Holocaust History: Nazi Zeitgeist – The Spark the Set Europe Ablaze

New Volkswagen factory cornerstone ceremony, 1938. Rare color photo by Hugo Jager, one of Hitler’s personal photographers.

The tragic and horrifying events of the Holocaust perpetrated by Nazi Germany was a process. There was no main event that kicked off the mass murder perpetrated by the Third Reich. Rather, it was a complicated series of events that built one upon the next. It was also the product of various other factors including deeply rooted mistrust and bias toward minority groups that extended generations into the past. The racist sentiments, antisemitism in particular, that provided the pretext for the Holocaust were not unique to Germany. People targeted Jews and other minority groups across Europe for centuries. In her work War and Genocide Doris Bergen described the situation in Europe as “dry timber;” the conditions were perfect for the old house of dry wood to burn and Naziism was the spark that set it ablaze.[1]

In Nazi Germany the progression toward the mass genocidal events of the Holocaust took place incrementally. Hitler and Nazi leaders made calculated decisions, and when necessary or convenient backed off on measures until they felt that they could get away with them. For example, the April 1933 boycott of Jewish businesses never caught on and people found that it disrupted their lives, as many people depended on local shops, many of which were Jewish owned.[2] When Hitler rolled back the measures it made the Nazis seem reasonable and hid their true goals. This became a pattern, Nazis would push, pull back, evaluate, then proceed again in the path of least resistance that led to the fulfillment of their plans.[3]

By 1935 when the Nazi controlled Reichstag passed the Nuremberg Laws, the German population was ready for such measures, and they affected a small minority of the population. American Journalist William Shirer, who lived and reported from Nazi Germany between 1935 and 1941, noted that during this early time period the Nazi terror affected the lives of relatively few Germans and that the German people did not seem to feel that they were being oppressed or held down by an unscrupulous and brutal dictatorship.[4] On the contrary most of the German people Shirer knew seemed imbued with “a new hope and a new confidence and an astonishing faith in the future of their country.”[5] Most German people had fallen for the Nazi Zeitgeist or Spirit of the Times. Erwin Bartmann, a young boy when Hitler took power who went on to serve in the elite 1st Waffen SS Leibstandarte Division, described attending the opening ceremonies of the 1936 Olympics in Berlin with his schoolmates:

That day will remain in my memory until I die. As I left the stadium, it was easy to believe I was living in the best country in the world. Without realizing it, I had surrendered to the Zeitgeist cultivated by the Führer.[6]

Some Germans looked on the persecution of the Jews and other minorities with disgust and attempted to help individuals that they knew, however they argued that there was “nothing they could do” alone to stem the tide of persecution.[7] Even Bartmann as a member of the Waffen SS who saw with his own eyes the ghettos of Poland in 1941, and afterward went so far as to assist a Jewish family friend at his own personal risk, did not fully recognize his role as a cog in the Nazi machine until later in life. As an old man he described the spark that set Europe ablaze:

Hitler set the Zeitgeist free, nurtured it, stirred it from its slumbers but he did not create the beast. There is a darkness lurking within the soul of man that opens his heart to the eagle, to the swastika, a darkness that will haunt me until the day I [die]…[8]


[1] Doris L. Bergen, War and Genocide: A Concise History of the Holocaust (Rowman & Littlefield Publishers. Kindle Edition, 2016), Kindle Locations 471-475.

[2] Ibid. Kindle Locations 1636-1640.

[3] Ibid. Kindle Locations 1652-1653.

[4] William L. Shirer, The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich: A History of Nazi Germany (Rosetta Books. Kindle Edition, 2011), Kindle Locations 5402-5404.

[5] Ibid. Kindle Locations 5404-5405.

[6] Erwin Bartmann, Für Volk and Führer: The Memoir of a Veteran of the 1st SS Panzer Division Leibstandarte SS Adolf Hitler (West Midlands, England: Hellion & Company, 2013), 11.

[7] Shirer,. Kindle Locations 5416-5418.

[8] Bartmann, 234.