Review: How the Jews Defeated Hitler: Exploding the Myth of Passivity in the Face of Nazism, Part One of Two

At the close of my review of the late David Cesarani’s Final Solution: The Fate of the Jews, 1933–1949, I remarked that “the Holocaust,” as a cultural concept, had performed one of the greatest vanishing acts in history — the disappearance of the Jews as active participants during World War II.[1] Faced with an almost blanket portrayal of Jewish victimhood and passivity during the period, I commented: “Examining the thousands upon thousands of histories of World War II, one would get the impression that there was not only one war, but also only one aggressor. Quite how and why “the Jews” leave the historical stage as belligerents in 1939, when the preceding six years had witnessed them engaging in international propaganda wars, political maneuvering, and targeted assassinations in several European countries, has been surprisingly overlooked.” Benjamin Ginsberg’s relatively short but efficient work, How the Jews Defeated Hitler (2013, First Paperback 2016), may be considered a significant exception to this overwhelming omission, offering an argument that Jews played “a major role in the defeat of Nazi Germany.”[2]

In the introduction to his text, Ginsberg, a Professor of Political Science at Johns Hopkins University, outlines the structure of his argument along with his definition of Jewish resistance to the advance of National Socialism in Europe. Ginsberg’s definition of Jewish resistance is important because it differs significantly, in terms of its discursive parameters, from those generally employed in Holocaust historiography and its offshoots. For those interested in a more detailed exploration of the issue of Jewish resistance during World War II, as a subject of historiographical debate, The Holocaust in History by Michael R. Marrus (Penguin, 1989) and Histories of the Holocaust by Dan Stone (Oxford University Press, 2010) are perhaps the best and most succinct introductions to the most pertinent themes. However, in brief, historiographical argument prior to the 2010s was limited to two strands of thought, each biased and deeply flawed. The first strand of ‘resistance’ historiography was the negation of the idea of Jewish resistance. This involved lachrymose assertions that Jews offered no opposition to an unprovoked and irrational German hostility, and were led to sensationalized forms of mass murder like ‘lambs to the slaughter.’ A prime example within this strand is Martin Gilbert’s The Holocaust: The Jewish Tragedy (Harper Collins, 1986), and is also strongly associated with Raul Hilberg’s assessment that “the reaction pattern of the Jews is characterised by almost complete lack of resistance.” This first strand of argument was particularly popular in the diaspora, and in the United States and Great Britain in particular. The Holocaust developed as a cultural trope in these countries in tandem with the development of this lachrymose strand of historiography.

The idea of totally passive victimhood was, however, less popular among Israeli academics and hardline Zionists more generally. In the eyes of these Jews, the Jewish experience during World War II had fortified and proven prewar arguments on behalf of a Jewish national home, and it was almost a matter of national pride that some emphasis be placed on explicitly Jewish efforts to fight against National Socialist Germany. In this context, histories began to emerge from Israel in the 1960s glamorizing Jewish partisan warfare, or events such as the Warsaw Uprising. The second strand to Jewish resistance historiography of course retained the idea that Jews, ultimately, were victims, in the sense that they were victims of an unprovoked and irrational German hostility. However, the difference was that this strand denied total passivity in the face of such hostility, and made strenuous efforts to emphasize armed Jewish participation in European national resistance movements, and in partisan warfare. It represented, for lack of a better term, an idea of ‘muscular victimhood.’[3]

Both of these strands suffered from severe methodological and theoretical failings in that both discussed Jewish resistance only within the sphere of armed, guerilla, partisan action. Even the briefest of glances through Jewish history would illuminate the fact that, at least since the sack of Jerusalem by Titus in AD 70, Jews have pursued their social and political goals via means significantly more abstract than armed conflict. Indeed, the century prior to World War II witnessed the development of modern Jewish politics, with features involving the consolidation of media power, the strengthening of transnational political networks, the development of international Jewish mutual aid networks (particularly following the Damascus Affair in 1840), and the ascent of the Jews into Western governments and the professions. It should therefore be regarded as remarkable that discussions of Jewish opposition to National Socialism should have neglected these international and incredibly influential spheres of influence as potential or actual avenues for resistance. Ginsberg’s unique contribution is to take the mainstream discussion of Jewish resistance into these neglected areas. Across four chapters, Ginsberg explores Jewish activism in the United States, the Soviet Union, in the field of counterintelligence, and in partisan warfare, and argues that Jewish actions in all spheres were crucial to the defeat of National Socialist Germany.

Ginsberg’s chapter on the Soviet Union is particularly interesting. For centuries Jews have lacked the conventional means of defense available to a threatened nation, and in the 1930s Jews were a group of around 18 million people scattered across the globe. To combat such strategic deficiencies however, Jews could rely upon centuries of experience in more abstract forms of defensive diplomacy, and in the 1930s this involved “working for, with, and through states and political leaders who shared their hostility toward Nazi Germany.”[4] Ginsberg explains that by the 1930s Jews exerted a remarkable level of influence in Soviet government and society. Jews were crucial to the founding of the Social Democratic Party in the 1890s, and the Jewish Socialist Bund played a major role in the unsuccessful 1905 revolution. In the period leading up to the 1917 revolution, Jews were instrumental in the leadership of both the Bolshevik and Menshevik parties. It was therefore quite predictable that after the revolution, “among the first official acts of the victorious Bolsheviks was outlawing pogroms and anti-Semitic movements.”[5]

Jews came to play major roles in the Communist Party and the Soviet state, taking key roles in areas such as “foreign affairs, propaganda, finance, administration, and industrial production.”[6] Half of Lenin’s first Politburo were Jewish, and during the early decades of Communist rule Jews were “especially prominent” in the security services. For example, the Jewish pharmacist Genrikh Yagoda was head of the secret police during the 1930s, and specialized in preparing poisons for his agents to use in liquidating Stalin’s opponents. Ginsberg adds that “other high-ranking Jewish secret police officers included M.T. Gay, who headed the special department that conducted mass arrests during the “Great Terror” of the 1930s, and A.A. Slutsky and Boris Berman, who were in charge of Soviet terror and espionage abroad.

Quickly rising as an elite in Soviet society, Jews enjoyed privileged access to the professions and influential political and cultural positions. “Though making up less than 2 percent of the overall populace, between 1929 and 1939, Jews constituted 11 percent of the students in Soviet universities. This included 17 percent of all university students in Moscow, 19 percent in Leningrad, 24 percent in Kharkov, and 35.6 percent in Kiev.”[7] Ginsberg adds that “Jews had become the backbone of the Soviet bureaucracy and constituted a large percentage of the nation’s physicians, dentists, pharmacists, and other professionals, as well as nearly 20 percent of the scientists and university professors in such major cities as Moscow and Leningrad.”[8] The USSR’s most influential journalist, Mikhail Koltsov, was Jewish, while the Soviet Union’s official radio announcer, Yuri Levitan, was also a Jew. Other culturally influential Jews were Semyon Lozovsky, chief Soviet press spokesman, Ilya Ehrenberg, the leading publicist for anti-German sentiment, and Vasily Grossman, the Soviet army’s most influential war correspondent. The Soviet film industry was also dominated by the Jews Sergei Eisenstein, Mikhail Romm, Mark Donskoy, Leonid Lukov and Yuli Reisman. Thus, while Jews ostensibly had no nation of their own, Ginsberg remarks that they “had a good deal of influence within the new Soviet state.”[9]

Jews used this influence to combat a very strong threat from National Socialist Germany. During the first weeks of the German attack, the Wehrmacht destroyed more than 17,000 Soviet aircraft, 20,000 tanks, and 100,000 heavy guns and mortars. As many as 5 million Soviet troops had been killed or captured or were missing in action. Jews had an obvious interest in fighting against such odds, and flooded the army’s influential positions in order to push a fanatical resistance effort. Ginsberg remarks that it was commonly remarked by troops (and repeated by Alexander Solzhenitsyn) that no Jews were to be found on the front lines.[10] Ginsberg himself concedes that Jews “sought whatever refuge they could find and preferred rear-echelon assignments.”[11] However, Jews were over-represented at officer level, and remarkably comprised more than 10 percent of the army’s political officers — essentially the enforcers of government doctrine. Ethnic nepotism resulted in such a high number of medals being spuriously awarded to under-represented Jewish front line troops that in 1943 the Soviet regime was forced to try to reduce the number (and avoid aggravating non-Jewish combatants) by issuing a statement reading: “Medals for distinguished conduct are to be awarded to men of all nations, but within limits with regard to the Jews.”

Aside from warfare, Jews were essentially slave-masters overseeing the vast sphere of Soviet war production. The millions of Russians working ceaselessly in munitions factories came under the control of Boris Vannikov, deputy people’s commissar for armaments, while mass population movements of workers were orchestrated by the commissar for transport, Lazar Kaganovich. Those workers tasked with building more and more factories were under the control of the Director of the Commissariat for Construction, the Jew Semyon Ginsburg. Steel production (Semyon Reznikov), aviation (Solomon Sendler), naval construction (Grigory Kaplun), the chemical industry (Leon Loshkin), and the fields of electricity, heavy industry, and fuel, were under Jewish authority. The vast Russian workforce was essentially under Jewish control, and put to use in defense of Jewish interests. Meanwhile, the German workforce was operating on only one shift, continuing to produce consumer goods. Children went to school and women stayed at home. In the Soviet Union, the factories of the Jews operated every minute of every day, two million women were drafted into the military, and children were forced into the systems of production. A worker had to show up for work 66 hours per week, with only one day off per month.[12]

As well as possessing a vast and captive workforce for war production, Jews also engaged in intensive popular mobilization efforts. This was necessary because many of the USSR’s citizens “hated the regime,” which had uprooted, dispossessed, and starved to death millions of peasants. Ginsberg demonstrates that Jews dominated the machinery of both popular coercion and persuasion, effectively maneuvering public opinion in line with Jewish interests. In the area of coercion, Jews were prominent in the NKVD, and the head of the army’s political officers was Lev Mekhlis, a Jewish Communist who had played a major role in the military purges of the 1930s. One of the main responsibilities of Mekhlis was “making certain the soldiers fought and did not surrender.” But Jews were much more prominent in the field of persuasion. In the army, political workers called politruks were assigned to military units in order to enforce discipline and also lecture troops on their duties to the motherland and the bestial nature of the Germans. Ginsberg stresses that Jews were hugely over-represented at politruks, and were very important in preventing instances of Soviet surrender. The Jewish-dominated Soviet film industry also dedicated itself to “exhorting the frightened and exhausted citizenry to fight the Germans.”[13] Mikhail Romm and Mark Donskoy both specialized in films portraying the brutal torture of Russian women by Germans. Jewish-made films like these were then “shown throughout the war to fan feelings of Russian nationalism and hatred for the Germans.”[14]

The official army newspaper, Red Star, was edited by the Jewish David Ortenberg. Ortenberg worked in tandem with co-ethnic Ilya Ehrenberg to create propaganda calling upon “every Soviet citizen to kill the Germans.” One of Ehrenberg’s most famous slogans was “If you have killed one German, kill another. There is nothing jollier than German corpses.”[15] Jewish propagandists like Ortenberg and Ehrenberg also worked abroad to build support for the Soviet cause. “The major vehicle for this effort was the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee (JAFC) composed of prominent Soviet Jewish political figures and intellectuals.” The JAFC raised money in the United States and Great Britain. “Though nominally an independent entity headed by the famous Soviet Jewish actor Solomon Mikoels, the JAFC was actually part of the Soviet Information bureau and closely monitored by a Jewish NKVD official, Sergei Shpigelglaz.”[16]

The JAFC found it easy to establish contact with similarly influential networks in the United States because that nation too had by World War II witnessed the rising power of the Jews. Ginsberg’s chapter on the United States is perhaps the most interesting of the entire text, and certainly from my own perspective justified the modest purchase price. Ginsberg begins by charting the rise of the Jews under FDR— a “long climb to power and prominence.”[17] More than 15 percent of Roosevelt’s top-level appointees were Jews—at a time when Jews constituted less than 3 percent of the population. Jews became such a prominent and visible element of Roosevelt’s New Deal program (a term coined by the Jewish Samuel Rosenman) that opponents referred to it as the ‘Jew Deal.’ Ostensibly a purely economic platform, the New Deal acted as a gateway for Jews into a much wider array of influence.

Among the most important Jewish figures in and around the Roosevelt administration were Henry Morgenthau (Secretary of the Treasury), Felix Frankfurter (appointed to the Supreme Court), Louis Brandeis (Supreme Court Justice), Jerome Frank and Abe Fortas (Securities and Exchange Commission), Isador Lubin (Bureau of Labor Statistics), Charles Wyzanski (Department of Labor), David Niles (White House Special Assistant), David Lilienthal (chair of the Tennessee Valley Authority), Nathan Strauss (U.S. Housing Authority), and Benjamin Cohen, the author of most New Deal legislation. These Jews, and lower level co-ethnics in and around the Roosevelt administration, were instrumental in challenging American isolationism. Ginsberg states that in combination with organized Jewish groups, these figures were crucial in bringing “isolationism into disrepute and turning American opinion against Germany.”[18]

The same period also witnessed the beginning of the end for the WASP establishment, mainly because WASPs (as one of the only Anglophilic elements in White America) decided to enter into a marriage of convenience with Jews in order to fight isolationism. Departing from a prior hostility to Jews, Anglo Northeastern Protestants let their guard down and made formal organizational pacts with Jewish propagandists. This was most notable in the form of the Century Group, which “worked vigorously for American intervention against the growing power of Nazi Germany.”[19] In the Century Group, Jews like James Warburg, Walter Wanger and Harold Guinzberg rubbed shoulders with Ward Chaney, Joseph Alsop, Frank Polk, Dean Acheson and Allen W. Dulles. After the defeat of France in 1940, the Century Group called for the United States to declare war against Germany without waiting to be attacked. Another strategy of the Century Group was to sponsor celebrities to give anti-German speeches, particularly in response to pro-isolationist meetings headed by figures such as Charles Lindbergh. The media networks controlled by the Century Group manipulated public opinion through tactics such as giving prominence to anti-German speeches while “relegating opposing points of view, such as those expressed by Charles Lindbergh, to the back pages.”[20]

Jews were crucial in sending destroyers and military hardware to Great Britain. As well as trying to shift public opinion in an anti-German direction, it was Benjamin Cohen (at Felix Frankfurter’s insistence) who sent a memorandum to Roosevelt arguing that he had the legal authority to release the destroyers without consulting Congress.[21] Another major supporter of this scheme, and the Lend Lease scheme which helped finance it, was the Fight for Freedom Committee (FFF) another group bringing together Jews and the Eastern WASP establishment. In common with many such groups, while its visible leadership was WASP, its influence derived from socially and culturally prominent Jews, in the case of the FFF Warburg and Guinzburg of the Century Group, along with Hollywood producers Jack and Harry Warner, labor leader Abe Rosenfield, and New York businessman Mac Kreindler. The FFF, which also had a close working relationship with British intelligence, was instrumental in a prolonged anti-Lindbergh campaign, and was successful in making a connection between “pro-isolationism” and “pro-Germany” in the public mind. Jewish groups like the American Jewish Committee and the Anti-Defamation League also undermined the isolationist position through propaganda and infiltration. “One ADL agent, Marjorie Lane, became an active and trusted member of a number of isolationist and anti-Semitic groups, including Women for the USA, Women United, and Mothers Mobilize for America.”[22]

In common with the situation in the Soviet Union, American Jews used the film industry to mobilize non-Jewish support for Jewish interests. Most of America’s film studios had been founded by Jews, and the 1930s witnessed an outpouring of anti-German productions. Roosevelt would later personally thank the movie industry for its “splendid cooperation with all who are directing the expansion of our defense forces,” and intervened to secure a reduced sentence for Jewish fraudster and head of Twentieth Century Fox, Joseph Schenk, who had been convicted of income tax evasion (an incident with eerie premonitions of the pardon of Marc Rich under Bill Clinton for the same crime).[23] The news media was also highly involved in the effort to shift public opinion, and both CBS and NBC (two of the most important networks) were owned by Jews.[24]

Go to Part 2

[1] A. Joyce, ‘A Tactical Retreat on the Holocaust: Review of Final Solution: The Fate of the Jews, 1933-1949 by David Cesarani’, in The Occidental Quarterly, Vol. 16, No. 4 (Winter 2016-2017).

[2] B. Ginsburg, How the Jews Defeated Hitler: Exploding the Myth of Passivity in the Face of Nazism (New York: Rowman & Littlefield, 2016), p.1.

[3] For a more complete overview of this strand of argument see O. Kenan, Between Memory and History: The Evolution of Israeli Historiography of the Holocaust, 1945-1961 (Peter Lang Publishing, 2003).

[4] Ginsberg, p.7.

[5] Ginsberg, p.9.

[6] Ginsberg, p.9.

[7] Ginsberg, p.10.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ginsberg, p.11.

[10] Ginsberg, p.18.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Ginsberg, p.32.

[13] Ginsberg, p.34.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Ginsberg, p.37.

[18] Ginsberg, p.40.

[19] Ginsberg, p.41.

[20] Ginsberg, p.42.

[21] Ginsberg, p.43.

[22] Ginsberg, p.46.

[23] Ginsberg, p.49.

[24] Ibid.

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