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From the JFR Library – December 2022

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From the JFR Library

Why the Germans? Why the Jews?: Envy, Race Hatred, and the Prehistory of the Holocaust

by Götz Aly

translated by Jef­fer­son Chase

Review By Michael N. Dobkowski for the Jewish Book Council – October 6, 2014

Götz Aly, a well-respect­ed and well pub­lished his­to­ri­an of the Third Reich, tries his hand at one of the most per­plex­ing and elu­sive issues of the Holo­caust: why the Ger­mans and why the Jews? Sep­a­rat­ing him­self from most of the schol­ar­ship on this ques­tion, he argues that it is not racial ide­ol­o­gy or reli­gious ani­mos­i­ty that moti­vat­ed Germany’s par­tic­u­lar brand of ​“elim­i­na­tion­ist” anti-Semi­tism. Rather he sees its ori­gins in ma­terial con­cerns root­ed in envy, fear of fail­ure, inse­cu­ri­ty, resent­ment, and a dri­ve for social equal­i­ty. Aly traces the rela­tion­ship of Ger­mans and Jews from Jew­ish eman­ci­pa­tion in 1805 when the Jews began to leave the ghet­to and enter into Ger­man soci­ety, to 1933 when Hitler achieved pow­er. Through eco­nom­ic and edu­ca­tion­al sta­tis­tics, polit­i­cal, jour­nal­is­tic, and cul­tur­al reflec­tions on Ger­man soci­ety, and fam­i­ly doc­u­ments and let­ters, he con­trasts the rapid rise and accom­plish­ments of the edu­cat­ed Jew­ish pop­u­la­tion after emancipa­tion, to the rel­a­tive stag­na­tion of the rur­al and une­d­u­cat­ed Ger­man pop­u­la­tion. This cre­at­ed fer­tile ground for resent­ment and envy and Aly explains how anti-Semi­tism could gain such a foothold in Ger­man soci­ety, lead­ing ulti­mate­ly to geno­ci­dal poli­cies. Ger­mans were not ​“des­tined” to fol­low this path. The road to Auschwitz remained ​“twist­ed.” How­ev­er, this ulti­mate­ly was the path they went down.

In the process, Ger­many had to over­turn tra­di­tion­al val­ues as it con­vert­ed mass mur­der into a civic virtue. This was made pos­si­ble by the force of nation­al myths and habits of thought and by the impact of these diverg­ing eco­nom­ic and edu­ca­tion ten­den­cies. There was a deep-seat­ed sense of infe­ri­or­i­ty that gnawed at the Ger­man spir­it. Despite the impres­sive indus­tri­al­iza­tion and mil­i­tary, Ger­mans felt inse­cure, not part of a weld­ed nation. Hatred of anoth­er is often the oth­er side of self-con­tempt. If, indeed, Ger­mans lacked what they so ardent­ly envied in oth­ers, the image of the Jew­ish peo­ple as a peo­ple unit­ed by a nation­al reli­gion and cul­ture might assume exag­ger­at­ed importance.

This is cer­tain­ly not a nov­el the­o­ry. Jean-Paul Sartre in his 1946 book, Anti-Semi­te and Jew, already point­ed out the con­nec­tions between anti-Semi­tism and inse­cu­ri­ty and that the anti-Semi­te flees respon­si­bil­i­ty and choses hatred out of the fear of being free, medi­oc­rity out of fear of being alone, and out of this false pride he makes a ​“rigid aris­toc­ra­cy.” What is new here is the exten­sive doc­u­men­ta­tion Aly pro­vides that sug­gests why Ger­many was more sus­cep­ti­ble than oth­er Euro­pean coun­tries to these ten­den­cies. Racial the­o­ry dis­guised hatred as analy­sis and made Ger­man short­com­ings seem like virtues. It also pro­vid­ed jus­ti­fi­ca­tion for legal dis­crim­i­na­tion against Jews, allow­ing Ger­mans to sub­li­mate their aggres­sion, born of envy and feel­ings of infe­ri­or­i­ty, to the state and to see the state as the mech­a­nism of redress for the per­ceived injus­tices of Jews hav­ing more than their fair share.

As an expla­na­tion for Ger­man anti-Semi­tism, Aly’s provoca­tive book is cer­tain­ly sug­ges­tive. How­ev­er, how indi­vid­ual hatred was trans­formed into a col­lec­tive, pas­sion­ate need to find a ​“Final Solu­tion” to the Jew­ish ques­tion, remains unan­swered and pos­si­bly unanswerable.

Michael N. Dobkows­ki is a pro­fes­sor of reli­gious stud­ies at Hobart and William Smith Col­leges. He is co-edi­tor of Geno­cide and the Mod­ern Age and On the Edge of Scarci­ty (Syra­cuse Uni­ver­si­ty Press); author of The Tar­nished Dream: The Basis of Amer­i­can Anti-Semi­tism; and co-author of The Nuclear Predicament.

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