a time before mechanization—when cleaning meant hauling rugs out of apartments and beating them with sticks). He lived in dumpy apartments, work houses, and occasionally slept in homeless shelters. He failed the admission test to art school. In his spare time he read pop novels and grew especially fond of American westerns—his Nazi regime would establish a Cowboy and Indian Museum—while a young Hitler couldn’t help but contrast his condition with the relatively prosperous and well-educated Jewish community in Vienna.

Along with pop literature Hitler stumbled onto anti-Semitic books and tracts, an underworld of publications digested by those attracted to superstition and conspiracy theories. The Protocols of the Elders of Zion was the most famous work; it contended that Jews were infiltrating western society from within in order to destroy it. Many anti-communist Russians embraced this idea in the wake of the 1917 Revolution. Some refugees saw communism as merely a front for insidious Jewish designs. They invariably noted that Karl Marx, founder of communist thought, was a Jew and son of a rabbi.

Another anti-Semitic book which influenced Hitler was Houston Stewart Chamberlain’s Foundations of the Nineteenth Century. Chamberlain glorified Germanic people, or Aryans, and saw history as an inevitable struggle between them and the Jews. In his zest for all things German, Chamberlain married one of Richard Wagner’s daughters and moved to Germany where, in old age, he watched Adolf Hitler’s budding political career. He and his wife Friedelind entertained Hitler in their home on several occasions. In an ironic twist of history, it was one of Chamberlain’s English relatives, Neville, who led Britain into war with Hitler’s Germany years later.

Though Chamberlain’s book was rather obscure, the idea behind it—that different races of people compete with each other in a struggle to survive—was all the rage in the late nineteenth century. Dove-tailing on the theories of Charles Darwin, many thinkers argued that the human species were, like animals, ensnared in a life-and-death competition that was entirely natural. Some even went so far as to believe that physical characteristics could identify ‘superior’ and ‘inferior’ races. It was a time when pseudo-scientists traveled the world measuring the length of noses and distances between eyes. Some, like Chamberlain, saw in blond-haired blue-eyed Aryans, a naturally superior race. Not surprisingly this theory appealed to quite a few Aryans.

No one is more susceptible to self-glorifying deception than a trampled and humiliated people, and such was the case of the Germans after the First World War. Although all of the major European powers rushed into the Great War in 1914, it was a defeated Germany that bore the blame for the catastrophe. Punished in a peace treaty that emasculated its military and levied harsh fines, Germany slid into economic depression and suffered hyperinflation in the early 1920s. Once Europe’s greatest power, it now struggled to feed its people. But for Adolf Hitler the war provided a kind of euphoric salvation. His drab existence ended. Serving as a courier on the Western Front, invigorated by the camaraderie of soldiering, he embraced the intense drama of war to the point of refusing leave so as to stay at the front.

By autumn 1918 the German army was broken. As its thin ranks retreated before the superior strength of the western Allies, buttressed by the arrival of the Americans, morale collapsed in the heart of Germany. But rather than accept the cold fact of their defeat, many soldiers began to blame the ‘home front’ for the nation’s final demise. In fact, as the war sputtered to a close, labor unrest had threatened to disrupt military supplies. Socialists and communists led most of these strikes, and often did so with words critical of the seemingly endless war. As Adolf Hitler lay in a military hospital nursing wounds from a gas attack, he cursed the civilian lack of will to continue the fight. Behind this devious plot to undermine Germany he perceived the stereotypical greedy, self-serving Jew. Jews had no nation of their own, and seemed shamelessly incapable of developing a patriotic love for Germany. Many, in fact, were leaders in labor unions and the emerging German Communist Party.

Hitler’s suspicions were seemingly confirmed by events after the war. In the dismal winter of 1919 a communist uprising unfolded in Berlin. Led in part by a Jewish woman born in Poland, Rosa Luxemburg, it sought to impose a ‘bolshevik workers’ regime’ on Germany. A sympathetic socialist police chief supplied the workers with arms, but the German government turned to veteran troops, railing in soldiers from the nearby countryside. Newly armed factory workers were no match for battle-hardened military men: the fight was a turkey shoot. Luxemburg went into hiding, only to be captured and hauled into the hotel-headquarters of the soldiers for questioning. As her guards ushered her through a lobby filled with hundreds of soldiers, a hush engulfed the room. One soldier stood up and bashed the middle-aged woman’s face with his rifle butt, eliciting cheers from the rest. Taken outside, ‘Red Rosa’ was shot in the head and dumped in a canal, her body recovered by mournful leftists several weeks later. But many Germans, including Hitler, saw in the failed 1919 insurrection the ultimate crime of treason. Deemed punishable by death, it would inspire a cold revenge of unprecedented proportions two decades later.


Adolf Hitler led an embittered Germany that sanctioned the murder of Europe’s Jews, but the true architect of the killing season was his earnest subordinate, Heinrich Himmler. What kind of person would oversee the extermination of millions of helpless victims? Himmler was by no means a psychotic deviant. His upbringing in southern Germany was traditional, even if some of his personal habits were from adolescence a bit weird. Raised in a strict Catholic home, he idolized the military—spending his mid-teens following world war campaigns while longing to become a soldier. He was diligent in school, faithful in attending mass, and always ambitious. His social awkwardness and physical limitations often curtailed his dreams of success. The future administrative bureaucrat of the Holocaust was, as a young man, something of a social outcast. Near-sighted, he wore eye-glasses clipped to the nose (the pince-nez); he was singularly awkward around women. Sickly and subject to stomach aches throughout his life, he lacked even the basic coordination to readily accomplish simple physical tasks. He barely passed a dance class as a teenager; he took up fencing as a life-long hobby but was still mediocre when at his very best.

What Himmler was really good at was pushing papers and taking meticulous notes. As a young man he maintained a diary in which he recorded mundane facts such as when he shaved or took a bath. Always dutiful—if not smart—he performed well enough in school to advance into higher education, where he studied agriculture. But the popular idea that he was a ‘chicken farmer’ is only partially true; in the early 1920s Himmler quickly shed his tedious life on a small farm to pursue a political career in the volatile post-war years.

Like Hitler, at some point in his youth Himmler began to turn onto racial theories and anti-Semitic literature. These beliefs were fanned in circles of ardent nationalists seeking to restore German pride after its defeat. At a nightclub once, a shy Himmler mingled with a young and attractive woman who turned out to be a Jew. He later noted in his diary his shock that she was Jewish. He equated Jews with bolshevik ideas, and worried endlessly that his beloved Germany would soon go the way of Russia and succumb to communism. But Himmler went one step beyond even Hitler’s racial ideas: he envisioned breeding an Aryan super race. Drawing on his knowledge of animal husbandry, he believed that selective mating could generate a superhuman species that would one day rule the world. Even many Nazis thought his ideas were crazy.

Hitler always had a place for dutiful and hardworking bureaucrats. In 1929 he gave Himmler a fancy title, Reichfuhrer, and appointed him head of his personal police squadron, the Schutzstaffel or S.S. The Nazis already had droves of youthful Brown Shirts ready to harass and terrorize their political opponents; Himmler’s task was to build up a counterweight, a policing force with great discipline and order. Hitler clearly saw in his subordinate the perfectionism and ambition necessary for the task. Himmler’s overwhelming sense of duty made him an excellent choice in terms of loyalty—he would not betray the supreme Fuhrer. Indeed, with his appointment he began to finally live out his lifelong dreams. Approving of snappy black uniforms, he began to create a quasi-military organization that answered to his commands. Even further, he recruited into its ranks what he regarded as prototype Aryans. He required S.S. men to get his approval before marrying, so that he could ensure a proper Aryan stock. A host of policies and regulations encouraged men to impregnate their wives quickly and often. The seeds of a super race were to be sown in the ranks of the S.S.

After Adolf Hitler came to power in 1933, his unwieldy Brown Shirt thugs did their work. Spending nights of drunken rowdiness, hundreds of thousands of young men beat and plundered the pre-existing political order into oblivion. Traditional police stood down and did nothing. But Hitler knew that the Brown Shirts and their leaders could in turn prove difficult to handle, and that in time they could even perhaps threaten his authority. So in a weekend purge known as the Night of Long Knives, Hitler sanctioned the murder of the Brown Shirt leadership just one year later. This macabre task (though it’s a myth that the homosexual leader of the Brown Shirts was murdered while in bed with his lover) was given to the S.S., ensuring that from 1934 onward the internal policing of the Nazi regime was in the hands of Himmler.

The S.S. as an organization grew dramatically in the mid-1930s, and by the end of the decade included 24,000 army-like soldiers, known as ‘Death Heads’ because they wore finger rings with the emblem of a skull. Himmler was fulfilling his childhood dream of being a military man. Much of the Germany’s business and industrial elite joined the S.S., and the organization even began to run its own factories. A special subsection, called the S.D. but popularly known as the Gestapo, monitored political activities in Germany. Since all facets of the S.S. answered to Himmler—and Himmler answered only to Hitler himself—the S.S. in effect became an empire within an empire.

Himmler thrived on managing the huge organization. He neglected his wife, still back on the chicken farm, and social activities in favor of long days at work. Though he had a mistress he never engaged the self-indulgent lifestyle of other prominent Nazis, like the flamboyant Air Force commander Hermann Göring. Himmler’s ambition instead fueled a seemingly endless thirst for control. He watched over S.S. affairs like a hawk, never taking a substantial vacation. The joke was told that he even supervised the activities of laundry women in each S.S. internment camp! There’s no doubt that he was a tireless micro-manager; little happened of significance within the organization without his knowledge and approval. At first glance it is strange, but perhaps not surprising, that the man who would oversee the extermination of millions of people exercised a puritanical sense of personal accountability. When he once took his visiting parents for a ride in his touring car, he required his staff to charge him for the gas.

There was one subordinate whom Himmler unabashedly trusted, at least early on. Reinhard Heydrich embodied Himmler’s ideas of the perfect Aryan. With blond hair and blue eyes, a trim and athletic physique, and agility and military skills to match, Heydrich was the man Heinrich Himmler could never be (though other Aryan watchers noted that his hips were a tad too large and his voice pitched rather high). He rose quickly in S.S. ranks to become the organization’s second-in-command. He occasionally took leave from work to fly a fighter plane in the next Nazi surprise attack, or blitzkrieg; he took periodic hourly breaks to practice fencing—a sport in which he excelled. But even Heydrich did not relate to Himmler’s nutty racial theories. Some of the S.S. bureaucracy that oversaw the killing of Jews did so without the visceral disdain that drove Hitler and Himmler to conceptualize their task. Many senior S.S. men also favored using Jewish slave labor to support the war effort, rather than pursue a policy of wholesale extermination.

Neither Adolf Hitler nor Heinrich Himmler ever killed a Jew. Himmler, however, came close. He visited multiple concentration camps at various stages of their construction and operation. During an early wartime visit to Russia he arranged to observe the execution of Jews. Standing near an open pit, he watched as gunshots shattered the skulls of those lying face down below him. Blood and brain tissue spurted onto his clothes and into his face. Himmler doubled over and vomited, aides rushing to his side. In touring various labor camps he witnessed emaciated prisoners and violence firsthand. He asked to see an example of corporal punishment once—witnessing a brutal flogging of a Jewish woman on her buttocks with a heavy whip. But Himmler never worked a gas chamber, never pulled the levers to release the fatal fumes, never shot a prisoner, and probably never beat or savaged a Jew himself.

Hitler, consumed by politics and war, was even more removed from the killing process. He lived through much of the critical 1942-45 period in isolation, first at his Prussian forest retreat known as Wolf’s Lair, then later in an underground bunker in Berlin. He never visited a concentration camp or directly observed the human misery or executions therein. The operative question, in fact, is how much he knew about what was unfolding within the S.S. regarding the eradication of the Jews.

Several historians have spent long hours scouring for the ‘missing link’, an explicit order by the Fuhrer that Europe’s Jews be exterminated. In several high profile speeches Hitler made ominous threats along the lines that he would ‘solve the Jewish problem’ or arrange for a ‘just retribution’ for Jews whom, he outrageously alleged, had started the second world war. But we have no public statement in which he ordered the killing of Jews. Not only this, but thorough searches have failed to turn up any written memorandum or document in which he states ‘kill the Jews’.

Nazi Germany’s notorious so-called concentration camps pre-dated the Holocaust. They were first established in 1934 within Germany, in order to house the regime’s political opponents—namely socialists and communists. The wholesale extermination of Jews was an unfolding work-in-progress much later, during the war years. The closest we get to any public exercise in its planning is a conference of various government bureaucrats in the upscale Berlin suburb of Wannsee in January 1942. Chaired by Reinhold Heydrich, neither Himmler nor Hitler attended.

So did Adolf Hitler order the destruction of the Jews? To what degree did he know that millions of Jewish civilians were being systematically murdered during the war? While an order from him to slaughter the Jews apparently did not exist in writing, the line between such a directive and his will is not wide. Hitler met with Himmler on many occasions. It is hard to imagine that one of the defining projects of the S.S. did not enter into their talks. Hitler almost certainly knew that Himmler’s S.S. was incarcerating and punishing Jews. He probably knew that, by late 1942, camps featuring gas chambers were operating with the explicit purpose of exterminating the Jews. Based on what we know of his preoccupations, Hitler likely gave these developments relatively little thought. He was obsessed with Germany’s fate in the war, consumed with its military activities, and preoccupied with a relentless regimen of strategy meetings in isolated settings with army officers. He left the killing to Himmler.