Even before the destruction of the Second Temple, Jews had significantly dispersed themselves in North Africa and Mediterranean Europe and, later, to much of that continent, their greatest concentration being in Spain and Portugal until the Inquisition and, following their expulsion, ultimately in Central and Eastern Europe. In some countries, they enjoyed full civil rights, even public acceptance, sometimes for a while. In other countries, the acceptance was minimal and often amounted to temporary toleration. In still others, Jews were subjected to expulsion or persecution, at times lethal; the ultimate, of course, being in the Holocaust.
The Holocaust is unique among other genocides, before and since, in its intensity and planning, which involved organizational and technological innovations. As well, though its justification inflamed often ephemeral, if recurring, passions, it was its permanent, still enduring ideological underpinnings, building on a base of Gospel anti-Judaism and transformed by the 19th century’s increasing biologization of social theory into racist antisemitism that made it especially pernicious. For European Jewry, this was a shift from which there was no escape.
Anti-Judaism may provide a subject for theological disputation and it can, at least in theory, be avoided by conversion, a path many prominent German and Austrian Jews chose in the 19th century; but antisemitism is inarguable and, as it turns out, if not permanent, it is as Theodor Herzl suspected, at least prolonged and adaptable. These days, for example, it is notably expressed as anti-Israelism.
A key question is why did antisemitism take on its most profound, degrading, ultimately lethal and persistent form in Germany? In the 19th century, for example, if an observer had been asked to name the European country that would most likely develop an obsessive antisemitism, the answer, noting for example the Dreyfus Case and the mass fury that attended it, almost certainly would have been France. It was, in fact, Herzl’s exposure to rampaging Parisian anti-Dreyfusard mobs that led him to Zionism.
However, in researching the historical origins of the Holocaust, consideration must be given to the extent of the Roman Empire, even before the Christianization of Central Europe.
In spite of much effort, the repeated failure of Rome to defeat the Danubian tribes meant that what was to become Germany was never subjected to imperial rule. For conquered countries, a Pax Romana meant exploitation, of course, but it also meant the imposition of a civilizing system of laws and practices regarding rights and obligations, a system significantly tolerant for the times. Instead, Central Europe became the site of prolonged competition among Barbarian tribes, each relying on a martial culture for survival and the extension of its territory. There was, among them, a significant lack of the social cohesion and heritage such as that which ultimately prevailed, for example, in what was to become France and Italy. Recognition of this heritage, particularly its republican component, is definitively expressed, for instance, in the art of the French Revolution, especially Jacques-Louis David’s, replete with images of Roman republicanism. It is also no accident that, in 1848, when revolutions swept across Europe, protesting the extreme and long-lived reaction imposed earlier by the Congress of Vienna after the final defeat of Napoleon, in France the result was an (admittedly, short-lived) return to republicanism. However, in Germany, the result was total failure and yet greater autocracy and repression.
Another more subtle but pervasive factor in the genesis of the Holocaust was the pronounced tendency of Germans to theorize. Distaste and even hatred are common enough attitudes, but they become significantly persuasive, derogating, even lethal and long-lived, when they are transformed into ideologies. Every movement, regardless of its political content, needs a theory. In the United States, for example, white supremacy became the theoretical justification for slavery and, later, racial segregation.
Why did German intellectuals become prominent and influential theorists?
One explanation may be that Germany was the last major European country to achieve nation-state form. The theorizing tendency, so evident in German intellectualism, grew out of the position of a Germany, in the centre of Europe, divided into many duchies and principalities and subjected to almost inevitable centrifugal forces, with people of Germanic ancestry (Volksdeutsche as distinguished from Reichsdeutsche), using German as their common language, living as far west as Alsace on the west shore of the Rhine, as far north as Schleswig-Holstein, as far south as the Tyrols and as far east as the Volga Basin, all with an experienced need, especially after the 1871 proclamation of the Second Reich, to coherently define themselves both ethnically and nationally.
It should be recalled that the simmering desire to bring all Germans into the same Reich provided the basis for Hitler’s Anschluss with Austria and his invasion of Czechoslovakia because of alleged mistreatment of the Sudeten Germans. These were the two major Nazi aggressions that preceded the Second World War and were permitted by Britain and France, even though they violated the Versailles Treaty, partly because they had a certain nationalist “logic” attached to them.
This need to define, to particularize and simultaneously generalize, formed the substrate for a remarkable tendency among Germans to theorize, transforming what might be actual and objective observations into vague, abstract and broad entities by the exercise of philosophical speculation and imagination. Consider, for example, the systematic philosophies of Immanuel Kant, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel and Karl Marx and, more recently, Martin Heidegger, broad in their range, overlooking actual, often contradicting, realities in favor of universalism. Consequently, German antisemitism was not “content” with merely detesting the Jews as descendants of “Christ-killers” and as “Christ-deniers,” or as bourgeois exploiters and (simultaneously) as liberal, perhaps revolutionary, subversives. These charges were all, at least theoretically, negated by conversion or a change in political outlook. Nazism had to construct an entire theoretical system of permanent, i.e., race-based, categories of Übermenschen and Untermenschen, with Jews (especially Slavic Jews) near the very bottom of the stratification. This became evident in Nazi geopolitics and pseudo-anthropological racial outlook, with the punctilious attention to genetic detail that was incorporated into the Nuremberg Racial Laws, in effect and once again, mental constructs analogous to defining “a German” (later “Aryan”) while ignoring evident discrepancies.
In a stupefying display of social psychosis, the perfect Aryan was consequently tall (like Goebbels), slim (like Goering) and blond (like Hitler). Ironically, the most “Aryan-looking” top Nazi was deputy Gestapo chief Reinhardt Heydrich, who was alleged to have had Jewish ancestry, a suspicion that may have contributed to his zeal.
Attempting a rational analysis of Nazism can go only so far. No matter how much plausible theorizing is pursued, at the bottom is a residuum of arcane but essential demonism that, it must be stipulated, not infrequently motivates human personal and social behavior in all cultures and over all times. It was, however, the unique confluence of these determinants that differentiated Nazism from contemporaneous totalitarian systems, such as fascism in Italy, falangism in Spain, emperor worship in Japan and bolshevism in the Soviet Union.
Jews do not believe in an “original sin” that inexorably and inevitably taints the life of everyone. Jewish belief is that people are born with two tendencies, one for evil and one for good. The inevitable tension between the two is what provides us with the uniquely human concept of free will and choice.
After the armed men (and women) of the Third Reich took a mandated personal oath of allegiance to der Führer, they may have believed that this relieved them of personal responsibility, an allegedly extenuating point they made repeatedly during the post-Second World War denazification proceedings and war crimes trials. The victors evidently and correctly believed otherwise. People, endowed with the faculties of thought and choice, do not relinquish personal responsibility.
On the other hand, in a criminal trial in Israel, a Jew who, credibly threatened by the SS with torture of her loved ones (a “catcher”), pointed out hidden Jews to the SS, was acquitted in spite of incontrovertible evidence. It was a decision of which most Israelis approved. In the extremes of such circumstances, ordinary rules of behavior do become invalid. The difference between her circumstance and that of the Nazis is, as Daniel Goldhagen, has pointed out, in Hitler’s Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust (Vintage, 1996), Germans did, indeed, have a choice in carrying out atrocities.
Eugene Kaellis has written Making Jews, on the theme of the current basic problem of Diaspora Jewry, which is available from lulu.com.