● Why the Germans? Why the Jews?: Envy, Race Hatred, and the Prehistory of the Holocaust
By Götz Aly
Metropolitan Books, 304 pages, $30
Early in his penetrating and provocative study of the roots of German anti-Semitism, “Why the Germans? Why the Jews?: Envy, Race Hatred, and the Prehistory of the Holocaust,” Götz Aly quotes Julius Fröbel, a delegate during the 1848 National Assembly in Frankfurt, a gathering whose efforts to establish a German nation state ended in stalemate: “The German is always at pains to emphasize how German he is,” Fröbel grumbles, his words foreshadowing Abish’s title. “The German spirit, so to speak, always stands in front of a mirror admiring himself, and even if it has looked itself over a hundred times and become convinced of its perfection, it still harbors a secret doubt, which is the hidden core of vanity.”
Aly — an acclaimed German historian and winner of the National Jewish Book Award — uses Fröbel’s words to buffer his claim that this swaggering confidence plagued by self-perceived inferiority is a German characteristic, and further, that, insecurity is a source of envy. Aly traces the prehistory of the Holocaust, from the 1800s to the Nazis’ assumption of power, and persuasively argues that German anti-Semitism stemmed not from religious hatred or racist ideology, but instead from “the least desirable of the seven deadly sins: Envy.”
Aly’s introduction, entitled “The Question of Questions,” opens with familiar queries: Why did the Germans murder six million people purely for being Jewish? How was this possible, and how could such a hitherto civilized people subscribe to such virulent animosity and unleash such destruction? Aly sets out to answer the perennially confounding double question of his title, and along the way offers shrewd insight into the German mindset over the last two centuries.
Aly begins his quest for answers with the first seeds of Jewish emancipation from the ghettos in 1806. Having finally been granted economic liberty and civil rights, Jews began to seize entrepreneurial initiatives, identify with industrialization and prosper in the fields of science. Aly focuses on the Jewish community’s progress in education, noting that Jewish educational institutions were better equipped than German public schools and placed a stronger emphasis on learning. Consequently, Jewish children possessed the hunger and aptitude to learn, both of which translated into successful results: Compared to their Christian peers, Jewish pupils were eight times more likely to earn a better class of secondary-school qualification. Armed with such statistics, Aly routinely contrasts the Jewish and Christian communities of the time, even noting at one point that Jews were healthier than Christians during this era and enjoyed longer lives.
Eventually, though, Aly turns the discussion toward the burgeoning resentment among German Christians who felt that their place in society was being usurped by canny Jewish parvenus. The struggle against Napoleonic occupation engendered weakness and self-doubt but also pent-up aggression and xenophobia. One year after Napoleon’s defeat, anti-Jewish prejudices became as extreme as anti-French feeling in revolutionary nationalist circles. Aly impresses here by toppling certain revered German heroes from their plinths. Ernst Moritz Arndt, honored as a vanguard proponent of German national unity by generations of democrats, saw Jews as “vagabond, opportunist, treacherous, criminal” and warned that this “foreign plague and excretion” threatened the purity of German lineage. The composer of the German national anthem, Joseph Haydn, churned out anti-Semitic poetry. Karl Marx’s dissertation supervisor, Jakob Friedrich Fries, demanded Jewish assimilation into the Christian majority.