by Gotz Aly
Reviewed in The New York Times, April 7, 2020, by Steven J. Zipperstein.
What Were the Origins of the Holocaust?
Hannah Arendt would have eviscerated the title of “The Origins of Totalitarianism” had she not been the book’s author. Though published in 1951, it is still the most influential work on the worst of Europe’s 20th-century horrors. Yet contrary to its title’s claim to uncover “origins,” Arendt would have insisted that all efforts to speak in such clear-cut terms about causality were bound to be reductive, alien to the true pulse of history. “Not only does the actual meaning of every event always transcend any number of past ‘causes’ which we may assign to it,” she wrote in an essay appearing shortly after her magnum opus, “this past itself comes into being only with the event itself.”
For years now, the German historian Gotz Aly has been looking for causes. In densely documented book after book — packed with the bureaucratic memorandums that are the core of his evidentiary universe — he has sought “to discern the utilitarian goals behind the murder of the European Jews.” Aly is an earnest, tireless compiler of the often arcane or overlooked, yet there is something raw, never quite finished, if always usefully suggestive, in his approach.
It was the goal of robbing Jews of their wealth that dominated his early research. Later, “Why the Germans? Why the Jews?” would identify a stultifying envy of Jews, wealthy or not, as the prime motive of the Holocaust, the infuriating sense in Germany and elsewhere, too, that Jews, in the words of Maxim Gorky, were “obviously better, more adroit and more capable.”
Now in his most ambitious effort, “Europe Against the Jews: 1880-1945,” which is billed as a “prehistory of the genocide,” Aly elaborates on the thesis that the Nazi effort to eradicate an entire people is explainable as “rational,” if, of course, also deplorable. He now sees the origins of the Holocaust in the consolidation of nationalism around the turn of the 20th century. Above all, the welter of new nation-states to emerge from the slaughterhouse of World War I is identified as the essential station on the road to ethnic cleansing, and worse.
At the book’s start, Aly cites the playwright and Jewish political leader Israel Zangwill, who asked a 1907 audience to ponder what it might mean for Jewish immigrants if they were unable to locate a new home and were compelled to return to Europe. Imagine, Zangwill wondered, if “300,000 Jews came back.” Aly’s answer is emphatic: “Some 30 years later, Germany and Poland demonstrated exactly what would happen.”
Less than two decades after Zangwill’s question the die was cast. The postwar world had unleashed new nation-states with license to practice an ethnic homogenization to the benefit of the majority. Such majorities — Poles, Ukrainians, Romanians — rose to political power to the detriment of Europe’s increasingly marginalized, often embattled minorities. Buttressed by ideology not infrequently liberal but fueled, as often as not, by rank ethnic prejudice, the expulsion of minorities would soon find itself “an acceptable European political practice.”
Any protections of minorities, like those internationally affirmed in the wake of World War I, soon proved toothless — above all, for Europe’s Jews. Thus, in a world defined by nationalism, Jews, in the words of Hannah Arendt, were left with “no right to reside in any country on earth.” There’s little surprise that before her rise as a political theorist, Arendt was a Zionist activist.
Much of Aly’s book is a country-by-country dissection of the backdrop to nationalism that, as he explains, set in motion the lexicon first for the exclusionary policies of the 1930s, then the murderous practices of the 1940s. He tracks the evolution of these trends from the late 19th century. But if judged on the basis of his treatment of czarist Russia, home to half the Jews of the world at the turn of the 20th century, his knowledge beyond Germany feels sparse. Pogroms weren’t “state sanctioned,” the 15 provinces of the Pale of Settlement were not a “giant ghetto” and the regime had no coherent policy with regard to Jewish emigration.
Even with regard to Germany, Aly never manages to capture Nazism’s all-encompassing anti-Jewish hatred, the “torrent of ideological fanaticism” — in the words of the eminent historian Saul Friedlander — “the murderous fury” that “would explode in an unlimited urge for destruction and death.” Rarely in Aly’s work does one find more than history’s unadorned bricks, which seem insufficient in explicating the underpinnings of the horror.
Still, Aly has a masterly command of the facts of the Nazi catastrophe, its bricks and mortar amassed in all their mountainous detail. And the details he captures are all the more crucial because they are generally inaccessible in secondary sources elsewhere.
Curiously, Aly sees his new book as something more than a historical narrative: It is, he suggests, a guide for how “to prevent similar horrors from happening in the future.” Thus, it begins (this a jarring turn for a study of the backdrop to Nazi genocide) with Zionism’s progenitor, Theodor Herzl. In Aly’s version, Herzl sought to guide the construction in the Middle East of a European-inspired, Jewishly homogeneous nation-state, with its predictable outcome: the dismissal of the land’s indigenous population, a tragedy that festers to the present day.
Herzl is portrayed, at the same time, as a prescient prophet of doom, who sees more starkly than most the dangerous development in Europe of a view of Jews as disruptive immigrants, subversive radicals and intolerable economic competitors. Herzl’s solution, as Aly sums it up, is Jewish settlement on the “empty spaces on earth” so that Jews can create “a homogeneous nation at peace with itself.”
This he culls from Herzl’s diaries. But the problem once again is with Aly’s inclination to flatten his details. Herzl does indeed say all that Aly attributes to him, but as the Harvard historian Derek Penslar has observed, Herzl’s diaries are not a readily transparent source for his politics since they’re often punctuated by fevered speculations on matters contradicted by Herzl elsewhere. This is especially true with regard to his late-life novel “Old-New Land,” the work probably dearest to Herzl’s heart, where Palestine is depicted as a social utopia with Arabs and Jews living peacefully side by side. There the villain is a heinous Jewish ethnocentric.
Aly’s book appears, of course, at a moment when anti-Semitism seems ascendant, yet also when the chasm between proponent and foe is more confounding than ever. Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu is now the most articulate, respectable proponent of much the same far-right nationalist populism that has historically nurtured anti-Jewish hatred. And in the United States the White House continues to stoke anti-Semitism’s embers, branding others as purveyors of hate while itself remaining the bearer of insidious messages that cut deep into public life.
Aly’s reminder of the usefulness of taking a close look at the quiet horrors of Europe’s interwar years thus, despite the shortcomings of his new book, feels all the more valuable today. And his acknowledgment that comparisons between now and then — once the province of the ill-informed — deserve more serious attention from historians and others is just one of many reminders as to how far we’ve stumbled into an age of troubled sleep.