Intentionalism vs. Functionalism

24 09 2006

A question: Could the Jews have held a place in Hitler’s vision of the Master Race? To explain the pertinency of this, seemingly facile, question it is first important to understand a key distinction between different approaches to Holocaust studies in the academic world. This distinction has been labelled the intentionalism vs. functionalism dialectic. In brief:

Intentionalists argue that Hitler, from the outset, aimed to obliterate the Jewish people. He was the true architect of the Final Solution, and the brilliant instigator of a diabolical scheme. The Third Reich, in other words, was completely controlled by Hitler himself, and its activities were the result of his forthright planning and skilled statesmanship.

Functionalists, on the other hand, argue that Hitler was a weak dictator, blessed with oratorial skills that made him suitable for the role but with no real capabilities of planning. The Third Reich was effectively run by bureaucrats at a lower level and its activities were the result of spiralling bureaucracy moreso than the carrying-through of a particular plan. When the Nazis initially began looking into ways of transporting Jews to other countries (such as the famed Madagascar plan), these were genuine attempts and not just a means of easing into the Final Solution and, ultimately, making murder more palatable.


If we should choose to approach the topic from a purely functionalist perspective, a good argument can be made that (had history worked out slightly differently) the Jews themselves may have held a place in Hitler’s vision of the ubermensch. In other words, just as ‘honorary Aryan status’ was conferred upon the Japanese and the Arabs, so too may it have been conferred upon the Jewish people. But how?

The Nazis had many dealings with the Zionists in Palestine, and even sent Eichmann at one stage as an ambassador to their fledgling country. Eichmann was a worthy choice of emissary, for he remarked at great length in his trial upon the fact that he was a great supporter of the Zionist movement. Of the only two books that he ever recalled reading, Herzl’s political tract was one that left a great impression upon him. While he disliked religious Jews for their weakness, he admired the strength and ideological determination of the Zionists.

Indeed, this was what the Nazi party also admired about the Japanese and the Arabs. They were strong, they were powerful, and they were deeply committed to ideology. This is the very way in which the Nazis also sought to view themselves. Proof of the fact that other Nazis within Hitler’s Third Reich viewed the Zionists in a similar fashion lies in the deals made with various Zionist representatives, who were allowed to hand-pick strong and mentally active Jews from concentration camps, and take them to Zionist training camps in Yugoslavia.

There is some debate over whether or not these training camps existed or, if they did, for how long they were operational – and no doubt an intentionalist would argue that the Nazi Party (as orchestrated by Hitler) was never going to sanction such activity. There is also evidence from the opposite perspective, and it is not too difficult to envisage a situation where, had the State of Israel been declared a decade earlier, the Zionist country may have found themselves supported by the murderous regime in Europe, and granted a status most ironic.


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6 10 2006
John Cowan

I think the truth is somewhere between: Hitler may well have intended the physical destruction of the Jews from the beginning, but the Nazi bureaucracy most certainly was unaware of this until the Wannsee Conference, and some members of it were obviously shocked and reluctant (but of course they had had plenty of training in ignoring the voice of conscience in favor of the voice of “duty”).

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