Thursday, September 13, 2012

Nazi persecution of the Jews and Hitler's expansionism in 1938

The History Book Club met yesterday at the Barnes and Noble book store at Montrose Crossing to discuss 1938: Hitler's Gamble by Giles MacDonogh. The book actually tells two stories:
  • That of the treatment of the Jews by the Nazis in Austria (after the Anschluss) and Germany, and
  • That of the geopolitical policies of the Hitler regime in the preparation for World War II.


In 1938, Nazi policy towards the Jews was focused on forcing their emigration to other (non-Germanic) countries, reducing the socio-economic status of Jews remaining in German speaking areas, and appropriating any wealth held by Jews in Germany and Austria.

While the book did not discuss the earlier history, our group did, trying to explain why the anti-Semitic efforts were greater in Vienna than Berlin, why antisemitism was so virulent at the time, and why there were so many Jews in Vienna.

It was noted that in the latter years of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the Jews who had no separatist claims to specific lands were allowed unusual rights and freedom by the Emperor. Many Jews at the time emigrated to Vienna where they prospered, often becoming visible through their retail stores. The result was that Jews were a larger and more prominent portion of the population of Vienna than of Berlin. Concentration camps that had been built to house Communists and other political opponents of the Nazis, began to house large number of Jews; however, many of those sent to concentration camps in 1938 were held there for only a few months.

We wondered whether prejudice had built up against the Jewish immigrants to Vienna as they progressed economically -- a prejudice that was expressed when Nazi thugs took over government. It was also noted that many Christian Germans were no doubt unwilling to act in support of the Jews because they were intimidated by the visible anti-Semitic thuggery.

Today we find it hard to imagine, much less understand, the intense anti-Semitic views common worldwide in 1938. The group discussed the deep roots of antisemitism in European Christianity. It also discussed the exacerbation of antisemitism in the late 19th century, in the face of the social and cultural changes related to increasing urbanization and the spread of the industrial revolution. The impact was increased by cynical efforts to blame the Jews for the ills of society.

30,000 Jewish Men Marched to Camps ~ Kristallnacht 1938
The plight of the Jews under Nazi rule in 1938 demanded our pity. Nazi thugs would attack their businesses and their people on the streets. Jewish owned businesses were confiscated by the state. Jewish professionals -- doctors, dentists, teachers and professors -- were denied the right to practice their professions. Their property was being confiscated. All of this was intended to force Jews to leave for other countries, but few would accept Jewish immigrants and those that did has strict, low limits to Jewish immigration. Moreover, exit visas were expensive, and transit visas were increasingly difficult to obtain.

The Evian Conference was convened at the initiative of U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt in July 1938 to discuss the issue of increasing numbers of Jewish refugees fleeing Nazi persecution. Unfortunately, the U.S. set a negative precedent at the Conference by refusing to increase immigration quotas for European Jews. Very few other nations increased their quotas; there were few opportunities for Jews to emigrate. Hitler and his inner circle drew the conclusion that the rest of the world also was prejudiced against the Jews and didn't much care what the Nazis did to the Jews in Germany.

It was pointed out that the Jews were but one of many groups targeted by the Nazis. Gypsies and the Catholic church were also targeted. Long term Nazi policy developed during the war included plans to commit genocide against Slavs in the newly conquered territories. It was also noted that some religious organizations and some individuals worked hard to provide sanctuary for the Jews.

In 1938, as stated above, the policy of the German government was to encourage emigration by Jews, and the genocidal "final solution" did not become policy until 1942. In 1938 the gas chambers had not yet been installed in the concentration camps. However, as Germany conquered eastern European territory, it found itself dealing with the millions of Jews who lived there. The "final solution" was at least in part a response to this increase in the Jewish population under Nazi control.

Hitler's Gamble

While the book does not describe it, Hitler's government had gained considerable public support in the early 1930s as it used economic stimulus to increase employment. Building infrastructure, rearming, and employing large numbers in the military was done at the expense of increasing public debt, but the debt was owed primarily to German nationals. Still, by 1938 the government was finding it difficult to fund the rearmament, and the German economy was in difficulty.

Hitler early in 1938 consolidate his power with the elimination of the major coalition partner in the government. By absorbing Austria into Germany in 1938, he was able not only to enlist the Austrian divisions into the German army, but also to absorb the Austrian financial reserves into German rearmament, to add Austrian manufacturing infrastructure into the manufacture of weapons, and thus further advance the German military buildup.

So too, the appropriation of the wealth of German and Austrian Jews provided still more funding for the government and rearmament.

Later in the year, by absorbing Sudetenland from Czechoslovakia, Germany gained control of both the natural resources and the manufacturing capability of the region. It added Germans enlisted from the region to the military. The major defensive installations of Czechoslovakia were on the German-Sudetenland frontier, and were thus rendered ineffective. Moreover, the Polish defense installations were on the former Polish-German border, and Germany was able in 1939 to invade Poland in 1939 via the relatively undefended Polish-Sudetenland border.

Thus Hitler gambled and was successful in 1938 in that by the end of the year he was in firm control of a larger Germany, a more fully armed Germany, and a Germany that was better placed to invade Poland and the remains of Czechoslovakia.


Chambelain and Hitler
The group spent some time discussing whether German expansion could have been stopped before the dismemberment of Czechoslovakia and Hitler disposed as a result of the Munich meeting. It was pointed out that the Czech army was large and well equipped, that the French army was larger and better equipped than the German army in 1938 and had a treaty obligation to support Czechoslovakia, that the Soviet Union with its large army also had a treaty obligation to support Czechoslovakia, and that the British Empire's navy had control of the sea and had obligations to support France. Moreover, there were German military leaders who were prepared to lead a revolt against Hitler and were hoping for him to suffer a diplomatic defeat at Munich (which presumably would have reduced his political support within Germany).

Why did this not happen. Russia, France, England and even the United States has suffered great losses in World War I and there was broad anti-war sentiment in all three countries. The depression was still causing high levels of unemployment and poverty. Moreover, there were political elements, some quite influential, that would have preferred alliance with Germany against the Communist Soviet Union than with the USSR against Germany. The USSR would not move against Germany unless France did so. The French government was in disarray,  and would not move against Germany unless it was assured of British support. The British government, perhaps because of the political difficulty of doing otherwise, choose to appease Hitler. The Czechoslovakian people were unable to effectively resist the German military alone. (And the United States was in isolation across the Atlantic.)

Overall Opinion of the Book

There seemed to be common complaints about readability of the book. Large numbers of people were identified by name, but for those of us not very familiar with German society and culture in the 1930s, it was hard to identify the people or to know their importance. It was all but impossible to keep track of the names of other than the key leaders of the German government.

There was also a complaint that the MacDonogh did not provide important background information, such as why and how Jews came to play such an important role in Vienna life in the 1930s, what the economic situation of Germany was and how it contributed to Hitler's popular support, or how the political system worked in Germany at the time.

It was noted that the two parallel theses of the book might have been one too many. The considerable detail about the plight of the Jews may have prevented the author from going into sufficient detail about Hitler's geopolitical concepts and the play of international diplomacy and national politics of the time. Ultimately, the complaint was about the choice of information to convey and points to emphasize in the text.

In fairness, the book makes a convincing case that 1938 was a key year in the evolution of Germany leading up to World War II. One of our members, perhaps the most knowledgeable about that period of German history, noted that he had learned new facts from the book which changed his understanding in important ways.

The Discussion

Our organizer and coordinator, Stew Oneglia, was ill last night and could not attend. In her absence, there were only a dozen people present. Still there was a lively and informative discussion. Indeed, while the formal discussion concluded after two hours, smaller groups continued well after some had left.

The October meeting of the Book Club will discuss 1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created by Charles C. Mann. After a presentation on the book, those present decided that the club would discuss The March of Folly: From Troy to Vietnam by Barbara W. Tuchman.

No comments: