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Hitler needed plenty of help to kill the Jews – but no inspiration

Michael Berenbaum is director of the Sigi Ziering Institute and a professor of Jewish Studies at American Jewish University.

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Michael Berenbaum
Michael Berenbaum is director of the Sigi Ziering Institute and a professor of Jewish Studies at American Jewish University.

In a speech to the World Zionist Congress, on Oct. 20, 2015, the prime minister of Israel said:

“Hitler didn’t want to exterminate the Jews at the time [Nov. 28, 1941], he wanted to expel the Jews. And Haj Amin al-Husseini [the mufti of Jerusalem] went to Hitler and said, ‘If you expel them, they’ll all come here.’ 

‘So what should I do with them?’ he asked. [Al-Husseini] said, ‘Burn them.’ ”

His statement has been ridiculed by historians of the Holocaust, and deservedly so!

Why?

He got this history wrong, badly wrong — perhaps deliberately so.

The meeting between the mufti and Hitler took place on Nov. 28, 1941. By that time the murder of the Jews was well underway.

On June 22, 1941, the Germans invaded Soviet-held territories in Poland, Latvia, Lithuania and the Soviet Union. The Wehrmacht, the German army, was accompanied by 3,000 members of the Einsatzgruppen, whose task was to murder Jews, Soviet commissars and Gypsies, town by town, village by village, hamlet by hamlet, bullet by bullet, all men, women and children. Over the course of the next 18 months, more than a million Jews were murdered.

What about the gas chambers?

Odilo Globocnik, the SS chief in Lublin (occupied Poland), met with Heinrich Himmler, the head of the SS, for a two-hour meeting on Oct. 13 1941, and received verbal approval to begin construction on the Belzec extermination camp. That meeting was held almost seven weeks before the mufti’s meeting with Hitler, three months before the Wannsee Conference of Jan. 20, 1942.

The creation of Belzec, with its stationary gas chambers and the opening of the killing center at Chelmno on Dec. 7, 1941, with its mobile gas vans, were based on the German experience with the so-called “euthanasia” program, in which six killing centers were established to systematically gas the Germans deemed “unworthy of living,” to use non-PC terms, the mentally disabled, the physically handicapped, the mentally ill Germans — full Aryans, not Jews — who were an embarrassment to the German self-perception of a “master race” and who were regarded as consumers of resources that, in the Nazi universe, could be used by the able-bodied members of the master race. It was there that the Germans first experimented with gas. It was there that the Germans first used crematoria to erase all traces of the victims’ bodies. The order had been given directly by Hitler in a memo written in October but dated Sept. 1, 1939, to give it the appearance of a wartime measure. 

The transition from these camps, which murdered thousands and tens of thousands, was direct. Their staff became the staff of the six killing centers where Jews were murdered by the hundreds, the thousands and the millions. Gassing also was based on the experience of Germans with the use of mobile gas vans to murder Jews in Yugoslavia and in Minsk.

On Oct. 14, 1941 — the day after he had met with Globocnik and 45 days before Hitler and the mufti sat down — Himmler held a five-hour meeting with Reinhard Heydrich. The subject of their meeting: executions. Within days, Himmler forbade all further Jewish emigration from Reich territory “in view of the forthcoming Final Solution to the Jewish question.” 

Professor Dina Porat, the distinguished chief historian of Yad Vashem and a colleague of mine, issued what I believe is an unprecedented historical rebuke to the prime minister. Her points:

1. “It is a well documented and undisputable fact that many years before his rise to power, Adolf Hitler was already obsessed [with] the notion that the Jews constituted an existential danger to the humankind, and thus world Jewry needed to be eliminated at all costs.”

2. “Hitler went on to develop his obsession with the Jewish problem in his infamous manifesto, ‘Mein Kampf,’ and later in other central documents of the Nazi Party that began to establish itself in the 1920s. Finally, in a speech at the Reichstag on Jan. 30, 1939, Hitler stated outright that if world Jewry would ‘once again drag the entire world into a world war,’ then the only possible outcome would be the extermination of the Jewish people.”

3. “Hitler didn’t need anyone else, including the grand mufti of Jerusalem, Haj Amin al-Husseni, to come up with the idea to implement the Final Solution.” 

4. The mufti “had a specific agenda in meeting Hitler in 1941. The protocol from this fateful meeting specifically states that ‘the Fuehrer replied that Germany stood for uncompromising war against the Jews, and that naturally included active opposition to the Jewish national home in Palestine.’ ”  

None of the criticism of the prime minister is designed to absolve the mufti of the documented fact that he was an anti-Semite with a diabolical hatred of the Jews and that he instigated a pogrom against the Jews in Iraq in 1941.

So why are historians so upset with the prime minister, who himself is the son of a distinguished historian?

If the prime minister of Israel, the man who views himself and is viewed by others as the representative of the Jewish people, can inaccurately politicize Holocaust history to score cheap rhetorical points, then how can anyone protest when other politicians and pundits do the same? If he can misrepresent history in order to bolster his political aims, then he has mirrored the tactics used by those whom he is trying to attack when they deny Jewish roots in Jerusalem, the place of the First and Second Temple, and the Jewish sanctity of the Western Wall.

Pay attention also to those now rising to the defense of the prime minister; they have sacrificed their reputation to defend the indefensible and chosen to side with those who falsify history.

The ultimate rebuke came from the Germans themselves. Chancellor Angela Merkel’s spokesman Steffen Seibert said: 

“All Germans know the history of the murderous race mania of the Nazis that led to the break with civilization that was the Holocaust.” 

Hitler needed no inspiration from the mufti, no advice. He did need plenty of help, which he received in abundance from the German people and their Allies’ collaborators and fellow travelers, as well as from indifferent bystanders and a world that was under-responsive at best to the fate of the Jews. 

Michael Berenbaum is professor of Jewish studies and director of the Sigi Ziering Center for the Study of the Holocaust and Ethics at American Jewish University.

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