Book Review // A World Without Jews
A World Without Jews:
The Nazi Imagination from Persecution to Genocide
Yale University Press.
2014, pp. 284, $30.00
by Karl E. Meyer
A Biblical Theory of the Holocaust
No topic in history has provoked a greater outpouring of books and treatises than Hitler’s Third Reich. As of 1995 there were 25,000 titles on the Nazi era, and by the year 2000, the total reached “a whopping 37,000,” according to author Alon Confino, who cites a scholarly list compiled in Darmstadt. This continuing flood attests to the ongoing struggle, within and without Germany, to comprehend the motivations behind the rise of National Socialism and its monstrous offspring, the Holocaust. As frankly phrased by Richard von Weizsäcker, Germany’s first president following reunification, hardly any nation is free from blame for war, but “the genocide of the Jews is unparalleled in history,” to quote his address marking the 40th anniversary of Germany’s surrender in 1985.
Unlike the massacre of an estimated million or more Armenians in Turkey just a century ago, the Holocaust was not limited to a specific country but was pursued with relentless zeal in German-occupied Eastern Europe and the Balkans, with the willing complicity of Hitler’s nominally sovereign allies in Italy, Central Europe and Vichy France. Yet the principal architect of this unparalleled atrocity was a Western country previously esteemed for its learning and literacy, its devotion to music and the arts, and its presumed piety. So what propelled Hitler’s killing machine?
Alon Confino, a widely published historian at the University of Virginia and Israel’s Ben Gurion University, offers a fresh, sobering explanation. The concept of a Final Solution, in his view, stemmed from the Nazis’ imagined future of a world without Jews, specifically joined to their determination to eliminate all links to the Old Testament. With its roots in pre-Hitler Germany, he writes, this vision found tangible expression in the burning of Hebrew Bibles at the outset of the Nazi era, leading inexorably to Kristallnacht, or the Night of Broken Glass, on November 9, 1938, when Nazi gangs trashed hundreds of synagogues, sacked Jewish-owned stores and burned venerable Torahs.
Among contemporary witnesses, Confino summons Joseph Roth, a prescient journalist and novelist born in 1918 in Galicia in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, at the epicenter of Europe’s “Bloodlands” (the apt term devised by Yale’s Timothy Snyder). Hitler’s aim from the outset, Roth wrote, was to burn books, murder Jews and cleanse Christianity of its Hebrew taint. In Roth’s words, “This Third Reich is only the beginning of the end! … For the first time Jews are not being murdered for crucifying Christ but for having produced him from their midst. If the books of Jewish or supposed Jewish authors are burned, what really is set fire to is the Book of Books: the Bible.”
Confino is a fluent writer with an eye for salient episodes and quotations, gleaned from a wide range of published sources. He moves from bonfire to battlefield, composing a tapestry of unremitting horrors, as in his account of the invading German Army’s Police Battalion 309 as it burst into Bialystok, a key city in Soviet-occupied northeastern Poland, on June 27, 1941. The commander was under orders to “clean up” a city of 100,000 inhabitants, of whom roughly half were Jews. The cleansing culminated when the invaders herded 700 Jews into the city’s principal synagogue, dating to 1664. Having locked its doors, the Germans set it on fire; those who tried to escape were slain as they jumped from windows. Yet a few months later, one of the perpetrators shrugged in a letter to his girlfriend, “For these dreadful creatures this is certainly the only just solution.”
I confess to ambivalence regarding Confino’s core thesis. To reverse a familiar cliché, the merit of his book lies in its details, while the debit lies in his suggestion that a master narrative animated Nazi Germany’s unique but not clearly defined pact with the devil. As evidenced in a roomful of books on the Holocaust, it was not mainly Old Testament theology or book burning that principally led to the Nazi inferno. Anti-Semitism, populist rage, class envy, conspiracy theories, xenophobia and pseudo-science all contributed to turning ordinary Germans into active or passive accessories of the Final Solution. Belief in the supposed supremacy of the Aryan race prompted Heinrich Himmler to dispatch an expedition to Lhasa in 1939. Led by Dr. Ernst Schäfer, a secular zoologist, its mandate was to measure the skulls of Tibetans, putative ancestors of the master race. Within the Third Reich, Nazi doctors tortured prisoners in a ghastly parody of scientific research to confirm the supposed biological basis of Aryan superiority.
No less confused and mutable was the postwar response within Germany to successive revelations about the Holocaust. Initially, amnesia and denial of ex-Nazis in high places; then generational strife, pitting angry students against defensive parents; then successive revelations via films, documentaries and novels in West Germany, plus leftist obfuscation in East Germany, leading to an unexpected finale: orderly unification, the Holocaust memorial, Berlin’s Jewish Museum, and a proliferation of tablets specifying evils done to Jews, including embedded bricks identifying their former homes. In short, there are more Germanys than one finds in the pages of Confino’s important book, which is marred by maximizing a religious obsession as the key motive for the Holocaust.
The Holocaust was far more than a theological rite. Hitler repeatedly announced before, during and near the end of World War II that “the Jew will be eradicated,” while concealing the existence of death camps like Auschwitz. As Confino writes, “the Holocaust was not and could not be a secret; rather, it was a precious fact that symbolized and touched essential elements of their identity, history and humanity. A fact of this magnitude could not simply be hidden, but given its transgression, it could not yet be revealed with total frankness either.” Why else would Germany invite Red Cross inspection of Terezin—a less-than-horrific internment camp in the former Czechoslovakia filled with artists, writers and musicians? Evidently, even Nazis sensed a difference between burning Bibles and burning people, while secretly pursuing the Final Solution.
Karl E. Meyer has written extensively about foreign affairs while on editorial boards of The New York Times and The Washington Post. He is author or co-author, with Shareen Blair Brysac, of 14 books of history and cultural analysis. Their newest book, The China Collectors: America’s Century-Long Hunt for Asian Treasures, was published in March.