Nazi Germany and the Jews Volume I: The Years of Persecution, 1933-1939
by Saul Friedländer
HarperCollins. 436 pp. $30.00
Over the past 30 years, in books with titles like Pius XII and the Third Reich (1966), Prelude to Downfall: Hitler and the United States 1939-41 (1967), Reflections of Nazism (1984), and Probing the Limits of Representation: Nazism and the “Final Solution” (1992), Saul Friedländer has dealt in a sober, thought-provoking way with the nature, the meaning, and the consequences of Nazism and the Holocaust. Now a professor of history at Tel Aviv University and UCLA, Friedländer is also the author of an elegiac and moving personal memoir, When Memory Comes (1979), describing his traumatic separation from his parents (both of whom perished in Auschwitz), his boyhood in Nazi-occupied France where he was temporarily “converted” to Catholicism, and his passage as a fifteen-year-old to the newly-founded state of Israel in 1948.
If Friedländer differs from other historians of the “Final Solution,” it is in his steadfast reluctance to develop any overarching thesis to explain that seismic event, and in his critical questioning of all interpretations that ignore its “opaqueness”: that is, both its radical novelty and its indeterminate, elusive nature. His new book (the first part of a projected two-volume work) does not really constitute an exception to the rule; but in it, for the first time, he does seek to provide his own synthetic account of the Holocaust. It is also the first book he has written in English rather than in his native French.
At first glance, the volume before us is a conventional enough historical narrative. Divided into two roughly equal parts, it recounts the step-by-step process by which the Nazi regime tightened its menacing grip over the Jews of Germany in the years between 1933 and 1939. In a welcome departure from much current Holocaust historiography, Friedländer weaves the victims’ story into his general narrative, showing the often tardy and confused responses of Jews at all levels of society as they became tangled in the ever-growing web of administrative measures aimed against them.
The five opening chapters cover the “cleansing” of the Jews from German intellectual and artistic life, the economic boycott of Jewish businesses, and the racist legislation that systematically began to restrict Jews to a “new ghetto,” segregated from the rest of German society. In these chapters Friedländer emphasizes the centrality of what he calls the “redemptive anti-Semitism” shared by Hitler and the hard core of the Nazi party—a mixture of murderous rage at the Jews and “idealistic” racial goals that would later lead to the Final Solution.
But, as Friedländer shows, Hitler’s intentions were also circumscribed during the first six years of Nazi rule by short-term contingencies, changing circumstances, and tactical considerations. He convincingly describes the way in which the Nazi leaders maneuvered between their own radical inclinations and the need to satisfy not only the conservative German elites with whom they still shared power but international public opinion. Here he puts particular emphasis on the role of the German universities and the Protestant and Catholic hierarchies, as well as the financial and business elites.
Friedländer has used to good effect a broad array of recently published material and new archival findings on German public opinion. Although most Germans welcomed the Nuremberg race laws of 1935, they were considerably less enthusiastic about the destructive anti-Jewish violence which culminated in the nationwide pogrom of November 1938, euphemistically known as Kristallnacht. Much to the irritation of Nazi officials, many Germans, while showing little if any solidarity with the persecuted, continued to avail themselves of the services of Jewish bankers, store owners, merchants, or physicians. In this, “ordinary Germans” did not differ substantially from the German elites, who were generally willing to approve the removal of Jews from the civil service, the professions, higher education, and the arts and sciences even if they did not always share the uncompromising anti-Semitism of the party radicals.
In the second half of the book, titled “The Entrapment,” Friedländer narrates the gathering momentum of the Nazi onslaught after 1936. This crusade combined ever more draconian legislation, defamation, and dispossession in an atmosphere of increasingly sadistic brutality. Playing into Hitler’s hands was the fact that all across the European continent—not only in Berlin but in Vienna, Paris, Warsaw, and elsewhere—anti-Semitism had come to infect the attitudes of millions, including some of the leading lights of the European intelligentsia. Thus, by the eve of World War II, the Jews of the Third Reich were already “a broken remnant.”
The great virtue of Friedländer’s presentation lies in his ability to juxtapose different themes and facets while preserving an orderly chronological narrative. We are shown the international as well as the domestic context of Hitler’s speeches relating to Jews; the callous and cynical deliberations of Nazi leaders, as well as the decisions of lower-level functionaries; the passivity of ordinary Germans, as well as the despair of the trapped Jewish victims. Moreover, by skillfully introducing some of the methods of contemporary social history (which in the past he has criticized), Friedländer persuasively demonstrates the great variety of individual situations in Nazi Germany, especially during the early years.
Some of the most telling vignettes in the book deal with the often neglected fate of Mischlinge (children of mixed marriages between Jews and Germans, who numbered at least 200,000 in 1935) caught in the wheels of an insatiable bureaucracy. Elsewhere we are given fascinating glimpses into the “everyday life” of the Third Reich: the social and legal imbroglios created by the Nazi obsession with Rassenschande (racial defilement); the ability of resourceful individuals occasionally to exploit loopholes in Nazi legislation; the ongoing dealings between peasants and Jews in the countryside; the surrealistic problems posed by trying to prove “Aryan” ancestry; and, more ominously, the conspiratorial fantasies woven by SS “Jewish experts” around the activities of world Jewry. For all this scrupulous attention to minute details, Friedländer never loses sight of the underlying viciousness of the Nazi project to destroy the foundations of Jewish existence.
A number of impressions emerge from Friedländer’s attempt at an integrated perspective. One is that the Holocaust was neither “accidental” nor predetermined. Another is that anti-Semitism, although a central factor, does not by itself explain everything. The Jews were not merely objects of history; their own attitudes and responses, and their perception of their place in European society, were an essential ingredient in the larger picture. Finally, if Hitler and the Nazi-party leadership were indeed the prime movers in the onslaught against the Jews, in order to carry out their will they needed, and secured, the cooperation, complicity, or silent assent of many groups in German society.
Despite its carefully differentiated analysis, Friedländer’s book nonetheless has its weaknesses. Considerably more attention might have been paid to the response of German Jewry to its impoverishment, isolation, and persecution. There is virtually no mention of Jewish religious leaders and their reactions, no discussion of the German Jewish intellectuals and the way they confronted Nazi policy. Nor is there much information about internal deliberations within communal bodies. Similarly unexplored are the dilemmas posed by emigration from the Third Reich, as well as the effects of positions adopted by German Zionists.
In addition, despite the full treatment of Nazi policies, we are still left unclear as to how far Hitler’s “redemptive anti-Semitism” had successfully penetrated German society by 1939. Even more surprising, given Friedländer’s decades of research, is the lack of even a tentative conclusion or unifying thesis. What can we now say about the years of persecution that preceded the Holocaust? What do they add up to? Where were they leading? What is their significance for our understanding of what was about to come?
In short, Friedländer remains cautious to a fault about shaping his material into a cohesive whole or offering anything like an overall interpretation of the events he describes. Notwithstanding its wealth of insight and detail, reading this book is thus, at times, an oddly frustrating experience. Still, it remains a considerable achievement, an important landmark in the as yet unfinished project of grasping the nature and the meaning of the Holocaust.