Why the Germans? Why the Jews?: Envy, Race, Hatred, and the Prehistory of the Holocaust
By Götz Aly
Metropolitan Books, 304 pages
I am sure I am not the only person whose suspicions are aroused as soon as someone claims, or is claimed by others, to have explained the Holocaust. The latest candidate is the German historian Götz Aly, whose book Why the Germans? Why the Jews? has been praised to the skies, not least by Jewish critics, as “brilliant, passionate, provocative” (Micha Brumlik in Die Zeit). According to Michael Blumenthal, long ago Jimmy Carter’s Treasury secretary and now director of Berlin’s Jewish Museum, Aly’s “analysis of a profound social malady has made the incomprehensible comprehensible.”
Really? Such extravagant claims provoke a whole series of questions. Was the murderous anti-Semitism of Nazi Germany merely a “malady”—for which the Germans themselves were presumably not responsible? And is it possible to “comprehend” the attempt to exterminate an entire people—an attempt that came close to success and implicated most of Europe in the process? What, indeed, is the purpose of such “comprehension”? Tout comprendre, c’est tout pardonner—“to comprehend all is to forgive all,” as Tolstoy puts it in War and Peace—but are we ready to forgive those who sought to expunge every last trace of Jewish life from this earth? Do we who were not born when it happened even have the right to forgive the perpetrators? And do their descendants have the right to demand forgiveness?
Götz Aly draws on a wide range of sources, including his own family archive. But his argument is very simple. “Nazism,” he suggests, “was propelled by the least pleasurable of the seven deadly sins: envy.” The Germans were less talented, less successful, and less able to cope with modernity than the Jews. And their envy gradually mutated into a lethal resentment that could be exploited by the Nazis, who first excluded, then expropriated, and finally exterminated the Jews.
The Germans, a “belated” nation suffering from an inferiority complex, craved social equality rather than personal freedom. Aly focuses on the contrast between this “lethargic,” benighted majority and the social, intellectual, and economic prowess of the Jewish minority. Much of his material is familiar to anyone acquainted with the voluminous literature on the antecedents of the Holocaust, but Aly does contribute new insights, especially when writing about the forces that caused his own forebears to become anti-Semites. For example, he quotes his grandfather Wolfgang Aly’s testimony during the First World War, to the effect that his commanding officer “was in the pockets of Jews.” The elder Aly said: “Private Kohn (a banker from Mannheim) ruled over the staff, making sure that more and more Jews were assigned to buying supplies. With rage, I witnessed the quantities of food that were being removed from our starving homeland.”
Yet “envy” is a patently inadequate explanation for the radicalization of German anti-Semitism. To understand how and why the generation that fought in the trenches proved to be such fertile soil for demagogues such as Adolf Hitler would require a more sophisticated conceptual framework than Aly has to offer. It would need to take account, for example, of the German ideology, with its glorification of a mythical past in which warriors and their women embraced death as the ultimate erotic experience, its belief in the purifying and cleansing impact of war, or the cult described by the late J.P. Stern as “the dear purchase”—the justification of existence by sacrifice.
Envy alone cannot begin to provide a sufficient answer because almost every Western country in the 19th and early 20th centuries had similar social tensions between Jews and Gentiles. One cannot use envy—an invariable concomitant of inequality, and a major source of socialist sentiment—to explain why anti-Semitism took such very different forms in different cases. At the height of the Dreyfus affair in the late 1890s, France looked to be the European country most likely to engender the kind of officially sanctioned violence against Jews that had been characteristic of Russia’s Pale of Settlement. After 1918, the unstable new polities of central Europe—Poland, Austria, Hungary, and Czechoslovakia—seemed to be prime candidates to unleash pogroms against their relatively large Jewish communities. Yet none of these states turned on its Jews with the ferocity of Germany from 1933 onward.
So what made Germany’s political culture different? Aly points a finger at Friedrich Naumann, a political pastor. A few years before becoming one of the patriarchs of the Weimar Republic, Naumann wrote the wartime blueprint for a German-dominated Europe with his tract Mitteleuropa. Aly singles out a much earlier Naumann text, his National Socialist Catechism of 1897. Quite apart from the obvious fact that he popularized the notion of National Socialism, which Hitler would later plagiarize for his own party, Naumann’s “catechism” calls on Jews “to adopt German and Christian ways of thinking.” In a typically German piece of doublethink, he warns against depriving Jews of their citizenship—but only because of the (imaginary) threat that “the collective power of Jewry would turn against the state.” Ominously, Naumann warns: “There is nothing less prudent than turning an influential minority against the state without stripping them of their power.”
As this passage shows, Naumann’s brand of liberalism was profoundly illiberal in a distinctively German way. Aly gets this, but he is too lenient in summarizing Naumann’s attitude as “the mainstream’s dangerous indifference.” Far from being indifferent to the Jews, Naumann’s writing and preaching were shot through with anti-Semitic stereotypes: He was not only part of the Germans’ “Jewish problem”, but indirectly part of the Final Solution as well.
Admittedly, Naumann’s National Socialism was not yet Nazi. It did not make anti-Semitism its raison d’être. The social climbers that Aly argues made up the core of Hitler’s party wanted to get rich quick, and the Jews were in their way. For an example of a typical Nazi family, Aly turns to his maternal grandparents, the Schneiders. They were, he tells us, very similar to the Gauleiters, the local party officials appointed by Hitler. Aly’s grandparents joined the Nazi party earlier than most, in 1926. As a child his mother loved Munich’s leading department store, Uhlfelder’s, which boasted the city’s first escalator. But his father told her: “We don’t go to that store.” Uhlfelder’s was owned by Jews.
Aly tells us that his grandfather was a good man. At the end of the war, when survivors of a concentration camp marched past his house, he told his daughter that it was the worst thing he had ever seen in his life: “What was done to the Jews definitely went too far.” Aly does not say what punishment for the Jews’ imaginary crimes he thinks would have been acceptable to his grandfather, nor whether what had happened in the camps could really have been news to him. He relies on the evidence his grandfather gave to the Allied de-Nazification committee after the war, despite the fact that such testimony was notoriously unreliable. Aly does not exonerate his grandparents, but he seems a little too eager to persuade us that there were not only “good Germans” but good Nazis, too.
This apologetic tendency is of a piece with Aly’s overall historical framework. He follows John Maynard Keynes in blaming the Allies for the 1919 Treaty of Versailles, and the treaty for the hyperinflation and later the depression that led to the collapse of the Weimar Republic. Yet the Germans themselves had imposed a much harsher treaty on the Russians at Brest-Litovsk, they got off more lightly than their Austrian allies, and they never paid more than a fraction of the reparations required by Versailles. Aly’s uncritical embrace of Keynes tells us more about him than it does about either Germans or Jews.
Aly blames social climbers envious of the Jews for the rise of Hitler. Yet every nation has social climbers, and envy is part of human nature. Social mobility was not unique to Germany between the wars; indeed, if upward mobility had been the main source of the Nazi brand of anti-Semitism, the Holocaust would have happened in America, not Europe. To blame such ubiquitous factors is tantamount to exculpating Germans for what they actually did to their Jewish neighbors and ultimately to Jews across the entire continent. We need a more powerful motive than mere envy to explain the fanatical zeal with which the Nazis hunted down Jews in every land they occupied, from Africa to the Arctic, from the Atlantic to the Caucasus.
This is not to say that Aly has nothing to contribute. His book is full of brilliant vignettes of German anti-Semitism in action. A case in point is the Berlin historian Dietrich Schäfer’s poisonous portrait of George Simmel, one of the greatest social thinkers of the day. In 1908, Simmel was being considered for a chair at Heidelberg, having been passed over repeatedly in Berlin for no other reason than that he was a Jew. Schäfer was asked for a reference; he delivered a character assassination: “He’s an Israelite through and through, in his external appearance, his demeanor, and the character of his intellect.” Simmel’s “pseudointellectual manner” was bad enough, in Schäfer’s eyes, but what really scandalized him was Simmel’s popularity: “Not accidentally his primary audience has an extremely high contingent of women, even by Berlin standards.” Simmel’s appeal was above all to “the Oriental world,” Schäfer sneered, in other words, to Jews: “His whole manner speaks to their basic orientation and taste.”
Envy is too mild a motivation to account for anti-Semitism of Schäfer’s kind: There is something darker, more pathological, more “incomprehensible” going on here. Some would call it radical evil, a term that was coined by another German with an ambivalent attitude to Jews: Immanuel Kant. Hannah Arendt was emphatic that evil was not radical, but superficial. Foolishness. What made the evil of the Shoah “radical” is that it had no social or economic rationale. Because it had no motive or purpose beyond its own insane internal logic, its cruelty also had no limits, no proportionality, no humanity. It was literally inhuman.
What is worrisome about well-meaning attempts, such as this book’s, to make sense of the Holocaust is that their effect is to diminish its significance. There have been so many genocides since 1945 that the reader is inclined to underestimate the sheer audacity of the Nazis in making practically the whole of Europe their accomplice in eradicating the Jewish people from almost every community on the continent. The Shoah was as ubiquitous as it was unique, but what made it happen was the German Reich. We know the answer to the question: Why the Jews? Anti-Semitism has been around in one form or another for millennia. It is much harder to answer the question: Why the Germans?
One of my most vivid memories of the two years that I lived in Germany in the late 1980s was a visit to the castle of Jagsthausen. This was the seat of the legendary 16th-century knight known as Ironhand—Götz von Berlichingen. Götz, after whom Aly was evidently named, is celebrated largely because he wrote a lively and entertaining memoir of his adventures, which the greatest of all German writers, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, dramatized at the outset of his career, thereby unleashing the proto-Romantic movement known as Sturm und Drang. Goethe’s play is notorious for containing the rudest line in classical German literature, when Götz defies an imperial demand to surrender with the words: “Kiss my ass!”
My wife, Sarah, and I were newly married when we stayed at Jagsthausen, part of which is now a hotel; the rest of the complex was still inhabited by descendants of Goethe’s hero. Its atmosphere was highly evocative, and when we heard mysterious rumbling noises in the night, we even wondered (half-jokingly) if the place was haunted. In a way, it was. In the morning we discovered that there was a bowling alley in the cellar—hence the sounds that had spooked us. Later we took a stroll around the castle grounds. What we found put this picturesque medieval building in a different light.
There, a few hundred yards from the castle, were large Second World War memorials. The first inscription read: “To our comrades of the 17th Panzer Grenadier Division ‘Götz von Berlichingen.’” The second read: “To the fallen of the Panzer Division Viking, erected by their pioneers.” These were both divisions of the Waffen SS—the military elite of Nazi Germany. I still recall our shock of realization that the “comrades” and “fallen” commemorated here were all members of a criminal organization: In other words, they were war criminals, deeply implicated in the Holocaust and other atrocities. Presumably they each included at least one member of the House of Berlichingen, after whom one division had actually been named; at any rate, both memorials were well tended. The castle was haunted after all—not by the ghost of Götz, the knight who had built it, but by the innumerable victims of the SS.
That was a quarter century ago. Today, when I looked up the castle, another nasty surprise awaited me. To my surprise, the SS memorials are reportedly still there, regularly garlanded with fresh wreaths. But Jagsthausen has a new and distinguished resident, the husband of Alexandra von Berlichingen and stepfather of the latest bearer of the ancient name of Götz. He is Roman Herzog, a former president of the German Constitutional Court who in 1990 became the first president of a reunited Germany. Mr. Herzog (no relation to the former President of Israel, Chaim Herzog, or his son, the present leader of the Labor Party) prides himself on his record as a champion of the rule of law; he chaired the commission that drew up Europe’s Charter of Fundamental Rights. Yet he, his wife, and his stepson have refused to answer questions about the war memorials at Jagsthausen. Even more strangely, only one German magazine, Kontext, has reported this story.
To put this into some kind of American perspective, imagine this scenario. A former president of the United States, who is also a former Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, marries a descendant of Davy Crockett, whose family is still living in the Alamo. Near the fort, in plain sight, are lovingly tended memorials to the Ku Klux Klan. Don’t you think the U.S. media might show just a little interest in the story? Readers may recall the revelation that Governor Rick Perry’s family hunting camp had once been called “Niggerhead,” even though the sign outside had been painted over 30 years before he ran for the White House, was enough to cast doubt on his presidential hopes.
Germany is not like that. Nobody there cares about the SS shrine at Jagsthausen. Polls show consistently that a large majority of Germans wish to have open discussions about the Holocaust—though most prefer to use euphemisms such as “the Nazi persecution of the Jews” or even just “the past.” Even though the question “Why the Germans?” has not gone away, it is no longer considered relevant by today’s Germans, two or three generations removed from the Third Reich.
Aly himself quite rightly criticizes the German tendency to identify with the Jewish victims—“We tend to cast the perpetrators as bizarre, almost alien figures”—and to hide behind abstractions that keep Germans at a safe distance from radical evil. By exposing his own Nazi family to scrutiny, Aly may hope to encourage others to rattle the skeletons in their own closets. But he is blind to the fact that his explanatory framework is bound to have the opposite effect. By making Nazis seem just like everybody else, motivated by the everyday emotion of envy, Aly risks making the extraordinary seem ordinary. It is no accident that his book’s underlying message is a more scholarly version of Hannah Arendt’s “banality of evil” thesis. She, too, was a Weimar intellectual, the pupil and lover of Martin Heidegger, the Nazi philosopher who (as we now know from his newly published notebooks) was denouncing Weltjudentum (“World Jewry”) even as the Nazis were murdering Jews by the millions. And the banality-of-evil thesis is as wrongheaded today as it was when Saul Bellow’s Mr. Sammler said of Arendt: “This woman professor’s enemy is modern civilization itself. She is only using the Germans to attack the twentieth century—to denounce it in terms invented by Germans. Making use of a tragic history to promote the foolish ideas of Weimar intellectuals.”