● How the Jews Defeated Hitler: Exploding the Myth of Jewish Passivity in the Face of Nazism
By Benjamin Ginsberg
Rowman & Littlefield, 234 pages, $35
Benjamin Ginsberg’s intriguing new book, “How the Jews Defeated Hitler,” offers a provocative new answer to an old question. In seeking to explain why the Jews failed to resist the Nazis during World War II, he declares that they not only resisted, but also helped bring about the Nazis’ defeat.
Ginsberg, a professor of political science at Johns Hopkins University, interweaves factual and counterfactual observations throughout his study. His main thesis is that the Allies did not win World War II without the help of “the Jews.” At the same time, he frequently wonders whether the Allies “could…have won without the help of the Jews.” The first statement is correct but not well known; the latter is unknowable. Together they define the book’s strengths and weaknesses.
Ginsberg begins by challenging the belief, associated with the work of Hannah Arendt and Raul Hilberg, that the Jews were less likely to resist the Nazis during the Holocaust than to collaborate with them. In refuting this claim, Ginsberg does not cite the abundance of recent scholarship showing how Jews practiced diverse strategies of (mostly nonviolent) resistance during the war. Rather, he redefines resistance altogether, abandoning a focus on the plight of largely powerless Jews living under Nazi rule (in ghettos and concentration camps), and shifting it to Jews who lived outside the Nazi orbit and fought them more actively.
The author explores the role of Jewish “resisters” in four areas: 1) in the Soviet army, where they were soldiers, officers and engineers tasked with inventing new weapons; 2) in the United States, where they promoted wartime interventionism, served in the army, financed the war and developed the atom bomb; 3) in the area of Allied espionage, whether working for the Soviets, British or Americans, and 4) in various European anti-Nazi resistance movements. Only in the last realm were Jews under Nazi occupation. In the other three, they belonged to what might better be described as the active “opposition” to the Nazis.
In each of the four categories of Jewish resistance, Ginsberg describes many impressive facts about Jewish participation in the Allied war effort. Readers will be especially impressed to learn about little-known Jewish contributions to the Soviet cause, including their role in inventing the T-34 tank, the La-5 aircraft, and the Katyusha rocket.
The question, of course, is how these Jewish contributions should be assessed. Ginsberg himself seems undecided. Early on, he boldly claims that “the allies, particularly the USSR, would very likely have been defeated without the Jews.” At other points he is more hesitant, declaring, for instance, that Soviet Jewish soldiers “played an important role but hardly determined the outcome of the war.”
One reason for Ginsberg’s indecisiveness is the conceptual ambiguity of his book’s chief protagonists — “the Jews.” His frequent use of this generalizing phrase can, at times, mislead. Readers might reasonably assume from the book’s title, for example, that the Jews alone defeated Hitler. Other sentences, such as “The Jews resisted through their influence in the United States” or “The Jews and WASPS forged an alliance,” will prompt readers to ask: Which Jews? Religious or secular? Liberal or conservative? Young or old? Elsewhere, Ginsberg is more careful, writing that “Jews” (not “ the Jews”) “had a good deal of influence within the new Soviet state.” This formulation shows that Ginsberg is aware of how generalizing terms can reinforce anti-Semitic canards. But it does not prompt him to differentiate — as perhaps he should — among the different people who compose “the Jews.”
Then there is the difficult question of proportionality in assessing the Jewish contribution to Allied victory. When Ginsberg writes that Jews were “prominent” in the Red Army and then discloses that they were “4 percent of the army’s officers…and more than 10 percent of its political officers,” what should readers conclude? These figures certainly show Jewish overrepresentation in the army. But it means that more than 90% of Red Army officers were non-Jewish. Similarly, when he writes that 2% of Bletchley Park cryptologists were Jewish at a time when only .5% of England was Jewish, it raises the question of what numerical thresh old should count as meaningful — let alone decisive — in measuring the Jewish contribution to the Nazis’ defeat.
Without fully wrestling with this question, Ginsberg’s analysis is less convincing than it otherwise might be. When he writes, with respect to the Soviet war effort, that “the Jews were… the best educated… segment of the populace. There were none to take their places,” he implies that the USSR would have lost the war without the Jews. But if Jews were at most 10%–15% of key sectors of the Soviet war effort, that means that at least 85% of the Red Army’s officer corps, engineering cadres and spies were non-Jews. They clearly did not lack talent. Would their contributions have sufficed for the USSR to defeat the Germans?
We cannot know with certainty. But in counterfactual history, it is commonly argued that the absence of certain individuals would not have prevented the occurrence of key scientific, technological and cultural breakthroughs. If not Copernicus, then Galileo; if not Einstein, then Oppenheimer; if not Hus, then Luther. This arguably holds true for groups, as well. If the Jews had not existed, the Soviets may simply have drawn on others to staff the army, invent the weapons and win the war.
Moreover, for Ginsberg to really answer the causal question of what the Jews’ contribution to the Allied victory was, he would need to address whether the Allies really won the war or whether the Germans lost it. Historians such as Niall Ferguson and Adam Tooze have argued recently that the Nazis inevitably lost the war because of their economic inferiority to the Allies. Was the Jews’ role, therefore, merely supportive as opposed to decisive? Ginsberg does not say.
Then again, he is ultimately less interested in providing a sustained empirical analysis of his fascinating question than in producing a polemic. This is made clear in the book’s final chapter, which is a prolonged critique of left-wing anti-Semitism and anti-Zionism after 1945. However cogent many of his points in this chapter may be (and some are stronger than others), they are oddly divorced from the question of how the Jews helped to defeat Hitler. Thus the book ends on an idiosyncratic note.
Whatever readers make of Ginsberg’s conclusions, they are sure to be stimulated by his engaging and provocative book. Although he may overstate the Jews’ contribution to Hitler’s defeat, he offers a useful corrective to prevailing views of Jewish impotence. In World War II, Jews were not only victims — they were also victors.
Gavriel Rosenfeld is a professor of history at Fairfield University. His book, “Hi Hitler! The Nazi Past in the New Millennium,” will appear with Cambridge University Press in 2014.