Functionalism versus intentionalism
Functionalism versus intentionalism is a historiographical debate
about the origins of the Holocaust as well as most aspects of the
Third Reich, such as foreign policy. The debate on the origins of the
Holocaust centres on essentially two questions:
Was there a master plan on the part of
Adolf Hitler to launch the
Holocaust? Intentionalists argue there was such a plan, while
functionalists argue there was not.
Did the initiative for the Holocaust come from above with orders from
Adolf Hitler or from below within the ranks of the German bureaucracy?
Although neither side disputes the reality of the Holocaust, nor is
there serious dispute over the premise that Hitler (as Führer) was
personally responsible for encouraging the anti-Semitism that allowed
the Holocaust to take place, intentionalists argue the initiative came
from above, while functionalists contend it came from lower ranks
within the bureaucracy.
The terms were coined in a 1981 essay by the British Marxist historian
Timothy Mason. Notable functionalists have included Raul Hilberg,
Christopher Browning, Hans Mommsen, Martin Broszat, and Zygmunt
Bauman. Notable intentionalists have included Andreas Hillgruber, Karl
Dietrich Bracher, Klaus Hildebrand, Eberhard Jäckel, Richard
Lucy Dawidowicz and Daniel Jonah Goldhagen.
1 Origins of the debate
3.1 Extreme intentionalist interpretation
3.2 Moderate intentionalist interpretation
3.3 Extreme functionalist interpretation
3.4 Moderate functionalist interpretation
4 See also
Origins of the debate
The search for the origins of the Holocaust began almost as soon as
World War II
World War II ended. At the
Nuremberg War Crimes Trials
Nuremberg War Crimes Trials of 1945–6,
Final Solution to the Jewish Question in Europe" was represented
by the prosecution as part of the long-term plan on the part of the
Nazi leadership going back to the foundations of the
Nazi Party in
1919. Subsequently, most historians subscribed to what would be
today[when?] considered to be the extreme intentionalist
interpretation. Books such as Karl Schleunes' The Twisted Road to
Auschwitz which was published in 1970 influenced a number of
historians to challenge the prevailing interpretation and suggested
there was no master plan for the Holocaust. In the 1970s, advocates of
the intentionalist school of thought were known as "the straight road
to Auschwitz" camp or as the "programmeists", because they insisted
that Hitler was fulfilling a programme. Advocates of the functionalist
school were known as "the twisted road to Auschwitz" camp or as the
"structuralists", because of their insistence that it was the internal
power structures of the
Third Reich that led to the Holocaust.
In 1981, the British historian
Timothy Mason published an essay
entitled "Intention and Explanation" that was in part an attack on the
Karl Dietrich Bracher and Klaus Hildebrand, both of
whom Mason accused of focusing too much on
Adolf Hitler as an
explanation of the Holocaust. In this essay, Mason called the
followers of "the twisted road to Auschwitz"/structuralist school
"functionalists" because of their belief that the Holocaust arose as
part of the functioning of the Nazi state, while the followers of "the
straight road to Auschwitz"/programmeist school were called
"intentionalists" because of their belief that it was Hitler's
intentions alone that explained the Holocaust. The terms
"intentionalist" and "functionalist" have largely replaced the
previous terms used to signify the conflicting schools of thought.
Those historians who take an intentionalist line, like Andreas
Hillgruber, argue that everything that happened after Operation
Barbarossa was part of a masterplan he credited Hitler with developing
in the 1920s. Hillgruber wrote in his 1967 book
Germany and the Two
World Wars that for Hitler:
The conquest of European Russia, the cornerstone of the continental
European phase of his program, was thus for Hitler inextricably linked
with the extermination of these "bacilli", the Jews. In his conception
they had gained dominance over Russia with the Bolshevik Revolution.
Russia thereby became the center from which a global danger radiated,
particularly threatening to the Aryan race and its German core. To
Hitler, Bolshevism meant the consummate rule of Jewry, while democracy
– as it had developed in Western Europe and Weimar
represented a preliminary stage of Bolshevism, since the Jews there
won a leading, if not yet a dominant, influence. This racist component
of Hitler's thought was so closely interwoven with the central
political element of his program, the conquest of European Russia,
that Russia's defeat and the extermination of the Jews were – in
theory as later in practice – inseparable for him. To the aim of
expansion per se, however, Hitler gave not racial, but political,
strategic, economic and demographic underpinnings".
The German historian
Helmut Krausnick argued that:
What is certain is that the nearer Hitler's plan to overthrow Russia
as the last possible enemy on the continent of Europe approached
maturity, the more he became obsessed with an idea—with which he had
been toying as a "final solution" for a long time—of wiping out the
Jews in the territories under his control. It cannot have been later
than March 1941, when he openly declared his intention of having the
political commissars of the Red Army shot, that he issued his secret
decree—which never appeared in writing though it was mentioned
verbally on several occasions—that the Jews should be eliminated.
Streim wrote in response that Krausnick had been taken in by the line
invented after the war to reduce the responsibility of the
Einsatzgruppen leaders brought to trial.
Klaus Hildebrand wrote
In qualitative terms, the executions by shooting were no different
from the technically more efficient accomplishment of the 'physical
final solution' by gassing, of which they were a prelude.
Against the intentionalist interpretation, functionalist historians
Martin Broszat argued that the lower officials of the Nazi state
had started exterminating people on their own initiative. Broszat
argued that the Holocaust began “bit by bit” as German officials
stumbled into genocide. Broszat argued that in the fall of 1941
German officials had begun "improvised" killing schemes as the
"simplest" solution to the "Jewish Question". In Broszat's opinion,
Hitler subsequently approved of the measures initiated by the lower
officials and allowed the expansion of the Holocaust from Eastern
Europe to all of Europe. In this way, Broszat argued that the Shoah
was not begun in response to an order, written or unwritten, from
Hitler but was rather “a way out of the blind alley into which the
Nazis had manoeuvred themselves”. The American historian
Christopher Browning has argued that:
Before the invasion, the
Einsatzgruppen were not given explicit orders
for the total extermination of Jews on Soviet territory. Along with
the general incitement to an ideological and racial war, however, they
were given the general task of liquidating "potential" enemies.
Heydrich's much-debated directive of 2 July 1941 was a minimal list of
those who had to be liquidated immediately, including all Jews in
state and party positions. It is very likely, moreover, that the
Einsatzgruppen leaders were told of the future goal of a Judenfrei
[Jew-free] Russia through systematic mass murder.
By contrast, the Swiss historian Philippe Burrin argues that such a
decision was not made before August 1941 at the earliest, pointing to
orders given by Himmler on 30 July 1941 to the 2nd SS Cavalry Regiment
SS Cavalry Brigade
SS Cavalry Brigade operating in the Pripet Marshes in the
Pripyat operation calling for the murder of male Jews only while the
Jewish women and children were to be driven into the Marshes.
Browning argues that sometime in mid-July 1941 Hitler made the
decision to begin general genocide owing to his exhilaration over his
victories over the Red Army, whereas Burrin contends that the decision
was made in late August 1941 owing to Hitler's frustration over the
slowing down of the Wehrmacht. Kershaw argues that the dramatic
expansion in both the range of victims and the intensity of the
killings after mid-August 1941 indicates that Hitler issued an order
to that effect, most probably a verbal order conveyed to the
Einsatzgruppen commanders through either Himmler or Heydrich. It
remains unclear whether that was a decision made on Hitler's own
initiative motivated only by his own anti-Semitic prejudices, or
(impressed with the willingness and ability of Einsatzgruppe A to
murder Jewish women and children) ordered that the other three
Einsatzgruppen emulate Einsatzgruppe A's bloody example.
The Canadian historian Erich Haberer has contended that the “Baltic
flashpoint of genocide”, as the killings committed by Einsatzgruppe
A between July–October 1941 are known to historians, were the key
development in the evolution of Nazi anti-Semitic policy that resulted
in the Holocaust. The Baltic area witnessed both the most
extensive and intense killings of all the
90,000–100,000 Jews killed between July and October 1941, which led
to the almost total destruction of the Jewish communities in that
area. Haberer maintains that the “Baltic flashpoint of
genocide” occurred at time when the other Nazi plans for a
“territorial final solution” such as the
Madagascar Plan were
unlikely to occur, and thus suggested to the Nazi leadership that
genocide was indeed “feasible” as a “final solution to the
Extreme intentionalist interpretation
Extreme intentionalists believe that Hitler definitely had plans for
the Holocaust by 1924, if not earlier. Dawidowicz argued that Hitler
already decided upon the Holocaust no later than by 1919. To support
her interpretation, Dawidowicz pointed to numerous extreme
anti-Semitic statements made by Hitler. Criticism has centered on the
fact that none of these statements refer to killing the entire Jewish
people; indeed, very few refer to killing Jews at all. Only once in
Mein Kampf does Hitler ever refer to killing Jews when he states that
if only 12,000 to 15,000 Jews had been gassed instead of German
soldiers in World War I, then "the sacrifice of millions at the front
would not have been in vain." Given that
Mein Kampf is 694 pages long,
Dawidowicz's critics contend, she makes too much of one sentence.
Daniel Goldhagen went further, suggesting that popular opinion in
Germany was already sympathetic to a policy of Jewish extermination
before the Nazi party came to power. He asserts in his book Hitler's
Willing Executioners that
Germany enthusiastically welcomed the
persecution of Jews by the Nazi regime in the period 1933–39.
Moderate intentionalist interpretation
Moderate intentionalists such as
Richard Breitman believe that Hitler
had decided upon the Holocaust sometime in the late 1930s and
certainly no later than 1939 or 1941. This school makes much of
Hitler's "Prophecy Speech" of January 30, 1939 before the Reichstag
where Hitler stated if "Jewish financiers" started another world war,
then "...the result would be the annihilation of the entire Jewish
race in Europe." The major problem with this thesis, as Yehuda Bauer
points out, is that though this statement clearly commits Hitler to
genocide, he made no effort after delivering this speech to have it
carried out. Furthermore,
Ian Kershaw has pointed out that there are
several diary entries by
Joseph Goebbels in late 1941, in which
Goebbels writes that "the Führer's prophecy is coming true in a most
terrible way." The general impression one gets is that Goebbels is
quite surprised that Hitler was serious about carrying out the threat
in the "Prophecy Speech."
Extreme functionalist interpretation
Extreme functionalists such as
Götz Aly believe that the Nazi
leadership had nothing to do with initiating the Holocaust and that
the entire initiative came from the lower ranks of the German
bureaucracy. This philosophy is what is known as the bottom-up
approach of the Holocaust. Aly has made much of documents from the
bureaucracy of the German Government-General of
Poland arguing that
the population of
Poland would have to decrease by 25% to allow the
Polish economy to grow. Criticism centers on the idea that this
explanation does not really show why the Nazis would deport Jews from
France and the
Netherlands to death camps in
Poland if it was Poland
the Nazis were concerned with, and why the Jews of
targeted instead of the random sample of 25% of the Polish population.
Additional criticism of functionalism points out that Hitler and other
Nazi leaders delayed railcars providing supplies to front line troops
in the Soviet Union so that Jews could be deported by rail from the
USSR to death camps thus demonstrating the pursuit of genocidal
policies over pragmatic wartime actions.
Moderate functionalist interpretation
Moderate functionalists, such as
Karl Schleunes and Christopher
Browning, believe that the rivalry within the unstable Nazi power
structure provided the major driving force behind the Holocaust.
Moderate functionalists believe that the Nazis aimed to expel all of
the Jews from Europe, but only after the failure of these schemes did
they resort to genocide. This is sometimes referred to as the "crooked
path" to genocide.
A number of scholars such as Arno J. Mayer, Yehuda Bauer, Ian Kershaw
Michael Marrus have developed a synthesis of the functionalist and
intentionalist schools. They have suggested the Holocaust was a result
of pressures that came from both above and below and that Hitler
lacked a master plan, but was the decisive force behind the Holocaust.
The phrase 'cumulative radicalisation' is used in this context to sum
up the way extreme rhetoric and competition among different Nazi
agencies produced increasingly extreme policies, as fanatical
bureaucratic underlings put into practice what they believed Hitler
would have approved based on his widely disseminated speeches and
propaganda. This phenomenon is referred to more generally in social
psychology as groupshift.
Given the fact that scholars have written so much in relation to Nazi
Germany, Richard Bessel asserts that, "The result is a much better
informed, much more detailed and more nuanced picture of the Nazi
regime, and most serious historians of the Nazi regime now are to some
extent both ‘intentionalists’ and ‘functionalists’- insofar as
those terms still can be used at all." While some historians may
remain entrenched on this subject, there is no unified causal theory
to explain one of the greatest crimes in history.
Bottom-up approach of the Holocaust
Nazi foreign policy debate
Auschwitz bombing debate
Historiography of Germany
Victim theory, a theory that Austria was a victim of Nazism following
^ Browning 1986, p. 343 n1: "The terms 'intentionalist' and
'functionalist' were coined by Tim Mason, 'Intention and Explanation:
A Current Controversy about the Interpretation of National Socialism,'
Der Führerstaat: Mythos und Realität, ed.
Gerhard Hirschfeld and
Lothar Kettenacker (Stuttgart, 1981), 21-40. Prime examples of the two
interpretive approaches can be seen in the articles by Klaus
Hans Mommsen in the same volume."
^ Hillgruber 1981, p. 51.
^ Marrus 2000, p. 39.
^ Streim 1989, pp. 439–440.
^ Marrus 2000, p. 44.
^ Broszat 1985, p. 399–404.
^ a b Marrus 2000, p. 41.
^ Broszat 1985, p. 408.
^ Broszat 1985, pp. 408–413.
^ Rees 1997, pp. 194–195.
^ a b Rees 1997, p. 195.
^ Kershaw 2008, p. 259.
^ a b Haberer 2001, p. 65.
^ Haberer 2001, p. 70.
^ Richard Bessel, "Functionalists vs. Intentionalists: The Debate
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