Chapter 1. The Causes of the Holocaust

An analysis of the causes of the Jewish-Slavic Holocaust is essential to an understanding of the reasons why war and violence continue to plague our world.

Human civilization as we understand it -- cities, government, religion, writing -- originated about 6,000 years ago. By the year A.D. 1939 this civilization, especially its Western branch, had developed great scientific and technological accomplishments, art and literature, philosophies and religions. That fateful year also marked the beginning of the Jewish-Slavic Holocaust, the attempt to extirpate millions of human beings because they belonged to communities deemed to be inferior or harmful. The Holocaust largely succeeded because its implementers were able to employ the latest technological developments in weapons, transportation, communications, medical technology, and the active or passive cooperation of governments and organized religion. As a survivor and student of this manifestation of human behavior, I believe I have the credentials to explore its causes and potential consequences.

Why the Holocaust?

The vivid images of recent human suffering in Bosnia and Somalia on the television screen caused me to remember again the unforgettable. An inmate of a Nazi concentration camp who was reduced by malnutrition to a human skeleton was called a Muselmann -- a Muslim. Half a century later the Serbian concentration camps imprisoned real-life Muslims who were on the verge of becoming human skeletons. The unfortunate starving women and children of Somalia were Muslims in the same double sense. The piles of massacred bodies in Rwanda were reminiscent of the horrors encountered by the liberators of the German concentration camps. Is it just a coincidence that similar events are repeated after a lapse of fifty years?

Struggling for survival in 1944 at Auschwitz, as Prisoner A-9867, I and my fellow victims had scant time to puzzle over the reason for our plight. Everything seemed incomprehensible -- in fact, a living nightmare. Between 1941 and 1944 I was part of a Jewish community in a small town in Hungary. Rumors of persecutions and massacres by Nazi Germany came to our attention. But they were simply unbelievable. The nation renowned for its culture and civilization, which produced some of the world's greatest philosophers, scientists and artists simply could not do such horrible things! Our illusion was shattered, when suddenly in 1944 the German army occupied Hungary. The entire Jewish community was rounded up and transported to the extermination camp of Auschwitz-Birkenau. The plumes of smoke emanating from the crematoria and the odor of burning bodies testified to the murder of the hundreds of thousands of innocent victims of genocide. Those able to work were consigned to slow starvation at forced labor. Only about one in twenty survived this culmination of Western "civilization." I still recall the title of the lead article in the newspaper published by the survivors after our liberation: "Why?" The Holocaust appeared so mysterious after our ordeal that the article's author could only supply vague references to historical Jewish martyrdom and our need to endure.

Over the decades I spent considerable time researching and studying the events leading to the Holocaust. My conclusions are obvious, yet complex. The Holocaust was a gigantic, unprecedented, irrational catastrophe, which will never be fully comprehended in its entirety. Unfortunately, the causes or reasons for the Holocaust are only too clearly and readily understandable. A preexisting infrastructure for genocide and a series of "triggering" events, resulted in the Holocaust -- the annihilation of most of Europe's Jewish population. Political mismanagement and the war institution combined to inflict this tragedy on the 6 million Jews and the 11 million Slavs, Gypsies and other victims.

The Occurrence of Catastrophes

The Holocaust is well defined by the word "catastrophe" -- a momentous, tragic, sudden event marked by extreme misfortune and utter overthrow or ruin. Since the 1970s a mathematical "catastrophe theory" has emerged to predict discontinuous, frequently damaging changes of any kind. Its advocates claim that not only physical changes (e.g., the collapse of a dam), but social events, such as the outbreak of wars, are both explainable and predictable. Preexisting conditions become intensified or overburdened by continuing events until the overload condition occurs, and the sudden abrupt change takes place. A probability factor can be applied to the conditions and events, so that predicting or forecasting catastrophes becomes feasible.The contributing factors of a specific catastrophe can be explained and understood. The analysis of the causes of catastrophes also makes it possible to allocate the share of the responsibility, if any, to institutions or persons. Blame for negligence or willful actions can be assigned as well.

The disastrous brush-fires of 1993 in the Los Angeles area provide a good illustration of a catastrophe facilitated by human actions. On the surface the blame should be assigned to the vagrant or the arsonists who started the fires. More realistically, these were the major contributing factors, with estimated responsibility shares (Newsweek, Nov. 8, 1993; percentages by author):

Holocausts as Historical Events

Jews in the Diaspora frequently suffered persecutions. These persecutions were especially pronounced in Europe, where religious, economic and political factors provided a life of chronic insecurity to the Jewish populations. Negative events then triggered these causes into more or less localized violence, or "pogroms." Table 1 summarizes the major, catastrophical outbreaks.

Time Proximate Cause "Triggering" Event Outcome
1096 Religious fervor The Crusades Pogroms in the Rhineland
1348 Epidemic disease Black Death Pogroms in Western Europe
1492 Religious fervor Emergence of Spain and Portugal Expulsion of Sephardic Jews
1648 Economic distress Cossack uprisings Pogroms in Poland and Ukraine
1917-1920 Organized warfare Russian revolution Pogroms in Ukraine
(World War I -- "preview of Holocaust I")
1939-1945 Organized warfare World War II Holocaust I

Table 1. Major Persecutions of Jews in Europe

With the coming of the Age of Enlightenment the position of the Jews in Europe seemed to have been assured. Until the middle of the 19th century Jews suffered only from smaller, localized pogroms. A continent-wide extermination campaign was possible, but extremely unlikely. Unfortunately, while the enlightenment philosophy led to freedom and the realization of human potential (and for Jews to emancipation),

"... it also opened the doors to the erosion of traditional and Biblical morality. This was coupled for the first time with the sophistication of bureaucracy and technology; a sophisticated, organized system of death could be created."

John T. Pawlikoski, Catholic Theological Union

After about 1850 a Holocaust became a probable event. An infrastructure of nationalistic antisemitism and the rise of political demagoguery cast a threatening shadow on the future of the Jews. In retrospect, it is possible to assign an annual probability factor of 1 to 2% to the coming Holocaust.

Theodore Herzl and other Zionists had a premonition of the coming catastrophe, and were motivated to preventive action. But most prominent or influential Jews were complacent and saw no danger. The two contrasting views are well represented by these quotations:

"Zionism is not a mere nationalistic or chauvinistic caprice, but the last desperate stand of the Jews against annihilation."

Arthur Ruppin, The Jews of Today, 1904

"Modern Zionism is vitiated by its erroneous premises. It is based on the idea that antisemitism is unconquerable, and thus the whole movement is artificial."

Lucien Wolf, "Zionism," Encyclopedia Britannica, 1911

Once World War I ended, the Holocaust became a high probability event, with an annual probability factor of 5% or more. There was a need for scapegoats by the military and politicians of the losing side. Many soldiers and policemen were trained in killing and obedience (such as Rudolf Höss, commandant of Auschwitz). The Armenian Massacres set a precedent by showing to Hitler and his accomplices that large numbers of innocent people could be murdered with scant protest by the "civilized" world.

Background of the Holocaust

At least five motives can be assigned to the Nazis and their confederates for initiating and conducting the Holocaust:

The most significant contributory factors to the Holocaust were the following:

A preexisting infrastructure for genocide, and a series of triggering events, resulted in the Holocaust. In retrospect, it is possible to categorize the major factors, and assign an estimated share of the responsibilities to the principal parties involved (see Table 2).

Principal Causes of the Holocaust Nazi Germany Others
Political mismanagement



Militarism/war institution



German tribalistic racist culture/institutions




British/French vindictive peace treaty -


Demonizing of Jews by state churches


Wilson's national self-determination policy -





Table 2. Allocation of Responsibilities for the Holocaust

The above estimates of the factors that contributed to the Holocaust have to be modified by the nature of the contributors. We can identify three levels of this:

Of course, we must also give credit to what we could call the Preventers: the Righteous Gentiles who tried and succeeded in saving many individuals Jews, and the Allied military forces that crushed the German Army and liberated the survivors of the concentration camps.

Although the primary responsibility for the Holocaust belongs to Nazi Germany, the other powers contributed their share. Unfortunately, both the conditions and a probability of triggering events for new catastrophes remain.

How the Unthinkable Happened

The end of the 19th century culminated in a huge global trade and investment boom. The European nations virtually ruled the world. Most of Africa and huge tracts of Asia were under their colonial domination. The forces of global integration were promising great prosperity by the middle of the 20th century. This was the coming Golden Age of Capitalism.

But all of this came to ruin. The labors of business entrepreneurs were undermined by the folly of political powerholders. Futile colonial rivalries, an unnecessary buildup of the German Imperial Navy, the pan-Slavism advocated by the Russian Empire against Austria-Hungary, all combined to lead to the explosion of the powder keg of the Balkans. The resultant World War I caused millions of dead and wounded, the emergence of fascism and communism, World War II, genocides, civil wars, famines and other catastrophes. There is little doubt that most of the 208 millions of victims of war and violence in the 20th century could have been spared their fate, if the path to prosperity had not been obstructed by the World War of 1914.

The Ultimate Cause: Political Mismanagement and Militarism

Once an analysis and summary is made of the causes of the Holocaust, the common pattern emerges. The political leaderships of the various countries involved made an incredibly large number of mistakes and blunders. Short-term gains were favored, at the expense of foresight and planning. Driven by a need to assert themselves to gain and retain power, the politicians and other powerholders totally mismanaged the external affairs and foreign relations of their countries. In this they were aided and abetted by the war institutions and military forces. In fact, the political leaderships and the militaries reinforced each other. Political mismanagement caused the wasting of national resources in colonial rivalries, which in turn resulted in on-going diplomatic crises. After each of these confrontations it was deemed necessary to enlarge the armies and navies. In some countries the military was used to keep political control over subject nationalities and other oppressed minorities. After major crises -- like losing World War I -- existing political leadership became discredited, and new forms of political misleaders came in power. Thus, communism emerged in Russia, and fascism in Italy and Germany. Democratic forces continued to lose out to totalitarianism, until, finally, World War II caused the supreme confrontation.

Throughout these chaotic events science and technology was misapplied to the development of increasingly lethal weapons and armaments, including the ultimate weapon -- the atomic bombs that exploded over Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Causes of Political Mismanagement

Obviously, political mismanagement is caused by politicians -- e.g., powerholders of a nation-state officially in control of their government. Theoretically, these powerholders ought to make their decisions to optimize the best interests of their people -- the national interest. In practice, corruption appears to be the dominant reality in both democratic and non-democratic societies. The purpose of this wide-spread corruption is simply to enable the politicians to stay in power. As observed by Daniel Bell, in "totalitarian societies corruption is the arbitrary use of power. There is no rule of law. The decrees of the dictator, or the party, override everything else. In a democracy, on the other hand, corruption is money. The politician needs to be elected, and modern campaigns are costly. Businesses seeking contracts will bribe officials to win a job, or politicians will demand money to award contracts."

The passing or defeating of legislation that may favor or damage special interests can also be a lucrative source of money to keep or win political office. Recent political corruption in democracies is especially frightening. "Japan, Italy, India, Brazil, Venezuela on a major scale and Germany, Spain, France, even Britain, on a minor scale."

Another cause of political mismanagement is simply "ideology." The powerholders will favor a group or class of their subjects or favor unwise policies or programs for temporary political advantage.

In societies without established democratic traditions a revolution or a coup can bring a small group into power. In democracies, by pandering to the prejudices of enough of the voters to be reelected, politicians may inflict lasting damage to their society or economy. Not long-term foresight but immediate political gain is favored, regardless to the ultimate interest of their society.

"Scapegoating" is another important technique for gaining or retaining power. For example, "Jews" in Germany and elsewhere and "capitalists" in Russia and China were blamed for the ills of societies, and thus used to facilitate the taking of power by demagogues.

Demagogues and Tyrants

Edward A. Morris' insightful observations in The Demagogue's Disease are relevant. "Most of the political turmoil in the world today can be traced back to a single source: career politicians pursuing the power and the glory associated with high political office."

Especially damaging to the less developed world is the vicious circle created by power seeking political leadership. Typically, a leader claims to restore "law and order" by suppressing dissent. Those who challenge his authority are imprisoned. Eventually, dissent turns into violence. The economy deteriorates, and the nation's problems get out of hand. Soon the military becomes disgusted with the leader's mismanagement and ousts the incumbent.

Because potential rivals were eliminated, there is a lack of leadership talent. Thus the leader of the military coup decides that he is the best qualified to run the country. But he also lacks the skills needed to solve his country's problems, and will continue his predecessor's tyrannical practices. A leader with military background will now invest more and more of his country's scarce resources in military expenditures, useful in suppressing dissent. Less money is available to improve the economy and society. Continuing rapid population increase and environmental deterioration further diminish the standard of living of their unfortunate subjects. Using modern technologies it becomes easy to subjugate populations and prevent dissent, virtually ensuring the perpetuation of dictatorships.

The unfortunate, though logical, progress of many demagogues is into dictatorships, followed by tyranny. In Modern Tyrants Daniel Chirot explores systematically the origin, recent history and future threats of political tyranny -- the "systematic abuse of power by those in authority." Chaotic economic and political systems, weak government administrative structures, jealous and vengeful resentments over real or imagined wrongs, all contribute to the emergence of tyrants. As shown by Hitler and Stalin, under certain conditions it is quite easy for demagogues to concoct racial, ethnic, economic and other myths to gain power and inflict tyranny on their societies.

Waging Political War

Another negative outcome of political mismanagement is the creation and exporting of violence to gain and keep power. Paul A. Smith, Jr. in his excellent analysis On Political War defines it as: "the use of political means to compel an opponent to do one's will ." It uses propaganda and psychological warfare, economic pressure, subversion, diplomacy and even violence in the form of terrorism. Totalitarian or authoritarian powerholders especially favor political warfare, since it is relatively inexpensive and yet potentially very effective. Unfortunately, this form of political mismanagement also creates hostilities among nation-states and within a society. Ultimately it is very harmful to human survival. Smith observes that

"Political war usually has as its object the destruction of a social order, and the elimination or forcible reorientation of large classes of people. Even in its most restrained forms, as practiced by states acting under the restrictions of rules of just and limited war, it presumes loss of life. Carried out by millenarian movements from motives of race or class hatred, it almost inevitably requires elimination of whole categories of human beings, in all age groups and both sexes. Political war is one of the most destructive and bitter forms of combat, and it remains one of the least successfully regulated. It is a lethal weapon."

The genocides of the Holocaust, Stalin's collectivization, Mao's "Cultural Revolution," the Khmer Rouge's atrocities in Cambodia were preceded by, and were the inevitable outcomes of, political warfare employed to gain and keep political power.

Excessive Militarism

The industrialization of Europe and the colonization of much of Africa and Asia created both great wealth and political rivalries. These trends, fueled by the ideas of such military strategists as Clausewitz, contributed to a tremendous increase in the military establishments of the industrialized countries. Even such late arrivals as Imperial Japan developed and started to use their military might. Much of the resources of these economies were used to create huge armies and navies, manned through universal military service. Science and technology were employed to develop increasingly lethal weapons as well. All these trends contributed to fears and hostilities, resulting political crises and, eventually, tremendously destructive wars. Following such conflicts a new cycle of increasing militarism and still larger war institutions emerged -- World War I, World War II and the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union. Many trillions of dollars were spent on the excessive military institutions. Much of these resources were diverted from the meeting of vital human needs.

The War Institution

An understanding of social inventions and institutions is absolutely essential if we wish to comprehend the reasons why war and militarism have contributed so much to human decline in the 20th century.

A social invention is a new organization, procedure or law, or a combination of these, that changes the ways people relate to themselves or to each other. A successful and widely accepted social invention eventually becomes a social institution and an accepted part of everyday existence.

Human progress has been marked by the continuous development of social institutions. Successful social inventions enabled societies to function better. For example, some social institutions provided the fundamental structures for government: legislatures, codes and courts of law, taxation, political parties, civil service, freedom of the press. Other social inventions formalized human relationships, like marriage, divorce or adoption, or provided valuable services in an increasingly complex society: schools, universities, libraries and hospitals.

An interesting aspect of social inventions and organizations is the fact that most of the social inventions were made quite a while ago, some of them in prehistoric times. Although the 20th century has been marked by an incredible large number of technical inventions, relatively few social inventions have been made. Thus many of the social problems date back to biblical times, and are not handled better now than during the age of the prophets.

Not all social institutions are beneficial. Harmful or immoral social institutions include organized crime, dueling, trial by ordeal and slavery. Some of these failed social institutions persisted into the 19th century. (For example, trial by battle was not officially abolished in England until 1819. It took a great Civil War in the United States to terminate slavery.)

If we examine war and the military as a social institution, we find a mixture of benefits and costs. The roots of war go back to prehistoric times. Formal citizen armies emerged about 3000 B.C., in the city-state of Sumer. Professional soldiers and armies, for long-distance campaigns were formed about 2100 B.C. in Babylon. While wars and militarism caused much suffering, on the balance civilizations and countries that were successful in waging wars had a tendency to survive, while their losing opponents tended to disappear. Thus the rise of the United States was strongly facilitated by some victorious wars and campaigns.

It can be argued that until the 20th century the social institution of organized warfare -- referred henceforth as the war institution -- was tolerable. Three developments are now making the war institution a major impediment to human progress:

The next chapter explores how the trends that contributed to the Jewish-Slavic Holocaust could have caused a far greater catastrophe to the world.


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