A Review of “Why the Germans? Why the Jews?” — Part 2

Part 1.

Götz Aly’s envy theory of German “anti-Semitism”

As mentioned in Part 1, the central thesis of Why the Germans? Why the Jews? is that German hostility toward Jews in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was motivated by German envy at the rapid social and economic advancement of Jews. Aly builds upon the thesis of his previous book, Hitler’s Beneficiaries, where he argued that popularity of the National Socialists can be ascribed to the fact that “the majority of Germans profited materially in either direct or indirect fashion from the expropriation of the Jews.”[i]

Aly notes that the same argument was originally put forward by the Jewish intellectual Siegfried Lichtenstaedter, who, in attempting to account for the rise of National Socialism and its anti-Jewish policies in Germany, proposed in 1937 that the NSDAP “was a party of social climbers.” Jews were hated because they were competition for “survival, honor, and prestige.” “Anti-Semitism” in Germany owed its aggressive force, he claimed, to envy and the desire for social betterment. If Jews as a group were perceived as being “disproportionately happier” than other groups, Lichtenstaedter wrote, “why shouldn’t this give rise to jealousy and resentment, worries and concerns about one’s future, just as is all too often the case between individuals.”[ii]

Theodor Herzl

Theodor Herzl

This same essential argument was also advanced by the pioneering Zionist leader Theodore Herzl. Kevin MacDonald notes in Separation and Its Discontents that Herzl argued that “a prime source of modern anti-Semitism was that emancipation had brought Jews into direct economic competition with the gentile middle classes. Anti-Semitism based on resource competition was rational.” Herzl “insisted that one could not expect a majority to ‘let itself be subjugated’ by formerly scorned outsiders that they had just released from the ghetto.”[iii]

What made Germany’s Jews so enviable, Aly argues, was the way that they took advantage of the new economic opportunities that arose in the course of the nineteenth century, as the old feudal order gave way to the modern world. Nevertheless, in order to avoid the unpalatable conclusion that the German “anti-Semitism” of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries was therefore rational, Aly argues that the underlying cause of this envy-fuelled hostility toward Jews resided exclusively in the psychological inadequacies and malformations of the Germans themselves. Thus, for him, it was German mental deficiencies, rather than any Jewish behavior, that propelled the German nation down a path that would supposedly culminate in “the Holocaust.”

German feelings of inferiority, political immaturity and national anxiety, combined with the resentment over the Treaty of Versailles, made them, in Aly’s view, receptive to the siren song of Hitler’s National Socialist Party, which emphasized entitlements for ethnic Germans at the expense of the Jewish interlopers. Aly asserts that even if many Germans did not initially agree with the National Socialists’ anti-Jewish views, they were reassured by Hitler’s visions of economic progress, self-sufficiency, and upward social mobility and signed up for a “criminal collaboration” between the people and their political leadership.

Aly’s envy theory of German anti-Semitism is ultimately grounded in a belief in Jewish intellectual superiority and German inferiority, which, ironically enough, was a view held by many nineteenth-century German “anti-Semites.” For instance Wilhelm Marr (who coined the term “anti-Semitism”) conceptualized Jews as “not a small, weak group, they are a world power! They are much stronger than the Germans.”[iv] Foreign observers like the British historian John Foster Fraser similarly proposed in 1915 that German academics were falling over themselves to keep the Jews out because the competition “between the sons of the North with their blonde hair and sluggish intellect and the sons of the Orient with their black eyes and alert minds” was so unequal.[v]

A constant refrain throughout Aly’s book is that the dimwitted Germans simply lacked the intellectual firepower to compete effectively with Jews in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. He claims, for instance, that: “Untalented Christian students, non-innovative entrepreneurs, and businessmen who got their numbers mixed up” simply couldn’t compete with “intellectually superior” Jews.[vi] Elsewhere, he asserts that

relative to their Christian peers, they [Jews] overcame the initial obstacles to social betterment with ease, even though legally they became fully equal everywhere in Germany only in 1918. Conversely, Christian social climbers were in an inferior position vis-à-vis Jews, who were objectively disadvantaged but subjectively better equipped to deal with new social demands. As Gentile Germans began to call for state protection from economically and intellectually superior Jews, laws were passed and administrative procedures were found to secure the privileges of the Christians. But such protectionism only highlighted how slow and incompetent many Gentiles were. Public failure was embarrassing, and people who were fearful, who had emerged as the losers of social change, and who were plagued by feelings of inferiority became modern anti-Semites.[vii]

An analogous view to this was advanced by the early twentieth century Jewish neurologist Abraham Meyerson who posited that it was this Jewish intellectual superiority, rather than their ingroup-oriented morality and behavior, which was the primary cause of European anti-Semitism, insisting that “with the downfall of the Roman Empire the Jews and Arabs alone kept the torch of culture and science lit. In other words, the Jew was easily superior in these matters [science and culture] to his uncouth warrior-like hosts. This superiority brought about a jealousy, fear of the ability of the Jew; a fear that has never been stilled, though the culture of the Western races has reached a very high plane; a fear that yet actuates most of the hostile feelings of neighboring races.”[viii]

Paradoxically, elsewhere in his book, Aly admits that these “untalented,” “non-innovative” and “incompetent” Germans “achieved remarkable intellectual and (somewhat later) economic and technological breakthroughs in the nineteenth century.”[ix] Peter Watson, the British intellectual historian and author of the monumental book The German Genius, has pointed out that Germany in the nineteenth century was “the first modern educated country,” and the one that invented the institutionalization of scientific and technological research — something which was pivotal in shaping modern industrial civilization. Observing how the oft-repeated claims of Jewish intellectual superiority in Germany in the nineteenth century are “overdone,” he maintains that, with regard to the development of music, philosophy, poetry, and science in Germany in the first two-thirds of the nineteenth century, “Jews played a very small part” (and, one might add despite Aly’s statement above, a non-existent role in the Middle Ages when Jewish communities were completely isolated from surrounding cultures and absorbed in religious writings).

Layout 1

In addition to their alleged intellectual deficiencies, Aly proposes that the sources of the pathological envy of the Germans of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries resided in their “weakness, timidity, lack of self-confidence, self-perceived inferiority, and excessive ambition.” He offers no real evidence that these traits were typical German traits during this time, but ascribes these traits to the “innate insecurity of German national identity” which resulted from the relatively late development of the German nation compared with other European states.

It is true that, for various historical reasons, the Germans had a difficult time coalescing into a nation. Most histories of Germany begin by recounting the exploits of the Germanic peoples in Italy, France and Spain rather than just telling the story of the Germans in Germany. The geographically fragmented origins of the German people are reflected in the various names others have given them — they were “Saxons” to the Finns, “Niemcy” or “Swabians” to the Russians and Poles, “Germans” to the British, “Allemands” to the French, “Tedeschi” to the Italians, with the Germans themselves adopting the last root for their “Deutsche.”[x] Aly accurately notes that:

In 1806, Germans were less a people than a collection of peoples, cleft by the existence of numerous small states, each with its own history. Germans lived between the Curonian Lagoon, on the eastern Baltic Sea, and the Vosges Mountains in Alsace, between the Belt and Scheldt Rivers, in Southern Tyrol, and a long way up the Danube River into Eastern Europe. They formed the largest cultural, linguistic, and ethnic group in Europe. Located exactly in the middle of the continent, German territory was the scene of various migrations, wars and religious conflicts.[xi]

The political unification of the German lands was delayed for many decades by the Thirty Years’ War which devastated the infrastructure and decimated the population of the states that would eventually comprise the German Empire. In addition to the harrowing experience of the Thirty Years’ War, Germany also suffered greatly a century and a half later due to the wars between revolutionary France and other European powers. Napoleon played off regional and dynastic interests against each other, and demanded massive war contributions from them — both in men and material. The new social order Napoleon instituted in many German states contributed to new divisions. Aly notes that: “For the vast majority of Germans, the French occupation was a time of executions and murders, inflation, and lasting economic deprivation. More than a few communities were still paying off debt accumulated during that period in the late nineteenth century; some wouldn’t succeed in clearing the books until the rampant inflation of 1923.[xii]

Germany 1618

An additional barrier to German unity was the sectarian divide between the Catholic south and the Protestant north. If that weren’t enough, there were also linguistic barriers: as late as the early nineteenth century it was still unclear whether the Upper Saxon dialect of today’s eastern Germany or the lower Saxon one of the central regions would serve as a basis for High German. And it wasn’t until 1934 that the interior minister Wilhelm Frick succeeded in establishing “German” as a designation of nationality on passports, and not until 1938 — when Hitler presided over the unification of Germany and Austria into the greater German Empire — that the dream of a unified German state was finally (and briefly) realized.

In contrast to the painfully slow evolution of German national unity and identity, Aly claims that “Jews in fact possessed the sort of deep, meaningful roots that patriotic Germans were forever frantically digging for.”[xiii] He approvingly quotes the Zionist writer Heinrich York-Steiner who, in accounting for the rising popularity of the National Socialists in 1932, declared that “From the era of the Hohenstaufens on down to today, Germany’s political and social position has been uncertain, unstable and erratic … . This position in world history accounts for German’s ambivalence towards foreigners. What they lack is the strength that comes from constant development, from a nationally evolving self-confidence. The German today is a helot, tomorrow a conqueror, and he acts out his feelings in displays of ethnic hyperbole.”[xiv] Endorsing this view, Aly claims that Germany’s unique history engendered weakness and self-doubt and also pent-up aggression and xenophobia.

While “Prussian militarism” was a real phenomenon, Aly’s characterization of the Germans of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries as “immature, aggressive bullies” only became the stereotypical view in the Anglosphere during World War I. Prior to that, Germans were noted for their Innerlichkeit or inwardness. The influential French writer and Salon leader, Madame de Stael, portrayed the Germans during the period of the Napoleonic Wars as a nation of “poets and thinkers, a race of kindly, impractical, other-worldly dreamers without national prejudices and disinclined to war.” The English historian, Frederic William Maitland, regarding the Germans of the nineteenth century, noted that “It was usual and plausible to paint the German as an unpractical, dreamy, sentimental being, looking out with mild blue eyes into a cloud of music and metaphysics and tobacco smoke.”[xv] Americans likewise held a benign view of Germans prior to the twentieth century, with one American historian noting that “whether seen in their newly minted nation [after 1871] or in this country [i. e., German immigrants to the United States], the Germans were generally regarded as methodical and energetic people who were models of progress, while in their devotion to music, education, science, and technology they aroused the admiration of Americans.”[xvi]

Aly ignores all of the laudatory descriptions of the German character prior to World War I which contradict his preferred unflattering characterizations. He claims that, compared to the Germans, the English and the French “followed a very different trajectory” and that this explains why “anti-Semitism” was less prevalent and intense in these nations. He conveniently omits any mention of how Jews were expelled from England and France (in the latter case on numerous occasions) during the Middle Ages despite the English and French supposedly having enjoyed more secure national identities. Furthermore, a strong case can be made that, prior to World War I, the French evinced far greater hostility toward Jews than did the Germans. In France the Dreyfus affair sparked anti-Jewish riots in more than thirty towns. Nor does Aly mention that Jewish historians typically have little positive to say about English or French attitudes toward Jews.

The real reason why hostility to Jews eventually reached a greater intensity in Germany compared to England and France was likely a product of the relative size of the Jewish populations in these nations. Kevin MacDonald notes in Separation and Its Discontents that Jews only represented a tiny percentage of the population of England in the nineteenth century — only 0.01 percent. They also played a remarkably small role in the economic development of that nation — the notable exceptions being their domination of the diamond and coral trades. He notes that: “Throughout this period England remained an ethnically homogeneous society, without ethnically-based resource conflict. However, there was anti-Semitism, directed both at the “cousinhood” of wealthy Jewish families and, later in the century, Orthodox immigrants from Eastern Europe.”[xvii]

Pre-World War II England is held in the historical memory of Jews as a society convulsed with “anti-Semitism.” The Jewish historian Norman Cantor, for instance, proposed that “the thick anti-Semitism of the time, spreading slowly upwards from the Gentile lower classes, who competed with immigrant Jews, to the ruling classes, was pervasive and bitter. There were severe limitations on the entry of Jews to the better private schools, to Oxford and Cambridge colleges, and to the learned professions. The Jews were made to feel alien and unwanted.”[xviii] He also claims that the British government “was deeply concerned that Christian young men conscripted to fight in the war were not perceived as being sacrificed for the Jews. In addition to this general caution, high officials in the foreign and defense ministries were personally and openly anti-Semitic.”[xix]

Norman Cantor

Norman Cantor

As for Winston Churchill, while he “was a highly intelligent man and something of a personal philo-Semite,” in the end he did “not raise a finger for the Holocaust-threatened Jews” because “he was hypersensitive to the depth of anti-Semitism in his society and haunted by a fear that special efforts to save the Jews would raise cries of ‘it is a Jew’s war’ and ‘British Christian boys are dying to save the rotten Jews.’ He backed off completely.”[xx] Meanwhile, the Jews in Britain “that could have intervened to help Eastern European Jewry were inhibited and distracted by the wall of hate in their own ambience.”[xxi] England is putatively a land of painful historical memories for Jews like Guardian columnist Jonathan Freedland who claims that the map of England is “pockmarked with the sites of medieval Jewish torment: Lincoln, Norwich, York.’[xxii]

Ignoring all this, Aly claims that Germans were, among European nationalities, uniquely hostile toward Jews and that “their particular brand of anti-Semitism” was a byproduct of their “innate insecurity of national identity.”[xxiii] They compensated for this innate insecurity through immoderate displays of national and ethnic pride. He asserts that at public celebrations on Hitler’s birthday in 1933, “Germans were delighted to hear themselves described as the ‘premier people on earth,’” and he opines that: “A nation that feels the need to boast like this lacks inner equilibrium.”[xxiv] The author apparently feels no need to judge Jews by the same standard, or to point out that the Jewish scriptures amount to one long hyperbolic (and often genocidal) assertion of Jewish superiority.

Paradoxically, Aly points out that these “innately insecure” Germans were regarded by Jews in the early nineteenth century as far more benign than the natives of various eastern European countries with supposedly more secure national identities. Aly notes that

in the nineteenth century, Jews who migrated to Germany from neighboring countries in Eastern Europe felt great relief when they crossed the border. They appreciated the legal protections, economic freedom, and educational opportunities offered first by Prussia and later by the German Empire. Anti-Jewish pogroms, which continued well into the twentieth century in Eastern and Southeastern Europe, had died out in Germany, while the absence of governmental restrictions helped make the country a magnet for Jewish migration. By 1910, Germany had twice as many Jews as England and five times as many as France.[xxv]

So what changed to prompt an upsurge in German hostility toward Jews throughout the nineteenth and into the early twentieth centuries? After Napoleon emancipated Jews from most legal restrictions in the Western German territories in 1806 and they entered mainstream German society, Germans were confronted for the first time with the social and economic effects of unfettered Semitism. In 1806, the Jews in Prussia had owned almost nothing. By 1834, 13 percent of them were part of the nascent upper middle class, while more than 50 percent were firmly middle class.[xxvi] This, not surprisingly, triggered a reaction among large sections of the native population. Aly notes that:

This reversal was motivated by the fact that Gentile Germans were compelled to face what we might call, somewhat polemically, Jewish challenges. Bit by bit over the course of the 1800s, artisans, court-appointed merchants, owners of medium-sized farms, pastors, civil servants, and other respected figures had lost influence. The remaining trade guilds devolved into selfish monopolies that put the brakes on economic development; Berlin artisans, for instance, sought to use legal trickery to preserve their traditional privileges. Despite their efforts, the old social center was gradually replaced by a new middle class of lawyers, doctors, managers, publishers, brewers, stock brokers, theater directors, and department store owners. Their ranks contained a disproportionate number of Jews.[xxvii]       

Prior to 1806, Germans and Jews had limited contact in society. This situation gradually changed throughout the nineteenth century as the urban Jewish population surged. Between 1811 and 1875, Berlin’s Jewish population increased by a factor of fourteen. It wasn’t, however, simply a question of the growing numbers and rapid Jewish economic advancement, it was also the “social strife” that accompanied the Jewish penetration and eventual domination of mainstream German society and which prompted “constant discussion of the Judenfrage.” Aly notes that, post emancipation, “Jews were regarded less as adherents of an alien, barbaric faith and more as members of a secular socioeconomic group that disproportionately profited from modern life.”[xxviii] The realization quickly dawned on average Germans that Jews were not just a religious community but an endogamous ethnic group which had adopted a highly successful group survival strategy.

This realization intensified over decades, especially following the advent and diffusion of evolutionary thought in Germany after the publication of Darwin’s Origin of Species in 1859 (the German translation of which appeared in 1860). Alfred Kelly has documented how Darwinism was a huge sensation in Germany, noting how “Darwinism became a kind of popular philosophy in Germany more than any other country, even England. Darwinism caught on rapidly in the German scientific community; indeed, Germany, rather than England, was the main center for biological research in the nineteenth century. …  It also offered the richest environment for Darwinism to expand beyond the confines of science.” Darwin himself commented that “The support I receive from Germany is my chief ground for hoping that our views will ultimately prevail.”[xxix]

German origin of species

Title page of the first German edition of Darwin’s Origin of Species (1860)

Kevin MacDonald has noted that in Germany in the nineteenth century there were several “detailed proposals for gentile group strategies in opposition to Judaism.”[xxx] One nineteenth-century German publication characterized Judaism as “a political, social and business alliance for the purpose of exploiting and subjugating the non-Jewish peoples.”[xxxi] After citing statistics on the percentages of Jews among employers, and among students in institutions of higher education, the German nationalist Adolf Stoecker stated that “should Israel grow further in this direction, it will completely overcome us. One should not doubt it; on this ground, race stands against race and carries on — not in the sense of hatred but in the sense of competition — a racial struggle.”[xxxii]

This line of thinking eventually attained its clearest and strongest expression in the ideology of National Socialism. In his unpublished sequel to Mein Kampf, Hitler outlined his conception of Judaism as a group evolutionary strategy, noting that:

The Jews, although they are a people whose core is not entirely uniform in terms of race, are nevertheless a people with certain essential particularities that distinguish it from other peoples living on the earth. Judaism is not a religious community; rather, the religious ties between the Jews are in reality the current national constitution of the Jewish people. The Jew has never had his own territorially defined state like the Aryan states. Nonetheless, his religious community is a real state because it ensures the preservation, propagation, and future of the Jewish people. …

Just as every people possesses, as the basic tendency of all its earthly actions the obsession with preserving itself as its driving force, the same is true of the Jews. But here the struggle for survival takes various forms, corresponding to the entirely different natures of the Aryan peoples and the Jews. … The existence of the Jew himself thus becomes a parasitic existence within the life of other peoples. The ultimate goal of the Jewish struggle for survival is the enslavement of productively active peoples. To reach this goal — which, in reality, the Jews’ struggle for survival has represented throughout the ages — the Jew uses every weapon that is in accordance with the entirety of his character.[xxxiii]

MacDonald notes in Separation and Its Discontents that National Socialism was a group evolutionary strategy that in several key features mirrored Judaism as a group evolutionary strategy. Germany after 1933 saw the conflict of these two opposing group strategies.[xxxiv] Aly repudiates the arguments of the German geneticist Fritz Lenz which directly mirror the moral precepts of Judaism as a group evolutionary strategy directed at preserving the race. Lenz had observed that “in the long run, the only forms of life that can survive are those whose race can also be preserved,” and the ethical imperative was therefore to ask of every action or non-action: “Is it good for our race?”[xxxv] The Romanian revolutionary Nicolas Balescu had similarly argued in the mid-nineteenth century that: “For me, the question of ethnic solidarity is more important than the question of freedom. A people can use freedom only when it’s able to survive as a nation. Freedom can be easily regained, if it is lost, but not ethnic identity.”[xxxvi] According to Aly, such thinking is “based on massive feelings of inferiority and envy.”[xxxvii]

Go to Part 3.

[i] Götz Aly, Why the Germans? Why the Jews?: Envy, Race Hatred, and the Prehistory of the Holocaust (New York: Metropolitan Books, 2014), 1.

[ii] Ibid., 4.

[iii] Ibid., 54.

[iv] Kevin MacDonald, Separation and Its Discontents: Toward An Evolutionary Theory of Anti-Semitism (1st Books Library, 2004), 171.

[v] Yuri Slezkine, The Jewish Century (NJ: Princeton University Press, 2006), 57.

[vi] Aly, Why the Germans?, 223.

[vii] Ibid., 222-23.

[viii] Abraham Meyerson, “The ‘Nervousness’ of the Jew,” In: Jews and Race: Writings on Identity and Difference 1880-1940, Ed. Mitchell Hart (Waltham MA: Brandeis University Press, 2011), 177-178.

[ix] Ibid., 221.

[x] Watson, The German Genius: Europe’s Third Renaissance, the Second Scientific Revolution and the Twentieth Century (London: Simon & Schuster, 2010), 429.

[xi] Aly, Why the Germans?, 46-7.

[xii] Ibid., 43-4.

[xiii] Ibid., 220.

[xiv] Ibid., 221.

[xv] Peter Birks & Arianna Pretto, Themes in Comparative Law: In Honour of Bernard Rudden (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002), 265.

[xvi] David G. Haglund, Ethnic Diasporas and the Canada-United States Security Community: From the Civil War to Today (New York: Rowman & Littlefield, 2015), 170.

[xvii] Aly, Why the Germans?, 176.

[xviii] Ibid., 360.

[xix] Ibid.,361.

[xx] Ibid.,361-62.

[xxi] Ibid., 349.

[xxii] Jonathan Freedland (2005) Journey into the Heart of Belonging (London: Hamish Hamilton, 2005), 9.

[xxiii] Aly, Why the Germans?, 219.

[xxiv] Ibid., 7.

[xxv] Ibid., 1.

[xxvi] Ibid., 29.

[xxvii] Ibid., 65-6.

[xxviii] Ibid., 3.

[xxix] Alfred Kelly, The Descent of Darwin: The Popularization of Darwin in Germany, 1860-1914 (Chapel Hill, University of North Carolina Press, 1981), 5; 21-23.

[xxx] MacDonald, Separation and Its Discontents, 165.

[xxxi] Ibid., 171.

[xxxii] Ibid.

[xxxiii] Adolf Hitler, Hitler’s Second Book: The Unpublished Sequel to Mein Kampf (Enigma Books, 2003), 233-34.

[xxxiv] MacDonald, Separation and Its Discontents, 163.

[xxxv] Aly, Why the Germans?, 213.

[xxxvi] Ibid., 57.

[xxxvii] Ibid., 206.

53 replies

Comments are closed.