The German industrialist and statesman Walther Rathenau, who was from a wealthy ­Jewish family, in the car in which he was assassinated in Berlin in June 1922

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 land into the cities.

A removal of the Jews and confiscation of their property would reduce rural overpopulation, modernize agriculture, and prepare the way for both rationalized large-scale manufacturing and the emergence of an urban Polish middle class with a stake in the German New Order. Thus the “planning German intelligentsia longed for the Final Solution that appeared logical to them at the time” and carried out the decisive planning without which the regime would not have moved beyond pogroms and massacres to systematic genocide.

In his “Final Solution”: Nazi Population Policy and the Murder of the European Jews, Aly argued for a causal connection between Nazi demographic plans and the Final Solution.2 In a continual attempt to “Germanize” territory targeted as Nazi Lebensraum by resettling ethnic Germans and displacing Slavs and Jews, Jews were always the ethnic group left standing when the music stopped in this escalating game of demographic musical chairs. With no place to put Jews after four failed resettlement schemes, a consensus formed among frustrated Nazis—with no order from an aloof and detached Hitler—to murder them instead.

In Hitler’s Beneficiaries: Plunder, Racial War, and the Nazi Welfare State, Aly argued that the Nazi regime was able to mobilize and preserve popular support for itself, its crimes, and its doomed war effort to the very end because the German people had been bribed and corrupted by material gain wrapped in the idealistic guise of equal opportunity and social harmony for the German Volk while excluding, of course, marginalized and targeted minorities.3 This winning of popular support of the majority through “dispensing favors” was achieved by minimal taxation on Germans, the hyperexploitation of the occupied territories, and the confiscation of Jewish property throughout Europe. But in the end Aly went much further, arguing that rather than any ideological vision, from the beginning “concern for the welfare of Germans was the decisive motivation behind policies of terrorizing, enslaving, and exterminating enemy groups.”

Beyond a very laudable ability to identify new topics and ferret out new sources, two tendencies have appeared in Aly’s past work. The first has been to downplay Nazi ideology in general and anti-Semitism in particular as mere propaganda and rhetoric and to attribute causation in Nazi Germany to “rational” or “logical” calculations about material and demographic factors.


The second has been to document an ever-widening circle of complicity, as Aly exposes the involvement of various cadres of experts hitherto self-proclaimed as apolitical technocrats, many with respectable postwar careers, and finally the corrupt complicity of most of the German population. If the first tendency might strike some as exculpatory by downplaying Germans’ personal animosity toward Jews, whose persecution and murder end up being portrayed as the byproduct or collateral damage of other priorities and programs, the moral indignation of the second tendency is palpable. Indeed, one theme of Aly’s work has been to suggest a significant continuity between the Nazi era and postwar Germany by implying that much of the criminality of the Nazi regime was not committed by distant and alien ideological fanatics but rather by the educated elites of German society whose “rational” outlook and approach to problem-solving were not fundamentally different between the two eras.

Over several decades I have criticized Aly’s various theses. Concerning his claim that consensus among a cluster of modernizing technocrats was the key driving force behind the emergence of the Final Solution in Poland, I argued that the lower-echelon planners in Poland were quite divided, and that a majority of them (whom I dubbed the “productionists”) supported the utilitarian use of Jewish labor and temporarily prevailed over their rival “attritionists.” Only decisive intervention from Berlin led to the systematic destruction of Polish Jewry.4 I shared Aly’s view that Nazi population policy and “resettlement” schemes were tightly connected to the evolution of Nazi Jewish policy from 1939 to 1941, but I argued that the Nazi assault upon the Jews then gained an autonomy and priority of its own and that Hitler and his hatred of Jews were much more directly involved in the decision-making process that led to the Final Solution than Aly credited.5

I praised Aly’s effort to assess the importance of material factors in determining the German people’s attitudes toward the genocidal Nazi regime, but criticized the direction of his argument. In my view he flipped what had been framed as a facilitating factor into the decisive driving force behind war and genocide, displacing Hitler’s vision of a racial revolution supported by a broad popular consensus about German victimization, superiority, and entitlement to empire.6 Given Aly’s past tendency to downplay ideological factors as rhetorical cover for material factors, I was very intrigued to see how he would treat the subject of German anti-Semitism in his most recent book on the “prehistory” of the Holocaust.

Aly anchors his explanation in the threefold impact of the French Revolution and Napoleonic occupation on a fragmented Germany. First, an uneven and incremental process of Jewish emancipation in the different German states during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, initiated by elites but opposed by much of the population, transformed Jewish life. Armed with a culture of education and freed from past restrictions, Jews quickly seized the economic opportunities offered by modernization, urbanization, and industrialization. Educationally unprepared Germans nostalgically tied to traditional ways of life moved into cities and took up new occupations only reluctantly. Spectacular Jewish advance contrasted with German lethargy, resentment, and disorientation, producing envy of Jewish wealth and success as well as fear and a sense of inferiority vis-à-vis Jewish competition.

Second, a negative reaction to the Napoleonic occupation poisoned German attitudes toward the democratic ideals of liberty and equality, and third, the continued division of Germany led to an insecure national identity and lack of confidence that promoted and valued collectivist politics over individual rights and freedom. In short, the seeds of the future Nazi combination of anti-Semitism and illiberal collectivist nationalism were planted.

Aly does not place as much emphasis on the failed liberal-democratic and national movements of the revolution of 1848 (the infamous turning point in German history that did not turn) as he does on the intense burst of modernization, urbanization, industrialization, and “boom and bust” that followed German unification in 1871. The resulting intensifying of social tensions aggravated the already existing dynamic of Jewish betterment and Gentile envy. This Germany was “ripe” for anti-Semitic agitators (such as Heinrich von Treitschke, Wilhelm Marr, and Adolf Stöcker) who defined the “Jewish question” as the “social question” behind all of Germany’s modern ills.

Despite the trauma of defeat and revolution, as well as the humiliating and debilitating Versailles Treaty, in Aly’s view the Weimar Republic was not doomed to fail from the start. Rather its surprising successes raised expectations that could not be fulfilled. The opening of the educational system and the newly fluid social structure created many aspiring social climbers who, after hopes were engendered during the boom of the mid-1920s, found themselves totally blocked and even slipping back in the bust of 1929. World War I had made the German middle class more socialist and the Socialists more nationalist, and in the humiliation and bitterness of defeat Hitler conjoined these two movements with anti-Semitism, explaining German defeat, division, and poverty as the fault of the Jews, and offering social advancement, ethnic unity, and national recovery to the “Aryan” population. Facing numerous rival parties, each with a limited social base, Hitler alone was able to attract a cross-section of society and create the one political party transcending class, religion, and region.


Not all Nazi voters were anti-Semitic, but they at least tolerated Nazi anti-Semitism. Once in power Hitler and other Nazi leaders may have made decisions based on ideology, material interest, and political calculation, but they needed the approval of a politically active minority and the “silent tolerance” and “tacit” complicity of the larger majority to provide a social basis for the state persecution of the Jews.

But how to explain this “moral insensibility” and “moral torpor” of 1933–1945, which underpinned the “criminal collaboration” between the German people and the Nazi regime? One factor, as Aly argued earlier in Hitler’s Beneficiaries, was material gain. As Jewish jobs and apartments came open and Jewish property was redistributed, all too many benefited directly. But for indifference to and even schadenfreude over the fate of the pushy and overachieving Jews, Germans also needed a “new morality” that justified discrimination, plunder, and murder.

It is here that Aly finally turns to the issue of racial theory, which he examines not as a system of thought but rather on the basis of its psychological attractiveness to Germans at this particular historical juncture. For those consumed by envy of Jews but ashamed of this tawdry motive, race theory concealed their embarrassment. For those suffering a deep inferiority complex about Jews, race theory inverted success and failure, turning Jewish accomplishment into evidence of Jewish vice. For those troubled by the large difference between Jews they knew and the Nazi stereotype, race theory allowed individual experience to be ignored.

Above all, race theory turned persecution and murder into self-defense, requiring “pitiless” cleansing in the present to achieve a future Utopian happiness and social harmony. “Biopolitical pseudoscience,” Aly concludes,

disguised hatred as insight and made one’s own shortcomings seem like virtues. It also provided justification for acts of legal discrimination against others, allowing millions of Germans to delegate their own aggression, born of feelings of inferiority and shame, to their state.

And this “passively expressed anti-Semitism gave the German government the latitude it needed to press forward with its murderous campaigns.”

In some regards Aly’s conclusions coincide with important previous work. Peter Pulzer’s classic The Rise of Political Anti-Semitism in Germany and Austria diagnosed the rise of German anti-Semitism as an antimodernist response of those who felt most disadvantaged by nineteenth-century progress.7 Albert Lindemann has emphasized the catalytic impact on Germans of nineteenth-century Jewish success.8 In their pioneering works on German popular attitudes toward Nazi persecution of the Jews, Ian Kershaw and Otto Dov Kulka both distinguished between ardent Nazis and the general population and, using the terms “indifference” and “passive complicity” respectively, tried to capture the responsibility of the latter in facilitating the crimes of the former.9 But Aly, working almost entirely in pre-1933 sources to capture the unguarded words and feelings of those who did not yet know the outcome and thus “had little reason to conceal anti-Semitic attitudes,” does not directly engage the previous historiography of this topic.

If to some degree Aly is treading the same ground as others before him, in other ways the book is a remarkably fresh look at an old problem. He focuses not just on the writings of the self-proclaimed and notorious anti-Semites, but on other contemporary documents and studies that reveal less explicit but widely held assumptions and attitudes. Unique among his documents is his own extensive family archive, from which he offers various illustrative, unspectacular, but telling life stories of average Germans from Munich and Freiburg.

Insofar as Aly is taking aim at other historical approaches, he is subtly criticizing the Sonderweg or “special path” thesis of German social historians of the second generation after World War II. This generation quite responsibly wanted to explain how and why Germany departed from the liberal-democratic political trajectory of the Western democracies. They hoped to explain the Nazi era as the result of long-term German historical developments and not, in the manner of many in their preceding generation, to be passed off on the one hand as some aberrational ahistorical accident or on the other hand as a misfortune to be blamed merely on the victors’ having imposed upon Germany both a vengeful treaty and an alien democracy in 1918–1919.

In the narrative of the Sonderweg historians, hopes for a liberal-democratic unification of Germany in 1848 were quashed due to a successful counterrevolution. Unlike other Western democracies, Germany became a modern industrial power still ruled by entrenched old elites, who fought off pressures for political reform and democratization through cynical manipulation and distraction, and finally the gamble on war and conquest in 1914.

Unreconciled to the defeat and democracy, the Old Right made its last bid to restore revanchist authoritarianism in Germany by “holding the stirrups” for Hitler in 1933. One overlapping issue of agreement for this partnership between the Old Right of national conservatives and the New Right of the Nazis was anti-Semitism. In 1945 the right-wing legacy of authoritarianism, imperialism, and anti-Semitism was broken for good, and Germany could finally join the community of Western democracies.

In earlier works Aly has exposed the Nazi careers of many respectable postwar figures, challenging the notion that Germany’s 1945 break with the past was as genuinely complete as claimed, particularly among the academics and technocrats who had served the Nazi regime as fellow travelers. And in this book Aly certainly rejects the notion that anti-Semitism was a monopoly of the right wing. Some of the most telling voices he chooses to illustrate anti-Semitic attitudes come from the left.

Moreover Aly begins his story not with the liberal-democratic revolution of 1848 that was sabotaged by the right wing, but with the attempts of some leaders, such as the reforming Prussian chancellor Karl August von Hardenberg, to initiate Jewish emancipation against the opposition of most of the population following the Napoleonic wars. That is the historiographical subtext of his otherwise obscure statement in the introduction:

Those who merely hand out blame, in an attempt to feel as though they are on the right side of German history, will never be able to explain how a majority of Germans came to support the official state goal of getting rid of Jews.

Aly’s emphasis on emotion (in this case envy) and psychology (concerning the reception of race theory), to say nothing of the topic of anti-Semitism itself, represents a significant departure from his earlier work. Here is a creative scholar who continues to grow in remarkable ways. In Aly’s portrayal the German paradox alluded to above disappears. If the Jews of Germany experienced the greatest success of any Jewish community in Europe in assimilation, social mobility, and the attainment of wealth and preeminence, they did so amid a Gentile population for which the modernization experience was more compressed, intense, and disorienting than in other countries. If envy of Jewish success was the driving motive behind modern anti-Semitism, as Aly argues, then it would be logical rather than paradoxical that the most intense anti-Semitic reaction would also occur in Germany, the land of the greatest and most visible Jewish success. This in my opinion is the most important contribution of Why the Germans? Why the Jews?

In any discussion of German anti-Semitism and the Holocaust, a comparative perspective is always helpful. If we return to George Mosse’s imagined conversation in 1900, it becomes apparent how quickly and drastically the historical context changed thereafter. In France the defenders of Dreyfus prevailed and the Third Republic staggered to victory in 1918, thus obtaining an additional two decades before the French anti-Semites returned to power with a vengeance in the Vichy regime of 1940. In Russia, the tsar was overthrown, and following victory in a bloody civil war the new Soviet regime preferred to destroy additional millions of its own people primarily on the basis of class rather than ethnicity. In Germany a rapid succession of catastrophes—total war, defeat, revolution, hyperinflation, and the Great Depression—opened the way to power for the ardent anti-Semites who had hitherto been marginalized, and it was they—not the previously more prominent anti-Semites in France or Russia—who would exploit the envy, jealousy, greed, and indifference of the wider population not just in Germany, but in other countries as well to murder the Jews of Europe.