A recent subscribers-only article in the New York Review of Books begins with a joke that’s not supposed to make anybody laugh:
The historian George Mosse liked to tell a hypothetical story: if someone had predicted in 1900 that within fifty years the Jews of Europe would be murdered, one possible response would have been: “Well, I suppose that is possible. Those French or Russians are capable of anything.”
The article’s author, Christopher Browning, continues:
Indeed, the wave of pogroms in Russia in the 1880s and the Dreyfus Affair that consumed France in the 1890s stood in stark contrast to the situation of Jews in Germany, who at that point enjoyed the greatest degree, anywhere in the world, of assimilation, social mobility, and access to preeminent positions in business, the professions, and culture (even if they were still blocked from careers in the military and the higher civil service).
The book being reviewed is Why the Germans? Why the Jews? Envy, Race Hatred, and the Prehistory of the Holocaust by the German historian Götz Aly. It’s an attempt to explain why the Holocaust occurred in 19th century’s “land of golden opportunity for Jews”.
The principal explanation Aly offers is that:
an uneven and incremental process of Jewish emancipation [in Germany] during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries … transformed Jewish life. Armed with a culture of education and freed from past restrictions, Jews quickly seized the economic opportunities offered by modernization, urbanization, and industrialization. Educationally unprepared Germans nostalgically tied to traditional ways of life moved into cities and took up new occupations only reluctantly. Spectacular Jewish advance contrasted with German lethargy, resentment, and disorientation, producing envy of Jewish wealth and success as well as fear and a sense of inferiority vis-à-vis Jewish competition.
Many Germans benefited when jobs once held by Jews were made available and Jewish property was redistributed. But most Germans needed a “new morality” to “justify” their treatment of the Jews:
For those consumed by envy of Jews but ashamed of [the] tawdry motive [of material gain], race theory concealed their embarrassment. For those suffering a deep inferiority complex about Jews, race theory inverted success and failure, turning Jewish accomplishment into evidence of Jewish vice. For those troubled by the large difference between Jews they knew and the Nazi stereotype, race theory allowed individual experience to be ignored.
Above all, race theory turned persecution and murder into self-defense, requiring “pitiless” cleansing in the present to achieve a future Utopian happiness and social harmony. “Pseudoscience,” Aly concludes, “disguised hatred as insight and made one’s own shortcomings seem like virtues. It also provided justification for acts of legal discrimination against others, allowing millions of Germans to delegate their own aggression, born of feelings of inferiority and shame, to their state”. This “passively expressed anti-Semitism gave the German government the latitude it needed to press forward with its murderous campaigns”.