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Functionalism (or structuralism) 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 centers on essentially two questions:

  • Was there a master plan on the part of Adolf Hitler to launch the Holocaust? Intentionalists argue that 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? Intentionalists argue that 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 Breitman, and Lucy Dawidowicz.

Neither side disputes the reality of the Holocaust, nor is there serious dispute over the premise that Hitler was responsible for encouraging the anti-Semitism that allowed the Holocaust to take place. Thus, the debate between functionalism and intentionalism, which is considered a topic of legitimate academic debate, is different from Holocaust denial, which is regarded as pseudo-history among academic historians.


Origins of the debate

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 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 considered to be the extreme intentionalist interpretation. Starting in the late 1960s with the publication of such work as Martin Broszat's The Hitler State in 1969 and Karl A. Schleunes's The Twisted Road to Auschwitz in 1970, a number of historians challenged 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 "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 "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 former names for both camps.

In a speech given in Paris in 1982, Christopher Browning summarized the state of the historiography as follows:

In recent years the interpretations of National Socialism have polarized more and more into two groups that Tim Mason has aptly called Intentionalists and Functionalists. The former explain the development of Nazi Germany as a result of Hitler's intentions, which came out of a coherent and logical ideology and were realized due to an all-powerful totalitarian dictatorship. The Functionalists point out the anarchistic character of the Nazi state, its internal rivalries and the chaotic process of decision-making, which constantly led to improvisation and radicalization...These two modes of exposition of history are useful for the analysis of the strongly divergent meanings that people attribute to the Jewish policy of the Nazis in general and to the Final Solution in particular. On the one hand, Lucy Dawidowicz, a radical Intentionalist, upholds the viewpoint that already in 1919 Hitler had decided to exterminate European Jews. And not only that: He knew at what point in time his murderous plan would be realized.The Second World War was at the same time the means and opportunity to put his war against the Jews into effect. While he waited for the anticipated moment for the realization of his great plan, naturally he tolerated a senseless and meaningless pluralism in the Jewish policies of the subordinate ranks of state and party.

Against the radical Intentionalism of Lucy Dawidowicz, which emphasizes the intentions and great plan of Hitler, the Ultrafunctionalism of Martin Broszat constitutes a diametrically opposed view of the role of the Führer, especially with respect to the decision on the Final Solution. It is Broszat's position that Hitler never took a definitive decision nor issued a general order for the Final Solution. The annihilation program developed in stages in conjunction with a series of isolated massacres at the end of 1941 and in 1942. These locally limited mass murders were improvised answers to an impossible situation that had developed as a result of two factors:

First the ideological and political pressure for the creation of a Jew-free Europe that stemmed from Hitler and then the military reverses on the eastern front that led to stoppages in railway traffic and caused the buffer zones into which the Jews were to be removed to disappear. Once the annihilation program was in progress, it gradually institutionalized itself until it was noticed that it offered the simplest solution logistically and became a program universally applied and single-mindedly pursued. From this standpoint, Hitler was a catalyst but not a decision-maker. For Lucy Dawidowicz the Final Solution was thought out twenty years before it was put into practice; for Martin Broszat the idea developed from practice of sporadic murders of groups of Jews led to the idea to kill all Jews systematically.

Christopher Browning, "La décision concernant la solution finale" from Colloque de l'Ecole des Hautes Etudes en sciences sociales, L'Allemagne nazie et le génocide juif (Paris: Gallimard-Le Seuil, 1985), p. 19

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."

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.

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. 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 were 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.


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 a dynamic 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.


  • 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.
  • Bracher, Karl Dietrich The 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. The Hitler state: the foundation and development of the internal structure of the Third Reich London: Longman, 1981.
  • Broszat, Martin. German National Socialism, 1919–1945 translated from the German by Kurt Rosenbaum and Inge Pauli Boehm, Santa Barbara, Calif., Clio Press, 1966.
  • Browning, Christopher R. Fateful months: essays on the emergence of the final solution, 1941–42. New York: Holmes & Meier, 1985.
  • 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, Philippe Hitler 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.
  • Fleming, Gerald Hitler and the Final Solution Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984.
  • Dawidowicz, Lucy S. The war against the Jews, 1933–1945 New York: Holt, Rinehart and Winston, 1975.
  • Hildebrand, Klaus Das Dritte Reich Muenchen: Oldenbourg, 1980 translated into English by P.S. Falla as The Third Reich, London: G. Allen & Unwin, 1984.
  • 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, 1889–1936: Hubris, New York: Norton, 1999, 1998.
  • Kershaw, Sir Ian Hitler, 1936–45: Nemesis, New York: W.W. Norton, 2000.
  • Jäckel, Eberhard Hitler in history Hanover, NH: Published for Brandeis University Press by University Press of New England, 1984.
  • Marrus, Michael The Holocaust in History, Toronto: Lester & Orpen Dennys, 1987.
  • Mommsen, Hans. From Weimar to Auschwitz Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1991.
  • Roseman, Mark. The Wannsee Conference and the Final Solution:A Reconsideration. New York: Metropolitan Books, 2002.
  • Rosenbaum, Ron Explaining 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.

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