Why the Germans and the Jews?

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”.

Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin by Timothy Snyder

The author Timothy Snyder calculates that Stalin and Hitler were responsible for the murder of 14 million people between 1933 and 1945, mainly in Poland, Belarus and Ukraine. This didn’t include those who died from combat. The 14 million were civilians or prisoners of war intentionally killed by starvation, gunshot or gas, including the roughly 5.4 million Jewish victims of the Holocaust.

It is almost unbelievable that so many innocent people could have been killed. Stalin mostly killed citizens of his own country. Hitler mostly killed citizens of other countries. Stalin began by collectivizing Soviet agriculture and then tried to eliminate anyone who might conceivably pose a threat. Hitler wanted to colonize Eastern Europe and, while doing so, eliminate as many Jews and Slavs as possible. If Germany had conquered the Soviet Union, Hitler intended to kill as many as 30 million. 

I didn’t know that Stalin invaded Poland soon after Hitler in September 1939, while Stalin and Hitler were still allies. Or that relatively few German Jews were killed. The concentration camps that were liberated by the Americans and British weren’t the main site of the Holocaust, which occurred farther east and mostly targeted non-Germans. 

Snyder ends his book with a chapter that tries to explain how this all happened. Part of his explanation is that both Hitler and Stalin had utopian ideas. Stalin wanted to quickly turn the Soviet Union into a socialist paradise. Hitler wanted to quickly defeat the Soviet Union and create a vast empire that would serve Germany alone. In Snyder’s words:

“Hitler and Stalin thus shared a certain politics of tyranny: they brought about catastrophes, blamed the enemy of their choice, and then used the death of millions to make the case that their policies were necessary or desirable. Each of them had a transformative utopia, a group to be blamed when its realization proved impossible, and then a policy of mass murder that could be proclaimed as a kind of ersatz victory”.  (1/10/13)

Survival in Auschwitz by Primo Levi, translated by Stuart Woolf

Primo Levi’s memoir of his time in the Auschwitz concentration camp was originally published with the title If This Is a Man. It is written in a matter-of-fact style. The facts speak for themselves.

Levi says that survival was mainly a question of luck, although the captives had some freedom of movement, which allowed many of them to “organize” ways to improve their chances.

Aside from the most obvious questions, this book raises some questions for the reader: How would I react to living in such conditions? How am I reacting to the conditions I’m living in now? 

Levi writes: “It is lucky that it is not windy today. Strange, how in some way one always has the impression of being fortunate, how some chance happening, perhaps infinitesimal, stops us crossing the threshold of despair and allows us to live. It is raining, but it is not windy….Or it is raining, windy, and you have the usual hunger, and then you think that if you really had to, if you really felt nothing in your heart but suffering and tedium,…well, even in that case, at any moment you want you could always go and touch the electric wire-fence, or throw yourself under the shunting trains, and then it would stop raining”.  (3/1/12)