What if Hitler Were a Jewish Supremacist?


By Marissa Brostoff

Published March 13, 2008, issue of March 21, 2008.
  • Print
  • Share Share

The Jewish Messiah

By Arnon Grunberg, translated by Sam Garrett
Penguin Press, 470 pages, $27.95.

‘The biggest mistake fascism made was to turn against the Israelite,” a character says in Arnon Grunberg’s new novel, “The Jewish Messiah.” “If fascism had absorbed the Israelite, if fascism had said to the Israelite: Come, let us join forces, then fascism would still be a vital movement, it would be the most important movement in Europe.”

Such is the novel’s dark conceit. “The Jewish Messiah” radically unhinges the ideology of fascism from the antisemitic content of Nazism, suggesting that if Hitler were reincarnated as a Jewish supremacist, we might not notice until it was too late.

The unlikely führer whose rise Grunberg tracks is Xavier Radek, whom we first meet as a Swiss German teenager obsessed with all things Jewish. Xavier is the grandson of a devoted SS officer killed during the war, but post-Holocaust guilt is not his style. Instead, he reveres the image of his grandfather and, somewhat more obliquely, Hitler himself. As if love and hatred for the Jews were two equally valid options for a German speaker with an authoritarian streak, Xavier chooses love.

After some early forays into the Basel Jewish community, Xavier’s infatuation with Jews becomes focused on one Jew in particular: Awromele Michalowitz, the eldest son of a corrupt ultra-Orthodox rabbi. (In a typically off-kilter twist, the Michalowitz family insists that the rabbi is autistic.) It is to Grunberg’s credit that he does not use Xavier’s feelings for another boy as a means of explaining away his larger obsession. Before Xavier consummates his relationship with Awromele, we are told that “most of the boys in his class talked about girls all the time, which was not unusual for boys that age, but Xavier thought Jews were a lot more interesting…. Xavier felt the need to someday cover a Jew in kisses, from head to toe.” As the book proceeds and Xavier and Awromele embark on their lifelong romance, it becomes clear that Awromele is attracted to many men, while Xavier’s lusts seem confined to Jews and the power he hopes they will bring him.

With Awromele in tow, Xavier, passing as a Jew, escapes his icy family for a series of enterprises that enhance his credentials as a philo-Semitic double of Hitler. He loses a testicle (the result of a botched circumcision), echoing rumors about the dictator’s anatomy; he attends art school, without success; he translates “Mein Kampf” into Yiddish. His ultimate political takeover of Israel is dealt with too briefly at the end of the book, but by that point, Grunberg has made Xavier’s resemblances abundantly clear.

“The Jewish Messiah” is most successful when Grunberg juxtaposes Xavier’s picaresque adventures with scenes of shocking brutality. With nary a change of inflection in the narrator’s dry tone, Grunberg cuts swaths of physical violence through the book. Grunberg links domestic abuse, rape, homophobic assault and nuclear warfare — as well as the looming shadow of the Holocaust — through their shared tendency to produce confusion between aggressor and victim as to who rightfully occupies which role. A typical conversation at the Radek household, we learn at the outset of the book, goes like this:

[His] mother said during dinner: “The Germans are the modern Jews. Look what a burden they have to bear.” Xavier’s father, who never said much but who could always be counted on for a clever remark at the right moment, said: “That’s the irony of history.”

Xavier is smart enough to catch on to his parents’ self-serving buffoonery, and declares himself “a foe of irony and moral relativism.” And this is where Grunberg makes his philosophical coup: In his moral universe, both the parents’ extreme relativism and Xavier’s absolutism lead to an embrace of fascism. If Xavier mirrors Hitler, then his mother, a beautifully rendered character who thinks many of the creepiest thoughts in the book (the chestnut at the beginning of this review comes from her), channels Adolf Eichmann, a status-obsessed cog with no independent ethical compass. It takes two, Grunberg suggests, to effect a Holocaust.

Marissa Brostoff is the Forward’s editorial assistant.

The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.

Find us on Facebook!
  • "If you want my advice: more Palestinians, more checkpoints, just more reality." What do you think?
  • Happy birthday Barbra Streisand! Our favorite Funny Girl turns 72 today.
  • Clueless parenting advice from the star of "Clueless."
  • Why won't the city give an answer?
  • BREAKING NEWS: Israel has officially suspended peace talks with the Palestinians.
  • Can you guess what the most boring job in the army is?
  • What the foolish rabbi of Chelm teaches us about Israel and the Palestinian unity deal:
  • Mazel tov to Idina Menzel on making Variety "Power of Women" cover! http://jd.fo/f3Mms
  • "How much should I expect him and/or ask him to participate? Is it enough to have one parent reciting the prayers and observing the holidays?" What do you think?
  • New York and Montreal have been at odds for far too long. Stop the bagel wars, sign our bagel peace treaty!
  • Really, can you blame them?
  • “How I Stopped Hating Women of the Wall and Started Talking to My Mother.” Will you see it?
  • Taglit-Birthright Israel is redefining who they consider "Jewish" after a 17% drop in registration from 2011-2013. Is the "propaganda tag" keeping young people away?
  • Happy birthday William Shakespeare! Turns out, the Bard knew quite a bit about Jews.
  • Would you get to know racists on a first-name basis if you thought it might help you prevent them from going on rampages, like the recent shooting in Kansas City?
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?

We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.