Posts Tagged ‘Adolf Hitler’

By Michael Stelzer Jocks, History Faculty.

Teaching a course on the Holocaust is challenging.  What should be the goal of the course: To explain why the event occurred, or how it transpired?  What should the course focus upon most: The perpetrators of the crime, or the auschwitz-birkenauvictims of the massacres?  How should we remember the legacy of the nightmare: As a unique moment in history, or simply another horrendous chapter in the unending book of human cruelty?

As an instructor, I have other, more personal hurdles as well.  I naturally attempt to use humor, and irony to make points in my courses.  This is not possible when analyzing Auschwitz-Birkenau.

As I have mentioned in previous posts, I attempt to use images and video as learning tools.  There is no shortage of documented images from the Shoah, but where do you draw the line between necessary illumination of horror, and macabre voyeurism?

These are difficult questions I face every Tuesday and Thursday at 10AM.

But, this quarter I am finding that I have a new, more disturbing challenge.    During the last couple weeks, I have come to realize that  I was using the language of Nazism to explain the historical context of the genocide. I know this sounds….not good, so let me explain.

When investigating the Nuremberg Laws, Kristallnacht, and Nazi propaganda, I must analyze Nazi ideology with my students.  They must understand that the Nazi weltschauung was Manichean in nature.  Good vs. Evil, right vs. wrong, light vs. dark.  Hitler and the Nazis understood humanity and individual identities utilizing such antithetical notions.  Supposed racial essence, most obviously the difference between Jews and Aryans, was all important. During 1933-1939, the period that Saul Friedländer has termed the ‘Years of Persecution’, Hitler and his Nazi movement regularized such ideas throughout German society.  The Nazi’s initial end during these early years was not to annihilate the Jewish people, but to destroy the Jewish community within the German homeland.  German Jews were to subjugated and relegated to secondary status, with the hope that the community would disintegrate through emigration. Thus, the Nazi state constantly and ubiquitously portrayed an ineffable and unbridgeable gap between the true German, the ‘Aryan’, and the parasitic outsider, ‘the Jew’. This portrayal of complete difference allowed the ‘German Aryan’ to feel superior to his German Jewish neighbor, and have no problem with any legal discrimination against the latter that was passed.  This was incredibly, and horrendously effective.

Victor Klemperer

Victor Klemperer

The success of Hitler and the Nazis in this realm can be seen in the fact that my students are surprised that many German Jews felt they were Germans first, and Jews second.  In 1933, there were only about 500,000 German Jews living within the Reich, and a great number of these men, women and children constructed their personal identity upon national, not religious or racial, terms.  German Jews were proud of German influence in world affairs, in German technology, German education, and, most particularly, in German high culture. Just like non-Jewish Germans, they lionized Beethoven, Kant, Goethe.  In fact, a good number of German Jews were disgusted by what they understood as Hitler’s theft of the German cultural heritage, since they believed Hitler was wholly antithetical to this legacy.  For instance, Victor Klemperer, a German First World War veteran, diarist, and German Jew, viewed the Nazi movement, and Hitler in particular, as a horrendous befouling of the German Kultur and Bildung that he loved so much Hitler and his Nazi thugs smeared the true Germany that so many German Jews adored.

This brings me back to my newest challenge.  I understand the complexity of German Jewish identity, the stealing of Germanness from the nation’s Jews, and yet, I find myself linguistically differentiating Jews and Germans in my lectures.   As I explain Nazi methods and ideas, I inadvertently, yet unthinkingly, fall into the Nazi usage of antithetical identity language.  Looking at German history during the Hitler years causes me to separate ‘Jews’ from ‘Germans’, in an absolute, essentialist manner.  I inform my students that ‘Jews’ and not ‘Germans’ were most effected by the Nuremberg laws.  I explain to them that the ‘Jews’ and not ‘Germans’  faced persecution on Kristallnacht.  I illustrate that it was the Jews and not ‘Germans’ who were transported to Auschwitz-Birkanau, Treblinka, and Belzec.  In this, I teach the fallacy that Jews were not Germans, and Germans were not Jews.

I nauseously realized that I may be providing Hitler with a posthumous victory.

I can’t let that happen.

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By Michael Stelzer Jocks, History Faculty.

Adolf.  What an evocative name. The name itself is almost a taboo.  I feel dirty writing it. It is not used in polite company. At a time when ‘old-fashioned’ names are making a comeback, Adolf is an antiquated name that doesn’t have much hope.   It is marred by darkness, hatred and murder.  Of course, the surname we associate with it is Hitler; our next thought is Nazism; lastly, the Holocaust.

A boy named Adolf.

Why has Adolf retained such a negative aura 70 years after the end of the war that he began?  Other members of the Nazi party who were just as guilty don’t have first names that live in infamy.  If you wanted to name your child Heinrich, not many people would instantly think of Himmler. What about Hermann? Our minds don’t automatically race to Goering.  Well, you may say, Hitler was the face of the Nazi party, and, hence, the face of murder. But, what about Josef (Joseph) or Vladimir?  If you met little boys by those names, most wouldn’t think of Stalin (who killed more people than Hitler) or Lenin.   So, why is Adolf so different? Why can there only be one Adolf?

First of all, the name is still ‘owned’ by white supremacists, and has never been ‘appropriated’ by rational folks. This was shown tragically in 2007, when two white supremacist parents living in New Jersey named their child Adolf Hitler Campbell.  I write ‘tragically’ because it is easy to foresee that child being brainwashed into a world of hatred and violence.  The government of New Jersey agreed with this assessment, and took the young boy away from his parents in 2011.  Though the state’s reasoning was based upon more than simply the name he was given, the moniker was obviously a frightening omen.

Second, the period and ideology we associate with Adolf is still fresh in our historical memory.  This is a good thing. The fact that Adolf is a name off-limits illustrates that people appreciate the evil of genocide and the Holocaust.  Americans are notorious for forgetting things that happened 7 years ago, much less 70, but the horror that Adolf represents is understood as being something that we can never allow again.

This seems all well and good, but perhaps there is a danger here.  Adolf as the symbol for the evil of Nazi Germany distorts and simplifies our understanding of history.  Adolf was not a one man wrecking crew who made some nasty speeches, barked orders, and physically forced Europeans to kill 10-12 million innocents.  His were not the only hands covered with blood.  The attempt to make him into the devil incarnate has actually been utilized by Europeans for decades to separate themselves from what happened in Nazi Germany.  The reason: Making Hitler the lone evil exculpates millions who were also guilty, and hence, buries the most important lesson to be learned from the Holocaust. The moral horror of the Holocaust was not simply Hitler’s ideas; it was that millions of ‘good’ Germans, and ‘ordinary’ Europeans saw little reason to fight against them.  Depressingly large numbers of people idly stood by, pulled levers, pushed buttons, and signed papers that fired the engines of mass death. When apathy and acceptance was the response to Nazi ideas and policies, Adolf had won a significant victory.  By avoiding his name for 70 years, people have tried to make sure Adolf didn’t win the war.