The Holocaust Research Paper

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“The Holocaust” is the most common name for the systematic destruction of almost 6 million European Jews under German National Socialism between 1933 and 1945. Holocaust, from the Greek holokauston, means a burnt sacrifice or offering. Because the events of the Holocaust were no such thing, however, many prefer other terms, including the Hebrew Shoah (calamity) or “genocide of the European Jews.” The term genocide (murder of an entire ethnic group) was coined during World War II (1939–1945) by the Polish exile lawyer Raphael Lemkin to describe the murderous program Germany was carrying out, particularly in occupied central and eastern Europe; since then genocide has been used to refer to numerous other historical programs of mass ethnic-based extermination.

Jews and the Nazi Regime

The Nazi regime never made a secret of its anti-Semitism, if there is nevertheless substantial debate about how early, public, and explicitly murderous were its intentions to make Europe Judenrein (free of Jews). Vilification and scapegoating of Jews was certainly a central feature of Nazi rhetoric throughout the 1920s. Following the Nazi seizure of power in Germany in January 1933, the regime instituted a boycott of Jewish businesses. Soon thereafter Jews were dismissed from the civil service, and strict quotas were placed on Jewish presence in schools. In May 1933 libraries were purged of “decadent” materials, Jewish and otherwise, which were burned in great pyres in public squares.

As discrimination against Jews escalated in the following years, authorities felt the need for a more precise legal definition of “Jew,” which they produced in the September 15, 1935, Nuremberg Laws for the Protection of German Blood and German Honor and the Law of the Reich Citizen. The Nuremberg Laws defined Jews as those having at least three Jewish grandparents; those with one or two Jewish grandparents were defined as Mischlinge (mixed breeds). The laws prohibited marriage between Jews and “Aryans” and declared civil and political rights only for “Germans.” Despite many generations of patriotic commitment and a high degree of social integration, including often enthusiastic participation in the German military during World War I (1914–1918), Jews were no longer considered German.

A more vigorous stage of persecution began on November 9, 1938. Following the murder of a German diplomat in Paris by a Jew, the Nazi regime sponsored an enormous nationwide pogrom against Jews often referred to as Kristallnacht (Night of Broken Glass). In two days more than 7,000 Jewish-owned shops and businesses were destroyed, more than 1,500 synagogues (almost every synagogue in the country) were burned, more than 100 Jews were killed, and more than 30,000 other Jews were imprisoned in the so-called concentration camps that had been set up since the first days of the regime for holding political opponents and others.

World War II began on September 1, 1939, when the German army invaded Poland. With the progress of war and the occupation of vast portions of eastern Europe, the Nazis’ murderous programs entered a new phase. Chancellor Adolf Hitler explicitly endorsed a large program of “euthanasia” for “undesirables,” mainly the mentally and physically handicapped, though the definition of “undesirable” extended to include homosexuals, prostitutes, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and Sinti and Roma peoples (Gypsies), among others. In July 1941 Hitler also explicitly discussed the so-called Einsatzgruppen (operational forces). These special units engaged in systematic, though cumbersome, mass murder of Jews and partisans in the occupied territories, often by machine-gunning large groups of people gathered to dig their own graves.

Nevertheless, given the stresses and expenses of such a program, Nazi planners sought other, more efficient means for killing large numbers of Jews as well as for disposing of their bodies in a more sanitary way. Experimentation thus continued with various forms of mobile death squads and subsequently with specially designed gas chambers as well as large-scale crematoria. The regime built and expanded camps to carry out these latter innovations. The extent of these practices was systematized and expanded following the Wannsee Conference of January 20, 1942, where Nazi leaders met and empowered such functionaries as Adolf Eichmann to coordinate the vast transport of Jews to the death camps, defining what they euphemistically called “the final solution to the Jewish problem.” In July 1942 SS leader Heinrich Himmler ordered the evacuation of the many ghettos the Nazis had set up in eastern European cities to segregate and control Jewish populations. Most of these evacuations—most notoriously of the Warsaw ghetto— involved transport to “extermination camps”

(Vernichtungslager) in such places as Auschwitz-Birkenau, Treblinka, Belzec, and Majdanek. Best estimates are that approximately three million Jews died in the death camps, in addition to the millions of others who died in concentration camps, by mass killings, and of disease, hunger, desperation, and murder.

Social Science and the Holocaust

Most accounts from a social sciences perspective emphasize how sociologists, psychologists, and others have sought to explain the Holocaust as well as how social science was necessarily influenced and challenged by the ramifications of the Holocaust. In focusing on the role the Holocaust has played in social science, however, we overlook the role social science played in the Holocaust. For indeed social theory and research of various kinds was an important part of the intellectual milieu from which National Socialism arose. National Socialist ideologues drew explicitly on social Darwinism and eugenics, which were prominent themes across the political spectrum both in Germany and elsewhere in the first decades of the twentieth century. In Germany in particular social theory helped define a climate of “radical conservatism.” Prominent thinkers, such as Oswald Spengler, Werner Sombart, Arnold Gehlen, and others, helped define a mood of cultural discontent and suspicion of liberalism, which contributed to the failure of the Weimer Republic. Indeed many such figures remained in Germany throughout the Nazi years, some—for instance, Hans Freyer— even assuming positions of power in Nazi academe and beyond. Many of these intellectuals, as well as those trained under them during the Nazi period, were rehabilitated after the war and became prominent figures in postwar thought (e.g., Helmut Schelsky).

Given the predominance of both Marxism and Jews in German sociology during the 1920s, moreover, many falsely assume that the Nazis rejected the social sciences. That was not entirely the case. The Nazi regime used the social sciences for a variety of purposes, drawing great power from the advanced state, for instance, of German managerial science. In the early years of the regime, the Swiss psychoanalyst Carl Jung collaborated with Matthias Goering, brother of the Nazi propaganda minister and Hitler confidante Hermann Goering, on the formation of a German Psychoanalytic Society “free of Jewish influence.” The sociologist Theodor Geiger’s work was part of the discussion of Nazi sterilization and euthanasia programs. Social scientific work on regional planning was useful to the formation of occupation policy in the East, as were area specialists, who drew on and contributed to German Ostforschung (research on the East), which incorporated geographical, economic, and sociological approaches. Freyer, director of the German Scientific Institute in Budapest, and his assistant Schelsky contributed to cultural propaganda aimed at the Hungarian intelligentsia. The so-called Inlandsnachrichtendienst (Domestic Information Service) employed large numbers of social scientists to gather public opinion and other data. While the regime had chased large numbers of leading scholars into exile, remaining Nazi scholars sought to combine traditional social theory (Gesellschaftslehre) with a new racist anthropology (Volkskundelehre) into a “unified theory” (Gesamtheitslehre). As in law, medicine, literature, and other institutional spheres, then, portions of the social sciences as well as some of their members were associated with, were used by, and supported the Nazi regime, and the contemporary disciplines neglect examination of this legacy at their peril.

Explaining the Holocaust

Social scientific efforts to explain the Holocaust directly have been few and far between. In the first place, the unprecedented scale of industrial killing the Nazis undertook as well as the unfathomable mass of cruelty they sponsored in some sense defy explanation and are grasped more readily in the philosophical vocabulary of radical evil. Indeed cultural theorists have often described the Holocaust as an event “beyond the limits,” which include those of comprehensibility as well as representability. In the second place, sociology and political science, some have argued, are better suited to explaining conditions and structures rather than events, particularly events considered unique in a sense beyond the usual one in which all historical events are unique. But part of the reason is that the contemporary association of National Socialism and World War II with the Holocaust was not always as central as it is in the early twenty-first century. For at least twenty years after 1945, most social scientific and historical accounts saw the Judeocide as a consequence of rather than as the centerpiece of National Socialism.

To be sure, a wide variety of theory has sought to explain the rise of National Socialism in Germany and the extreme violence it produced. Two major axes of argument characterize most of this literature. The first is between theories that see National Socialism as a variety of “fascism,” an extreme outgrowth of capitalism, milder versions of which can be found in all capitalist societies, and “totalitarianism,” a form of radical authoritarianism characterizing both Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. The second is between “intentionalists,” who see Nazi aggression and the destruction of the Jews as the result of a master plan, and “functionalists,” who see it as a sort of “industrial accident,” the conditions for which could be found almost anywhere but combined in unusual ways in Germany. Intentionalists emphasize both the evil machinations of leaders as well as unique desires inherent in German culture, while functionalists emphasize Germany’s delayed modernization, absent middle class, and polycratic (dis)organization. The social scientific and historical literatures thus range over a variety of causes and characteristics of the Nazi regime, including “massification,” secularism, nihilism, consumerism, militarism, imperialism, evolutionism, and modernity itself. In most such accounts, however, the dependent variable is National Socialism, not the Holocaust. Theories associating radical Nazi anti-Semitism and the Holocaust with modernity generally—such as Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno’s Dialectic of Enlightenment (written before the era of extermination camps, though it did not appear until 1944) and Zygmunt Bauman’s Modernity and the Holocaust (1989)—are perhaps the most successful because they seek to draw meaning rather than determine causation.

Beyond the more macrohistorical efforts to explain National Socialism (which, again, confound the Judeocide with political authoritarianism and militarism), a number of sociological and social-psychological studies have sought to confront the cruelty and evil of National Socialism and the extermination camps as general problems of deviant behavior and social psychology, thus approaching the question equally as obliquely as the macrohistorical theorists. Adorno and colleagues conducted research into what they called “the Authoritarian Personality.” During the war the psychiatrist Richard Brickner diagnosed a collective paranoia, as did Jung after the war, both arguing for an occupation policy modeled on therapy for a neurotic patient. The sociologist Everett Hughes framed Nazi brutality as a matter of “good people and dirty work.” Similar to Hannah Arendt, who most famously described Nazi brutality as banal, not in the sense of being trivial but in the sense of being ordinary, the work of desk-chair perpetrators (Schreibtischtaeter), Hughes sought to understand the social processes that made ordinary people capable of extraordinary cruelty, just as theories of “differential association” and “socialization” explain other kinds of deviance. In a similar vein Christopher Browning’s studies of police officers who served in death squads underscore the universal capacity of every person for brutality in the right circumstances. Most famously the psychologist Stanley Milgram designed a series of experiments in which ordinary people were led, under a variety of conditions, to administer increasingly painful and finally lethal electrical charges to fictional test subjects, illustrating the general tendency for human beings to be “obedient to authority.”

Debates about the causes of National Socialism and of the centrality of the murder of the Jews are ongoing and frequently occasion public controversy. For instance, the political scientist Daniel Goldhagen’s 1996 book Hitler’s Willing Executioners attracted a great deal of public attention for its thesis that Germany exhibited a unique form of “eliminationist anti-Semitism” and that as a result ordinary Germans supported the extermination of the Jews. The consensus is that Goldhagen failed to establish the existence and operation of a uniquely “eliminationist” political culture. Goldhagen’s charge that macrohistorical and macrosociological accounts have not adequately conceptualized the centrality of Jew hatred has received less attention.

From about the 1980s on a particularly interesting strand of social scientific work focusing directly on the Holocaust developed concepts of “collective memory” and “cultural trauma” to understand the aftereffects of the Holocaust in contemporary culture. In the first place, collective memory scholars have studied how nations have confronted and commemorated both their victimhood and their complicity in the crimes. For Germany, the question has been what kind of an identity a nation held responsible for what many consider to be the worst crime in human history can have after such knowledge.

Elsewhere the questions have centered on the fluid boundaries between complicity and resistance; in Poland and Israel questions of the centrality of victimhood to contemporary identity have been key, and sociologists of memory have sought to understand the complex comparative dynamics of the different national cases. In the second place, theorists of trauma, both individual and cultural, have studied the problems of cultural and social transmission. For both survivors and perpetrators, scholars have identified unique legacies for the second and third generations, identifying both substantive problems from this particular history and general processes of intergenerational transmission. Finally, political sociologists have described the Holocaust as an interesting model for the “globalization” of memory, arguing that the civilizational dimensions of the Holocaust and its implied indictment of modernity are diagnostic of the present condition and serve as a model for commemorative forms elsewhere as well as for the pursuit of redress claims in a variety of cases.


  1. Adorno, Theodor, and Max Horkheimer. 2002. Dialectic of Enlightenment: Philosophical Fragments. Ed. Gunzelin Schmid Noerr, trans. Edmund Jephcott. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.
  2. Arendt, Hannah. 1963. Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil. New York: Viking.
  3. Arendt, Hannah. 2004. The Origins of Totalitarianism. New York: Schocken Books.
  4. Bauman, Zygmunt. 1989. Holocaust and Modernity. Cambridge, U.K.: Polity.
  5. Browning, Christopher. 1992. Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Batallion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland. New York: HarperCollins.
  6. Derks, Hans. 1999. Social Science in Germany, 1933–1945. Germany History 17 (2): 177–219.
  7. Friedlaender, Saul, ed. 1992. Probing the Limits of Representation: Nazism and the “Final Solution.” Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
  8. Gerson, Judith M., and Diane L. Wolf, eds. 2007. Sociology Confronts the Holocaust: Memories and Identities in Jewish Diasporas. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
  9. Hilberg, Raul. 1961. The Destruction of the European Jews. Chicago: Quadrangle Books.
  10. Levy, Daniel, and Natan Sznaider. 2006. The Holocaust and Memory in the Global Age. Trans. Assenka Oksiloff. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.
  11. Milgram, Stanley. 1974. Obedience to Authority: An Experimental View. New York: Harper and Row.
  12. Muller, Jerry Z. 1987. The Other God That Failed: Hans Freyer and the Deradicalization of German Conservatism. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
  13. Neumann, Franz. 1944. Behemoth: The Structure and Practice of National Socialism, 1933–1944. Toronto and New York: Oxford University Press.

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