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Intentionalist Vs Functionalist Essay Topics

Functionalism versus intentionalism is a historiographical debate about the origins of the Holocaust as well as most aspects of the Third Reich, such as foreign policy. The debate on the origins of the Holocaust centres on essentially two questions:

  • Was there a master plan on the part of Adolf Hitler to launch the Holocaust? Intentionalists argue there was such a plan, while functionalists argue there was not.
  • Did the initiative for the Holocaust come from above with orders from Adolf Hitler or from below within the ranks of the German bureaucracy? Although neither side disputes the reality of the Holocaust, nor is there serious dispute over the premise that Hitler (as Führer) was personally responsible for encouraging the anti-Semitism that allowed the Holocaust to take place, intentionalists argue the initiative came from above, while functionalists contend it came from lower ranks within the bureaucracy.

The terms were coined in a 1981 essay by the British Marxist historian Timothy Mason.[1] Notable functionalists have included Raul Hilberg, Christopher Browning, Hans Mommsen, Martin Broszat, and Zygmunt Bauman. Notable intentionalists have included Andreas Hillgruber, Karl Dietrich Bracher, Klaus Hildebrand, Eberhard Jäckel, Richard Breitman, Lucy Dawidowicz and Daniel Jonah Goldhagen.

Origins of the debate[edit]

The search for the origins of the Holocaust began almost as soon as World War II ended. At the Nuremberg War Crimes Trials of 1945–6, the "Final Solution to the Jewish Question in Europe" was represented by the prosecution as part of the long-term plan on the part of the Nazi leadership going back to the foundations of the Nazi Party in 1919. Subsequently, most historians subscribed to what would be today[when?] considered to be the extreme intentionalist interpretation. Books such as Karl Schleunes' The Twisted Road to Auschwitz which was published in 1970 influenced a number of historians to challenge the prevailing interpretation and suggested there was no master plan for the Holocaust. In the 1970s, advocates of the intentionalist school of thought were known as "the straight road to Auschwitz" camp or as the "programmeists", because they insisted that Hitler was fulfilling a programme. Advocates of the functionalist school were known as "the twisted road to Auschwitz" camp or as the "structuralists", because of their insistence that it was the internal power structures of the Third Reich that led to the Holocaust.

In 1981, the British historian Timothy Mason published an essay entitled "Intention and Explanation" that was in part an attack on the scholarship of Karl Dietrich Bracher and Klaus Hildebrand, both of whom Mason accused of focusing too much on Adolf Hitler as an explanation of the Holocaust. In this essay, Mason called the followers of "the twisted road to Auschwitz"/structuralist school "functionalists" because of their belief that the Holocaust arose as part of the functioning of the Nazi state, while the followers of "the straight road to Auschwitz"/programmeist school were called "intentionalists" because of their belief that it was Hitler's intentions alone that explained the Holocaust. The terms "intentionalist" and "functionalist" have largely replaced the previous terms used to signify the conflicting schools of thought.


Those historians who take an intentionalist line, like Andreas Hillgruber, argue that everything that happened after Operation Barbarossa was part of a masterplan he credited Hitler with developing in the 1920s. Hillgruber wrote in his 1967 book Germany and the Two World Wars that for Hitler:

The conquest of European Russia, the cornerstone of the continental European phase of his program, was thus for Hitler inextricably linked with the extermination of these "bacilli", the Jews. In his conception they had gained dominance over Russia with the Bolshevik Revolution. Russia thereby became the center from which a global danger radiated, particularly threatening to the Aryan race and its German core. To Hitler, Bolshevism meant the consummate rule of Jewry, while democracy – as it had developed in Western Europe and Weimar Germany – represented a preliminary stage of Bolshevism, since the Jews there won a leading, if not yet a dominant, influence. This racist component of Hitler's thought was so closely interwoven with the central political element of his program, the conquest of European Russia, that Russia's defeat and the extermination of the Jews were – in theory as later in practice – inseparable for him. To the aim of expansion per se, however, Hitler gave not racial, but political, strategic, economic and demographic underpinnings".

The German historian Helmut Krausnick argued that:

What is certain is that the nearer Hitler's plan to overthrow Russia as the last possible enemy on the continent of Europe approached maturity, the more he became obsessed with an idea—with which he had been toying as a "final solution" for a long time—of wiping out the Jews in the territories under his control. It cannot have been later than March 1941, when he openly declared his intention of having the political commissars of the Red Army shot, that he issued his secret decree—which never appeared in writing though it was mentioned verbally on several occasions—that the Jews should be eliminated.

Streim wrote in response that Krausnick had been taken in by the line invented after the war to reduce the responsibility of the Einsatzgruppen leaders brought to trial.Klaus Hildebrand wrote that:

In qualitative terms, the executions by shooting were no different from the technically more efficient accomplishment of the 'physical final solution' by gassing, of which they were a prelude.

Against the intentionalist interpretation, functionalist historians like Martin Broszat argued that the lower officials of the Nazi state had started exterminating people on their own initiative. Broszat argued that the Holocaust began “bit by bit” as German officials stumbled into genocide. Broszat argued that in the fall of 1941 German officials had begun "improvised" killing schemes as the "simplest" solution to the "Jewish Question". In Broszat's opinion, Hitler subsequently approved of the measures initiated by the lower officials and allowed the expansion of the Holocaust from Eastern Europe to all of Europe. In this way, Broszat argued that the Shoah was not begun in response to an order, written or unwritten, from Hitler but was rather “a way out of the blind alley into which the Nazis had manoeuvred themselves”. The American historian Christopher Browning has argued that:

Before the invasion, the Einsatzgruppen were not given explicit orders for the total extermination of Jews on Soviet territory. Along with the general incitement to an ideological and racial war, however, they were given the general task of liquidating "potential" enemies. Heydrich's much-debated directive of 2 July 1941 was a minimal list of those who had to be liquidated immediately, including all Jews in state and party positions. It is very likely, moreover, that the Einsatzgruppen leaders were told of the future goal of a Judenfrei [Jew-free] Russia through systematic mass murder.

By contrast, the Swiss historian Philippe Burrin argues that such a decision was not made before August 1941 at the earliest, pointing to orders given by Himmler on 30 July 1941 to the 2nd SS Cavalry Regiment and the SS Cavalry Brigade operating in the Pripet Marshes in the Pripyat operation calling for the murder of male Jews only while the Jewish women and children were to be driven into the Marshes. Browning argues that sometime in mid-July 1941 Hitler made the decision to begin general genocide owing to his exhilaration over his victories over the Red Army, whereas Burrin contends that the decision was made in late August 1941 owing to Hitler's frustration over the slowing down of the Wehrmacht. Kershaw argues that the dramatic expansion in both the range of victims and the intensity of the killings after mid-August 1941 indicates that Hitler issued an order to that effect, most probably a verbal order conveyed to the Einsatzgruppen commanders through either Himmler or Heydrich. It remains unclear whether that was a decision made on Hitler's own initiative motivated only by his own anti-Semitic prejudices, or (impressed with the willingness and ability of Einsatzgruppe A to murder Jewish women and children) ordered that the other three Einsatzgruppen emulate Einsatzgruppe A's bloody example.

The Canadian historian Erich Haberer has contended that the “Baltic flashpoint of genocide”, as the killings committed by Einsatzgruppe A between July–October 1941 are known to historians, were the key development in the evolution of Nazi anti-Semitic policy that resulted in the Holocaust. The Baltic area witnessed both the most extensive and intense killings of all the Einsatzgruppen with 90,000–100,000 Jews killed between July and October 1941, which led to the almost total destruction of the Jewish communities in that area. Haberer maintains that the “Baltic flashpoint of genocide” occurred at time when the other Nazi plans for a “territorial final solution” such as the Madagascar Plan were unlikely to occur, and thus suggested to the Nazi leadership that genocide was indeed “feasible” as a “final solution to the Jewish Question”.


Extreme intentionalist interpretation[edit]

Extreme intentionalists believe that Hitler definitely had plans for the Holocaust by 1924, if not earlier. Dawidowicz argued that Hitler already decided upon the Holocaust no later than by 1919. To support her interpretation, Dawidowicz pointed to numerous extreme anti-Semitic statements made by Hitler. Criticism has centered on the fact that none of these statements refer to killing the entire Jewish people; indeed, very few refer to killing Jews at all. Only once in Mein Kampf does Hitler ever refer to killing Jews when he states that if only 12,000 to 15,000 Jews had been gassed instead of German soldiers in World War I, then "the sacrifice of millions at the front would not have been in vain." Given that Mein Kampf is 694 pages long, Dawidowicz's critics contend, she makes too much of one sentence. Daniel Goldhagen went further, suggesting that popular opinion in Germany was already sympathetic to a policy of Jewish extermination before the Nazi party came to power. He asserts in his book Hitler's Willing Executioners that Germany enthusiastically welcomed the persecution of Jews by the Nazi regime in the period 1933–39.

Moderate intentionalist interpretation[edit]

Moderate intentionalists such as Richard Breitman believe that Hitler had decided upon the Holocaust sometime in the late 1930s and certainly no later than 1939 or 1941. This school makes much of Hitler's "Prophecy Speech" of January 30, 1939 before the Reichstag where Hitler stated if "Jewish financiers" started another world war, then "...the result would be the annihilation of the entire Jewish race in Europe." The major problem with this thesis, as Yehuda Bauer points out, is that though this statement clearly commits Hitler to genocide, he made no effort after delivering this speech to have it carried out. Furthermore, Ian Kershaw has pointed out that there are several diary entries by Joseph Goebbels in late 1941, in which Goebbels writes that "the Führer's prophecy is coming true in a most terrible way." The general impression one gets is that Goebbels is quite surprised that Hitler was serious about carrying out the threat in the "Prophecy Speech."

Extreme functionalist interpretation[edit]

Extreme functionalists such as Götz Aly believe that the Nazi leadership had nothing to do with initiating the Holocaust and that the entire initiative came from the lower ranks of the German bureaucracy. This philosophy is what is known as the bottom-up approach of the Holocaust. Aly has made much of documents from the bureaucracy of the German Government-General of Poland arguing that the population of Poland would have to decrease by 25% to allow the Polish economy to grow. Criticism centers on the idea that this explanation does not really show why the Nazis would deport Jews from France and the Netherlands to death camps in Poland if it was Poland the Nazis were concerned with, and why the Jews of Poland were targeted instead of the random sample of 25% of the Polish population. Additional criticism of functionalism points out that Hitler and other Nazi leaders delayed railcars providing supplies to front line troops in the Soviet Union so that Jews could be deported by rail from the USSR to death camps thus demonstrating the pursuit of genocidal policies over pragmatic wartime actions.[citation needed]

Moderate functionalist interpretation[edit]

Moderate functionalists, such as Karl Schleunes and Christopher Browning, believe that the rivalry within the unstable Nazi power structure provided the major driving force behind the Holocaust. Moderate functionalists believe that the Nazis aimed to expel all of the Jews from Europe, but only after the failure of these schemes did they resort to genocide. This is sometimes referred to as the "crooked path" to genocide.


A number of scholars such as Arno J. Mayer, Yehuda Bauer, Ian Kershaw and Michael Marrus have developed a synthesis of the functionalist and intentionalist schools. They have suggested the Holocaust was a result of pressures that came from both above and below and that Hitler lacked a master plan, but was the decisive force behind the Holocaust. The phrase 'cumulative radicalisation' is used in this context to sum up the way extreme rhetoric and competition among different Nazi agencies produced increasingly extreme policies, as fanatical bureaucratic underlings put into practice what they believed Hitler would have approved based on his widely disseminated speeches and propaganda. This phenomenon is referred to more generally in social psychology as groupshift.

Given the fact that scholars have written so much in relation to Nazi Germany, Richard Bessel asserts that, "The result is a much better informed, much more detailed and more nuanced picture of the Nazi regime, and most serious historians of the Nazi regime now are to some extent both ‘intentionalists’ and ‘functionalists’- insofar as those terms still can be used at all."[15] While some historians may remain entrenched on this subject, there is no unified causal theory to explain one of the greatest crimes in history.

See also[edit]


  1. ^Browning 1986, p. 343 n1: "The terms 'intentionalist' and 'functionalist' were coined by Tim Mason, 'Intention and Explanation: A Current Controversy about the Interpretation of National Socialism,' Der Führerstaat: Mythos und Realität, ed. Gerhard Hirschfeld and Lothar Kettenacker (Stuttgart, 1981), 21-40. Prime examples of the two interpretive approaches can be seen in the articles by Klaus Hildebrand and Hans Mommsen in the same volume."
  2. ^Richard Bessel, "Functionalists vs. Intentionalists: The Debate Twenty Years on or Whatever Happened to Functionalism and Intentionalism?" German Studies Review 26, no. 1 (2003): p. 16.


  • Aly, Götz & Susanne Heim. Architects of annihilation: Auschwitz and the logic of destruction. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2002.
  • Bauer, Yehuda. Rethinking the Holocaust. New Haven Conn.; London: Yale University Press, 2001.
  • Bessel, Richard. "Functionalists vs. Intentionalists: The Debate Twenty Years on or Whatever Happened to Functionalism and Intentionalism?" German Studies Review Vol. 26, no. 1 (2003): pp. 15–20.
  • Bracher, Karl DietrichThe German Dictatorship; The Origins, Structure, and Effects of National Socialism. translated from the German by Jean Steinberg; With an Introduction by Peter Gay, New York, Praeger 1970.
  • Breitman, Richard. The architect of genocide: Himmler and the Final Solution. New York: Knopf: Distributed by Random House, 1991.
  • Broszat, Martin. German National Socialism, 1919–1945 translated from the German by Kurt Rosenbaum and Inge Pauli Boehm, Santa Barbara, Calif., Clio Press, 1966.
  • Broszat, Martin. The Hitler State: The Foundation and Development of the Internal Structure of the Third Reich London: Longman, 1981.
  • Broszat, Martin (1985). "Genesis of the 'Final Solution': An Assessment of David Irving's Theses". In Koch, H.W. Aspects of the Third Reich. pp. 390–429. ISBN 978-0-312-05726-8. 
  • Browning, Christopher R. Fateful months: essays on the emergence of the final solution, 1941–42. New York: Holmes & Meier, 1985.
  • Browning, Christopher (1986). "Nazi Ghettoization Policy in Poland: 1939–41". Central European History. 19 (4): 343–368. doi:10.1017/s0008938900011158. JSTOR 4546081. 
  • Browning, Christopher R. The path to genocide: essays on launching the final solution. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992.
  • Browning, Christopher R. Nazi policy, Jewish workers, German killers. Cambridge ; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2000.
  • Browning, Christopher R. The origins of the Final Solution: the evolution of Nazi Jewish policy, September 1939 – March 1942 Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2004.
  • Burrin, PhilippeHitler and the Jews: the genesis of the Holocaust London ; New York: Edward Arnold ; New York, NY: Distributed in the USA by Routledge, Chapman, and Hall, 1994.
  • Dawidowicz, Lucy S. The war against the Jews, 1933–1945 New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1975.
  • Fleming, GeraldHitler and the Final Solution Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984.
  • Haberer, Erich (2001). "Intention and Feasibility: Reflections on Collaboration and the Final Solution". East European Jewish Affairs. 31 (2): 64–81. doi:10.1080/13501670108577951. OCLC 210897979. 
  • Hilberg, Raul The Destruction of the European Jews Yale University Press, 2003, c1961.
  • Hildebrand, KlausDas Dritte Reich Muenchen: Oldenbourg, 1980 translated into English by P.S. Falla as The Third Reich, London: G. Allen & Unwin, 1984.
  • Hillgruber, Andreas (1981). Germany And The Two World Wars. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press. ISBN 978-0-674-35321-3. 
  • Kershaw, Sir IanHitler, 1889–1936: Hubris, New York: Norton, 1999, 1998.
  • Kershaw, Sir Ian The Nazi dictatorship: problems and perspectives of interpretation London: Arnold ; New York: Copublished in the USA by Oxford University Press, 2000.
  • Kershaw, Sir Ian Hitler, 1936–45: Nemesis, New York: W.W. Norton, 2000.
  • Kershaw, Ian (2008). Hitler, the Germans, and the Final Solution. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press. ISBN 978-0-300-12427-9. 
  • Jäckel, EberhardHitler in history Hanover, NH: Published for Brandeis University Press by University Press of New England, 1984.
  • Marrus, Michael (2000). The Holocaust in History. Toronto: Key Porter. ISBN 978-1-55263-120-1. 
  • Mommsen, Hans. From Weimar to Auschwitz Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1991.
  • Rees, Laurence (1997). The Nazis: A Warning From History. foreword by Sir Ian Kershaw. New York: New Press. ISBN 1-56584-551-X. 
  • Roseman, Mark. The Wannsee Conference and the Final Solution:A Reconsideration. New York: Metropolitan Books, 2002.
  • Rosenbaum, RonExplaining Hitler: the search for the origins of his evil, New York: Random House, 1998
  • Schleunes, Karl. The Twisted Road to Auschwitz; Nazi Policy Toward German Jews, 1933–1939, Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1970.
  • Streim, Alfred (1989). "The Tasks of the SS Einsatzgruppen, pages 436–454". In Marrus, Michael. The Nazi Holocaust, Part 3, The "Final Solution": The Implementation of Mass Murder, Volume 2. Westpoint, CT: Meckler. ISBN 0-88736-266-4. 
Lecture 3:  Was the Holocaust Planned and Premeditated?

Stages of the Final Solution

Historians tend to divide events into different time periods.  These divisions are a greater or lesser reflection of what actually happened in the past, but regardless of their accuracy, validity or reliability, all periodizations are artificial and not to be misconstrued as being an inherent aspect of the events themselves.  Time periods or stages of development are created by historians and added to the event. 

Let me illustrate with the term "Middle Ages".  Did anyone living in 14th century Europe know that they were living in the Middle Ages?  Certainly not.  "Middle" implies being between "early" and "later".  Presumably people then (if they thought about it at all) regarded themselves as living in modern times.

Historians of the Holocaust divide Hitler's 12-year reign into 3 main periods: from the assumption of power in January 1933 until the start of war in September 1939, from 1939 until the start of the implementation of the Final Solution in June 1941, and from then to the end of the Third Reich in May 1945.  In this lecture we will look at two diametrically opposed interpretations of history that each attempt to answer the question was the Holocaust premeditated?

The Intentionalists see a straight and clear road

The intentionalist school is made up of those who are convinced that the Nazis\Hitler "intended" to kill the Jews at some relatively early point in time (here historians may differ as to exactly when that point was reached) and that he proceeded along the road to Auschwitz in a carefully planned and premeditated fashion. Gerald Fleming (among others) makes reference to documents, speeches, utterances and testimonies about Adolf Hitler (including ones that predate his joining the National Socialist Party in 1920) to trace an "unbroken continuity of specific utterances...a straight path...a single, unbroken, and fatal the liquidation orders that Hitler personally issued during the war" (Gerald Fleming, pp. 13 and 24).

Lucy Dawidowicz writes that "War and annihilation of the Jews were interdependent.  The disorder or war would provide Hitler with the cover for the unchecked commission of murder.  He needed an arena for his operations where the restraints of common codes of morality and accepted rules of warfare would not extend...Once Hitler adopted an ideological position," she adds, "he adhered to it with limpetlike fixity" (quoted in Michael Marrus, p. 25; a limpet is a snail that tenaciously holds fast to surfaces).

The intentionalists stress consistency, orderly sequence and persistence from start to finish in the Nazi's anti-Jewish policies.  They understand Hitler as possessing a coherent "blueprint", parts of which he periodically revealed in speeches or in writing.  His tactics may at times have appeared to be somewhat haphazard, and periods of stalemate or even back-tracking were not unknown, but the "final solution" was  always Hitler's clear goal and he pursed it relentlessly.

The intentionalist school was fed by the solid tradition of fervent anti-Hun propaganda that emerged from both of the two World Wars in the 20th century Europe and by the vast quantity of  rumours that were spawned, such as the one of Germans having collected dead bodies from battlefields in 1916 and 1917 in order to process human body parts into fertilizers and soaps (a charge that was taken seriously enough in the 1920s to have been investigated by a Governmental Commission of the British House of  Commons).

But the underlying logic of the intentionalist school is really founded in 1945 at Nuremberg.  The War Crimes Trials were run by judges who needed to be convinced of "premeditation".  The evidence was gathered by lawyers who wanted to prove the charges articulated by the International Tribunal: conspiracy to breach international war, orchestrating and launching an aggressive war, engaging in crimes against humanity with the conscious goal of committing horrendous atrocities,  including inter alia, mass murders of innocent civilians.

A concrete example of  the intentionalists' interpretation of history is their reading of the 30 January 1939 Reichstag speech that I quoted in my previous lecture (DOCUMENTS ON THE HOLOCAUST, pp. 134-5).

"One thing I should like to say on this day which may be memorable for others as well as for us Germans: In the course of my life I have very often been a prophet, and have usually been ridiculed for it.  During the time of my struggle for power it was in the first instance the Jewish race which only received my prophecies with laughter when I said that I would one day take over the leadership of the State, and with it that of the whole nation, and that I would then, among many other things, settle the Jewish problem.  Their laughter was uproarious, but I think that for some time now they have been laughing on the other side of their face.  Today I will once more be a prophet: If the international Jewish financiers in and outside Europe should succeed in plunging the nations once more into a world war, then the result will not be the bolshevization of the earth, and thus the victory of Jewry, but the annihilation of the Jewish race in Europe!" 

They present it as "proof" of Hitler's "intentions", in advance of the start of the World War, to annihilate the Jews.  But is it?  That evening Hitler spoke for hours but devoted only a brief few minutes to the Jews. We certainly would neither deny nor downplay Hitler's amply demonstrated will for taking ruthless actions, for striking sudden blows intended to totally crush his enemies, and for his lust for blood.  But was the Holocaust clearly present in Hitler's mind prior to 1941 and before the surprising German military victories and the stunning Allied defeats suddenly put his armies in positions of power and of control that no one could have predicted beforehand? 

How do we evaluate the seriousness (or lack thereof) of the two "territorial solutions to the Jewish question" - the Nisko Plan (in the Lublin District of Poland) and the Madagascar Plan (an island off the south-east coast of Africa).  Were they both mere bluff and camouflage or were they serious attempts to deal with the Jews by exiling them into territories not intended for ultimate Germanization?  Nearly 5,000 Jews were actually deported to the Lublin District under the Nisko Plan in October 1939.  Technical difficulties that plagued Himmler's more grandiose plans for large-scale population transfers soon caused this program to be abandoned also, but for a brief period it was certainly taken seriously by significant elements in the Third Reich (including Reinhard Heydrich and the Gestapo men, Heinrich Mueller and Adolf Eichmann).

How serious was the Madagascar Plan?  One week after German troops reached the English Channel and trapped the best units of the Allied Armies as Dunkerque, Himmler presented a memorandum entitled "Some Thoughts on the Treatment of Ethnic Groups and Jews in the Occupied East" (a Nuremberg Document):

"I hope completely to erase the concept of Jews through the possibility of a great emigration of all Jews to a colony in Africa or elsewhere...However cruel and tragic each individual case may be, this method is still the mildest and best, if one rejects the Bolshevik method of physical extermination of a people out of inner conviction as un-German and impossible."

Next to this section of the report Hitler added the hand-written notation: "very good and correct." 

Were they fooling themselves or did they really mean it?  For a brief period in the summer of 1940 the German Foreign Office was busily working on the plan and Mussolini and the Italian Foreign Minister were informed of the plans to resettle all of the Jews in Madagascar.  Construction work was actually HALTED on the Polish ghettoes since soon they would not be needed.  As one SS officer said in Warsaw: "The war would be over in a month and the Jews would all leave for Madagascar". 

The idea of an island dumping ground for the Jews had to be put on ice as the Battle for Britain dragged on and then later, by the spring of 1941, a new and far more lethal stage of the Nazi anti-Jewish policies had been reached.

Was there a straight and clear road to Auschwitz?

The functionalists see a twisted road

The father of the functionalist approach to the Holocaust is probably Karl Schluenes who wrote a book in 1970 entitled THE TWISTED ROAD TO AUSCHWITZ, but the study that broke the solid wall of intentionalist thinking about National Socialism was undoubtedly A.J.P. Taylors' THE ORIGINS OF THE SECOND WORLD WAR that appeared more than a decade earlier.

Reenacting the controversy of the 1920s when the "revisionist" historians attacked the consensus about Germany being solely responsible for the outbreak of the First World War, Taylor sparked a heated debate with his argument that Hitler had not intended for the Second World War to begin and that it was not German actions but those of the Allied governments that had actually precipitated the conflict.

The functionalists present a confused picture of the inner workings of the Third Reich.  Far from it being seen as a well-oiled hierarchy in which authority flowed downwards and obedience flowed upwards, the Nazi bureaucracy was described as a maze of competing power groups that revolved around the personalities of bitter rivals who were diametrically opposed to the policies and interests of each other and who were ceaselessly plotting against and clashing with their rivals.  One writer compared the essence of the Third Reich to a medieval struggle between feudal oligarchies engaged in a Hobbesian war of all against all (Robert Koehl).

Hitler is seen as a brooding and often distant leader who preferred to let his subordinates fight it out amongst themselves while he remained passive and untainted on the sidelines.  Once a winner had clearly emerged, the Fuehrer would ensure that the victor got his laurels by recognizing his de facto control.  It was a sort of "institutional Darwinism" (David Schoenbaum) in which bureaucrats and bureaucracies struggled to survive and only the strongest of them would endure.  At the heart of the system was NOT premeditated planning but a fatalistic laissez-faire.  What happened happened.  No one could predict who would emerge victorious and which one of the competing policies and policy-makers would ultimately dominate, but the one that won was the one that should have one.  Its success was post factum proof of its superiority (had it not been meant to win then it never would have won) and therefore its success was also ultimate proof of the rightness of its victory.

Concrete examples of differing interpretations

1. The Nuremberg Laws (or in their official names: The Law of Reich Citizenship and The Law for the Protection of German Blood and German Honour) 15 September 1935  (all documents in this section are reprinted in DOCUMENTS ON THE HOLOCAUST).  Intentionalists see them as a keystone to Nazi anti-Jewish measures.  They provided a legal definition to the question "Who is a Jew?", a step that is essential in the process of marking Jews out from the rest of the society, isolating them and preparing the ground for their ultimate elimination.

But, argue the functionalists, if they were so crucial to the process, why were they drafted almost as an after-thought on the back of a napkin in an all-night cafe?  The context in which these laws were presented was the "normalization" of relations between the Aryan race and the Jews.  If these were the new terms under which life was to proceed then it provided some stability.  If these provisions defined what were the restrictions and limitations under the law, then the rest was "illegal".  Contact between Aryans and Jews was now narrowly circumscribed - for example, it became illegal for Jews to employ in their households female Aryans under 45 years old - but not totally eliminated since it was now legal to employ one over 45 years old, or to hire a male.

The representative body of German Jewry responded that the Nuremberg Laws "come as the heaviest of blows for the Jews in Germany" but at the same time they create "a basis on which a tolerable relationship becomes possible between the German and the Jewish people."  Taken in context, the Jewish reaction of alarm and fear may have also been mixed with relief.

2.  Another example of differing interpretations is in regards to the policy of ghettoization.  The Instructions by Heydrich on Policies and Operations Concerning Jews in the Occupied Territories, 21 September 1939 (known by the nickname "schnellbrief").   It distinguishes between "final aims" and "the stages leading to the fulfillment of this final aim".   It set out the areas that "are to be cleared of Jews" and also the principle of "as few concentration centers as possible...only (in) cities which are rail junctions, or are at least located on railroad lines".  In addition to defining the ghettoes, it also outlined the size and responsibility of the Jewish councils and several key German economic interests, such as labour and  food sources.

Again the intentionalists hold this document up as a cornerstone of the Nazi's anti-Jewish policies.  Yet the actual practice of the Third Reich was so diverse and variegated in places that these provisions were kept more in the breech.  So how important were they?  How do we explain that as central a feature as the ghettoes is not a carefully planned and considered program but an after-thought, considered haphazardly, some 3 weeks after the start of the War? 

And what is the "final aim" or "endziel"?  Does the fact that is it not defined even in a highly secret document of the secret police not imply that it has not yet been clarified?  Are the "endziel" and the "endloesung" (the final solution) the same thing, as the intentionalists would have us believe?  After all,  NO document uses them interchangeably.  Functionalist historians stress the probability that the real meaning of the "endziel" to be a territorial solution for the Jewish question (either the "Nisko Plan" in the Lublin District or the "Madagascar Plan").  They also point out that the first appearance in a document of the term "endloesung" was in 31 July 1941 - several weeks after the start of the organized mass murders of Jews in the East.  The term first appears in a letter sent to Heydrich by Goering entrusting him to report back on "the preliminary organizational, practical and financial measures for the execution of the intended final solution ("endloesung) of the Jewish question.".

6 months into the mass killings, at Wannsee, Heydrich was nervous that someone would raise serious objections to his policies or would challenge SS control in this area.  When that did not happen, his relief was apparent to all, as described by Eichmann during his interrogation.

The bottom line of this dispute

Yet the gap between the two positions, the intentionalist and functionalist, is far from unbridgeable.  The pure intentionalist position does not completely hold because if Hitler was merely waiting for the first opportune moment to implement his pre-conceived murderous intentions then why did he wait 2 1/2 years before beginning the Final Solution in Poland?  He held absolute control over millions of Jews from September 1939 but only began the mass murders in the spring of 1942.

But neither does a pure functionalist position fit the facts, for if the murder of the Jews was nothing more than a random side-show that happened to develop out of conditions at the time than how can we explain Hitler's steadfast determination, in the face of repeated difficulties and set-backs, not to desist from pursuing the Jewish question?  Each failure seemed only to cause him to re-double his efforts to find a solution.  And from his first surviving letter in 1919 until his final written statement - his suicide note of 29 April 1945 - the one subject that most occupied his attention was the fight against international Jewry.  Hitler's ideology may neither have been pretty nor fully consistent, but it was of primary importance to everything that he did, and antisemitism was always at its very heart.

Perhaps a greater challenge than making sense of the individual character and role of Adolf Hitler is trying to understand why so many perfectly normally people followed him along that murderous path.  It is to that question that we will turn in our next lecture.


DOCUMENTS ON THE HOLOCAUST, Yitzhak Arad, Yisrael Gutman and Avraham Margaliot, eds.,  Jerusalem: Yad Vashem, 1981, Nuremberg Laws pp. 76-80, Jewish reactions pp. 84-8, Schnellbrief pp. 173-8, Final Solution Order p. 233, the protocol of the Wannsee Conference pp. 249-61 and his last testament, pp. 162-3.

Fleming, Gerald, HITLER AND THE FINAL SOLUTION, Berkeley, California: University of California Press, 1984.

Koehl, Robert,  "Nazism as Feudalism", in AMERICAN POLICIAL SCIENCE QUARTERLY, 1959.

Marrus, Michael, THE HOLOCAUST IN HISTORY, Hanover and London: University Press of New England, 1987.

NUREMBERG DOCUMENTS, the Green Series, Volume 13, Document 1880, pp. 147-50.

Schluenes, Karl, THE TWISTED ROAD TO AUSCHWITZ, Bloomingdale: University of Illinois, 1970.

Schoenbaum, David, HITLER'S SOCIAL REVOLUTION, New York: Doubleday & Co., 1966.

Taylor, A.J.P., THE ORIGINS OF THE SECOND WORLD WAR, Harmondsworth: Penguin Books,  1961.