The Question Of Questions
Why the Germans? Why the Jews?
Why did Germans murder six million men, women, and children who were guilty of nothing other than being Jews? How was this possible? How could a civilized, culturally diverse, and productive people release this sort of massive destructive energy?
In the nineteenth century, Jews who emigrated to Germany from neighboring countries in Eastern Europe felt great relief when they crossed the border. They appreciated the legal protections, economic freedom, and educational opportunities offered first by Prussia and later by the German Empire. Anti-Jewish pogroms, which continued well into the twentieth century in Eastern and Southeastern Europe, had died out in Germany, while the absence of governmental restrictions helped make the country a magnet for Jewish migration. By 1910, Germany had twice as many Jews as England and five times as many as France.
In 1919, when post–World War I Germany was forced to cede the province of Posen to Poland, most of the region’s German Jews quickly fled to Berlin. They had, as sociologist Alfred Marcus wrote in 1931, “an almost pathological fear of the new Polish powers-that-be.”1 And as Siegfried Lichtenstaedter—a retired Bavarian civil servant and author who spent much of his life pondering his dual identity as German and Jew—wrote in 1937, anyone who had prophesied in 1900 that thirty-three years later thousands of Jews would flee Germany for Palestine “would have been considered ripe for a lunatic asylum.”2 So why the Germans? Why the Jews? The fact that Jews felt welcome and safe in pre-Nazi Germany precludes any simple answer to this unsettling, historically urgent double question.
We tend today to focus on and identify with the victims, not only in our memorials but also when it comes to research on the Holocaust and literary and educational treatments of it. At the same time, we tend to cast the perpetrators as bizarre, almost alien figures. In a fashion that often belies their own family histories, Germans prefer to speak from a remote distance of “the Nazis,” “Hitler’s henchmen,” “the regime,” “the fanatic racist ideologues”—or, even more abstractly, of “racist populism” and “the paranoid worldview of anti-Semites.” Such generic terms tell us little. This book is an attempt to show what lies behind the abstractions, by looking in detail at the period from 1800 to 1933—that is, the prehistory of the Holocaust.
The various theories we have about fascism, dictatorship, and the logic of inclusion and exclusion serve to keep the Holocaust at arm’s length. Vague theoretical constructions cloak the phenomenon of racist murder in quasi-Marxist inevitability or diminish its significance by portraying it simply as a regression into barbarism. The idea of a special German path through history—fixed and neatly definable—transfers too much responsibility from individuals to ideology or a proclivity for totalitarianism. And it does not truly explain why German history culminated in genocide.
To understand the origins of the Holocaust, we first need to stop dividing up its prehistory into “good” and “bad” lines of development. Historical optimists favor such straightforward binary distinctions because they regard present-day society as the pinnacle of civilization. They appeal to their audience with the illusion that everything that seems right or wrong today was equally right or wrong in the past. Analytically, this conception of history leads nowhere. It creates distance and fails to explain anything. Nor is it useful to divide historical figures into “bad” conservatives and “good” liberals.* Conservatives weren’t the only ones guided by hostility toward and even hatred of Jews. Reformers and pioneers of political liberty often were as well. We must look for explanations elsewhere.
Life was hardly rosy for the vast majority of European Jews prior to 1806, the year that Napoleon emancipated their coreligionists from most legal restrictions in the western German territories bordering France. In the medieval era Jews had faced draconian restrictions on where they could live and what professions they could pursue and had been expelled from England, France, Spain, and Portugal. Jews were blamed for plagues and crises, believed to engage in obscure evil practices such as poisoning wells and sacrificing Christian children, and subjected to recurrent and horrific pogroms. Jew hatred was overwhelmingly religious in nature and began to wane only in the age of enlightened absolutism in Western and Central Europe. Still, Gentiles and Jews had extremely limited contact in society. Jews had to live in ghettos in some cities and were entirely forbidden from even entering certain others.
That situation gradually changed in the nineteenth century with Jewish emancipation and entrance into mainstream society. Now Jews were regarded less as adherents of an alien, barbaric faith and more as members of a secular socioeconomic group that disproportionately profited from modern life. Social anti-Semitism, with its far greater degree of internal logic, however misguided, came to replace religious Jew hatred, which was vitriolic but unsystematic. The language directed against Jews became less crass and wildly emotional, but the implications that Jews were somehow destroying mainstream native society now ran deeper and were more potentially damaging. Beliefs of this kind, spreading through all social strata, became a mass phenomenon and paved the way for the racial anti-Semitism at the core of the National Socialist worldview.
In 1933, Lichtenstaedter tried to predict the future for German Jews. For years, he had been studying the Völkischer Beobachter newspaper, which he described in 1922 as “the widely read organ of the National Socialist German Workers’ Party,” or NSDAP.3 Lichtenstaedter asked himself why such hatred was being directed against Jews. After all, he noted, German Jews were very similar to the majority population in terms of their behavior, appearance, and religion. At the same time, however, they did possess a distinguishing “collective ego.” A movement directed against left-handed people, Lichtenstaedter speculated, would be doomed to failure because the common characteristics of such a group are otherwise too vague to justify the idea of a collective ego. With Jews, the commonalities were just strong enough to produce a compact image of a group to which other characteristics could then be ascribed.4
Lichtenstaedter saw the NSDAP as a party of social climbers, and that view informed the prognosis he made for himself and for German Jews in general. On average, Jews in Central and Western Europe occupied relatively high social positions—a fact held against them by Gentiles who had not achieved similar social mobility. Jewish success was thus a goad to their adversaries. In Lichtenstaedter’s view, virulent anti-Semites regarded Jewish religious tradition as “practically irrelevant.” Instead, they hated Jews because Jews were competition for “survival, honor, and prestige.” Anti-Semitism owed its aggressive force to competition and the desire for social betterment. If Jews as a group were perceived as being “disproportionately happier” than other groups, Lichtenstaedter wrote, “why shouldn’t this give rise to jealousy and resentment, worries and concerns about one’s own future, just as is all too often the case between individuals?”5
Instead of simply demonizing National Socialists, Lichtenstaedter analyzed the political situation, which posed an existential threat not just to him and his coreligionists but to everyone who was considered a member of the Jewish race. He wanted to understand the National Socialist environment around him in order to anticipate what was coming and figure out how to react. He acknowledged that Hitler saw Jews as “a people with special innate characteristics” that “set them apart from all other peoples living on the earth.”6 But in his view, German anti-Semitism was nourished not by an ideology based on specific Jewish traits but rather by more generic material conflicts and interests. In other words, Nazism was propelled by the least pleasurable of the seven deadly sins: envy.
Envy dissolves social cohesion. It destroys trust, creates aggression, promotes suspicion over proof, and leads people to bolster their sense of self-worth by denigrating others. Those who achieve success, especially if they are also outsiders, are invariably subjected to sidelong glances, malicious rumor, and libel. At the same time, as enviers know only too well, jealous people gradually poison themselves, becoming ever more dissatisfied and bitter. Thus they tend to conceal their shameful, base resentment of others behind supposedly more sophisticated arguments—for example, those of racist theory. Enviers brand those more intelligent than they are as clever but not profound. Upset by others’ success, they dismiss those they envy as immoral, egotistical, and despicable, while they themselves pose as respectable moral authorities. They pass off their own failure as modesty of ambition while accusing those they dislike of always pushing to get ahead.
The envier doesn’t necessarily seek to emulate the object of his envy; indeed, often he very vocally refuses to do so. As Immanuel Kant observed, the envious instead devote their energy to “destroying the happiness of others.” The envier feels deep satisfaction and enjoys expressing his scorn and schadenfreude whenever others lose their advantages. Do those envied deserve assistance or even pity? No, answers the envier. They always thought they knew better. They were always pushing to get ahead. So let them fend for themselves. Such logic assuages the envier’s moral scruples, allowing him to do nothing and play the innocent even in the face of gross injustice. If others are harassing the object of his envy, the envier concludes that it’s none of his business. His conscience remains clear. He isn’t the one doing the actual persecution.
What are the sources of envy? They include weakness, timidity, lack of self-confidence, self-perceived inferiority, and excessive ambition. And many prominent observers have ascribed just such characteristics to the German people. “The German is always at pains to emphasize how German he is,” complained Julius Fröbel, a delegate to the National Assembly in Frankfurt in 1848–49, the gathering that failed to establish either a German democracy or a German nation-state. “The German spirit, so to speak, always stands in front of a mirror admiring itself, and even if it has looked itself over a hundred times and become convinced of its perfection, it still harbors a secret doubt, which is the hidden core of vanity.”7
The English, the French, and the Italians all followed a very different trajectory. The Italians, for instance, established their nation-state in 1870 after three wars waged in their own country against the foreign powers of France, Austria, and the Papal States. Moreover, they confirmed that nation-state with a popular referendum. Roughly at the same time, between 1854 and 1870, an alliance of German states led by Prussia invaded Denmark, Austria, and France without any true provocation—merely in order to achieve a sense of national self-confidence. The conservative nationalist historian Heinrich von Treitschke may have crowed that “war is the best medicine for a people,” but national unity achieved through military aggression remained fragile. In 1933, the Italian diplomat Carlo Sforza observed: “The Germans are still constantly asking themselves what Germanness is and what it’s not.”8
The innate insecurity of German national identity produced no shortage of jingoistic boasting between 1800 and 1933. One remarkable example was the proclamation of the German Empire in 1871, which was staged in the Hall of Mirrors at Versailles—on the territory of Germany’s archenemy—because Germany itself did not possess any popularly acknowledged main city. Another example is the statement with which Kaiser Wilhelm II dispatched German sailors to put down a rebellion in China in 1900: “If you encounter the enemy, strike against him so that never again will a Chinese dare to look askance at a German.”9 At the public celebrations of Hitler’s forty-fourth birthday on April 20, 1933, Germans were delighted to hear themselves described as the “premier people on earth.”10 A nation that feels the need to boast like this lacks inner equilibrium.
Craving Equality and Fearing Freedom
People driven by envy always go on about how disadvantaged they are. Those who despise others see themselves as vulnerable and seek official protection. When the French Revolution adopted liberté, egalité, and fraternité as its motto, the word egalité meant nothing more and nothing less than the equality of French citizens before the law. Yet long before anti-Semitism developed into a political movement, the vast majority of Germans had abandoned faith in this crucial idea, demanding instead that the state act as a paternal protector to guarantee material equality. Cries went up at every possible opportunity: “That’s unjust. We, too, deserve our place in the sun.” Germans luxuriated in the feeling of being eternally cheated of their just deserts. The more this notion of equality took over the popular imagination, the more importance Germans attached to what writer Arnold Zweig called the “discriminating affect,” the exclusion of unequal groups, especially those characterized by flexibility, wit, cleverness, and success. The reverse side of the German notion of equality was, in Zweig’s words, a “centralization affect”—overemphasizing the self-proclaimed mainstream.11
In addition to their particular notion of equality, early revolutionary German nationalists also maintained a strangely collective and negative idea of freedom. Many Germans understood freedom not as a matter of individual liberty but as liberation from real or putative enemies. Hitler, for instance, described his radically destructive aims as a “movement of liberation” from the shackles of the 1919 Treaty of Versailles. In summer 1922, the future German chancellor titled one of his crude and incendiary anti-Semitic rants “The Free State or Slavery?” An early Nazi newspaper in the industrial regions of western Germany edited by Joseph Goebbels was entitled Popular Freedom (Völkische Freiheit), and in 1926 Goebbels founded a Nazi “Freedom Association” in Berlin.12 A collection of Hitler’s wartime speeches was entitled “The Greater German Battle for Freedom,” and Nazis often described themselves as pursuing the “freedom” for “self-defense,” “food-procurement,” and “living space.” What they really meant, of course, was war, genocide, and the colonization of places like Ukraine with their vast agricultural and natural resources.
The growing intensity of politically active anti-Semitism in Germany around 1880 revealed both the level of popular resentment against Jews and the political shortcomings in German society: Germans’ fear of true freedom and daring and their tendency to attribute their own failings to others. A green-eyed monster was seeking sacrificial lambs. Particularly during times of crisis, Germans tended to associate personal liberty with feelings of discomfort, uncertainty, and helplessness, whereas equality signified for them protection, financial security, and minimal individual risk. Such an attitude prevented Germans from becoming politically mature, and the idea of freedom withered in the shadow cast by communal values. The desire for social equality is at the heart of the German brand of anti-Semitism, along with envy and fear of personal freedom. Thus these three things will be our main focus.
A Note on Method
The term Holocaust paradoxically obscures the full extent of what Germans did, which was to drive all the European Jews they could into ghettos and concentration camps. Hundreds of thousands of them starved there or died from cold and illness. Germans and their helpers transported the others—by foot, truck, and rail—to remote destinations where the victims were shot or gassed to death. Some of those condemned to die were forced to dig mass graves and stuff bodies into crematorium ovens.
Sometimes, and increasingly frequently toward the end of the war, SS men, administrative officials, and doctors would select the most physically fit among the deportees for forced labor. As a result, tens of thousands of people survived a time of horror. Hundreds of thousands of others were able to go underground or to flee at the last minute or were concealed by people in their hometowns. That was particularly the case in countries where, for various reasons, the German stranglehold over daily life was incomplete: Denmark, France, Hungary, Romania, Belgium, Italy, and Bulgaria. Nonetheless, within the space of only three years, Germans murdered 82 percent of the Jewish populace in the areas under their control. The final total was around six million people.13
By now, tens of thousands of prosecutors, criminal investigators, judges, journalists, historians, and survivors and witnesses have greatly added to our knowledge of the Holocaust. Most of those who research, and ponder the significance of, this massive crime no longer quarrel about the major facts and particular details. The most immediate reasons the German leadership under Hitler decided to pursue the “final solution to the Jewish question” are more or less clear. Some differences of opinion exist about how much weight to give individual factors, but all those who participate in research and discussions about the Holocaust agree on its significance as a historical watershed. What remain contentious are questions of its ultimate meaning and deeper causes. The answers will, no doubt, continue to be fragmentary. Nonetheless, historians have a duty to seek them.
The analysis in this book is based almost exclusively on sources that appeared in print in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries—polemics, petitions, memoirs, journalistic articles, and parliamentary protocols. As diverse and often contradictory as these documents are, they have one thing in common: the authors did not know what Germans would do to European Jews between 1933 and 1945. No matter whether they wrote in 1820, 1879, 1896, or 1924 and no matter whether they praised German anti-Semitism, propagated Jew hatred and promoted the Aryan race, or sounded warnings about the impending political consequences of the Great Depression and the popular appeal of Hitler and the Nazi Party, none of the authors cited in this book knew the outcome of history. Unlike us today, no one who lived, observed, and made judgments back then had to explain a crime that beggars description. That’s what makes these sources so valuable.
I have also used unpublished sources drawn from my private family archive, a twenty-foot-long corpus of letters, diaries, reminiscences, and photos that I inherited and cataloged four years ago. If German anti-Semitism was a mass phenomenon, unchecked by social disapprobation, during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries and if people before 1933 had little reason to conceal anti-Semitic attitudes, one would expect to find those attitudes expressed in personal correspondence and family memoirs. In fact, I did find examples of them in the material left behind by my forebears, and I have used them as sources for this book. As is now widely acknowledged, German Jew hatred and anti-Semitism were not restricted to certain institutions or to well-known anti-Semites.
By themselves, of course, isolated statements of hostility toward Jews tell us nothing about the prehistory of the Holocaust. To understand anti-Semitism within Germany’s Gentile majority, one has to talk about the skills, educational fervor, and rapid social rise of striking numbers of German Jews. Only then will the contrast emerge between them and the relatively lethargic German majority, revealing why anti-Semitism could gain so large a foothold in German society. Only then can we see anti-Semites as people motivated in large part by jealousy and resentment.
Anyone who wants to understand the past has to reconstruct the social conditions and habits of thought that prevailed in earlier historical epochs. This process allows us to trace how different historical factors, both positive and negative, interacted and sometimes reinforced one another. For that reason, I am interested not just in the specific history of Jewish emancipation and advancement in Germany but also in the mental world of early-nineteenth-century German nationalism, the demise of liberalism, and the triumph of collectivism. I also devote attention to the consequences of wars, crises, and economic challenges, as well as to the reforms of the Weimar Republic.
I have limited the scope of my investigation to modern German history, so I begin around 1800 and trace the relations between German Jews and German Christians for the following 130 years. I touch only briefly on anti-Semitic associations and regulations in other German-speaking countries of the period. The point is not to ferret out every anti-Semite I could find but rather to examine how and why a particularly virulent form of anti-Semitism developed in Germany and attracted so many supporters throughout all strata in German society. How, when, and why did Germans—broadly speaking—become anti-Semites, willing to put their beliefs into practice? Those who merely hand out blame, in an attempt to feel as though they are on the right side of German history, will never be able to explain how a majority of Germans came to support the official state goal of getting rid of Jews. As German president Theodor Heuss said in 1949, the question is why so many people abetted the “cold brutality of rational pedantry” and a “biological materialism that recognized no moral categories.”14
Investigating the development of German anti-Semitism is made more complicated by the fact that during this time terms like Germans and Jews were used somewhat haphazardly and without a single fixed meaning. By 1933, more than 80 percent of Jews residing in Germany were German citizens: that is, they were Germans. They saw themselves as, and were usually quite proud to be, German. While a distinction can be made between Jewish Germans and Christian Germans on the basis of religious tradition, this was not the only sense in which the term Jewish was used during this era, and to focus on it exclusively would contradict the self-definition of increasing numbers of people who did not consider themselves religious at all.
The cluster of related German words translated as “Jewry” originated in medieval times as a social group designation, akin to the word peasantry. In the course of the nineteenth century, these words evolved to encompass a religious distinction (Judaism as opposed to Christianity) and a national-identity distinction (Jewishness as opposed to Germanness). Because of this gradual evolution, many people who used those terms between 1800 and 1933 did so in different ways and rarely with any degree of strictness. In this book I have tried to remain faithful to these varying perspectives, instead of imposing a linguistic precision, however theoretically desirable, that would be foreign to the period.
At no point were Germans predestined to follow a path that ended in the abyss of inhumanity, but ultimately that was indeed the path they went down. The goal of my work is not to stir up academic controversies about specific details or isolated issues. Rather, I am trying to comprehend the overall internal logic of a historical process that led to the German reign of terror from 1933 to 1945 and the murder of millions of innocent people. My hope is to make some progress, at least, toward answering the double question that has elicited so much bewilderment: Why the Germans? Why the Jews?
*liberal and liberalism are used throughout this book in their European sense as referring to an ideology that promotes personal liberty and free markets, and not in the often pejorative American sense of “left-wing.”
Copyright © 2014 by Götz Aly