At the Suicide of the Last Jew in the World at the Last Cinema in the World is the title of a David Cronenberg short shown at Cannes in 2007. During the 4-minute-long movie, eager TV commentators coax the last Jew, played by Cronenberg, to kill himself. The Canadian director, whose new movie Maps to the Stars just debuted at Cannes, explained that the short was inspired by Hezbollah’s 1992 mission statement, which vows to continue holy war “until the elimination of Israel and until the death of the last Jew on earth.”
Hezbollah’s policy goal—making Jews vanish, not by magic but by murder—is obviously indebted to Nazism: Hezbollah sees the destruction of Israel as a means to an end—the disappearance of Jews from world history—and the movement’s leader, Hassan Nasrallah, has often encouraged Jews to move to Israel so that they can be more conveniently annihilated by his movement. “It’s pretty interesting to hear someone say our goal is to kill every Jew in the world wherever they are,” Cronenberg told an interviewer. “That means me and my children. It does evoke a reaction.”
That the Nazis’ genocidal purpose survives as an open aspiration of their heirs, radical Islamic terrorists, is proof of the staying power of an evil idea with a particular point of historical origin. So, what did anti-Semitism mean to Hitler’s Germany? How did Germans think and feel about what Nazism so often presented as its central task, the elimination of the Jews? These are questions routinely ignored by Holocaust historians, charges Alon Confino, professor of History at the University of Virginia and author of the recent book A World Without Jews: the Nazi Imagination From Persecution to Genocide. “Historians look to the Holocaust in a too cerebral way,” Confino said to me in a phone interview. “Did [Germans] know about the gas chambers? That’s not a good question. Most people didn’t know about Auschwitz, but still there was a sense of a finale. A sense, a feeling [that the Jews were gone]: It’s the vagueness that gave it power.”
The Nazi struggle “wasn’t about territory, or states, or armies,” Confino emphasized. “It was about identity.” For the Nazis the Jews were “the key to world history,” he writes in A World Without Jews. “It goes back to what the Jews represented: the Bible,” Confino said over the phone. “They weren’t racial enemies. They were the symbols of morality.” Confino knows, of course, that much of the Nazi propaganda about the Jews depicted them as a racial threat, but the far more crucial message, he argues, was that Jews signified the old world of moral law. The Jew had to be destroyed, to be replaced by a pure new vision of the German nation, a people freed from the archaic constraints of doing good. And this ethical revolution required the ultimate realization: mass murder.
Crucial to Confino’s argument is his new understanding of Kristallnacht. Most historians of the Nazi period see the brutal pogrom of Nov. 9-10, 1938, as a false start in Hitler’s war against the Jews. Kristallnacht was the brainchild of Reich propaganda minister Josef Goebbels, who thought it would mobilize the German people against the Jews. It succeeded, but only in part. Despite the participation of enthusiastic hordes of anti-Semites, some Germans were disturbed by the destruction of property during the pogrom, and some by the sadistic tormenting of the Jews themselves.
Kristallnacht also attracted a great deal of international bad press, which Hitler wanted to avoid. Hitler never mentioned Kristallnacht in any of his speeches, nor did he allude to it among his inner circle, so far as we know; and he never allowed another pogrom on German soil. The extermination of European Jewry was to take place quietly and systematically, in distant locations, not under the noses of Germans who might be disturbed by the murder of their Jewish neighbors.
One aspect of Kristallnacht, though, was decisive for the later genocide against the Jews, according to Confino. He focuses on the widespread burning of the Torah all across Germany and makes the case that the destruction of the holy book meant for the Nazis the freedom from morality that they needed to achieve their new world order. The evidence for Confino’s argument remains only intuitive, but it is still persuasive. As he notes, many European countries had expelled their Jews over the centuries, but “Judaism as the predecessor of Christianity had never before been erased.” During Kristallnacht, thousands of Torahs were trampled on, incinerated, and dragged through the mud, and well over a thousand synagogues were destroyed. Christianity, of course, had long claimed that Judaism was a mere vestige, a superseded religion. But no Christian had ever declared, in the way the Nazis did on Kristallnacht, that Judaism no longer exists, and that its memory should be wiped out. Some Jews still remained in Germany, to be sure, but their historical life as a people was over: This was the message of Kristallnacht.
Confino, who is Israeli, is not usually a Holocaust historian, but rather a scholar of German history, and there is little original research in his book. Instead, he offers a powerful reflection on how to interpret the Shoah. Confino never brings up the long history of Torah-burning in persecutions of the Jews, which begins as early as the Talmudic period. The Talmud mentions the burning of a Torah by the Roman Apostumus and records that the Romans wrapped the sage Chanina ben Teradion in a Torah scroll before they set him on fire. Josephus describes the panic of the Jews when a Roman officer burned a Torah in 48 C.E.: The Romans had to execute the officer in order to calm the crowd. The Crusaders of 1096 burned the Torah as they rampaged through Jewish Europe. There are a few cases of rioters destroying Torahs in modern times—in Galatz, Romania, in 1859, in Prague in 1920—but these were rare. Kristallnacht’s large-scale attack on the Torah, the sacred object of Judaism, was virtually unprecedented in modern times.
In 1938 Hitler announced his “prophecy”: If another world war began, the result would be “the annihilation of the Jewish race in Europe.” Hitler’s promise to destroy the Jews in the event of war was the emotional glue that held German society together. In 1942 Hitler announced the extermination of the Jews four times, assuring his audience that “the ultimate legacy of this war” will be that “the Jew will be eradicated.” And in 1944, he reiterated that the end of the Jews in Europe was, “beyond any doubt,” an accomplished fact.
Every German must have therefore intuited that this enormous event, the destruction of the Jews, was something real and important that defined their national struggle, which was being paid for in German blood. Confino remarks that “for the Nazis the Holocaust was not and could not be a secret; rather, it was a precious fact that symbolized and touched on essential elements of their identity, history, and humanity. A fact of this magnitude could not simply be hidden, but given its transgression, it could not yet be revealed with total frankness either.” What did they know and when did they know it, historians frequently ask about the Germans and the Holocaust. The answer is that they knew all along—even if they never heard the names Treblinka, Auschwitz, or Babi Yar. The Jews had become a legend, a people of the past. Those who still survived were mere relics, slated for extinction.
“Getting rid of the Jews,” Confino writes, “was akin … to making a clean historical slate,” a “new beginning.” But it also brought out an ambivalent, troubled feeling among many Germans. In some cases this feeling became an outright moral objection. When the mass killings on the eastern front began, less than three years after Kristallnacht, a powerful sense of transgression was in the air. “We deserve no mercy, we are all guilty,” wrote Wehrmacht Capt. Wilm Hosenfeld from Warsaw in 1943 after the clearing of the Warsaw Ghetto: The destruction of the Jews was “an indelible disgrace, a curse that can never be lifted.” Like the leading Nazis but from a very different perspective, Hosenfeld saw the crime of genocide as a radical break with history. Some Germans recorded their feeling that the Allied air raids on their cities were fateful payback for the killing of the Jews, a fact that Confino finds telling.
The sin of Cain was upon Germany. A Hamburg craftsman named Herman Frielingsdort wrote in his diary in the summer of 1942, “The Jews are said to be killed in large groups, including women and children, by mass executions in open graves or in open fields. … One can hardly bear hearing of such horrors. … Our deeds cry to heaven.” (Confino relies for such passages on groundbreaking studies by the German historians Frank Bajohr and Dieter Pohl who, along with Peter Longerich, have done extensive research on the German reaction to news of the Holocaust.) A new kind of rumor about the Jews started circulating in Nazi Germany: not what they are doing to us, but what we have done to them. The Völkischer Beobachter in April 1942 reported a “rumor” that “has spread among the population”: “It is the task of the Security Police to exterminate the Jews in the occupied territories. The Jews were assembled in the thousands and shot; beforehand they had to dig their own graves. At times the execution of the Jews reached such proportions that even members of the Einsatzgruppen suffered nervous breakdowns.”
Every word of this rumor was, of course, true, but it still seemed mysterious, unbelievable. Whatever was in fact happening to the Jews was a fait accompli; they had already vanished as a people. Their existence had become a mere fable, and so the stories about their disappearance took on a murky, disturbing air. Germans sensed that something terrible was happening to the Jews, but they also sensed that the Jews were already gone, marked for death.
Genocide often binds together in blood the country that commits it, or what’s left of that country. But it has never been felt as a liberation: not in Cambodia, not in Rwanda, and not in Germany. Hitler’s promise of a strong, purified German psyche proved dreadfully false. Years before the Holocaust, Freud understood Nazism as the search for an utterly reliable authority, one capable of bestowing healthy unity on the self as well as society. Meanwhile, psychoanalysis, fascism’s enemy, doubts every authority and so shows that no self is ever whole, as Mark Edmundson points out in The Death of Sigmund Freud.
For the Nazis, Confino says, the Holocaust offered “a solution to the problem of historical evil.” The solution took the form of what psychoanalysis calls splitting. In order that Germany could become pure, Hitler fabricated an enemy onto whom he projected everything bad and corrupt. This included the Hebrew Bible: As the fascist sympathizer Ezra Pound evocatively put it, “all the Jew part of the Bible is black evil.”
The Nazis promised a lethally innocent new world, a culture cleansed of its old morality. But that morality lingered. Jews would still mean too much to Germans, even after they were gone. Guilt cannot be uprooted, least of all by taking part in an unprecedented crime.
Confino’s concluding paragraph is greatly eloquent, and greatly frightening. He writes that “the Holocaust has haunted the postwar imagination because it provided for Jews, Germans, and Europeans a story of origins and new beginning that, horribly, happened in the real world of human experience.” For both perpetrators and victims, the Shoah’s “immeasurable suffering … elicited thoughts about where they came from, how they arrived there, and where they were going. As such it was not unconnected, in a sense, to the European tradition of such great narratives as Genesis and The Odyssey—only it superseded them, to the disbelief of people both then and now, by really happening.”
A myth that became reality: This is the Holocaust.
Is Europe today a world without Jews? Not quite yet. But in France, still the largest European Jewish community, the fall is getting steeper by the year. According to a recent report, nearly 75 percent of French Jews are considering emigration. And as the Jews depart Europe, both philo- and anti-Semites have been enjoying a continental Renaissance. Israel is often accused of indulging the ethnic nationalism that over the centuries has marked Europeans more than any other people on earth, and that Europe has supposedly now left behind. Instead of symbolizing strict morality, or modernist decadence, Jews now stand for the sins of racism and colonialism. Meanwhile, young Israelis continue to flock to Berlin, supplying what is widely seen in Germany as a kind of enlivening and necessary cultural spice.
Perhaps this is where the German future lies: Seeing Jews as colorful and piquant, rather than either poisonous or intellectually and artistically superior. There are far worse fates for a people, especially after the traumas that Confino remembers in his book. But as Nasrallah likes to remind us, we aren’t there yet.
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David Mikics is the author, most recently, of Bellow’s People: How Saul Bellow Made Life Into Art. He lives in Brooklyn and Houston, where he is John and Rebecca Moores Professor of English at the University of Houston.