1919 “Gemlich letter” by Hitler on Jews: did it prefigure the Shoah?

Via today’s online edition of the Yediot Achronot, I learned that the Simon Wiesenthal Center announced its acquisition of a unique document in the history of the Shoah: a 4-page typewritten letter dated September 16, 1919 by Adolf Hitler (y”sh),  then a lance corporal (Obergefreiter) in the German army, on his views about the Jewish people. Genesis of the letter:

Hitler returned from a military hospital to Munich in early 1919. There he underwent a Reichswehr sponsored course of systematic political education for demobilizing soldiers that featured Pan­German nationalism, antisemitism, and anti­socialism. These same themes were prominent in Bavarian politics following the repression of the Munich revolution of 1918­19. Because antisemitism had not played a notable part in Bavarian politics prior to the revolutionary disturbances, a Herr Adolf Gemlich was prompted to send an inquiry about the importance of the “Jewish question” to Captain Karl Mayr, the officer in charge of the Reichswehr News and Enlightenment Department in Munich. Mayr referred him to Hitler, who had distinguished himself in the above­mentioned course by the vehemence of his radical nationalist and antisemitic views, and by his oratorical talents. Hitler was already feeling his way toward a political career; four days before responding to Gemlich in the letter translated below, he had paid his first visit to the German Workers’ Party (eventually renamed, the National Socialist Workers’ Party) as a confidential agent of the Reichswehr.

The full original text (in German, errors in spelling and grammar deliberately reproduced) can be read here, while the Jewish Virtual Library offers an English translation by Richard Levy. Hitler (y”sh) is at pains to project himself as a “rational”, “thinking” antisemite rather than a mere judeophobic demagogue. The moneygraf of the letter is this (I will quote both the German original and Levy’s translation):

Und daraus ergibt sich folgendes: Der Antisemitismus aus rein gefühlsmäßigen Gründen wird seinen letzten Ausdruck finden in der Form von Progromen. Der Antisemitismus der Vernunft jedoch muss führen zur planmässigen gesetzlichen Bekämpfung und Beseitigung der Vorrechte des Juden die er zum Unterschied der anderen zwischen uns lebenden Fremden besitzt. (Fremdengesetzgebung). Sein letztes Ziel aber muss unverrückbar die Entfernung der Juden überhaupt sein.

[Translation:] The deduction from all this is the following: an antisemitism based on purely emotional grounds will find its ultimate expression in the form of the pogrom.[1] An antisemitism based on reason, however, must lead to systematic legal combating and elimination of the privileges of the Jews, that which distinguishes the Jews from the other aliens who live among us (an Aliens Law). The ultimate objective [of such legislation] must, however, be the irrevocable removal of the Jews in general.

The key term is “Entfernung”, which literally can be taken to mean “removal” or “dislodgement”, but for which the premier online German dictionary Leo also lists the following meanings: “excision, ablation [medical]”, “ejection”, “elimination”. (The Dutch cognate of “Entfernung”, “verwijdering”, has the same multiple meanings.) It is argued here (presumably quoting Eberhard Jäckel), as well as by Christopher Browning, that in context, the term was probably still referring to segregation or expulsion rather than genocide. But it is hardly a stretch to argue that precisely that was indeed meant as the ultimate goal, and hardly a coincidence that this quote is prominently displayed at the Wannsee Conference House (presently a Holocaust museum and memorial site).

In any case, “functionalist” and “intentionalist” historians will each see confirmation of their preconceived views. I myself side with the late lamented dean of Shoah historians, Raul Hilberg:”I have never begun by asking the big questions, because I was always afraid that I would come up with small answers.”

Addendum: I forgot to mention (as explained in the NYT article on the SWC website) that the letter’s signature was declared genuine by the same handwriting expert who unmasked the forged “Hitler diaries”.