One can’t consider the Holocaust without wondering about the source of Adolf Hitler’s hatred for the Jews. Although much of his political manifesto, “Mein Kampf,” was devoted to explaining that hatred, which was clearly shared by an enthusiastic German nation, the actions taken against Europe’s Jews were so monstrous in both nature and scale that it was inevitable that researchers would look for a more personal explanation. It’s natural that scholars and others would scrutinize every piece of available evidence for proof of some deeply personal psychological injury that will explain Hitler.
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Even before Hitler came to power, there were rumors that he was of Jewish descent, a detail of personal history that would be highly damaging, even humiliating to him, and which he went to lengths to quash. The idea derived from the fact – not a secret – that his father, Alois Hitler, was illegitimate. Although Hitler’s paternal grandmother, Maria Anna Schicklgruber, eventually married Johann Georg Hiedler and took his surname, Alois was already aged five when she did so, and she never did reveal, if indeed she knew, who his father was.
Naturally, there was much speculation about the identity of Hitler’s grandfather – most of it centered on Johann Georg Hiedler himself and his brother, Johann Nepomuk Hiedler, who was the stepfather of Alois, and who left him part of his estate when he died.
The Jewish angle to the speculation, however, concerned a third candidate, a Jew named Leopold Frankenberg,” who according to Hitler’s personal lawyer, Hans Frank, was the young-adult son of a couple who employed Maria Schicklgruber as a cook at the time she became pregnant with Alois. According to testimony given by Hans Frank at the Nuremberg Trials, in 1945-46, he had heard from Hitler himself in 1930 about this Jewish ancestry. Nevertheless, no evidence has ever been found to support this claim, nor is there any proof that Leopold Frankenberger even existed.
In any event, the connection between having an embarrassing ancestor in one’s family tree to possessing a pathological hatred of that ancestor’s ethnic group is far from obvious.
Another well-known theory concerns the Jewish physician, Eduard Bloch, who cared for Hitler’s beloved mother, Klara Hitler, before her death from breast cancer, in 1907, at age 47. By the time Klara’s condition was diagnosed, it was incurable, but Dr. Bloch, at her son’s insistence, treated her for more than a month with a quasi-experimental medication called iodoform. The medication caused her excruciating pain, but did not extend her life.
Could the Holocaust have been Hitler’s revenge on Dr. Bloch for his inability to save Klara’s life?
Certainly at the conscious level, Hitler did not hold Bloch responsible for his mother’s suffering. After her death, he actually wrote to Dr. Bloch thanking him for his devoted care. Three decades later, in post-Anschluss Austria in 1938, when Bloch wrote to the chancellor asking for help, Hitler arranged for him to be spared the harsh measures being taken against Jews until he could make arrangements to emigrate to the United States, where he died in 1945.
Last fall, Israel’s prime minister suggested that Hitler got the idea for the Holocaust from the Palestinian political and religious leader Amin al-Husseini, who was the grand mufti of Jerusalem from 1921 to 1937. According to Benjamin Netanyahu, Hitler would have sufficed with expelling the Jews from Germany, but Husseini complained that if he did that, they would just come to Palestine. When Hitler asked Husseini what he recommended, said Netanyahu, the Arab counseled him to “burn them.”
Netanyahu’s theory was not widely embraced, to put it mildly, and he himself soon backtracked on it, conceding that, “responsibility of Hitler and the Nazis for the extermination of 6 million Jews is clear to fair-minded people.”
Truth be told
In “Mein Kampf,” published in two volumes, in 1925 and 1926, Hitler himself explains that he had no special feelings about Jews before he moved to Vienna, in 1908, and that even then, initially, he thought favorably of them. He saw the light only after Germany’s loss in World War I, for which he held the Jews responsible.
During the second half of the 19th century, as the Jews’ emancipation throughout most of Europe led to their increasing integration into society and into the modern economy, it elicited a backlash. Anti-Semitism, some of it murderous, rose across the continent, including in Germany. When the Jews were kept apart in the ghetto, and limited to certain professions, it was possible to accuse them of clannishness, and resent the interest they charged on loans. But when they emerged from the ghetto, and became captains of industry and finance, and socially and intellectually prominent, there was a whole new set of reasons to hate them. The success of the emancipated Jews was perhaps even more galling than the poverty and degradation of disenfranchised Jews – and it gave rise to racial theories that posited an essential biological difference in them.
When imperial Germany went down to defeat in 1918, and Kaiser Wilhelm, the German emperor, was forced to abdicate, a popular theory that Germany had been “stabbed in the back” by the Jews took hold. Jews’ role, on the one hand, in the socialist and Communist movements that led revolutions in both Germany and Russia, and their prominence in international finance, on the other, led to dark theories about Jews’ lack of national loyalty, their treachery, and their degeneracy.
In Hitler’s mind, all the groups that he saw as foiling Germany – Bolsheviks, socialists, social democrats – became identified with Jews, because indeed, Jews were so prominently represented among each of them. His political theories blended with increasingly technical racial theories that imagined the Jews, along with other groups like Slavs and Gypsies, as biologically inferior to Aryans, the white northern European race that pure Germans were presumed to belong to.
However perverted his thinking and outrageous his theories, though, and whatever personal experiences he did have that may have turned him against Jews, Hitler was supported at every level of German society by people who were ready to see their country return to the greatness they felt had been denied it, and to believe that it was the Jews who were responsible for that fall from grace.