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Hitler’s Language of Extermination: A Comment on Netanyahu’s Statement

A recent statement by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has raised a furore in the media. Speaking recently to the Zionist Congress in Jerusalem, Prime Minister Netanyahu stated:

‘[A]ttacks on the Jewish community in 1920, 1921, 1929, were instigated by a call of the mufti of Jerusalem, Hajj Amin al-Husayni, who was later sought for war crimes in the Nuremberg trials because he had a central role in fomenting the final solution. He flew to Berlin. Hitler didn’t want to exterminate the Jews at the time, he wanted to expel the Jews. And Hajj Amin al-Husayni went to Hitler and said, “If you expel them, they’ll all come here.” “So what should I do with them?” he asked. He said, “Burn them”.’

A full report can be found in the Jerusalem Post, and the entire speech is available via YouTube. Netanyahu’s comments have been characterized as a ‘historical distortion’ by a number of academics, who have pointed out that it is inaccurate to characterize the former Mufti as having given Hitler the idea of killing the Jews. Most recently, Netanyahu’s speech has led to a statement from the White House Press Secretary, as well as by a representative of the German government, who noted the ‘murderous race mania of the Nazis’ and stated ‘We know that responsibility for this crime against humanity is German and very much our own.’

Some people may ask: why does Netanyahu’s speech matter? First, it is significant because Netanyahu made his comment on al-Husayni and Hitler in a speech where he was specifically talking about ‘an assault on the truth’ in contemporary politics and media. This certainly opened the topic to wider debate, given that the statement appeared to exculpate Hitler. As was reported in The Guardian, Netanyahu himself later clarified that it was not his intention to exonerate Hitler of responsibility for the Holocaust ‘but to show that the father of the Palestinian nation at the time [al-Husayni], without a state and before the “occupation,” without the territories and with the settlements, even then aspired with systemic incitement for the destruction of the Jews…’ This leads us to the second point of significance: that the statement appeared to be ‘inflammatory rhetoric’ in a time of contemporary crisis (at least, this point was argued by the White House Press Secretary). Thirdly, it seems to be essentially unhistorical when it comes to the role and agency of Hitler, and denies continuity in favor of singularity. That is, rather than considering the much larger historical context of Hitler’s views, it offers a single historical moment as definitive.

As a historian who specializes in the rise of the Nazis, it was certainly very strange to hear the Prime Minister argue that Hitler did not want to exterminate the Jews, although this does identify a topic that is heavily debated by historians: namely, when did Hitler move from a position that advocated the expulsion of the Jews to a view that Jews should be exterminated? There is no simple answer to this.

What we can state with certainty is that by the time Hitler met with the Mufti (November 1941) the Einsatzgruppen were already committing mass murder on the Eastern front and that gas chambers and gas vans were being considered for use in Eastern Europe––based on the previous use of poison gas in the so-called ‘T-4 Aktion’ to murder those deemed ‘ballast’ to the German ‘race’ (such as the mentally ill). In addition, there is a fundamental question about Hitler’s own views on the Mufti, and whether al-Husayni influenced Hitler to any great extent. A recent book by David Motadel on Islam and Nazi Germany’s War has characterised Nazi views on Islam as essentially strategic, forming an attempt to ‘instrumentalise Islam’ for their own ends. Motadel points out that Amin al-Husayni was an ‘ardent Jew-hater’ who was willing to work with the Nazis, but he makes it clear that Hitler saw support for Arabs as only one part of Germany’s ‘uncompromising fight against the Jews.’ In this regard, it appears from Motadel’s work that al-Husayni was being used as a tool by Nazi organisations (such as the Foreign Office and the SS).

Netanyahu’s statement is also problematic when we look at Hitler’s views in a longer context. In fact, a number of the online comments on this issue indicate a lack of understanding about the sheer consistency of Hitler’s racial antisemitism. In particular, it doesn’t appear to be generally understood that Hitler used the language of extermination from early on, and that one of the ways in which he expressed himself was in terms of the ‘eradication’ of Jews. This is not to say that we can be absolutely sure he was determined to murder the Jews of Europe from the very outset of his political career, but destruction of the Jews in Europe was ‘his obsession’ (as Professor Dina Porat pointed out, in commenting on Netanyahu’s statement).

Hitler’s own views on what he termed ‘the Jewish question’ certainly vacillated, but he did conceive of one such ‘solution’ in violent and murderous terms. From 1919, in public speeches as well as in private letters, he repeatedly expressed his belief that ‘the Jews are the racial tuberculosis of the peoples,’ a ‘virus’ or ‘a germ,’ and he never shifted from this position. This sometimes meant ‘expulsion,’ and in a speech to an international conference of National Socialists on 7 August 1920 he argued: ‘do not think that you are able to combat an illness, without killing the virus…and do not think, that you are able to combat the racial tuberculosis without taking care that the nation is free of the germ of the racial tuberculosis. The effect of the Jews will never die away, and the poisoning of the people will not end, so long as the virus, the Jew, is not expelled from our midst.’

In the mid-1920s, these same ideas also appeared in his autobiographical and ideological work Mein Kampf. The language he used was always vile and aggressive and he did not alter his tone in this book. In fact, Hitler explained his extremist racial world-view in great depth, claiming that only ‘Aryans’ were the creators of civilisation, culture, and religion while ‘the Jews’ were the destroyers of culture and civilisation and ‘incapable’ of religion because they were materialists. Again, his language was of Jews as a ‘virus,’ and in extraordinary passages he advocated extermination or destruction. Referring to the supposed unity of Germany at the outbreak of the First World War (the so-called ‘August days’ of 1914), Hitler believed that this was the point at which the German government should have attacked the Jews: ‘It would have been the duty of a serious government…to exterminate mercilessly the agitators who were misleading the nation. If the best men were dying at the front, the least we could do was to wipe out the vermin.’ He openly expressed the view that if ‘twelve or fifteen thousand’ Jews had been killed by ‘poison gas’ (referring to the use of gas in WWI) it would have justified the many millions who died in the war. In the broader discussion of Netanyahu’s statements, Hitler’s speech of 30 January 1939 has also been cited. In this infamous address, he gave a ‘prophecy’: ‘If international Finance-Jewry…should succeed in plunging the peoples of the earth once more into a world war, then result will not be the Bolshevization of the earth, and with it the victory of Jewry, but rather the annihilation of the Jewish race in Europe.’ Yet for those who had read Mein Kampf, this marked a point of continuity with his earlier writings.

It is this kind of consistency in Hitler’s statements and in his language that led Ian Kershaw to argue that many of the brutal and murderous actions of the Third Reich did not require a direct order from Hitler––because Nazi leaders already knew Hitler’s views, and aimed to ‘work towards the Führer.’ As Kershaw put it, ‘the tasks associated with “working towards the Führer” offered endless scope for barbarous initiatives’ and that ‘Time after time, Hitler set the barbaric tone.’ Hitler did not require advice from the Mufti, nor was he reticent in urging the eradication of the Jews: extermination was a part of his language.