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Q&A: Benjamin Ginsberg, the Author of ‘How the Jews Defeated Hitler’

His thoughts on Jewish strength, Jewish weakness, and the secret history of the Judeo-Episcopate in America

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Professor Benjamin Ginsberg (Courtesy Johns Hopkins University)
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Benjamin Ginsberg is a brilliant gadfly and social critic who teaches political science at Johns Hopkins University. In The Captive Public and Downsizing Democracy, he laid out a biting analysis of the marginalization of citizens in a modern American centralized state serviced by media-manipulating flacks and political courtiers who serve the needs of corporations rather than the voters. While Ginsberg’s analysis bears some marked similarities to that of Noam Chomsky, he is more a libertarian than an old-fashioned Marxist. He also sees himself as a Jew, and as a strong supporter of the state of Israel. And so I was eager to meet him and to discuss the odd brilliance of his latest book, How the Jews Defeated Hitler.

Tell me a bit about what impelled you to write How the Jews Defeated Hitler? I thought the Red Army defeated Hitler.

The immediate reason was that during a discussion of Nazism in one of my classes, a student asked the usual question: Why didn’t the Jews resist? He was a big strong guy, so he obviously wanted to resist. I said, it depends on where you situate resistance and how you define it. If resistance is narrowly defined and situated in ghettos and concentration camps, then the Jews sometimes fought bravely but their impact was small—a scattering of unarmed individuals in a city ghetto or death camp without the means to resist—and this is where people accuse the Jews of not resisting, in a place where no one could have resisted. But if you define “resisted” a bit more broadly, then Jews resisted quite vigorously. I was so impressed with my answer that I said, “There’s a book here, and I’m going to write it.”

I think that’s a question that all Jews in America grow up with. Why didn’t the Jews resist? I’ve been doing some research recently about the Warsaw ghetto uprising, and I feel strongly now that, from a historical perspective, the question is bullshit. The Warsaw ghetto uprising was the first uprising anywhere in occupied Europe. Not only did Jews resist, they resisted first—and they did so in countless other places, with whatever weapons and other strategies were available to them. Even the leaders of the Judenrat in most places saw their choice as a strategic one, and no matter how wildly and tragically wrong they were, it is also wrong to compare them with collaborationists in Vichy France or in Holland, say, who believed that the Nazis were doing good work.

The French resisted more in a literary frame, and many of their best songs were written by Jews, it turns out. But Jews also had a very significant impact on the outcome of the war itself, and they did so through several vehicles, one of which was the Soviet Red Army. There is no question in my mind that without the Jews, the Soviets could have been defeated. The Soviet victory in WWII came not because of overwhelming Russian numbers, since the Red Army was not numerically that superior to the Germans. It wasn’t because of the Russian winter, which makes it seem like the Germans fought in Siberia but the Russians fought in Palm Beach. The winter wasn’t that easy for anyone.

The Russians won because they had superior weapons, and these weapons were almost all designed and built by Jewish engineers who had been trained at the major engineering school after the revolution, when they were allowed to attend. They invented the best tank of the war and the Katyusha rocket launcher. My father fired Katyushas in the Second World War, so I knew about this even as a little kid. It was a multi-barrel rocket launcher that terrified the Germans—and the Russians, too. Many of the Soviet fighter planes and bombers were built by Jewish aeronautical engineers—the famous MiG fighters, for example, were built by Mordechai Israel Gourevich.

If the Red Army and the Manhattan Project together win the Second World War, then it’s hard to say that Jewish scientists and engineers don’t play a huge role in both, and therefore in the Allied victory. So, I take your point. But another thing that struck me about your book was the article in the title: How the Jews defeated Hitler. Isn’t that what Hitler said? He was fighting a war against “the Jews,” right?

As I say in the introduction, the Jewish response that I discuss here is an example of what I call cumulative rather than collective action. There was no “the Jews,” there were no Elders of Zion directing the effort. “The Jews” were created because Jews responded to a common threat. The alternative of course is to leave out the article “the” and simply say “Jews,” but I thought that the response I wanted to discuss was not simply disparate individuals acting independently of one another. Rather, they were a collectivity formed in a reactive way–they were Jews responding to “the Nazis,” which makes them “the Jews.” And there was also clearly a measure of communal awareness.

Political scientists say that you can mobilize anything. I used to tell students you could mobilize the short people against the tall people and they would always write this down and snicker, but then you have the Hutu and the Tutsis in Rwanda. You can mobilize any attribute—ethnicity, race, what have you. But Jews are a little bit more than that, because Jews are conscious of themselves as a collectivity. We’re the last of the biblical tribes. We are aware of this to a greater or lesser extent, but we lack a single national leadership. We are not a state. Israel is a state, but many Jews don’t live in Israel.

So, for the Jews in this book, there was no Israel, there was no one who claimed to lead “the Jews,” but there was a measure of communal awareness and a measure of understanding that they were responding to a common threat. I was struck by the German Jewish physicists who worked on the atom bomb mainly because of what the Germans were doing to their fellow Jews.

Russian Jews and Soviet Jews rarely exist in American Jewish public discourse as anything other than refusniks or helpless captives. It’s like everyone was Anatoly Sharansky. My family, for example, was a military family before Soviet times; they then served proudly in the Red Army, as well as in various other capacities. Jews played a very important role in the formation of the Soviet state, and in some of its most lethal departments.

In the prewar Soviet Union, Jews among other things ran the security services—they were the backbone of the NKVD, and so forth. Like the Sikhs and Gurkhas in India, Jews were a persecuted minority who could be trusted to shoot at their fellows. The commissars knew this full well and cheerfully engaged the Jews in these activities until later Stalin purged the Jews from the most important positions.

During the war the Jews fought at first where no one else would, precisely because they and their families had no choice. At the beginning, Ukrainian and Russian soldiers thought they could surrender and all would be well, since the Germans were well known to be a great civilized people. But they learned quickly that wasn’t so, and then that, coupled with the NKVD blocking units Stalin put behind them, got them to fight. But the Jews fought from the beginning and fought fiercely, which is why they earned more medals on a per capita basis than anyone did—until Stalin noticed, and said too many medals were being awarded to Jews.

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Q&A: Benjamin Ginsberg, the Author of ‘How the Jews Defeated Hitler’

His thoughts on Jewish strength, Jewish weakness, and the secret history of the Judeo-Episcopate in America