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August 11, 2014 5:52 pm

Why the Holocaust Occurred in Germany, and Why So Few Resisted (REVIEW)

avatar by David Meyers

Barbed wire inside Auschwitz camp. Photo: Wiki Commons.

It’s hard to make a new contribution to the field of Holocaust studies,  but German historian Götz Aly accomplishes just that in Why the Germans, Why the Jews? His premise is that the origins of the Holocaust were rooted in the specific anti-Semitism found in Germany in the decades and centuries before World War II.

Aly (who is not Jewish) seeks to prove his theory by studying only pre-Holocaust history, and tracing how the German people’s envy and hatred of Jews led directly to the Holocaust. Since Aly knows that hindsight is 20/20, he only uses sources from before 1933 – and his finds are incredible. He cites various authors in the 1800s who seem to presage the Holocaust – both anti-Semites and those who supported the Jews, but saw the inevitable tragedy that was to come.

Aly argues that envy, the crassest motivation of all, was at the heart of the Holocaust. Remarkably, he quotes many anti-Semites of the period arguing that Jews were, in fact, superior to the Germans in their intellectual ability, love of education, and willingness to engage in hard work to forge successful careers. This, the anti-Semites claimed, was exactly the reason that Germany needed to limit the ability of Jews to have the freedom to compete in German universities, businesses, and politics. According to Aly, Germans were jealous of the Jews and wanted the money, success, and influence they had achieved; and the Nazis took it all in the most horrific of ways.

Aly also traces some more familiar causes of anti-Jewish sentiment in pre-Holocaust Germany: economic destitution that arose from the misguided Versailles Treaty (which John Maynard Keynes predicted would destroy Germany and possibly lead to another war); the stab-in-tbe-back theory regarding Germany’s loss in World War I (since no Allied soldier ever reached Germany, someone must have sabotaged the war effort – namely, the Jews); and the need for Germans to find a scapegoat for their ills. Aly makes a convincing case that age-old religious strife between Christians and Jews had little to do with the Holocaust.

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As the war rages in Gaza and we see anti-Semitic protests across the world, this book feels particularly timely. Most of Israel’s critics present themselves as merely anti-Zionist, not anti-Jew. And there is no doubt that some of them are. But isn’t it interesting that only 70 years after uncontrollable anti-Semitism resulted in the slaughter of six million Jews, so many anti-Semites seem to have vanished from the Earth?

In his book, Aly posits that the race-based eugenics championed by the Nazis was simply a rationale given to the German people to justify their anti-Semitism. While there are many valid criticisms of Israel to be had, it’s hard not to think that at least some of the people lashing out at Israel are simply using the concept of “anti-Zionism” to mask other feelings.

Is it really possible that raging anti-Semitism, which existed for hundreds of years before the Holocaust (and which is based, at its core, on envy of the Jews) no longer exists? Or does it simply live on today in a new, latent form? Even if most of Israel’s critics truly oppose Israel only because of its policies, it’s hard to imagine that the pre-Holocaust level of anti-Semitism has truly been banished for good. It seems to be only a matter of time before it raises its ugly, murderous head yet again.

Christian Resistance to the Nazis

Despite the horrors of World War II and the Holocaust, the period also produced some minor examples of human courage and righteousness. Chief among those were individuals in Nazi Germany who opposed Hitler and sacrificed their lives for a righteous cause – even though it was a hopeless one.

In No Ordinary Men: Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Hans von Dohnanyi, Resisters Against Hitler in Church and State, Elisabeth Sifton and Fritz Stern tell the story of the famous theologian (Bonhoeffer) and his brother-in-law lawyer (Dohnayi) who gave their lives in opposition to Hitler.

Both men were motivated by a strong sense of morality generated by their Christian beliefs. They sought to oppose the National Socialist system (while working inside of it), and engage in whatever actions they could to oppose Hitler, save some Jews, and sabotage the regime. One of their chief goals was to document the various crimes that the Nazis had been committing – which proved to be their undoing (though the men had long been suspected of subversive activities, the discovery of these documents was the proof that was needed to seal their fates).

While the story of the two men is a compelling one, the book is less so. It’s a tiny volume that seems to skim over many details, and what most readers are interested in knowing – specifically what drove these men to fight on in pursuit of a hopeless cause. This is largely because the book’s authors only make passing reference to Bonhoeffer’s writings, which answer these questions and have been published extensively – but are not used in the book. (The authors continually referred to these documents but never provide them; I thought I might have been better off buying a volume of Bonhoeffer’s letters instead of reading the book).

But the book does give a very general sense of the two men and their story, as well as some other interesting pieces of information (for instance, you might not be aware of how many of those classified and killed as “Jews” during the Holocaust had actually converted to Christianity long before Hitler’s rise to power).

There are better books on the subject though – and this one does not provide the new insight that Aly’s brilliant book does.

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