The Jewish Enemy: Nazi Propaganda During World War II and the Holocaust
By Jeffrey Herf
Belknap Press, 416 pages, $29.95.
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The question that every student of the Holocaust wants answered — the deceivingly simple “Why?” — is at once the most elementary and most maddening one to ask. Astonishingly, even with the help of 60 years of exhaustive research and a library of scholarship more than 20,000 volumes strong, we still grope for the definitive explanation. The atrocities have been well documented, but we have yet to reach any consensus on the Nazis’ ultimate motivation for committing them.
With the market so saturated with books that have “Nazi” in their titles, when a path-breaking new work does appear, one that explains the “why” — not just another documentation of the “how” — there is a chance it will slip under many readers’ radar. One can only hope that such a fate will not befall Jeffrey Herf’s incredibly important “The Jewish Enemy,” one of those rare works of Holocaust history that poses the most essential question: “Why did European, especially German, anti-semitism, which had never led to an effort to murder all of Europe’s Jews before, do so between 1941 and 1945 in the midst of World War II? What changed to make anti-semitism a rationale for mass murder rather than for a continuation of centuries-old patterns of persecution?”
The quest to enter the Nazi mind began in the early 1960s through the work of two pioneering German-Jewish émigré historians teaching in the United States, Fritz Stern and George Mosse. The latter, to whose memory Herf’s book is dedicated, was the first to demonstrate how fanatically Nazi ideologues actually believed in the mythology they espoused. This ran counter to contemporary interpretations, which understood National Socialist propaganda primarily as a tool for the cynical manipulation of the masses; after all, the healthy distrust of politicians led, and still leads, most skeptical people to the often accurate assumption that regimes use euphemism and subterfuge to disguise their true intentions. Herf, the legitimate intellectual heir to Mosse, inherited the tradition of taking the Nazis at their word.
But in “The Jewish Enemy,” Herf’s fourth book, the student has surpassed the teacher. Mosse always held that the crucial development — what finally armed German antisemites with rationale for extermination — took place in the late 19th century with the birth of race science, according to which Jews were barely human. Herf shows that such an interpretation does not fit the evidence of how Hitler,
Goebbels and other Nazi elites justified genocide. As horrible as racial stereotyping was, ultimately, Jews were not killed en masse because they tainted the purity of Aryan bodies. Jews were eliminated because Nazi leaders considered them Germany’s most powerful and dangerous political foe. Working together as a collective political actor called “international Jewry,” Jews allegedly controlled the governments of the United States, England and the Soviet Union, and therefore bore responsibility for all attacks on Germany. Conspiracy theory, not race science, proves to be the real ideological culprit of the Holocaust.
If they concealed from the public the mechanics of murder, Nazi propagandists made no secret about why the Jews deserved it. For source material, Herf looked to what the Nazis themselves said about the Jewish enemy — in the speeches of Adolf Hitler, the diaries of Joseph Goebbels (comprising more than 40 volumes of 600 pages each), the thousands of daily and weekly press directives the Nazi party issued to German periodicals, and the antisemitic wall newspapers and posters that dominated the visual landscape of ordinary Germans. He finds that the Nazis’ threats to annihilate Jewry were almost always accompanied by the claim that Jewry intended to annihilate them. This was the perverse but sincere logic of paranoid politics.
The overestimation of Jewish influence on American foreign policy was a centerpiece of Nazi propaganda during the war. Powerful American Jews — the judges Felix Frankfurter and Samuel Rosenman, and even New York Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia (whose mother was Jewish) — purportedly held President Roosevelt under their thumb, just as Jews controlled government from behind the scenes in Communist Russia. The beauty of conspiracy theories is that truth claims need not be substantiated, only suggested. For example, Nazi Propaganda Minister Goebbels took an obscure, two-bit book called “Germany Must Perish!” self-published in 1941 by Theodore Kaufman, an angry Jew from New Jersey who suggested sterilizing the entire German population, as indisputable evidence of the international Jewish plot to push America into a war of revenge. So while Kaufman couldn’t even find a publisher in his own country, he made headlines in Germany as a representative of international Jewry.
There is no question that Herf researched and wrote “The Jewish Enemy” with the recent proliferation of conspiratorial thinking at the forefront of his mind. Unfortunately, there is no mistaking the influence of Nazi-propagated Jewish conspiracy theories on current political discourse in the Middle East, where it has become commonplace for national leaders to invoke “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.” Toward the end of his book, Herf hints suggestively at a genealogy of antisemitism from Germany to today’s Arab world, transmitted through the Nazis’ ally in Palestine, the outspoken Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, Amin al-Husseini.
Given the sophistication of Herf’s account, it is surprising that he makes no mention of the 19th-century German roots of Jewish conspiracy theory. Long before the “Protocols,” which were forged in fin-de-siècle Russia, a failed journalist named Wilhelm Marr issued a pamphlet in 1879 Berlin titled “The victory of Judaism over Germandom,” in which he bemoaned “the historical fact” that “Israel became the leading social-political superpower in the nineteenth century,” arguing that Jews controlled England and France. Indeed, the exaggeration of Jewish power trumps racism as the hallmark of modern antisemitism.
Thus, whether one agrees with Herf — that Nazi elites did not use rhetoric cynically, but believed firmly in the political danger of international Jewry — is not of mere academic relevance as an answer to the student’s question about why the Holocaust happened. It might also affect how literally we interpret the paranoid antisemitic rhetoric so prevalent today.