Anti-Semitism in Europe did not begin with Adolf Hitler. Though use of the term itself
dates only to the 1870s, there is evidence of hostility toward Jews long before the
Holocaust--even as far back as the ancient world, when Roman authorities destroyed the
Jewish temple in Jerusalem and forced Jews to leave Palestine. The Enlightment, during
the 17th and 18th centuries, emphasized religious toleration, and in the 19th century
Napoleon and other European rulers enacted legislation that ended long-standing
restrictions on Jews. Anti-Semitic feeling endured, however, in many cases taking on a
racial character rather than a religious one.
The roots of Hitler's particularly virulent brand of anti-Semitism are unclear. Born
in Austria in 1889, he served in the German army during World War I. Like many anti-
Semites in Germany, he blamed the Jews for the country's defeat in 1918. Soon after the
war ended, Hitler joined the National German Workers' Party, which became the National
Socialist German Workers' Party (NSDAP), known to English speakers as the Nazis
(Jewish Virtual Library).
While imprisoned for treason for his role in the Beer Hall Putsch of 1923, Hitler wrote
the memoir and propaganda tract "Mein Kampf" (My Struggle), in which he predicted a
general European war that would result in "the extermination of the Jewish race in
Germany"(The History Place). Hitler was obsessed with the idea of the superiority of the
"pure" German race, which he called "Aryan," and with the need for "Lebensraum," or
living space, for that race to expand. In the decade after he was released from prison,
Hitler took advantage of the weakness of his rivals to enhance his party's status and rise
from obscurity to power. On January 20, 1933, he was named chancellor of Germany.
After President Paul von Hindenburg's death in 1934, Hitler anointed himself as "Fuhrer,"
becoming Germany's supreme ruler(Absolute Astronomy).
The twin goals of racial purity and spatial expansion were the core of Hitler's
worldview, and from 1933 onward they would combine to form the driving force behind
his foreign and domestic policy. At first, the Nazis reserved their harshest persecution for
political opponents such as Communists or Social Democrats. The first official
concentration camp opened at Dachau (near Munich) in March 1933, and many of the
first prisoners sent there were Communists. Like the network of concentration camps that
followed, becoming the killing grounds of the Holocaust, Dachau was under the control
of Heinrich Himmler, head of the elite Nazi guard, the Schutzstaffel (SS), and later chief
of the German police (Jewish Virtual Library). By July 1933, German concentration
camps (Konzentrationslager in German, or KZ) held some 27,000 people in "protective
custody." Huge Nazi rallies and symbolic acts such as the public burning of books by
Jews, Communists, liberals and foreigners helped drive home the desired message of
party strength (Holocaust Timeline).
In 1933, Jews in Germany numbered around 525,000, or only 1 percent of the
total German population. During the next six years, Nazis undertook an "Aryanization"
of Germany, dismissing non-Aryans from civil service, liquidating Jewish-owned
businesses and stripping Jewish lawyers and doctors of their clients(The History place).Under
the Nuremberg Laws of 1935, anyone with three or four Jewish grandparents was considered a
Jew, while those with two Jewish grandparents were designated Mischlinge (half-breeds). Under
the Nuremberg Laws, Jews became routine targets for stigmatization and persecution. This
culminated in Kristallnacht, or the "night of broken glass" in November 1938, when German
synagogues were burned and windows in Jewish shops were smashed; some 100 Jews were
killed and thousands...
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