Ten months after the end of World War I, a 30-year-old German army veteran wrote a two-page letter in which he explained the Jewish question on what he called a “rational” and “scientific” basis.
“An anti-Semitism based on reason must lead to a systematic combatting and elimination of the privileges of the Jews,” he wrote. “The ultimate objective must be the irrevocable removal of Jews in general.”
The letter was signed “Respectfully, Adolf Hitler” and got high marks for the author from his superiors in a military propaganda unit bitterly opposed to the newly established Weimar Republic as the perceived handiwork of Bolsheviks, socialists and Jews.
As the first written political statement of the future fuehrer, the letter is considered a document of immense historical value and was shown to the public for the first time on Oct. 4 by the Simon Wiesenthal Center at its Museum of Tolerance.
Noted UCLA historian Saul Friedlander, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of a two-volume analysis of the Nazi regime, observed that “In his very first written statement about the Jews, Hitler shows that [hatred of Jews] was the very core of his political passion.”
At the behest of his superiors, Hitler wrote the letter to a fellow soldier propagandist, named Adolf Gemlich, and the document is known as the Gemlich letter. In contrast to his later public rants, Hitler assumes an almost professorial tone in the letter.
For instance, he expounded that “anti-Semitism is too easily characterized as a mere emotional phenomenon. And yet, this is incorrect. Anti-Semitism as a political movement may not and cannot be defined by emotional impulses, but by recognition of the facts.”
What are the facts? According to the letter, one is that “Jewry is absolutely a race and not a religious association.”
Throughout, Hitler never tires of the old stereotype of the Jew as a money-grubber bent on world domination. “Everything man strives after as a higher goal, be it religion, socialism, democracy, is to the Jew only means to an end, the way to satisfy his lust for gold and domination,” he wrote.
Hitler’s advocacy in the letter of “the irrevocable removal of Jews” has led to discussions among scholars as to whether the terms anticipate his later extermination campaign.
The German word for “removal” used by Hitler is “entfernung,” which is more commonly translated as “distance” or “withdrawal.” Taken in context, most experts believe that Hitler’s thinking at the time focused more on “segregation” or “expulsion” than a full-fledged Holocaust.
“Not even Hitler was capable of imagining in 1919 what could be done,” British historian Ian Kershaw told The New York Times.
Rabbi Marvin Hier, founder and dean of the Wiesenthal Center, who was instrumental in acquiring the letter for the museum and raised $150,000 for its purchase, draws two key deductions from the letter, one historical, the other applicable to our time.
“Apologists for Hitler and Holocaust deniers always cite the fact that no one has found a document, signed by Hitler, ordering the destruction of European Jewry,” Hier said. “Perhaps such a document was destroyed, or Hitler gave his orders verbally.
“In any case, the Gemlich letter proves his obsessive hatred of Jews more clearly than in his later book, ‘Mein Kampf.’ It is fair to assume that when Hitler wrote about ‘the removal of the Jews’ he wasn’t thinking about just throwing a few thousand Jews in jail.”
The second important lesson Hier draws from the letter is that we cannot afford to ignore or ridicule the demagogues of our day, like Iran’s Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.
“If in 1919, someone had warned that a man like Hitler would become a menace to the world, such a person would have been labeled as crazy,” Hier said.
As part of the permanent exhibit in the museum’s Holocaust section, the letter will be complemented by an interactive time line tracing the year-by-year spread of Hitler’s power and his ultimate defeat between 1919 and 1945.
To this reporter, the letter with Hitler’s slanted signature brings back some personal memories of growing up as a Jewish boy in Berlin.
I saw Hitler in person two times. The first was in 1934, when I was 9 and living in an apartment on the Reichsstrasse, a main avenue radiating out from the nearby central square, the Reichskanzler Platz (Chancellor Square).
Looking down from our window, we saw a procession of limousines, flanked by SS men, and in the middle was the fuehrer, riding in an open car, returning the straight-armed salute of the masses with his typical sloppy bent-armed wave. Perhaps he was returning from the Reichskanzler Platz, which had just been renamed Adolf Hitler Platz.
Much later, when Lee Harvey Oswald shot President John Kennedy, it occurred to me that the distance and line of sight in the Dallas assassination was similar to the positions between Hitler and me in 1934.
My second encounter was in 1936, when Italy’s Benito Mussolini paid a visit to Hitler in Berlin, and the two dictators rode down Unter den Linden in the same car. I went to see the show amid masses of jubilant Berliners.
A final association with Hitler occurred on April 20, 1939, the day my mother, sister and I took a taxi to Tempelhof Airport to fly from Berlin to Croydon Airport in London, a big deal at the time.
On the way, every pole and public building was festooned with huge, streaming swastika flags, and I thought that my Aryan countrymen might be celebrating our departure from the fatherland. I was a bit disappointed to learn that in reality the city was celebrating Hitler’s 50th birthday.
I think the first thing that struck me on arriving in America was the flag. I had left behind the blood-red banners with the ominous black swastika in the middle, a symbol of ruthless force. By contrast, the American flag, with its colorful stars and stripes, seemed playful, a child’s banner in a make-believe parade.
Back to reality. The Gemlich letter was found by an American soldier among scattered papers at an apparent Nazi party archive, near Nuremberg. The soldier brought it back to America, and decades later the letter came into the hands of a California dealer in historical documents.
When the letter first came on the market in 1988, Hier was skeptical of its authenticity, partly because of numerous instances of forged Nazi documents.
Since then, experts in Germany, Britain and the United States have vetted the letter and have concluded that it is, indeed, the original version, written and signed by Hitler, although 100 percent certainty might require chemical tests of the age and composition of the stationery.
Hier, for one, has no doubt that he has the real thing. “This is the most significant document ever acquired by the Wiesenthal Center, with historical significance not only to the Jewish people, but to the entire world,” he said.
The exhibit, “The Hitler Letter, A Letter That Changed The World,” will open at 11 a.m. on Oct. 4 at the Museum of Tolerance, 9786 W. Pico Blvd. For information, phone (310) 553-8403 or visit www.museumoftolerance.com.