WHY DID THE Nazis kill the Jews? Nearly 70 years since the end of World War II, the causes and meaning of the Holocaust remain as high on historians’ agendas as ever. Over the years, a wide range of arguments have dominated the field, ebbing and flowing according to scholarly fashion and revelation of new documents. Some historians, known as “intentionalists,” focused on the role of Hitler and other high Nazis in pursuing a genocidal plan that may have even predated the Nazi regime. In the 1980s, the so-called “functionalist” school countered the intentionalists with the claim that genocide evolved as the almost accidental product (or “function”) of other wartime developments; anti-Semitism was secondary to bureaucratic infighting. Similarly, American historian Christopher Browning argued that the killers in the field were motivated more by peer pressure than anti-Semitism.
More recently, attention has returned to the role of ideology, particularly the Nazis’ “redemptive anti-Semitism,” as Israeli historian Saul Friedländer has named it. The Jews, he argues, were central to the Nazi worldview, and destroying them was essential to “saving” the German nation. Where earlier historians had claimed that the German population as a whole was not particularly anti-Semitic — at least compared to the murderous anti-Semitism of certain top Nazis — recent investigations of German popular opinion and behavior during the 1930s show how much ordinary Germans ostracized and persecuted their Jewish neighbors.
Alon Confino’s A World Without Jews: The Nazi Imagination from Persecution to Genocide takes off from this latter trend. He makes several novel arguments. First, he is less interested in what led to the genocide of Jews in Germany but rather how the Germans felt about a country without them. He considers racial anti-Semitism — often labeled as the main ideology behind the Holocaust — as only a partial explanation since it was a quasi-rational ideology (or at least it was dressed up in rational language). A Germany without Jews was more the product of powerful emotions than quasi-scientific jargon because the process of exclusion and expulsion was accompanied by paroxysms of violence. Opposing an older argument that Nazi anti-Semitism evolved from emotional assaults to coldblooded bureaucratic murder, Confino sides with Daniel Jonah Goldhagen, the author of Hitler's Willing Executioners, in pointing out the shocking violence that attended the Shoah throughout.
These emotions, he claims, were connected more to religion than to science since they drew upon centuries-old mythic beliefs. He draws attention to the fact that on Kristallnacht (and even before), the Nazis vented their rage on the Jews by burning their synagogues and Torah scrolls. Why, Confino asks, would a movement founded on “scientific” racial anti-Semitism attack these religious symbols? His answer is that the Nazis reformulated Christian anti-Judaism, which was never overtly genocidal, to construct a de-Judaized “German Christianity.” By divorcing the New Testament from the Old (a move already advocated by the second-century heretic, Marcion), they could create a revolutionary break from the past. The result was that now Jesus was not a Jew, but an Aryan.
Confino is not the first to point out how similar German Christianity was to Marcionism (Richard Rubenstein did so in the mid-1960s). But he does not claim, as others have, that early Christianity bears some indirect responsibility for the Holocaust. Rather, he argues, the Nazis projected backwards a radical interpretation of Christianity to create a different past for the Germans; one that led them to believe contemporary anti-Semitism had deep roots. Because of the strong religious symbolism employed in expelling the Jews, their program struck an emotional chord among many Germans. By destroying the Bible, they made palpable the claim that the Germans — and not the Jews — were God’s chosen people.
One virtue of Confino’s book is to bring to our attention the small, local ways in which ordinary Germans harassed and ostracized their Jewish neighbors. Although he draws largely on the work of others, he does a fine job of synthesizing local histories to give a comprehensive picture of how hostility to the Jews penetrated all levels of German society. Signs declaring “Jews are Not Welcome Here” sprang up in town after town; children gathered for photos in front of them. An aviator adorned his plane with the 19th-century slogan “The Jews Are Our Misfortune.” Small wonder that when the nationwide pogrom of Kristallnacht broke out on November 9, 1938, few Germans spoke out for the Jews and most either joined in the assault or stood by passively.
While Confino is convincing on this point, one still wonders just how widespread this hostility actually was and how much it laid the groundwork for later genocide. When the Nazis began to murder Jews on the Eastern front after the invasion of Russia in June 1941, these atrocities were generally known in Germany. But when they opened the death camps in Poland in 1942, they felt compelled to keep the camps secret. Why was that necessary if the population was willing to accept “a world without Jews”? If Germans spoke so openly about “extermination” of the Jews in the run-up to the war, even if they meant it metaphorically, why did it become taboo when they actually carried it out? The whole question of German support for the most radical of the Nazi projects is still an open one: as Confino himself shows, the regime terrorized anyone who showed sympathy for the Jews. One has to wonder, then, how many embraced anti-Semitism out of fear.
While anti-Jewish hysteria clearly did sweep through Germany, attributing it primarily to German Christianity is not entirely convincing. Theological arguments about the “Aryan Jesus,” analyzed recently by Susannah Heschel, Professor of Jewish Studies at Dartmouth College, probably had little resonance beyond a narrow circle of Christian clergy. It is certainly true that the Nazis were revolutionaries and sought a dramatic break with the past — or, better, the recovery of a different past rooted more in Teutonic myths than in liberal Christianity. They also exploited old Christian folk myths about the Jews, such as the medieval belief that Jews murder for ritual purposes and use the blood of their victims. But this last point demonstrates the limitations of a purely religious argument for Nazi anti-Semitism. The Nazi scandalmonger, Julius Streicher, tried to whip up hatred of the Jews by reviving the blood libel in a series of “special issues” of his pornographic publication, Der Stürmer. He had little success during the Weimar period and the Nazi authorities suppressed his 1934 special issue when it was published. In 1937, the Gestapo arrested a number of Jews in connection with a case from 1929, which Streicher had trumpeted as ritual murder. Within a few months, as Confino himself admits, they were released without charges. This kind of anti-Semitism was evidently no longer in vogue.
Confino’s distinction between religious and racial anti-Semitism, however, may be overdrawn. Medieval anti-Judaism — as it’s often labeled to distinguish it from racial anti-Semitism — had its own profoundly mythic overtones that resemble later racism. The blood libel assumed that medieval Jews follow a perverted religion, the diametric opposite of their public religion: while biblical Judaism forbids consumption of blood, the blood libel assumes that blood is central to their secret practices. Similarly, the widespread iconography of the Judensau (Jewish pig) that shows Jews — often rabbis — suckling from pigs assumes that Jews secretly do the opposite of what the Bible prohibits. And the Jews’ association with the devil, which goes back to the Gospel of John, is not just religious: it assumes that they are quite literally inhuman. While none of these ideas was specifically linked to a call for genocide, the Nazis did not need to “construct” a Christianity to fit their racial ideology: it already existed. Race and religion were of a piece.
As Confino shows, the burning of the Bible was part and parcel of a Nazi predilection for burning books they considered to represent the wrong kind of culture. He shrewdly observes that far from rejecting culture, the Nazis committed these outrages out of a deeply cultural impulse: to construct a revolutionary German culture devoid of “degenerate” influences. But one wonders — and Confino himself raises this point — how many of those who burned Torah scrolls on Kristallnacht actually knew that they were burning the Bible. Most probably assumed that anything associated with Jews had to be demonic and thus burning scrolls and synagogues was less a specifically religious act than an assault on a people held to be the opposite of German. Rather than focusing specifically on the way Germans attacked sites of Judaism, one should probably see them as just one facet of attacks on Jews.
Confino’s book suffers from a regrettable tendency of trying to do too much. He includes descriptions of the political and military events of the 1930s and 1940s, all well-known and few connected to his theme. He also relates how the Jews responded to the Nazis, which only occasionally sheds light on Nazi or German motives. For example, quoting from Chaim Aron Kaplan’s Warsaw Ghetto diary reveals little about why the Germans constructed the ghetto in the first place, even if it does tell about the results. On the one hand, as a history of the Holocaust tout court, the book is insufficient. On the other, as an analytical argument, it is cluttered with too much extraneous material.
By extending his book into the war period, Confino runs into a problem that has bedeviled others who argue for a German Sonderweg (special path). As is well-known, the Nazis were able to mobilize allies in Ukraine, Lithuania, Latvia, Hungary, and Romania as well as in France and Holland, to collaborate in the destruction of the Jews. Especially in the East, these allies sometimes surpassed the Nazis in cruelty. But even though anti-Semitism was rife in these countries before the war, were they motivated by the same revolutionary ideas about a new history based in burning — literally and figuratively — the Hebrew Bible? After all, while these people may have heard about events in Nazi Germany, they were not subjected to the same propaganda as the Germans. To account fully for the Holocaust requires accounting for these non-German allies as well.
A World Without Jews is unfortunately weighed down with unnecessarily murky statements about the “Nazi empire of time” and the Nazi denial to the Jews of “a sense of time.” It would have been enough to say that the Nazis wanted a clean rupture from the past, which involved killing the Jews as tokens of that past. However, while the Nazis intended to wipe the Jews out of history and at the same time preserve their memory in museums, it is not clear how central such ideas were for the architects of Auschwitz.
A particularly odd argument in the book revolves around Sigmund Freud. In his introduction, Confino refers to Freud’s last work, Moses and Monotheism, written after the Nazis had come to power, but before the onset of the genocide. Here Freud speculates how the mythic origins of Judaism and Christianity, especially the supposed murder of their founders, explain anti-Semitism. A study that examines the emotional underpinnings of Nazi anti-Semitism could certainly benefit from wrestling with Freud’s unprovable, yet thought-provoking thesis. Unfortunately, Confino does not do that. Instead, in his epilogue he offers a disturbing comparison of Freud and the Nazis. Freud’s theories never murdered anyone, but Confino thinks the questions of identity he raised explain the Nazis’ motivations: “This was the territory the Nazis sought to explore in their quest for self-understanding and for their inner self, which they ultimately found in their endeavor to make a world without Jews.” As if the Holocaust was merely the result of psychoanalysis gone wrong!
These reservations aside, Confino has done a great service by drawing our attention to the mythic dimension of the Nazis’ apocalyptic war against the Jews. The latter were seen as all-powerful threats to Germany’s very existence; her very survival required doing to the Jews what the Nazis believed they intended to do to Germany. The Jews in this battle were not people one might meet on the street, but demons out of a nightmare. That ordinary Germans could see their Jewish neighbors as such avatars of evil cannot be explained in purely rational terms: it was an explosion of emotions rooted in ancient folk beliefs. Christianity no doubt played a role in nourishing these beliefs, but how a regime could unlock them in the middle of the 20th century remains one of the great mysteries of modern history.
David Biale is the Emanuel Ringelblum Distinguished Professor of Jewish History at the University of California, Davis.