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“We Ourselves Are the War:” Understanding the Relationship between the First World War and the Holocaust

Review Essay of Nations Have the Right to Kill: Hitler, the Holocaust and War

By Brian E. Crim, Ph.D.
Assistant Professor of History, Lynchburg College

Europeans from every walk of life rejoiced at the prospect of war in 1914. The “Old Order” may have blundered into a diplomatic nightmare from which there was no escape, but Europe’s bellicose populations were more interested in the end result—a great national cleansing. After nearly a century of limited engagements within the confines of the balance of power system, colonial adventures in distant lands, and the steady triumph of bourgeois materialism at home, many Europeans longed for a true test of national strength and a taste of barbarism to counteract the ossifying effects of civilization. As General Erich von Falkenhayn observed the spontaneous celebrations in the streets of Berlin, a scene that was replayed in every capital, he remarked, “Even if we go down in ruin, it was beautiful.”

Unfortunately, this sentiment prevailed to the bitter end as each belligerent power sacrificed a generation in a life and death struggle between nations. Even as the chances for victory dwindled, especially for Germany, leaders continued to promise spectacular gains with no hope of a victory commensurate with the bloodshed. Germany embraced Kaiser Wilhelm II’s fateful ultimatum of “Worldpower or Downfall!” decades before the war and it was only a matter of time before it would again.

Richard Koenigsberg’s Nations Have the Right to Kill examines the relationship between sacrifice and modern warfare by focusing on Germany’s path from the First World War to the Holocaust. Koenigsberg argues convincingly that sacrifice was as central to National Socialist ideology as racial anti-Semitism. The core of the National Socialist ethos was that Germany’s destiny was linked to racial purification and the acquisition of Lebensraum (living space). Under the cover of war, the Third Reich enacted its ultimate sacrifice by exterminating European Jewry in order to save Germany from racial death.

As a proud veteran Adolf Hitler felt he understood sacrifice. The Nazi party was just one of dozens of right-wing paramilitary organizations that celebrated violence and harnessed its energy in the pursuit of politics. Clausewitz famously wrote that war was the continuation of politics by other means. The German veteran, no matter his political affiliation, considered war a continuation of politics, or more accurately, the politics of a new age. The hated Weimar Republic was fleeting, a bridge between one total war and the next one. Friedrich Wilhelm Heinz, an early Freicorp commander and future Minister President of Saxony during the Third Reich, captured the ethos of the emboldened veteran in his 1930 memoir:

People told us that the War was over. That made us laugh. We ourselves are the War. Its flame burns strongly in us. It envelopes our whole being and fascinates us with the enticing urge to destroy. We obeyed…and marched onto the battlefields of the postwar world just as we had gone into battle on the Western Front: singing, reckless and filled with the joy of adventure as we marched to the attack; silent, deadly, remorseless in battle.

Many veterans believed they were entitled to lead by virtue of their sacrifice. The central organizing principle behind the rising fascist parties was that veterans were a special breed, the bearers of a “secret that can never be communicated,” and this incommensurability of experience demanded that a veteran, a “new man,” lead the nation. Koenigsberg relates Hitler’s speech from September 1, 1939 in which he declared, “I now want nothing else than to be the first soldier of the German Reich…I therefore have put on once again that coat which was once the most sacred and dear to me. I will take it off again only after victory, or I will not survive the outcome.” Like Falkenhayn, Hitler admired the spectacle of war as much as its outcome. If the front generation had spent its formative years confronting the realities of industrial killing, why couldn’t survivors of the great national sacrifice subject future enemies to the same treatment?

Historian Omer Bartov coined the term industrial killing, defining it as “the mechanized, impersonal, and sustained mass destruction of human beings, organized and administered by states, legitimized and set into motion by scientists and jurists, sanctioned and popularized by academics and intellectuals.” The signature battles of the First World War, such as Verdun and the Somme, produced hundreds of thousands of casualties and minimal gains. On the Western Front especially, men were transported by rail to ready-made graves where they were systematically slaughtered by artillery, machine gunfire and poison gas.

Indeed, the ultimate goal of the German General Staff for the Battle of Verdun was to “bleed the French white.” Most disturbingly, industrial killing became an accepted form of warfare and the challenge was not to prevent its recurrence, but to master it and ensure that only the enemy would suffer its full horrors. Bartov writes that “Auschwitz could neither have been imagined, nor constructed and set to work, without the experience and memory of the Great War, where many of the architects and executioners of the ‘Final Solution’ underwent their ‘baptism of fire.’” For many survivors of the First World War, the next war must be controlled and directed against the true enemy of the German people—the Jews. Like soldiers destined for the muddy trenches, the Jewish enemy was also transported by rail to a certain death.

In Nations Have the Right to Kill, Koenigsberg crafts a novel argument about the place of Jews in Hitler’s ideology. He writes that “the Aryan or good Nazi represented an individual who was willing to sacrifice unconditionally. Jews, on the other hand, represented people who were unwilling or unable to sacrifice for the community.” The Nazis sought to prove this essential point by invalidating Jewish sacrifice on the battlefield while simultaneously constructing “the Jew” as a biological enemy using the pseudo-science of “race.”

Hitler often referred to himself as the “Doctor of the Nation” and interpreted racial purity as synonymous with a nation’s political health. The Third Reich sacrificed Jews on the altar of national unity because their mere existence challenged the National Socialist interpretation of the Volksgemeinschaft (National Community). The nation is a community of blood and Jewish blood was a contaminant, a cancer that had to be excised from a healthy body politic. As Koenigsberg notes throughout the book, Hitler doubted Jewish devotion to the nation. For one, they did not belong because of their race. Secondly, Hitler believed that Jews were an unreliable population during war. In the next war, which was surely coming, what would stop them from undermining Germany once again? This is what Hitler meant by sacrifice to the nation—Germans did it willingly while Jews were always suspect.

Koenigsberg is absolutely correct to interpret Hitler’s anti-Semitism in these terms. Saul Friedlander referred to this peculiar brand of hatred as “redemptive anti-Semitism.” For Germany to live, the Jews must die. This simple, yet fateful idea drove Germany’s obsession with a racial war of annihilation against the Soviet Union and ultimately inspired the architects of the Holocaust. And, as Koenigsberg notes, the two national projects of war and genocide were inextricably linked.

One of Hitler’s most powerful invocations, although hardly original, was the specter of “Judeo-Bolshevism.” By conflating Jews with what most Western Europeans viewed as an inherently destructive and corrosive ideology, Hitler stoked the fires of redemptive anti-Semitism to the point that millions of Germans and other European bystanders participated in the genocide. The fact that European Jews, German Jews in particular, sacrificed their own identity on the altar of national acceptance is just one of the tragic ironies of the period. German Jews fought and died in great numbers during the First World War, yet this blood sacrifice was ignored and, worse, slandered. Hitler clung to the myth that Jews were unreliable and largely escaped the horrors of war despite evidence to the contrary. Why did the Jews arouse such fears of national dissolution in the minds of Hitler and others? Like many explanations related to National Socialism and the Holocaust, the answer lies in the First World War.

1914 was supposed to wipe the slate clean and complete the difficult process of assimilation for German Jewry. Wilhelm II declared a “civil peace” days after Germany declared war and promised that past social divisions were irrelevant. Jews volunteered for military service in record numbers and the army was forced to accept more Jewish officers into its ranks after the officer corps was decimated within the first six months of combat. One rabbi announced confidently in August 1914, “In the German fatherland there are no longer any Christians and Jews, any believers and disbelievers, there are only Germans. May God allow these great times to become part of the consciousness of our people, and to make us a truly united people.”

This optimism was tragically misplaced. The German military had long considered Jews an internal enemy because some prominent members of the hated Social Democratic Party (SPD) were Jewish. Once the war descended into a stalemate with no hope for a breakthrough, the fragile civil peace eroded: Jews, once again, emerged as an excellent scapegoat. In November 1916 the War Ministry undertook a now infamous statistical survey called the “Jew count” in an effort to determine the number of Jewish soldiers serving in frontline units. The official memorandum stated that in order to address the accusations from various sources that Jews were disproportionately excused from military service, or poorly represented at the front, the War Ministry was conducting a census of Jews serving in the military and the breakdown of their duties.

War Minister Wild von Hohenborn ordered every command and the occupation authorities to submit a census for inspection. A few weeks later, Hohenborn clarified that each report should include the number of total officers, non-commissioned officers, and troops in each unit; the number of Jews in each category; and the number of Jews awarded Iron Crosses of either class. Other information requested included how many Jews had volunteered for service, how many served at the Front since the beginning of the war, and how many of those were killed or decorated. It is clear from internal documents that the War Ministry anticipated figures that would undermine Jewish claims that they were dedicated Germans deserving of full inclusion into German society, especially the military. The army was also reacting to pressure from anti-Semitic organizations seeking to expose Jews as shirkers and war profiteers.

This war over statistics would extend deep into the Weimar era and even the Third Reich. The results of the census were never published, fueling suspicion among anti-Semites and Jews alike that the results must have been devastating to each other’s arguments. However, one can be certain that had the census proven the War Ministry’s assumptions about Jewish front service, the results would have been widely circulated.

For twenty years after the war, Jewish veterans trumpeted their sacrifice—12,000 dead—as a silver bullet against the charge of treason and cowardice. This did not prevent the “stab-in-the-back” legend from developing, a particularly effective myth maintaining that Jewish revolutionaries on the homefront sacrificed a victorious army in the field. While Jewish organizations struggled to defend themselves from a wave of postwar anti-Semitism, the Nazi party declared that Jews had not sacrificed enough and had, instead, orchestrated Germany’s defeat. If Germany was to be reborn, Hitler argued, then the Jews must be sacrificed to prevent yet another national betrayal.

The revolutions of 1917-1918 prompted anti-Semitism’s transformation from a feature of German social and political life that ebbed and flowed over time into a radicalized and increasingly more violent ideology dedicated to eliminating Jewish influence root and branch. Although initially friendly towards the Jewish populations of Eastern Europe, mostly because they were pro-German in outlook, the German army quickly linked the threat of Bolshevism to Jewish influence. The roots of this associative merger lie in the military’s distrust of social democracy, but the success of the Bolshevik Revolution combined with Germany’s rapidly deteriorating situation fueled widespread speculation that Jews comprised a fifth column bent on Germany’s destruction.

General Wilhelm Groener, a future architect of the post-war military, was assigned to the Ukraine weeks before Germany’s collapse. In a conversation with his officers Groener stated, “The Jews are hostile towards us. They must be hostile towards us according to their entire past in Russia. They fear us, the bearers of order, the bearers of reaction, and the destroyers of the achievements of the Bolshevik Revolution. Therefore it is in their interest to agitate against us.”

Situation reports from the Ukraine frequently identified Jews as the source of anti-German agitation and Bolshevism. The reports noted that Jewish speculators, smugglers, and businessmen were raising money to wage a propaganda war against Germans. Interestingly, the reports did not limit their discussion to the Ukraine and accused German and Austrian Jews of contributing to anti-German agitation in the occupied territories. A military report on the domestic situation in Kiev ended with this chilling statement, “The Jew is up to now—despite his outwardly kind mask—our most serious enemy. For our soldiers the continuing attempts of bribery and revolutionary machinations are an increasing danger.”

These reports reflect the military’s fear that Russia’s fate would soon be Germany’s. At the beginning of the First World War, rescuing Eastern European Jews was considered valuable for demonstrating the superiority of German civilization, but by the war’s conclusion the military viewed these same Jews as a threat to German civilization itself. The fear of national dissolution at the hands of “Judeo-Bolshevik” revolutionaries at home and abroad was the wellspring from which redemptive anti-Semitism flowed.

Hitler’s war sacrificed European Jewry, but as Koenigsberg notes, he anticipated the need to sacrifice his own population in the great clash of civilizations. General Werner von Blomberg acknowledged shortly before his unceremonious sacking as War Minister in 1938 that every army is only a reflection of its population. Not surprisingly then, the Werhmacht was a perfectly pliant weapon in Hitler’s hands. Historians like Omer Bartov and Wolfram Wette shattered the myth of the “clean” Wehrmacht by highlighting its complicity in countless war crimes and revealing the ideological fervor of average soldiers in the field.

General Walther von Reichenau issued an order to the Sixth Army in the Fall of 1941 that left little doubt about the nature of the conflict with the Soviet Union: “The fundamental aim of the campaign against the Jewish-Bolshevik system is the complete smashing of the power and the eradication of Asiatic influence in the European cultural realm.” The order relieved soldiers of the obligation to treat the enemy civilly and described the Wehrmacht as the “bearer of a merciless racial idea and avenger for all the bestialities which are committed against Germans and related peoples.” The _Wehrmacht_’s fanatical devotion did not subside even after defeat was certain.

Koenigsberg quotes the startling statistic that the greatest number of German casualties came in the final two years of the war. Approximately three million soldiers were hurled into a hopeless cause, although for Hitler and his generation this sacrifice was no different than what he was asked to do twenty-five years earlier. Hitler began to blame his own nation for failure—they were not up to the task, he repeatedly claimed, so now Germany must go down in flames. Hitler translated this sentiment into reality via the infamous Nero Order of March 19, 1945.

Rather than salvage whatever infrastructure remained for future generations, Hitler ordered the destruction of all “objects within Reich territory that might be used by the enemy.” The order included bridges, roads, all industry, fertile land, and communications. Wagnerian opera devotee that he was, Hitler fabricated his own Götterdämmerung in which the German nation would be sacrificed rather than succumb to its racial foes. A month later, Hitler drafted his last political testament before sacrificing himself in his own war. Appropriately, Hitler first mentioned his service during the First World War, maintaining that Germany was once again forced into war by “international Jewry.”

Despite spectacular defeat, and perhaps because of it, Hitler hoped his legacy would be a future sacrificial war of annihilation: “Centuries will pass away, but out of the ruins of our towns and monuments the hatred against those finally responsible whom we have to thank for everything, International Jewry and its helpers, will grow.” If not this Germany, a future Germany would continue the existential conflict against the Jews. As a veteran of the First World War, this “most formative experience” in his life, Hitler truly embodied the logic of industrial killing. He expected the nation to exhaust itself in a total war and thought nothing of consigning Germans and Jews to the same destruction. The Jewish enemy needed to perish in order to save Germany, but if Germany itself failed him, it too deserved to perish.

Richard Koenigsberg’s Nations Have the Right to Kill contains thought provoking conclusions about war and genocide in the twentieth century. The Third Reich is a unique case, but the notion that nations demand and expect a blood sacrifice is one of the hallmarks of the modern age. The malleable concept of race also continues to plague civilization, resulting in ever more destructive conflicts in every corner of the globe.

One of Koenigsberg’s valuable observations is that “the Final Solution grew out of Hitler’s ideas on the nature of warfare. If society gave him the right to sacrifice his own soldiers, Hitler reflected, why did he not also have the right to destroy the mortal enemy of the German people? The logic of genocide grew out of the logic of war.” The First World War shattered one world and emboldened its veterans to create a new one out of the ashes. Rather than lament the collapse of empires and a staid bourgeois society, millions of veterans celebrated the destruction as an opportunity to build an authentic national community.

After the unprecedented slaughter on the Western Front, Hitler reasoned, what restraints on warfare remained? To subject the Jews to the same systematic slaughter he himself endured seemed not only justifiable, but fitting given that Hitler blamed the Jews for both conflicts. With every indication that the twenty-first century will be as violent as the twentieth, exploring the links between war and genocide take on added significance. Globalization has done nothing to mitigate violence, and nation-states are still the primary actors in the international arena. If nations have the right to kill, who has the power to stop them?