The Holocaust: Who were the perpetrators?

Why did the Holocaust occur in the 20th century instead of the 11th or the 19th; why in the modern secular and “rational” world and not during the “superstitious” Middle Ages? Certainly Jew-hatred was as common back then? Western society went under revolutionary change rapidly in the period referred to as the Enlightenment. One regular participant in my blog, Antisemitism and Jewish Survival, did not understand my use of the term the “seculars” which he understood as my designated perpetrator of the Holocaust:

I simply recalled that the medieval anti-Judaism transformed to secular anti-Semitism and that in order to understand the latter – responsible according to you for the Holocaust -it’s necessary to understand it’s carrier, to wit, the “secular, atheist Christian”.

Although I use the term to set a time frame for the Holocaust, I never held “secular” society, as distinguished from pre-secularism, responsible. In fact were one to ask most people today, Christian and Jew, whether Hitler, et al, were in fact “Christian” the likely response would be No, that they were “Pagan,” or atheist, but not Christian. I’m not particularly interested in how we, today, define the Nazi and non-Nazi perpetrators of the Holocaust, but how they saw themselves. And in this regard the evidence clearly points to most considering themselves “good” Christians. In both testimonials and studies, they considered themselves also dedicated parents and spouses, enjoyed classical music and theater  Take, for example, the commandant of Auschwitz:

Höss lived with his wife and four children in a house just yards from the crematorium in Auschwitz main camp, where some of the earliest killing experiments were conducted using the poisonous insecticide Zyklon B. During his working days, Höss presided over the murder of more than a million people, but once he came home he lived the life of a solid, middle-class German husband and father.”

Höss is described as, “the greatest mass murderer the world has ever seen,” but was also a dedicated father, a loving husband. Under different circumstance might have been a friend and neighbor of “the Jew next door.”

I discussed the term “secular” in a previous discussion dedicated to “The Enlightenment.” I described the term it as referring to the revolution of governance, the transformation of Western society from theological to non-theological. The 18th-19th century represented the turning point, not in intensity of antisemitism or of the West’s approach to its phantasmagorical “Jewish Problem” based in Christian scripture. What I refer to as “secular” is the organizational and technical advances secularism encouraged and promoted, both bureaucratic and, with the Industrial Revolution, technological. It was this that made it possible for the West to take on the Jewish Problem on a global scale. After all, Germany quickly realized that shooting each and every Jew in the world was not a practical in pursuit of its final solution. And clearly, in a world in which the sword, or drowning was the preferred method of murdering Jews, although the crusaders did their best en route to the Holy Land, after some nine crusades spanning two hundred years some Jewish communities survived. But it takes little imagination to suggest that, with 20th century organization and technology of death there would likely have been no Jews available in the 20th century to inspire a Final Solution.

My reader also objected to my assumed reference to non-religious Christians (based on my supposed blame of “secular-atheist Christians as the blame for the Holocaust). Agreed, Christianity is a religion uncompromisingly based on faith. So the religion of faith and the dogma of secular-atheism would be mutually exclusive. But I am not relating the terms secular/atheist/whatever to an alternative religion called “secular,” but to “cultural inheritance” received by the successor states of two thousand years of history. Hitler may or not be an acceptable Catholic in the eyes of most Christians, may in fact have actually been the Pagan he is held to have been. Still did he absorb Christianity in his home, from his religious mother and the religious schools he attended as a child. Most children of a Christian household learn Christianity from infancy, regardless of identification with, or denial of the mother-religion later in life. And I wager most atheists born even of an atheist household, receive an anti-Christian upbringing defining Christianity as that which to deny.

Jews, regardless of “religiosity” or not, even those born to an atheist household do not receive an anti-“Christian” upbringing, and so in this regard do not fully share the cultural inheritance of their neighbor atheists whose heritage traces back to Christianity.

We all emerge, believer or anti-believer, Jew and Christian from different cultural and historical backgrounds.

It is from this that my reference to “the cultural, historical inheritance of the secular inheritor to religious governance of the West; of anti-Judaism>antisemitism emerges. Degree of religiosity or anti-religiosity is unimportant in my use of the general definition.

Nor do I insist on a “one shoe fits all” definition, that “all Christians are alike. Many Christians risked all to protect Jews during the Holocaust. Compared to the numbers who actively or passively cooperated in the Holocaust their numbers were insignificant, but the did exist. And likely there will be some, facing similar circumstances, who would do so in the future. But even were some Jews to survive the next attempt to solve the Jewish Problem with finality, it is unlikely that enough Jews would survive to provide for a future Jewish people, a Jewish religion.

About the Author
David made aliya in 1960 and has been active in Jewish issues since. He was a regional director for JNF in New York, created JUDAC, Jews United to Defend the Auschwitz Cemetery during that controversy; at the request of Jonathan Pollard created and led Justice for the Pollards in 1989.