Hans Mommsen. History and Memory. Volume 9, Issue 1/2. Fall 1997.
The most widely known quotation from Hitler’s public orations is taken from his speech in the German Reichstag on 30 January 1939. Referring to the Jewish question, it contains the macabre prophecy: “Today I will be once more a prophet: if the international Jewish financiers in and outside Europe should succeed in plunging the nations once more into a world war, then the result will not be the Bolshevizing of the earth, and thus the victory of Jewry, but the annihilation of the Jewish race in Europe!” This statement has been taken as evidence that in early 1939 Hitler already intended to exploit the conditions of a future war to annihilate the Jews, at least those under German rule.
This interpretation seems further reinforced by the fact that Hitler subsequently made several references to this statement, erroneously dating it September 1939. It has also been argued on the basis of this speech that the German public, or at least those who were politically aware, should have concluded from it that the ultimate fate of the Jews under German domination would be their physical annihilation.
However, it seems to me that in order to analyze this statement—which was unprecedented in its harshness—it should be read within the immediate political context and the particular conditions that prevailed at that time. First of all, Hitler’s threat did not occupy a prominent place in his rather lengthy speech, which celebrated his seizure of power and was largely devoted to the “party saga” (Parteierzählung), a subject that usually comprised considerable parts of Hitler’s speeches and did not vary in content. It was only in the last part of the speech, after he had spoken for over two hours, that Hitler raised the issue of Jewish emigration. The context was the still ongoing negotiations between Hermann Göring and George Rublee, the American chairman of the Intergovernmental Committee for Refugees, on a plan for the emigration of Jews from Germany. Thus, the threat against European Jewry was made in relation to the aim of accelerating the Jews’ departure from Germany. The process was being stymied by the increasingly strict stipulations on the part of the potential host countries, who insisted that immigrants arrive with an adequate amount of foreign currency for their subsistence; put differently, to avoid the likelihood of their becoming a public charge. Indeed, the basic issue of increasing the emigration of European Jews had been placed on the agenda of the Évian conference the summer before, in July 1938. The conference, which had been initiated by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in response to the exacerbated Jewish refugee problem in the wake of Germany’s annexation of Austria, had been attended by representatives of 29 nations. It aimed to seek a solution to the Jewish refugee problem and even discussed the possibility of establishing a Jewish settlement outside of Palestine to which the British government was blocking further immigration.
In some respects, the Évian conference can be seen as an attempt on the part of the United States to reduce the international community’s pressure that it accept a higher Jewish immigration quota. The conference failed to reach any agreement to increase existing Jewish immigration quotas, while the deliberations to create a Jewish settlement outside of Palestine remained in the realm of pure speculation. Unable to agree on any concrete steps, the conference established a permanent five-power Intergovernmental Committee on Refugees which was assigned with reaching an agreement with Germany over the pending question of Jewish emigration. Although German Foreign Minister Joachim von Ribbentrop rejected any cooperation with the Évian conference, George Rublee was charged with negotiating with the German government to seek a way out of the existing impasse.
As noted above, the main obstacle to Jewish emigration lay in the German government’s refusal to transfer Jewish property, or assets in order to provide the financial means that would enable emigrants to gain admittance to countries willing to receive them. This refusal arose from the increasing shortage of foreign exchange, which endangered the very continuation of the German rearmament as envisaged in the Four Year plan under the direction of Hermann Göring. Rublee, hoping to overcome the impasse with Ribbentrop, elicited some interest in Hjalmar Schacht, at that time still head of the Reichsbank, as well as in Göring, who as Chairman of the Reich Defense Council, in the fall of 1938 repeatedly articulated his uneasiness over the financial crisis that was severely impairing his rearmament efforts. Upon the advice of Hans Fischböck, his deputy in the Four Year Plan Administration, Göring contacted Rublee, hoping that he could negotiate a sizable foreign loan that would enable him to proceed with the rearmament in exchange for concessions on the Jewish question.
Besides Rublee’s initiative, Oswald Pirow, the South African Minister of Defense and Economics, was received by Hitler on 24 November in Berlin. Acting as an emissary of Neville Chamberlain, he proposed a possible collaboration with Britain and America to solve the Jewish question. Pirow mentioned the possibility of raising an international loan in order to finance the emigration of Jews, and he even aired the idea of establishing a Jewish settlement in one of the former German colonies such as Tanganyika. Hitler rejected this proposal on the pretext that it would be intolerable to cede to the Jewish arch enemy territory on which German blood had been shed. Hitler, not revealing his true intentions, did not reject outright the possibility that Schacht and Göring would respond favorably to Rublee’s attempts to make contact which had been delayed by the Sudeten crisis. On 15 December 1938, Schacht presented a detailed proposal for the emigration of German Jews, which was to be implemented within a period of three to four years. This proposal had been drafted by Fischböck and confirmed by Göring and Himmler. Ribbentrop, who still opposed the Rublee mission, had been bypassed at this point. The plan called upon world Jewry to undertake the financing of the emigration of approximately 150,000 Jews within the next three years by means of an international loan to the amount of one and a half billion Reichsmark.
Although the proposal was certainly nothing but a form of blackmail—the credit granted the German government was to be repaid only a decade later by means of exporting German goods to the host countries—the talks continued. Thus, Rublee accepted Göring’s invitation to come to Berlin, where he stayed from 10 to 22 January 1939. Schacht had meanwhile been dismissed of Although president as the Reichsbank, Rublee was quite cordially received by Göring, who subsequently ordered his emissary in the Four Year Plan, Helmut Wohlthat, to proceed with the negotiations in London.
At the same time, on 24 January, a Reich Central Office for Jewish Emigration was established. Its director was Heinrich Müller, the Chief of the Gestapo, while Ernst Eisenlohr and Helmut Wohlthat, both Göring intimates, sat on the advisory board. This indicated that Göring was seriously interested in the scheme, which by now had apparently also found some support in the Foreign Office. The Rublee-Wohlthat talks continued until I February, ending in an agreement that envisaged the emigration of about 150,000 Jews, who would later be joined by relatives who were too old or unfit to work, while those elderly or infirm Jews whose emigration appeared entirely unfeasible were to remain in Germany until they eventually died out.
It is in this context that Hitler’s remarks in the Reichstag should be understood. The Führer referred indirectly to the pending Rublee-Wohlthat negotiations, complaining that “third countries suddenly refuse to receive Jews, using all possible excuses,” and asserting that there was “enough space for settlement” in the world to dispose of the Jews and that an understanding between the nations on this issue was long overdue because Europe could “not become pacified before the Jewish question has been settled.” At least, he declared, the German government was ultimately resolved to get rid of the Jews, who would have to learn to make their living like all other peoples through ordinary work. It was after these declarations, which were targeted at the Western governments and sought to gain their support for the emigration of German Jews, that Hitler made his much-quoted threat against “the Jewish race in Europe.” His formulations should be perceived in the context of the völkisch anti-Semitism that had been virulent in Germany since the Wilhelmine period. The notion of using the Jews as hostages in order to prevent the Western powers from inflicting damage on Germany was familiar to the fanatical anti-Semites of that era. A striking illustration of this theme is provided by Hermann Esser, a member of the fanatical anti-Semitic wing of the NSDAP who had originally belonged to the Deutsch-völkische Schutz und Trutzbund (German-Völkisch Protection and Defense League). In 1922, having referred to the Nazi slogan that the German people’s inner unity had priority over the looming problems of foreign affairs, Esser was asked what the National socialists would do if the French actually occupied the Ruhr. If but a single French soldier set foot on German soil, he responded, 500,000 Jews should be taken into custody and killed. Hitler employed the same kind of logic in his Reichstag speech, exploiting the Jews’ predicament to pressure foreign governments into compliance.
In this context, therefore, Hitler’s warning should be understood as a rhetorical gesture designed to put pressure on the international community to accept the Reich’s extensive financial demands, a gesture that was not far from open blackmail. At that time it was highly unlikely that either the German or the international public could have interpreted his statement as an ill-concealed declaration of a serious intention to liquidate the Jews under German rule in the event of war. Even for Hitler the propagandistic dimension was what predominated, as is also demonstrated by his related statement that if the international press did not stop harassing Germany, he would respond by producing anti-Semitic films.
Although Hitler’s threat was not expressly discussed in the German media, on 4 February the foreign press was invited to hear a statement by Alfred Rosenberg, chief editor of the Völkischer Beobachter and director of the Foreign Political Office which competed with the Foreign Office. Rosenberg, referring to the Évian negotiations, declared that the settlement of German Jews overseas should not lead to the establishment of an actual Jewish state: “If millions of Jews are to be settled elementary humanity towards the Jews demands that they shall not be left to themselves, but that the colony be placed under administrators trained in police work. There is no question of establishing a Jewish state, but only a Jewish reserve.” This statement reflects the strong reservations within the NSDAP and especially the SS leadership regarding Göring’s master plan.
The international press’s reaction to these statements was both supportive and tremendously naive. Thus, the Rublee-Wohlthat agreement, which became public on 14 February, was quite favorably received by the New York Times whose headline “Orderly Migration of Germany’s Jews Envisaged in Plan” reflected the wishful thinking of the international community was possible to a peaceful agreement that it reach with the Reich. Yehuda Bauer has shown that the deal was regarded by President Roosevelt as a serious attempt to achieve a solution and that he put pressure on Jewish representatives in the U.S. to carry out the agreement. This took place, however, when appeasement was beginning to lose its appeal. Both examples clearly demonstrate that the threat of eventual annihilation of the Jews was perceived as sheer propaganda. Indeed, the domestic and international reception of Hitler’s speech did not pay serious attention to his prophecy. As Ian Kershaw convincingly shows, neither the Sopade reports nor the reports of the Bavarian Government Presidents took notice of its specific anti-Semitic dimension, and the same applies to Goebbels’ remarks on Hitler’s speech in his diaries. Hitler’s prophecy, Kershaw points out, “was at the time probably taken much for granted by most `ordinary’ Germans in the context of the ever more overtly radical anti-Jewish policy of the regime.” More complex is the question of what induced Hitler to use this somewhat unusual language in January 1939.
On 21 January, Hitler is recorded as having told the Czechoslovak Foreign Minister, Franti…ek K. Chvalkowski, that “With us the Jews would be destroyed. Not for nothing did the Jews make 9 November 1918; this day will be avenged.” This statement, which was written down by Walter Wetzel, the liaison officer to the Foreign Office and himself a fanatical anti-Semite, should also be seen in a rhetorical context, and the term “destruction” perceived as a metaphor for the eradication of Jewish influence rather than as a deliberate disclosure of his true intentions. At this meeting, while urging Czechoslovakia to liberate herself from the Jews and praising himself as exporting anti-Semitism, Hitler also pleaded for the Jews’ emigration to Great Britain and the United States where, he claimed, there was ample room for their settlement.
The notion that Hitler’s speech of 30 January 1939 constitutes incontrovertible evidence of his intention to eventually solve the Jewish question by the use of violence has repeatedly been assessed in the literature. In the context in which it was made, however, it rather indicates that at that time Hitler did not perceive any other solution than the enforced emigration of the Jewish population, including resurrecting the idea of settling the Jews in Madagascar, a suggestion that had been raised again by the Polish side. As the conversation with Pirow shows, Hitler was not interested in the details and tended to react to concrete proposals in a rather dilatory fashion.
That even Hitler did not envisage an alternative strategy to enforced Jewish emigration is corroborated by Göring’s speech in a confidential meeting with the Gauleiter, Oberpräsidenten and Reich governors in the Reich Air Ministry on 6 December 1938, which followed the well-known negotiations on 12 November regarding the consequences of the Kristallnacht. Göring informed the party notables that Hitler had entrusted him to handle the Jewish question and reiterated the urgent request that the lower party agencies no longer take independent action on Jewish affairs, especially concerning issues related to Jewish property. At the same time he pointed out that Hitler insisted that, with regard to the Jewish question, top priority be given to enforcing Jewish emigration as rapidly and efficiently as possible. Hence, not only should all bureaucratic or economic obstacles to the emigration of Jews be removed, but even economic concessions should be made to German Jewry. Göring, alluding to the negotiations with the Rublee committee, outlined what several weeks later turned out to be the Wohlthat-Rublee plan. Moreover, Göring underlined the imperative economic importance of securing a clearing agreement with respect to the transfer of German Jews to North and South America.
Hitler not merely passively accepted Göring’s scheme, which from the outset comprised the idea of financing German rearmament by extorting a huge international loan, but endorsed it without any reservation. Thus, he surprisingly presented himself as an advocate of moderation and officially backed Göring’s bitter complaints about the superfluous outburst of violence during the November pogrom which had endangered the transfers. Moreover, Hitler rejected the proposals put forward by Reinhard Heydrich to place a distinguishing mark on all Jews, as well as to establish Jewish ghettos, along with other measures that would have doomed the Jewish population to starvation. Obviously, the Führer was docile enough to realize that the twofold coup envisaged by Göring—of transferring the Jews overseas and obtaining the urgently needed foreign credit—had to be exploited. Hence, Göring was endowed with plenipotentiary powers regarding the Jewish question, and he knew how to use them.
The Nazi leaders hip’s reaction to Kristallnacht is particularly revealing of their self-perception. They were obviously aware that the pogrom had been a staged operation, even though implemented without the support of the general population. Nonetheless they responded with a “flight to the front,” with the decision to solve the Jewish question once and for all. The decision-making process after the pogrom, therefore, offers a striking example of the regime’s cumulative radicalization. Instead of opting to reach a lasting agreement between the divergent interests of the organizations and institutions involved, Göring tried to channel all the antagonist aims into the expectation of an eventual final solution of the Jewish question and to transform it into a dynamic process that would satisfy everybody’s wishes.
At the same time, the Nazi leadership came under pressure from precisely those radical sentiments that had been unleashed during the November pogrom and were being promoted especially by the fanatical racial anti-Semites in the movement, including some of the Gauleiter who acted as their spokesmen. In particular, the Schwarze Korps became the organ that would urge the most radical methods, as in an article of 24 November 1938 which called for the extermination of the Jews.
Hitler evidently felt the need to promise effective measures on the part of the government in order to calm down the extreme anti-Semitic activities which endangered the emigration scheme that Göring and Schacht had worked out. He proved to be highly sensitive to the Western media’s hostile reactions to the November pogrom, aware that any continuation of the rule of violence, as it had erupted at that time, would undermine his prestige and necessarily torpedo all the efforts to accelerate Jewish emigration to the West.
At the same time, according to Göring, Hitler became convinced that the Jewish question could be postponed no longer, especially because of the radicalization of the local and regional party chieftains. These elements had to be satisfied at least to some extent, and the most visible measure, aside from Aryanization, would be to accelerate Jewish emigration. Thus, however inopportune this may have been in terms of world public opinion, Göring announced at the end of the session in the Reich Air Ministry on 12 November: “If at any foreseeable time in the future the German Reich finds itself in a foreign political conflict, it is self evident, that we in Germany will address ourselves first and foremost to effecting a grand settling of scores against the Jews.” At the same time, Göring reported that along with the Wohlthat-Rublee agreement, Hitler intended to launch an initiative to pursue the Madagascar project, together with Poland and other sympathizers with Nazi anti-Semitic policies.
In any case, Göring’s hint at a changed German attitude in the event of a political conflict—not necessarily war—predated Hitler’s threat to annihilate the Jews of Europe. The impression arises that Hitler’s adoption of this idea may have reflected, above all, his uneasiness about the impasse that his policy on the Jewish question had reached in the fall of 1938. Realizing that on this issue a certain cooperation with the Anglo-Saxon powers was indispensable, and uncomfortably aware of the necessity of taking into consideration the international repercussions of Germany’s Jewish policy, Hitler, as was his wont, opted for proclaiming an “all or nothing” policy, a partial versus a total solution. It was in this context that he articulated the unprecedented threat to annihilate the Jewish race in Europe. It can only be surmised why Hitler restricted himself to that continent and whether he anticipated the outbreak of a second world war, as he was to unleash eight months later. Hitler was presumably alluding to World War I, which he perceived as the result of a Jewish conspiracy. Although he would later refer to the start of World War II, it is difficult to assess whether he anticipated the political constellation of September 1939. Yehuda Bauer’s argument that the German dictator envisioned the eventuality of an anti-Jewish war as an alternative to the Rublee-Wohlthat agreement has some plausibility.
In any case, the threat to the Jews of Europe heralded a new stage of persecution, and once again Hitler placed himself under the pressure of a visionary alternative in order to justify his tactical deviation. It is difficult to assess whether Hitler actually envisaged a final solution of this kind. Nonetheless, he thus paved the way to a further radicalization of the and-Jewish propaganda, even though it was not until 1940 that the notion of the eventual annihilation of the Jews under German rule appeared to be realizable.
This raises the issue of how Hitler reconciled his ideological visions and the dictates of reality. In his propaganda he persisted in using a rather metaphorical language in order to describe the Jewish question, and even in his later speeches he never referred directly to the annihilation process. With the benefit of hindsight, the ruthless attacks on foreign statesmen he made in his speech, as well as his illusionist posture of being an exporter of anti-Semitism, make it difficult to believe that his inclination to exaggerate the issues involved was more than mere camouflage, although he possibly believed in his ideological postulates. Thus, he was evidently convinced that his opponents in the British government such as Winston Churchill and Anthony Eden, as well as First Lord of the Admiralty Duff Cooper, were inspired by Jewish warmongers. It seems that it was this predilection to think in antagonistic categories and not to be outdone in hatred for the Jewish enemy that led Hitler to envision an eventual annihilation of the Jews of Europe. With regard to the conditions under which his threat was turned into reality, it seems that a crucial role was played by the pressure of the radical strata within his movement to devise concrete solutions to the Jewish question.
The episode of the Reichstag speech, however, seems to be put in quite another light by the fact that Hitler repeated his prediction on 30 January 1941, using exactly the same words and referring to his earlier speech which he erroneously dated 1 September 1939. He reiterated this passage on 30 January and 8 November 1942 and alluded to it again on 24 February and 30 September 1942 and on 24 February 1943. While the context differed to some extent, the main argument—that in the long run the European nations, whether they were opponents or friends of the Reich, would cooperate in the struggle against international Jewry—remained the same. In addition, he alluded to his former prophecy whenever he addressed the party on 30 January or 24 February (the latter date being the Partei Gründungstag, the anniversary of the founding of the party). Although some of the allusions were sharpened in conjunction with the ongoing genocide, Hitler preserved the masked language and avoided any direct mention of the mass murder. He continued to depict the solution of the Jewish question in Europe as a task that still lay in the future and, when speaking of the actual steps pursued by the German Reich toward this aim, he would refer exclusively to the anti-Jewish legislation and indoctrination, never to the killing operations as such.
Hitler’s tendency to quote himself and play the prophet about an alleged future already known to him raises the suspicion that he needed such a configuration for bolstering his resoluteness to continue the anti-Jewish fight until its visionary end: the destruction of Jewry and the formation of an alliance between the Aryan peoples in Europe that would ensure world peace—a kind of pseudo-chiliasm. He would present his goals in the way they appeared to be pressed upon him by the events. Actually, Hitler did not deviate from this visionary propagandist context.
It was most unusual, however, that Hitler, who was so totally committed to the spoken word, would reiterate earlier utterances in almost the same words. It seems that the reason why he repeated this particular statement, which was not taken from a prominent part of his speech, can be explained by the fact that Goebbels inserted it into the anti-Semitic film Der ewige Jude (The Eternal Jew). Hitler took an extreme interest in the conceptualization and actual making of this film, which implemented his idea of eventually intensifying his struggle against Jewish influence on the West European governments by producing antiJewish films. Goebbels presented the different versions of Derewige Jude to Hitler, who demanded several changes and showed much interest even in the details. In retrospect, it is difficult to ascertain why the Nazi leaders invested so much energy in this both technically and propagandistically rather weak document of anti-Semitic hatred and distortion. Actually, the first version of the film did not include the passage from Hitler’s Reichstag speech, which appeared in a version shown on 2 March 1940 to a select circle of prominent party members, state officials, academicians and artists.
The fact that Hitler viewed this excerpt from his 1939 speech several times may help to explain why he continually returned to it. The first self-quotation in January 1941 was quite unrelated to the implementation of the Holocaust, which did not begin until the fall of that year. But even later the context of Hitler’s prediction would change only slightly and patently did not refer to the implementation of the Holocaust, but had merely become a cliché of propaganda which in no way revealed what in fact was being carried out against the Jews. Indeed, this fits very well with his habit of inspiring radical measures by indirectly encouraging his subordinates to action while avoiding any immediate personal involvement.
The “prophecy” in Hitler’s Reichstag speech may have been only one episode on the “twisted road to Auschwitz,” but it was symptomatic of a phenomenon that Martin Broszat tried to define in the formula “the propaganda takes one at its word.” Broszat was noting here the phenomenon of Nazi propaganda, whose primary function consisted in political mobilization, but which in the long run rebounded on the concrete political course pursued by the regime. In other words, what originally was destined for purely propagandistic uses inadvertently turned into actual politics by giving unrestricted leeway to the party radicals who demanded immediate implementation. Therefore, it was almost impossible for the Nazi leadership to stop the process of cumulative radicalization, especially with respect to the persecution of the Jews, if they were not to lose face. The compulsion to arrive at a definitive and not final, that is, visionary, solution to the Jewish question made it impossible to stop the persecution or to postpone the measures until the end of the war, as some of the ministers wanted. This mechanism played into the hands of Himmler and his chieftains who decided in favor of a comprehensive solution.
Certainly, there is a fierce dispute among historians concerning Hitler’s role within the Holocaust, quite apart from David Irving’s allegation that Hitler was unaware of the systematic killing operations until Himmler’s ill-famed Posen speech in October 1943. While this is utterly misleading, it is becoming increasingly clear that Hitler was an indispensable, if not the only, factor that enabled the vision of the extermination of European Jewry to become reality. The crucial issue is certainly not to define the extent to which Hitler directly fueled the escalating process leading to the systematic annihilation of the Jews of Europe—quite apart from the fact that Hitler instinctively refrained from talking too openly about that objective, while giving free rein to his subordinates—but why he could expect that his criminal visions would be realized without any open resistance or protest—whether on ethical grounds or merely because of competing interests—from inside or outside the Nazi constituency.