Written into History

Richard J. Evans

  • A World without Jews: The Nazi Imagination from Persecution to Genocide by Alon Confino
    Yale, 284 pp, £20.00, June 2014, ISBN 978 0 300 18854 7
  • How Could This Happen: Explaining the Holocaust by Dan McMillan
    Basic, 276 pp, £15.00, April 2014, ISBN 978 0 465 08024 3

The 20th century was the age of genocide. Many periods in history have seen acts of murderous violence committed on racial grounds, but none has witnessed so many, on such a large scale, or so concentrated in time, as the era framed by the German massacre of the Herero tribe in Namibia in 1904-07 and the Hutu genocide of the Tutsis in Rwanda in 1994. The intervening years were marked by many other acts of racially motivated mass killing, notably the Turkish elimination of more than a million Armenians during the First World War. Three million or more Ukrainians were deliberately starved during the man-made famine that accompanied Stalin’s forced collectivisation of agriculture in the early 1930s. The expulsion of 12 million ethnic Germans from East-Central Europe at the end of the Second World War caused an unknown number of deaths, certainly hundreds of thousands, and the Balkan Wars of the 1990s introduced the term ‘ethnic cleansing’ into the vocabulary of atrocity. Even before the 20th century, countless millions of supposedly inferior indigenous peoples had perished in the course of the colonisation of their living space by Europeans, in a process that is still going on in some parts of the world.

The genocide of between five and six million Jews committed by Nazi Germany and its allies during the Second World War falls, in some respects, into a different category. Unlike the objects of other genocides, the Jews were regarded by their Nazi murderers as the ‘world-enemy’, to be actively sought out wherever they lived, and killed without any exceptions, in a comprehensive process of extermination that was intended to continue until there were no Jews left anywhere in the world. In 1942, the minutes of the Wannsee Conference, at which senior German officials met to co-ordinate the extermination programme, listed the Jewish inhabitants of countries yet to be conquered, such as Sweden or Ireland, and Nazi propaganda portrayed Germany’s enemies – Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin – as puppets of a global conspiracy of Jews whose complete elimination was a prime war aim. The Nazi extermination of Jews was bounded by neither space nor time. And it was linked to an even larger programme of racial reordering, outlined in the official General Plan for the East, in which up to 45 million ‘Slavs’ who lived in Eastern Europe were to be killed by starvation and disease, like the three and a half million Soviet prisoners of war who had been left to perish on the steppe by their German captors following the invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941.

Even here, there was a difference: for the Nazis, ‘Slavs’ were a regional obstacle to be cleared out of the way to make room for German settlers, while the Jews were supposedly threatening to destroy German or ‘Aryan’ civilisation from within as well as without. Correspondingly, the Nazis treated Jews with a sadistic ferocity seldom vented on the other victims of their violence: Jewish men encountered on the Eastern Front by German forces were deliberately humiliated, their beards set alight, or were forced to perform gymnastic exercises until they dropped from exhaustion; Jewish girls were made to clean toilets with their blouses; Jews were savagely beaten to death on the streets – these acts give the lie to the claim that the Nazi extermination programme was somehow impersonal or ‘industrialised’ just because part of it was carried out by mass poisoning in specially designed gas chambers, another unique feature of the Final Solution of the Jewish Question in Europe.

A seldom reported example of this violence is highlighted by Alon Confino in his new book: the public burning of the Hebrew Bible in the course of the nationwide pogrom carried out on Hitler’s orders on 9-10 November 1938 and known ironically as the Reichskristallnacht, or ‘Night of Broken Glass’, because the remains of the smashed shop windows of Jewish-owned premises littered the streets the morning after. As they torched synagogues in virtually every German and Austrian town, the Nazi stormtroopers carried the sacred scrolls of the Torah outside, kicked them around, forced Jews to trample on them, and finally destroyed them along with other sacred objects they’d looted. In the village of Kippenheim in Baden, youths threw the scrolls into the brook; in Aachen Nazi brownshirts tore up the scrolls in front of the synagogue; in Frankfurt they forced the Jews to commit this act of desecration themselves; in Vienna stormtroopers dropped the scrolls off a bridge into the Danube; in Düsseldorf they dressed up in the robes of the rabbis and cantors and danced around a bonfire as the scrolls were thrown onto it; in the town of Wittlich, in western Germany, a stormtrooper climbed onto the synagogue roof, waving the scrolls, and started throwing them onto the street, shouting: ‘Wipe your arses with it, Jews!’

These symbolic acts of ‘Bibliocide’, as Confino calls it, continued during the war wherever the invading Germans encountered centres of Jewish faith and learning. When they got to Lublin, one of the participants noted,

we threw the huge Talmudic library out of the building and carried the books to the marketplace, where we set them on fire. The fire lasted for twenty hours. The Lublin Jews assembled around and wept bitterly, almost silencing us with their cries. We summoned the military band, and with joyful shouts the soldiers drowned out the sounds of the Jewish cries.

The rabbinical teachings collected in the Talmud were burned with the Torah in towns conquered by Germans across Europe, from France and Holland to the Balkans and the Baltic states. The burning of the sacred scrolls went hand in hand with the desecration and smashing of other sacred objects including robes, prayer-shawls and menorahs.

All this destruction was a consequence of the Nazis’ obsessive desire to humiliate Jews, to degrade them and dethrone them from what the Nazis imagined to be their place as the driving force behind a worldwide conspiracy to undermine and destroy the ‘Aryan’ race. Poles, Ukrainians, Russians and other ‘Slavs’ were exterminated in their millions, their property looted, their possessions expropriated, their culture and institutions suppressed; but this was because the Nazis saw them as ‘subhumans’, to be cleared out of the way. The Nazi treatment of the Jews had an additional dimension of vengefulness and annihilatory aggression. As Confino rightly observes, ‘the Nazis persecuted and exterminated the Jews using not only a language of racial inferiority but also one that ascribed awesome powers to the Jews.’

Confino takes the destruction of the Torah during Kristallnacht as the starting point for a wide-ranging discussion of the origins and nature of Nazi hatred of the Jews. In the Jewish religion, the Torah was regarded as the foundational narrative of the Jewish people: it told the story of their relationship with God from the very beginning, providing them with a sense of identity and furnishing them with a set of beliefs. Together with the rabbinical commentaries often included in the scrolls, it stood at the core of Jewish existence. In these acts of desecration, the Nazis were wiping out the Jews symbolically before they moved on, during the war that began less than a year later, to wiping them out physically. By cutting off the Jews from their past, the Nazis were preparing to cut them off from their present and future. In this sense, at least, their actual physical extermination was already part of the ideology of Nazism and not, as many historians have argued, a product either of the cumulative radicalisation of the regime over the years, or of the circumstances forced on it by the war.

But were the Nazis, as Confino maintains, indulging in ‘a fantasy about historical time, excising the evil Jews from history’? Did the fantasy express the regime’s anxiety about its own historical roots? It was unable to hark back to a golden age, as Mussolini could with the Roman Empire, and unwilling to sever all links to the past, as Lenin’s Soviet Union had done. Certainly, as Confino notes, ‘the ultimate place with no time, past and history was the camp,’ but was it also the case that the regime sought to inaugurate ‘a new Nazi time’ which ‘depended on the destruction of Jewish time’? As he ruminates on these topics, Confino begins to tie himself up in argumentative knots. On the one hand, he claims that the Nazis were creating a ‘world without time’; on the other, he writes that ‘a sense of time – that is, of history and memory – permeated the perceptions of both Jews and Germans about the disappearance of the Jews.’

The Nazis did not edit the Jews out of history in the way that, say, Stalin tried to write Trotsky out of history by deleting him from the historical and photographic record of the Bolshevik Revolution. On the contrary, they were portrayed as an ever present menace over aeons of history: while the Nazi propaganda film The Eternal Jew showed them undermining civilisation across the ages, the popular movie Jew Süss portrayed their supposed malignancy through the story of an 18th-century Jewish moneylender. These movies aimed to show how thoroughly the Jews, as imagined by the Nazis, had woven themselves into German history. And at the same time as the Nazis were busy destroying the relics of Jewish history, they were also occupied – at least, some of them were – with collecting them and displaying them in a museum. The director of the Jewish Department at the Nazi Reich Institute for the History of the New Germany, Wilhelm Grau, declared: ‘It cannot be overemphasised that modern and contemporary German and European history must be written while taking the Jewish question into account.’ The Jews were to be written into history, not out of it; only in this way could the final victory over them be credited emphatically to the Nazis themselves, in what they saw as a world-historical achievement. The Jews were to remain in the past; it was the future from which they were to be removed.

As Himmler, head of the SS and the man with overall responsibility for the extermination of the Jews, said in a speech to his men at Posen on 4 October 1943, ‘most of you know what it means to see a hundred corpses lying together, five hundred, or a thousand … This is a glorious page in our history that has never been written and never shall be written.’ But if the means by which the Jews were removed were to remain concealed, the fact that they had once existed would not be. This was not a world without time, but a world in which a radical break was posited between a past filled with alleged Jewish misdeeds and a future without Jewish people, a world in which time was ruptured but not abolished. The past was also occupied by the Germanic race of the Nazi imagination, which represented the rough, simple, primitive values the Nazis pitted against Jewish complexity and modernity. Far from being uncertain about their own roots, as Confino argues, the Nazis indoctrinated schoolchildren, university students, the Hitler Youth and the public at large with a new history that encompassed the glorious Germans of the past, all the way back to Arminius (‘Hermann the German’), who annihilated the legions of the Roman Empire in the Teutoburg Forest in the year 9 ad.

In the Nazi version of history, Hermann’s victory marked the point at which the Germans rejected Roman civilisation and took their own ‘special path’, rejecting ‘Western’ values such as liberalism, toleration and democracy, a view endorsed by a particular reading of Tacitus’ Germania. The Third Reich produced a considerable amount of didactic literature on this issue, and Confino begins to go seriously astray when he fails to recognise this crucial point and declares that ‘for the Nazis, Germany was part of Western culture.’ His argument here is closely bound up with his thesis that there was ‘an intimate link between Nazism and Christianity beyond what current scholarship proposes’: being a good Nazi and being a good Christian, he claims, ‘went hand in hand in the Third Reich’. Racial anti-Semitism, he adds, could not ‘have been received by Germans, and could not have thrust them to commit such crimes in so short a time without the legitimacy it received from Christian, religious sentiments’.

But there are serious problems with these arguments. One of the book’s most obvious flaws is its constant reference to ‘Germans’ as if all Germans believed the same thing, as if all Germans were Nazis and anti-Semites. Confino is careful not to include the definite article, but time and again a statement about ‘some Germans’ expands within a few pages to become simply ‘Germans’. Thus it was ‘Germans’ who, ‘via the raw emotions of hatred, anger, mockery, fear, transgression and guilt’ expressed in the burning of the Torah scrolls, ‘conveyed a sentiment, perhaps even an understanding, that a Germany without Jews and Judaism was becoming a reality’. Nearly all Germans were registered members of the Protestant or the Catholic Church, he points out. There was a long tradition of Christian anti-Semitism. So nearly all Germans were anti-Semitic.

But this syllogism ignores many well-known facts about both Christianity in Germany and the attitudes of ordinary Germans to the outrages of Kristallnacht. Certainly, within the established Protestant Church, the ‘German Christian’ movement propagated a synthesis of Nazism and Christianity that dropped the Old Testament, rejected the Pietist tradition of repentance in favour of an aggressive version of the Church Militant, and declared that Jesus had been an Aryan. But even Confino has to admit that the German Christians did not win over a majority of Protestants. The theologians he cites in support of his argument were untypical. The biblical fundamentalists of the Confessing Church, the opposition within German Protestantism, won many adherents, especially among traditionalist congregations, and the Catholic Church, for all the vacillations and compromises of many of its leaders, clashed seriously with the Nazi regime over a number of issues, notably the sterilisation and eventual mass murder of the mentally handicapped and mentally ill. Moreover, millions of working-class Germans in the great cities and industrial centres of the country had long since lost any contact with the churches, even if they were still formally registered as members. Even under the Third Reich, they adhered to the atheistic and anti-clerical beliefs of the Social Democrats and Communists, despite the suppression of those parties by the regime.

Finally, the Nazis themselves, dismayed by the failure of the German Christians and the obduracy of the Catholics, became steadily more hostile towards Christianity, until Hitler himself expressed the hope that it would eventually disappear. Well before the outbreak of war, the Nazi Party and organisations like the SS and the Hitler Youth were actively campaigning for their members to abandon Christianity and leave the church. Their notion of Jewishness was racial from the outset: they knew full well that many Jews had converted to Christianity or intermarried with non-Jews (in Hamburg before the First World War there were 73 intermarriages for every 100 purely Jewish marriages), and in 1939 they transferred the census definition of Jewishness from religious to racial criteria. The Jewish religion was not something to be combated in itself; for the Nazis it was, rather, the essential expression of the Jewish racial soul. Of course, in rural areas the Nazis appealed cynically to the pious peasantry by linking their anti-Semitic policies to an image of the Jew as the spawn of the devil. But this should not be confused with a sincerely religious anti-Semitism.

In the end, the elaborate structure of interpretation that Confino erects on the Nazi burning of the Torah turns out to be a house of cards. The ambitious claims he makes on its behalf are unconvincing. Nothing in his book is less plausible than his statement that in representing the Final Solution, ‘scholars have turned to amassing facts in order to overcome the difficulty of writing about the Holocaust; facts from documents help domesticate this past and undo the strangeness of a racist and murderous world.’ Why he should hold such a bizarre view is a mystery. What could be more horrific or alienating than documents describing in graphic detail, as many do, the torture and murder of Jews in Auschwitz, or the unspeakable suffering of the inhabitants of the Warsaw ghetto, or the beating to death of Jews by Ukrainian anti-Semites on the streets of Lvov, as described in the diaries of the German soldier Felix Landau in the disturbing compilation of documents edited by Ernst Klee, Willi Dressen and Volker Riess under the title Those Were the Days? Words convey the horror to stomach-churning effect; they do not ‘domesticate’ it.

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A similar view is put forward, even more strongly, by Dan McMillan in the introduction to his How Could This Happen: Explaining the Holocaust, where he denigrates the huge body of detailed historical research on the genocide of the Jews by claiming that all it has done is deliver books that ‘narrate the blow-by-blow of events’, leading to a state of affairs in which the explanation of the causes of the genocide ‘usually gets lost in the mass of details that make up the narrative’. How McMillan could reach such a conclusion is as much of a mystery as the question of how Confino could believe that ‘scholars’ have interpreted the pogroms of the Reichskristallnacht ‘by avoiding the Jews altogether’. Even a brief trawl through the enormous literature on these topics will reveal persistent attempts to explain the genesis of Nazi extermination policies and convey as clearly as possible the suffering of the Jews who were their object. Neither author has read very widely or deeply, and neither book rests on any original research. McMillan in particular only skims the surface of the topics he is dealing with. In a book that claims with a considerable degree of chutzpah to be the first and so far only one devoted exclusively to examining the causes of the Nazi attempt to exterminate the Jews, much of the content amounts to a potted narrative of modern German history that takes the reader through the familiar territory of Bismarck’s unification, the Kaiser’s hubris, the First World War and the Weimar Republic.

McMillan is not, however, without interesting things to say. He is right to portray the Second World War as ‘a war against the Jewish people’, who in Hitler’s view ‘controlled the governments of Germany’s enemies’. He sees the uniqueness of the Nazi war against the Jews as lying above all in its lack of instrumentality, such as political power, land, wealth, enslavement or religious conversion. Only in the case of the Jews was the homicidal violence committed for its own sake. Only for them was flight from massacre pointless, because the Nazis would find and kill them wherever they went. The language of extermination – in Nazi rhetoric the Jews were ‘bacilli’, ‘bacteria’, ‘vermin’ – expressed a radical dehumanisation of the victims that was borne out by the industrial exploitation of their corpses, for hair or for gold fillings. McMillan understands, as Confino does not, that Germans were ideologically divided, in particular between the Social Democrats and Communists on the one hand, and bourgeois society on the other, and that scientistic doctrines such as racism, eugenics and a particular variant of Social Darwinism were far more important in driving the Nazis’ exterminist project forward than religion, even as interpreted by the German Christians.

But the book’s reading of modern German history is disappointing, owing far too much to the interpretations of the Bielefeld School and the work of the late Hans-Ulrich Wehler. McMillan claims, as Wehler did, that the Final Solution happened ‘above all because Germany did not become a democracy before the 1918 revolution’ and because the ruling elites were able to mobilise anti-Semitism as a way of diverting bourgeois demands for power into a racist form of nationalism. But imperial Germany possessed an active party-political system, and political culture was anything but deferential before the First World War. German voters were not ‘indoctrinated with rabid nationalism and anti-Semitism’; on the contrary, nationalism, racism and anti-Semitism were very limited in their impact before the Kaiser’s overthrow in 1918. Like Confino, McMillan doesn’t really know what to do with the Social Democrats, who were Germany’s largest party before the First World War and dominated the Weimar Republic after it. Neither anti-Semitic nor rabidly nationalist, they represented a democratic and progressive view of Germany’s future that was pushed aside in the crisis of the Weimar Republic, as despair over the collapsing economy and fear of ever increasing working-class support for the Communists drove growing numbers of middle-class, rural, Protestant and unorganised working-class voters into the arms of the Nazis.

McMillan recognises the impact of fear and intimidation on the many Germans who didn’t participate in atrocities against the Jews. He follows Christopher Browning’s account of the ‘ordinary men’ of Police Battalion 101, who became mass murderers after they were tasked with killing Jewish men, women and children behind the Eastern Front, in regarding obedience to authority under certain circumstances, such as active combat duty, regardless of moral scruples, as a universal human trait. It was not deep-seated German anti-Semitism that drove them; indeed, as McMillan points out (somewhat undermining his own argument about the role of rabid anti-Semitism in the political culture of imperial Germany), anti-Semitism was far more widespread, intense and violent in Eastern Europe in the first three decades of the 20th century than it was in Germany. Arguments about the German national character and the place of anti-Semitism in it rightly get short shrift here.

In the end, however, McMillan doesn’t come up with anything very new or original in his explanation of Nazi genocide. Despite the occasional comparison with other European countries, this is a very old-fashioned account that focuses relentlessly on German anti-Semitism and German history. The wider context of the Nazis’ intended racial reordering of Europe gets barely a mention – the General Plan for the East does not even appear in the index – neither do European pioneers of racist thought such as Gobineau. Comparison is the vital ingredient of any explanation of Nazi genocide, and both these ambitious but deeply flawed essays fail on this count.