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istorians do not agree on the origins of Adolf Hitler’s anti-Semitism. Some of them argue that it was innate, whereas some others think that he developed such a feeling after having seen the consequences of the Treaty of Versailles. Despite the prevailing uncertainty, not all of the historical roots of Hitler’s anti-Semitism are unknown. Although we are not able to say when Hitler developed this thought, we are able to pinpoint when Hitler first wrote about it, though.

Adolf Hitler in WWI

When the First World War (WWI) broke out, Hitler was living in Munich. He had moved to the capital of Bavaria after a six-year period spent in Vienna as an aspirant painter. Even though he was an Austrian citizen, Hitler voluntarily enlisted in the Bavarian Army. He was sent on the Western Front (that is, France and Belgium) to serve as a dispatch runner. In October 1916, during the Battle of the Somme, a shell exploded at the entrance of the dispatch runners’ dugout. As a consequence, Hitler received a wound in his left thigh. He was ordered to the depot in Munich, as he wasn’t able to perform his duty anymore.

Hitler (far right, seated) with his army comrades during WWI | Source: German Federal Archive

Hitler returned to his regiment in March 1917. On 15 October 1918, he was temporarily blinded due to a British gas attack. He was hospitalized in a town called Pasewalk and, while there, he found out that Germany had eventually lost the war. The subsequent Treaty of Versailles made room for the stab-in-the-back theory, according to which the Jews were to be blamed for Germany’s defeat as they would have betrayed the Empire on the home front.

After WWI

After WWI, Hitler was appointed as an intelligence agent on behalf of the German Army. He was in charge of indoctrinating Bavarian soldiers in a nationalistic and anti-Bolshevik way. In September 1919, Hitler received from Captain Karl Mayr the task of providing Adolf Gemlich, a German soldier, some clarifications on the Jewish question.

On 16 September 1919, Hitler wrote his response in a letter that would later be named by historians as Gemlich Letter. The letter is extremely important since it is believed to be the first record of Hitler’s antisemitic views. It comprises some of the ideas that would be developed in Mein Kampf six years later.

The Gemlich Letter

Here are some extracts of the Gemlich Letter translated by the Museum of Tolerance.

“If the danger represented by the Jews today finds expression in the undeniable dislike of them felt by a large section of our people, the cause of this dislike is on the whole not to be found in the clear recognition of the corrupting activity of the Jews generally among our people, whether conscious or unconscious; it originates mainly through personal relationship, and from the impression left behind him by the individual Jew which is almost invariably unfavorable. […] Antisemitism as a political movement must not be, cannot be, determined by emotional criteria, but only through the recognition of facts.”

Synagogue in Aechen, Germany, destroyed during the Night of Broken Glass (1938) | Source: United States Holocaust Memorial Museum

“First, the Jews are definitely a race and not a religious community. The Jew himself never class himself a Jewish German, a Jewish Pole, a Jewish American, but only a German, a Polish, an American Jew. From the foreign nations in whose midst he lives the Jew has adopted very little more than their language. A German who is compelled to use French in France, Italian in Italy, Chinese in China, does not thereby become a Frenchman, an Italian, or a Chinese; similarly a Jew who happens to live among us and is thereby compelled to use the German language cannot be called a German.”

“Through a thousand years of inbreeding, often practiced within a very narrow circle, the Jew has in general preserved his race and character much more rigorously than many of the peoples among whom he lives. And as a result, there is living amongst us a non-German, foreign race, unwilling and unable to sacrifice its racial characteristics, to deny its feeling, thinking and striving, and which none the less possesses all the political rights that we ourselves have. The feelings of the Jew are concerned with purely material things; his thoughts and desires even more so. The dance round the golden calf becomes a ruthless struggle for all those goods which, according to our innermost feelings, should not be the highest and most desirable things on this earth.”

A ruined synagogue in Munich (Germany) after the Night of Broken Glass (1938) | Source: Private Collection

“The value of the individual is no longer determined by his character, by the importance of his achievements for all, but solely by the amount of his possessions, by his money.”

“[…] Antisemitism stemming from purely emotive reasons will always find its expression in the form of pogroms. But antisemitism based on reason must lead to the systematic legal combating and removal of the rights of the Jew, which he alone of the foreigners living among us possesses (legislation to make them aliens). Its final aim, however, must be the uncompromising removal of the Jews altogether. Both are possible only under a government of national strength, never under a government of national impotence.”

Nazi boycott of Jewish businesses. The posters say “Germans! Defend yourselves! Don’t buy from Jews!” (April 1933) | Source: German Federal Archive

“This rebirth will be set in motion not by the political leadership of irresponsible majorities under the influence of party dogmas or of an irresponsible press, nor by catchwords and slogans of international coinage, but only through the ruthless action of personalities with a capacity for national leadership and an inner sense of responsibility.”

Conclusion

If we compare the Gemlich Letter to Mein Kampf, the latter has many more details on Hitler’s political program than the former. This can be simply explained by the huge difference between the two texts in terms of length, but there could be more.

According to many historians, the Gemlich Letter brought Hitler into politics. We see Hitler questioning himself about the Jewish question at a time in which he had not started doing politics yet. We already read some of Hitler’s proposals for Germany, but they are just a few. Moreover, he doesn’t explain how such proposals should be turned into policies. Conversely, in Mein Kampf Hitler’s agenda is anticipated in detail.

Adolf Hitler in office seating on his desk (1936) | Source: German Federal Archive

In the Gemlich Letter, we find the seeds of one of the most destructive and bloody dictatorships that the world has ever experienced. However, it also shows that anti-Semitism was already widespread in Germany and Europe long before Hitler entered the political sphere. What the leader of Nazism did was taking that pervasive feeling and turning it into the main political objective of an armed and indoctrinated government.

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