Intentionalism vs. Structuralism in the Classroom or Abraham Lincoln to the Rescue

I walked out of my Holocaust class earlier today both incredibly frustrated and energized. This has by far been my most enjoyable classroom experience this year. I am learning a great deal from the readings and from a wonderful group of students. The class is structured around a few central questions, including how the Nazis gained power in 1933, how they solidified this power, and, ultimately, how the Final Solution was implemented.

One of the things that I noticed early on is that students have a very difficult time understanding Hitler as something other than an absolute dictator. The image is indelibly stamped in their minds. Even after tracking the rocky start of the NSDAP and the extent to which the party struggled to gain support during the mid to late 1920s, students still find it difficult to talk about Hitler and the party without imagining it as already in control of the government. Part of the problem is the benefit of hindsight (We know how the story turned out.), but the other problem is the tendency to assume what might be called an intentionalist stance. Hitler and the Nazis somehow have their rise to power all worked out. There is intention behind every move. Luck be damned.

This intentionalist mindset is even more apparent as we begin to discuss the implementation of the April 1 boycott and pogroms of 1933 and the 1935 Nuremberg Laws that targeted Germany’s Jewish population. Today we analyzed the following secondary source excerpt.

Hitler and the Nazi party were indebted to the SA for their support (muscle, get-out-the-vote, show of strength, enforcement, etc.) in the rise to power of the party.  Once Hitler became chancellor of the Reichstag, the SA asserted themselves against the Jews with abandon (through violence, intimidation, acting as the “police,” running concentration camps, etc.) and argued it was their time to take care of the Jewish Question.

Everyday Germans, while not expressing great love for Jews, also indicated that they were not comfortable with this sort of messy violence and they were also not willing to boycott Jews if it meant costing them money.  Many in the Nazi hierarchy argued that allowing the SA to run unchecked would harm the economy and ultimately Nazi power.    The Nazi government (though populated by a range of anti-Semites) was thus ambivalent about openly supporting the SA (and many argued the SA needed to be sharply curbed).  The SA grew increasingly impatient and pogroms increased.  Hitler and the Nazi leadership feared a “second revolution” from below led by the 2+ million strong SA.  With all of these competing forces, Hitler needed to find a way to satisfy everyone – or lose control over Germany.

Out of this emerged a repeating cycle.  The SA would lead sporadic and increasing violence.  The German people would express dissatisfaction.  Nazi leaders would express concern over losing everyday German support and harming the economy.  The Nazi government would pass relatively moderate anti-Semitic policy that they hoped would satisfy everyone.  The SA would become impatient with the incremental nature of Nazi anti-Semitic policy and would again take matters into their own hands.

To put all of this another way, rather than Nazi anti-Semitic policy representing a clear (proactive and intentional) ramping up toward the eventual isolation (and later murder) of the Jews, the process (if one can call it a process) happened haphazardly, largely as reaction to Hitler’s simultaneous need to control the SA, keep his fractured leadership in line, and maintain the support everyday Germans (who were largely uncomfortable with the unpredictable and violent nature of the Storm Troopers).

Again, students found it very difficult to move from viewing these initial moves against the Jews as something other than as part of a master plan to remove and/or eliminate the population entirely. Rather than view these policies as “intentional” the author puts forth more of a structural explanation that views these measures as a response to current conditions, namely the influence of the SA.

Students referenced Hitler’s earlier rantings in the 1920s as well as Mein Kampf as evidence that Nazi policies between 1933 and 35 were part of a larger plan. One student even put forward what he sees as a conspiracy theory in which Hitler is actively manipulating various parties to make it seem as though he is playing along, but ultimately moving closer and closer to the goal of eliminating Germany’s Jews. We even compared these Nazi policies to a selection of Jim Crow laws from throughout much of the country that were in place at roughly the same time.

Since the second half of the year will be spent in the Civil War I am going to talk a little Lincoln on Wednesday. There are a number of similarities in how many people view Lincoln and his crucial place in the story of emancipation. Lingering myths surrounding Lincoln assume that he intended to abolish slavery from the beginning of the war and he even made a few statements much earlier in his life regarding its immorality. Yet, most of my students this year were introduced to a straightforward structuralist interpretation of Lincoln and emancipation last year, which may make it easier to make certain points about Hitler and Nazi policy surrounding the future of Germany’s Jews. A timeline detailing all of the factors that played into Lincoln’s decision to issue the Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation will perhaps be helpful.

In short, there was nothing inevitable about the abolition of slavery in 1861 just like there may have been nothing inevitable about the implementation of what we now know as the Final Solution as late as 1935. The former may no longer be controversial, but there is something altogether unsettling about imagining a future Germany ruled by Hitler and the Nazis without a Holocaust.

4 comments… add one
  • Matt McKeon Oct 27, 2013 @ 7:35

    When you have a group of like minded people making a decision, the “solution” tends to be extreme, which is a dynamic I and probably others have noticed. When the decision making group is diverse, the “solution” tends to be a compromise.

    So the Nazis institutional culture drove them to discover increasingly extreme actions. Since Hitler managed by dividing his followers into competing groups and rewards the “winner” by increasing their power and sphere of influence, its a culture geared towards extremism.

    Contrast with the famous “team of rivals” Lincoln choose as his cabinet, and that he had to manage diverse groups within the Republicans, let alone the Northern Democrats. Thus the caution and incremental steps Lincoln took to achieve his goals.

  • Brad Oct 22, 2013 @ 11:53

    Once the Nazi Party was invited into the government in 1933, although the SA was important in cowering the opposition, much more important was the control of the Ministry of the Interior, which controlled the police forces. It was from there that Goering started to roll up the professional classes and other politicial parties.

    The SA was only curbed when the SA threatened to take over the Army. The Prussians who controlled the Army, who were not comfortable with “rifraff” like the SA anyway, told Hitler that he he had to control and get rid of Rohm and the SA leadership if he wanted their support. Since he needed their support for his expansion plans, that was the end of the SA.

  • Eric A. Jacobson Oct 22, 2013 @ 9:22

    Of course there are some folks who think Lincoln was worse than Hitler. That type of ignorance is really hard to fathom.

  • Doug didier Oct 21, 2013 @ 22:11

    John Merriman.. Yale professor .. Iirc makes point that there were many potential hitlers in post ww1 Germany.

    >>>The period (1645-post ww2) will thus be viewed neither in terms of historical inevitability nor as a procession of great men, but rather through the lens of the complex interrelations between demographic change, political revolution, and cultural development.

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