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Jewish Journal

Understanding the Holocaust: ‘Why the Germans? Why the Jews?’

by Jonathan Kirsch

August 6, 2014 | 3:51 pm

The Jew-haters among us, as recent headlines out of France and Belgium have reminded us, reach without interruption all the way back to antiquity. Still, the worst-case scenario of genocide in general and the mass murder of Jews in particular is what happened during the Shoah. And still the reason Nazi Germany tried to exterminate the Jews of Europe (and nearly succeeded in doing so) remains one of the afflicting questions of Jewish history.

A whole literature has accumulated since the end of World War II in the effort to answer the question bluntly posed in the title “Why the Germans? Why the Jews? Envy, Race Hatred, and the Prehistory of the Holocaust,” a 2011 book by German journalist and historian Götz Aly (Metropolitan Books), just released in a translation by Jefferson Chase. Two more authors also have joined the conversation with their own recently published books, attorney and historian Dan McMillan in “How Could This Happen: Explaining the Holocaust” (Basic Books) and historian Alon Confino in “A World Without Jews: The Nazi Imagination From Persecution to Genocide” (Yale University Press).

McMillan points out that some survivors and scholars of the Holocaust have argued it cannot be explained in rational terms, “because to understand,” as Primo Levi put it, “is almost to justify.” Elie Wiesel, also cited by McMillan, “rebuked scholars who sought to explain the Holocaust: ‘You are fortunate, I ought to envy you, but I do not. I prefer to stand on the side of the child and the mother who died before they understood the formulas and phraseology which are the basis of your science.’ ” All three of these authors, however, are willing to courageously ask (and answer) a heart-shaking question — not when, where or how the Six Million died, but why.

Aly has previously written frankly about the support the Nazi regime enjoyed among the population of the Third Reich. Now he seeks to answer what he calls “The Question of Questions” about the Holocaust itself. The irony, as he points out, is that Germany was regarded in the early years of the 20th century as a place of refuge for Jews in Eastern Europe, “a magnet for Jewish migration” and a place whose population included “twice as many Jews as England and five times as many as France.” The “pre-history” of the Holocaust renders deeply ironic the questions posed in the title of Aly’s book: “The fact that Jews felt welcome and safe in pre-Nazi Germany,” he warns, “precludes any simple answer to this unsettling, historically urgent double question.”

His answer to the “double question” is highly provocative. “Nazism was propelled by the least pleasurable of the seven deadly sins: Envy,” Aly writes, citing the work of a contemporary Jewish observer of the Nazis named Siegfried Lichtenstaedter.  “German anti-Semitism was nourished not by an ideology based on specific Jew traits but rather by more generic material conflicts and interests.” As citizens of a country of recent vintage — Germany came into existence as a unified nation-state only in 1871 — the Germans continued to suffer from “weakness, timidity, lack of self-confidence, self-perceived inferiority and excessive ambition.” Germans loathed the Jews who enjoyed so much success in Germany: “A green-eyed monster,” writes Aly, “was seeking sacrificial victims.”

For his part, McMillan emphasizes a different aspect of German history in explaining the Holocaust. Like Aly, he points out that Germany was late and slow in developing a parliamentary democracy or a middle class, and he argues that “the unpredictable fortunes of war set the country on the path that led, eventually but not inevitably, to the Holocaust.” The weakness of Germany’s democracy, the experiences of World War I, and the “horror of socialism” rendered the Germans vulnerable to the potent propaganda of the Nazi Party and the hypnotic powers of the Fuehrer himself: “Among a substantial fraction of the German people,” McMillan writes, “the demagogic use of nationalism and anti-Semitism produced anxiety bordering on paranoia, a conviction that they faced fearsome enemies both at home and abroad.”  

But McMillan agrees with Aly on the function of sheer envy in the history of the Holocaust. “Adolf Hitler might be the most important example of a person whose hatred was nourished by envy of Jewish success,” he writes. “His deep-seated (and thoroughly justified) feelings of inferiority are well understood, as is his humiliating failure to make a career as an artist, which might have been all the more galling given the success of many Jewish painters, in numbers far out of proportion to the percentage of Jews in the German population.”

Confino delves even more deeply into the inner meanings of mass murder in “A World Without Jews,” which follows an entirely different path from the ones in Aly’s and McMillan’s books. Confino starts by pointing out that the Nazis made a point of publicly destroying Jewish sacred texts, and he wonders aloud what we can learn from this fact. “A history of the Holocaust must include the history of emotions and imagination of Germans during the Third Reich, for the fundamental reason that the persecution and extermination was built on fantasy,” Confino writes. “A key to understanding this world of anti-Semitic fantasies … is to account for what the Nazis thought was happening, for how they imagined their world.”

Confino is a bold and provocative theorist. “The Holocaust was not unique,” he insists. “But it was perceived during the war as unique by Germans, Jews and other Europeans, and if we want to understand why the Holocaust happened, we ought to explain this.” For Confino, the answer is to be found in an audacious act of self-invention by Hitler and the Nazis, who were a new and marginal movement that vowed to exterminate an ancient people and their civilization: “By persecuting and exterminating the Jews, the Nazis eliminated the shackles of a past tradition and its morality, thus making it possible to liberate their imagination, to open up new emotional, historical, and moral horizons that enabled them to imagine and to create their empire of death.”

All three of these important books are meant to plumb the depths of the Holocaust and to extract meaning from horror. Ironically, the Nazis were dedicated to cleansing Germany (and, later, all of Europe) of its Jewish population, as if Jewish men, women and children were vermin rather than human beings; it is no coincidence that Zyklon B, the poisonous gas used in German death camps, was a commercial pesticide. Yet, even as the Nazis and their collaborators consigned millions of Jewish bodies to the smoke of the crematoria and the bloodied soil of the killing pit, they were ensuring that their crimes would never be forgotten.

“Here lies the paradox embedded in the Nazi extermination of the Jews,” Confino concludes. “The Nazi memory project was built on contradiction: by assigning the Jews historical importance that merited total extermination, they also ensured that the crime would not and could not be forgotten, be it in a world with or without Jews.”


Jonathan Kirsch, author and publishing attorney, is the book editor of the Jewish Journal.

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