Behind the Issue w/ Thomas Weber

Thomas Weber’s recently published article, The Pre-1914 Origins of Hitler’s Antisemitism Revisited is the first of a new series whereby The Journal of Holocaust Research will occasionally feature a special section introducing New Sources on the Holocaust. In it, we will showcase new discoveries, developments, and projects involving source material related to the Holocaust.

The inaugural section of New Sources on the Holocaust is dedicated to a fascinating new source related to the early antisemitism of Adolf Hitler: Historian Thomas Weber offers a deeply contextualized interpretation of the source, and Moshe Zimmerman provides a thoughtful commentary.

Weber’s article “revisits the origins of Adolf Hitler’s antisemitism. It raises the question as to whether it is really credible to argue that Hitler did not harbor antisemitic sentiments prior to the post-revolutionary period following World War One. The article introduces readers to hitherto unknown testimony by Elisabeth Grünbauer, the daughter of the family with whom Hitler lodged in Munich prior to the First World War. According to her testimony, Hitler was already an antisemite six years earlier than previously believed. Crucially, she claims that Hitler’s Jew-hatred predates the watershed of World War One. In her testimony, Grünbauer recorded antisemitic statements Hitler made to her father that link Hitler’s decision to leave Austria to his antisemitism. The article provides a critical assessment of Grünbauer’s testimony. Further, it attempts to explain the genesis of Hitler’s antisemitism in the prewar world and its eventual mutation in postwar, post-revolutionary Munich.”

Dr. Weber was kind of enough to go ‘behind the issue’ with us and answer a few questions that provide further insight into his new article and the value of this new source.

JHR- What is the mystery about Hitler’s conversion to antisemitism?

TWThe mystery is how it was possible that Hitler suddenly turned into a rabid and ferocious anti-Semite. How was it possible that somebody who had been quiet about Jews and Judaism for most of his life suddenly relates all the ills of the world to the Jews and desires to eradicate all of them?

JHR- What is the role of Vienna and the so-called missing year in this context?

TW- We still do not know. As the historian, Peter Longerich, has put it, “Indeed, there is hardly any reliable information about Hitler’s life for the period 1910–1913.” However, we do know that Hitler was clearly trying to hide what happened in his last year prior to his arrival in Munich in 1913. He consistently lied about the date of his arrival in Germany, predating it by a year, and he steadfastly refused to answer questions about that time even from people close to him. It is in this context that the statement of Elisabeth Grünbauer is potentially so important. According to her, Hitler arrived in Munich already an anti-Semite and made anti-Semitic statements to her father, which links the genesis of his anti-Semitism to his time in Vienna.

JHR- What is this new source you found and discuss in your article for the JHR?

TW- It is a previously unknown interview that Elisabeth Grünbauer (née Popp) gave towards the end of her life. Prior to the First World War, Hitler lodged with her family and grew quite close with them, to the extent that he stayed in touch with them, rather than with his own family after he arrived at the front during the war. Furthermore, most of what we know, or what we think we know about Hitler’s time in Munich prior to the First World War is based on a highly problematic and unreliable interview Elisabeth’s mother gave 1934 with the author of the first major English-language Hitler biography, Heinz A Heinz’ Germany’s Hitler.

JHR- What does this new source change?

TW- It indicates that the genesis of Hitler’s anti-Semitism lies in pre-war Vienna, but in ways very different from what Hitler claimed in Mein Kampf and elsewhere. This is not to say that what happened in Munich in 1919, in the aftermath of the war, is of less significance in explaining Hitler’s anti-Semitism than commonly believed. 1919 marks the mutation of Hitler’s Jew-hatred into a political and genocidal anti-Semitism. In that sense, 1919 most likely remains the crucial year in the evolution of Hitler’s anti-Semitism. However, the pre-war origins of Hitler’s anti-Semitism might explain as to why Hitler turned to anti-Semitism (over competing explanations) when trying to understand the ills of the world in 1919. Moreover, the genesis of Hitler’s anti-Semitism might explain as to why its mutation in 1919 was so radical and ferocious.

JHR- Is this an airtight source? Can we be sure about it?

TW- No, we can’t. However, the point is that Hitler diligently destroyed sources relating to his own radicalization and invented an alternative, politically useful story of his becoming. He was so successful in doing so that we still unduly believe the stories Hitler told us. As a result, we still do not understand how Hitler became Hitler. We hence arguably look for the wrong warning sides for the emergence of new Hitlers in the 21t century. We can only unmask Hitler if we carefully and diligently make use of any surviving sources that come to light. The point also is that any source upon which our previous understanding of Hitler’s revolution before the First World War rests is either equally or more problematic than the interview with Grünbauer. This is why we should, and why we have to make use of the interview. However, we have to do so – and it is worth repeating – with great care and diligence.

JHR- Do you think we will ever be able to say more than we can now about Hitler’s conversion to antisemitism?

TW- I think that there are good reasons to believe that that will be possible. So many new sources relating to Hitler’s radicalization have come to light in recent years that it would be counter-intuitive to argue that no new sources are left to emerge. Furthermore, I know of several collections in private hands that promise to shed new light on this question. We all have to work towards making sure that these collections will become available in due course. Finally, we urgently need a Depository of Perpetrator Accounts akin to the Spielberg Collection of survivor accounts, as there is such a wealth of untapped information in these accounts.

Read Thomas Weber’s full article in The Journal of Holocaust Research.

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