The Holocaust – An Introduction (I): Nazi Germany: Ideology, the Jews, and the World — Module 1: Why the Jews?

Taught by Professor Havi Dreifuss and Dr. Na’ama Shik

Week 1

Module 1: Why the Jews? Traditional Anti-Semitism as a Central Background

The Holocaust stemmed from the anti-Semitic Nazi ideology, and yet antisemitism preceded Nazi Germany by more than 2,000 years. Moreover, Jews had a special place in European culture for centuries before The Shoah took place. This prompts us with some questions:

  • “Why the Jews? Why were persons who preserved the Jewish religion or belonged to the Jewish people so deeply hated for centuries by so many?”

  • “What were the motives for this hatred? And did it change or develop throughout history?”

  • “And, above all, was there anything special about Nazi anti-Semitism which contributed to its genocidal character?”

The widespread existence of well-rooted anti-Jewish traditions in modern Europe served as a necessary yet insufficient condition for The Holocaust.

Professor Havi Dreifuss

What is Judaism?

“Judaism is an ancient monotheistic religion carrying unique traditions and customs which inspired other religions, mainly Christianity and Islam.” (Dreifuss)

Pupils and teachers in a traditional classroom (cheder), in Grondo, Poland. (Source: Yad Vashem)

“Today, Judaism includes many different notions– cultural, philosophical, and national– which are not of our interest in this course, but in its origin stands obligation to God and His commandments.” (Dreifuss)

The Yeshiva of “Chachame Lublin,” in Lublin, Poland. (Source: Yad Vashem)

“In Judaism, the followers, the Jews, are demanded to obey a detailed set of practical commandments which set the private and public life of the Jewish people and define society’s ethical norms.” (Dreifuss)

Prewar, The Marketplace, Suvainiskis, Lithuania. (Source: Yad Vashem)

“In ancient times, in the Pagan world, such conduct was considered to be very strange.” (Dreifuss)

Antisemitism In The Pagan World [Antiquity — 4th century]

Tacitus, the famous Roman historian, wrote in the beginning of the second century about the Jews:

Moses [the nation’s biblical leader], wishing to secure for the future of his authority over the nation, gave them a novel form of worship, opposed to all that is practiced by other men. Things sacred with us, with them have no sanctity, while they allow what with us is forbidden.

Tacitus, The Histories 1.2

Tacitus described Jews, as he grasped them, as evil strangers shaped by alien customs:

Among themselves, they are inflexibly honest, and ever ready to show compassion, though they regard the rest of mankind with all the hatred of enemies. They sit apart at meals. They sleep apart.”

Tacitus, The Histories 1.2


Even in the Hellenistic and Roman world, Jews were viewed as “others,” and hated and feared as such. They were non-Pagans in a world in which Paganism ruled. Their monotheistic beliefs and practical customs were comprehended as suspicious, if not dangerous.

With the rise of Christianities, whose origins are Jewish, and its expansion throughout Europe in the 4th century, this hatred magnified and even further integrated into the theological worldview of Christianity. 

Antisemitism in the Middle Ages [5th century — 15th century]

Along the Middle Ages, a negative image of Jews, as individuals, and as a collective, has been built. It started in antiquity, it continued during the scriptures of the fathers of the church, and it was made of a number of aspects: religious, economic, and racial.

Professor Dina Porat

Religious Facets of Antisemitism

Jews were accused of having crucified Jesus Christ, of not accepting him, of not understanding that he and Christianity are the source of light. Jews served as an antithesis to the Christian conception of the good. They were considered to be the evil ones—the dark ones—both physically and mentally.

The Last Supper – Carl Heinrich Bloch (late 19th century)
Jesus disputes with the Pharisees and is rejected, from the Bowyer Bible (19th century)
An illustration from a medieval manuscript. Top: Jews reject Jesus. Bottom: Jews are being burned at the stake.

Additionally, the figure of Judas Iscariot—the one who betrayed Jesus Christ for the sake of money—this figure has become the symbol and the incarnation of betrayal for money.

The Kiss of Judas, by Giotto di Bondone
Judas being paid thirty pieces of silver, for the betrayal of Jesus.

Economic Facets of Antisemitism

Jews served as a middle class between the lower and upper classes. The lower classes considered them exploiters, who exploit [the lower classes] in favor [of] and for the interest of the upper classes.

Professor Dina Porat

Thus, more negative stereotypes emerged: The ability of Jews to handle money cleverly, and exploit others. And to have mental capacities that others didn’t have—such as the ability of Jewish children, from an early age, to read and write, which was unknown so far in Europe.

All of this was leading to a notion that—taking all of these characteristics together—the Jews, dispersed among the nation, must have some goal, something in common leading them, and this is hurting the Christian body, and the Christian mind, in a multitude of ways. This paranoid is exemplified in ideas such as the blood libel, the lie that Jews collect gentile blood for Passover, and the lie that Jews were poisoning the wells.

Painting of blood libel in Sandomierz Cathedral

This [anti-Semitic caricature of ‘The Jew’] serves until today as a possible explanation for revolutions, wars, and other calamities, including financial crises, because ‘The Jew’ could be held responsible for events that no one took responsibility for.

Professor Dina Porat
From an 18th century etching from Brückenturn. Above: The murdered body of Simon of Trent. Below: The “Judensau.”

As one can see, Jews and Judaism per se became a symbol of something vile, and were identified with a mysterious and mystical satanic power throughout history. […]Anti-Jewish stereotypes became part of the Christian world and penetrated its folklore, culture, and literature, thus becoming part of the general culture of Western society.

Professor Havi Dreifuss

Modern Antisemitism / Racial Antisemitism [19th century — Present Day]

Although the traditional hatred of Jews was shaped and crystalized in a medieval Europe, as a religious hatred, it continued to exist, and even intensified, in modern times of secularity and enlightenment.

Professor Havi Dreifuss

Charles Darwin’s ideas about natural selection were co-opted by so-called “race scientists,” and people throughout Europe started to view Jews as unassimilable aliens. As modern Europe begins to take form, we see the concretization of antecedents which ultimately led Europeans to seek a solution to the “The Jewish Problem.”

Starting at the end of the 19th century, towards the beginning of the 20th century, we see across the European continent, from Paris to Berlin to Warsaw to St. Petersburg, the wider general collapse of the liberal democratic dream of Jews entering European society as equal participants and full citizens, and the rise of social intolerance, political hatreds, tensions, and anti-Semitic movements. In Paris in 1894, with the Dreyfus Affair; in Vienna in 1895 and 1897, with the election of Karl Lueger to the position of head of the city, mayor of the city; and Warsaw, with the national democratic movement led by Roman Dmowski in 1906, 1912– we see time and again that mass politics or modern politics across the European continent embrace, propagate, and manipulate anti-Jewish prejudices and attitudes and turn into anti-Semitic movements. Indeed, across the continent, tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, if not millions of Europeans knowingly or willfully embraced anti-Semitic ideologies and politics towards the end of the 19th and the early 20th century.

Professor Scott Ury

The rise of this new racist pseudo-science rendered conversion—one of the old Christian “remedies” to the so-called “Jewish Problem”—worthless.

Starting with Darwin and other thinkers towards the end of the 19th and the early 20th century, anthropologists, biologists, social scientists began looking at society and humanity as distinct groups of peoples and races, groups that were clearly different from one another, and which at times could not be intermixed or could not really be assimilated. In many cases, these racial scientists focused their lens on Jews in Germany, across the continent, and began to produce a series of studies claiming and stating that Jews were not only different from other Europeans, but were ultimately indelible or unassimilable. From this conclusion, many then realized the position that Jews were not simply different or other than their neighbors or other Europeans– in Paris, in Vienna, in Berlin, or Warsaw– but that they were, in fact, a completely different type of society, one that could not be assimilated into the European body of nations.

Professor Scott Ury

“Redemptive Antisemitism” Emerges

One of the more troubling developments of this new ideology of “racial” antisemitism was “that this new ideology carried a promising message. It claimed that the misfortune of so many different social strata in modern Europe was a result of Jewish actions and could be solved accordingly. Economic problems, which were created by industrializations and urbanization, communism, or capitalism– all evil of the modern society stemmed from the Jews. That is, in the turmoil of economic and social modernization, which radically changed European society in the 19th century, anti-Semitism became a political tool.” (Dreifuss)