Category Archives: why the Jews

Between Fanaticism and Terror

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Review by Claudia Moscovici, author of Holocaust Memories: A Survey of Holocaust Memoirs, Histories, Novels and Films (Rowman & Littlefield Publishing Group, 2019)

https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/076187092X/ref=ox_sc_saved_title_3?smid=ATVPDKIKX0DER&psc=1

During WWII much of Europe was caught in a vice between fanaticism and terror; between Hitler and Stalin. The plight of tens of millions of people falling victim to Stalinism on the one hand and Fascism on the other is eloquently captured by a Polish prisoner in Russia:   “I think with horror and shame of a Europe divided into two parts by the line of the Bug, on one side of which millions of Soviet slaves prayed for liberation by the armies of Hitler, and on the other millions of victims of German concentration camps awaited deliverance by the Red Army as their last hope” (Gustaw  Herling, A World Apart, 175-76).

The similarities between the two dictators obsessed with acquiring unlimited power are far greater than their differences. Yet it’s worth noting that they selected their targets differently. Stalin’s purges covered every segment of society, almost indiscriminately: the Communist party; the Politburo; even the army, navy and air force in a time when preparations for war should have been a priority. On the other hand, Hitler honed in on one main target: the Jews. His single-minded focus on destroying the Jewish people could only be called, in his own words, “fanaticism”. He remarked: “Any violence which does not spring from a firm spiritual base will be wavering and uncertain. It lacks the stability which can only rest in a fanatical outlook” (Mein Kampf, 171). What could have led a human being to want to efface the Jewish people from the face of the Earth? There are many hypotheses about what might have caused Hitler’s hatred, ranging from psychological to sociological and biographical explanations. These explanations, however, only make sense in hindsight. Nothing in Hitler’s adolescence, when pathology usually shows up, gave any clear sign of the tremendous anti-Semitic hatred that was lurking within him.

Biographers state that Hitler was a mediocre student, receiving bad grades in physics, mathematics and German. His did better in art, but wasn’t that original. As a young man, he pursued his artistic career in Vienna for about six years. Some state that Hitler’s anti-Semitism grew out of his frustration that he wasn’t accepted to the prestigious Vienna Art Academy. They speculate that he may have blamed his failure on the Jews. Yet there’s evidence to the contrary as well.  Hitler continued to sell his art and make a living from the art sales, supplemented by funds from his family.  Interestingly, as Raul Hilberg states, “Apparently, two of the dealers were Jews.” (Perpetrators, Victims, Bystanders, 4).

WWII seems to have been a major turning point in Hitler life. Yet even then nobody could have guessed that this mediocre soldier would rise to absolute power—and wield destruction—throughout Europe. He was decorated the Iron Cross First Class during the war, but only the second or third time he was recommended for it: incidentally, by a Jew (Lieutenant Gutmann). At the end of the war, Hitler was gassed and spent time recuperating in a hospital. There he had time to contemplate what might have brought about the humiliating defeat of Germany. The company commander of the unit to which Hitler belonged in 1919 asked the question why Germany had lost the war. Hitler wrote down an answer that was to echo the major themes of Mein Kampf, his autobiographical treatise written in prison and published in 1925-26. He distinguished between an anti-Semitism based on reason, which would have staying power, and an anti-Semitism based on emotion, usually expressed in pogroms, which wouldn’t efface the Jews from the face of the Earth. (Perpetrators, Victims, Bystanders, 5)

So to return to our earlier question: why did Hitler target the Jews as the main scapegoat and object of his vitriol? He himself offers a direct answer to this question in Mein Kampf:

“The art of leadership,” Hitler states, “as displayed by really great popular leaders in all ages, consists in consolidating the attention of the people against a single adversary… Where there are various enemies… it will be necessary to block them all together as forming one solid front, so that the mass of followers in a popular movement may see only one common enemy against whom they have to fight. Such uniformity intensifies their belief in their own cause and strengthens their feeling of hostility towards the opponent” (Mein Kampf, 110).

This statement reflects the cold and calculated reasoning Hitler alluded to as early as the note of 1919.  He targeted the Jews as his scapegoats and victims for strategic reasons. Hitler’s explicit intent is to simplify the root of all social and economic problems to the Jews—outsiders in practically every European culture–and coalesce all forces and people against this common enemy. This choice isn’t primarily a matter of genuine emotion, nor only of a pathological, sick hatred. As for Stalin during the Great Terror, it’s primarily the product of an insatiable, malicious will to power. This ultimate answer–which boils down to evil for its own sake–could have never offered a satisfactory response to the question most often scribbled by victims on cell walls, in prisons, concentration camps and gulags, a question which still echoes to this day:  “Zachto—Why?

Claudia Moscovici, Holocaust Memory 

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Hannah Arendt’s The Origins of Totalitarianism: Why the Jews?

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Review by Claudia Moscovici, author of Holocaust Memories: A Survey of Holocaust Memoirs, Histories, Novels and Films (Rowman & Littlefield Publishing Group, 2019)

https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/076187092X/ref=ox_sc_saved_title_3?smid=ATVPDKIKX0DER&psc=1

Hailed as a classic by the Times Literary Supplement and ranked by Le Monde as one of the 100 best books of 20th century, Hannah Arendt’s monumental study, The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951), sketches a political philosophy of the rise of Nazism and Stalinism. In her discussion of the rise of the Nazi movement in particular, Arendt refutes previous explanations of the dissemination of anti-Semitism and its vicious culmination in the Holocaust.

She dismisses explanations of anti-Semitism that she considers “ahistorical,” which do not take into account how prejudices and discrimination against the Jews, occurring throughout the centuries, turned into the center of racist ideology for the Nazi movements.  To understand the historical difference between previous anti-Semitic tendencies and actions—even ones as severe and deadly as pogroms—and the Nazi extermination camps, Arendt describes the unique nature of totalitarian power.

In the first part of the book, Arendt refutes common misconceptions of anti-Semitism. Her arguments focus upon a central question: Why the Jews? How and why did the Jewish people throughout Europe come to be targeted for discrimination, abuse, mass deportation and extermination?

1. The rise in nationalism did not cause a corresponding rise in anti-Semitism in Europe

One common answer to this question explains the radical rise of anti-Semitism in Europe in terms of the rise in nationalist sentiments and its “xenophobic outbursts”. Arendt contends that just the opposite is true: modern anti-Semitism grew as nationalism declined throughout Europe. Nazi ideology, while making use of nationalist sentiments in its rhetoric, actually emphasized the international character of “race”. Hitler never hid the fact that his aim was to ensure the supremacy of the “Aryan” race in Europe and, if possible, throughout the world by subjugating and even eliminating “inferior races”. He turned prevalent feelings of national fervor, anti-Semitism and xenophobia into a transnational racial war.

2. The Jews were not randomly selected as Nazism’s main target and victims

Arendt goes on to refute another common misconception: namely, that the Nazi movement could have selected any other group as the main target of its hatred and abuse. After all, it did include other groups in its categories of “undesirables,” including the mentally handicapped, Gypsies and even the Poles (or the Slavs in general, whom Hitler planned to enslave if he had won the war).  But nobody can deny that the isolation and extermination of the Jews was Hitler’s—and, consequently, the Nazi movement’s—primary obsession. The Nazis pursued the mass deportations and extermination of Jews even at the cost of an economic loss and even after the battle of Stalingrad, when they began to lose the war. This is not, however, because the Jews are perpetual scapegoats and victims. “The theory that the Jews are always the scapegoat implies that the scapegoat might have been anyone else as well,” Arendt points out. “It upholds the perfect innocence of the victim, an innocence which insinuates not only that no evil was done but that nothing at all was done that might possibly have a connection with the issue at stake.” (The Origins of Totalitarianism, 5) So then why were the Jews targeted as the Nazi regimes primary enemies and targets?

3. The Jews were targeted by the Nazis not because of their vast influence, as was claimed by fascist movements, but because of their statelessness and powerlessness

Nazi propaganda held the Jews responsible for everything that went wrong—economic crises, Germany’s humiliation after the Treaty of Versailles, unemployment, etc. This implied that the Jews were a unified people that had an incredible political power. Hitler described his war against the Jews as a self-defense against a “Jewish conspiracy” to take over the world. Yet, Arendt maintains, the opposite holds true. “Anti-Semitism reached its climax when Jews had similarly lost their public functions and their influence, and were left with nothing but their wealth.” (The Origins of Totalitarianism, 4) Arendt plausibly argues that Jewish wealth without political power and social influence began to be seen as parasitical in nature. It stirred envy rather than respect and contempt rather than compassion: at least in people already inclined to finding scapegoats for their troubles.

4. Totalitarianism subjugates perfectly obedient people

No doubt, there’s a personal, quirky and irrational component to Hitler’s obsessive hatred of the Jewish people, which became part and parcel of his insatiable drive for power. Hitler justified his desire for total control not only of the German people, but also of Europe and eventually the world, in terms of “saving” the Aryan race from imminent contamination and eventual destruction by the Jews. Yet he targeted Jewish victims who not only had no desire to take over the world, but also who didn’t have the means to do it. In general, Arendt argues, the victims of totalitarian terror are selected because of their helplessness and innocence, not because of their power and culpability. The assault upon the Jewish people, she goes on to illustrate, was only the first step in a reign of terror of unprecedented proportions that would aim at nothing short of the destruction of ethical values and of human identity itself.

Claudia Moscovici

Literature Salon

https://literaturesalon.wordpress.com

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