The historian George Mosse liked to tell a hypothetical story: if someone had predicted in 1900 that within fifty years the Jews of Europe would be murdered, one possible response would have been: “Well, I suppose that is possible. Those French or Russians are capable of anything.” Indeed, the wave of pogroms in Russia in the 1880s and the Dreyfus Affair that consumed France in the 1890s stood in stark contrast to the situation of Jews in Germany, who at that point enjoyed the greatest degree, anywhere in the world, of assimilation, social mobility, and access to preeminent positions in business, the professions, and culture (even if they were still blocked from careers in the military and the higher civil service).
The German regime, with majority support in the Reichstag, had persecuted Catholics in the 1870s and repressed socialists in the 1880s, while noisy, single- issue anti-Semitic parties led by obvious cranks all failed to find political traction. That Jewish emancipation remained intact in Germany in the late nineteenth century owed neither to a liberal-democratic political culture devoted to protecting individual rights nor to the absence of agitating Jew-baiters.
The great paradox facing any scholar wrestling with the “prehistory” of the Holocaust, then, is to explain how the land of golden opportunity for Jews in the late nineteenth century became transformed in less than four decades into the land of their murderers. In a continent with a millennial tradition of anti-Semitism, what was peculiar about Germany and its variant of anti- Semitism that produced this lethal result? That is the question Götz Aly tackles in his new book, Why the Germans? Why the Jews? Envy, Race Hatred, and the Prehistory of the Holocaust.
Götz Aly, a freelance historian, is one of the most innovative and resourceful scholars working in the field of Holocaust studies. Time and again he has demonstrated an uncanny ability to find hitherto untapped sources, frame insightful questions, and articulate clear if often challenging and controversial arguments. He is a scholar whose works I have always found necessary and rewarding to read, even though I have on occasion found myself in substantial disagreement with him.
In the late 1980s and early 1990s, Aly and his coauthor Susanne Heim argued for an economic causality of the Holocaust.1 In their view a cluster of economic and demographic experts, who constituted the “planning intelligentsia” for designing the Nazi New Order, wanted to break the vicious circle of poverty, low economic productivity, and rural overpopulation that afflicted Eastern Europe. According to this theory, Polish Jews in particular constituted a “superfluous” population whose monopolizing of the preindustrial handicraft industry prevented both rationalization of industrial production and the movement of Polish peasants off the…
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