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In the Cage, Trying to Get Out’

Hannah Arendt noticed in her wartime writings and then in her Origins of Totalitarianism the elemental connection between statelessness and mass murder. She observed from France the events of 1938, as Jews were forced back and forth in what Wasserstein calls “refugee tennis.” The denial of civil rights to Jews within states was one form of repression. The destruction of states themselves rendered Jews vulnerable as nothing else could. Hitler’s aspiration to rid the earth of Jews could only proceed to completion after the states themselves were destroyed. Where any vestige of sovereignty remained, as in Vichy France and Slovakia, Jewish policy could change and deportations could cease, as indeed happened in both places in 1943. Where sovereignty was completely removed, Jews had no chance, either at home or abroad. Polish Jews were at greater risk of death than anyone else in German-occupied Poland—but also in Vichy France. Arendt’s point was stronger than she realized herself.

To try to understand the life and death of European Jews in the 1930s and 1940s is, almost by definition, to engage with Arendt. Ward ends his book with a citation of The Origins of Totalitarianism, but Wasserstein misses few opportunities to disagree with her, and Kirsch energetically denies her strange interpretation of the Grynszpan case as a Gestapo conspiracy. And yet the Grynszpan case itself, when considered against the broader setting of the events of 1938, confirms Arendt’s broader point. Grynszpan was not, as the Nazis claimed, a representative of a “Jewish War” declared by a Jewish international conspiracy against Germany; but he and his family were typical victims of a particular tactic of the war against the Jews, the deprivation of citizenship. Several governments acted in the late 1930s to deny Jews citizenship or to destroy states where Jews were citizens. Nazi Germany combined the ambition of eliminating the Jews with the eradication of sovereignty that allowed that ambition to be realized.

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