You are now entering the Jewish Currents archive.

How It Happened

Anna Wrobel
October 14, 2014

A German Scholar Ponders Holocaust Pre-History

by Anna Wrobel From the Autumn, 2014 issue of Jewish Currents Reviewed in this essay: Why the Germans? Why the Jews? Envy, Race Hatred, and the Pre-history of the Holocaust, by Gotz Aly, translated from the German by Jefferson Chase. Metropolitan Books/Henry Holt, New York, 2014, 276 pages. SINCE CHILDHOOD, I'VE ASKED why my beautiful grandmother had to die by gas at Treblinka with her younger children trailing; why my other grandmother should be perforated by Stuka bullets in September, 1939; why both grandfathers ended up shot and dumped in mass graves; why my mother’s pregnant sister’s head was split in two by a Police Battalion 101 rifle butt during an Aktion in the middle of the day; why all the others; and others; and others. I lived in a world devoid of grandparents and old people. Much of my life has been devoted to fathoming explanations for unfathomable questions. [caption id="attachment_32586" align="alignright" width="300"]Austrian postcard image, 1919, of a Jew stabbing a German WWI soldier in the back. Jews were held liable for “betraying” Germany’s war effort. Austrian postcard image, 1919, of a Jew stabbing a German WWI soldier in the back. Jews were held liable for “betraying” Germany’s war effort.[/caption] Gotz Aly, too, seeks explanations. His opening words in Why the Germans? Why the Jews? ask, “Why did Germans murder six million men, women, and children who were guilty of nothing other than being Jews?... How could a civilized, culturally diverse and productive people release this sort of massive destructive energy?” A highly respected German historian, Aly has riled a few critics by contradicting himself from one work to another. I will go them one better by saying that Aly can contradict himself, hold multiple thoughts and feelings about an issue, and struggle with himself and his findings, all in a single book. He takes serpentine and kaleidoscopic detours to get to the heart of his own theses, and seems almost to be figuring them out as he goes along. Still, while I have a few quarrels with him, my appreciation and agreements outweigh what I find lacking. ALY'S TIME-FRAME RUNS from 1800 to 1933, the epoch of Germany’s transformation from a post-feudal backwater to a modern state. In 1806, the Napoleonic Wars hit the numerous Germanic societies. These invasions for the purpose of spreading French Revolutionary Enlightenment were at first anything but enlightening: Napoleon’s troops were particularly brutal and rapacious in central Europe. The entry of the Germanic peoples into the modern era was traumatic. An irony not lost on early German nationalists was that Jewish emancipation, after a thousand years of subordination to Holy Roman Empire rules and exclusions, began as a result of that Napoleonic conquest, with its codified manner of administering populations, a code that included the civil emancipation of all minorities, including non-Christians, in Europe. For many Germans, Jews were perceived as foreign elements and “winners” in what was Germany’s humiliating defeat before Napoleon, and notions of modernization and democratic pluralism were oft regarded as “poisonous.” Over time, consolidating impulses took hold, and from the 1820s to the 1840s, nationalism grew as an idea for intellectuals and statesmen to structure and advance. Much of the German population, however, still living a static and diurnal agrarian life, were fearful and uncertain about industrialization, urbanization and modernization. Aly often seems to blame peasants and small-town workers for not getting with the program, but their fears of uprooted alienation and urban life and labor need to be understood, not made objects of satirical polemic. It would take decades of failed revolutions, centralizing pressures and wars, militarization, and aggressive foreign affairs finally to bind Germany together under Bismarck by 1871. Even while German national unity grew, however, the newly expanded and somewhat liberated role of Jews was sharply debated. In 1850s France, Count de Gobineau depicted dangerous Jewish “racial” contamination and diabolical designs for global domination. The “Jewish question” thus became both racialized and a matter of social class. HISTORICAL CONDITIONING HAD PLACED JEWS in a relatively advantageous position vis-a-vis the social and economic needs of a modernizing society. Literacy, sobriety, community welfare, and mobility were all desirable (and enviable) in an urbanizing, modernizing culture. Unlike Hannah Arendt, Aly does not assert that Jews were “co-responsible” for their suffering for having developed these skills, but his admiring portrait can approach stereotype, if not caricature, as he spends no time explaining their pre-modern historical antecedents — the edicts and exclusions, the alienation from Europe’s dominant, oppressive religion, the specific rules and roles imposed by lords and bishops, kings and popes. For that matter, Aly’s depiction of many Germans as dull-witted, passive, and densely resistant to change goes even further into caricature. Here, too, he gives not even a brief rendering of antecedents for the conditioning of German farmers, artisans, and early industrial workers. The impression left is that German and Jewish histories began, separately and together, around 1800, when in fact much had transpired between the parties for centuries. This truncated approach of “clever” vs. “dull” and “agile” vs. “lumbering” is not analysis. Aly’s trove of primary-source letters, memoirs, official records, and speeches is well used to give dramatic sweep to the narrative, but primary evidence without context can leave gaps in understanding. A concise synthesis of who Jews and Germans were in feudal and post-feudal Germany would have served to ground his investigation of the country’s modern development, which began on the heels of major trauma and upheaval. Why the Germans? Why the Jews? provides plentiful detail on the evolution of the German nation-state from the 1820s to the 1900s. Throughout, there were parliamentary and other influential circles promoting full emancipation and equality for Jews — and encountering strong opposition from those who considered the Jewish minority to be hyper-educated, too adaptable and flexible, and too embracing of modernism. Constituting only 1 percent of the population, with little role in initiating German industrialization, Jews were almost mystically deemed to be its main beneficiaries. Of course, millions of German Christians shared in the opportunities of modernization, but they either were seen as acceptable German success stories — or, if criticized as capitalist speculators, were said to be acting like Jews. ANTI-JEWISH HOSTILITY among many farmers and workers would especially grow in the post-World War I period, when more rural dwellers sought to take advantage of the educational and occupational opportunities of a modern state. In earlier decades, their anti-Jewish sentiments tended to the abstract, and it was mainly those people sharing realms close to Jews in education, professions and business who agitated for restriction of Jewish liberties. University students throughout the epoch, for example, established anti-Jewish organizations that provided a mass base for Nazism by the 1920s. Romanticized ethnic nationalism and its attendant anti-Semitism were most attractive to the young, especially after the despairs of World War I, when it was assumed by many that any wealth and influence acquired by Jews came from thievery, and that “real” Germans had right and reason to take them back (a view with deep and superstitious roots in German Christian fairytales and folklore). While much of the equality established by emancipation remained intact for Jews in the late 19th century (with notable exceptions in high civil service and military positions), the debate as to their “Germanness” proceeded. Many Germans stood by Jewish neighbors, friends, colleagues, political allies, and business partners, but for others, Jews could never be full citizens — even if they willingly demonstrated love of everything German (and denounced the growing Zionist movement) and sought to be vessels and vehicles of German culture. The strong ethnic boundaries of 19th-century nationalism, embraced also by many republican revolutionaries of 1848, took the leap into a purer racism with the advent of eugenics, racial “science,” and Social Darwinism, all of which were used to justify conquest and domination by powerful nations (including Britain and the U.S.). The misapplication of Darwin’s biological theory to human societies especially propelled nations towards militarism, to assert their “racial fitness” and weed out weakness. In Aly’s judgment, the true weakness was Germany’s lack of a strong national identity — in contrast to deeply rooted Jewish identity, despite Jewish extra-territoriality — and Germany’s reluctance to engage with modernism, which led to the adoption of racial theories and a mythical history that might heal the fractures of longstanding regional and religious divisions. Nuremberg-style laws were debated decades before Hitler and the Nazis arrived on the scene; exclusion of Jews and expropriation of their property were not new ideas, though they would be taken to the level of mass theft and slaughter by the Nazis (see Aly’s Hitler’s Beneficiaries: Plunder, Racial War, and the Nazi Welfare State). He tells of many thousands of centrist, liberal, and Social Democrat Germans supporting fully inclusive notions of civic citizenship and seeing Jews as a great boon to the rising German nation, not as its enemy. Aly is here in the company of Goethe, Heinrich Mann, and Thomas Mann. His convincing assessment is that as the German nation matured industrially, scientifically, militarily and culturally, it did not keep up politically. The Reichstag, unlike Britain’s Parliament and the U.S. Congress, had only limited power over national policy, as the German government in the late 19th century was an odd combination of parliamentary representation and military dictatorship. The democratic Weimar Republic attempted to solve Germany’s many problems, but came to an unhappy end in 1933, when a cross-section of German voters elected Nazi candidates and Hitler came to power. Aly mourns the death of German parliamentarianism, with its multiple voices and dynamic of debate (what Nazis deemed “Jewish” weaknesses), as a dangerous loss that led to nationalism, collectivism, and racialism being fused into one vast, conformist, and utopian movement of enormous popular appeal. The collectivism of the right sought survivalist racial supremacy, not a brotherhood of man (though Aly is skeptical about the collectivity of the left in its own drive to create a workers’ utopia). Its goals were to be accomplished by radical territorial expansion through extreme masculine violence, and by mobilizing a hyper-nationalist security state against the smallest segment of its population. Racial “science” would legitimate a new and lethal morality aimed at saving the health and life of the nation from poisonous and diseased races. “Envy,” “resentment,” and “hatred” are words used often in Aly’s text. GIVEN THE MANY OVERWHELMING CHALLENGES resulting from World War I, it is little wonder that the infant Weimar Republic should collapse ­— after accomplishing far more than it is usually given credit for. Aly cites Reichstag delegates throughout the era who raised their voices against Jewish equality, but his deepest distaste and ire are reserved for those Social Democrats who joined the anti-Semitic choirs (including eminent sociologist Werner Sombart). For some, the lure of nationalist cant was too politically fertile to reject or ignore. Aly’s pain at their anti-Semitism is accentuated by his sense that they should have known better, as indeed thousands of Social Democrats did. My quarrels with Aly involve his declarative assertions that a) “By the latter part of the 19th century, most anti-Semitism had nothing to do with religion” and was an entirely socio-economic matter; that b) the Final Solution was “obviously” not planned or intended in advance; and that c) a small sector of capitalist industrialists were in no way responsible for Hitler’s rise to power. In Aly’s own narrative, there are dozens of references to Christianity being essential to the meaning of Germanness. The sheer habit of over a thousand years of Christian anti-Judaism, especially in the heart of the Holy Roman Empire, followed by the hateful depredations of Martin Luther, cannot simply be dismissed because of a decision to begin one’s analysis around 1800. Germany’s fixation on the power of its tiny Jewish minority was deeply rooted in Christian belief, practice, and mythical superstition. As for Aly’s “functionalist” view that extermination of Jews was not inherently planned but rather stumbled upon in war, Aly himself cites any number of occasions, from pre-Hitler to late Hitler, on which direct threats of extermination were made. Hitler took keen interest in Turkey’s genocidal policies towards Armenians, implemented in the name of national rebirth, and was deeply impressed that the Turks got away with it. In the debate over the Final Solution’s origins and implementation, I argue that “intent” seeks, recognizes, and grasps “function” (opportunities) as they arise, as well as actively creating them. As for Nazi-supporting industrialists and bankers, I agree with Aly that Nazi success depended upon mass politics, but he completely ignores the material and political support given Hitler and the Nazi party by German’s wealthiest class, based on his promise to neutralize and destroy union, socialist, and communist worker demands. It seems odd, while looking so deeply into so many strata of German society, to leave this extremely influential group out of the analysis of Nazi hegemony. I do recommend Aly’s fine and provocative book. While I am at times critical of emotional rhetoric that can undermine the scholar’s voice, I also applaud him for wearing openly his outrage over the mass murder of six million Jewish Europeans, including German citizens who were worthy of national respect, not hatred. Anna Wrobel is a history teacher, writer, and poet, author of Marengo Street, Selected Poems (2012, Moon Pie Press), and Sparrow Feathers (forthcoming). She lives and curates poetry readings in Westbrook, Maine.