I've wondered the same myself. My step-father was a German Jew whose parents got out of Germany just three months before the borders were closed. I call him my step-father, but really, he was my father, in that he was the one who taught me how to be a man. Anyway, looking at his family tree is depressing, as pretty much everyone else in his family ended up at Bergen-Belsen, and thence presumably to Auschwitz or one of the death camps. So, I also became very interested in this topic. I have a few thoughts--though I make no representation that these are the full and final answers.Originally Posted by Cardinal
It's certainly the case that antisemitism was widespread and deep in Germany prior to the nazis coming to power. Antisemitism there goes all the way back to the first crusade, and perhaps even longer. So there's that element to consider.
Additionally, it should be pointed out that the German people were both confused and oppressed following on their defeat in World War I. Up until roughly 6 weeks before the total surrender of Germany, the news reports in Germany were all positive, portraying to the people that Germany was winning stunning victories and driving back the "invading allies." Reparations imposed by the treaty of Versailles were unfair, and failed to recognize that all the participants in World War I had contributed to both the start of the war, as well as its costly and horrific nature.
To understand how this came to be perceived, put yourself in the shoes of a German citizen of the day. You think Germany is winning the war. Everything is going well. You perceive your country as the defender against aggressive English, French, and American forces, who started this costly war to gain territory and destroy Germany. But the industriousness, the righteousness, and the honorable fighting spirit of the German people are winning against the cowardly and vicious allies. It hasn't been easy; everyone has had to shoulder part of the burden, and so many brave young German men have died defending the Fatherland. Nevertheless, Germany is winning.
But then, just when final victory seems within grasp, those allies are at the German borders, and invasion is immanent. News spreads that the lines have collapsed, supplies are non-existent, and there is now no hope but surrender. The German people were never told that they had been deceived during the final year of the war, that reports had been rosier than the situation itself (although it is true that when the allies turned the tide, they gained success after success very quickly). The natural thought was that somehow, they had been betrayed.
And then came the Weimar republic. Germans who had been wealthy were reduced to extreme poverty almost overnight. People starved. Children ran away and disappeared, as did husbands, wives, brothers and sisters, fathers and mothers. Crime was rampant. Unemployment was sky-high (near 50% at one point). The German people suffered terribly--worse than the Americans did during the Great Depression.
The Nazis sold the fiction that the Jews and the socialists had done the betraying from within, in order to subjugate and destroy the German people. Given how deep antisemitism ran within German culture, it was an easy sell. The man who did the selling was not Hitler, but Joseph Goebbels. My view is that, if you really want to find the heart of evil in the Third Reich, it wasn't Hitler, but rather, Goebbels. His diaries make an interesting read--though they also make me sick to my stomach and the hairs on my arms stand on end. He was aware there was nothing "subhuman" or innately harmful about the Jews. He was interested in seeing how many people could be killed with a lie. Most people who want bad things don't want to want them (I may steal a piece of jewelry because I really want the money, but at the same time, I may also desire not to have those desires). There was none of that in Goebbels. He wanted to be evil, knowing full well what that means.
By contrast, Hitler was delusional. He was nasty and stupid, surely, but he also genuinely believed that the Jews were out to destroy Germany, and they therefore had to be extinguished. This doesn't excuse his actions at all, since it should have been obvious he was wrong. But his character is a little more comprehensible than that of Goebbels, who was so utterly evil and unlike most other individuals as to be not worthy of being called human in my opinion. I think he had a big gaping chasm where most people have a soul.
Without the Nazis, antisemitism would likely have remained diffuse and unfocussed. The holocaust was not inevitable; the Nazis caused it.