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Schindler's List | Context


Hitler and the Nazi Party

World War I ended in 1919 with Germany's defeat and the Treaty of Versailles. Germans were upset with the terms of the treaty, which held Germany responsible for much of the damage of the war and imposed strict punishments on the defeated nation. Although the war had wrecked the German economy, Germany was required to pay extensive reparations to Great Britain and France and to return the territory of Alsace-Lorraine to France. The German people spent the 1920s struggling against unemployment, poverty, and runaway inflation of German currency. The situation became even more dire at the end of the decade when the New York Stock Exchange collapsed and the Great Depression began.

It was in this atmosphere of national frustration and despair that Adolf Hitler rose to power as the leader of the Nazi Party. Hitler, an Austrian, had served with the German army during World War I. Hitler's combat experience reinforced his interest in German nationalism, which was further inflamed after the war by the terms of the Treaty of Versailles. Attracted by its core principles of German nationalism and anti-Semitism, Hitler joined the fledgling German Workers' Party in 1919, which soon changed its name to the National Socialist German Workers' Party, or Nazi Party. He soon became the party's leader and gained a reputation for giving speeches that cast Jews as the scapegoat for Germany's problems. During a brief imprisonment following a failed 1923 coup, Hitler wrote his book Mein Kampf (My Struggle). The text detailed Hitler's political and personal ideologies, including his vision for the future of Germany, an imperialistic plan that sprang from his racist ideas about the physical and cultural inferiority of Jews and other ethnicities compared to the so-called Aryan, or Germanic, race.

Following the global economic collapse of 1929, Nazis began rising to positions of power within the German government. In 1932 more than a third of the seats in the German parliament went to Nazis. The following year Adolf Hitler became the chancellor of Germany. Hitler's rule quickly became a dictatorship. That same year, the party opened Dachau, a concentration camp in southern Germany where the party imprisoned Jews as well as other "undesirables," such as the handicapped, homosexuals, and intellectuals. This was merely the first of many concentration camps in Germany and its occupied territories. By 1939 the party had passed hundreds of anti-Semitic laws that were designed to target Jews and exclude them from society. After the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, the Nazis began seizing control of Jewish-owned businesses.

In addition to targeting Jews and other "undesirables," the Nazi Party also spent the 1930s enacting its policy of lebensraum, or living space. The principle underlying lebensraum was that Germany needed to acquire new territories so that the supreme Aryan race might better flourish. In violation of the Treaty of Versailles, Hitler built up the German military and began annexing new territories, including Austria in 1938 and Czechoslovakia in 1939.

World War II

By 1939 Great Britain and France had had enough of Germany's imperialistic aggressions. When Germany invaded Poland in September of that year, Great Britain and France declared war on Germany. This was the start of World War II. Poland quickly fell to German control. In 1939 Germany signed a nonaggression pact with the Soviet Union, and the following year it formed alliances with Japan and Italy. Germany spent the first few years of the war fighting against France and Great Britain. In 1941, in defiance of the nonaggression pact, Germany invaded the Soviet Union. With the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, in 1941 by the Japanese, the United States was drawn into the war.

By 1944 Germany was in a tight spot. Its military resources, depleted by the disastrous invasion of the Soviet Union, were spread thin. Additionally, the allied British and American forces were advancing from the west, and the Soviet troops were closing in from the east. Adolf Hitler committed suicide in his bunker in Berlin on April 30, 1945, and Germany, overrun with Allied and Soviet forces, formally surrendered a few weeks later, on May 8. By the end of the war, almost every part of the world had been drawn into the conflict, and an estimated 50 million lives had been lost. World War II remains history's largest war and the conflict with the highest loss of human life.

Anti-Semitism and the Holocaust

The word holocaust is derived from a Greek translation of a Hebrew word that denotes a burnt offering to God. In modern usage the word refers generally to mass destruction and loss of life. When capitalized, the word refers specifically to the systematic slaughter of millions of people, particularly Jews, that was the aim and outcome of Nazi policies during World War II.

Anti-Semitism, or hostility and discrimination toward Jews, has a long history in Europe, starting in the beginning of the Christian era with the Catholic doctrine that blamed Jews for the crucifixion of Christ. As Jews resisted conversion to Christianity and sought to preserve their religious and cultural traditions, they were often viewed as threatening outsiders and were persecuted accordingly. During the Middle Ages, Jews were blamed for the Black Death that devastated the population of Europe. Throughout the centuries, Jews were frequently victims of what are now called pogroms, violent riots consisting of attacks on Jews by their non-Jewish neighbors.

The Holocaust was the unprecedented and horrifying apogee of European anti-Semitism. After World War I, the Nazis cast the Jews as the scapegoat for Germany's problems. Adolf Hitler was obsessed with ideas of racial purity, and in his mind the Jews were subhuman creatures threatening the purity of the glorious Aryan race. As Germany's leader, Hitler expressed his racist obsessions in national and foreign policy. When the Nazis rose to power in the early 1930s, they began passing anti-Semitic legislation circumscribing the rights of Jews in society. In the early 1930s concentration camps were established throughout Germany for the imprisonment of Jews and others. German Jews who lacked the means to flee their country were forced to live in fear and privation.

In 1939 the Nazis forced Jews living in newly occupied Poland into overcrowded, unsanitary ghettos. Around the same time, the party also began its "euthanasia" program, which resulted in the murders of tens of thousands of mentally and physically disabled individuals. During the early years of the war, as Germany conquered territories in northern and western Europe, Jewish citizens of those territories were transported to Poland and corralled into the ghettos.

The Nazi regime saw the ghettos and the work camps, where Jews were forced to work as slaves, as temporary solutions to a long-standing historical problem. In 1941 internal Nazi communications began to reference the so-called Final Solution. The regime sought an efficient method of eradicating the Jewish race from the face of the Earth. A deadly gas, the pesticide Zyklon B, proved to be such a method. Six large extermination camps were built in occupied Poland, and in the spring of 1942, the regime began transporting Jews out of the ghettos and into the death camps, where they were executed with ruthless efficiency. In this fashion, thousands of Jews were killed each day, and by the war's end, more than two million people had been murdered at Auschwitz-Birkenau, the largest of the Polish death camps. Prisoners who were not murdered often died of disease or starvation. The corpses of the victims were cremated in ovens built especially for this purpose.

Distracted by the war, the outside world remained largely ignorant of the horrors befalling Jews and others in Nazi-occupied territories. In the last months of the war, many of the death camps were evacuated as Nazi officials scrambled to hide evidence of the genocide from advancing Allied forces. These evacuated prisoners were forced to undertake arduous, long-distance marches, which resulted in hundreds of thousands of additional deaths. By the time the Allied forces liberated the camps, approximately six million Jews had been systematically murdered by the Nazis.

Between 1945 and 1949, Nazis who had played a role in the Holocaust were tried for their crimes at the Nuremberg trials. Some were sentenced to death for their crimes against humanity. After the war, the Zionist movement—established in the 19th century to advocate for a Jewish homeland in response to widespread persecution—gained the support of the United States. The issue went before the United Nations, and in 1948 the state of Israel was created out of Palestine as a homeland for the Jewish people.

Chance Meeting

In 1980 Thomas Keneally traveled to Los Angeles on a publicity tour for his novel Confederates (1979), where he first encountered the remarkable story of Oskar Schindler. In need of a new briefcase, Keneally visited a leather goods store in Beverly Hills. The store's owner happened to be Leopold (Poldek) Pfefferberg, a Schindler survivor. Upon learning Keneally was a well-known writer of historical novels, Pfefferberg expressed his wish that Keneally write the story of Schindler and the Jews he saved. Keneally was immediately intrigued by the moral ambiguity of Schindler's character: Schindler was a drinker, a womanizer, and a war profiteer who was deeply involved in the black market. At the same time, he saved more than a thousand Jews from the Nazi death camps. It was an extraordinary story and one Pfefferberg was able to back up with documents he had assembled some years earlier in response to a request by MGM, a film studio that was considering making a film about the life of Oskar Schindler. After taking the documents—consisting of survivor testimonies as well as carbon copies of Schutzstaffel (SS) communications—back to his hotel for examination, Keneally decided to write the story as a narrative.

Pfefferberg, as well as Keneally's wife and daughter, spent the next two years assisting Keneally as he wrote the book. Though Oskar Schindler died in 1974—some six years before Keneally set out to write the book—many of the people involved in the story were still living. Trying to tell the story with as much fidelity to the truth as possible, Keneally engaged in a laborious two-year process of conducting more than 50 interviews with survivors and associates of Schindler, visiting the locations where the story takes place, and examining pertinent historical documents. Prior to the book's publication, Keneally asked Schindler survivors to give their feedback on the manuscript. While Keneally questioned at times whether he was the best writer to tell this story, Pfefferberg assured him, "An Australian is perfect to write it. What should you know? You know about humans."

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