The Jewish Holocaust of the 1930s and 1940s is often portrayed as a case of the pure good of innocent Jews versus the pure evil of Hitler’s Nazis. That portrayal is inaccurate.
German Naziism was obviously a blight upon the world. But that flat statement is not very useful. It makes the Nazi party a mere historical artifact. Nazi Germany becomes a sort of boogeyman, trivialized in Hitler parody videos, Seinfeld’s Soup Nazi, and endless expressions scorned by Godwin’s Law. Learning from Nazi Germany calls, rather, for understanding what the Nazis did right: how, for example, they managed to appeal to so many Germans.
That brings us to this post. While the following discussion does look at the Nazi side of the equation, this post is focused primarily upon the supposedly pure good of the Jewish side. The essential point is that there are limits to the standard belief, in which the Jews were victimized through no fault of their own. That belief is not realistic. It does not help the Jews to learn from their mistakes — and in the pre-Nazi years, Germany’s Jews did make mistakes.
Early responses to this post demonstrate that some readers will respond in ineffective ways. I will be (I already have been) personally insulted, called antisemitic, and accused of blaming the victim. This sort of response is counterproductive. Hateful language does not support the claim that the Jews were pure and innocent.
The more intelligent response to the following material is to let it speak for itself. Despite the knee-jerk tendencies of some, the Holocaust was not morally simple. One need not be a neo-Nazi to grasp that. To the contrary, many Jews have recognized that mistakes were made, and that leading contemporary organizations, popular among older Jews, have compounded those mistakes. The Conclusion illustrates such concerns in present-day terms.
To learn from the Holocaust, and to prevent its recurrence, we must get past the superficial tale popularized in so many Hollywood movies. This post demonstrates an ironic possibility: that, simply by seeking out the truth, Gentiles like me may be doing more to protect the future of the Jewish people than many self-appointed defenders of Judaism are doing. Those who scoff at such a possibility are, again, invited to read and let the material speak for itself.
This remains a work subject to revision. Constructive comments are, of course, welcome.
This summary provides a short version of the Recap section, using blunt and simplistic phrasing for brevity. Those who are easily offended, or who already know what they want to believe, may not get past this summary. That would be unfortunate. I do attempt more delicate and elaborate phrasing in the full text.
Basically, this post says that the Germans (using “Germans,” as is common in Holocaust literature, to refer to Gentile Germans except where otherwise indicated) were not insane, that the Jews contributed to the Holocaust, and that even the Nazis were more diverse than one might gather from a typical Hollywood portrayal.
Readers who don’t have time for the Recap may appreciate a few quick examples. Let’s begin with some facts not commonly reported on the Jewish side. Back in the 1910s and 1920s, antisemitism in Germany had been rising. But like a domestic relationship gone wrong, Jews ignored red flags. They failed to get out even when Germans themselves were flocking to new lives and new opportunities in America. And yet, at the same time, they also declined to jump in with both feet and really commit, as staunch patriots, to Germany as their special homeland. As described in more detail below, this indecision was a mistake.
Some claim that Jews served with distinction during World War I (WWI) (1914-1918). It is hard to say whether that’s true; the records were destroyed. But Jews have a history of not prioritizing military careers, and military service is a key badge of patriotism. There were many complaints that Jews avoided serving during WWI and that, when they did serve, they worked in the rear (as e.g., clerks) instead of putting themselves at risk on the front lines. Some statistics do suggest a lower mortality rate for Jewish soldiers. Whatever the truth was, in an environment offering little solid information, rumors of Jewish war shirking were believable. It was a mistake not to address those rumors effectively.
As many as 800,000 German civilians died of starvation during WWI. Jews comprised only 1% of Germany’s population, but they controlled most private banks, enjoyed high average incomes, and were very prominent in various professions and businesses, including food sales. Many were positioned to sidestep governmental food rationing, if they so desired, by buying decent food for their families on the black market — and, as merchants, to take advantage of the public’s desperate hunger. Some Jews did become wealthy during the national period of hardship by profiteering in food. It was a mistake to let those profiteers tarnish the image of Germany’s Jews as a whole. Holocaust remembrance organizations have compounded this mistake, and others, by downplaying and misrepresenting those profiteers’ impact on German public opinion, rather than acknowledging these crimes and putting them into credible context.
During and after WWI, Jews were among the most visible leaders of radical political parties and movements in the newly created communist Soviet Union and in attempted revolutions within Germany. Communism, and revolutions, were not popular among most Germans. Jews were also prominent in the German governmental entities that rationed food and managed the supply of materials needed for the war. In food especially, those entities were not managed well. It is not clear whether anyone could have done a great job with those entities under wartime conditions. But failures by Gentile managers would not be construed as a commentary upon their entire culture. Those Jews chose to take what may have been an impossible job, with a high chance of failing, in an environment of some hostility toward Jews, presumably realizing that their failure could have negative consequences for attitudes toward Jews throughout Germany. It was a mistake, again, for the majority of German Jews to sit quietly by, allowing public opinion of all Jews to be shaped by a relatively small number of highly visible individuals.
Something similar happened in the process of bringing the war to an end. Very briefly, the Social Democrat Party (SPD) took power. The SPD wanted peace. Jews were prominent in the SPD. The SPD negotiated a poor settlement of hostilities. The terms of peace were very harsh. Not surprisingly, the settlement was very unpopular. The SPD, and Jews generally, were accused of stabbing Germany in the back. Here, again, those leading Jews seem to have been thinking of personal advancement, when they took powerful positions with great influence on Germany’s future. Despite the rather antisemitic environment, they seem to have assumed that nobody would complain about their mistakes. It would have been wiser to proceed cautiously, in such adverse and risky conditions, seeking achievements that would promote a positive public impression of Germany’s Jews.
Governing Germany after the war was extremely difficult. Here, again, the SPD did not do well. It achieved two epic failures: (1) producing one of history’s most extreme examples of hyperinflation, in 1922-1923, and (2) persuading many Germans that Hitler’s Nazi Party would be a better alternative. The hyperinflation resulted from a policy of printing more and more paper money, making the currency less valuable and ultimately worthless. That wiped out bank accounts nationwide, threw the middle class into poverty, and laid the foundation for Hitler’s later appeal, when the Great Depression (circa 1930) reminded voters that a repeat experience of SPD-led financial instability could ruin them.
Jewish involvement with some of these matters might have drawn less attention if Jews were not meanwhile making themselves notorious in other ways. Not that all Jews, or even a majority, were doing so: as with the SPD, in most cases it appears that a smallish group was adversely influencing the public impression of Jews generally.
For one thing, there was a series of scandals, some involving bribery of high-level politicians and bureaucrats, arising from various risky and/or illegal activities by Jewish financiers. There was also a great deal of very large-scale profiteering, in which high rollers — many of whom were Jewish — became wealthy from the inflation that was meanwhile wiping out the middle class. There was an apparently widespread perception that Jews succeed in business through deception and other sharp practices. Once again, the Jewish community made no concerted effort to position itself against such unethicality.
And then there was sheer cluelessness. Some Jews became prominent in media — and used that position to disparage values and perspectives held dear by many Germans. Some Jews acquired wealth — and flaunted it when Germans were starving. In that latter regard, prominent Jews did criticize such behavior, realizing that it was likely to kindle resentment; but they appear to have been too few and too remote to make a difference.
Those were some of the factors unfolding in the period before the Nazis came into power in 1933. This post does not examine many developments during the 1930s. It does offer, however, some brief remarks about Jews’ contributions to the Holocaust, once it got underway in the 1940s. Three wartime contributions worth noting: Jewish Councils helped the Nazis assemble Jews to be killed; Jewish prisoners in concentration camps helped the Nazis to beat and kill other Jews; and Zionists supported some Nazi laws discriminating against Jews. As a Holocaust epilogue, after the war, Zionists appear to have deliberately left thousands of Jews to die in displaced persons camps. Zionists who massacred Palestinian civilians, and who made assassination attempts against U.S. President Harry Truman and others, were honored as heroes by the new nation of Israel. Such instances are, again, not central to this post, but they do support the perception of moral compromise on the Jewish side within the Holocaust context.
In the end, it is not surprising that many Germans would acquiesce in, and even play roles in, the persecution and even the murder of the Jews: as just noted, Jews did too. Neither the Jews nor most Germans would have chosen to create the kind of regime that Hitler and the Nazis created. But once that regime did exist, the choice was, play along or risk it all. Most played along. There, again, it is not surprising that so few Germans stood up to defend the Jews: for the most part, the Jews did not even stand up to defend themselves.
To sum up, it is not appropriate to blame the victim for a crime. On the other hand, it would be self-defeating not to notice ways in which the victim may have made the crime more likely or more horrific. Given the long history of attacks on Jews, the smart reaction to the Holocaust is not to milk it for as long as possible, as some of today’s most prominent self-styled defenders of the Jewish people do, for whatever guilt, money, or other short-term advantages it may provide vis-à-vis Gentiles. That path perpetuates old stereotypes and stokes new resentments. The smart reaction — the kind of reaction that could help to break the cycle — is to figure out what Jews have been doing wrong, so as to reduce the risk of a replay.
In that endeavor, there is room for education of Gentiles. Jewish culture does have some things to teach us. As I have discussed in another post, however, Jews are not likely to teach us those things by accusing us of antisemitism every time we venture to express our thoughts — especially not when those thoughts turn out to be accurate. Nor — to cite a different post, in which I examine claims about the Holocaust — are Jews likely to position themselves as persuasive teachers when their leading representatives adopt a strategy of exaggeration and deception more suited to cheap haggling. One example explored in that other post: the number of Jews killed in the Holocaust. When calculating that number, the prudent approach would be to realize that the number had better be solid — that the whole world is watching. The prudent approach would not be to choose a number on the high side, like six million, and persecute those who question it — and then watch one’s credibility erode as scholars, newspapers, and organizations, many of which are Jewish, provide evidence and studies suggesting that the more truthful estimate is more like four to five million.
Today’s Jews are saddled with putative representatives that behave in just those self-defeating ways. Those other posts criticize ADL, among others, for repeated exaggerations and misstatements. In a similar vein, the present post criticizes prominent Holocaust remembrance organizations, notably the federally funded United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM), for a selective and distorted presentation of information on Jewish behaviors that made the Holocaust more likely.
As noted in the Introduction (below), I have much to learn about these things. I have, however, made an earnest attempt to develop an understanding, using the kinds of materials likely to be most available to, and noticed by, a typical Gentile inquirer. The Holocaust has much to teach us that, so far, is not emerging in the standard Hollywood-style narrative of simple good and evil. Hopefully this post will contribute to a more instructive and engaging approach to the question of what caused the Holocaust.
Again, readers wanting somewhat more detail on these matters can look at the Recap and at the sections following it. Of course, there is also the option of reading through the entire semi-book-length text of this post. The following Table of Contents identifies the sections of that text, including the Recap near its end.
Beyond Pure Good
Beyond Pure Evil: German Behavior and Holocaust Remembrance Organizations
A Matter of (Obtuse) Style
Variance from Traditional Values
The Jewish Question
Adapting to Second-Class Citizenship
Political Suspicions Related to WWI
Shirking Military Service
Inflation Profiteering in the 1920s
The Ostjuden, Barmat et al., and Wikipedia
A German Perspective
Learning About the Nazis
There is no doubt that Nazi Germany was a blight upon the world. Its genocidal actions were grossly disproportionate to any possible provocation. There may be an argument that the genocide was more complete when the ancient Israelites wiped out the Canaanites who had previously occupied Palestine, or that the hypocrisy of the Jews is more astounding in the actions of today’s Israel against the Palestinians. But nobody has matched the Nazis for genocidal ambition and organization.
And yet there is also no doubt that what Novick (2000, pp. 136, 141) calls the “traditional version” of the Holocaust story — “pure evil versus pure good”; “a black-and-white distinction between diabolical perpetrators and saintly victims” — is a whitewashed, “sacralized” tale that obscures the inevitable “complexity and ambiguity” of the Holocaust period. According to Huttenbach (n.d.), this “theologizing” of the Holocaust “distracts from [its] historicity.”
It seems important to get the story straight. Distortion may make some people feel good, and can help win some arguments. But distortion achieves those outcomes by hurting others and, sometimes, by counterproductively increasing the risk that something like the Holocaust could happen again someday.
It is difficult to get the story straight, where the Holocaust is concerned, for a variety of reasons. For some, the Holocaust meant deep personal hardship and grief. That is less true with each passing year, as the World War II generation fades. More commonly nowadays, the received wisdom about the Holocaust has been virtually set in stone: it gives some people bragging rights, even though they had nothing to do with it; it becomes a rhetorical weapon, often misused. And then there are those who have a vested interest in maintaining the standard story, even when aspects of it prove false.
This post draws upon a variety of materials and sources, ranging from Holocaust remembrance organizations to the writings of Adolf Hitler. That variety seems likely to add a sense of perspective — to remind us that there are multiple versions of what happened before the Holocaust. In writing this post, I disregarded the widespread browbeating that makes it risky even to look at certain kinds of material, such as that which has been pre-labeled as “antisemitic” or “racist.” To me, it seemed that a critical reader should read something before reaching a conclusion about it — not prejudge the material based on someone else’s opinion of it.
My approach to the writing changed as I progressed through this project. At first, I sought to provide relatively brief and authoritative remarks on various topics. I planned to write multiple subsidiary posts, each exploring a specific subissue in detail; I would keep the present post relatively brief, citing those other posts for the extended analysis of related factors. But then, as I went on, I found that there were too many of those subissues. To do justice to them all, I would have had to write the equivalent of an entire history book. I decided instead to keep most of the material in this post, and in some cases I reached rough working conclusions based on a relatively brief look at the available information.
The following sections are written in a somewhat exploratory style. At many points, I indicate that my conclusions are tentative, and that more time and better access to academic literature would be necessary for a more definitive statement. In that sense, the purpose here is not to write yet another history of the Holocaust. It is to sketch out the conclusions that an intelligent investigator might reach, if s/he decides to inquire into the Holocaust for him/herself. The outcome of such an inquiry might not please extremists. It might call for statements that would be unpopular if not absolutely prohibited in the universities where many professional Holocaust historians are employed.
Beyond Pure Good
Some will doubt that the Jews of Germany could bear any responsibility for the deaths of fellow Jews. Readers who begin with that bias are likely to be surprised by the realities.
During the Holocaust, many Jews found themselves in morally awkward situations. In at least some of those situations, there was a clearly right thing to do, and a clearly wrong thing to do. Some chose the right thing. Sometimes, it appears, the result — to quote a phrase that New York Jews repeated to me on several occasions — was that “the best died first.” Perhaps nobody could have gotten through unblemished. But that did not change the fact that, if you survived, you may have done so via decisions and actions that made you a part of the killing machine.
Some morally awkward roles were held by members of the Jewish Councils (in German, Judenräte) and the Jewish police, both of which were established by the Nazis to administer Nazi orders and regulations in various Jewish communities and ghettos. According to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM), the Nazi orders that those Jewish Councils implemented would often include orders to provide lists of names of Jews to be deported to death camps. USHMM says that “Jewish council members held varied views on resistance” to such Nazi orders. But as observed by prominent writers (i.e., Arendt, Bettelheim, Hilberg) cited by Novick (2000, p. 139), and as echoed in Wikipedia, actual resistance was scarce.
I would have had to do further research to determine why Jews did not determinedly fight the Nazis, when it became clear that they were being killed in large numbers. Several possible explanations came to mind. One was that shrewd people, well schooled in the ways of the world, tend to believe that a solution will appear sooner or later, if one plays along for the time being — that, in other words, the path of direct confrontation is usually not the best way out of a difficult situation. There was also a possibility that “the tradition of the argumentative Jew” (Wieseltier, 2015) inadvertently fragmented Jewish community opinion on what to do — that nobody could agree on a plan of active resistance. Or perhaps such argumentation implied a dependence upon the received social order: perhaps people who were good at debate were made passive by a habit of finding opportunity within the general status quo. It did seem, at any rate, that European Jewish culture was not a warrior culture — that these people were apparently not trained or mentally prepared to fight and, if necessary, to sacrifice themselves, even when they could see that others around them were going to die.
For whatever reason, according to Novick (2000, p. 139), “the leadership of European Jewry . . . culpably cooperated with the German murder program.” Some council leaders became especially controversial in postwar Jewish analysis: it appeared that they rather enjoyed the authority that the Nazis had bestowed upon them, and may thus have been influenced to discourage any talk of resistance. Arendt (1963, pp. 117-119) offers some illustrations in support:
To a Jew this role of the Jewish leaders in the destruction of their own people is undoubtedly the darkest chapter of the whole dark story. . . . Jewish officials [in Jewish ghettos and other communities] could be trusted to compile the lists of persons and of their property, to secure money from the deportees to defray the expenses of their deportation and extermination . . . . [W]e still can sense how [these leaders] enjoyed their new power . . . . [such as] Chaim Rumkowski . . . who issued currency notes bearing his signature and postage stamps engraved with his portrait . . . [and] Leo Baeck, scholarly, mild-mannered, highly educated, who believed Jewish policemen would be “more gentle and helpful” . . . whereas in fact they were, of course, more brutal and less corruptible, since so much more was at stake for them . . . .
The picture is further clouded by indications that cooperation with the Nazis was not always a bad idea. Rabinovici (2011, as reviewed by Cesarini, 2011) contends that such cooperation enabled some Jewish leaders to save large numbers of Jews. Ultimately, however, Yad Vashem says that, “As the Jews’ situation worsened and the Nazi policy became even more extreme, it became clear that the fundamental contradiction underlying this tension was irresolvable.”
Jewish complicity with the Nazis continued into the concentration camps, where Jewish prisoners encountered the kapo — that is, the prisoner whom the Nazis selected to serve as their assistant. It appears that many kapos, Gentile and Jewish alike, were violent criminals or were otherwise inclined toward brutality. No doubt many of the violent Jewish kapos eventually died in the camps; no doubt others (e.g., Freedman, 1987) chose not to emigrate to Israel after the war, where they would have a considerable chance of running into Jews whom they had abused. Even so, according to Ben-Naftali and Tuval (2006, p. 129; see Singer, 2013), between 1951 and 1964 Israel found and put on trial more than 40 Jews who had been accused of collaborating with the Nazis. Examples of kapo abuse included hanging an inmate above the floor by the rope tying his hands together behind his back, and whipping and clubbing inmates indiscriminately (Ben-Naftali & Tuval, pp. 162, 167, 171; Graif, 2005, p. 241; Goldstein, 2008, pp. 87-89).
The foregoing sources, discussing the quandaries Jews faced in the ghettos and camps, emphasize that Jews felt morally befouled by their involvement in the Nazi system. Primo Levi (1988, p. 2, as summarized by Jacobs, 2004, p. 54) was perhaps the source of the adage (above) that I had heard in New York: he spoke of the impression that “it was the brave and the selfless who died first, while the cowardly and the selfish lived.” Levi rejected the idea of pure victimhood in the camps, describing rather multiple levels of privilege granted, and opportunities seized, to improve slightly one’s own comfort and chances of survival, often at the expense of fellow Jewish prisoners — running the crematories, for example, and beating newly arrived prisoners on Nazi command (Gross, 1988).
Again, it is clear that the Nazis bore responsibility for creating these conditions. That does not change the fact that, upon finding oneself in such conditions, one may face a choice of whether to help others or to prioritize oneself. It is a difficult choice; it is impossible to know for sure how one would react in such a situation until one finds oneself in it.
Beyond Pure Evil:
German Behavior and
Holocaust Remembrance Organizations
When one person or group picks on another, there is usually a question of whether the victim unnecessarily increased the risks of his/her/its victimization. Third parties, trying to sort out what happened, usually try not to blame an innocent victim. At the same time, they also try to find out whether the supposed victim actually provoked the fight or compounded his/her own difficulties.
In the Holocaust story, it is perhaps possible that millions of Germans suddenly went berserk and began killing Jews for no reason whatsoever. But that does not sound very likely. Experience suggests that there was probably more to it — that there were probably all sorts of grievances, hostilities, misunderstandings, disappointments, and fears. It seems that there must be a great deal to say, and much to understand, about the interactions between Jews and Germans during the years leading up to the Holocaust.
One would expect that an organization devoted to the memory of the Holocaust would be a great place to get detailed information and analysis of such questions. Why did the Holocaust happen? That will be among the top ten questions asked by every schoolchild. Any Holocaust remembrance organization worth its salt would obviously need solid answers and great depth on that question.
So I found it surprising to encounter what leading organizations and information sources had to say on the Why question. For example:
- Wikipedia’s article on Antisemitism, presently comprised of more than 14,000 words, offers only 178 words on Causes of antisemitism, and those few words blame it on Gentile illogic (e.g., “conspiracy theories . . . and other invented stories”). (Note that Wikipedia users can revise Wikipedia pages very quickly, upon encountering criticism. Readers can find the versions I viewed and cited, throughout this post, by consulting the revision history tab for each Wikipedia page. For Wikipedia and other websites, past versions of many webpages are also available by plugging the relevant URL into the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine.)
- Despite great and palpable variation in Germans’ feelings about Hitler, Yad Vashem’s summary reduces German antisemitism to Hitler’s view that Jews were members of a race struggling to achieve dominance over his imagined Aryan race, as if a majority of Germans were members of the Nazi party. Elsewhere, Yad Vashem does cite additional factors underlying German antisemitism, but does so in terms emphasizing, again, the pathological or childish absurdity of German beliefs (e.g., “Many Germans could not concede their country’s defeat in World War I”; Germans were reacting with “frustration” and “intransigent resistance”).
- USHMM speaks as if Gentiles were not intelligent enough to get past “enduring stereotypes of Jews and Jewish ‘behavior'” — with scare quotes, as shown there, implying that Jews would not have “behavior.” USHMM further claims, illogically, that no Jews could have been involved in any sellout of Germany at the end of World War I (WWI) because, after all, some Jews had served in the German military. In addition, USHMM implicitly accuses the reader of antisemitism if s/he notices that Jews were prominent in the much-feared communist movement.
In a tone verging on ridicule, USHMM explains that such “myths” further include the beliefs that Jews caused WWI for purposes of financial and political gain; that Jews dominated the peace process ending the war, and steered that process against Germany’s own best interests; and that Jews promoted “intermarriage, sexual freedom, and miscegenation.” At this point, I will just respond to that last thought by noting that German Jews did tend toward the liberal side on social issues. The other “myths” will be explored later.
To me, there seemed to be some inconsistency in the attitudes of these Holocaust organizations. Their websites explored the Jewish experience in great detail. And that seemed appropriate: there was a lot of interesting material there. But the German experience, the other half of the equation, was virtually dismissed. It seemed I was being told to favor the victim before I was quite sure of what both parties may have done and experienced.
No doubt some would accuse me of antisemitism for daring to entertain the thought that there could have been anything understandable about thoughts and behaviors resulting in the deaths of millions of Jews. Yet such an accusation would itself illustrate the problem. Too often, when discussing such matters, one is confronted with the mentality, not of the historian or social scientist who wants to find the truth, but rather with that of the lawyer, who gladly ridicules and distorts in order to score cheap points and derail serious investigation. As my exploration proceeded, I would encounter much more of the same.
A Matter of (Obtuse) Style
As just described, I was interested in learning more about what Jews and Germans alike had thought and experienced, leading up to the Holocaust. Given the paucity of good information in the Holocaust remembrance websites, I tried a Google search. As often happens, that search led to a variety of materials. Some looked scholarly and professional; others looked amateurish and even conspiratorial.
Among those materials, I decided to take a chance on Neyo Webster’s Zionism Unveiled website, offering what appeared to be an extensively researched summary of Jewish Dominance in Pre-Nazi Germany. That material came from an anonymous author’s book, When Victims Rule: A Critique of Jewish Pre-eminence in America, available for download from assorted websites. On pages 103-104 of the version I downloaded, I saw this quote, attributed to Walter Lippmann, a German-Jewish journalist in the U.S. in the early 20th century:
The rich and vulgar and pretentious Jews of our big cities [in the U.S.] are perhaps the greatest misfortune that has ever befallen the Jewish people. They are the real fountain of anti-Semitism. They are everywhere in sight, and though their vices may be no greater than those of other jazzy elements in the population, they are a thousand times more conspicuous. . . . When they rush about in super-automobiles, bejeweled and be-furred and painted and overbarbered, when they build themselves French chateaus and Italian palazzi, they stir up the latent hatred against crude wealth in the hands of shallow people: and that hatred diffuses itself. They undermine the natural liberalism of the American people.
When Victims Rule further suggested that Chaim Weitzmann, first president of the modern state of Israel, believed that the American antisemitism of the 1930s and 1940s was partly caused by the behavior of American Jews themselves.
Well, those remarks were certainly a departure from what USHMM, Wikipedia, and Yad Vashem had told me. Further investigation led to the claim, by Kater (1984, p. 7), that “Many German women . . . customarily bore grudges against Jews for religious or aesthetic reasons, so the Nazis tried to reach them on those grounds.” Here, again, I did not assume that those German women must be innately evil; I thought there might be a reason for such resentment. Robertson (1999, p. 253) offered further insight:
Jewish wives [in Germany] tended to be in the forefront of fashion; around 1900 they often acquired telephones before their Gentile neighbours, who would [visit] to use their telephone and, while doing so, either admire the solid comfort of the Jewish home or (enviously) despise its ostentation.
Robertson assumed, there, that only envy could explain why someone would deplore gaudy displays of wealth. I could think of other reasons. But on the larger question, it seemed that, despite its amateurish layout, the When Victims Rule book might have been correct in suggesting that the ostentation of rich Jews could have promoted hostility. The remarks attributed to Lippman and Weitzmann (above) seemed plausible: flashing around a lot of money, before and during the supposedly “Roaring” twenties (which were actually years of hard times for many), could tend to generate negativity and hostility.
There did seem to be something of a pattern. Another search led, for example, to the statement that “in the nineteenth century ostentatious [Jewish] temples were built in all large German cities” (Brenner, 1998, p. 182). Penslar (2001, p. 156) said,
[19th-century Jews in France and Germany protested] that the Jewish economic elite did more harm than good to ordinary Jews because of the antisemitism they attracted and the spotty nature of their munificence to their coreligionists. . . . [Prominent German rabbi] Ludwig Philippson . . . had harsh criticism, bordering on contempt, for most members of the Jewish economic elite of his generation. Their showy lifestyle and shady financial practices, Philippson wrote in 1867, arouse envy and antisemitism.
In considering such remarks, it may be helpful to consider where I was coming from. My own years of interactions with Jews in New York provided a sense that, very roughly speaking, they were of two types. My wife and most of my friends fell into one group. These were generally assimilated into American culture, at least in the sense of being comfortable in New York City and religious only for purposes of major holidays (e.g., Yom Kippur) and milestones (e.g., weddings, funerals). My friends were tolerant of Gentiles, else they would not have been with me. They were at least as polite toward my rural working-class parents and friends as a typical New Yorker could be expected to be. But their career expectations — for themselves, their children, and their friends — seemed to be largely restricted to the predictable routes to wealth and status (e.g., medicine, law, finance). I would not say that these American Jews displayed much of a tendency toward lavish and tasteless displays of wealth.
And then there was the other type. At Columbia and in Manhattan law firms, especially, I became acquainted with Jews who had a more blatantly dismissive attitude toward America, civic responsibility, good manners — basically, toward anything that considered itself entitled to infringe upon their rather limitless indulgence of themselves and their personal ambitions. It goes without saying that some Gentiles conveyed a similar impression. Again, however, the focus here is upon the minority race, ethnicity, religion, or culture — upon, that is, those who are especially likely to be noticed and attacked when transgressing the majority’s social boundaries.
Among this particularly obnoxious type of wealthy and powerful New York Jewish person, there was certainly an impression that the goyishe kop (i.e., the uninformed and/or inferior Gentile mind) could be easily manipulated and/or disregarded. The mildly scary part of it, from my perspective, was that these Jews seemed to be correct: they did seem likely to proceed, in their lives, to enjoy considerable wealth. In retrospect, it appears that — at least in terms of my law school classmates — other, less obnoxious Jews actually tended to reach positions of greater power and wealth. But, having been there, I could understand why a German in the 1920s might view such behavior and attitudes with unease.
Not everyone has had such experiences. But everyone is able to notice that, within any group, including the Jews, there are some bad apples. Nor are all the bad apples in prison. It seems to be widely recognized that leaders and influential people often suffer from varying degrees of psychopathology. Within the realm of Jewish religion, for example, one encounters the murderous if not genocidal words of of Rabbi Yitzhak Shapiro (2009) (“There is nothing wrong with the murder” of “a Gentile who has sinned”) and of Rabbi Yaacov Perrin (1994) (“One million Arabs are not worth a Jewish fingernail”).
The materials I read while preparing this post suggested that the environment of Berlin circa 1910 may have been somewhat similar to what I experienced in New York — that, more generally, there may be a certain trait in Jewish culture, or (more likely) in the mindset of certain Jewish families or individuals, that does sometimes encourage highly visible behaviors that tend to annoy others. Given my own experience, I could imagine a time, in Germany, when comparably obtuse Jews became so ensconced in and infatuated with their own success, and with the stories they told one another, as to grossly misgauge the depth and intensity of hostility toward them, elsewhere within their society.
People — even obnoxious people — should be able to have wealth, and to display it, without being murdered for it. Regardless, though, one could reasonably expect authoritative Holocaust sources not to be completely clueless about the reactions that gross ostentation might provoke. On this point, I felt that the public deserved a better quality of information than that which those Holocaust remembrance websites were providing — including especially USHMM, with its presence on land donated by the U.S. federal government and what appeared to be millions of dollars in federal funding that USHMM’s website avoided mentioning.
Immunity to Evidence
In researching these materials, I repeatedly encountered the assumption that any criticism of Jewish behavior or attitudes must automatically be wrong, and perhaps even evil. That sort of mentality surprised me, when I found it in PhDs and professional writers. On that level, everyone is supposedly educated enough to understand that a critical thinker will question assumptions, because things are often not what they seem.
Here is a very specific example. Joseph W. Bendersky, “a specialist in German history, anti-Semitism, and the Holocaust” at Virginia Commonwealth University, published a book that sought to expose antisemitism in the U.S. military. In that book (2008, pp. 111-112), Bendersky described U.S. Colonel Allan L. Briggs, the military attaché in Vienna in the early 1920s, as “anti-Semitic.” That may have been a correct assessment. But it would not imply that what Briggs said must have been false.
Perhaps that point deserves emphasis. Strauss (1953, pp. 42-43) identified the so-called reductio ad Hitlerum fallacy: “A view is not refuted by the fact that it happens to have been shared by Hitler” (see also Teninbaum, 2009). In other words, a person can be completely evil, and yet s/he may also be right about some things.
So when Briggs offered certain observations about the situation in Vienna, it was possible that he was expressing antisemitic views. But whether he was or not, it was also possible that what he said was true — and it would be potentially self-defeating to scorn his work as antisemitic if it was merely accurate. In light of the foregoing material from Lippmann, Penslar, and others, it did seem that Briggs was probably correct in the following quotation, provided by Bendersky (2008, pp. 111-112):
[Briggs] painted a stark contrast between impoverished Viennese and insufferable Jews completely insensitive to the human need and “utmost destitution” around them: . . .
American officers in neighboring countries “easily noticed” increasing anti-Semitism in Germany. Initially explained as a rightist political ploy to “divert the discontent of the people into anti-Semitic channels” (“to substitute a race war for a class war”), attachés soon interpreted it as a natural reaction to dubious Jewish behavior and affiliations. . . . [For example,] Jewish “wives go dressed in satin, furs, jewels, etc. while the Germans themselves must starve.”
It is unfortunate that the climate of discussion of the Holocaust has apparently deteriorated to the point where someone like Bendersky would not even pause to consider what his own source was saying. His source, Briggs, was saying that there was an offensive degree of ostentation in the behavior of Vienna’s Jews. But Bendersky, a professor, seems to have decided that he already knew the real truth: that Briggs could not tell us anything about actual Jewish behavior; Briggs, upon opening his mouth, could only demonstrate his own antisemitism.
It was as if Jewish media experts had developed a nice, simple Holocaust myth, and had conveyed it to the public so effectively that they were now believing their own propaganda. But while established scholars might not feel safe in saying so, or might not be willing to say so, it did appear that some German Jews may have been prone to excessive displays of wealth, and insensitive to hardships around them, and might thus have contributed to generalized hostility toward Jews.
Variance from Traditional Values
In another post, I discuss the oft-heard accusation of anti-Semitism. One part of that discussion dealt with Jewish control of American media. It became clear that Jews do exert substantial control over American media, though apparently not as the sort of unified force that some might imagine. Moreover, many Jews readily admit that such control exists. If Jews can say so, it seemed that Gentiles should be able to say so too. Yet, as noted in that other post, organizations like the Jewish Anti-Defamation League (ADL) have attacked Gentiles who have mentioned the heavy presence of Jews in Hollywood. In some cases those attacks appear to have sought to ruin the careers of the Gentiles in question.
It was interesting, then, to consider an ADL (2013) survey finding that only 24% of Americans recognize that Jews have such media control. That percentage called to mind a certain expression, part of which is that you can fool all of the people some of the time. ADL, representing Jews in America, wanted that percentage to be lower — wanted, that is, to deceive more American Gentiles. That strategy could be practical, albeit immoral, if one believed that antisemitism would never come back — that it would be possible to lie to the vast majority of Americans forever. But if the truth ever did come out, ADL would merely have contributed to stereotypes about Jewish mendacity. There could be a critical mass of Americans, someday, who would look back and see that we lived in a time when leading Jewish organizations lied to Americans who sent billions of their tax dollars to Israel.
When Hitler came to power, Germany’s Jews had lived and worked for generations in varying degrees of peace. As in today’s America, they plainly did not expect a Holocaust. But their expectations and assumptions were wrong. In other words, it seems unwise for Jewish American organizations like ADL to prefer a strategy of deception. History suggests that, at some point, that strategy could backfire. Indeed, judging from materials presently available online, it probably has done so already. There are people out there who believe that they have identified examples of a pattern of deception by Jews. ADL seems determined to prove them right, and thus to enhance their credibility and, over time, to increase their number.
The seemingly wiser path, as suggested in that other post, is to stop lying about media control, and to join Alan Dershowitz and others in promoting awareness that Jews often diverge from one another in viewpoints and objectives, and therefore do not necessarily collaborate in using their power to steer the American public in any single direction. Of course, that sort of message would be less persuasive if Hollywood’s Holocaust movies kept emphasizing the goodness and innocence of Jews. In that case, it would appear that Jews were in fact using their control of media to portray themselves and their history in a false light, leaving out many of the realities explored in this post.
Similar concerns about truthfulness arise from USHMM’S summary of Jewish Life in Europe Before the Holocaust. That webpage says, “Jews could be found in all walks of life, as farmers, tailors, . . . doctors, teachers, and small-business owners. Some families were wealthy; many more were poor.” Those statements are deceptive. The Jews of Germany, where the Nazi Party grew, were overwhelmingly middle-class or above. Few were poor; few were farmers. According to Herzl (1904, p. 19),
Whoever were to attempt a conversion of the Jew into a [farmer] would be making an extraordinary mistake. For a peasant is a historical category . . . . he carries the seed in his apron; mows with the historical scythe, and threshes with the time-honoured flail. But we know that all this can be done by machinery. . . . The peasant is consequently a type which is in course of extinction. . . . Are we therefore to credit Jews, who are intelligent, with a desire to become peasants of the old type? One might just as well say to them: “Here is a cross-bow; now go to war!” . . . Now, there certainly are districts where desperate Jews go out, or at any rate are willing to go out, and till the soil. And a little observation shows that these districts—such as portions of Hessen in Germany, and some provinces in Russia—these very districts are the principal seats of Anti-Semitism.
That USHMM webpage did mention some points of difference between Jews of Eastern and Western Europe. It should have included occupational tendencies among those differences.
Within Germany, Gordon (1984, pp. 14, 53) lists a variety of highly paid and influential careers in which Jews were greatly overrepresented. Media (e.g., film; radio broadcasting; publishing) was one area of significant Jewish overrepresentation. That was problematic because, according to Gordon, many of the prominent Jewish journalists made a habit of criticizing traditional German values. What better way to amplify Gentile hostility than to obtain broadcasting capability, and to use that capability to offend large numbers of people?
American liberals may be inclined to empathize with some of the values held by those German Jewish media executives and personalities. It can be difficult to understand why so many members of the public, in America now or in Germany then, would cling to unproductive and sometimes seemingly absurd attitudes and beliefs. That said, contemporary American political experience also reminds us that people are going to insist on their right to believe what they want, however stupid it may seem. You can nudge, but outright pushing is apt to invite pushback.
That line seems to have been crossed: German traditionalists saw themselves as engaging in a “cultural war” against the kind of immorality (as they saw it) that was being promoted by those Jewish media executives (Berkowitz, 2007, p. 4). Sex seems to have been one of the flashpoints, as illustrated by Wiebe (1939, pp. 76-78), an apologist for the Third Reich:
[Wherever] existing moral standards have been deliberately relaxed — where immorality was made into a business — Jews were prominent, if not dominant . . . . With the advent of emancipation this Jewish urge, restrained by the ghettos of the middle ages, poured forth into the public life of the state. . . . Scavenius, the Danish Chargé d’Affaires at the Hague, was undoubtedly right when he declared three years ago in a [radio] lecture that “Germany at that time was the pornographic centre of the world.”
(See also Lasha Darkmoon, 2013.) A search leads to materials suggesting that Berlin, in particular, was known for its decadence. Wiebe’s remarks are consistent with the views of many conservative Americans today, who resent the imposition of what they see as Hollywood values. (Note that “conservative” (i.e., tradition-oriented, resistant to change) does not necessarily mean capitalistic, and vice versa. See my article on political philosophies for more information.) Wiebe notwithstanding, it is unlikely that Jews would have been able to effect a cultural change contrary to the tastes of a substantial portion of the population. USHMM estimates a Jewish population of 160,000 in 1933 — less than 4% of a city population exceeding 4.2 million.
Nonetheless, then as now, surely many Germans rejected what they perceived as the worst that the big city had to offer. One alternative that some found appealing came from the Nazis — who, according to USHMM, valued family, nation, self-sacrifice, discipline, and harmony with nature. In response to Jewish liberalism and intellectualism, they appealed to traditional middle-class respectability through, among other things, an emphasis on vigorous physical activity and their recruitment of clean-cut young men (Bacharach, 2002, p. 67). Such physical contrasts were evidently amplified by reminders of stereotypically Jewish nasal speech, distinctive hand gestures, and other mannerisms and habits of expression, some of which were apparently difficult to shed (Robertson, 1999, pp. 258-263). In Hollywood terms, perhaps the contrast would be between Arnold Schwarzenegger and Woody Allen.
It appears, in short, that prominent German Jews were at risk of being tone-deaf in multiple arenas — in the displays of showy materialism criticized in the preceding section, for example, and also in publicizing views that were too far ahead of, if not irreconcilable with, views held by a large chunk of the public.
The degree of potential divergence between Jewish and Gentile styles may become clearer upon consideration of traditional German business ethics. Here are some examples by which Fritsch (pseudonym: Roderich-Stoltheim) (1927 passim) contrasts the good German against what he sees as the cunning Jew:
The sound merchant of the old school held the opinion that his duty was satisfactorily discharged, by satisfying the actual purchase-requirements of his customers. . . . He regarded it as beneath his dignity to run after customers, or to entice them, by all manner of tricks, to buy from him . . . . [T]here was also no lack of stimulating competition; it was, however, of quite a different kind. The competition then, was in the good quality of what was produced . . . .
From the [modern] economic point of view it has the appearance of being highly meritorious, when a forest, which has been standing for a hundred years in peace . . . that somebody should set to work with axes and circular saws to liquidate the reposing capital. . . . The wise forester, however, goes to work with care and restraint, and does not fell any timber without making provision for afforesting an area equivalent to that, which has been cleared. . . .
And, if we boast today that the number of rich people has increased enormously, that millions and thousands of millions are accumulated in the hands of single individuals, we must not forget that the debts and obligations of other people have increased in equal measure. . . . [T]he productive worker is not directly conscious of this impost, but feels only an inexplicable pressure on all his business activity. He sees that, in spite of all his effort and industry, the fruits of his toil disappear out of his hands, without his being able, at the same time, to discover any satisfactory explanation of this. . . .
The Hebrew, who goes to the Produce Exchange . . . takes very good care to conceal his real intention. He assumes an attitude of complete indifference; and, if anyone offers him wheat, he replies, shrugging his shoulders: “Wheat? I have enough wheat” . . . . A simple or open-natured farmer, on the contrary, who has gone to the Produce Exchange, in order to get rid of his produce . . . will at once offer his wheat eagerly. . . . In the end the farmer is glad to have found a purchaser at any price . . . . Several days later, when the supplies have been, for the greater part, bought up by the Hebrews, one notices a marked rise in prices. . . .
The principle of ruthless selfishness has obtained the mastery, and the right of the individual to enrich himself, by any and every means, has established itself, even if the rest of the community suffer grievously thereby, and both state and morality are sacrificed. Social harmony has been replaced by mutual enmity, everybody fights everybody, and this can only end in universal destruction. . . . We are being continually and insistently informed that all this must be so — that all this is inseparable from progress.
Having grown up in a predominantly German part of the rural midwestern U.S., it was plausible, to me, that there would have been, in Weimar Germany, a visible difference between the relatively trusting nature of many country people and the relatively shrewd nature of the experienced businessperson. I doubted that the division was precisely between Jew and Gentile; rather, I thought it was probably between those who spent their days dealing with money and those who didn’t. Research does suggest that exposure to money makes people more selfish and less empathic (e.g., Vohs et al., 2006; Pinsker, 2014; Tuttle, 2011).
In my rural childhood experience, city people could be remarkably alien, with attitudes that could seem very cold and cynical. It could be difficult for a city person — or, in today’s hyperconnected world, even for many country people — to understand how they would have appeared in the eyes of someone like me. Yet that city-country gap in modern America would pale in comparison against the much greater gap between shrewd businessperson and trusting peasant in Fritsch’s day. The businessperson in early 20th-century Germany may have seen life, and business, in terms that would substantially prepare him/her for work in today’s America. By contrast, the peasant may have manifested attitudes compatible with ordinary village life in the Middle Ages.
There are areas of commerce in which one can trust the people with whom one does business. That, however, is not the predominant nature of today’s business world, however much we might like it to be. Employers needing a skilled businessperson would probably not hire the kind of peasant whom Fritsch describes. It may be that Jews were so visible in the business world of Weimar Germany because they were raised and trained to understand that, in business, we focus on exploiting opportunities to turn a profit, and that those who do that poorly will tend to fail in their business endeavors. An upbringing featuring immersion in that materialistic mindset could make it difficult to value, or even to understand, what Wikipedia describes as the concept of the “people’s community”:
The Volksgemeinschaft or people’s community received a great deal of propaganda support, a principle that the Nazis continually reiterated. The Volk were not just a people; a mystical soul united them, and propaganda continually portrayed individuals as part of a great whole, worth dying for. This was portrayed as overcoming distinctions of party and social class. A common Nazi mantra declared they must put “collective need ahead of individual greed”—a widespread sentiment in this era. The commonality this created across classes was among the great appeals of Nazism.
To the hardheaded businessperson, that could sound like hippie nonsense. The person who masters the selfish art of taking advantage of others is not apt to prioritize collective need. (In the long haul, of course, the Nazi program did not turn out to be very good at taking care of the public either.) Fritsch does seem to understand business savvy; it appears that he just prefers the more traditional — what many would consider the more sociable and civilized — alternative.
Fritsch’s view seems to be that no divine law compels the business world to be brutal. It is more so in some times and places; less so in others. What Fritsch describes as a Jew’s way of proceeding at the Produce Exchange need not be considered intrinsically superior, or inferior, to the alternative that Fritsch prefers: it may simply be different, with advantages for some settings and disadvantages for others. Fritsch’s argument seems to be that it is inferior, within the context of traditional practice, because it offends traditional values. One might speculate that, at least in an ideal setting, such values could include these: do not rock the boat; do not harm others in order to benefit yourself; do not deceive; do not manipulate the market; do not prioritize profit over people.
The problem is not just that the individual Jew — more accurately, again, the money-oriented person, Jewish or Gentile — takes advantage of others in some isolated situation. It is that such a person’s practices drive out the good people: the innocent farmers eventually find that they cannot afford to farm anymore, and the innocent grain-buyers find themselves outmaneuvered by the sly ones. Then the market itself changes. You can no longer participate on the basis of providing quality goods or a genuine service; you have to know the tricks necessary for survival. Economic life is narrowed to an ever smaller number of participants with ever sharper teeth. The ones who break the rules, and get away with it, will have changed that line of work. In Fritsch’s view, they will have corrupted it.
One would hope that, like Fritsch, writers about the Holocaust would have a good grasp of viewpoints other than their own. Unfortunately, for many, that appears not to be the case. Too often, people like Fritsch are simply dismissed as “antisemitic.” There seems to be little serious consideration of possible reasons for their viewpoint; it is uncritically assumed (using the words of USHMM, above) that they must be irrationally “intransigent” or have accepted “myths.” There seems to be an assumption, moreover, that one’s own modern perspective is ascendant, and that there is no long-term need to bother trying to understand antisemites, except perhaps to make a convincing case of their error when preaching to one’s fellow believers. Ironically, this supposedly more educated worldview can thus become less informed than that which it seeks to supplant. In the German context, such ignorance proved fatal.
Heinrich Mann, a writer who achieved some popularity circa 1900, would be another example of a German who, today, would be dismissed as antisemitic. There would be no serious consideration of his view (per Ward & Lang, 2010, pp. 145-149) that Jews were financial manipulators who were turning the nation into a money-obsessed culture while bleeding it white. Mann’s perspective may have lacked nuance. But the following sections of this post will demonstrate that it is not necessarily antisemitic to observe that the antics of some highly visible (in some cases seemingly pathological) Jews operated, in Germany, to the detriment of many other less visible Jews, of whom they were not actually representative.
Yes, we could hope that every member of a large majority — Germans, in this case — would obtain years’ worth of familiarity with intricate variations among members of the tiny (1%) minority who happened to be Jewish (i.e., about 600,000 of about 60 million). But that would not be realistic. Reality is a place where there will be people like Mann, expressing sentiments shared by many, in terms that one may consider less than ideal. Rejecting their complaint due to its coarseness, without even attempting to understand it, would seem, again, to be a reaction more of emotion than of rationality. The better response would have been to respond honestly and effectively to it.
The Jewish Question
In my browsing, I had seen many mentions of “The Jewish Question.” A search now led to Wikipedia‘s indication that that term originated, in the 18th century, as a shorthand reference to the unsettled status and treatment of Jews in European countries. That unsettled condition is often downplayed in standard stories about the Holocaust. Readers and viewers are left, instead, to imagine that the Jewish experience in Germany must have been more or less like America, where people have their homes and live their lives, and then suddenly there was a bizarre and unpredictable Nazi upheaval.
To be sure, many Weimar Jews did seek to become assimilated into the larger German culture, and to develop views, priorities, and lifestyles similar to those of their Gentile neighbors. According to Yad Vashem (n.d., pp. 2-3),
The Jews’ intensive participation in the life of German society accelerated the process of assimilation, which was manifested in the growing number of mixed marriages, secessions from the organized Jewish community, and conversions to Christianity. Thus, in 1927, 54% of all marriages of Jews were contracted with non-Jews, and in that year one thousand Jews are estimated to have opted out of Judaism, about half of them by conversion to another faith.
Yet that quote does not say as much as it purports to say. A total of 500 conversions to Christianity, from a Jewish population of well over 500,000, means that Jews were converting at a rate of 0.1% annually. In other words, there were virtually no conversions in 1927. Yad Vashem’s 54% intermarriage figure sounds impressive if you thought that Jews were an entirely separate culture; less so if you expected that German Jews would be like Germans of, say, Swiss heritage: it would be surprising if half of Swiss Germans restricted their marriage options to other Swiss Germans. In any case, it is not clear where Yad Vashem got that 54% figure. Endelman (2015, pp. 162-163) indicates that the intermarriage rate was only 21% in 1928, apparently falling from about 28% in the years from 1911 to 1920.
While some assimilation was taking place, it appears that Jewish commitment to Jewish culture and religion remained strong. Brenner (1998, p. 60), for example, offers a book titled The Renaissance of Jewish Culture in Weimar Germany, featuring (among other things) the statement that enrollment in Jewish schools actually increased, as a way of shielding kids from antisemitism in the public schools. Similarly, USHMM says,
[A]ggressive antisemitism, repeated economic setbacks, and inherent political instability set the limits of Jewish acculturation during the Weimar Republic. . . . [T]hese trends helped to foster a sense of communal identity among a wide range of German Jews. . . .
Within the Gemeinden [i.e., public corporations created to centralize local Jewish activities], Jews expressed communal identities in many ways: participation at the local level in youth movements, Zionist groups such as Brit Shalom, new Jewish schools, Jewish student fraternities, athletic societies, Jewish libraries, B’nai B’rith lodges, singing societies, the visual arts, and in Jewish museums.
USHMM also mentions the more insular, Yiddish-speaking Ostjuden (below), who were substantially removed from opportunities and tendencies to assimilate.
Many Jews were indeed assimilated enough to participate in the German economy and society in a number of ways. Some, in fact, were so assimilated — they had become so thoroughly German in their priorities — as to take positions that other Jews found hard to understand. One example: Rigg (2009) suggests that there were tens of thousands of soldiers of partial Jewish ancestry in Hitler’s army, and that many won combat medals and otherwise sought to demonstrate their loyalty to Germany (see Yelton, 2010).
In a somewhat similar vein, Niewyk (2001, pp. 165-173) describes the efforts of Max Naumann, a Jewish lawyer, to demonstrate, in the 1920s, that most German Jews were nationalists (i.e., considering themselves Germans first, Jews second). That seemed plausible; in today’s United States, Jews likewise vary significantly in their attitudes toward Israel, among other things. Indeed, on the accusation of antisemitism (see my other post), Naumann (1926, p. 15) took a sharper tone, against fellow Jews, than most American Jews would take today:
Anyone who is condemned to read every day a number of Jewish papers and periodicals, written by Jews for Jews, must on occasion feel an increased distaste, amounting to physical nausea, for . . . [the] exaggeration of the duty to “combat anti-Semitism” which is understood in these circles in the sense that, at the slightest reference, the sword should be drawn if any Jew whatever is meant.
But it does not seem that most German Jews shared Naumann’s views. The situation may have been comparable to that captured by Fallows (2015), regarding Israelis’ reactions to a certain political issue in 2015: “Fifty percent don’t bother themselves about these things, so long as life in Tel Aviv goes on as usual.” But on behalf of those who did bother themselves about such things, the Central Association of German Citizens of Jewish Faith (Centralverein deutscher Staatsbürger jüdischen Glaubens, commonly called the Centralverein) (i.e., the Jewish organization that served as a public relations center for Germany’s Jews — see Berghahn, 2005, p. 219) rejected Naumann’s approach and labeled him a Jewish antisemite. In other words, there was no great support for his claim that most German Jews were Germans first. That seems consistent with the conclusion offered by Grady (2013, p. 4): “[S]cholarship has suggested that the separation of Jewish life from German society actually increased during the Weimar Republic.”
The dictionary defines Zionism as “an international movement originally for the establishment of a Jewish national or religious community in Palestine and later for the support of modern Israel.” Theodor Herzl, often called the Father of Zionism, wrote a book titled A Jewish State: An Attempt at a Modern Solution of the Jewish Question (1904, pp. 17, 24-25), in which he said this:
I shall now put the Jewish Question in the curtest possible form: Are we to “get out” now? And if so, to what place? Or, may we yet remain? And if so, how long? . . .
[W]hether we like it or not, we are now, and shall henceforth remain, a historic group with unmistakable characteristics common to us all. . . .
Let the sovereignty be granted us over a portion of the globe large enough to satisfy the reasonable requirements of a nation; the rest we shall manage for ourselves. . . .
Palestine is our ever-memorable historic home. The very name of Palestine would attract our people with a force of marvellous potency.
I was surprised that Nazi apologist Wiebe (1939, p. 21) praised Herzl as “one of the most sincere and farsighted minds in international Jewry.” The reason, I think, was that he agreed with some things Herzl said. One point of agreement was that, ultimately, assimilation does not work — that every host nation (in this case, Germany) will inevitably become hostile to its Jews. Wiebe (pp. 6, 82) said, “[T]his Jewish problem is as old as the association of the pronouncedly differentiated and dissimilar Jewish people with other peoples.” This is perhaps why Bauer (1998, p. 1) of Yad Vashem rejects the idea that German antisemitism was somehow unique, arguing that the Holocaust “could have happened elsewhere.”
Herzl and Wiebe differed on exactly why assimilation would inevitably fail. Herzl (1904, p. 23) said there was a long-term cause and an immediate cause. The long-term cause was that the treatment of Jews in the Middle Ages had made them into a single people, unable to assimilate for more than a generation or two before their persecution would be renewed. The immediate cause was “our excessive production of mediocre intellects, who cannot find an outlet.” By that, I assumed he meant there would always be an abundance of Jewish doctors, lawyers, and politicians (as distinct from Einsteins), perennially competing with Gentiles and provoking resentment.
Herzl seemed somewhat mistaken about that. In the sources I reviewed, there was some nervousness about the proliferation of Jews throughout so many professions, but that was not among the major issues that seem to have alienated much of the German public. What appears more likely is that Herzl, like a number of other Jewish apologists, was not listening to the things that Gentiles were actually saying, as elaborated throughout this post.
Wiebe (1939, pp. 6, 82) said that assimilation had failed, and that persecution of Jews had resumed in Germany, for a rather different reason:
Germany had to pay dearly for the illusion that it is possible to solve the Jewish question by means of a generous effort to assimilate the Jews. . . . Not the least of the reasons for the uncompromising attitude of German anti-semitism . . . is the glaring contrast, irrefutably evidenced by the events of the past decades, between the incontestable good faith of the Germans and the cynical ingratitude of the Jews.
Wiebe (1939, p. 46) explained that reference to ingratitude: no other country had welcomed Jews and provided opportunities for them to the extent Germany had, he said, and yet Jews had repaid that generosity “in times of severe national distress” with “inglorious, destructive and treacherous” behavior. Wiebe offered examples of two university professors who, he said, had disparaged Hindenburg and the War Memorial. This, he said, was like slandering George Washington or insulting the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Those who recall the uproar surrounding Vietnam War protesters burning the American flag may get a sense of the traditionalist outrage Wiebe was expressing. But his larger analysis seemed muddled. The essential problem, he seemed to say, was that “Marxism and Jewry are closely allied.” As discussed below, there were problems with that belief.
Collaborating with the Nazis
Wiebe (1939, p. 19) and Herzl (1904, p. 23) did agree that, whatever the reasons, there was a mismatch between Jews and their host nations, and that assimilation had not worked and was not going to work. They agreed, further, that the Jews needed to leave Germany. That raised questions of when and how they would leave, and where they would go. There were various possibilities for “where.” As discussed below, those possibilities began to narrow, as the 1930s went by and nations began closing the doors to Jewish would-be immigrants. Herzl (1904, pp. 28-29) had considered Argentina as a possible destination, before settling on Palestine. Wiebe (1939, pp. 10-12) mistakenly believed that Palestine was not a realistic option.
Some may be surprised to hear that plans for the extermination of Jews did not unfold as soon as Hitler gained power in 1933, or at the time of Kristallnacht in 1938. According to Browning (2007, pp. 424-426), the Nazi decision to exterminate the Jewish people appears not to have been a settled policy until 1941 (see also Mommsen, 1997, p. 7). The previous policy had sought their emigration or expulsion, first from Germany and then from all of Europe. Nazi leaders considered shipping them all to Africa, under the Madagascar Plan (1940), or to Siberia, under Master Plan East (1939-1942). Wikipedia names other locations that were considered at one time or another.
All of those locations had their drawbacks. So when the Zionists came along in the footsteps of Herzl (d. 1904), with specific ideas on how German Jews could be transferred to Palestine, the Nazis were receptive. In the 1930s, according to Stackelberg (2009, reviewing Nicosia, 2008),
[T]he Nazi regime exploited Zionism to promote Jewish emigration to Palestine . . . . Officials of the Interior Ministry, the Economics Ministry, the Foreign Office, as well as of the SD and Gestapo, were instructed to give preferential treatment to Zionist organizations over other Jewish organizations . . . . The regime also supported occupational retraining and Hebrew-language instruction for Jews subject to their commitment to emigrate . . . . [A]s late as 1940 “the SS was still focused on emigration as the solution to the Jewish question within the borders of the Greater German Reich” . . . . Revisionist Zionists, who supported the Nazi ban on intermarriage, also proved useful to the Nazis in countering foreign criticism of the Nuremberg Laws [prohibiting sexual relations and marriages between Germans and Jews].
Direct emigration from Germany to Palestine was facilitated, from 1933 to 1939, by the Haavara Agreement between Jewish and Nazi officials. Refugees also sought to enter illegally (i.e., without the permission of the British, who controlled Palestine) throughout the prewar and wartime years, in what is known as Aliyah Bet, which appears to mean, roughly, “Plan B,” bet being the second letter of the Hebrew alphabet.
Among the several Jewish resistance organizations that sought to drive the British out of Palestine and create a Jewish state, the Lehi organization was particularly extreme. According to Wikipedia, Lehi made repeated efforts to form an alliance with Nazi Germany, offering to fight the British if the Germans would allow Jews in Nazi-occupied Europe to move to Palestine. The New York Times (Boehm, 2016) describes this as “the sanctification of Zionism to the point of tolerating anti-Semitism.” According to the Times, this mindset remains very deeply rooted. After WWII, Lehi would go on to assassinate Folke Bernadotte, appointed as United Nations mediator in the Arab-Israeli conflict of 1947-1948, despite the fact that Bernadotte had negotiated the release of Jews from German concentration camps during WWII. Lehi was also partly responsible for the Deir Yassin massacre of between 110 and 254 Palestinian civilians in 1948, with unconfirmed reports of rape and other atrocities. The victims included men, women, and children. The massacre was condemned by the main Israeli paramilitary force and by the area’s two chief rabbis, and led to significant further Arab-Jewish violence. Lehi also murdered Jews whom it considered to be collaborating with the British, and sent letter bombs to, among others, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill and U.S. President Harry Truman. Today, the Israeli Defense Forces have a special ribbon honoring the members of Lehi.
Politics and war are ugly. Various Jews of the Holocaust years inevitably engaged in both. The foregoing remarks are not intended primarily as wishful thinking opposed to that reality. The point here is, again, to demonstrate weaknesses in the standard narrative about good Jews and evil Germans.
One final contribution to that point involves European Jews housed in displaced persons (DP) camps in central Europe after WWII. According to USHMM, there were more than 250,000 of them, and they remained there from 1945 until as late as 1952. The delay seems to have been due largely to uncertainty as to where they could and should go. Noam Chomsky (1999, p. 93) of M.I.T. states that American Jewish organizations sought to prevent those Jews from entering the U.S., where a majority would have preferred to go. Those organizations sought instead to force them to go to Israel. As a result, Chomsky says, many thousands of Jews were forced to remain in DP camps for extended periods while the politicians wrangled. Conditions in those camps were very poor. Chomsky says that thousands of Jews died there while waiting. His sources for these claims include Shonfeld (1977, pp. 26, 116), who quotes Yitzchak Greenbaum (also spelled as Izaak or Yitzak Gruenbaum), head of the Jewish Agency Rescue Committee in the U.S., as saying this, circa 1943:
[W]hen they asked me, couldn’t you give money out of the United Jewish Appeal funds for the rescue of Jews in Europe, I said, ‘NO!’ and I say again, ‘NO!’…one should resist this wave which pushes the Zionist activities to secondary importance. . . .
For the rescue of the Jews in the Diaspora, we should consolidate our excess strength and the surplus of powers that we have. When they come to us with two plans — the rescue of the masses of Jews in Europe or the redemption of the land — I vote, without a second thought, for the redemption of the land. The more said about the slaughter of our people, the greater the minimization of our efforts to strengthen and promote the Hebraization of the land. . . .
One cow in Palestine is worth more than all the Jews in Poland.
Dershowitz (2002) disputes Chomsky’s account. While I did not explore all of the webpages that came up in a search of the Yad Vashem and USHMM websites, their main pages on the DP camps said nothing about this controversy; indeed, there did not appear to be any reference to Chomsky in connection with DP camps. Given the readiness of the USHMM page to criticize the American government on this point (just as USHMM repeatedly criticized the U.S. on other points), it did seem that fairness and accuracy called for at least an acknowledgement of Chomsky’s claim, and of the possibility that Jewish politics had caused those thousands of unnecessary Jewish deaths.
The Zionists did succeed in creating the state of Israel and in filling it with millions of Jews from everywhere, including many who survived the Holocaust. No doubt many believe that, as Herzl hoped, this has solved the Jewish Question.
Adapting to Second-Class Citizenship
Time magazine (Sept. 9, 2014) quotes a clinical psychologist on the subject of abusive domestic relationships: “Eventually there’s sort of this wearing down for people on the receiving end of the abuse, where they continue to tolerate more and over time feel less entitled to safety.” In response, the National Domestic Violence Hotline advises abused parties to practice self-care, and to create a safety plan that includes ways to be safe while remaining in an abusive relationship, along with preparations for leaving.
The Decision to Stay
In hindsight, of course, it is obvious that Germany’s Jews should have been preparing to leave. Antisemitism had been a problem for a very long time, and there were ample signs that it would continue to be a problem into the indefinite future. Berghahn (2005, p. 219) says that, around 1900, there was “a growing hostility toward Jews among larger segments of the population who blamed them for the ills and tensions within German society and politics.” Mommsen (1997, p. 6) identifies three active strands of antisemitism in early 20th-century Germany:
- Catholic antisemitism had endured for centuries, but was somewhat on the wane, and was not especially important in the roots of the Holocaust. This variety of antisemitism tended to focus on views and activities, accurately or inaccurately ascribed to Jews, that conflicted with Christian teaching (e.g., usury, ritual murder).
- Völkisch (i.e., “of the true German people”) antisemitism arose from the völkisch movement, based on an anti-Western Romanticism (see Pulzer, 1988, p. 33) popular in Germany since the 1890s. This increasingly popular philosophy contributed directly to Nazi antisemitism: it saw modernization and commercialization as products of Jewish influence, in opposition to its own back-to-the-land ethos and its pride in what it saw as the superior German culture and race (Levy, 2005, p. 743).
- Conservative or tradition-based antisemitism appears to have been indulged by German elites — notably, the officer corps, high-ranking civil servants, business and cultural leaders, and landowners (see Pulzer, 1988, pp. 139, 254, 293; Baranowski, 1996, p. 526) — since at least the 1880s. This elite antisemitism, indispensable in Hitler’s rise to and hold on power, seems to have included fears of perceived Jewish leftist politics (i.e., empowerment of the masses; hostility toward churches and other elite hierarchies; communism rather than individualism), internationalism (in conflict with German political nationalism and economic competitiveness), avaricious moneylending, and immorality (Baranowski, p. 526; Mommsen, 1997, p. 6; Crim, 2014, p. xviii).
By the 1920s, Norrell (2010, p. 63) observes, “Jews in Germany had endured rising anti-Semitism for at least a generation, including avowedly anti-Jewish representatives in the Reichstag and the appearance in 1912 of the League against Jewish Arrogance.” Kater (1984, pp. 2-3) says,
No one could seriously dispute the importance of antisemitism as a social, economic, and political force of great vitality in the history of Germany . . . since the late Middle Ages. . . . [Even] in the nineteenth century . . . , the rate of Jewish integration into German society was not commensurate with the degree of political equalisation. . . . [A]nti-Jewish prejudices once more had become well entrenched within German society by the time of World War I. . . . [In 1919, the Weimar Republic seemed] to complete the process of emancipation . . . [but instead it provoked further antisemitism precisely because it offered] increased liberties for Jews . . . . Despite the fact that Jewish soldiers took full part in military activities during WWI, they were sometimes discriminated against in the armed forces, and the antisemitic German press characterized German Jews as war shirkers who would stay behind the front lines in order to engage in war-profiteering. Antisemitism at the grass-roots level became manifest in the fall of 1918, when angry mobs in Munich and Berlin physically attacked Jews . . . and in 1923/24, when . . . Jewish shopkeepers were manhandled and even killed. [R]andom attacks on and wanton discrimination against [Jews in business and the professions continued] throughout the Weimar Republic.
Under such conditions, one is reminded of the adage: “Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.” That adage may apply, not only to individuals, but also to entire nations and ethnicities. Where the alternative is a Holocaust — where, in grand terms, an exit not taken voluntarily was ultimately forced upon the victim, after prolonged and continuing persecution — it does appear appropriate to suggest a victim’s share of responsibility for staying too long and just hoping that things would get better.
As in an abusive relationship, Hilberg (2003, pp. 1112-1113) says that European Jews relied on their millenia of experience in “placating and appeasing their enemies” rather than standing and fighting, and that they “did not always have to be deceived, they were capable of deceiving themselves” as to their adversary’s thoughts and plans. Vincent (1997, p. 352) concludes that Germany’s Jews in the 1920s demonstrated an “inability . . . to grasp that assimilation had become a hollow dream in Germany.”
Aberbach (2012, pp. 54-56) bemoans post-WWI Jewish disappointment at the feeling that “we were strangers … we did not belong” — as if there had not been many patent indicators of continuing estrangement. It was possible to fantasize that Jews’ military service in WWI would produce open-armed acceptance, but there does not appear to have been a concrete basis for that fantasy, either during the war or after. As in an abusive domestic relationship, the victimized party insisted upon nursing an increasingly unrealistic belief that it would all be different this time.
If anything, alleged and actual Jewish activities during WWI (below) probably left public opinion of Jews more negative at the end than it had been at the start. True, Hitler and other Nazis would only gradually conceive and develop their program of Jewish extermination. But that is like a post facto remark about a relationship that had long been obviously dysfunctional — like saying that, sure, the parties fought constantly, and sometimes bitterly, but nobody imagined anyone would end up in prison or the morgue.
The Option of Leaving
No doubt many Jews concluded that the 1920s would have been exactly the wrong time to leave an established and successful life in Germany, in order to start over in a new land, with a new language and uncertain prospects. According to Hess (2009), Berlin was becoming a great center of European Jewish life. Even when the Nazis came into power, there was evidently some reason to doubt they would last long. Many persons of a positive outlook presumably concluded that conditions for Jews had been improving, from the emancipation of Jews in the mid-1800s right up through the grant of full equality in 1919, and that such improvement would continue over the long term.
But considering the perennial antisemitism, such hopes should be considered against the alternatives. Jews in the U.S. and elsewhere had enjoyed generation upon generation of substantial acceptance. Ironically, while Jews were struggling to find acceptance in Germany, Germans were themselves continuing to flood to America, land of opportunity, as they had been doing since the mid-1800s, in response to the invitation of Emma Lazarus and the Statue of Liberty. Meanwhile, Jewish emigration from Germany “had practically come to a standstill after 1870 when conditions for Jews in that country became more favorable” (Wischnitzer, 1940, p. 23).
The number of Jews in Germany remained unchanged, at about 615,000, from 1910 to at least 1922. (According to Wiebe (1939, p. 22), that number would include only those who described themselves as Jewish by religion, and would thus not count those born Jewish who had converted to Christianity or who ceased to identify as Jewish.) The American Jewish Year Book (1925-1926, p. 404) indicates that Jews were definitely coming to America, at that time; they just weren’t coming from Germany. For instance, the 1,986 German Jews shown as arriving in the U.S. during the year ended June 30, 1924 were vastly outnumbered by the 27,988 coming from Russia, Poland, and Romania. Indeed, nearly as many Jews came from Britain as from Germany that year. According to earlier Year Books, the numbers of German Jewish emigrants were actually lower — sometimes virtually nonexistent — in the other post-WWI years (1919-1923), when they were supposedly so surprised and disappointed at their treatment in Germany.
USHMM states that about 523,000 Jews remained in Germany as of January 1933, and that, while there was an initial wave of emigration after the Nazi takeover that year, some may have decided not to emigrate at that time due to stabilization of the political situation. Yad Vashem reports that about 300,000 German Jews did eventually emigrate — but that much of that emigration was postponed until the late 1930s (most notably in response to the Kristallnacht pogroms of November 9, 1938 — see Gigliotti, 2006, p. 24). By then, unfortunately, many were unable to find a country willing to accept them. There were exceptions: China, Japan, the Philippines, the Dominican Republic, Bolivia, and also (according to Gigliotti, p. 30) Angola, Ethiopia, and later British Guiana were still open to some extent; in addition, Dominican passports were also used to facilitate refuge elsewhere. The situation thereafter became progressively worse. USHMM states that 214,000 remained in Germany on the eve of war, in August 1939; that that number had dropped to 163,000 by October 1941 (at which point Germany outlawed Jewish emigration and commenced systematic deportation of German Jews to ghettos in Eastern Europe); and that fewer than 20,000 (mostly shielded by laws involving e.g., marriage to Gentiles) remained in Germany by May 1943.
Even in a one-sidedly abusive relationship, the victim can be responsible for maladaptive behaviors and counterproductive decisions. A person who decides to stay in a sometimes hostile setting, eschewing prudence for the sake of comfort and familiarity, may have to practice damage control if s/he is to survive. One may have to placate and appease a violent partner (to use Hilberg’s terms, above); for example, s/he may have to demonstrate total loyalty. The many Jews who were so terribly unwilling or unable to leave Germany apparently needed to form a deep and visible commitment to the project of really fitting in and getting along with Germans, including especially those who held incompatible values and beliefs. A commitment of that nature, established during years of opportunity, would have made it more difficult for antisemitic views to gain credibility during years of hardship.
From a liberal perspective, it does not reflect well on German conservatism to say that the Jews evidently had to fit in or die. And yet that is the nature of conservatism, sometimes for better and in this case for worse: it values conformity. This problem does not appear to be unique to Germany of the early 20th century.
The following sections of this post discuss ways in which various Jews did not try to fit in and get along. The clueless ostentation criticized above may once again illustrate the general point. It would be rude at best to flaunt one’s wealth in the face of another’s hardship. It would also demonstrate a degree of cold individualism not very compatible with some of the German values discussed above. It might illustrate that the Jews either could not or would not enforce standards of decent behavior within their own community, or else that their standards were, once again, alien to Germany. This would be compatible with the growing impression that Jews were “an alien race who were deemed a destructive force in Germany” (Ward, 2010, p. 145). Such ostentation, irritating in itself, would be doubly irritating — it could virtually invite attack — if it seemed to evince an out-of-touch ignorance of, or indifference to, brewing resentment.
Ironically — with, again, some possible parallels to abusive domestic relationships — it appears that the Jews who were least readily accepted into German society may have come out ahead. According to Wertheimer (1987), the Russian and East European Jews (Ostjuden, below) who poured into Germany in the late 1800s and early 1900s were not allowed to sink roots; instead, they were compelled to keep moving, on their migrations primarily to Britain and the United States. By moving along, they removed themselves from the fool’s paradise that Germany’s Jews were constructing.
The situation appears to be that German Jews had become inured to rejection over centuries, that they were hoping the storm in Germany would blow over, and that they had learned to ignore the gradual but real increase in antisemitic sentiment around them. In that case, enormous shocks might be needed to awaken them from their complacency.
Although I have characterized that as cluelessness, the analogy of the abusive domestic relationship suggests the presence of dismay as well. It could not be very appealing to think that, even now, even here in Germany, where it had all seemed to be going so (relatively) well, it was going to be another train wreck, another chapter in the long Jewish saga of grabbing a suitcase and fleeing for your life. This was surely not something that a settled person would want to contemplate. It may have been something that people sick of it would be especially reluctant to accept. And yet, hard as it was, there remains the fact that this was a dysfunctional relationship. Staying around would only increase the odds that someone was going to get hurt.
Political Suspicions Related to WWI
Numerous sources (e.g., Heilbronner, 2004, p. 10) affirm that the German antisemitism of the 19th and early 20th centuries was not a homogeneous, nationwide doctrine calling for extermination of Jews. Such sources state, rather, that the more extreme antisemitism adopted by the Nazis grew out of the years of WWI and the Weimar Republic (i.e., 1914-1933).
The “Stab in the Back” Hypothesis
USHMM attributes that more extreme antisemitism to three factors. The first of those three was the “stab in the back” story. That story, widely believed, held that Germany was not defeated on the battlefield, but was rather betrayed by subversive citizens and by the “November Criminals” — by, that is, the government leaders who signed the Armistice with the Allies on November 11, 1918.
Although the Armistice was not an official acknowledgement of surrender, its terms were to that effect: among other things, Germany had to withdraw its troops back within its own borders and agree to pay reparations. The final terms of the agreement ending the war were specified in the Treaty of Versailles on June 28, 1919. According to USHMM, that treaty’s “humiliating” War Guilt Clause required Germany to accept complete responsibility for starting the war and to pay “enormous” amounts to the victorious Allies. German leaders ultimately made only a fraction of those payments. Historians disagree on whether Germany could in fact have paid the sums demanded. But in any event, the Treaty was extremely unpopular with the German public.
As I describe in another post, there does not seem to have been significant corruption or other abuse of power on the part of the so-called November Criminals. Those who led Germany through the Armistice, Versailles, and the Weimar Republic appear not to have indulged the treasonous intent implied in the “November Criminals” and “stab-in-the-back” terminology. Indeed, it appears that the real November criminals were the military leaders who misled the German public about the true state of affairs on the battlefield, who failed to negotiate an end to hostilities when Germany enjoyed a stronger position, and who then passed the buck to center-left German political parties when they, the military leaders, may have been better positioned to make the best of Germany’s much weaker negotiating position in fall 1918.
It is not clear that the elected leaders — indeed, any leaders — of the Weimar Republic could have achieved a high degree of success under the circumstances. Parsson (1974, pp. 39-44) argues that the governing figures did provide good leadership in hard times. What they did was, in any case, not good enough. As the 1920s unfolded, those leaders left the country more inclined to consider, instead, the far right (e.g., Nazi) and also the far left (i.e., Communist) parties — the latter apparently drawing upon the initial attraction of the recent revolution forming the Soviet Union.
For present purposes, a key concern about the so-called November Criminals was that some of them were Jewish. Jews were estimated to comprise only about 1% of the German population (above). But of the six leaders identified in the other post who seem to be most commonly named as November Criminals (i.e., Walther Rathenau, Matthias Erzberger, Friedrich Ebert, Philipp Scheidemann, Emil Barth, and Karl Liebknecht), at least one particularly visible one, and possibly two or three (i.e., Rathenau; perhaps Barth and Liebknecht), were Jewish. That Jewish presence became more noteworthy in the context of Jewish leftist political tendencies (below).
In short, the hypothesis that Germany was stabbed in the back by civilians and politicians unsupportive of the army in WWI seems correct, in the sense that extreme left-wing political figures had not supported the war, and civilians lost their taste for it as their hunger grew more intense. The hypothesis also seems correct in the sense that the moderate leftist politicians of the Social Democrat party (including prominent Jewish leftists) poorly negotiated an armistice, amounting to a surrender, and failed to prepare domestic sentiment for the realities of the army’s weak position. But there does not seem to be much support for the idea that German Jews en masse, or a subgroup of prominent German Jews, deliberately weakened Germany’s military effort in WWI.
Association of Jews with Communism
Along with the stab-in-the-back theory, USHMM cites a second WWI-era development contributing to the creation of a relatively homogeneous nationwide German antisemitism. As detailed in my other post, leftist political parties drew the overwhelming majority of votes in the early years of the Weimar Republic. Communists are usually considered to be at the far left of the political spectrum, and of course fear of communism ran deep in most Western countries, Germany included, through most of the 20th century.
Among the leftist parties in Weimar Germany, Bookbinder (n.d.) says, Jews were especially likely to vote for the center-left DDP and SPD parties. Jacobs (1992, p. 154) indicates that “a majority of German Jewry continue[d] to think of itself as liberal rather than socialist” during WWI and the immediate postwar period, but drifted further to the left during the 1920s and especially with the emergence of the Nazis.
It appears, though, that those voting patterns may not have attracted as much attention as did the leadership of various revolutionary organizations. USHMM names several prominent Jewish communist leaders of the era: Leon Trotsky in the USSR, Béla Kun in Hungary, and Ernst Toller in Bavaria. Toller served very briefly as president of the Bavarian Soviet Republic, a revolutionary attempt to construct a socialist state in the German state of Bavaria, starting just a few days before the Armistice. USHMM could also have mentioned others named more forthrightly by Yad Vashem:
Jews played an important role in the first cabinet formed after the 1918 revolution (Hugo Hasse and Otto Landesberg), the Weimar Constitution was drafted by a Jew (Hugo Pruess), and Jews were conspicuously present in the abortive attempts to create radical revolutionary regimes, especially in Bavaria. The revolutionary government in Munich was headed by a Jewish intellectual, Kurt Eisner, and after his assassination, two other Jewish leaders, Gustav Landauer and Eugen Levine, assumed positions of major influence in the “Raterepublik” (“Soviet” Republic”). Rosa Luxemburg, who was also assassinated, was a leader of the revolutionary Spartakusbund, which was one of the predecessors of the German Communist party. In the following years as well, Jews held major political posts, primarily in the leadership of the democratic and socialist parties. The most prominent Jewish political figure was Walther Rathenau, who served first as minister for economic affairs and then as foreign minister.
Of course, Karl Marx was Jewish — and so, to a minor degree, was Vladimir Lenin. In addition, Berkowitz (2007, p. 10) states, “Jewish immigrants often were the backbone of diverse anarchist groups around the turn of the century.” Further, Gordon (1984, p. 52) observes that revolutionary parties and organizations “had extremely high percentages of Jews in their memberships.” Hence, it does appear disingenuous for USHMM to disparage as “antisemites” those who might wonder about some kind of “‘natural’ attraction of Jews and international communism.” Krajewski (2007) offers a more credible perspective:
There are people who denounce as racist any attempt to find out the number of Jews among communists and in communist institutions. They even resent any mention that someone was Jewish (by origin). I believe that they impose a virtual taboo because they have not come to terms either with their own Jewish ancestry or with the collective Jewish moral responsibility for the Jewish involvement in communism. . . .
There was no Jewish communism, but there were Jewish communists. Discussing them and their role does not have to lead to putting all the blame for communist crimes on Jews. . . .
Sensitivity and good will is needed to understand the story of Jewish communists. It is a closed chapter, so it can be fully described. And this can be instructive to all. As the famous anonymous saying goes: “Jews are just like anybody else, only more so . . .”
The point of that last remark seems to be that predominance by Jews in communism should be considered in light of predominance by Jews in a variety of pursuits and philosophies. That is true, as far as it goes; but that predominance is not necessarily uniform across all political parties. One could understand a leftward drift among Germany’s Jews in the 1920s, given the antisemitism of the Nazi right; but leftist tendencies among Jewish politicians were evident during and before WWI as well (Meyer & Brenner, 1997, pp. 373-377). For that matter, Jews have been much more likely to lean left than right in America too (e.g., Mendes, 2009). Aberbach (2012, p. 166) says that, indeed, “Jewish support for the [Communist] revolution . . . was a factor in the survival of the Soviet Union during the civil war. By 1926, Jews formed 8.2 per cent of trainees in Soviet military academies.”
According to Niewyk (2001, pp. 165-173), the concern of Max Naumann (the German nationalist Jewish lawyer discussed above), in the 1920s, was that antisemitism arose primarily from the sometimes correct perception of divided loyalties. The public saw that many Jews did gravitate toward socialism, Zionism, and other philosophies that were not staunchly German nationalist — and, worse, that some of these Jews held high positions in the government. Informed Germans could reasonably fear that many Jews were loyal primarily to Zionism, to international communist priorities, or at any rate to something other than the German nation.
In settled times, as Jews become more assimilated, one might expect a more even dispersion across the political spectrum. But in unsettled times like those of Germany circa 1918, it appears that the elite, conservative, exclusionary parties of the right may be far less likely to admit or appeal to Jews than are the more egalitarian, socialistic, inclusionary parties of the left. An affinity for communism in such times and places would not be surprising, nor would it necessarily suggest an unchanging aspect of Jewish identity. But it would be unreasonable to expect Germans living in that period not to notice a generally leftist Jewish orientation, just as an American today need not be anti-Christian to observe a link between fundamentalist Christianity and the Republican party. Certainly such Germans could experience what Midlarsky (2005, pp. 140-141) characterizes as
a shocked recognition that a people [i.e., Jews] that only a generation or two ago had been living on the sidelines of German political life and even had legal barriers to their full participation were now full and perhaps even leading participants in the founding of the new German state.
Gordon (1984, p. 52) observes that “Jews were very active in the early Weimar government at federal, state, and local levels,” and were thus “thought to have been overly influential in the adoption of new, foreign, and unwanted democratic institutions.” So the Jews had stepped up to the plate, claiming to provide leadership, and all eyes were on them, many with considerable reservations. Here, again, one finds a parallel in today’s America, with its first black president and his many critics, not all of whom are necessarily fairminded or color-blind.
Midlarsky suggests that the shock of seeing so many Jews in such prominent positions may explain the sometime tendency by German conservatives of that era to refer to Weimar as the “Jews’ Republic” (Judenrepublik). While it is not surprising that Jews would move into positions of power in a republic that gave them full legal rights, it was unfortunate that the concept of a republic could thus become associated, accurately or not, with a seizure of power by a stigmatized minority. That combination appears to have given conservatives a big target: their message would appeal to those who did not want a republic, and also to those who did not want a government prominently influenced by Jews.
One could hardly blame Germany’s leftists for wanting to catch up with other Western nations, but in retrospect it seems that Germany was not ready — that the abrupt transition to the Weimar Republic may have been too much, too soon. Perhaps it would not have been that, if the disproportionately Jewish character of the Weimar government had been able to deliver economic solutions. A manager of the fate of the Jews (or some other oppressed minority) in some future setting might ask, from this, whether a gentler adjustment — that is, one less likely to shock the nation and to expose that minority to too great a risk of swift failure and/or political retrenchment — could be more effective, over the long term, and less likely to provoke an extreme counterreaction on the part of the general public.
Shirking Military Service
People have long gauged men’s patriotism in terms of their willingness to serve and, if necessary, to be injured or killed in military service. Such calculations are often revised, however, as soldiers conclude that a war should end and that they, personally, are not interested in dying for nothing. The latter was an increasingly accepted line of reasoning as America’s War in Vietnam progressed; it was also what Adolf Hitler seems to have encountered upon being hospitalized during WWI (1925, pp. 248-251):
I heard here for the first time something that was still unknown at the front: bragging about one’s own cowardice! . . . [They] tried with all the means of their miserable eloquence to picture the idea of the honest soldier as ridiculous and the coward’s lack of character as an example to be followed. A few wretched fellows, above all, set the fashion. One of them bragged about having pulled his own hand through the barbed-wire fence so that he could come to the hospital . . . .
[In Munich,] the general mood was more than bad; shirking of duty was looked upon almost as a sign of higher wisdom, but faithful endurance as a sign of inner weakness and narrow-mindedness. But the offices of the authorities were occupied by Jews. Almost every clerk a Jew and every Jew a clerk. I was amazed by this multitude of fighters of the Chosen People and could not help comparing them with the few representatives they had on the front.
Some aspects of that Hitler quote seem roughly consistent with American views over the past half-century. It seemed, from the late 1960s into the 1990s and probably beyond, that the “smart” thing was to avoid military service. The Army was widely perceived as a career option for people who had few other opportunities. Consistent with that perspective, Merwin (2011) and Levinson (2001) find that Jews are overrepresented in many professions in the U.S., but are underrepresented in the military. Joyce (2014) contends that, for many centuries, and right up to the present, Jews have avoided military service except where it has served their own individual or collective interests (see also e.g., Radl, 2012).
USHMM suggests that, at least in WWI, Jews were enthusiastic participants: “Over 100,000 German Jews served in [Germany’s] armed forces, far exceeding their proportion of the population; 12,000 of them lost their lives in combat.” On the other hand, Joyce offers a quote, whose source I was not able to find, claiming that “all the numbers in the apologetic literature about Jews in both world wars are estimates, and are at times artfully cobbled together.” (The reason for uncertainty about the numbers is, primarily, that in 1945 the U.S. bombed and almost completely destroyed the building in Potsdam where German military records were kept.)
Aberbach (2012, p. 163) appears to attribute those USHMM statistics (e.g., 100,000 soldiers) to German publications by Markovits et al. (1998) and/or Albanis (2002). I was not able to find those articles online. It seemed that the Jewish Census (Judenzählung) conducted by the German Military in October 1916 would be relevant. The Wikipedia article on that census indicated that its purpose was only to find the percentage of Jews in the military who had served at the front; the finding was reportedly 80%. Wikipedia’s source for that percentage was a quote from Amos Elon (2002, p. 338), whose sources, in turn, were a book by Vogel (1977, p. 149) and an article by Pierson (1974, p. 143) in the Leo Baeck Institute Yearbook (vol. 19 no. 1). My 1 2 searches turned up no online copies of those materials. Given their dates, it seemed they, in turn, had to rely on earlier publications.
So far, it seemed that I was hearing a story handed down. In my experience, that usually happened when the original sources were inaccessible or did not say quite what one wanted them to say. But I continued my investigation.
In contrast to USHMM’s figure of 100,000 Jewish soldiers, a Wikipedia page said that the Reich Federation of Jewish Front Soldiers (Reichsbund jüdischer Frontsoldaten) (RJF) had “always emphasized 85,000 Jewish soldiers had fought” for Germany in WWI, and 12,000 had died. Searches led to a Deutsche Welle article that said, “More than 85,000 Jewish soldiers served for the German Empire during the First World War,” and to a Memim Encyclopedia article saying substantially the same thing. None of these secondary sources cited sources for their numbers. It was not clear that USHMM was justified in its confident citation of the 100,000 figure.
The Wikipedia article cited additional sources for some of the foregoing statistics. One was Die Judischen Gefallenen, a database containing data from a 1932 book listing the names of German Jews who were killed in action (KIA) in WWI. That website indicated that the 1932 book had contained the names of a total of about 10,000 Jewish KIAs, not 12,000. But there was another problem. According to that website, the Jewish Census of 1916 found only 3,411 Jewish KIAs as of November 1, 1916, probably implying a total of no more than 6,000 for the entire war. The authors of the book considered that a gross understatement, and concluded that the finding of 3,411 KIAs “simply indicates how inaccurate the ‘Jewish Count’ was.” But if the Jewish Census of 1916 was inaccurate, Wikipedia was wrong in claiming that it was accurate (i.e., that it “disproved the charges” of “lack of patriotism among German Jews”). At the same time, self-contradictorily, Wikipedia called the Jewish Census a “statistical monstrosity.” I was not sure which of these sources would be more reliable, but there did seem to be some slippage somewhere.
Regarding some of the other statistics under examination here, the Die Judischen Gefallenen website said,
Between 1917 and 1921 a census was undertaken on behalf of the great Jewish organizations, lead by Dr. Jacob Segall and under the direction of the director of the Berlin State Statistical Office, Dr. Heinrich Silbergleit. This work, carried out under the greatest of difficulties, revealed the following: of the 555,000 Jews living in the Reich in 1914, 100,000 served during the war in the Army, Navy, and Colonial Troops and 12,000 remained on the field of honor.
It appeared, then, that Segall’s census was the source of some of the numbers presented by USHMM and Wikipedia. Given the seeming importance of the claim that Jews did not shirk military service in WWI (contra Hitler’s account), and the apparent reliance on this source to support that claim, I was surprised that my search for an English-language version of Segall’s census led nowhere. A search for the German version had more success. I found a copy of the study, glanced at it with my limited German language ability, and ran it through Google Translate, but did not ultimately use the somewhat tangled result.
The similarly translated German Wikipedia page on Jacob Segall, author of that study, indicated that he spent his career working primarily in statistics (notably directing the Central Welfare Office of the German Jews) — in Berlin from 1908 to 1933, and thereafter in Palestine. It was not clear what to make of that: he was presumably trained to do advanced statistical work, but was evidently inclined to use his statistical knowledge in defense of Jews. That latter impression was borne out in the discovery of Gay’s (1994, p. 243) statement that Segall’s study was driven by the goal of rebutting a competing study by the pseudonymous Otto Armin (actually Alfred Roth), which found that only 62,000 Jews had served in the military, of whom only 27,000 (44%) had ever been on the front lines. Here, again, my search for an English version of the named document came up short. The English-language abstract for a Hebrew article (Rosenthal, 2002) stated that the 12,000 figure had been officially confirmed by a Nazi agency in 1934. I did not read Hebrew, could not get that article for computerized translation, and was not sure whether that Nazi agency might have explained how the lower Arnim/Roth figure could also be accurate, depending on exactly how one phrased the question.
Radl (2012) said that Segall defined military service as including any sort of service (e.g., canteen staff; war correspondents). Radl suggested that German Jews probably participated in WWI largely because they were drafted, and at approximately the same rates as Gentiles. Radl further calculated that Jewish soldiers were killed at a markedly lower rate than Gentiles — which was consistent, he said, with others’ arguments that Jews were underrepresented among front-line soldiers. Radl’s arguments depended upon citations to German-language sources that I was not positioned to interpret (e.g., Oppenheimer, 1922).
Radl did appear to be correct in stating that Germany used conscription in WWI — that, to some unknown extent, Jews were probably drafted like anyone else, and that perhaps those who joined rather than waiting to be drafted did so, as many Americans have done, to have more of a choice in their military assignment. That, too, would be consistent with postings in the rear lines. Aberbach (2012, p. 54) suggests, in addition, that “the outspoken patriotism of Jewish organizations was de rigueur in a [wartime] society that thought itself surrounded by a ‘world of enemies’ and demanding loyal conformity.”
The Alleged Shock of the Jewish Census
As in my review of materials on other topics related to Jews (i.e., Holocaust denial; the accusation of antisemitism), my reading of these materials generated a certain distrust of pro-Jewish sources. I would be inclined toward a critical stance in any event; more so where, as here, so many of these sources were so grossly polemical rather than analytical.
No doubt there were many writers out there, somewhere, who took a balanced approach and demonstrated a commitment to finding the truth, as distinct from posturing and trying to manipulate the reader’s emotions. Unfortunately, I was not finding many of those kinds of sources. Instead, I found one source after another dramatizing, for example, the dismay that Jews felt when the German military undertook the Jewish Census of 1916 (above). To illustrate, Aberbach (2012, p. 164) claimed that German Jews were “deeply wounded” and “hurt to the core” to think that anyone would doubt their patriotism. Evidently I was supposed to believe that they were like children, discovering for the first time that someone does not like them. That did not seem consistent with Jewish culture and historical experience in early 20th-century Germany.
Or if I am wrong about that, Aberbach needed to make his case with citations to data demonstrating the extent of that alleged dismay. First, he needed to resolve the question of whether the Jewish Census was driven primarily by antisemitism or rather, per Watson (2014), by “efficiency-related” concerns due to the “intense manpower strain” that the military was experiencing at that time. Aberbach also needed to explain how Jews could be shocked at the Jewish Census when, for example, just the year before, “[A] Catholic Centre Party deputy in the Reichstag in August 1915 claimed . . . [that Jews] dominated the Reich Cereals Board and were using their positions to shirk active [military] service” (Watson, 2014).
For that matter, Aberbach needed to refute Fine’s (2012, p. 15) (drawing upon Angress (1978?), whom he considers the author of “the definitive history of the Judenzählung“) view that the Jewish Census of 1916 was not a watershed moment, but rather was just a warning sign that Jews were considered suspect. That certainly was not new: it was just a reminder that “the yellow patch” marking Jewishness might always be “sewn back on” (Pulzer, 2003, p. 205).
There is, finally, the prospect that, if the Jews were truly and deeply scarred by the Jewish Census (“bitterly disappointed,” in the words of Ziemann (2011, p. 385)), they would presumably have displayed more enthusiasm for leaving Germany or turning toward more radical political philosophies. But as far as I could tell, that radicalization did not happen until much later in the Weimar era. Even in the mid-1920s, Max Naumann (above) found that, in fact, Germany’s Jews were not strongly motivated toward either nationalism or Zionism.
The claim of 100,000 Jewish soldiers appeared to derive from a single study, conducted by a Jewish statistician whose job or personal mission was to present statistics favoring Jewish perspectives. Given the very considerable amount of attention that has been given to the Holocaust in all its dimensions, including particularly the question of Jewish shirking during WWI, I felt that Segall’s study would have been translated into English if it had seemed to provide a solid rebuttal of the accusation of shirking. Without an English version, I was not able to examine Segall’s methods. His study was said to have been “carried out under the greatest of difficulties,” suggesting that a careful look at method might find a number of problems. The 100,000 number was obviously rounded off, suggesting that it represented a second- or third-hand approximation of the study’s actual findings — or else that the study itself could not achieve more than a rough estimate. The fact of non-translation, the vagueness of the 100,000 figure, the competing figure of 85,000 Jewish soldiers, and the unavailability of other related materials, combined to suggest that full disclosure in English would tend to soften the claim of Jewish commitment to the war effort.
Jewish culture is not generally known for its physicality or warrior spirit. There does not appear to be a strong Jewish ethic comparable to the Nazi glorification of heroic death in service of one’s people. The German public did not appear to be receiving a steady stream of reports, printed or spoken, of Jewish soldiers charging enemy machine guns, or sacrificing themselves to save their buddies. Pro-Jewish sites like USHMM did not appear to be offering any Jewish counterpart to the alleged courage that Hitler had displayed during the war. I did not see a comprehensive Jewish movement, before or during the war years, toward German nationalism and commitment to the service of the state. In short, while there were surely individual examples to the contrary, I did not believe that Jews generally had enthusiastically signed up for the German army throughout the years of WWI, nor that they were largely inclined to distinguish themselves in combat.
I found it annoying to be told that German Jews were volunteering for the military at a torrid pace when it appeared that, for the most part, they were probably just being drafted, or volunteering in anticipation of the draft. It did not seem likely that German army officers, or the German public, would have irrationally disregarded or disparaged substantial evidence of a self-sacrificial Jewish commitment on behalf of the German nation. Given reports of discrimination against Jews in the military (Kater, above), I suspected that some antisemitic commanders would have ordered Jews to the front lines — that, in other words, some Jewish war deaths may have been due to targeting of Jewish soldiers, rather than to their enthusiasm for battle. I was not very impressed by the recurrent complaints that I encountered in the literature, regarding an inexplicable or vaguely “antisemitic” German failure to honor the Jewish sacrifice during the war. From a people proud of its analysts of human nature, its Sigmund Freuds and Alfred Adlers and Abraham Maslows — aided, moreover, by multiple well-funded Holocaust remembrance organizations — it was disappointing to encounter so much material offering such incomplete and poorly supported explanations.
On the matter of serving and being killed on the front lines, I discounted Hitler’s perspective: it seemed to me that he was already in the process of making Jews scapegoats when he wrote the foregoing excerpts from Mein Kampf, and I doubted that he was very well positioned to determine whether Jews, comprising only 1% of the German population, were in fact underrepresented among front-line soldiers. I was not surprised to read what he said about the disproportionate presence of Jews in army clerical positions, though he probably exaggerated it. Such a presence would be a predictable result of the difference between ethics that valorize intellect vs. action (above), and it would also be consistent with Herzl’s remarks (above) suggesting a Jewish tendency away from positions requiring manual effort. If there was a way to avoid or minimize one’s front-line service, I suspected that Jewish soldiers would be at least as likely as Gentile soldiers to use it. Although various sources called the Roth report antisemitic, I would not be surprised if it was substantially correct in finding that only 44% of Jewish soldiers had served on the front lines. Although the military as a whole had been called antisemitic in materials I reviewed, I was not able to verify that army officers had made a concerted effort to send Jews to the front, where they would be at greater risk of death.
In these impressions, I was perhaps erring in discounting the project of collecting the actual names of 10,000 dead Jewish soldiers: that effort was impressive, but I suspected that closer examination would reveal complications that would tend to reduce the gap between that effort and the Roth figures. For example, with more time (and with suitable English translations of relevant materials), I would determine how soldiers born Jewish but converted to Christianity were counted; I would examine whether the front lines were deemed to include messengers and others who were not usually in the line of fire.
Given the 11 million German soldiers mobilized and the 1.8 million German soldiers killed during WWI, for a fatality rate of 16%, I was not sure why pro-Jewish sources would claim that the deaths of 12,000 Jews, out of 100,000 total (i.e., 12%), demonstrated an above-average degree of sacrifice. Moreover, among those millions of soldiers in the German army, the estimates of 100,000 Jewish soldiers mobilized and 10,000 to 12,000 killed were so small as to be virtually invisible. It appeared, that is, that Jews might have been expecting Germans to sit up and take notice of a statistically disproportionate Jewish contribution (if, that is, Jews were indeed doing more than their share), when that contribution was still a tiny speck within the vast war context. Their numerical insignificance raised the question of how “Jewish shirking” would come to be a matter of widespread interest. My impression was that, under the extreme hardships of the time, with a press that was apparently not always very informative, people may have indulged a great many rumors, and may have been inclined to overinterpret small events.
Ultimately, on the topic of shirking by Jewish soldiers during WWI, I was left with tentative impressions, not definitive conclusions. The available information seemed patchy and unsettled. Perhaps like many Germans of that era, I had to rely on a mix of existing evidence and general beliefs about Jews, war, and military service. My tentative impressions would probably have been more favorable toward the pro-Jewish position if Holocaust remembrance organizations, and other supposedly authoritative sources, had displayed an earnest commitment to report facts on both sides of the issue, as distinct from increasingly tiresome accusations of antisemitism, whenever they encountered sources offering some unfavored allegation. Everything considered, I was not able to say with conviction that the reports of shirking by Jewish soldiers during WWI were substantially false.
According to USHMM, another WWI-era development contributed to the creation of a homogeneous nationwide German antisemitism. While USHMM does not attempt to provide a coherent and detailed explanation, the basic accusation appears to be that Jews schemed to obtain financial advantage at Germany’s expense during and after the war. Jews were said to have prolonged the war for financial gain, to have dominated the peace negotiations to Germany’s detriment, and to have been behind the notorious “War Guilt Clause” in the Treaty of Versailles that blamed Germany for starting the war.
Jewish Money and Power
It was not absurd to imagine that Jews might possess financial means to shape national policy, or to extract gains from it. There is, first, the historical fact of tremendous Jewish financial power, often centered on the oft-suspected Rothschild family. One recent estimate finds, though, that the Rothschild fortune was actually not among history’s 20 greatest. Moreover, the fortune seems by now to have been subdivided among countless heirs. Regardless, Legge (2003, p. 117) suggests that an unflattering link between Jews and international finance, facilitating potential exploitation of ordinary people, became much more prevalent in Germany during the Panic of 1873 (i.e., a depression extending for at least six years). Norrell (2010, p. 37) states that, in Prussia, where Jews comprised 1% of the population, they controlled 86% of the banks in 1862, and accounted for 27% of the lawyers in 1904.
German Jews continued to enjoy an increasingly “favorable income distribution . . . compared to other Germans” (Legge, 2003, p. 116) in the late 19th century and in the first several decades of the 20th century. By 1871, they had overwhelmingly achieved middle-class status or better (Lowenstein, 2005, pp. 141, 143). In Frankfurt in 1900, 63% of Jews had incomes of at least 3,000 marks, as compared to only 25% of Protestants and 16% of Catholics (Norrell, 2010, p. 36). Wiebe (1939, p. 32) cites Marcus (1931) for an estimate that, in 1930, the average Jewish income was 3.2 times greater than the average Gentile income.
Leading Jews had considerable access to the centers of power. Norrell (2010, p. 64) says, “The Kaiser frequently socialized with a group of highly-assimilated and wealthy Jewish businessmen—merchants, industrialists, and bankers.” Windolf (n.d., p. 14) suggests that, of the ten most highly connected top executives in Germany in 1914, eight were Jewish. Gordon (1984, pp. 10-12) finds that, in 1923, Jews owned 150 of the 161 privately owned banks in Berlin, and that Jews in general were significantly (sometimes dramatically) overrepresented in business, public and private service, banking, the stock market, insurance, law, consulting, universities, and elsewhere. By 1930, Wiebe (1939, pp. 25-32) reports, Jews were three times as likely as Gentiles to hold independent or leading professional positions, but were only one-sixth as likely as Gentiles to work in manual labor. Wiebe states that rural Jews opted, not for work as farmers or craftsmen, but instead “preferred to deal in cattle, corn or fertilizers and especially in money.” (See also Mosse, 1989.)
This overrepresentation may not have been per se problematic. Engel (2013) says, “Although feeling seems to have prevailed among Germans that their Jewish neighbours exercised excessive influence in the administration of their country and in its cultural and economic life, few evidently regarded that situation as one of Germany’s most serious problems.” Current attitudes in the United States may shed some light on that statement. According to Gallup (2014), the most important problems in the U.S. are government, the economy generally, unemployment, and healthcare. But a fair percentage of Americans may still have negative impressions of Jews, and that percentage can rise noticeably. For example, ADL (2013) found that about 25% of Americans agreed that Jews talk too much about the Holocaust, and ADL (2011) notes that the percentage of Americans feeling that Jews have too much control or influence on Wall Street rose from 14% in 2009 to 19% in 2011, probably due to controversies involving the likes of Goldman Sachs. (That said, a Pew survey (2014) finds that Jews are rated most highly of eight different religious groups). Presumably German sentiment, too, was subject to some degree of change as new information or propaganda emerged.
Engel notwithstanding, I did think that the heavy overrepresentation of Jews in various areas of the German economy could generate problems. Deliberate discrimination against Gentiles would be one possibility. In another post, I describe experiences of being discriminated against by Jewish law firms when I was seeking employment. Such discrimination was not surprising; I would expect something of the sort from firms displaying a preference for any specific race or ethnicity. Given my own experience in America in the 1980s, I had to assume that some Germans experienced comparable or worse discrimination — that, in other words, talented Gentiles may have accurately concluded that their opportunities were limited within many of the dominant firms in their economy.
But once I was hired, deliberate discrimination was not a significant problem in my working experience. The larger problem was inadvertent discrimination. In the legal profession in New York, and perhaps also in professional life in Weimar Germany, Jews acquired so many positions because they were smart and they worked hard — and also because they had the advantages of worldly — and, in many cases, upper middle class — upbringing. As a rural boy among big-city classmates, I saw how dramatically underprepared I was for law school and practice. Formal legal education provided only a fraction of the things I would need to know, and an even smaller fraction of the unfamiliar attitudes and priorities I would need to internalize, in order to compete in many day-to-day lawyering tasks. Here, again, I would expect something similar for an intelligent young German professional from a rural background, or even from a less privileged or sophisticated urban background. Beyond the question of nondiscrimination, it could take years of remedial training to bring him/her up to speed. Even then, s/he might be limited to certain tasks — for example, I seemed to be good at writing contracts — while his/her more sophisticated classmates were leaping into vastly more influential positions. Processes of this nature seemed, to me, to offer at least a partial explanation for the disproportionately large presence of Jews in leading positions in Weimar Germany.
Sophisticated young professionals who thus attained positions of influence — Jews, in the scenario being sketched here, though it could also be Gentiles — would naturally draw upon the values and instincts inculcated by their parents and elite educators since childhood. They would also tend to establish and spread those values — taking for granted, as people do, that the way they were taught was the right way, and that more aspects of life and society should be structured accordingly. The good as well as the bad traits of a slower, kinder, and/or more traditional worldview would be swept away, perhaps simply because they didn’t fit with the powerful person’s semi-informed beliefs as to how things ought to be.
Thus Fritsch’s peasant (above) would be shouldered aside, despite a relative sweetness that might contribute to a much more liveable business and professional world, because that sweetness would be too readily exploited by people who did not share his values. His values could be protected by systems of law and business, but in Weimar Germany (as in the U.S. today) such systems were apparently shaped by people who had implicitly and in some regards explicitly rejected those values.
Suspicions and Accusations
One can guess how Gentiles might react to Jewish dominance within various business and professional circles. There are longstanding human tendencies of suspicion toward, and resentment of, those who achieve superior outcomes. Presumably the common wisdom in Germany was not very different in this regard from that of contemporary America: presumably they knew the adage that power tends to corrupt, and were at least roughly aware of Balzac’s (1834) view, to the effect that “behind every great fortune lies a great crime.” On a less philosophical level, anyone with working experience in New York’s financial sector might question whether Germany’s financiers circa 1918, Jewish or Gentile, were highly concerned with the national interest. Today’s billionaires — many of whom are Jewish — do have their charities, but being patriotic or making a net positive addition to society is not typically their first concern. To the contrary, they tend to be behind the rapid increase in income inequality that America has experienced in recent years.
Jews have long been associated with concerns about financial misbehavior. Legge (2003, pp. 115-118) says that economic stereotypes of Jews have tended to involve several roles: Jew as moneylender, Jew as capitalist, and Jew as economic power behind the throne. According to Bergmann (n.d., p. 42), economic stereotypes of Jews have tended to center around “financial exploitation (profiteering), manipulating international financial markets, advancing globalisation, . . . [and originating] crises they then unscrupulously exploit.”
Such concerns persist into the present day. ADL’s (2013) survey finds that 19% of Americans (and higher percentages in Europe; see ADL, 2008) believe Jews have too much power in the business world. The hard part, for at least some Jewish apologists, may be to accept that such beliefs are best handled intelligently, not merely dismissed as inexplicable stupidity or cruel antisemitism — that there may, in fact, be something to them sometimes. Consider, for example, the indictment of Goldman Sachs (see e.g., Kinsley, 2010; Smith, 2012), or the dismay of Rabbi Jill Jacobs (2010), as she discovers that half of the ten worst landlords in New York City are Jewish.
As a general matter, it was not unreasonable for ordinary Germans to suspect that the Jews (more precisely, the wealthiest and most powerful Jews) were up to something. People see that you have that money and those connections; they see you go into those meetings with those other people; they don’t get told the details; they surmise that you are trying to engineer a scheme that will benefit you and not them; and, too often, their surmise turns out to be correct. If you don’t want them to arrive at that sort of conclusion, you have some choices. You can stop having the money and the connections; you can stop going into those meetings with those people; you can disclose what is going on; you can make ordinary people the beneficiaries of your efforts.
For the most part, those options were not pursued. Indeed, they are still not being pursued. I did not see, on the websites of USHMM or Yad Vashem, a forthright elaboration and discussion of the various financial abuses of which Jews may have been accused during the WWI period. I felt that the creators of those websites probably did know quite a bit about this sort of thing, but that their obvious pro-Jewish orientation prevented them from offering a good presentation.
For me, then, as for the Weimar Germans, the suspicions deepened. In my case, the sensible response seemed to be that, if I wanted to have some understanding of what may have been alleged and demonstrated, I would have to figure it out for myself, with the aid of whatever materials I could dig up in a relatively brief investigation.
In Weimar Germany, according to Gordon (1984, pp. 52-53) there was a “popular belief that Jews had been highly active as war profiteers” and in”questionable activities as financiers and middlemen” during and after the war. Other sources referred, in addition, to inflation profiteering in the mid-1920s and to links with “international Jewry.” The following sections devote considerable attention to those topics.
Walther Rathenau and KRA
Businesspeople typically seek profit. But the businessperson who exploits opportunities to extract unreasonable profit, at the expense of his/her own people or government during wartime, is likely to be seen as immoral and/or unpatriotic.
Among the countless individuals and corporations with which the German people and military did business during WWI, it appeared that few provoked more controversy than Walther Rathenau, the German Jewish industrialist. As noted above, Rathenau was commonly considered one of the November Criminals.
In 1922, Rathenau was assassinated. It appears that sources disagree on the reason for his murder. For example, History.com states that it occurred shortly after Rathenau, then Germany’s foreign minister, concluded the Treaty of Rapallo with the Soviet Union. That suggests the reason may have been that Rapallo made Germany a partner of what was, in Germany, the USSR’s unpopular communist regime. That History.com webpage also says that the murder was committed by “anti-Semitic extremists.” But the implication that it was motivated primarily by hatred of Jews appears to be mistaken (Preparata, 2005, p. 119; Volkov, 2012, p. 207).
Rathenau’s link with the issue of war profiteering seems to have been as follows. In 1883, his father founded AEG, an increasingly successful company producing electrical equipment. Rathenau, AEG’s president in 1914, persuaded the German government to establish the War Raw Materials Department (Kriegsrohstoffabteilung) (KRA). The purpose of KRA was to develop a form of state socialism in which government would supervise industries producing materials essential to the war effort, so as to counteract shortages resulting from the British naval blockade (Ferro, 1969/2006, p. 131).
Rathenau’s tenure as head of KRA lasted only nine months, yet it proved sufficient to generate multiple controversies. There was, first, the problem that it was extraordinary, and unpopular, to put a Jew in a position of authority over such a large and important governmental endeavor. In addition, and apparently despite internal resistance, those nine months were sufficient to enable Rathenau to set up the basic structure of KRA, which itself became controversial. Then there was the question of whether Rathenau benefited from KRA’s reported tendency to steer important military purchase orders to large corporations, such as AEG.
Rathenau, himself, may not have engaged in profiteering. His rather leftist views — reportedly including advocacy for greater worker participation in corporate management — did not position him as an exploiter. He denounced war profiteering (Wette, 2009, p. 58) and “had ideas about taxing the rich into oblivion” (Preparata, 2005, p. 90). In other regards as well, Rathenau appeared to be principled and relatively moderate — opposing unrestricted torpedoing of ships, for example, as well as Soviet impoverishment and murder of civilians for the sake of a communist dream.
Regardless of Rathenau’s own behavior, it appears that his kind of war capitalism did facilitate profiteering by private firms at public expense (Muchlinski, 2013, p. 362), and that this system was supported by Erich Ludendorff, who with Paul von Hindenburg led the German military and served as de facto leaders of Germany from August 1916 to October 1918. Harvey (1992, p. 300) says,
Any attempt to regulate the higher management of the war economy that conflicted with the interests of big business was thwarted. Alfons Horten, head of the Iron Section of the Kriegsrohstoffabteilung, attempted to expose the relentless overpricing and profiteering of the steel magnates and was sacked. Groener at the Kriegsamt, after Ludendorff the dominating intellect of the German General Staff, attempted to establish a positive working relationship with the labour unions but was resented, like Horten, for his views on the profits being reaped by the steel magnates: in August 1917 he was sent to the front to command a division.
Feldman (2015, pp. 57-60) says that the steel industry was especially inclined toward profiteering, which in turn inspired profiteering in the downstream manufacturers that used that steel, and that some steelmakers were accruing great profits by exporting iron and steel, “large quantities” of which went to Allied countries that were trying to defeat Germany. Hugo Stinnes, a steel magnate and a Gentile, was reported to be the biggest of the war profiteers (Drug & Chemical Markets, 1921, p. 825). Incidentally, wartime conditions impaired profitability. Watson (2014) states, “Firms in the metals, machinery and chemicals sectors did substantially increase profits in the second half of the war . . . . Yet overall, the war industries’ profits sank to 82 per cent of their peacetime level.”
According to Feldman (2015, p. 79), businesspeople at all levels disliked Rathenau’s KRA and other governmental interventions:
A mountain of regulations and bureaucratic irritations coexisted with increasing hoarding, profiteering, and black marketeering, and businessmen yearned for . . . the resumption of normal business conditions. . . . Much of the business-government conflict centered about the question of who was to control the demobilization and transition to a peacetime economy . . . . [T]he writings of Walther Rathenau . . . which called for a continuation of some of the methods and institutions of the wartime “state socialism,” were found particularly alarming.
Hence, while some (e.g., Vincent, 1997, p. 382) consider KRA successful in providing the necessary inputs to keep Germany going through a long and difficult war, Geyer (2010, p. 221) says that many derided KRA’s structure as “the Rathenau system,” said that it was “born of a Jewish mind,” and claimed that it “exploited the German population and corrupted economic life, thereby causing prices to explode and scarce resources, including food, to be wasted.”
Jewish Food Profiteering
To the ordinary German, the food issue became paramount as the war dragged on. According to Cole (2011, pp. 38-46) and Watson (2014), the British naval blockade, uncooperative weather, and loss of agricultural workers to the army (often leaving women to do the farming, along with everything else) meant reduced food supplies. And then farmers and the military took the first bite from those reduced amounts. Food prices shot up in the cities, protests broke out, and the government imposed price controls and rationing. Governmental intervention made the situation worse. It proved difficult to arrive at an equitable rationing scheme (e.g., children vs. adults; mothers with children; workers in jobs requiring heavy manual labor). To varying degrees, farmers declined to sell at the specified prices, and instead channeled produce into the black market; foods requiring handling at the local level (e.g., better cuts at the butcher’s shop) were susceptible to diversion to higher-paying customers; and grain that could have been used to feed people was instead fed to livestock whose meat would produce a higher profit. Watered milk, unrecognizable meats, and substitute foods (e.g., bread made partly of straw) were among the desperate innovations (Teuteberg, 2012, p. 63; Franc, 2012, p. 74). Bread lines were already common by 1915. The following winter, looting and riots calling for “bread and peace” began to appear. By the winter of 1916/1917, food supplies dropped below rationed levels — which themselves had moved steadily lower — and real starvation set in, even for the middle class. Dunlap (2011, p. 99) quotes Käte Frankenthal: “On July 5, 1918, the weekly ration per person was one pound of potatoes and one kilo of bread.” Estimated deaths due to starvation in WWI Germany have run as high as 800,000.
Under such circumstances, according to Watson (2014) and Kühne (2011, p. 531), the urban public suspected that farmers and merchants were profiteering, and that wealthier urban people (not typically seen standing in line for food) were sheltered from common hardship and hunger. There were real and also imagined instances of people hoarding and wasting food. People in other cities or regions of Germany were believed to be getting more and better food — and sometimes that was true, thanks to the jumble of rationing regulations.
Ziemann (2011, p. 385) emphasizes that “Jews were, by far, not the only group presented as a scapegoat” for accusations of profiteering, in food or otherwise. Even so, Feldman (1993, pp. 202-203) says,
Clearly, many Jews, along with large segments of German society, were involved in black marketeering, smuggling, capital flight, and such activities. Insofar as they were disproportionately involved in commercial activities . . . Jews could be singled out for their demoralization of German society.
In the consummately important matter of food supply, Berkowitz (2007, p. 13) quotes the Police President of Berlin, who says that food profiteers were “assumed to be mainly Jews.” Watson (2014) seems to indicate that Jews entered the food equation, not generally as farmers, but rather as wholesalers and merchants perceived to be “pushing up prices,” and also as relatively well-to-do consumers.
According to Berkowitz (2007, p. 14), Jews were also conspicuously present, and suspected of corruption, in the government agency that controlled the national food import program. According to Friedländer (1993, p. 152), that agency was the Central Purchasing Company (Zentral-Einkaufs-Gesellschaft, or ZEG), created upon the suggestion of three Jewish bankers and industrialists: Albert Ballin, Max Warburg, and Carl Melchior. ZEG employed a disproportionate number of Jews in leading positions, including at least 10% of the entity’s directors. Friedländer suggests that this disproportion may have been due to such factors as Jewish social structure or business experience. Huldermann (1922, pp. 226-227) urges that complaints about ZEG be considered in light of the enormous challenges with which that entity had to contend. At the same time, concerns about Jewish profiteering in times of hardship were not new: Williamson (2011, p. 227) says,
[A]lready in 1846 and 1847 bread riots had targeted Jewish merchants and creditors identified as ‘profiteers,’ particularly those who had acquired a measure of wealth or property. . . . [Such] conflicts tapped into established narratives about Jewish ‘greed,’ ‘usury,’ and ‘betrayal,’ which persisted within large elements of the Christian population and shaped the understanding of even the most well-educated Germans . . . .
In some regards, of course, there had been distrust between German Gentiles and Jews for centuries prior to 1915 (see Ward & Lang, 2010, pp. 55-59; Niewyk, 2001, pp. 165-173). Kater (1984, p. 3) contends that suspicions of food profiteering developed uniquely in Germany, but that appears not to have been the case. For example, Watson (2014) says there was “some basis of truth” to the accusation that Jewish merchants were pushing up prices in Austria.
Surmises About Jewish War and Food Profiteering
Many people in Germany during WWI became desperately hungry. As such, they were likely to believe a wide variety of explanations about why there was not more food. The millions who experienced severe hardship — who, in many thousands of instances, watched loved ones die — were likely to entertain very severe attitudes toward anyone who was proved or suspected of taking advantage of the situation, or of enjoying unequal privileges. In Ziemann’s (2011, p. 385) phrasing, “There is . . . ample evidence for the wartime radicalization of anti-Semitic discourse” about Jews, especially among those who paid increasing attention to right-wing views.
That is not to say those people’s suspicions were absurd. Jews’ relative scarcity among the general population, and their relative prevalence among merchants and wholesalers suspected of profiteering, would tend to generate understandable suspicions. General exposure to human nature, and my own experience among wealthy Jews and Gentiles in New York, suggest that there probably were some, among the privileged, who looked with disdain upon the struggling rabble — who attributed their hardships to defects of character or intellect. While the foregoing discussion of an obtuse propensity for flaunting wealth tended to involve Jews of the 1920s, there probably were examples of that during WWI as well.
In a country of 70 million people, there were going to be some Jewish profiteers of the worst kind, benefiting from and perhaps even exacerbating the suffering of others. There were also going to be some highly controversial and deeply unpopular Jewish leaders and businesspeople. On the other hand, as shown in the example of Rabbi Jill Jacobs (above), there would be some good people, concerned about ethics and public well-being. But, again, if you only meet or hear of the one type — most commonly, the very controversial and/or disliked politicians, slumlords, and such — then you may tend to assume that this is what most Jews are like.
Such observations work the other way too. Many Jews generalize from the Nazis to all Germans — and onwards, to real or imagined antisemites everywhere. Just as the stereotype of the antisemite has been sufficient to shut down countless conversations about Jewish responsibility for allegedly antisemitic behavior, so also stereotypes about Jews were evidently sufficient to influence German public opinion over a period of years.
In this research, I found it less than impressive to encounter so much vague dismissal of the concept of Jewish profiteering, and so little engagement with specifics. For example, in my search of the Yad Vashem and USHMM websites, I did find an acknowledgement that the Nazis had stereotyped Jews as war profiteers, but no apparent thought as to why that stereotype would have resonated with millions of Germans. There seemed to be, again, the assumption that readers would simply accept that all those Germans must have been crazy or evil. Such an explanation may have been sufficient in the post-WWII years, when Americans and others had already been primed by anti-German propaganda and by the shock of discoveries like Dachau. But that sort of simplistic explanation seems less likely to carry weight or provide guidance for future generations.
So, yes, I would have liked to find a factual discussion of Jewish profiteering, with specific cases pro and con. Such a discussion probably does exist. It did not emerge in my hunting. It would have been better if USHMM and/or other key sources had at least summarized or referred to such a discussion, so that I, and others like me, could have some confidence that we were getting the real story.
Failing that, we are left with our conclusions as to what probably happened. As I read through various materials and wrote the preceding paragraphs, I did arrive at some impressions of the situation in wartime Germany:
- Profiteering, like antisemitism, seemed to have both its real and its exaggerated or merely imagined dimensions.
- The wartime food situation, in particular, was so confused and conflicted that profiteering could be suspected even where it was not actually taking place.
- As noted earlier in this post, Jews were disproportionately represented in business, and thus were highly visible among the merchants who were rumored to engage in profiteering and black marketing.
- Behind that disproportionate representation, the widely recognized Jewish preoccupation with business success could stimulate an above-average inclination to exploit opportunities at the expense of others, though the example of Walther Rathenau also demonstrates the potential for just the opposite.
- There were specific, highly visible cases where Jews were shown to have engaged in wartime food profiteering (below).
- In light of the ancient distrust of Jews, even a small number of cases would encourage suspicion toward Jewish merchants generally, including those who did not deserve such suspicion.
- Consistent with their higher average incomes, Jewish consumers were probably less likely on average to experience the worst hardships.
- The hardships people encountered were often so intense as to leave deep and lasting impressions.
- A reduced level of experienced hardship may have impaired sensitivity toward those who were suffering: relatively wealthy individuals, Gentile or Jewish, may have failed to appreciate the depth or longevity of the grudges inspired by their business activities.
- The accusation of antisemitism sometimes appears to provide an excuse not to think about what an alleged antisemite might be saying. It appears the accusation was used widely then, as now. It is thus not clear that Jewish dialogue stimulated effective recognition of, consideration of, and responses to rumors and established cases of Jewish food profiteering.
Inflation Profiteering in the 1920s
BusinessDictionary defines hyperinflation as “Ruinously high increase (50 percent or more per month) in prices due to the near total collapse of a country’s monetary system, rendering its currency almost worthless as a medium of exchange.” The hyperinflation experienced in Weimar Germany in 1922-1923 is commonly cited as one of history’s worst examples (e.g., Investopedia).
That hyperinflation resulted from the printing of too much German currency, the Papiermark (i.e., a Mark not based on gold) (e.g., Business Insider). Huge debts incurred during WWI had already raised questions as to the financial viability of the Weimar government (e.g., Jung, 2009); hence, probably the primary reason for the hyperinflation was the increasingly negative opinion that foreign financiers held toward the value of the Papiermark (Hardach, 1981, pp. 21-22).
The government’s money-printing operations became a substantial employer, churning out tons of paper money. At the worst of the inflation, the decline in the value of the Papiermark was spectacular. In early 1922, it took about 320 Papiermarks to buy one U.S. dollar. By November 1923, that same dollar would cost about 4.2 trillion Papiermarks (Wikipedia).
Jewish Inflation Profiteers
As with any rapid change in value, there was money to be made from the hyperinflation. When a Mark would lose half of its value within weeks, days, or even hours, it made sense to postpone payments: buy the needed good or service now, but pay for it later, with Marks that cost less. For example, a unionized worker whose pay was indexed to inflation (see Parsson, 1974, p. 19) might get 1,000 Marks for working a certain number of hours today, or 2,000 Marks for working that same number of hours next month. It would be half as expensive for that worker to repay a 100-Mark debt next month rather than this month — and, of course, next month’s repayment would be half as valuable to his creditor.
This state of affairs encouraged everyone to pay attention to the timing of their purchases and payments. “Speculation alone, while adding nothing to Germany’s wealth, became one of its largest activities. The fever to join in turning a quick mark infected nearly all classes” (Parsson, 1974, p. 19). According to Käte Frankenthal, “During this time, everyone felt cheated by everyone else. The general distrust, the unscrupulousness, and the collapse of morals knew no bounds” (Dunlap, 2011, p. 124).
Since the Mark was rapidly losing value, the practical solution was to get rid of Marks by buying real assets that would hold their value. The most lucrative approach was to get rid, not only of one’s own Marks, but of every Mark that one could borrow. The items purchased with those Marks would be worth far more Marks in the future, as long as the inflation continued to erode the Mark’s value. You could borrow 100 Marks to buy an item, sell it next month for 200 Marks, repay the lender, and still have 100 Marks. They would not be worth as much as 100 Marks today, but they would still represent a profit.
The notorious “inflation profiteers” of this era were those who used rapidly depreciating Marks to buy all sorts of businesses, leveraging their sources of credit to the maximum possible extent (Bresciani-Turroni, 1931/2007, pp. 296-297; Rempel, n.d.). Some proved especially adept at this. In a German-language book whose contents were not readily available to me, Paul Ufermann named ten Kings of Inflation (1924). According to one source, those ten were as follows: Hugo Stinnes, Hugo Herzfeld, Otto Wolff, Alfred Ganz, Friedrich Minoux, Rudolph Karstadt, Jacob Michael, Richard Kahn, Camillo Castiglioni, and Siegmund Bosel. That source quotes Ufermann as saying,
These new rich differ from the old rich in several important respects. They are more aggressive and brutal. They are used to striding over corpses. Sentimentality was not a special characteristic of the old rich, but, in their lack of it, the new rich far outdo them.
Of those ten, at least five (i.e., Herzfeld, Michael, Kahn, Castiglioni, and Bosel) appear to have been Jewish. Fifty percent of the inflation kings, from one percent of the population. It appears, in other words, that certain Jews had enormously disproportionate access to capital, and an exceptional willingness to participate in that “aggressive and brutal” form of speculative activity. This brought to mind certain words that Wiebe (1939, p. 21) attributes to Herzl:
There are among [the Jews] a few persons who hold in their hands the financial threads that envelop the world. A few persons who absolutely control the shaping of the most vitally important conditions of life of the nations. Every invention and innovation are for their sole benefit, whilst every misfortune increases their power. And to what use do they put this power? Have they ever placed it at the service of any moral ideal — nay, have they ever placed it at the disposal of their own people, who are in dire distress? . . . Without those persons no war can be waged and no peace be concluded. The credit of States and individual enterprises are alike at the mercy of their rapacious ambition. The inventor must humbly wait at their doors, and in their arrogance they claim to sit in judgment on the requirements of their fellow beings.
I was not able to find an online version of the volume from which Wiebe claimed to take that quote. But it did seem that Herzl had anticipated Hitler’s own reaction. According to Widdig (2001, p. 227), “Hitler’s first public appearances occurred during the hyperinflation,” including a speech in which he provided his sense of what the “aggressive and brutal” behavior of the inflation kings might mean:
Thousands of old rentiers, middle-class people, scholars, and war widows sold their last gold marks for scraps of paper money, which is not even worth a hundredth. That way, the last remaining national wealth of the entire people, almost in a ‘playing’ fashion, changes into the hands of the relentlessly grabbing Jews!
Widdig (2001, p. 51) explains those references (to e.g., the war widow): “The biggest losers in the inflation were those who had saved money or who depended on entitlement programs from the state. Inflation made those entitlements, which were not adjusted often enough to the general price increases, almost worthless.” Hitler’s timing was good: according to Parsson (1974, pp. 24, 28),
The shock to the German people of the final inflation [and from the governmental actions that finally squelched it] . . . was so great that in the elections of May 1924 . . . millions of voters flocked from the moderate center parties to either the Communists or the Nazis and Nationalists on the extremes. . . .
At bottom, it was the unsuspecting middle class who were Germany’s savers, pensioners, purchasers of life insurance, including everyone from workers who saved to the modestly well-off, who not only suffered the worst of the agony while the inflation lasted but also were left after it was over with the most staggering permanent loss in relation to their whole substance.
It should be clear that Jews, and the inflation kings generally, were not the only ones inflicting avoidable harm. For example, Parsson (1974, p. 22) states, “Farmers, who were comfortable enough, would not sell their food to the townsmen for their worthless money. Starvation and abject poverty reigned.” According to Fergusson (2010, pp. 69-70), popular opinion was all over the map, blaming “other classes, other races, other political parties, other nations . . . the greed of tourists, or the peasants, or the wage demands of labour, or the selfishness of the industrialists.”
It should also be clear that there were Jews among the millions thrown into poverty (Bendersky, 2000, p. 160). Jewish historian Fritz Stern (2007, p. 65) says, “My parents lost most of their money to inflation, as did their relatives and friends.” Even so, as noted above, the higher income and presumably greater wealth of the average Jewish family probably meant that Jews were disproportionately present among the wealthier families, whose money would help to some extent to obtain food on the black market (see Davis, 2014).
A hypothetical public relations manager for Germany’s Jews would consider the inflation kings a true disaster: Jews were extraordinarily prominent in the businesses (e.g., food supply) that were most visibly profiting during times of extreme hardship, when an entire nation’s net worth was being wasted — when, once again, just a few years after war’s end, people were growing poor and hungry. Under such circumstances, it cannot be surprising that Jews would attract a great deal of negative attention — that the things being said about them, by people like Hitler, would be taken seriously by millions. Without denying that the Nazis used the Jews as a scapegoat, it appears that German Jewish culture was exceptionally inclined toward the production of very exploitative speculators.
It gets worse. While these highly visible Jewish capitalists of the moderate political right were making themselves comfortable on the backs of the masses, the highly visible Jews of the moderate political left were helping. “[T]he political elite in Germany in the early 1920s was hesitant to stop the inflation” (Widdig, 2001, p. 125) because it served certain political objectives: it stimulated the economy, created jobs, and reduced the country’s huge reparations payment obligation (Schuker, 2014, p. 584). But you cannot destroy your country’s currency, and throw its middle class into poverty, and expect to be considered a competent leader. Small wonder that voters abandoned the centrist parties for the extremes. The memory of the Great Inflation would be a powerful source of middle-class support for the Nazis when the Great Depression hit Germany in 1929-30 (Bendersky, 2000, p. 75; McDonough, 2014, p. 84).
Treatment by Holocaust Remembrance Organizations
As just noted, Jewish capitalists of the moderate right were highly visible in looting the economy, circa 1923, at the same time as Jewish politicians of the moderate left were highly visible in creating the inflationary policy that helped them to do it. Deep and broad resentment and suspicions resulted, with long-term consequences favorable to the growth of the Nazi Party. In short, it seems obvious that the Weimar inflation is an important element in the lead-up to the Holocaust.
One would therefore expect major Holocaust remembrance organizations — organizations that have shown interest in relatively minor aspects of German history, going back a century and more — to devote a great deal of attention to the Weimar hyperinflation. I found it amazing, then, that the USHMM and Yad Vashem websites had virtually nothing to say about it.
I was not sure why such organizations would maintain silence about such an important part of the lead-up to the Holocaust. My best guess, based on my reading of their other materials thus far, was that the inflation profiteering did not fit into the script.
This development reminded me of the Jewish Councils (above): too often, the individuals appointed to speak on behalf of thousands of Jews were inclined to go along with whatever seemed to work best for their own purposes at the time — even as Jews who trusted their leadership were being sent to their deaths. In light of this and other shortcomings (above), I was not confident that the community of professional Holocaust rememberers was necessarily steering in the right direction, on behalf of those who should be remembered.
The Ostjuden, Barmat et al., and Wikipedia
Ostjuden is German for “Eastern Jews.” Vincent (1997, pp. 351-352) describes them as refugees from pogroms and revolution in Russia and Eastern Europe, starting in 1881 and continuing until after WWI. As is usually the case with floods of refugees, the Ostjuden were not particularly welcome in Germany. Norrell (2010, p. 38) says that, already in 1881, 250,000 Germans had signed a petition demanding an end to Jewish immigration. Given that reception, as noted above, most of the Ostjuden were obliged to continue on to other countries. But of those who entered Germany between 1914 and 1920, Vincent indicates that more than half were still there in 1922, and that collectively, at that point, Ostjuden constituted about one-fifth of the country’s approximately 600,000 Jews. Wiebe (1939, p. 24) says that Jews, evidently including Ostjuden, were especially concentrated in urban areas; for example, 42% of all Jews in Prussia were located in Berlin, and one-quarter of those were non-Germans.
Hence, in the count of Ostjuden as in other matters (e.g., nontraditional values; economic dominance), it appears that Germany’s Jews became visible, and controversial, completely out of proportion to their actual numbers. The Ostjuden were widely seen as inferiors, and of a criminal nature, as “driving forces behind smuggling and other nefarious pursuits” (Berkowitz, 2007, p. 14). There was also the problem that these newcomers were demanding resources during years when Germany was already burdened with unemployment and food shortages (Sammartino, 2003, p. 107).
Negative stereotypes about the Ostjuden were held, not merely by right-wingers, but by Germany’s own Jews. Vincent (1997, p. 352) says the German Jews, with their dream of acceptance as real Germans, were afraid of being tainted by association with the Ostjuden. Hence one observes a rare agreement Nazis and the Germany Jews:
- The German Jews treated the Ostjuden as “ghetto Jews,” with their “traditional clothing and behavior” (Norrell, 2010, p. 35), and considered them “wild, dirty, primitive, Asiatic, and boorish” (Rozenblit, 1986, reviewing Aschheim, 1982).
- Hitler (1925, p. 75) agreed: “It was externally apparent that these were not water-loving people, and unfortunately one could frequently tell that even with eyes closed.”
- Norrell (2010, pp. 94-95, 111) says that Jewish as well as Gentile German soldiers fighting in Poland found Ostjuden there to be “alien in almost every way.” Norrell quotes such Jewish soldiers as saying, “Our brethren made a bad impression” and “I do not belong to these people.” About two-thirds of Poland’s Jews were Hasidim, speaking only Yiddish. The Ostjuden had their own cultural reactions to the Germans: “Whereas before there was corn, now there is order. Whereas before there were oxen, now there is order.”
- The Centralverein stated, in 1925, that many Ostjuden were “racketeers, swindlers, currency and stock cheaters, and thieves and fences” (Vincent, 1997, p. 352).
- In the view of Wiebe (1939, p. 17, quoting Rathenau, 1897), the Ostjuden were a “horde” of invading foreigners.
Vincent (1997, p. 352) suggests that at least some of those stereotypes were wrong — that, among other things, “the typical Ostjude led a meager existence as an itinerant salesman or industrial worker.” Evans (2002, pp. 49-52) concurs with a finding that, circa 1930, Jews of any kind were infrequently involved in petty crime. In partial dissent, Berkowitz (2007, p. 4) describes several historical associations of Jews with crime (e.g., robber bands of the 16th to 18th centuries) and notes that “a number of Jewish individuals were convicted of small- and large-scale malfeasance during the First World War and early years of the Weimar Republic.” Wiebe (1939, pp. 78-80) presents a much more negative picture: circa 1933, he says, Jews accounted for 30% of Germany’s international drug traffickers, 61% of unlawful gambling cases, and 47% of pickpocketing cases. Compared to Gentiles, he says, Jews accounted for five times as many cases of receiving stolen property, three times as many cases of commercial fraud, eight times as many cases of copyright infringement, twelve times as many cases of usury, and thirteen times as many cases of fraudulent bankruptcy.
Berkowitz (2007, pp. 6, 12) also notes the frequently cited rationale that, when Jews did resort to crime, often it was due to lack of legal alternative means of survival. That rationale would seemingly not apply to those Ostjuden whose dubious activities supported a lifestyle far above mere subsistence. The names of certain Ostjuden attracted a great deal of attention for their involvement in high-level scandals in the 1920s. These included Sklarz, Barmat, Sklarek, Rotter, and Holzmann (Wiebe, 1939, pp. 35-36). Barmat is perhaps the most prominent of these.
In researching the Barmat brothers, I looked at Wikipedia. I found its entry appalling. I decided to provide the following abridged version of its contents, and to focus on those contents. I felt that doing so would allow me to examine the Barmat story and, at the same time, to highlight a recurring problem I encountered as I researched this post. (Note, again, that the Wikipedia entry may be changed to correct some of the problems identified here, but the revision history and the Internet Archive should have the version I saw.) Here, in shortened form, is what Wikipedia said about the Barmats, with typographical errors preserved intact:
The Barmat Scandal in 1924 and 1925 in Weimar Republic implicated the Social Democratic Party of Germany in Germany in charges of corruption, war profiteering, fraud, bribery, and financial misdeeds. . . . Antisemitism in connection with the scandal also featured prominently in Nazi propaganda, since the Barmat brothers were Jewish. The scandal was used by the German right to foster the belief that wealthy Jewish families, in quasi-criminal operations found fertile ground in the Republic and easily exploited the Social Democrats to do their bidding . . . .
Julius Barmat was a Jewish wholesale merchant with “less than perfect character.” He bought foodstuffs in the Netherlands to export into Germany (which had suffered badly during and after the war from lack of food) after the end of the war. He made a large amount of money in this endeavor and was—at least from the view of the nationalists—engaged in war profiteering.
Barmat had profited from political patrongage. . . .
Barmat also had connections with Ernst Heilman (the SPD leader in the Prussian Landtag) and Gustav Bauer (former Reich Chancellor). . . .
Barmat also met Ebert as well as Otto Wels (Chairman of the SPD) and (indiscreetly, it appears in retrospect) bragged about his political connections.
The Barmats received German visas and established business relations with various state offices . . . .
The national government’s postal department generated considerable cash as a result of the mail and it invested idle funds with Barmat’s investment company. The Prussian State Bank also loaned a considerable sum of money to Barmat.
Barmat, however, engaged in currency speculation with the funds, and the Barmat investment company collapsed in late 1924. . . .
Arrests and Revelations
Various Prussian State Bank officials were arrested on 30 December 1924. The Barmat brothers were arrested early in the morning of the next day, New Year’s Eve 1924.
Preliminary investigation suggested that several prominent Social Democrats had received bribes, kickbacks or other financial favors in exchange for their support of Government contracts with the Barmats. . . .
[Prominent Social Democrat and former German Chancellor Gustav] Bauer did not handle the press accusations well, keeping silent when the press exposed his membership on the board of a Barmat company, and issuing a denial of any involvement in the affair . . . . This was a most unfortunate public statement for Bauer, because his opponents had specific documentary evidence that it was a lie. . . .
The Reich Presidency election would take place in spring of 1925. The right-wing would not forfeit a chance to discredit [President Ebert, a Social Democrat] by association with scandal. . . .
A motion was made in the Landtag commission in early February to investigate Ebert’s knowledge of the Barmat scandal . . . . The right-wing press made much of the testimony. It turned out that an office employee had indeed dispatched several letters of recommendation to Barmat, bearing the Presidential Seal.
Ebert had unfortunately recommended in 1919 that Barmat be given a permanent visa for his many business trips to and from Germany. . . .
He was ultimately cleared of any wrongdoing by the Prussian investigating committee in the fall of 1925. . . .
[Postmaster] Hofle died, in custody and from a drug overdose, some six days before the second round of the Presidential election. . . . The right-wing of course claimed that Hofle’s death was a suicide that amounted to his confession of guilt in the Barmat affair. . . .
Richter, the Police President of Prussia, was placed on an involuntary “leave” and a week later was dispatched into “interim retirement.” . . .
The right wing press in 1925 used the Barmat scandal as a vehicle to express its underlying anti-Semitic, anti-socialist and anti-democratic sentiments. . . .
The scandal provided grist for the mill of right-wing propagandists, who could fulminate against Jewish speculators and profiteers as well as against all manner of Socialist politicians . . . .
Hindenburg won [the election] on April 26 . . . . The key to [Hindenburg’s] success lay in the mobilization of former non-voters, and their dissatisfaction with the present system . . . .
In early 1928 Julius and Henri Barmat were sentenced to 11 months and 6 months imprisonment for bribery, respectively.
What do I find egregious about that entry? Chiefly, its bias. As noted in my posts on the accusation of antisemitism and especially on Holocaust belief and denial, Wikipedia entries on related topics almost invariably discuss history from a single perspective. I cannot call it the Jewish perspective because, as just illustrated in the discussion of German Jews vs. Ostjuden, there are multiple Jewish perspectives. It appears to be, more specifically, the perspective of the ADL faction — of those who, at this late date, still favor a shrill style of expression, typically attempting to indoctrinate readers with extremely politicized and sometimes nonsensical material.
Consider, first, the tone of that entry. We have the fact that the Barmats were bad men. The Wikipedia entry notes that they made “a large amount of money” — with government assistance — by selling food to Germans at a time when they were suffering badly “from lack of food.” Later, according to Berkowitz (2007, p. 14), the Barmats also engaged in some of the more notorious instances of inflation profiteering, with the assistance of bribes and other corruption implicating multiple prominent politicians. Geyer (2010, p. 222, 224) states, in addition, that “there was something to the rumor that Barmat sought to align himself with the Ukrainian Bolsheviks in 1917-18,” and then goes on to say this:
It is difficult to say what enraged the general public more: the fact that the State Bank had lost millions to these men or the innumerable stories about little favors, small gifts, food packages, the so-called Liebesgaben or sexual favors, and the cash loans, large and small, that Barmat gave away freely . . . .
Now, how does Wikipedia handle this information? With a sly wink, as if to embody, itself, the morality of the Barmats. Their actions are characterized as mere “misdeeds.” Julius Barmat is described as having “less than perfect character.” It is observed that Barmat “indiscreetly” disclosed his political connections, as if to say he should have kept them secret. Bauer, it is said, “did not handle the press accusations well,” implying that he should have done a better job of concealing his involvement. It is unlikely that the Wikipedia entry for any prominent Nazi would describe his objectionable actions as indiscreet misdeeds that he did not handle well.
Meanwhile, what about the public? It would be nice, here, to have a bit of the concern for victims that pervades Wikipedia entries about Hitler, Nazis, and the Third Reich. Instead of focusing on what the Barmats did, and what it meant for those who were actually affected, this Wikipedia entry is grossly preoccupied with how anti-Semites could use the Barmat scandal as propaganda. The entry contains 20 references to the right wing, and six references to antisemitism, but not a single use of words like “victim,” “poverty,” “hunger,” or “savings,” and virtually no discussion of the people who may have been harmed, or even of the damage that may have been done to the stability of Germany. Compare e.g., the Wikipedia entry for Kristallnacht, which extensively discusses two days of attacks on Jews in 1938.
Wikipedia’s “Barmat Scandal” entry is so far over the top as to be counterproductive — to draw adverse attention to the roles and priorities of the least appealing Jews. For instance, the Wikipedia entry says that Julius Barmat “made a large amount of money” (through from his food sales to starving Germans); and yet the entry can only bring itself to admit that this constituted war profiteering “from the view of the nationalists” — implying that most Jews would not see anything wrong with such behavior. Consistent with this post’s discussion of clueless ostentation (above), Bendersky (2008, p. 237) says that profiteers “antagonized Germans by ‘display[ing] their wealth throughout Germany’s years of misery (1921-1924)’ . . . so that the ‘profiteer’ was usually caricatured ‘as a Jew.'”
The casual reader would be better served, in that Wikipedia entry, by some commentary on behalf of “most Jews” (including, especially, most German Jews) — who, according to Berkowitz (2007, pp. 18, 21), “wished to see [the Barmats and other criminal Ostjuden] brought to justice and duly punished.” The Wikipedia entry has been out there for five years, at this writing; it is regrettable that its contents have not been substantially improved during that time.
The Wikipedia entry provides enough information to suspect that the Barmats, and the politicians who aided them, should have spent years in prison. But that did not happen. Why not? We don’t know. Wikipedia gives us only an unexplained conclusory statement that, somehow, the Barmats received sentences of less than one year each, some of which they had already served. That is remarkable, given “numerous indications,” in the materials available to the court at trial, that “Social Democrats had exerted their influence in securing contracts favorable to Barmat” (Geyer, 2010, p. 216). Berkowitz (2007, p. 17) says that — not surprisingly, perhaps, in the evidently corrupt Weimar system — that evidence mostly went away, under the handling given to it by the trial judge: “[A]ll sense of the gross villainy with which the Barmats . . . had been depicted for years is certainly absent from this judgment.”
Instead of worrying about how the right-wing press might twist the facts of the Barmat case, it would behoove Wikipedia to focus on stating what those facts are. In my reading, it did not appear that the right wing was employing tricks and magic to delude the German people in this matter. No doubt some right-wingers were inclined to do that, if they could. But what is completely missing from the Wikipedia entry is any awareness that there might actually have been people on the right who were not behaving cynically — who, in all sincerity, gathered that the Social Democrats seemed to be the party of corruption, and that wealthy Ostjuden were being caught in one scandal after another. Consider these remarks by Geyer (2010, p. 220):
[C]onservative critics argued that the same mishandling of the case “on order from above” that had resulted in the withdrawal of an indictment against Sklarz in 1921 and the transfer of the Berlin state attorney responsible for the case to the Reich Court in Leipzig would repeat itself in the case of Barmat. The activism of the state attorney’s office in 1924-25 and the conservatives’ outcry over political injustice were rooted in these events.
When I see something like that Wikipedia entry, so slanted against conservatives and so preoccupied with antisemitism — an interesting topic, to be sure, but peripheral to the actual Barmat scandal — I tend to feel that the writers are merely highlighting their own desire to suppress competing viewpoints. Certainly this material does not persuade me that tens of millions of Germans were hoodwinked, or deluded, or that Ostjuden like the Barmats were on the side of truth, justice, and a better future.
Such poor material, offered in a mainstream if upstart encyclopedia, will predictably turn some readers to alternate sources. I, myself, turned to Wiebe (1939, p. 36), the Nazi apologist. His account of the Barmat scandal was quite different, in some ways more informative, and, sad to say, seemingly more informed by relevant facts:
The three Barmat brothers were artists in corruption on a more imposing scale. Their home was at Kiev and during the war they were engaged in business in Holland as food merchants. . . . By means of ruthless exploitation of human weaknesses, small and large favours which culminated in direct bribes, these brothers were able finally to win the confidence of influential friends and members of the government. In this way . . . they procured a loan of 38 million Marks, partly granted by the Prussian State bank and partly by the Reich Ministry of Posts and Telegraphs. When finally this inflated Barmat concern crashed, its debts were estimated at 70 million gold Marks, and half of this sum had to be covered by the savings of small investors. The subsequent court proceedings against these Barmat brothers ended in very small terms of imprisonment. . . . After the crash, Julius Barmat went abroad again. In his new surroundings he applied with great success the methods which he had adopted in Germany. By bribing influential politicians he was able to obtain loans and finally defrauded the Belgian National Bank of 34 million gold francs. He evaded the law by committing suicide in 1937.
Vincent (1997, p. 21) somewhat alters that last statement: “At least one brother had by then fled to Poland to live under an assumed name. Julius died in January 1938 while interned in Brussels.”
The key point of these remarks is not that sometimes Wikipedia entries are poorly written. It is that this particular entry illustrates a key message of this post, namely: a misguided attempt to “protect” Jews by distorting uncomfortable aspects of their history can backfire. In this instance, the Wikipedia entry belies a mistaken belief that the Barmats can appropriately be treated as representatives of the entire Jewish people, justifying an attempt to defend them against attack by right-wingers. In fact, the Barmats were crooks. The proper response to something like the Barmat case, by Jew and Gentile alike, is to decide whether the person in question has committed a crime, or has participated in a deep moral failing. If that has happened, the person should be sanctioned accordingly.
While reading various materials about the years leading up to the Holocaust, I repeatedly encountered references to “international Jewry.” A search led to indications that the Nazis had used that term (e.g., Goebbels, 1943; Hitler, 1945), but that the term preceded them. For example, Wolf (1921, p. 6) refers to
the hypothesis of a secret Jewish Government, transported from Jerusalem into the Diaspora, which, throughout the ages, has never ceased to command the allegiance of an imaginary international Jewry, to keep it disloyal to all other Governments, and to direct it in an insidious campaign against the established order of Christian Society.
A further search led to Bauer’s (1981, p. 19) view that “The Nazis posited a Jewish world power controlling both the Bolshevik East and the capitalist West” and to Bendersky’s (2008, p. xiv) reference to a document titled “The Power and Aims of International Jewry” (TPAIJ).
A search for TPAIJ led to several websites offering a copy, and also to Bendersky’s (2013, p. 94) explanation that TPAIJ was prepared by the U.S. State Department’s Division of Russian Affairs in August 1919 and was then expanded the following month as “Judaism and the Present World Movement — A Study.” A search for the latter led to indications that it was a classified document, written by DeWitt Poole, dated September 29, 1919. There did not seem to be a copy lying around online.
As one might expect from the involvement of the Division of Russian Affairs, Bendersky (2013, p. 94) seemed to indicate that TPAIJ drew to some extent on “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion” (sometimes apparently titled “The Protocols of the Meetings of the Learned Elders of Zion”). Wikipedia said that Protocols was first published in Russia in 1903, and that it purported “to document the minutes of a late 19th-century meeting of Jewish leaders discussing their goal of global Jewish hegemony by subverting the morals of Gentiles.” Wikipedia further said that the Protocols used ideas from several sources, including Herzl’s The Jewish State (Der Judenstaat) (1896), and that it had been shown to be a hoax. Apparently the alleged meeting never took place.
Nazi doctrine reportedly treated the Protocols as legitimate. I was not sure whether the Nazis had not known any better, or had just found it convenient to take the Protocols at face value for propaganda purposes — as when, for example, Hitler (1925, p. 430) claimed that, “with feverish greed [the Jew] watches . . . the dream of world domination step into tangible proximity.” But in a sense, it didn’t matter. With or without the meeting summarized in the Protocols, there could have been countless other meetings to similar effect. Indeed, it is unlikely that various powerful groups — of Jews, Nazis, Chinese, Americans, or for that matter ancient Romans — have never discussed world domination in a meeting.
The State Department, like the Nazis, appears to have taken the Protocols more or less at face value. Here, according to Bendersky (2013, p. 94), was what the State Department concluded:
Jews, while undermining other nationalities, ardently protected their own common national and religious identity. “Once a Jew always a Jew. Neither conversion nor naturalization will change him.” Jews everywhere acted in concert in their own interest without loyalty to the countries in which they were born. . . . Resources for Zionism (in certain cases also Bolshevism) came clandestinely from interlocking, often intermarried, international Jewish financial families: Warburgs-Schiffs-Kuhn, Loeb-Guggenheim. With deceitful and dictatorial means, Jews were “now, with remarkable unity of action, exerting so powerful an influence upon world politics.” Left unchecked, this Jewish movement “might approach an actual world control.”
This view — evidently providing at least one concept of what “international Jewry” means — may have been plausible when it was written, nearly a hundred years ago. It is not plausible at present. With or without the Protocols, the concept of an international Jewish conspiracy has too many problems to be taken seriously:
- This post and its companions have emphasized that Jews are a fractious lot — that dissent is part of Jewish culture. There may never be Jewish unanimity, even on so basic a question as the existence of Israel. The history of Jewish emigration from Germany (above) has shown that, even when Jews face an existential threat, they differ on the nature of the threat, its immediacy, and the appropriate response. The concept of a scheme for world domination, in which the world’s Jews will participate “with remarkable unity of action,” is countered by the prospect that dissident Jews, contacted but declining to participate, would file numerous detailed reports on any such conspiracy.
- The State Department’s conclusions (as summarized by Bendersky, above) do approach plausibility toward the end, as they move to the narrower question of whether specific Jewish individuals or families have collaborated in efforts that would make them even richer, at the expense of others. Anyone who watches the daily news is likely to hear of financial schemes and scandals involving Jewish names (a prominent recent example being, again, Goldman Sachs).
- If there had been an international Jewish conspiracy in 1919, its weakness would have become evident in the noteworthy front-page headline of the Daily Express on March 24, 1933 — which, as I verified in the Daily Express online archive, said, “Judea Declares War on Germany.” The article reported a boycott, allegedly orchestrated by Jewish financiers internationally, seeking to cripple Germany’s economy. (See Makow, 2004; Kapner, 2007.) A brief search for further information led to an archived document of uncertain provenance, quoting additional published statements supporting that boycott and/or approving economic or actual war against Germany. A brief search to corroborate one of those quotes, a speech by New York attorney Samuel Untermyer broadcast on WABC radio on August 6, 1933, did seem to confirm that, on August 7, the New York Times published the text of that broadcast, and that it called for a “holy war” consisting of an “economic boycott against all German goods, shipping and services.” If anything, these efforts demonstrated the absence of coordinated international Jewish power. Hitler proceeded to consolidate his control over Germany, take over much of Europe, and carry out the Jewish Holocaust.
- Despite what Hitler (e.g., 1925, p. 430) perceived as strong Jewish influence, the U.S. remained visibly disinclined to save European Jews during WWII. Even now, when America is (and has long been) Israel’s best friend on the world stage, and despite the concentration of power in the hands of American Jews, surveys suggest that younger Americans are less, not more, inclined to give Israel a blank check. For that matter, while American Jews still generally support Israel, many — including some holding positions in media — are increasingly critical. None of this seems to support Goebbels’ (1943) simplistic notion of a long-term Jewish march to power. Nor could one presently assume that American Jews are on an unchallenged upward trajectory, accruing ever more power. To the contrary, there are numerous indications that smart and wealthy Asian-Americans are eroding Jewish predominance.
Wiebe (1939, p. 84), the Nazi apologist, used the concept of international Jewry in a more ambitious sense, claiming that the “world-embracing associations and interests of Jewry” were demonstrated by “putting the whole world instantaneously, so to speak, into movement against National Socialist Germany.” That seemed nonsensical. To the contrary, the major European powers caved in to Hitler on one issue after another, most notoriously in their attempt at “appeasement” in the Munich Agreement of 1938. The U.S. — again, supposedly in the grip of Jewish money — waited more than two years to enter the war, did so only after Hitler declared war on the U.S., and did not display intense interest in saving Europe’s Jews thereafter.
Wiebe (1939, p. 84) did plausibly point out that “the world has taken very much less notice of processes of elimination carried out elsewhere on a far greater scale” than that of Germany’s expulsion of the Jews as of 1939. His remarks about Soviet life under Stalin provided a good example: “Who has championed the cause of those millions of Russians driven from their land by the Bolshevist revolution, or who, unable to escape in time, were tortured and massacred?” There has been far more attention to the expulsion and, after Wiese wrote, the extermination of Jews, than to the far greater numbers of Soviet citizens murdered by their own government. That, however, seems to make a point about Jewish predominance in Western media, not about actual control of governments.
Incidentally, in some places, Wiebe seemed to dislike international Jewry because, aside from its alleged conspiratorial element, it had a rootless aspect. For example, he (1939, p. 67) seemed to find it threatening and/or ugly that the wandering Jew had the ability to “feel at home in any country of the world whose language I speak, where there are beautiful women, flowers and art, a good library . . .” rather than finding something special and irreplaceable in one’s German homeland.
Finally, concerns about international Jewry, at the end of WWI, also included the belief that Jews had manipulated the Treaty of Versailles to their advantage. There may well have been some Jewish and/or Gentile individuals who found ways to influence aspects of the process. Be that as it may, France, in particular, did not need Jewish influence to take a sour view of Germany at war’s end. Clemenceau seemed quite prepared to make demand huge reparations from Germany on his own initiative. I doubt, moreover, that Jewish pressure would have achieved an outcome substantially different from what the French people wanted. Not to say there was nothing to investigate there; it just did not seem fundamental for purposes of this post.
At this point, it may be useful to recapitulate key observations and impressions from the foregoing sections. Those sections, and their primary messages, are as follows:
Beyond Pure Good. Within the standard Holocaust story, it is commonly assumed that the Jews were, if not morally pure, at least substantially righteous. Yet even within the limits of that story, it is clear that Jews became morally tainted during the Holocaust. There were councils of leading Jews that sent trusting members of their own communities away to be executed. Some such council members actually seemed to enjoy their roles. Within the concentration camps, there were Jewish kapos (i.e., prisoner-assistants), and other cooperative Jewish prisoners, who helped the Nazis to beat, humiliate, and kill other Jews. They did such things in order to facilitate their own survival and also, in some cases, out of sheer cruelty. The reader who becomes acquainted with these sorts of atrocities may come to understand why many surviving Jews have said, “The best died first.”
Beyond Pure Evil: German Behavior and Holocaust Remembrance Organizations. The standard story does not go into much depth about German behavior during the Holocaust. It is often assumed that the behavior of the Nazis – indeed, of the entire German nation – was irrational if not insane. Holocaust remembrance organizations, such as the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM) and Yad Vashem, and commonly consulted sites like Wikipedia, have remarkably little to say on how that could happen. In some instances, it appears that their purpose is not really to understand and remember the complex experience of the Holocaust.
A Matter of (Obtuse) Style. Numerous sources from the 1920s indicate that some wealthy Jews made a point of flaunting their wealth, at a time when much of the German middle class was being driven into poverty and even starvation. Prominent Jews have suggested that this behavior promoted antisemitic attitudes. There appeared to be a significant difference between the majority of ordinary Jews, who were themselves experiencing hardship, and an especially showy, clueless, and possibly pathological subset of Jews who either didn’t care what the public thought or actually enjoyed making people angry. Unfortunately, many writers about the Holocaust fail to consider the possibility that criticism and rejection of such asocial behavior might be the most appropriate response for Jews and Gentiles alike.
Variance from Traditional Values. Jews were associated – they may have associated themselves – with shrewd practices and a selfish focus on individual success, consistent with a liberal as distinct from a conservative or socialist philosophy. Germany’s Jews do not appear to have well understood, much less to have prioritized, the rural roots, shared national feeling, and mutually trusting attitudes emphasized in the Nazis’ concept of the Volk. Here, again, USHMM (for example) presents a distorted impression. Jews were overrepresented in media and, unfortunately, many used that broadcasting platform to associate themselves with values alien and even offensive to traditional German culture. In this, there were some similarities to American conservatives’ complaints about Hollywood values.
The Jewish Question. German Jews are often portrayed as being essentially like German Gentiles. Some Jews were indeed assimilating into German culture. But there was also a strong and apparently growing sense of Jewish identity apart from German culture. There were very few conversions to Christianity. An effort to establish a predominantly German nationalist emphasis among German Jews failed. There was apparently a considerable inclination to alienate German Gentiles with accusations of antisemitism. A growing Zionist movement agreed, with the Nazis, that the Jews were never going to be accepted, and that they should instead go somewhere else. Some Zionists later collaborated with the Nazi regime in order to get some Jews out of Germany; supported aspects of Hitler’s Nuremberg Laws; and participated in massacres and assassination attempts (against e.g., U.S. President Harry Truman). Today’s Israeli Defense Force has a special ribbon honoring those particular Zionists. Credible Jewish writers have charged that Zionist leaders deliberately chose to leave Jews in Europe to die, during and after World War II (WWII), for political reasons related to their effort to initiate the state of Israel.
Adapting to Second-Class Citizenship. In domestic violence situations, the alleged victim often bears some responsibility for staying around, thereby perpetuating a dysfunctional situation, instead of just leaving. In some ways, that scenario is comparable to German Jews’ general inclination to stay in Germany – at a time when Jews from other countries, and Germans themselves, were emigrating en masse to better opportunities in America. It should have been clear that antisemitism had been continuing to rise for a generation, and that full acceptance was not likely in the foreseeable future. The unrealistic belief that, somehow, it would all be different this time was, again, emblematic of a dysfunctional relationship. A large number of German Jews delayed emigration until very late in the game, at which time few countries, none highly appealing, were willing to take them. If a party to a dysfunctional relationship proves ultimately unwilling and/or unable to leave, his/her practical option is to make a very determined effort to commit him/herself to making it work. It appears that, overall, no determined effort was made.
Political Suspicions Related to WWI. The “stab in the back” hypothesis held that subversive German citizens and politicians had betrayed Germany, producing a defeat at home while the army could have gone on to win WWI. In reality, with the increasing involvement of the U.S. in the war, there was no chance that Germany could have won. It could have negotiated a better settlement, at least, if its right-wing military leaders had tried to do so while the German army still had a relatively strong position on the battlefield. In November 1918, when the Kaiser abdicated, a new Social Democrat (leftist and relatively pacifist) government negotiated a hasty and rather abject Armistice. At that time, the German army was still in control of substantial captured territory. It probably would have been able to fight on into 1919 before being pushed back into Germany and absolutely defeated. It appeared that the army must have been sold out by those Social Democrat politicians, dubbed the “November Criminals,” several of whom were Jewish. The Treaty of Versailles, formally ending the war, required Germany to admit guilt for the war, to surrender all captured territory, and to pay enormous reparations. Jews were prominent among the leaders of the newly formed Weimar Republic, and also in radical leftist factions, including the increasingly feared Communist movement. Many Germans were uncomfortable with seeing so much political power in the hands of Jewish leaders who had not even enjoyed full rights as citizens just a few years earlier. The Weimar Republic faced many difficulties. There does not seem to have been any treasonous tendency among its Jewish leaders. But few of its leaders were highly effective. The combination of prominent Jewish involvement, a poor conclusion of the war, recurrent crises and scandals, attempts to change Germany too quickly, and generally ineffectual government in the 1920s combined to generate much public displeasure with the concept of a German republic, and persuaded many that the Nazis were right in blaming Jews for Germany’s problems.
Shirking Military Service. Certainly there have been many brave and self-sacrificing Jewish soldiers down through the years. In general, however, scholars suggest that Jews have a history of avoiding military service except where it serves their own individual or collective interests. In the case of Germany’s army in WWI, USHMM and others say that Jews were disproportionately strong participants. Some of USHMM’s numbers come from secondhand reports of a single study, published only in German, conducted years after the war ended, by a Jewish researcher whose job was to defend the reputation of German Jews. That study conflicted with other reports that offered lower estimates of Jewish participation. It appeared that the overwhelming majority of soldiers were in the army because they were conscripted, not because they joined, though there may have been advantages for joining (e.g., being able to choose one’s military position). USHMM claimed that Jewish soldiers were killed at a higher rate than Gentile soldiers. That appeared untrue. If it was true, it may have been because commanders — alleged to be antisemitic — deliberately assigned Jews to dangerous tasks, not because Jews volunteered for such tasks. I doubted that antisemitism in the military would have prevailed if Jews had been making a powerful impression of self-sacrifice and valor under fire. Some said that Jews were bitterly disappointed to find that their WWI service did not end antisemitism. I doubted that Germany’s Jews would generally have expected a miraculous end to antisemitism even if their military service had been consistently stellar.
War Profiteering. German Jews enjoyed significantly higher average incomes than German Gentiles in the first decades of the 20th century. Jews had nearly total control of banks in some areas, and were also heavily overrepresented in business, professions, universities, and other leading positions. Jewish food merchants and well-to-do Jewish consumers were especially noticeable during WWI, when widespread hunger fostered extreme awareness of the price of food, and of its availability for rich people as compared to the poor. An overrepresentation of Jews was also visible in the government agency created to manage the wartime food supply. Jews were not the only ones engaged in food profiteering, but they appeared to be disproprotionately represented, and there were some highly visible cases of food profiteering by Jews. The intense civilian hardships and deaths due to starvation during WWI contributed to a radicalized hostility toward Jews on the part of some Germans. It appears that accusations of antisemitism may have been quite common then, as now, potentially offering the Jewish population an excuse to ignore even claims of Jewish food profiteering that might have been legitimate. It does not appear that Jews were generally concerned with fairly investigating and diligently addressing such claims, either during or after the war.
Inflation Profiteering in the 1920s. Germany experienced hyperinflation: over a period of less than two years, its currency became worthless. The bank accounts of the middle class were thus wiped out, and millions who lived on fixed incomes (e.g., retirees; war widows) were thrown into poverty. As the currency declined in value, people learned to postpone payments, so as to reduce the value of the amount paid. There was a widespread sense that everyone was cheating everyone else. Rich speculators were especially adept at exploiting inflationary opportunities: they would buy real assets (e.g., businesses and real estate), using not only their own money but any money they could borrow. Of ten so-called “inflation kings” making fortunes in this way, at least five were Jewish. Many of the politicians responsible for the hyperinflation were also Jewish. It appeared, to many, that Jews had created economic upheaval and now were profiting from it. The Nazi Party achieved significant gains in the 1924 elections, and would benefit again from the memory of the hyperinflation when the Great Depression arrived in 1929-1930. Holocaust remembrance organizations (e.g., USHMM), deeply attentive to less significant aspects of German history leading up to the Nazi takeover, are oddly silent on food and inflation profiteering. It appears that they believe their purpose is to remember only pro-Jewish aspects of the Holocaust. An emphasis on self-policing, built into Jewish culture, could avoid the self-imposed ignorance preferred by such organizations; it could help to build confidence among, and to avoid alienating, Gentile majorities in the future.
The Ostjuden, Barmat et al., and Wikipedia. Immigrant Jews from Eastern Europe and Russia (Ostjuden) arrived in Germany en masse between roughly 1880 and 1920. German Jews and Gentiles alike rejected them – the Jews partly because they were seen as dirty and primitive, and might thus make Germany’s Jews seem non-German by association. While most Ostjuden continued on to new lives in America and elsewhere, about 120,000 stayed in Germany. Jews generally had long been associated with criminality; Ostjuden were believed to be especially inclined in that direction. A handful of Ostjuden family groups achieved notoriety for their involvement in high-level scandals in the Weimar era. The Barmat brothers were a glaring example. The Barmats bribed politicians, obtained millions from governmental entities, and lost huge sums in currency speculation. Wikipedia’s coverage of the Barmats provides an example of some of the worst pro-Jewish writing about Holocaust-related events. For example, it characterizes their food profiteering as mere “misdeeds.” The Wikipedia entry displays an inordinate preoccupation with the question of how right-wingers could use the Barmat story for propaganda purposes, rather than simply reporting what happened, with appropriate attention to the ordinary people who were harmed by the scandal. Wikipedia says nothing about indications that the justice process was corrupted: the Barmats got off with light sentences, and proceeded to repeat the pattern a few years later, defrauding the Belgian National Bank of 34 million gold francs. The error of the Wikipedia writers, evident in many other materials as well, is the assumption that the Barmats reflected poorly on Jews in general. It appears, to the contrary, that most Jews wanted to see the Barmats brought to justice. By distorting the story, avoiding difficult realities, and conveying an impression of distorted coverage, the Wikipedia entry actually contributes to an impression of Jewish conspiracy, and impairs progress toward appropriate housecleaning.
International Jewry. Various writers, including some Nazis, referred to “international Jewry.” This term appears to have several meanings. Evidently the original concept involved an international Jewish conspiracy, steering efforts by Jews everywhere to control vastly divergent governments, including both the communist Soviet Union and the capitalist West. It appeared that later versions narrowed the focus to the members of several powerful Jewish families (e.g., Loeb, Guggenheim). No doubt some members of such families wielded great influence at times; certainly Jews have been successful in bringing the U.S., and to a lesser degree some other countries, to the support of Israel. But the notion of a consummately powerful global network seemed implausible. Jews repeatedly demonstrated their weakness on the world stage – failing, for example, to carry out a supposed holy war on Germany in 1933, and being unable to get Western governments to save European Jews during WWII. Various developments (e.g., the increasing influence of Asian Americans; the disaffection of young American Jews) suggested that the power of international Jewish leaders might have passed its peak. It seemed very implausible that Jews, constantly demonstrating a propensity to disagree among themselves, would nurture such a conspiracy for centuries with no relevant disclosures by Jewish dissidents. The ability to draw attention to the Holocaust while substantially ignoring the murders of millions in other holocausts seemed to be a testimony to Jewish power in media, not to international political control.
A German Perspective
This section applies insights from the foregoing recap to the central question of how the standard Holocaust narrative, juxtaposing good Jews against evil Nazis, may fail to capture key realities of the years leading up to the Holocaust. The general effort, in this section, is to review and flesh out the impressions and concerns that might have arisen in ordinary German citizens, in the years before the Nazis came to power.
Fostering German Antisemitism
On this post’s central question of whether Jews were blameless in the years leading up to the Holocaust, the answer is clearly no. Leaving aside what happened after the Holocaust began — the betrayal and/or ineffectuality of the Jewish Councils, on behalf of the Jewish masses; the kapos and such — it seems fairly clear that Jews made decisions and took actions that had predictable effects on German public opinion; that they could have chosen and acted otherwise; and that doing so would have produced superior long-term outcomes.
Those conclusions reject the notion that Hitler and the Nazis made something of nothing. The Germans were not crazy, and they were not stupid. They were largely working- and middle-class people — from a culture somewhat different from, but not terribly alien to, the culture of America today. Their progression among various attitudes toward Jews — sometimes more tolerant, sometimes less so — was shaped by experiences, news reports, beliefs, rumors, and other inputs that we, too, would draw upon to form attitudes.
The Jews were bound by the unwritten rules of minorities. Over the course of several generations, some minorities can and do melt into the larger culture. Examples that are at various stages of completion in the U.S. include people of German and Chinese heritage. By contrast, other minorities — black people, most notably — remain visibly distinct, and are likely to do so for the foreseeable future. Jews, in Germany and the U.S. alike, are of both types. Some enthusiastically assimilate into the mainstream; others diligently maintain highly visible religious and/or cultural differences; and the rest are scattered along the spectrum between those two alternatives.
For members of visible minorities or disfavored groups, there appears to be an unwritten rule that one could call the “paragon rule.” This rule says that, if you are Jackie Robinson, breaking the color barrier in baseball, or Sandra Day O’Connor, breaking the gender wall at the U.S. Supreme Court, you have to be a paragon. You are going to be viewed as a representative of your type of person. That may not be fair. It may not be something that every person who looks like you will have to deal with. But for you, the pioneer, that is the starting position. For purposes of your career, and for the sake of those who come after you, you have to think about more than your personal gratification. You have to perform, not only well, but also honorably.
In remarks on the success of Jews in Hollywood, Manny Friedman offers a Jewish version of the paragon rule:
I think . . . the real reason most Jews are so afraid to admit that there’s something inherently powerful and good about them . . . . [is that] they’re afraid of being responsible. . . .
[Responsibility] means we’ll have to start working together. It means we’ll have to hold one other, and ourselves, to a higher standard.
It is not clear that Jews in Weimar Germany felt obliged to follow any such advice. That may be because they misgauged their status. It is as if they assumed they were viewed as the German equivalent of white baseball players and male Supreme Court justices, when that was not necessarily how their Gentile counterparts saw them. German Jews may have focused on how far they had progressed away from the traditional Jewishness of the Ostjuden, while the Gentiles were focused on how different the Jews still were, when compared against the Germans they grew up with.
Germany’s relatively assimilated Jews do not seem to have considered how their overrepresentation in key sectors of the economy would be viewed. But imagine if some other group — German Gentiles, for example, or Arabs, or black Americans — controlled the vast majority of Israel’s banks, comprised a significant share of Israel’s physicians, dominated Israeli broadcasting, were believed to be disproportionately responsible for crime in Israel, and were repeatedly embroiled in high-level scandals. It would be a very different country. Those who wanted Israel to be the home of traditional Jewish culture would be especially concerned. Many would be quite vocal about it. Imagine moreover that the country had just gone through a catastrophic war, with enormous loss of life, as well as an economic meltdown, with repeated multiyear bouts of hunger yielding enormous numbers of deaths by starvation. Given the violence with which some Israelis have supported the cause of Zionism since before the foundation of their country, there would surely be factions — perhaps quite popular factions — promoting violence against those “outsiders.” Regardless of how comfortable those non-Jews might feel in Israel, there would be calls for their expulsion.
Far from registering sensitivity to such concerns, Weimar Jews seem to have assumed that the law was the whole story — that, if the newly created Weimar statutes said they could be broadcasters as well as bankers, that was all there was to it. It should not matter, and therefore it would not matter, that Gentiles might be concerned about the ways in which some such Jews were using their influence. There seems to have been no effective recognition of the increasingly urgent need for a recalibration to contemporary sociopolitical realities, even with the rise of the Nazis and the more ominous tone of antisemitism in the 1920s. Even when some Jews warned that certain behaviors were likely to promote antisemitism, there appears to have been no awareness of the likely negative impact of German Jewry’s high-fliers — their crisis- and scandal-ridden Social Democrat politicians, their exploitative profiteers, their communist leaders, their ostentatious big spenders in hard times.
It is somewhat understandable that Weimar Jews, not having had a country of their own for millenia, would be deficient in their ability to empathize — to put themselves into the shoes of their German neighbors, and to imagine what it would be like to see the ways of one’s culture infringed by the seemingly selfish, asocial, or maladjusted behaviors of an identifiable minority. It is also somewhat understandable that such Jews would tend not to grasp the reasoning or the appeal of those who would advocate against such infringement.
But what is difficult to understand is that — even now, with the benefit of hindsight and of the Israeli experience — a substantial subset of American Jews, as represented by organizations like USHMM, would insist that there is nothing to understand, no need for awareness that Jews might have contributed to the creation of an environment favorable to the Nazis. In their view, there is simply blame to be apportioned, because the Germans did not think and react as the Jews wanted them to. Such avoidance of historical fact did not seem consistent with an insistence that we should all remember the Holocaust. It seemed, rather, that we were supposed to remember only those portions of the Holocaust story that made the Jews look good and the Germans look evil. Given an impression that many Jews take pride in their practicality, this is remarkable. It is as if organizations like USHMM wanted today’s young Jews to follow in the footsteps of those clueless Jews of the 1920s, and wanted today’s Gentiles to conclude, once again, that the Jews are not interested in fitting in, nor are they interested in getting along; they are only interested in making excuses to obscure their own perceived propensity for harming and exploiting Gentiles’ lives and property.
The standard Holocaust narrative attempts to lecture the German majority. That is not necessarily a bad thing. Majorities often have a lot to learn. But it seems surprisingly naive to assume that lectures will change human nature. Social standards can be gradually reshaped. People will tend to be polite. Conventions can be developed, in settled times, to discourage some ways of speaking and acting, and to encourage others. But desperate times are apt to shake those conventions. The majority may then lurch in unanticipated directions; the polite patterns of safer days may be overruled. It may be that it took enormous socioeconomic upheavals to achieve that in Weimar Germany. But one cannot be certain that such events will never come again. Indeed, one can be quite certain that similar events will occur somewhere.
In lieu of a know-nothing policy, one might urge today’s Jews to learn from the Weimar experience. It seems that there were measures the Jews of Weimar Germany could have taken to improve their standing.
For one thing, they could have done better in the War & Patriotism department. If it was assumed that a sudden flash of interest in the WWI military would erase the memory of decades or centuries of prior Jewish indifference, that lesson has now been learned. Or I guess not, judging from the reports of scholars (above) who indicate that, no, Jews are still not really there; the military is still not embraced. I do not have an easy suggestion for the upper-middle-class parents who want their child to go to Harvard, not Iraq, and to come home on weekends, not in a box. But military service is likely to remain a key popular measure of patriotism. In the future, as in the past, there will be times when people notice who is, and who is not, fighting and dying for their country. Here, again, Hitler may have distorted the past, but he did not completely invent it.
People who intend to remain permanently in a country also find it necessary to jettison conflicting allegiances. The rising interest in Zionism; the unwillingness to support Naumann’s nationalist initiative; the visible (and, during the 1920s, growing) Jewish tendency toward leftist politics — none of these were going to encourage faith that Jews loved Germany and saw it as their special homeland. And perhaps they didn’t; and with what they perceived as right-wing antisemitism, perhaps they couldn’t. Maybe they stayed around primarily for financial reasons. But, again, these possibilities would hardly make them seem more worthy of acceptance and protection.
Perhaps the real issue underlying military service is that, as demonstrated by Jews in Israel, people are usually willing to fight for their homeland. Historical Jewish indifference to military service in Europe may have been rightly perceived, not merely as fear of getting killed or spending one’s career in a backwater, but as a more general indicator of lukewarm commitment to their supposed homeland. Similar equivocation emerges when Jews hesitate to criticize one another. There is a great difference between liberal American Jews who, to varying degrees, seem approximately as willing to criticize Jews as Gentiles, and those responsible for the grossly skewed USHMM and Wikipedia webpages critiqued above. Basically, if you want to maintain yourselves as a separate people not reliably loyal to your host country, be prepared to be treated as such.
A commitment to cease the tradition of the wandering Jew, and to become truly and finally German, would have called for surrender of the belief that one could behave however one wished, in the pursuit of one’s personal interests, and still be viewed as a regular German. It was one thing for German Jews to want to see the alien Barmat Ostjuden brought to justice; it is another thing to ask whether German Jews were comparably hard on miscreants within their own ranks. Wikipedia’s treatment of the Barmat story (above) conveys a belief that they should not have been — that, to the extent possible, inappropriate behavior among the Jews should be twisted, instead, into snide commentary on right-wing Germans. In lieu of the dysfunctional option of writing Fritsch off as an antisemite when he complained that Jews at the Produce Exchange were cornering the market, it would have made more sense to find out whether such behavior was taking place and, if so, was incommensurate with commonly understood standards of good business, and to sanction the Jews in question if appropriate. It should have been possible, in concert with Gentile social scientists, to produce a definitive report on Jewish participation in WWI, not simplistically defending Jews but rather taking responsibility for any shortcomings, circulating recommendations among the membership, and producing better results (e.g., increased Jewish military enlistment; slots earmarked for Jewish officer candidates) in the postwar environment.
Granted, the Jews of Germany could not guarantee that every Jew would toe the line. But that is not to say they were completely powerless. I knew, from personal experience, that some Jews would quietly malign, as a chazzer (Yiddish for “pig”), the Jew who egregiously exploits and abuses people for personal gain. Also, somewhere, I had seen an indication that certain Jewish communities were successful in virtually eliminating trafficking in women among their members. Hence, there seemed to be some possibility of a more aggressive tradition of moral sanction. It seemed, in retrospect, that the Centralverein was substantially a failure in its efforts “to fight for the Jews’ rights as citizens and to combat rising antisemitism” (Wikipedia). Rather than take that path of struggling against the German majority, and inadvertently perpetuating an impression of contrary and self-serving Jews who circle the wagons against reasonable complaints, the Centralverein‘s energies might have been better spent in a commitment to improve compliance, within the Jewish community, with generally accepted standards of German business and social behavior. The alternative would seemingly amount to an assertion of a right to take advantage of those who do feel restrained by social custom.
In general, it would have been refreshing if USHMM and other pro-Jewish organizations cited in this post had offered a frank, evenhanded, and proactive discussion of ways in which the behavior of individual Jews, and of the Jewish community as a whole, had contributed to the Holocaust, and of productive ways of responding to complaints about minorities in those organizations’ home countries. Such a mindset would position the Holocaust, not as an opportunity for endless complaining and advantage-seeking by a shrill subset of Jews who seek to ride on its coattails, but rather as the granddaddy of modern persecutions everywhere.
There are reasons why USHMM and other similar organizations have not adopted a neutral approach appropriately geared toward genuine Holocaust remembrance. One reason may be that, in America as in Weimar Germany, Jews vary in their degree of commitment to their home country. For instance, ADL (2013) notes that, since 1964, 30% of Americans have consistently felt that Jews are more loyal to Israel than to the U.S. While ADL predictably calls that antisemitic, Pew (2013) finds that, in fact, 30% of American Jews do describe themselves as emotionally “very attached” to Israel, and another 39% consider themselves “somewhat attached.” One might expect to see comparable percentages in first-generation Irish or Italian immigrants. But those percentages would drop off markedly as generations pass, and doubly so when the immigrants in question are refugees granted opportunities that many others wish they had. Whatever one may think of Fritsch’s views on other matters, his claim that Jews did not seem to appreciate their opportunities in his country might resonate among Americans who feel that organizations like USHMM take American good will too much for granted.
German Cooperation in Mass Murder
The German public seems to have come a long way, from the tolerant environment that would at least ostensibly accept Jews’ legal equality in 1919, to the beginning of discriminatory Nazi treatment in 1933, to the start of the extermination program in 1941. As noted above, the Great Depression drove many voters toward the Nazi Party. By that time, Jews had apparently become sufficiently unpopular that ordinary people were willing to accept the restrictions on Jews and others that the Nazis would impose. Engel (2013, citations omitted) says,
[E]ven some opponents of the [Nazi] regime initially accepted discriminatory laws aimed at reducing [Jewish] influence, like the April 1933 dismissal of Jews from the civil service; and many more were indifferent, preferring not to trouble themselves with the Jews’ legal status.
Some of the acquiescence in 1933 and thereafter was plainly due to Nazi control and watchfulness. As one person put it to Janowitz (1946, p. 141), “What could one person do against that powerful organization?” Another element: the “just doing my job” excuse may have reduced a sense of personal responsibility (p. 145). For the most part, German civilians and soldiers appear to have participated or acquiesced in the extermination as a matter of duty rather than out of any desire to kill Jews. According to Novick (2000, p. 137),
[A]lmost all scholars have come to accept Arendt’s thesis that the typical Holocaust perpetrator was “terrifyingly normal” and by no means a driven anti-Semite. Yehuda Bauer, an Israeli Holocaust historian, writes, “The Germans did not have to hate the Jews in order to kill them. . . . One suspects that, had they received instructions to murder all the Poles, or all the Frenchmen, they would have performed equally well.
Some German participation may have been due to a German culture of loyalty and conformity: “[S]o powerful was the ethnic consensus that even people who privately agonized over Jews’ plight barely found the courage to express condolences or perform small acts of kindness” (Koonz, 2003, p. 255). But such consensus seems to have had limits (Milgram, 1973). Engel (2013, citations omitted) observes that, as one would expect, the public was more willing to accept discrimination than mass murder:
[W]hen the regime finally embarked upon its programme of systematic mass killing in 1941, it took pains to keep information about the murders from the public, evidently convinced that it could not rely on popular backing for its extermination policy.
The preceding sections of this post have described reasons for dislike or distrust of Jews, going beyond mere bystander apathy. They do seem to provide an explanation of why Germany might have changed, granting Jews rights in 1919 and then taking away rights in 1933. That dislike or distrust appears to have contributed to the extermination of Jews in 1941 and thereafter, not through a steadily growing individual hatred of Jews, but rather by creating an environment in which those who did hate Jews would be able to kill them.
Hence the Simon Wiesenthal Center may be on the wrong track when it asks, “Did all Germans support Hitler’s plan for the persecution of the Jews?” A substantial number of Germans did acquiesce in the retraction of Jewish rights. This post has provided some reasons that would explain that. But only a small minority of Germans supported the murder of Jews (below).
The Wiesenthal Center’s answer to that question actually seems to address a different question — something like, “Did Germans vigorously oppose Nazi anti-Semitism?” That question would be disingenuous. As shown above, Jews themselves did not vigorously oppose Nazi antisemitism. The Germans most likely to oppose Nazi antisemitism, and to buck the conformist trend generally, were the Communists and Social Democrats — and for them, the Dachau concentration camp was opened in 1933 (Gellately, 2001). In that regard, one is reminded of Pastor Martin Niemöller’s famous poem, as presented by USHMM:
First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.
But there may be a retort. Perhaps Rev. Niemöller would have done something, at least, if he had cared about the socialists. There is a middle ground between being one and abandoning them altogether. The Jews, as much as anyone else, did have means with which to encourage a shared social commitment to the rights of all participants in their new and struggling post-WWI German republic. Such a commitment would have pointed in a decidedly different direction from the selfish individualism that facilitated, first, the psychopathic profiteers, and then the divide-and-conquer Nazis.
Learning About the Nazis
In the standard Holocaust narrative, Nazis are assumed to be purely evil. This section offers some revisions to that assumption.
First, consistent with the reductio ad Hitlerum fallacy (above), it should be observed that Nazi science and medicine achieved significant positive advances. As noted by Proctor (1999, pp. 14, 19),
Nazi doctors and public-health activists also took part in work that medical specialists and public-health officials today would regard as progressive or even socially responsible . . . [and] some of that work was a direct outgrowth of Nazi ideology. Many Nazis were environmentalists; many were vegetarians. Species protection was a going concern, as was animal welfare. Nazi health activists launched the most powerful antismoking campaign of its day, and the Nazi war on cancer was the most aggressive in the world. Nazi doctors worried about overmedication and the overzealous use of X rays, and they cautioned against an unhealthy workplace. . . . [T]he uncomfortable fact is that Nazi-era doctors were also the authors of world-class, first-rate science. . . .
There is more to the story of Nazi scientific practice than “medicine gone mad.” . . . Appreciating those complexities . . . may also enable us better to see how fascism triumphed in the first place.
It should also be noted that there were significant variations among the Nazis. Schultz (2003) suggests that leading Nazis could be divided into three groups: genocidal racists; non-genocidal racists who saw Jews as a threat, or who approved the conquest of peoples perceived as inferior; and völkisch Nazis, who were not especially concerned with race, did not harbor real hatred or attitudes of conquest toward other nations or peoples, but did believe that Germany was the best of all possible nations, and doubted that Jews, Poles, or others could ever be good Germans. In this taxonomy, tedious references to “virulent” antisemitism, so overused by pro-Jewish writers, may commonly be intended to refer to one or both of the racist categories.
This variation among Nazis generated seeming incongruities, such as Heilbronner’s (2004, p. 19) report that, “As late as 1936, a Jewish funeral in a village in the southern Rhine region in western Germany could be accompanied by the heads of the local Nazi Party who had come to pay their last respects to an anonymous Jew.” Heilbronner (p. 17) suggests a progression in Nazi thinking, where the genocide of the 1940s seems to have been barely imagined by most Nazis in the early 1930s. Gordon (1984, p. 68) points out that, even as late as the 1930 election, antisemitism was not a major Nazi election campaign theme, and that Hitler’s speeches in that year avoided the Jewish Question, especially when the audience was upper middle-class. She says that, in one speech, he even said he had nothing against “decent” Jews.
But that appears to have been mere political calculation on Hitler’s part. According to Gordon (1984, pp. 52-54), he was a prime example of the type of Nazi whose genocidal inclinations had been shaped in WWI. Engel (2013), reporting on a study of 600 longstanding members of the Nazi party, found that only about half considered Jews a significant threat to Germany. Of that half, almost 60% traced that belief to Germany’s defeat in WWI and political conditions thereafter. In contrast against that, Gordon says,
[S]urprisingly few of the top Nazi leaders were virulent anti-Semites before 1925. None of the more prominent men in the Nazi party [including Eichmann] joined it primarily because of anti-Semitism. . . . Anti-Semitism became a fundamental issue of practical importance among other top Nazi leaders only during the later 1920s and subsequent years. Hermann Rauschning concluded that “To the great majority of the Nazi clique of leaders the whole racial doctrine is ‘Adolf’s buntcum'” [apparently meaning “bunkum,” nonsense]. In short, many Nazi leaders simply accepted anti-Semitism as part of the baggage of Naziism — in the bargain for other things.
Eichmann, in particular, may not have joined primarily because of antisemitism; but as a key architect of the Holocaust, he certainly seems to have come around to that. Hence Berkowitz (2013) suggests that, in the view of most scholars, Hannah Arendt (1963, p. 54) was wrong in her controversial argument that Eichmann was more clown than monster. Kaplan (2013) says that Eichmann came to imagine a “world Jewish conspiracy against Germany” that had to be destroyed. The likelihood of change over time, in the views of Eichmann and others, might suggest an additional layer in Schultz’s (2003) taxonomy, to take account of those who would become post-racists or genocidists.
Berkowitz (2013) says that Arendt was wrong about Eichmann but “was right in her general claim that many evildoers are normal people.” Or perhaps, in one variation, an evildoer is often a normal person in transition from one state of normalcy (e.g., pre-WWII) to another (e.g., postwar). That would suggest treatment of the personality or views of a Hitler or an Eichmann, not as fixed in stone, but as a stage of development. The difference in importance, between Hitler and some American leaders of past and present, may be more a matter of circumstance and opportunity than of character — in which case an excessive focus on Hitler could induce myopia. Hollywood may have found it remunerative to fixate upon a wooden image of Nazis as the personification of evil, but that seemed to leave a great deal of interesting material unexplored.
This post has argued that the standard Holocaust narrative errs in depicting Jews as substantially innocent and good, and Germans (or even Nazis) as substantially evil. The Summary, the Recap, and the full text of this post present that argument in increasing degrees of detail.
The key emphases, in that argument, are upon an openness to truth, an inclination toward evenhanded evaluation of sources, and a rejection of propaganda and prejudice. Such emphases seem increasingly consistent with contemporary views. The following excerpts from an article by Beinart (2010, some quotation marks omitted) put these remarks in perspective:
In recent years, several studies have revealed . . . that non-Orthodox younger Jews, on the whole, feel much less attached to Israel than their elders, with many professing a near-total absence of positive feelings. . . . [Jewish students] reserve the right to question the Israeli position . . . [and] resist anything they see as “group think.” They want an open and frank discussion of Israel and its flaws. . . .
The only kind of Zionism they found attractive was a Zionism that recognized Palestinians as deserving of dignity and capable of peace, and they were quite willing to condemn an Israeli government that did not share those beliefs. . . .
Among American Jews today, there are a great many Zionists, especially in the Orthodox world, people deeply devoted to the State of Israel. And there are a great many liberals, especially in the secular Jewish world, people deeply devoted to human rights for all people, Palestinians included. But the two groups are increasingly distinct. . . .
Morally, American Zionism is in a downward spiral. If the leaders of groups like AIPAC and the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations do not change course, they will wake up one day to find a younger, Orthodox-dominated, Zionist leadership whose naked hostility to Arabs and Palestinians scares even them, and a mass of secular American Jews who range from apathetic to appalled. . . . [G]roups like AIPAC and the Presidents’ Conference patrol public discourse, scolding people who contradict their vision of Israel as a state in which all leaders cherish democracy and yearn for peace. . . .
Not only does the organized American Jewish community mostly avoid public criticism of the Israeli government, it tries to prevent others from leveling such criticism as well. In recent years, American Jewish organizations have waged a campaign to discredit the world’s most respected international human rights groups. . . .
In my experience, there is an epidemic of not watching [current events] among American Zionists today. A Red Cross study on malnutrition in the Gaza Strip, a bill in the Knesset to allow Jewish neighborhoods to bar entry to Israeli Arabs, an Israeli human rights report on settlers burning Palestinian olive groves, three more Palestinian teenagers shot—it’s unpleasant. Rationalizing and minimizing Palestinian suffering has become a kind of game. . . .
In 2004 . . . Israeli tanks and bulldozers demolished hundreds of houses in the Rafah refugee camp in the southern Gaza Strip. Watching television, a veteran Israeli commentator and politician named Tommy Lapid saw an elderly Palestinian woman crouched on all fours looking for her medicines amid the ruins of her home. He said she reminded him of his grandmother.
What infuriated critics about Lapid’s comment was that his grandmother died at Auschwitz. How dare he defile the memory of the Holocaust? Of course, the Holocaust is immeasurably worse than anything Israel has done or ever will do. But at least Lapid used Jewish suffering to connect to the suffering of others. In the world of AIPAC, the Holocaust analogies never stop, and their message is always the same: Jews are licensed by their victimhood to worry only about themselves. Many of Israel’s founders believed that with statehood, Jews would rightly be judged on the way they treated the non-Jews living under their dominion. “For the first time we shall be the majority living with a minority,” Knesset member Pinchas Lavon declared in 1948, “and we shall be called upon to provide an example and prove how Jews live with a minority.”
But the message of the American Jewish establishment and its allies in the Netanyahu government is exactly the opposite: since Jews are history’s permanent victims, always on the knife-edge of extinction, moral responsibility is a luxury Israel does not have. Its only responsibility is to survive. As former Knesset speaker Avraham Burg writes in his remarkable 2008 book, The Holocaust Is Over; We Must Rise From Its Ashes, “Victimhood sets you free.”
This obsession with victimhood lies at the heart of why Zionism is dying among America’s secular Jewish young. It simply bears no relationship to their lived experience, or what they have seen of Israel’s. . . .
[T]here is a different Zionist calling, which has never been more desperately relevant. It has its roots in Israel’s Independence Proclamation, which promised that the Jewish state “will be based on the precepts of liberty, justice and peace taught by the Hebrew prophets,” and in the December 1948 letter from Albert Einstein, Hannah Arendt, and others to The New York Times, protesting right-wing Zionist leader Menachem Begin’s visit to the United States after his party’s militias massacred Arab civilians in the village of Deir Yassin. It is a call to recognize that in a world in which Jewish fortunes have radically changed, the best way to memorialize the history of Jewish suffering is through the ethical use of Jewish power.
For several months now, a group of Israeli students has been traveling every Friday to the East Jerusalem neighborhood of Sheikh Jarrah, where a Palestinian family named the Ghawis lives on the street outside their home of fifty-three years, from which they were evicted to make room for Jewish settlers. Although repeatedly arrested for protesting without a permit, and called traitors and self-haters by the Israeli right, the students keep coming, their numbers now swelling into the thousands. . . .
“Too many years I lived in the warm embrace of institutionalized elusiveness and was a part of it,” writes Avraham Burg. “I was very comfortable there.” I know; I was comfortable there too. But comfortable Zionism has become a moral abdication.