Could an objective observer have identified Nazi Germany as the ‘worst of the worst’ in the 1930s?

The horrors of the Holocaust were a pivotal turning point in international relations. Interventionists believe the Holocaust was preventable. They further believe that diplomats prevented intervention because nation-states were deemed to be sovereign in their domestic policies. Implicit in interventionist criticism is that the diplomatic world of the 1930s was deliberately blind to the ‘inevitable’ slaughter of Europe’s Jewish population in the 1940s. But could a perceptive observer have foreseen Nazi Germany’s genocide in the 1930s?

In the 1930s Nazi Germany wasn’t a uniquely awful or homicidal pariah state. The Soviet Union took that accolade. The Soviets deliberately starved the people of the Ukraine (1931-2) causing millions of deaths. Starvation as an intentional policy was used across the entire grain growing steppes of the Soviet Union (Ukraine, North Caucasus, Volga region and Kazakhstan). This policy was ideological. It was an attack on kulaks, the property owning farmers in those regions. Later in the 1930s the Soviets used show trials to purge millions of people who were executed or sent to prison camps. Show trials are a classic example of tyranny. The victims were incarcerated in Siberia. Siberian camps weren’t industrialised death camps such as the Nazis developed in the 1940s but inmates weren’t expected to survive. They were worked to death through a combination of extremely hard work plus appalling living conditions.

Set against this gruesome standard the Nazis didn’t really register. Nazi Germany was deplorable but hadn’t yet descended into Soviet style depravity.

The USA wasn’t a moral beacon in the 1930s. The USA’s racism was embedded in their law and institutions, for example the US Army was segregated throughout the war period**. Intimidation of black-Americans was sledge hammer subtle. At its worst there were lynchings by the KKK and copycat admirers. The pervasive, corrosive denial of opportunity through abysmal educational provision, housing, public services and racism throughout the justice system completed the systemic denigration of black-Americans ***. 1930s American racism was equivalent to Nazi German anti-semitism. American racism was embedded in the everyday life of black-Americans in the 1930s punishing them for what they were: systemic persecution in other words.

President Roosevelt denounced the Nazis over Kristallnacht (9/10 November 1938) but the U.S. refused to ease the immigration restrictions it then had in place, constraints that prevented masses of German Jews from seeking safety in America****. This was demonstrated by the MS St Louis incident (May 1939)*****. More than 900 Jewish refugees were refused entry after a heroic German captain brought them across the Atlantic just before the war broke out. Jewish refugees returned to Europe and about a quarter were later murdered in the Holocaust.

Needless to relate Hitler homed in on the hypocrisy of the criticisms leveled at his government by Roosevelt and Chamberlain amongst others. Weizmann, a Jewish leader, agreed with Hitler on the emptiness of the hand-wringing that took place as the German-Jewish population became increasingly threatened.

I can only hope and expect that the other world, which has such deep sympathy for these criminals [Jews], will at least be generous enough to convert this sympathy into practical aid. We, on our part, are ready to put all these criminals at the disposal of these countries, for all I care, even on luxury ships******.

The great Jewish leader Chaim Weizmann was quoted in The Manchester Guardian as saying: “The world seemed to be divided into two parts – those places where the Jews could not live and those where they could not enter.”

The Holocaust was a seismic event, which many felt could have been prevented. However it is far from certain that any such intervention was possible prior to the so-called Final Solution. Given the situation in both the USA and especially the Soviet Union in the 1930s, it’s unclear as to whether Nazi Germany would have been the outstanding candidate for intervention. Once the Holocaust began, war, the ultimate intervention, was already taking place.

* also UN document
** See
*** See a trivial example here
***** See for a good outline summary
******Ronnie S Laudau The Nazi Holocaust (2006

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