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Our Resident Biblophile Recommends...
Dark Mirror by Sara Lipton. Metropolitan Books, 2014, 390 pages.
Hitler’s First Victims by Timothy W. Ryback. Alfred A. Knopf, 2014, 273 pages.
The Nazis Next Door by Eric Lichtblau. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2014, 266 pages.
by Mitchell Abidor
WE START OUR GUIDE to Khanike book-buying in the Middle Ages with Sara Lipton’s thought-provoking Dark Mirror: The Medieval Origins of Anti-Jewish Iconography. However arcane this subject might sound, there is in fact nothing dry about the book, nor is it a simple and all-too-facile treatment of the eternal nature of anti-Semitism and the unchanging treatment of the Jew in Christian art. Instead, Lipton demonstrates that, just as the Jew’s place and condition in Medieval society was not fixed, neither was the Jew’s image — and that in the early Middle Ages, the Christian image of the Jew did not mark him (or to a lesser extent, her) off from his neighbors. Jews were for the most part physically indistinguishable in European societies and lived among their Christian neighbors, and Lipton reminds us that the first identifying clothing was only imposed in 1215. Lipton sums up her aim as wanting to “lay to rest a few... persistent idées fixes — that anti-Semitism, ‘the longest hatred,’ was somehow static and unchanging, that religious or ethnic hatred is inevitable, and that pictures merely reflect the world around them.”
The distinguishing markers of Jews, according to Lipton, things like hats and beards, were artificial, Judaism not yet having codified the wearing of hats and beards, and the significance of these markers changed with the centuries, mutating from symbolizing ancient wisdom – which the Jews were accepted as possessing, indeed, as being the source of — to symbolizing their outsider status. In fact, Jews wore distinctive dress in painting long before they did in reality, and life, in this case, later tragically imitated art. Even the usual Jewish physiognomic traits, particularly the nose, were not universally applied in art in the early Middle Ages, and the first anti-Semitic caricature only appeared (in England) in 1233.
Lipton situates the place of the Jew in Christian art within the context of debates within Christian culture, with the Jew serving as a negative example for Christians. As she writes, “’Jewish’ figures in religious paintings worked on the imperfect (i.e., human) viewer by creating a parallel process of recognition and rejection.” In short, the paintings represent traits common to both Jews and Christians.
Her insistence throughout the book is that the art of this period demonstrates that both Christians and Jews had many of the same flaws, and that this undermines the purely anti-Semitic character of Jewish depiction in Medieval Christian art. Though she certainly doesn’t minimize the extent of anti-Semitism, her drive to revise our ideas about anti-Semitism causes her to downplay something essential: Was it not the intent, in showing that a negative trait was shared by a Jew and a Christian, to make the error worse by attaching it to Jews?
I posed this question to Prof. Lipton (who teaches at the University of Tennessee at Chatanooga) in an email, and she responded: “I would completely agree that in trying to warn Christians away from sinning by associating it with Jewishness, the images certainly promote an anti-Jewish reading. What I am trying to argue is that the main, original impetus for the artworks was not anti-Jewish sentiment, but a desire to counter Christian sin.”
Dark Mirror is a book that provides startling insights into the medieval mind and Jewish history.
FROM THE MIDDLE AGES we move on to the beginning of the darkest moment of Jewish history in Timothy W. Ryback’s Hitler’s First Victims. Ryback, among whose earlier books is a fascinating volume on Hitler’s library, here tells the story of what he calls the first victims of the Holocaust, four Jews shot at Dachau on April 12, 1933, only three months after Hitler’s accession to the office of chancellor. More than the story of these four victims, Ryback’s book is about the establishment of the concentration camp system; the confusions and crossed lines of authority that attended its beginnings; the unbridled brutality present from the start; the contempt for law and right of the nascent Nazi regime; and the attempt by two decent Germans to hold those in charge of the camp responsible for their acts.
The two men, prosecutor Josef Hartinger and medical examiner Moritz Flamm, despite all pressure, despite all the dangers they placed themselves in, insisted on investigating the deaths of the four Jews along with the other suspicious deaths at the camp in its first months. The first four victims were shot while supposedly trying to escape (though one, who succumbed to his wounds only days later, told his family that he and his fellows had simply been gunned down), and they were followed by a steady stream of “suicides,” men killed resisting SS guards, and others killed allegedly while trying to escape. Hartinger and Flamm investigated them, and found almost all of them to be cases of murder.
The indictments Hartinger prepared were quashed by his superiors, and the killers escaped justice. Ryback speculates that the arrest of camp commandant Hilmar Wäckerle and his subordinates by the Bavarian state police (which at the time was still acting independently of the SS and the Nazi Party) “would have come amid the final negotiations for the concordat in Rome. The domestic embarrassment, coupled with international outrage over premeditated serial killing, possibly with chain-of-command responsibility, may well have compelled [the governor of Bavaria, General Franz von] Epp and ultimately [President] Hindenburg to act.” Even one of the perpetrators, at his post-war trial, said that had a commission in 1933 “determined that these Jews had been murdered, not shot trying to escape, [t]his would have had the consequence of preventing further and similar transgressions.” Though it’s nice to think the Nazi horrors could have been so easily forestalled, this is almost certainly going too far: the depths to which Germany had already descended were such that it’s unlikely the indictment of a camp commander would have put a stop to violence that was already over a decade old and in which hundreds and hundreds of people — almost all of them leftists — had been killed by rightwing paramilitary forces. As a result of the revelation of the early crimes, the Nazis did indeed transfer Dachau’s original commander, and this was followed by a brief period of calm. But a concentration camp is a concentration camp, and death again became the way of living in Dachau and its sister camps.
Ryback, by saying he is dealing with the first victims of the Holocaust, elides what is the most glaring fact in the book: that more of the early victims in Dachau were political oppositionists, mainly communists, than they were Jews. When around the time of the camp’s establishment SS Standartenführer Johann-Erasmus Baron von Malsen-Ponickau said, “We have not come here to treat the swine in there humanely... We no longer view them as human beings like us, rather as people of a second class,” he was referring not to Jews but to communists.
Though it’s not his intention, this engrossing little book serves as a pendant to Arno Meyer’s controversial Why Did the Heavens Not Darken?, which stresses the importance of anti-communism in the drive to wipe out the Jews, those carriers of the Bolshevik virus.
WE WRAP UP the history portion of our guide at the other end of the war and the continuation of the Holocaust-communism nexus, in this case the U.S. government’s aid to Nazi war criminals during the Cold War, as recounted in New York Times reporter Eric Lichtblau’s The Nazis Next Door.
By now the story of the Nazis who were brought to U.S. by the CIA and other government agencies is not an unknown one or any great secret. Yet however well-known the story, it never ceases to shock, and Lichtblau’s assembly of facts and stories is nothing short of sickening. For decades murderers were allowed to wander among us and even thrive in the name of fighting the red menace.
The fight began even before World War II was over, and not in a minor way. John Foster Dulles, future head of the CIA, engaged in negotiations in Italy with SS General Karl Wolff in order to come to what, to all intents and purposes, was a separate peace. That Dulles was already willing to overlook war crimes in order to do this was shameful enough. What made it criminal was that when word of this reached Stalin, it fed into his already great suspicions about the other Allies and contributed to the building up of the paranoia that would lead to the Cold War.
If the U.S. government’s attraction to Nazis began early, it ended late. For decades truly rotten characters were on the payroll of the U.S., from Tscherim “Tom” Soobzokov, a former Waffen SS officer, to Croatian collaborationist leader Andrija Artukovic, to the designer of the V-2 bombs that fell on England, Wernher von Braun. Long after these men’s services in the anti-Soviet cause were needed, and when attempts were finally being made to expose the Nazis next door and have them pay for their crimes, government agencies did their damnedest to hinder or sabotage investigations and attempts to deport the war criminals.
The U.S. government treatment of these Nazis is of a piece with President Reagan’s 1982 visit to the cemetery in Bitburg Germany where SS officers are buried: if those who fought in Spain against Franco were premature anti-fascists, the Nazis were, in the eyes of the Cold Warriors, premature anti-communists, and so worthy of support.
THIS IS AN UGLY STORY, one with few heroes, but one of the few has a connection to Jewish Currents. When virtually no one else in America cared that murderers were among us, when no newspaper or magazine would address the issue, Charles R. Allen, Jr., “a blue-blooded Quaker from Philadelphia was determined to change all that.” And he did so in 1963, publishing a forty-two-page article in three parts in Jewish Currents, which Lichtblau describes as “a tiny Communist-affiliated magazine in New York.” (This article as well as many other of Allen’s pieces on the subject can be found in the Sid Resnick Historical Archive, under “Nazism/Fascism.”)
Allen knew he was tilting at windmills: “What can a single journalist say about the story of war criminals living among us? We as a people are quite responsible for letting this happen, and we are doubly obligated to resolve this deeply moral issue. Now just what are we going to do about it?” Allen didn’t aim his sights low: one of his main targets was a Lithuanian-born Catholic bishop from Chicago Vincentas Brizgys, who had forbidden any priests under his charge “to aid Jews in any way” during the period of German rule in his homeland. Another was Adolf Heusinger, a Nazi who became head of the NATO general staff in Europe. Allen was not a subtle man and wasn’t averse to simply calling the criminals and questioning them — government protégés like Dr. Gutav Hilger, who was implicated in crimes on Russia and Italy but who was taken under the wing of George Kennan at the State Department and who worked as an analyst for the CIA after being brought to the U.S.
Allen was tireless in his seemingly futile fight, his apartment in Manhattan “packed with material he had gathered over the years.” “Allen trekked to dingy apartment buildings,” writes Lichtblau, “a church, even the U.S. State department to try to locate the men he was about to name as war criminals.”
Later, politicians like Elizabeth Holtzman and government lawyers like Alan Ryan and Eli Rosenbaum would attempt to make the Nazis in the U.S. pay for their deed, and they achieved some success, with over 100 identified and their U.S. citizenship stripped. But none of them are as impressive as Chuck Allen, a lone man who, when everyone else turned a blind eye, knew that the U.S. was compounding war crimes by protecting the criminals.
Mitchell Abidor, a contributing writer to Jewish Currents, is the translator and editor of the forthcoming anthology of writings by Victor Serge, Anarchists Never Surrender, as well as the first English translation of Jean Jaurès’ Socialist History of the French Revolution, which will be published by Pluto Press in 2015.
Mitchell Abidor, a contributing writer to Jewish Currents, is a writer and translator living in Brooklyn. Among his books are a translation of Victor Serge’s Notebooks 1936-1947, May Made Me: An Oral History of My 1968 in France, and I’ll Forget it When I Die, a history of the Bisbee Deportation of 1917. His writings have appeared in The New York Times, Foreign Affairs, Liberties, Dissent, The New York Review of Books, and many other publications.