IN 1978, in Toward the Final Solution: A History of European Racism, the historian George Mosse emphasized the parallels between European white racism of the modern era towards blacks and European racial hatred of the Jews. Both the European pseudoscientists and racial ideologues such as Houston Stewart Chamberlain, and then various Nazi racial ideologues, like the advocates of white supremacy in the United States, purported to uncover connections between external appearances and body type with pejorative features of mind and character. Culminating in the caricatures that filled the pages of Julius Streicher’s Der Stürmer, they depicted a stereotyped Jewish body held to be physically inferior in every way to an idealized vision of the beautiful Aryan body. They viewed Jews’ alleged physical ugliness as innate evidence of moral inferiority.
The strand of anti-Semitism that imputed moral inferiority to the Jews, based on the assertion that Jews were a distinct biological race in conflict with another, Aryan race, found clearest expression in the Nuremberg race laws of 1935, especially the “Law for the Protection of German Blood and Honor.” This and other laws passed that year blurred the distinctions between biology, race and religion, and transformed the Jews from a distinct religious group into a racial category. It included detailed reflections on the dangers of “mixing” German and Jewish blood and elaborate rules defining who was and was not Jewish. It forbade Germans to marry or have sexual relations with Jews as well as with persons of “alien blood,” that is, “Gypsies, Negroes and their bastards.”
As James Whitman has recently pointed out, the German lawyers involved in drafting these laws found helpful models in American miscegenation legislation. The consequences of the Nuremberg race laws were immediate: Jews lost their civil and political rights. In December 1935, a supplementary decree ordered the dismissal of Jewish professors, teachers, physicians, lawyers and notaries who were state employees and had been granted exemptions. This German era of persecution and denial of citizenship rights to Jews bears comparisons with persecution based on the imputation of inferiority to African Americans. In both cases, obsessions with racial biology and notions about racial superiority and inferiority led to discrimination, denial of citizenship rights, impoverishment and periodic violence.
This kind of racial anti-Semitism, with its elements of physical revulsion, sexual panic and assumption of clear, easily recognizable physical differences, had obvious parallels with European and American racism towards Africans and, later, African Americans. Like other forms of racism, including that of the slaveholding American South, this anti-Semitism associated pejorative qualities of inward character with specific physiological attributes. The Jewish body implied a Jewish character, associated with cowardice, sexual rapacity, crime, murderous attacks on women and children, lack of patriotism and subversion of the nation. This kind of pornographic and biological anti-Semitism certainly fostered a climate of hatred and revulsion in which mass murder was a possibility. It was central to the murders of the mentally ill and physically handicapped, and to barbaric “medical experiments” undertaken by Nazi physicians. It played an important role in the development of techniques of mass gassing and lent the prestige of science to inhumanity, and in so doing contributed to a climate of opinion in which a genocide could take place. Yet arguments resting on racial biology were not the decisive ones made by Hitler when he launched and implemented the Holocaust, nor those made by other Nazi leaders, notably Joseph Goebbels, in justifying the ongoing extermination. The Nazi anti-Semitism of the 1930s was similar in its outcomes to the white racism that had justified slavery before the Civil War and legalized segregation and discrimination afterwards. Ideological assertions about the supposed physical and moral inferiority of the Jews, like comparable assertions about African Americans, were components of both eras of persecution, associated with both forms of racism.
Yet the Nazis’ anti-Semitism of the 1930s led to an era of persecution, not mass murder. It was not the ideology of the Holocaust. In Mosse’s words, this racial anti-Semitism merely led “toward the Final Solution”; it did not bring the Nazi regime “to” the Final Solution. The now well-known terms—völkisch ideology, cultural despair, redemptive anti-Semitism, the hour of authoritarian biology, reactionary modernism and more recently Saul Friedlander’s reference to “redemptive antisemitism”—bring us to the ideological world of the Nuremberg race laws and the November pogrom of 1938, but not to the kind of anti-Semitism that accompanied and justified the leap beyond to the Final Solution.
THE CORE of the radical anti-Semitism that justified and accompanied the Holocaust was a conspiracy theory that ascribed not inferiority, but enormous power, to what it alleged was an international Jewish conspiracy that sought the destruction of the Nazi regime and the extermination of the German population. Its key component was prefigured in the infamous forgery The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. The accomplishment of Hitler and his propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels was to adapt elements of this conspiracy theory to explain the origins and nature of World War II, and to people its network with personalities in public life in the Soviet Union, Britain and the United States. The evidence of Nazi wartime propaganda indicates that the legend of a murderous international Jewish conspiracy, more than the biological obsessions about blood, race and sex of the Nuremberg race laws, lurked at the core of Nazi propaganda, and indeed constituted the distinctively genocidal component of Nazi ideology. The Nazis claimed that because “international Jewry” was waging a war of extermination against Germany, the Nazi regime had an obligation to “exterminate” and “annihilate” Europe’s Jews in self-defense.
It was this putrid blend of hatred and interpretation of radical anti-Semitism articulated by Hitler and his associates that justified and legitimated the leap from persecution to genocide. It drew on centuries of hatred of Jews in Christian Europe, and on six years of government-sponsored racist contempt and persecution. Added to the past disdain and contempt for features of Jews said to make them inferior to Germans was hatred fueled by fear of what the supposedly powerful Jews would do to Germany. While Southern slaveholders lived in fear of slave revolts, real and imagined, white supremacists did not present African Americans as members of a global conspiracy who were willing and able to wage war against the United States as a step on the path to black world domination. Rather, they viewed slaves as the Germans viewed the Poles and other Slavs: as intellectually inferior beings, incapable of organizing anything so massive as an international political conspiracy. Just as white supremacy and racism justified enslavement for purposes of labor, so the theory of an international Jewish conspiracy was, as Norman Cohn put it fifty years ago, the “warrant for genocide” that justified and accompanied the Final Solution.
The conspiracy theory of radical anti-Semitism was not only a bundle of hatreds and prejudices. It was the ideological framework through which the Nazi leadership interpreted (and misinterpreted) ongoing events. From the beginning to the end of the war that he and his government had launched, Hitler and his associates concluded that their paranoid fantasy of an international Jewish conspiracy was the key to contemporary history. Its distinctively genocidal component, the ideological element that called for a complete extermination of the Jewish people in Europe and everywhere on the globe, did not have its primary basis in racial biology. Rather the definition of the Jews as a race more than a religious group was decisive for making a political accusation against a supposedly real historical actor, which the Nazis called “international Jewry.”
THE NAZIS racially defined “Jewry” as a political subject, no less real than the governments of the Allied powers. “Jewry” was the power behind the scenes in “London, Moscow and Washington” and the “glue” that held together this unlikely coalition of “Jewish Bolsheviks” and “plutocrats.” On many occasions, Hitler and his associates said publicly that the Nazi regime would respond to this alleged prior act of Jewish aggression and attempted mass murder by “exterminating” and “annihilating” the “Jewish race” in Europe. From the perspective of the Nazi leadership, “the war against the Jews” was not only the Holocaust. It was also the war against Britain, the Soviet Union, the United States and their allies.
This argument calls for a revision of our understanding of what the Nazis meant by the phrase “the war against the Jews.” Since the publication of Lucy Dawidowicz’s classic work with that title, the phrase has come to be synonymous with the Holocaust. Dawidowicz’s work succeeded in drawing attention to the Holocaust, which in 1975 still stood in the shadows of the main historical event, the Second World War. Yet the evidence of the public assertions of Hitler and other Nazi leaders is clear. When they spoke of the war against the Jews, they were not referring only to the Final Solution. Rather, in their public statements and private diary entries and personal conversations, they asserted that war against the Jews comprised the war against the Allies, led by the United States, Great Britain and the Soviet Union, as well as against Europe’s Jews. These were two components of a single battle to the death between Germany and international Jewry. On numerous occasions, Hitler and other leading officials publicly threatened—and later proudly announced that they were accomplishing—the extermination of Europe’s Jews as an act of retaliation against the war that, they claimed, “the Jewish enemy” had launched against Germany and the Germans. When they spoke in this manner to justify mass murder, they had in mind a racially defined political subject active in contemporary history, whom they were attacking because of what they alleged it done, not primarily because of its alleged physiological features. In reality, of course, Nazi Germany attacked the Jews because they were Jews—that is, because of who they were rather than what they had actually done. The public and private justifications for the genocide reversed this elementary truth. While caricatures of the Jewish body filled the pages of Der Stürmer, the distinctively genocidal components of radical anti-Semitism dealt above all with what “international Jewry” was alleged to have done, not how Jews looked. The Jews, as Goebbels asserted in one of his most important anti-Semitic tirades, practiced “mimicry,” that is, they were experts at camouflaging their actual identity and passing as non-Jews. It was precisely because the Nazis did not believe that they could tell who was and was not a Jew by reference to biological features that they required Jews in Nazi-occupied Europe to wear the yellow star. It was what the Nazis accused the Jews of doing, not their physical features, that stood at the center of the Nazi commitment to mass murder.
The Nazis’ anti-Semitic conspiracy constituted for them a paranoid, explanatory narrative that seemed to solve key riddles of history. Why did Britain ally with the communist Soviet Union after Germany attacked in June 1941? Why did Roosevelt help the English and do all he could to prevent an early Nazi victory? Why did an alliance emerge between the Soviet Union, on the one hand, and the arch-capitalist societies, England and the United States, on the other? Why did the anti-Hitler coalition persist even after 1943, as the Red Army began to move towards and then into Europe and Germany?
WITH AN internal consistency that proved immune to empirical refutation, Hitler’s conspiracy theory appeared to account for a central paradox of the Second World War in Europe, namely how the “unnatural alliance” between the Soviet Union and the Western democracies emerged and persisted. In the eyes of common sense, Franklin Roosevelt and Churchill had decided to make a pact with the lesser evil of Stalin to defeat Hitler. From the perspective of Nazi anti-Semitic propaganda, the Western-Soviet alliance and the United States’ entry into the war were two powerful pieces of evidence that international Jewry had created and sustained the anti-Hitler coalition.
This narrative emanated foremost from Hitler himself. Goebbels elaborated it in weekly essays and radio addresses. Otto Dietrich, the chief of the Reich Press Office, worked every day in Hitler’s office and presented him with a daily digest of the international press every morning. Hitler then offered suggestions, which Dietrich conveyed as orders to his staff in Berlin. They in turn elaborated these into Presseanweisungen—press directives—to be handed out at a daily noon “press conference.” They were telexed to editors at hundreds of newspapers and periodicals each day or week. Journalists and editors who did not follow the directives risked losing their jobs or worse. Government control of the press was thus a daily and highly detailed exercise in dictatorial control.
The directives included broad themes regarding the power of the Jews as the driving force of the anti-Nazi coalition, as well as detailed instructions about word choice. For example, in the Zeitschriften-Dienst of June 13, 1939, the Press Office instructed editors not to use the term “anti-Semitism” because doing so undermined efforts to establish friendly relations with the Arab world. Instead the terms to describe Nazi policy were “defense against the Jews” or “hostility to the Jews” (Judengegnerschaft), while that for the Nazis themselves was Judengegner (“adversaries of the Jew”).
From his famous prophecy about the war and Jews on January 30, 1939, to his last will written in the Berlin bunker in April 1945, Hitler himself was key to the conspiracy narrative. In the years following World War I, Hitler denounced the Jews as alien to the German nation, and the cause of Germany’s problems from defeat to depression. Between 1920 and 1939, often in the most vicious terms, he called for the “removal of the Jews from the midst of our people.” Before 1939, Hitler paraded his violent hatred of the Jews and his determination to banish them from public life, the professions and the economy, deprive them of German citizenship and then, with force if need be, extrude them from Germany. Yet from January 1933 to January 1939, through six years of escalating anti-Semitic persecution, he did not declare his intention to exterminate the Jews of Europe. He first did so on January 30, 1939, when, in a speech to the Reichstag, he publicly threatened to “exterminate” all the Jews of Europe if “international finance Jewry inside and outside Europe” provoked a world war—the very same war, in fact, that he at that moment was planning to unleash.
Hitler publicly repeated the genocidal prophecy on at least seven different occasions between January 30, 1939 and February 24, 1943. He was clear and blunt, not euphemistic or vague, regarding this threat. As if to underscore the link in his own mind between the war and his policies toward the Jews, on January 30, 1941, he erroneously dated the first utterance of the prophecy as September 1, 1939, the day he began the invasion of Poland.
In the November 16, 1941 issue of the weekly journal Das Reich, Goebbels published “Die Juden sind schuld” (The Jews Are Guilty). By then, according to leading historians of Holocaust decisionmaking, Hitler had ordered Himmler to expand the mass shootings of Jews that took place on the eastern front in summer and early fall 1941 into a continental program of genocide against the Jews of Europe. The text marks the first time that a leading official of the Nazi regime publicly announced the “extermination” (Vernichtung) of European Jewry. The if-then, hypothetical structure of Hitler’s famous prophecy of January 1939 gave way to an assertion of ongoing action. Three weeks before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Goebbels said that the historical guilt of world Jewry for the outbreak and expansion of this war had been so extensively demonstrated that there was no need to waste any more words about it. They had “wanted their war,” and now they had it. Goebbels describes an active subject, “international Jewry,” on the offensive against an innocent, victimized German object. Goebbels puts it as follows:
“By unleashing this war, world Jewry completely misjudged the forces at its disposal. Now it is suffering a gradual process of annihilation which it had intended for us and which it would have unleashed against us without hesitation if it had the power to do so. It is now perishing as a result of its own law: An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth. In this historical dispute every Jew is our enemy, whether he vegetates in a Polish ghetto or scrapes out his parasitic existence in Berlin or Hamburg or blows the trumpets of war in New York or Washington. Due to their birth and race, all Jews belong to an international conspiracy against National Socialist Germany. They wish for its defeat and annihilation and do everything in their power to help to bring it about.”
The Jews had started the war. They were “now” undergoing a “gradual process of extermination,” one they had originally intended to inflict on Germany.
Hitler committed suicide in his bunker in Berlin on April 30, 1945. On April 29, he had written his “Political Testament.” He wrote that it was “not true that I or anyone else in Germany wanted war in 1939. It was desired and launched exclusively by those international statesmen who were either of Jewish origin or who worked for Jewish interests.” The “truly guilty party of this murderous battle is Jewry!” To the end, he persisted in the paranoid logic of innocence, irresponsibility and projection. The logical conclusion of Hitler’s conspiracy theory was that international Jewry, in the form of the anti-Hitler coalition, had won the Second World War.
Like the traditions of white racism towards blacks, Nazi attitudes towards the peoples of eastern Europe, Poland and the Soviet Union rested on notions of racial superiority. But here again, it was a racism not based on color but on inferiorities said to emerge from membership in particular nations and ethnicities. Yet the goal of Lebensraum in the east was territory that was cleared of much of its native population. Those who remained would be colonial subjects dominated by Germans who settled in the east. Had the Nazis won the Second World War, they had plans to classify many millions more of the citizens of eastern Europe as “excess eaters.” The massive death toll on the eastern front, and the horrific toll of death and suffering in the history of African American enslavement, illustrate how conventional racism, juxtaposing superior against inferior peoples, which fueled both phenomena, had deadly consequences.
WHY DID the Nazis accuse the Jews, rather than an international organization like the Catholic Church or the communities of Protestant believers dispersed among many different countries, of being the masterminds of an anti-German conspiracy? Why didn’t they implement a “Final Solution” of the black, Polish, French or any other national, religious or ethnic “question”? If the Nazis were conventional racists, why did they make great efforts to seek support from Muslims both in Europe and in North Africa and the Middle East? Posing the question requires a historian of Nazi Germany and the Holocaust, or it at least impels this historian, to lift a gaze beyond the famous twelve years or even the century preceding them and place them instead into the far longer continuities of European history, especially the history of Christian theological anti-Judaism. Hitler’s decision to murder the Jews of Europe, the enthusiastic participation of thousands of German officials, collaboration by many other Europeans and the indifference of millions cannot be understood without taking seriously the name the Nazis gave to the endeavor: “Final Solution of the Jewish Question in Europe.” The denial of the Jews’ humanity was, to as diverse a group of observers as Hannah Arendt, Konrad Adenauer and George Mosse, due to the anti-Christian, secular elements of Nazi racism. Yet the modern choice of the Jews—and not others—as the international, murderous but devilishly clever world conspirator depicted in the Protocols of the Elders of Zion and amplified to millions in Hitler’s prophecy speeches and Nazi propaganda of 1939–43 is historically inexplicable without taking into account the Western tradition of anti-Judaism that David Nirenberg has recently examined.
Doris Bergen, Robert Erickson, Saul Friedlander, Susannah Heschel, Christopher Probst and Richard Steigmann-Gall are among the historians of the Nazi era who have documented the extent to which the old religious hatreds that long preceded Nazism continued to incite its hatred of the Jews and Judaism. In a recent essay on postwar debates about Christianity, anti-Semitism and the Holocaust, Christian Wiese of the Goethe University in Frankfurt strikes the proper balance between implausible teleology and contingencies separated from their historical context. Though the murder of Europe’s Jews was not the inevitable outcome after nineteen centuries of the Christian accusation of deicide against the Jews, neither, as the Catholic Church’s “We Remember” statement of 1998 asserted, was the Holocaust “the work of a thoroughly modern neo-pagan regime” whose “antisemitism had its roots outside Christianity.” The fact that it was the Jews whom the Nazis and other European anti-Semites chose as the international conspirator cannot be explained without considering the many centuries during which the Christian churches held the Jews accountable for the death of Jesus and attributed a murderous, at times satanic, nature to both Judaism and the Jews. (Indeed, as historians of the Spanish Inquisition point out, racist thinking about “purity of blood” and supposed biological distinctions between Jews and others, another racism that was not based on color, was one of the Inquisition’s contributions to the Western tradition of racialized anti-Judaism.)
As obvious as it may seem, it is important for those of us who have spent so much time and effort writing the history of Nazi Germany and the Jews to recall the obvious. Namely, the Holocaust really was an attempt at a “final” solution to a “question” that had been at the core of Christian theology for nineteen centuries: what punishment was appropriate for a people accused of deicide? In the era of Nazism, Winston Churchill and Franklin Roosevelt defined Christianity utterly differently than did the Nazis, yet those who have tried to separate Nazism completely from the long Christian attack on Jews and Judaism push contingency too far. Doing so gives too little importance to the weight of the past.
In his essay “The 18th Brumaire of Louis Napoleon,” Karl Marx observed that “the tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living.” The eloquent phrase applies to his own ignorant comments about the Jews and Judaism a decade earlier in his essay on the Jewish question. It also applies to the history of anti-Semitism, both in the era of persecution and during that of the Holocaust. The recrudescence of anti-Semitism in Europe and in this country as well means that it is not simply a topic of historical interest, but is an acute contemporary problem. When the alt-right mob in Charlottesville chanted last summer that “Jews will not replace us,” the traditions of many dead generations were indeed alive as a nightmare that we must face with an unflinching gaze.
Jeffrey Herf is a Distinguished University Professor at the University of Maryland, College Park. He is the author of Undeclared Wars with Israel: East Germany and the West German Far Left, 1967–1989 and The Jewish Enemy: Nazi Propaganda During World War II and the Holocaust, among other works.