Historical Notes: The long tradition of anti-Jewishness

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
HISTORY RECORDS no other people like the Jews. Admired and scorned, feared and persecuted, despised and demonised, they have been the obsession of a long succession of people during the last 3,000 years. The Germans consummated this long harvest of hate by annihilating six million of them in the Holocaust.

How do we explain this extraordinary hatred against a single people? How did it originate, express itself, and evolve over the past 2,000 years? And why did the Germans, who gave the world some of the most brilliant scientists, musicians, philosophers, and writers, mobilise this obsessive hatred in such a calculated and brutal fashion that it left six million innocent people dead?

To be anti-Jewish, depending on time and circumstances, could mean a religious hostility based on the belief that Jews are Christ-killers undermining the fibre of Christian civilisation; it could also mean that people distrusted Jews because they represented an alien presence in different nations; it often meant being prejudiced in a nationalistic sense, seeking to exclude Jews from public office and reduce them to the status of an underpriviledged minority. Finally, to be anti-Jewish could mean that people looked at Jews as a malignant and subhuman species that represented a deadly threat to any social community. These strands of Judeophobia rarely formed a constellation or syndrome, not even in Germany, where Jew-hatred had been a long-standing tradition but where Jews were also being assimilated into the fabric of German life and culture.

What made the German situation so potentially more volatile was the fact that Germans were deeply insecure as to what it meant to be German. Overcompensating, they developed an extremely restrictive form of group membership that identified a German as someone who belonged to the same ancestral blood community. Jews and other aliens not belonging to this blood community could therefore never become Germans. This sort of thinking, mostly latent before the First World War, became far more prevelant after Germany's defeat in war and the lengthy post-war crisis that would lead to the triumph of Nazism.

Once the Nazis seized power and dismantled a civilised state, they normalised their Judeophobia and tried to galvanise the rest of the population into removing the Jews from German society. But it was not only Judeophobia that made the Holocaust the greatest crime in history possible, for the deed required broad bureaucratic support, technological expertise, the cover of wartime conditions, the co-operation of conquered countries and satellite nations, the passivity of the victims, and the indifference to Jewish suffering by the rest of the world.

We should not comfort ourselves that obsessive hatred, including Jewish hatred, has burned itself out, for we need only look at the news to be persuaded otherwise. Ethnic hatred is endemic throughout the world today. Nor has the sort of delusionary thinking that led to the Holocaust disappeared; it is still present all around us, though often in transmuted form.

Evil is a reality in history, that is neither a part of our primitive heritage nor a social condition but rather a human moral flaw that arises out of twisted instincts and perverted desires. Yet, there is also hope. Evil may have caused an inferno that fed on Nazi gas and consumed millions, winning a battle but quite possibly losing the long-range war to goodness because it is unthinkable among civilised people that what has happened at Auschwitz can ever be allowed to repeat itself. Speaking truth and institutionalising it in our schools and public agencies may go a long way towards preventing such horrors from happening again.

Klaus P. Fischer is the author of `The History of an Obsession: German Judeophobia and the Holocaust' (Constable, pounds 25)