Was the Holocaust Inevitable?


Historians feel uncomfortable answering questions what might have happened if? By training they are taught to tell us what happened and perhaps to explain why it happened and how it happened. Still, most historians do not believe that what happens is inevitable; it is a matter of choice; the choices made by individuals and societies, the decisions to proceed in one way and not another way.


So let me try my hand at presenting ten ways that the Holocaust might never have happened.


I.                   If Hitler never came to power….


It is axiomatic to believe that no Hitler, not Holocaust; the Holocaust itself required that many within German society and that almost all German social institutions share or acquiesce to Hitler racist vision that divided the world according to races and that saw the Jews as a cancer on the German nation, whose salvation could only be achieved by the elimination of the Jews.


Hitler came to power before the Weimar democracy did not command the allegiance of the nation, because the center collapsed and the antidemocratic radical right and the radical left – Nazis and Communists – had a majority in the Reichstag.


The Nazis were on the downswing when the conservative ruling party offered Hitler the Chancellorship believing that he could be controlled within a coalition government by more seasoned and responsible forces. They underestimated him and overestimated themselves.


II.                If German public opinion had responded more vigorously to the assault against the Jews….


The initial acts against the Jews were testing the waters to see how far the German nation could be pushed, how deeply they could be brought around to support the policies of Hitler and the Nazis. Once in office, Hitler consolidated power and moved swiftly but also hesitantly against the Jews. He came to power on January 30, 1933. On April 1st there was a boycott of Jewish businesses; on April 7th Jews were expelled from the Civil Service including teachers and professors as well as physicians. On May 10th, his 100th day in office, German students and their professors burned un-Germanic books, including books by Jewish authors, in bonfires in many cities within German. These were the early days of the regime. Had the public expressed its displeasure, the assault against the Jews might have been less extreme and the Nazis might have proceeded far more cautiously.


III.             If other countries had been willing to receive the Jews….


The first goal of Nazi policies against the Jews were designed to force them to leave, to make their life within Germany difficult, if not impossible, and to show them that life would be better anywhere else.


Sadly, there were no countries willing to receive the Jews in the numbers necessary to facilitate their removal from German soil. The United States had quotas restricting immigration. The British were uneasy and after 1939 forbade mass Jewish immigration to Palestine and other countries closed their borders or their hearts unwilling to receive the Jews. This was a problem in the early years of the Nazi regime. It was an acute crisis in 1938 when 32 nations gathered at the Evian Conference to consider the refugee problem and none were even asked to change their laws or spend of their funds to accept Jews.


Hitler and his supporters assumed that no one wanted the Jews. Only they were willing to do something about it.



IV.              If Germany had not been allowed to rearm….


The Versailles Treaty after World War I placed strict limits on the size and composition of the German army. The Nazis regarded that as a humiliation and made no secret of their desire to rearm. At several points between 1933-1939, the West could have prevented a still weak Germany from rearming; it chose to do otherwise and by the time it was forced to act, Germany was a world power, which took all the might of the United States, the Soviet Union, Great Britain and their Allies to defeat Germany.


V.                 If the Churches – Catholic and Protestant – within Germany and without – had spoken out….


It is a sad fact of the Holocaust, that the more religiously devout a country, the greater the percentage of the Jews who were killed. The Nazis successfully used the religious piety and the zeal of the native populations to fuel antisemitism and to persecute the Jews.


The first killings were not of Jews; they were of mentally retarded and physically handicapped Germans who were considered “life unworthy of living,â€? and were gassed in six “euthanasia centersâ€? on Hitler’s direct orders. Such killing was stopped when parents and Church leaders protested.


When the Jews were gassed, there was a deep silence from the Church, which in Germany had become allied with the Nazi regime or at best acquiescent to it. There was a virtual silence from the Vatican.


In Denmark and in Bulgaria, the Bishops spoke out forcefully and the Jewish populations were saved. Had that occurred elsewhere, who knows what might have happened.


VI.              If after June 1941 the German army as well as local gendarmerie and native antisemites not cooperated in the killing of Jews by Mobile Killing Units….


The killing of Jews began in June 1941 with the German invasion of the Soviet Union and Soviet-occupied territories including Eastern Poland. Joining the German Army were 3,000 troops that swept into town villages and hamlets and murdered the local Jewish population. They did not act alone. Despite some misgivings, the previously professional German army that had a long military tradition against killing non-combatants cooperated and participated in the killing of innocent civilians – women and children and the elderly not only men of combat age. And they were assisted by local antisemites and local police officials who whether they supported the Nazi invasion or not, were supportive of their policies toward Jews. It would have been impossible for so few to murder so many without the cooperation of these additional resources. Had more outsiders refused to participate – had they refused to cooperate and even to identify Jews – the numbers of Jews would have been much less.


VII.           If more Germans refused to kill Jews…


There was a widespread debate during the 1990 as to the motivations of the killers. One scholar, Christopher Browning, argued that they were ordinary men, who slowly and after some struggle with their conscience became efficient and effective killers. Daniel Jonah Goldhagen, a second scholar disagreed. He felt that they were ordinary Germans raised on antisemitism who first sought to eliminate the Jews from their nation and later to exterminate them – killing them all, removing them from the human species entire. However deep their disagreements, both scholars agree that there is no evidence that a person who refused to participate on the grounds of conscience was ever punished for their act.


In other words, the killers had a choice whether to participate. They might have lost face refusing to kill; they might have been unpopular with the members of their unit, but they faced no harm if they just said no. Few – far too few – refused to slaughter the innocent.


VIII.        If the Allies had protested more loudly, more boldly, more often, and more vehemently…


The killers are responsible for the Holocaust. They are to be held accountable for the murder of so many over so long a period of time even after the information as to what was happening had filtered out. Still the absence of vast governmental protest, the absence of condemnation, the failure to take symbolic or real action on behalf o the victims made it easier for the killers to kill the Jews and for them to presume that the world acquiesced.


One important student of this period said: “The Holocaust may have been unstoppableâ€? – nothing that the Allies could have done may have been able to stop it – but it should have been unbearable, and it wasn’t.â€?

Another keen observer said: “in the end the pessimists won. They said that nothing could be done and nothing was.â€? We will never know if the optimists were right, that indeed something could have been done.


IX.              If there had been more rescuers…


In the end almost everyone who survived depended on the decency of someone in order to survive. It took courage to offer to shelter a person for an indefinite time, even for a day and an hour, to risk one’s safety and the safety of one’s family. But tens of thousands of  people did it not because they were special, but simply because they saw the Jews as human beings and not in the racial categories the Nazi had introduced. Had people been more decent, there is no doubt that many fewer would have been killed; many  more saved.


X.                 If the killers had been less determined….


The murder of the Jews became the national obsession of the German people and most especially their leadership. The pace of killing intensified even after everyone knew that the war was lost. Between the 15th of May and the 9th of July 1944 437,402 Jews where shipped on 147 trains to concentration camps, mostly Auschwitz. This stage of killing occurred when the Russians were near Hungary and the German front was collapsing in both the East and the West. But days before the Germans entered Auschwitz and other concentration camps, a retreating German army moved the Jews inland back into Germany, literally walking them and starving them to death because they had no time left to kill them. The command to eliminate the Jews was an essential part of Hitler last will and testament and there were many times when a less focused, less obsessed group would have put an end to the process and done other things.


Notice that I have no written of the victims and what they could have done. First of all, I regard it as unfair to blame the victims for their own victimization. Secondly, more Jews would have left had there been places to go and thirdly, resistance – armed uprising – was never a choice of how to live or whether to live, but a decision of what to do in the face of death, to acquiesce or to resist. The fighters were mostly young – they were responsible only for themselves not for young children whom they had to provide for or for elderly parents who depended on them. Most people could not think of themselves and of history alone. Many bore heavy burdens with as much dignity and decency as they could muster under impossible situations, facing choiceless choices.





Michael Berenbaum