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.