One of the most contentious issues about the Holocaust is the alleged “language of genocide,” that is, the claim that Hitler, Goebbels, Himmler and others used explicit language in their speeches and writings that called for the mass murder of Jews. Indeed, this is often cited as “proof” of genocidal intention, and as “proof” that the Nazis were, or would soon, embark on a program of mass murder. But as with many aspects of the Holocaust, this simplistic distortion of reality obscures deeper truths. In reality, the language of the leading Germans is far more suggestive of a program of removal and ethnic cleansing than it is of mass murder.
Much hinges on the German words used, the context and the corresponding English translation. The two most contentious words are Vernichtung and Ausrottung, but other verbs suggestive of murder include liquidieren, eliminieren and auslöschen. Here we will focus on the first two. Vernichtung (verb form vernichten) translates to “annihilation” or “extermination.” The root of this word is nichts, “nothing,” which in Latin is nihil, which in turn is the root of the Latin verb an+nihilare. In verb form, vernichten means “to bring to nothing.” This, in fact, is the same meaning as “annihilate.” Similarly, the English word “exterminate” derives from Latin ex+terminare, which means to “push something beyond the borders” or to totally remove it. Again, this need not have fatal implications.
Ausrottung (verb form ausrotten) is a synonym of Vernichtung, and standardly translates to “extermination” or “eradication.” The latter derives from e[x]+radicare, to root out, which derives from the Latin word radix, meaning “root.” The German verb aus+rotten derives from a word similar to the English “root,” although it has lost that direct connection in modern German, where root is now “Wurzel.” Yet still, the original meaning of ausrotten literally was to “root out” or “uproot.” The Oxford German-English dictionary translates the phrase “root out” simply to ausrotten.
As with the English words “annihilate” and “exterminate,” which are inherently ambiguous and have a wide range of meanings, the same is true with Vernichtung and Ausrottung. In English, it is standard usage for sports figures and politicians to speak of “destroying,” “annihilating,” or “obliterating” their opponents; this is just “tough talk,” for rhetorical effect. In German language, the German dictionary website DWDS includes the following actual (and benign) usages of Vernichtung:
- “A hurtful political style, if not aimed at the personal destruction (Vernichtung) of the opponent…”
- “[T]he critic… slammed the novel Beyond Love, up to the perceived destruction (Vernichtung) of the author Walser…”
- “A genealogy of critical destruction (Vernichtung) runs through the history of German literature…”
- “He was seen as a politician who does not seek the annihilation (Vernichtung) of political opponents…”
Furthermore, and importantly, one can destroy or extirpate a collective – a group, an organization, an institution – without killing or even harming any members of that collective. A group can be disintegrated, defunded and banned, and thus “destroyed,” without any direct effect on the individual people in that group. Naturally, killing them would also destroy the group, but that is far from required or implied.
Thus, when leading Germans spoke of “destroying” or “annihilating” or “exterminating” the Jews, they in no sense were mandating or suggesting mass murder. Based on all contextual discussion and on actual events as they occurred, it is clear that the Germans wanted the social and economic power of Jewry destroyed, and the Jewish people removed from the territory of the Reich. In some cases, it may have meant limited or targeted killings. But in no case does it mean or imply mass murder of all Jews.
The same point was made by Alfred Rosenberg, the Third Reich’s chief ideologist, during his cross-examination at the Nuremberg International Military Tribunal (see the entry on him).
There are many points in favor of the “non-fatal” interpretation of such words. First, the alleged German plan to murder all European Jews did not exist until mid-1941 at the earliest, according to the orthodoxy. Therefore, any usage of such terms prior to mid-1941 cannot have meant mass murder.
For example, in Volume One of Mein Kampf, dating to 1925, Hitler uses variations on Ausrottung 14 times, and Vernichtung 37 times. He speaks of rooting out (ausgerottet) German influence in Austria (Sec. 4.1), rooting out a doctrine (5.9), the destruction (Vernichtung) of “Prussian militarism” (7.1), the wish to destroy (vernichten) the world (10.22) – none of which have fatal implications. When he applies the term to Jews, it is more ominous, perhaps fatal in some cases, but far short of genocide: he wants to root out (auszurotten) the Jewish agitators (5.7) and the Jewish pestilence (5.8); left to themselves, Jews would exploit and uproot (auszurotten) one another (11.9); Jews in power try to root out non-Jewish intelligentsia (11.22); and the international Jewish poisoners must be rooted out (ausgerottet; 12.4).
World media, especially American media, initially took such words in their non-fatal senses, such as when The New York Times (NYT) reported on the National-Socialist party’s accession to power in 1933. In March of that year, the NYT reported on a speech by Rabbi Schulman in which he decried Hitler’s “economic persecution [that] aims at the extermination of the Jewish people” (13 Mar., p. 15). The following month, we again read of the Nazis’ “deliberately calculated [plan] to accomplish the economic extermination of the Jews” (6 Apr., p. 10). Such reports were correct; they drew upon Hitler’s harsh but nonlethal use of the words ausrotten and vernichten. But already by June of 1933, the NYT began to drop the economic descriptor. Hence, we read simply that “Hitler’s program is one of extermination” (29 June, p. 4). And in August, the ominous final message is clear: “600,000 [German Jews] are facing certain extermination” (16 Aug., p. 11). Thus, we can see the rapid evolution from a plan of economic dismantling and removal (reality) to a distorted vision implying outright murder (fiction). None of this, of course, was explained to the reading public.
In a 1933 speech, Joseph Goebbels declared that the global conspiracy against Germany “would not lead to our destruction (Vernichtung),” but he never contemplated the mass-murder of Germans. In a 1935 speech, Hitler’s deputy Rudolf Hess said,
“[The fact that] Jewry is not, for example, being ruthlessly exterminated (ausrotten) in National-Socialist Germany is proven by the fact that, in Prussia alone, 33,500 Jews are active in industry and crafts, 98,900 in trade and transport – and is further proven by the fact that, with a proportion of 1% of the population of Germany, 17.5% of all lawyers are still Jewish.” (Hess 1935)
Clearly, in 1935, Hess was referring to eliminating Jewish power and influence, not mass killing – and he denied even this!
By the late 1930s, top Germans were admitting, publicly and privately, that they were indeed “rooting-out” and “destroying” the Jews – none of which meant mass murder. But they also used this kind of language in other, non-Jewish contexts.
In a 1936 memo on the Four-Year Plan, for example, Hitler remarked that the Wehrmacht and the German economy had to be ready within four years for a war with the Soviet Union. Because if the Soviet Union ever managed to conquered Germany, he reasoned, that would mean the annihilation of the German people (Treue 1955, p. 187). Naturally, Hitler did not mean that the Soviets would kill 80 million Germans, but that they would eliminate Germany as an independent political factor.
On 10 November 1938, Hitler stated during a press conference that there was a need to annihilate the class of German intellectuals (Treue 1958, p. 188). Here as well, he cannot have meant a physical extermination of the intellectuals, but merely trimming back their influence.
In January 1939, Hitler received the Czech Foreign Minister, criticizing, among other things, the liberal Czech attitude toward the Jews. He referred to the Jewish policy of his government with the words “In Germany, they are being annihilated” (Billig 1977, p. 51). It is obvious that he cannot have meant a physical annihilation of the Jews, since nothing of the sort is alleged to have been going on at the time.
Then came Hitler’s infamous Reichstag speech of 30 January 1939. He said:
“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 (Vernichtung) of the Jewish race in Europe.”
This is the most frequently cited passage of Hitler’s alleged intention to commit genocide. And yet, it cannot have meant this, since there was utterly no plan for such a thing at that time. And even if there was, it is absurd to think that Hitler would expose that plan in a major public speech.
War came in September of 1939, but even then, there was no plan for Jewish mass murder, according to the experts. The next month, Goebbels wrote in his diary, “This Jewry must be annihilated (vernichtet; 17 Oct.),” clearly referring to the collectivity and to the annihilation of their power and influence. We find another diary entry in mid-1940, referring to Jewish press as “riff-raff that must be rooted out (ausgerottet; 6 Jul.).” In late 1940, Himmler’s personal attendant, Felix Kersten, quoted Himmler as saying “We must wipe out (ausradieren) the Jews,” and again in April 1941, “The Jews will be annihilated (ausrotten) by the end of the war.” (Bauer 1994, p. 273, n. 10.) Again, all this prior to the earliest possible plan or decision to commit genocide. All these cannot have meant mass murder.
And yet, suddenly, after mid-1941, the experts expect us to believe that exactly the same words, in exactly the same contexts, now are “proof” of genocidal intention. This is nonsense, baseless and utterly lacking in substantiation.
We should note here that the German language has no lack of words that mean explicit killing: morden, ermorden, töten, umbringen, erschlagen, erschiessen, and so on. The Germans had no shortage of such words, if they wished to use them. Instead, and even in the most private of settings, they used nonlethal terms.
Consider these 1941 passages from Hitler’s Table Talk – private discussions among his most trusted colleagues:
- “If any people has the right to proceed to evacuations [of Jews], it is we… We consider it a maximum of brutality to have liberated our country from 600,000 Jews” (8 Aug. 1941).
- “The Jew, that destroyer [of culture], we shall drive out (setzen wir ganz hinaus)” (17 Oct. 1941).
- “I prophesied to Jewry that, in the event of war’s proving inevitable, the Jew would disappear from Europe (aus Europa verschwinden)… Let nobody tell me that, all the same, we can’t send them to the [Russian] swamps!” (25 Oct. 1941).
- “This sniveling in which some of the [German] bourgeois are indulging nowadays, on the pretext that the Jews have to clear out (auswandern müssten) of Germany, is typical of these holier-than-thou’s. Did they weep when, every year, hundreds of thousands of Germans had to emigrate… ?” (19 Nov. 1941).
The same language continues into 1942:
- “One must act radically. When one pulls out a tooth, one does it with a single tug, and the pain quickly goes away. The Jew must clear out of Europe (Der Jude muss aus Europa heraus)… For my part, I restrict myself to telling them they must go away (Ich sage nur, er muss weg)… But if they refuse to go voluntarily, I see no other solution but extermination (Ausrottung).” (25 Jan. 1942).
- “The Jews must pack up, disappear from Europe (Der Jude muss aus Europa hinaus)! Best if they go to Russia.” (27 Jan. 1942).
- “[The Jew] bears in mind that, if his victims suddenly became aware of [the damage he causes to society], all Jews would be exterminated. But this time, the Jews will disappear from Europe (aus Europa verschwinden).” (3/4 Feb. 1942).
- “We shall regain our health only by eliminating (eliminieren) the Jew.” (22 Feb. 1942).
- “Until Jewry… is exterminated (ausrottet), we shall not have accomplished our task.” (30 Aug. 1942).
If Hitler had truly wanted to kill the Jews, he would have said so – more than once, and in no uncertain terms. Instead, we find repeated reference to evacuation, expulsion, and the like. Goebbels’s diary shows more of the same:
- “[The Lithuanian Jews] must somehow be rooted out (ausrotten)”; 2 Nov. 1941.
- “The World War is here, and the destruction (Vernichtung) of Jewry must be the necessary consequence”; 13 Dec. 1941.
- “Jewish terrorism must be rooted out (ausgerottet) from all of Europe… [The Jews] will experience their own destruction (Vernichtung) along with the destruction (Vernichtung) of our enemies”; 15 Feb. 1942.
- “The Jewish race… must be rooted out (ausgerottet), stump and stem”; 18 Feb. 1942.
- “Jewry has to pay for triggering a new world war with the complete uprooting (Ausrottung) of their race”; 29 Apr. 1942.
- “[Hitler] threatens the Jews with destruction (Vernichtung), so far as they run into our area… We must completely remove the Jews from the Reich”; 1 Oct. 1942.
Again, we must ask why Goebbels chose such ambiguous language in his own personal diary. Why not say, “We are killing the Jews,” “We are gassing them,” “We have shot hundreds of thousands so far,” etc.? And yet, nothing like this appears. Instead, all talk is of deportation, ghettoization, removal and forced evacuation.
In sum, nearly all English translations of leading Germans are highly tendentious; one must exercise due caution, and ideally seek out the German original, in order to understand the words in their proper context. Even the most ominous-sounding phrases may well have far more benign meanings.