Intentionalism Vs Functionalism Holocaust Essay Winners

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.[1] 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 Breitman, Lucy Dawidowicz and Daniel Jonah Goldhagen.

Origins of the debate[edit]

The search for the origins of the Holocaust began almost as soon as World War II ended. At the Nuremberg War Crimes Trials of 1945–6, the "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 scholarship of 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 Germany – 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 that:

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 like 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 and the 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 Einsatzgruppen with 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 Jewish Question”.


Extreme intentionalist interpretation[edit]

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[edit]

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[edit]

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 Poland were 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.[citation needed]

Moderate functionalist interpretation[edit]

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 and 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."[15] While some historians may remain entrenched on this subject, there is no unified causal theory to explain one of the greatest crimes in history.

See also[edit]


  1. ^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 Hildebrand and Hans Mommsen in the same volume."
  2. ^Richard Bessel, "Functionalists vs. Intentionalists: The Debate Twenty Years on or Whatever Happened to Functionalism and Intentionalism?" German Studies Review 26, no. 1 (2003): p. 16.


  • Aly, Götz & Susanne Heim. Architects of annihilation: Auschwitz and the logic of destruction. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2002.
  • Bauer, Yehuda. Rethinking the Holocaust. New Haven Conn.; London: Yale University Press, 2001.
  • Bessel, Richard. "Functionalists vs. Intentionalists: The Debate Twenty Years on or Whatever Happened to Functionalism and Intentionalism?" German Studies Review Vol. 26, no. 1 (2003): pp. 15–20.
  • Bracher, Karl DietrichThe German Dictatorship; The Origins, Structure, and Effects of National Socialism. translated from the German by Jean Steinberg; With an Introduction by Peter Gay, New York, Praeger 1970.
  • Breitman, Richard. The architect of genocide: Himmler and the Final Solution. New York: Knopf: Distributed by Random House, 1991.
  • Broszat, Martin. German National Socialism, 1919–1945 translated from the German by Kurt Rosenbaum and Inge Pauli Boehm, Santa Barbara, Calif., Clio Press, 1966.
  • Broszat, Martin. The Hitler State: The Foundation and Development of the Internal Structure of the Third Reich London: Longman, 1981.
  • Broszat, Martin (1985). "Genesis of the 'Final Solution': An Assessment of David Irving's Theses". In Koch, H.W. Aspects of the Third Reich. pp. 390–429. ISBN 978-0-312-05726-8. 
  • Browning, Christopher R. Fateful months: essays on the emergence of the final solution, 1941–42. New York: Holmes & Meier, 1985.
  • Browning, Christopher (1986). "Nazi Ghettoization Policy in Poland: 1939–41". Central European History. 19 (4): 343–368. doi:10.1017/s0008938900011158. JSTOR 4546081. 
  • Browning, Christopher R. The path to genocide: essays on launching the final solution. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992.
  • Browning, Christopher R. Nazi policy, Jewish workers, German killers. Cambridge ; New York: Cambridge University Press, 2000.
  • Browning, Christopher R. The origins of the Final Solution: the evolution of Nazi Jewish policy, September 1939 – March 1942 Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2004.
  • Burrin, PhilippeHitler and the Jews: the genesis of the Holocaust London ; New York: Edward Arnold ; New York, NY: Distributed in the USA by Routledge, Chapman, and Hall, 1994.
  • Dawidowicz, Lucy S. The war against the Jews, 1933–1945 New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1975.
  • Fleming, GeraldHitler and the Final Solution Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984.
  • Haberer, Erich (2001). "Intention and Feasibility: Reflections on Collaboration and the Final Solution". East European Jewish Affairs. 31 (2): 64–81. doi:10.1080/13501670108577951. OCLC 210897979. 
  • Hilberg, Raul The Destruction of the European Jews Yale University Press, 2003, c1961.
  • Hildebrand, KlausDas Dritte Reich Muenchen: Oldenbourg, 1980 translated into English by P.S. Falla as The Third Reich, London: G. Allen & Unwin, 1984.
  • Hillgruber, Andreas (1981). Germany And The Two World Wars. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press. ISBN 978-0-674-35321-3. 
  • Kershaw, Sir IanHitler, 1889–1936: Hubris, New York: Norton, 1999, 1998.
  • Kershaw, Sir Ian The Nazi dictatorship: problems and perspectives of interpretation London: Arnold ; New York: Copublished in the USA by Oxford University Press, 2000.
  • Kershaw, Sir Ian Hitler, 1936–45: Nemesis, New York: W.W. Norton, 2000.
  • Kershaw, Ian (2008). Hitler, the Germans, and the Final Solution. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press. ISBN 978-0-300-12427-9. 
  • Jäckel, EberhardHitler in history Hanover, NH: Published for Brandeis University Press by University Press of New England, 1984.
  • Marrus, Michael (2000). The Holocaust in History. Toronto: Key Porter. ISBN 978-1-55263-120-1. 
  • Mommsen, Hans. From Weimar to Auschwitz Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1991.
  • Rees, Laurence (1997). The Nazis: A Warning From History. foreword by Sir Ian Kershaw. New York: New Press. ISBN 1-56584-551-X. 
  • Roseman, Mark. The Wannsee Conference and the Final Solution:A Reconsideration. New York: Metropolitan Books, 2002.
  • Rosenbaum, RonExplaining Hitler: the search for the origins of his evil, New York: Random House, 1998
  • Schleunes, Karl. The Twisted Road to Auschwitz; Nazi Policy Toward German Jews, 1933–1939, Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1970.
  • Streim, Alfred (1989). "The Tasks of the SS Einsatzgruppen, pages 436–454". In Marrus, Michael. The Nazi Holocaust, Part 3, The "Final Solution": The Implementation of Mass Murder, Volume 2. Westpoint, CT: Meckler. ISBN 0-88736-266-4. 

History 650:The HolocaustS2003Prof. Jeremy Popkin


Hints for Writing a Historiographical Essay


A historiographical essay is an essay which analyzes the way a single historical topic or issue is treated by a number of authors.A historiographical essay is usually problem-centered, unlike a book review, which is centered on a single publication (even though a book review does normally make some reference to other works related to the book being discussed).For example, a historiographical essay on Jewish resistance during the Holocaust might look at the differing definitions of resistance offered by Hilberg, Bauer, Gutman and Paulsson, their differing conclusions about the extent of such resistance, and their opinions about its impact.In addition to pointing out areas of agreement and disagreement in the work on this subject, a good historiographical essay should discuss the reasons for these differences and their implications for the understanding of the subject.Whereas book reviews usually deal with full-length books, historiographical essays are more flexible and often discuss articles as well as books.


There is no single formula for organizing a historiographical essay.Like all interpretive and argumentative essays, a historiographical essay should have an introduction defining its subject and offering a preview of the following argument, and it should end with a conclusion in which you look back over what you have said, summarize your most important findings, and leave the reader with a significant thought to carry away from the piece.The introduction and conclusion should be separate paragraphs or sequences of paragraphs; if you combine them with paragraphs that are really part of the body of your paper, you have probably not devoted enough time and effort to them.In between, however, there are several different ways to organize your material.The best approach will depend on the nature of the issue discussed in your readings and the nature of the readings themselves.Some of the various approaches that are possible are:


(1)   the “historiographical-evolution” approach:This usually works best if you are comparing a series of more or less comparable secondary works that deal with closely related questions and that show a clear evolution of viewpoints over time.Such essays usually begin by discussing a fundamental book that set forth important theses on a historical topic and then looking at subsequent publications that challenged those theses, perhaps substituting a new general interpretation that was subsequently revised in its turn.Thus, if you were reviewing the historiographical literature on what Holocaust historians call the “intentionalist-functionalist debate” (did Hitler and the Nazis have a clear plan for dealing with the Jews when they came to power in 1933, or did their measures evolve as they encountered new aspects of the problem?), you might begin with Hilberg’s thesis that they knew what they wanted to do from the start, proceed through the works of historians like Schleunes, Mommsen and Broszat who claimed that there was no initial plan, turn to Fleming’s counterargument that Hitler knew all along what he wanted to do, and perhaps conclude with S. Friedlaender’s and Ian Kershaw’s attempts to find a kind of middle ground on the issue.In an essay of this sort, you tend to treat each successive publication as a response to the earlier ones; your job as historiographical analyst is to show how this conversation among historians proceeded and what ending point it finally reached.In such an essay, you would usually discuss each book in turn, normally in chronological order.


(2)   The “rival-schools” approach:You may find that your readings reflect differing approaches to a subject, but that they do not fall into the pattern of assertion—challenge—synthesis—new challenge that is characteristic of the “historiographical evolution” essay.In this case, it may make more sense to present the major interpretations of a problem as examples of competing historiographical or ideological approaches.In this case, the chronological order in which works appeared may be less important, since you may be suggesting that different interpretations have co-existed with each other over time, rather than one replacing the other.One might, for example, contrast the “German national character” approach to perpetrator mentality, found in Goldhagen’s work, with the “conformity/pressure of circumstances” interpretation in Browning and the “working-toward-the-Fuehrer” explanation offered in Kershaw.Here your emphasis would be on explaining the logic of each explanation and its strengths and weaknesses.


(3)   The “different aspects of the problem” approach:Sometimes one constructs a historiographical essay by treating the different works you read, not as competing attempts to explain a single central problem, but as different perspectives that add up to a larger whole.This type of essay would be appropriate, for example, if you were examining different types of primary sources, as we did in the readings on the experience of Jews in the Polish ghettos.It does not make much sense to treat Ringelblum’s Notes from the Warsaw Ghetto, the Chronicle of the Lodz Ghetto, Chaim Kaplan’s diary, Adam Czerniakow’s journal, and Janina David’s memoir as a series of publications leading to a synthesis, or as representatives of differing schools of interpretation.It would make more sense to talk about the different kinds of information one can extract from each of these sources, and how they may complement or undermine each other.While such an approach would be natural in dealing with primary sources, it may also be used in discussing secondary literature.An essay on the Final Solution in the countries of western Europe might cover the two books on France by Marrus/Paxton and Poznanski, along with Bob Moore’s monograph on Jews in the Netherlands and Suzanne Zuccotti’s book on Italy; in this case, you would be looking at the similarities and differences of the Holocaust in three different societies that shared some common features, and suggesting a general picture of the situation in western Europe that could be constructed from these more limited studies.


(4)   The “thematic” approach:in the three schemes of organization discussed above, the essay would normally be organized as a succession of sections, each discussing a particular book, held together by an introduction explaining why you are discussing these books and a conclusion recapitulating the argument you have made about how they are related.A completely different approach would start by defining several issues or themes that are found in all the books you have read, and then discussing each issue in turn, comparing and contrasting what each of your authors says about it.In an essay on Jewish resistance, for example, rather than proceeding book-by-book, you might decide that the important issues are the way in which different authors define resistance, the motives they attribute to resisters, and the way in which they measure the success of resistance efforts.In this case, your discussion of any one book will be broken up into sections dealing with the way your themes are treated in it.


As these remarks indicate, a historiographical essay may look somewhat like a series of separate book reviews strung together (or, in the case of the thematically organized review, several book reviews combined in a blender).Try not to think of your historiographical essay in these ways, however.The success of a historiographical essay depends on showing how the materials you are discussing relate to each other, rather than just evaluating each one on its individual merits.While a historiographical essay may, and often does, include comments on the sources used in each book discussed, the organization of the book, and the author’s style, these issues, which are often central in book reviews, should be subordinated to the more general arguments that link the books together.A book review is often trying to answer questions such as “Is this particular book worth reading?What does it say that is new?Does it make its point clearly?”In a historiographical essay, we usually take it for granted that the books being discussed have already proved their worth, and the bigger question is “How does what we read in this book compare with what we find in other, related works?What is the significance of the differences and of the things the books have in common?”Think of it as the difference between painting an accurate picture of an individual subject (book review) and writing a play with several different characters who interact (historiographical essay).



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