Navigate to History section

Was the Holocaust Predictable?

The secularization of Europe ‘liberated’ the Jews while laying the foundations for genocidal antisemitism

Jacob Katz
January 27, 2023
Universal History Archive/Getty Images
‘The Jewish nose is bent at the tip. It looks like a number six ...’ Illustration from a Nazi children's book, circa 1936Universal History Archive/Getty Images
Universal History Archive/Getty Images
‘The Jewish nose is bent at the tip. It looks like a number six ...’ Illustration from a Nazi children's book, circa 1936Universal History Archive/Getty Images
Editor’s note: This essay was first delivered as a lecture at “The Holocaust—A Generation After,” a conference in New York in March 1975, and later printed in the May 1975 issue of “Commentary.” It here is reprinted with permission of the literary estate of the late professor Jacob Katz. 

Almost anyone who lived through the period of the Holocaust, observing it from either near or far, will readily testify that information concerning the Nazi murder of the Jews, when it first came out, seemed absolutely unbelievable—impossible. Yet once it became evident that the unbelievable had indeed occurred, it began to seem altogether necessary and inevitable. Now the question, often put in a self-torturing way, is, how could we have overlooked the signs that unmistakably foretold the impending tragedy?

This query reaches out to different dimensions of the past. The prehistory of Nazidom as well as the first years of Hitler’s regime have been scrutinized by historians for signs indicating a readiness on the part of the Nazi movement to implement a program of destruction, or a resolve on the part of Hitler to carry out such a program in the simple, physical sense. Next, the spotlight has been turned on German antisemitism of the last decades of the 19th century, and its forerunners in the romantic nationalism of the early 19th century, there to detect the seeds of Nazism and its ideology of Jew-hatred. Some have gone further, attempting an analysis of the German mentality as reflected in typical representatives of the German Geist like Luther, Hegel, Wagner, or Nietzsche, and meaning to reveal an innate tendency toward tyranny, totalitarianism, and social intolerance. Indeed, the inquiring mind has not stopped at the German border. The teachings of the Christian churches since the Middle Ages, and Jewish-Gentile relations since antiquity, have been examined for an answer to the frightening riddle of the present. Though a connection between past history and the climax represented by the Holocaust has not always been explicitly asserted, virtually no contemporary historical, sociological, or philosophical analysis of early antisemitism ignores the symbolic presence of the six million dead of Auschwitz and Treblinka.

Now, remoteness in time does not of itself exclude a possible connection between two phenomena, and there can be no doubt that the history of Jewish-Gentile relations since antiquity does have a bearing on the Holocaust—in what sense, we shall explore later on. Still, the antinomy persists between the feeling of having been taken by surprise by the events of the Holocaust when they occurred and the inclination, after the fact, to reconstruct those events in such a way as to make them appear inevitable. This antinomy is often overcome by asserting that some people, at least, had foreseen the events in question, but then-warnings went unheeded.

Vladimir (Ze'ev) Jabotinsky, who is said to have coined the phrase, ‘Liquidate the Galut [Diaspora] or the Galut will liquidate you’
Vladimir (Ze’ev) Jabotinsky, who is said to have coined the phrase, ‘Liquidate the Galut [Diaspora] or the Galut will liquidate you’Wikipedia

In 1945, when the horrors of the Holocaust were already fully known, I heard Arnold Zweig quoting what he himself had told the Zionist leader Menahem M. Ussishkin during a visit to Jerusalem in 1932, when the ascendance of Hitler seemed imminent—namely, that this would lead to the total destruction of German Jewry. Yet the book written by Arnold Zweig shortly after Hitler’s rise to power, Bilanz der deutschen Judenheit [“The Balance Sheet of German Jewry”] attests that his real views at the time were not so clear-cut. Zweig did fear the downfall of German Jewry, and saw a danger to leftist intellectuals like himself, but he believed that a man like Martin Buber still had a chance to fight for the ideal of religious socialism in Germany, and Zweig strongly enjoined Buber to continue his work. Zweig himself left Berlin and settled in Haifa in 1934; from Palestine he commented (in the newly-published correspondence between him and Sigmund Freud) on the events in Europe, taking every setback in Hitler’s advance as a sure sign of his pending downfall. In quoting what he later claimed he had said to Ussishkin, I am by no means suggesting that Zweig in 1945 was not telling the truth. What often occurs in such cases is that statements uttered under certain circumstances assume, in retrospect, a weight they were far from having carried in their original setting.

Vladimir Jabotinsky, leader of “right-wing” Zionism in the pre-State era, is often credited by his followers with having had a remarkable prescience of the catastrophe awaiting European Jewry; it is he who is said to have coined the phrase, “Liquidate the Galut [Diaspora] or the Galut will liquidate you.” Indeed, rereading Jabotinsky’s speeches from the years preceding World War II, one comes across sentence after sentence that sounds like an apprehension of coming doom. But what did these warnings mean in their original context? This great patriot tried to prod his audience into a more activist Zionist stance than the Jewish leadership at the time thought possible, or even contemplated. In the late 30’s he urged the “evacuation” of Polish Jewry, and would not have hesitated to enlist the help of the antisemitic Polish government in implementing his plan. Jabotinsky pointed to the plight of German Jewry, then leaving Germany because of the pressure of anti-Jewish legislation. as evidence of the urgent necessity of his scheme, and he used phrases that seem to us to indicate foreknowledge of the Holocaust.

Why did no one realize that European Jewry was doomed, as we today, looking back, know it to have been?

But what Jabotinsky actually had in mind in speaking of a worsening of the Jewish position was the aggravation of economic, social, and political measures against the Jewish community in Poland itself, not the possible conquest of Poland by the Nazis. Together with many Jewish intellectuals he shared a conviction that Nazi rule was fragile and would crumble through internal difficulties or at the first clash with a foreign power. How unaware he was of even the near future is clearly demonstrated in the very idea of “evacuation”: he suggested transferring a million-and-a-half Polish Jews to Palestine over the course of the next ten years. Jabotinsky’s vision, inspired though it was by a deep passion for the welfare of his people, was as limited as anyone’s by the impenetrability of the future.

Analysis of these two instances confirms once again the intrinsic dichotomy between past and future: only in retrospect do statements made about the future assume the nature of prophecy. Nevertheless, instead of solving our problem, this observation only succeeds in placing it in sharper focus. Why should human reason be incapable of reaching a proper conclusion about the logic of events in advance of their culmination? Why did no one realize that European Jewry was doomed, as we today, looking back, know it to have been?

Up to January 1933 one could know only that Hitler might come to power, one could not know that he would—even though, in retrospect, the historian may present the Fuehrer’s accession as a chain of events following each other with the force of inevitable necessity. In November 1932, Hitler’s fate still seemed to depend on the votes of millions, and indeed the elections of that month indicated a diminishing trend in his popular support. The economic crisis, one of the main factors through which Nazi propaganda appealed to adherents, had passed its peak; the number of unemployed was clearly decreasing. There were defections from the party and Hitler was having difficulty keeping it solvent and retaining his authority over the various internal groupings. That power fell into his hands nevertheless was due to the condition of the other political parties in Germany, which, split between the Left and the Right, were incapable of establishing a working majority. It was at this juncture that President Hindenburg charged Hitler with forming a coalition government together with the non-Nazi right wing, which accepted the deal out of the belief that it could keep him in check.

In retrospect Hindenburg’s decision to call upon Hitler to form a government is rightly regarded by historians as one of the most fateful decisions not only in the history of Germany and of the Jewish people, but also in the history of the world community. Yet the very expression “fateful” indicates that the full significance of the step was bound up with its future consequences. Contemporaries may have felt it to be decisive but could only speculate where it might lead. Some leftist intellectuals, it is worth remembering, conspicuously represented by Jews like Leopold Schwarzschild, the editor of the influential Tagebuch, had long recommended that Hitler be allowed to come to power and thus be given the opportunity to fail and seal his doom. But even disregarding such fancies (typical of the too-clever intellectual), the significance of the event could only be assessed according to what was inherent in its time.

This was momentous enough, to be sure. The Nazi accession to power meant the domination of Germany by a party that denied the principles on which the former government and the established order had been founded: the principles of democracy, parliamentarianism, racial tolerance, and equality before the law. Instead, the Nazi party avowed the principle of leadership, i.e., government by a self-appointed elite that owed allegiance to one man whose command was law, and this man had given indication enough of his irrational visions and his passionate hatred of his enemies, and especially of Jews. Even so, public declarations by even the most revolutionary parties have never been taken as actual guidelines to be used in implementing practical policies. In this case, even those who supported Hitler very often did so with the tacit assumption that although he might indeed reverse some of the trends of postwar Germany, he would relinquish his more radical ambitions and become more restrained as he assumed responsibility for the conduct of affairs of state.

How could people have been so foolish as not to have seen what was in store for them at the hands of Adolf Hitler? After all, he did nothing but execute what he had said he would do, in so many words, in Mein Kampf. The answer to this frequently asked question is not that people did not read the Fuehrer’s voluminous treatise; whether they did or not, there was ample opportunity to learn his declared intentions through other channels during the propaganda years and from occasional utterances during the first years of his rule. Nor does the answer lie in the well-documented phenomenon of partial apperception or the selective acceptance of what reaches one’s senses and understanding. The fact is that an essential difference exists between announcing an intention and resolving to act upon it. Nobody, including Hitler himself, could know whether he would ever have the opportunity to carry out his intentions and how far he would go. Only in retrospect does this essential difference tend to become blurred, and thereby contribute again to misjudgments of the past.

This whole complex of problems can be illuminated by an episode during Hitler’s bid for power. In the winter of 1926 an exclusive club of well-to-do, conservative-minded citizens of Hamburg, the Nationalklub, invited Hitler to give an address on his political philosophy. Hitler was then in the first stages of reorganizing the party after the failure of the 1923 putsch, which had landed him in prison and placed him in temporary political eclipse. He was not yet free to make public speeches everywhere in Germany but had succeeded in attracting attention as a consistent opponent of the ruling parties of the country and, indeed, a radical detractor of the republic itself; in that respect he conformed to the principles avowed by the members of Hamburg’s Nationalklub. His two-and-a-half hour speech to the club was taken down in stenogram, but remained unpublished until 1960.

An antisemitic message hangs outside a Nazi headquarters. The banner reads, ‘By resisting the Jew, I fight for the work of the Lord.’
An antisemitic message hangs outside a Nazi headquarters. The banner reads, ‘By resisting the Jew, I fight for the work of the Lord.’Hulton-Deutsch Collection/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images

As Professor Werner Jochmann, who edited the text, has observed, it is a most revealing document, not only for what it shows about Hitlerite propaganda, but even more for the way in which that propaganda was received. In his speech Hitler attributed the weakness of postwar Germany exclusively to the influence of Marxism, which, he held, had undermined the former strength of the country, and the eradication of which he saw as the highest national goal, worthy of the support of his listeners. The Hamburg patricians shared with Hitler a resentment of the prevailing social-democratic order, although few if any of them could have wished to replace it with an even more radical order, of an even less aristocratic character; nevertheless, a common ground was created between them, enabling the speaker to secure the future support of at least some members of his audience.

Now, Hitler’s speech as it has been analyzed by Professor Jochmann clearly reveals all the radical elements of his program and points the way to its execution. Properly understood, the speech should have frightened away the conservative audience of the Nationalklub.

Professor Jochmann, puzzled by the divergence between what the speech contained and what the audience apparently took from it, theorizes that the listeners paid attention only to what was in harmony with what they themselves felt and thought but neglected and overlooked what would have repelled them had they understood it properly. This explanation may be correct as far as it goes; the trouble with it is that it draws once again on a knowledge of events since 1926 and attributes to Hitler’s words a weight absorbed, so to speak, from later history. Thus, for example, although Jews are not mentioned in the speech at all, one cannot help thinking gruesomely of Auschwitz as one reads Hitler’s remarks on the Darwinian struggle between the strong and the weak, and his assertion of the natural right of the former to overpower and eliminate the latter. Yet this, from the historian’s view, is an impermissible predating of notions and events. We may well recognize in the Hamburg speech the potentiality of Hitler’s later deeds, but we must not disregard the ever-present fact of contingency, on which the realization of his intentions rested.

To deny the possibility of foreseeing the course of events is not to imply there is no way of assessing a situation and its potential dangers in a more or less intelligent fashion. Such an appraisal has to be based on an analysis of factors at work in the present that take into account the chance of possible shifts and changes in the future. In the case of German Jewry, obviously no real agreement was reached either on a diagnosis of the situation or on a prescription for action. Contradictory recommendations were made and conflicting decisions taken by different people on the basis of their respective evaluations of the situation: to emigrate or not to emigrate, choosing instead to weather the storm until the Nazis moderated their attitude toward the Jews or fell from power; to cooperate with the regime in order to facilitate emigration and save as many Jewish possessions as possible—the line taken by the official leadership of the Jewish Agency—or to support instead a worldwide boycott of German wares in order to hasten an economic debacle—the passionately defended position of the Revisionists. The records of the Nazi period, especially in its later phases of ghettoization and deportation, are full of even more frightful dilemmas; in extreme cases, the decision to send some people to death in the hope of saving others depended upon an assessment of what was in store for all concerned.

The historian who wishes faithfully to record and judge the struggle of those involved has first of all to explain people’s behavior on the basis of what they themselves knew at the time; whether a particular decision was rational, judicious, moral, must be determined by whatever yardstick the participants themselves would have been ready to submit to. Naturally, people will be found to have acted on different levels of rationality, and where moral considerations are involved, they will be found to have possessed different degrees of courage and character. But moral judgment can only be pronounced on individuals when we have fully imagined the plight they were in, and that is why any such moral judgment has to be preceded by a reconstruction of the situation as exact as the historical sources will permit. To my mind the basic fault of Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem lies in her having skipped the stage of historical reconstruction in her rush to pass judgment on the actors. Lacking a concrete conception of what happened, and exploiting the wisdom of hindsight, she assumed a stance of moral superiority to which nobody who was not tested in the situation could possibly have a claim.

The behavior of individuals is not the only object of the historian’s judgment, nor is the yardstick always a moral one. Even in the most extreme situation in the ghettos it was not only individual character that determined who elected to go along passively with events as they unfolded and who joined the underground, vowing to go down fighting. Degrees and kinds of education, religiosity, social and political aspiration, made the difference between passivity and quietism on the one hand, activism and initiative on the other.

This rule applies with even greater force to earlier stages, when the depth of one’s insight into the texture of the situation determined which course of action was decided upon. Here too group mentality was just as powerful a factor as individual character. There were, for example, the attempts by rightists like Max Naumann and Hans Joachim Schoeps to be accepted by the Nazis by virtue of their espousal of a Germanic Weltanschauung—attempts which may be dismissed today as autistic self-deception (quite apart from what they may have entailed by way of disloyalty to other Jewish groups). At the other end of the spectrum, the leftist intellectuals represented by the Frankfurt school, committed as they were to a Marxist interpretation of history, could conceive the Nazi ascendance only as an aberration of social forces, and were entirely blind to the role played by the defamation of Jews in Nazi ideology and politics.

I may in this context adduce something from my own experience. In 1932, I was preparing my doctoral thesis at Frankfurt university under the guidance of Karl Mannheim, the sociologist. Mannheim did not actually belong to the Frankfurt Institute but was personally and ideologically an integral part of the group. Apprehensive lest my studies at the university be terminated because I was a Jewish foreigner, Mannheim urged me to complete my thesis and be examined for the degree before the end of the academic year. As to his own position, he remarked that the Nazis would not dare touch incumbents of full professorships. By April of the same year, when the purging of academic institutions began, Mannheim was one of the first to be thrown out. I may add, with no intention of irony, that some years later, having found refuge at the London School of Economics, Mannheim wrote his “Diagnosis of Our Time,” in which he exposed the underlying forces that led to the Nazi takeover.

Rootedness in Jewish consciousness was certainly a help in orienting oneself to the new situation. At least it protected one from despair—the suicide rate was conspicuously high in assimilated circles that suddenly found their world in a shambles. After the first shock was overcome, the Orthodox and the Zionists, on the other hand, tried to make the best of things. German Jewry experienced a kind of cultural regeneration, a marked increase in literary and educational activity that dwindled only when continuous emigration had sapped the available forces and the Nazis put an end to even these signs of Jewish public life. The Zionist movement in particular drew many formerly indifferent Jews into its orbit, not only because it offered a way of escape to Palestine, but because its ideology came closest to offering a cogent analysis of the situation that had evolved: The exclusion of Jews from German society seemed to demonstrate unequivocally the error of assimilationist ideologies.

The congruence between the Zionist interpretation of Jewish history and the existing circumstances lasted, however, only as long as Nazi persecutions kept within the bounds of prior historical experience.

The historian Yitzhak F. Baer, who left Germany for Jerusalem as early as 1930, had an opportunity to ponder from a distance the significance of what was happening in his country of origin. The result was a short book, Galut, written during the first two years of the Nazi regime: an in-depth analysis of the concept of Exile since early antiquity. Baer concluded his analysis by observing, “We today can read each coming day’s events in ancient and dusty chronological tables, as though history were the ceaseless unrolling of a process proclaimed once and for all in the Bible.” As the preeminent historian of Spanish Jewry, Baer may well have been reminded by events in Germany of the fate that had overtaken Spanish Jews five hundred years before. Such an analogy was painful, but at the same time it could also have a soothing effect: one was entering upon a prescribed course that followed an inherent pattern in Jewish history.

This, at any rate, was a possible mental response to events in the mid-30’s when the forced displacement of German Jews from their position raised an apprehension of their ultimate expulsion. In the ensuing years, however, as the waves of persecution mounted and especially when the frightful information about the ghettos and death camps began to reach the outside world, it was suddenly realized that events had transcended all the old, wonted concepts deriving from historical experience. To Auschwitz and Treblinka there was no historical analogy, no philosophical or, for that matter, theological, framework in which they might be accommodated. This was an absolute, unassimilable in any vocabulary at the disposal of the generation that experienced it. And it remains so to this day, despite the tremendous effort to investigate all its aspects: the historical, the philosophical, and the theological. Whatever subsequent generations will make of it, for the generation that lived through it the Holocaust can only be characterized as a trauma, a wounding experience beyond the reach of intellectual conceptualization.

Given the radically transcendent nature of the Holocaust, what significance can there be to the mere historical recording of its events, let alone attempting to lay bare their roots in the more or less remote past? What enlightenment can we possibly derive from tracing the history of antisemitism, or Jewish-Christian relations in past centuries, if indeed the Holocaust has to be conceived of as an absolute novum, unparalleled in previous generations? And what is the use of rehearsing these horrors in historical retrospect? Is it not a kind of masochism, a form of useless penitence for not having shared the fate of the victims?

The Holocaust was something new, unexpected even by those well acquainted with the history of Jewish sufferings in the past.

The Holocaust was something new, unexpected even by those well acquainted with the history of Jewish sufferings in the past. The long-standing Christian depreciation of whatever pertained to Jews and Judaism is not enough in itself to explain it. Neither is the special record of Jewish-Gentile relations in modern Germany, burdened as it was by the super-national self-esteem of the German people, and the racial defamation of Jews. All these factors, even taken together, were not necessarily destined to produce the Holocaust. Nevertheless, the fact that a later event is not the necessary result of previous ones does not mean there are no relations between them. The Holocaust, produced through unforeseen and unforeseeable historical process, absorbed into itself all these previous elements, without whose existence the later phases of the process would have been impossible.

The Holocaust marks the culmination of modern antisemitism, the roots of which hark back to Jewish-Gentile relations in antiquity and to the Christian defamation and persecution of the Jews in the Middle Ages. Modern antisemitism transplanted the negative attitude of those ages into the context of modern secularized society.

In ancient times the Jewish community outside the homeland of Palestine was one which habitually separated itself from its social surroundings, wherever these happened to be. Exclusive religious concepts and commitments acted as a barrier between Jews and their polytheistic neighbors. The Jewish community paid for this exclusiveness by drawing upon itself misconceptions about its make-up and beliefs—and inevitably, also hatred.

When the polytheistic world itself became indebted to Jewish tradition, “accepting” it in a Christian reinterpretation that was in turn unacceptable to Jews, mutual exclusiveness and denial assumed a singular, historically almost unparalleled character. Christians tolerated the existence of a Jewish minority among them on condition that, politically and socially, it be kept on the level of a pariah group. Jews for their part submitted outwardly to Christian governance, maintaining at the same time a kind of mental reservation about its legitimacy, and awaiting its termination—at least so far as the Jewish sojourn in foreign lands was concerned.

Jews in Christian society were allowed a precarious existence, fulfilling an economic role that was sometimes not unimportant, but never highly regarded. They were at any rate never permitted to transcend the status of strangers, and whenever their service was deemed unnecessary, or utilitarian factors became outweighed by other, notably religious, considerations, they could be dispensed with, expelled, or physically destroyed. In his perennial role as outcast, the Jew came to be depicted as an almost inhuman being; by the end of the Middle Ages, the name, “Jew,” had diabolical associations in every European language.

The Jew’s pariah status seemed to come to an end when, in the wake of 18th-century rationalism and Enlightenment, as well as the ensuing social and political changes in European society, Jews were extricated from their peculiar position and included in the new category of citizens. With the subversion of traditional concepts of Christianity in the Enlightenment, the theological prop of Jewish exclusion also seemed to be broken. In a secularized state and society, so the prognosis went, not only would barriers to the economic, social, and political integration of Jews be removed, but all vestiges of prejudice would also evaporate in the sunlight of reason.

In his perennial role as outcast, the Jew came to be depicted as an almost inhuman being. A 15th-century illustration depicting Jews harvesting the blood of a Christian child.
In his perennial role as outcast, the Jew came to be depicted as an almost inhuman being. A 15th-century illustration depicting Jews harvesting the blood of a Christian child.Hulton Archive/Getty Images

This prognosis, though supported by logic, was only partially fulfilled. If the index of integration was the disappearance of peculiarly Jewish choices of profession, or patterns of family and communal life, or cultural traits, the prophets of total assimilation had reason to be disappointed. For the Jewish minority, even where it had been granted formal emancipation at one stroke, as in France and Holland, remained a clearly recognizable subgroup even after the lapse of three or four generations. It distinguished itself through concentration in certain fields of economic activity, through the tendency to endogamy, through communal solidarity, and of course through religious nonconformism. Jewish social existence, in other words, still presented a problem, possibly an even more perplexing one than heretofore, when accepted theological conceptions had sufficed to explain Jewish origin and character, had justified Jewish apartness and inferior social status, and had looked forward to an ultimate Jewish conversion to Christian truth. Once the elements of this old ideology were confuted by rationalism, a new theory was needed to account for Jewish peculiarity.

Such a theory was provided by rationalism itself, and was based on an ethnological conception of history spelled out most eloquently by Voltaire. According to this theory, the conduct and fate of tribes and nations could best be understood through a study of their literary and other cultural productions. Jewish religion, and especially its literary fountainhead, the Bible, remained the clue to understanding Jewish history, but not in the traditional way of seeing the Jews as the chosen people forsaken because of their religious failure, but rather as a documentation of Jewish character. Voltaire was convinced that, by exposing the immoral, indeed the barbaric, character of biblical figures, he had found the clue to the behavior of Jews in his own time and throughout the ages. In effect he simply took over from the Christian tradition its centuries-old stereotype of the Jew, finding an explanation for it that accorded with his own philosophic outlook.

Here we come to the crucial point of transition from Christian to post-Enlightenment antisemitism. Jews entered the modern world under the auspices of rationalism, a doctrine positing that neither national origin nor religious affiliation should bar the way of the individual in state and society. Jews were given a chance to rehabilitate themselves, to move away from their marginal position in society and thus dispel the prejudices that clung to their image and their very name. Such rehabilitation indeed took place more or less completely in some countries. In Holland, for instance, where, as elsewhere, Jewish emancipation was regarded apprehensively and strong arguments were marshaled against it, emancipation once achieved was scarcely ever questioned; Dutch Jews were able to find their place in the social structure while retaining a good deal of their ethnic and cultural make-up. In Britain, social barriers against Jews remained strong for a long time; still, their status as legitimate citizens became firmly established in time and negative reflections on Jewish status and character, though sometimes strongly voiced, never really gained ground.

In France, Austria, and Hungary, and most conspicuously in Germany, on the other hand, initial misgivings on the subject of Jewish emancipation were never wholly silenced. From the very beginning, public opinion wavered between the utopian expectation of absolute assimilation through the effacement of Jewish characteristics, and a disbelief in Jewish willingness or ability to shed real or alleged character traits. The first generations of emancipated and half-emancipated Jews were exposed to permanent scrutiny to see whether they would live up to expectations or, on the contrary, end by confirming the skeptics in their conviction of the futility of this social experiment.

Among opponents of Jewish emancipation, the anti-Jewish sallies of a Voltaire were only one of many varied ideological arguments to be drawn upon. Voltaire’s anti-Jewish remarks were themselves a sequel or byproduct of his anti-Christian campaign, yet in combination the two offered a prototype for a kind of pagan antisemitism that made Judaism responsible even for the evils caused by Christianity.

At the other end of the scale was the combination of Jew-hatred with a revived interest in Christianity itself, the attempt to salvage Christianity from the historical and rationalistic critique of the Enlightenment. All such reconstructions of Christianity as a religious Weltanschauung or system of morality took Judaism as a foil to demonstrate the superiority of the religion that had supplanted it. Even where Christian dogmas and traditions were denied or ignored, the inferiority of Judaism was taken for granted, and this inferiority could then be ascribed by transference to those living individuals who were attached to Judaism if only through their racial origin. Diluted Christianity thus served as one of the most fertile grounds of antisemitic theories; as the historian Simon Bernfeld has observed, “Even those Christian scholars who maintain that Jesus never existed concur that the Jews crucified him.”

The main arena for antisemitism of this kind was Protestant Germany, but it existed in Catholic countries as well. In France, the politician and journalist Edouard Drumont, the central figure of French antisemitism, embraced Catholicism not out of a conviction of its religious truth but rather because it was, he held, a central part of French mentality—a frame of mind to which he declared Jews incapable of conforming even if they were to convert. Thus were explicit notions of race smuggled into the discussion, giving ideological support to the assumption of a deficiency in the Jewish character that had long been implied in the theological traditions of Christianity and in popular European culture.

Preserved under the cover of modern ideologies, anti-Jewish bias and passions tended to become even more radical than in their original theological setting. Advertisement for antisemitic exhibition in Vienna, 1938.
Preserved under the cover of modern ideologies, anti-Jewish bias and passions tended to become even more radical than in their original theological setting. Advertisement for antisemitic exhibition in Vienna, 1938.Michael Nicholson/Corbis via Getty Images

The main function of modern antisemitic theories was not to create new animosity against Jews but to impede the retreat of inherited emotions and prejudices. Yet preserved under the cover of modern ideologies, anti-Jewish bias and passions tended to become even more radical than in their original theological setting. Christian doctrine had prescribed a pariah status for the Jew but at the same time had justified and even underwritten his continued existence. Jews were spiritually contaminated but capable of regenerating themselves through conversion to Christianity.

The supplanting of Christian teachings by rationalistic ideologies changed this whole perspective. Once the notion of spiritual contamination turned into a character defect, and the defect was held to be indelible, the presence of Jews in non-Jewish society could begin to appear intolerable. Indeed, the more consistent antisemites, like Gyozo Istóczy in Hungary, Edouard Drumont in France, and Eugen Duehring in Germany did not limit their recommendations to the restriction of Jewish rights, but spoke openly of expatriation and extermination.

Because of the similarity between the conclusions of these men and Nazi ideology they are often regarded as precursors of Nazism. The Nazis themselves acknowledged their indebtedness to antisemites of earlier generations, but the connection between the two phases of development is certainly not one of historical causation. In surveying the German past Nazi ideologues freely rejected trends at variance with their intentions and adopted others that seemed to fit them. For having supported the cause of Jewish emancipation, figures like Christian Wilhelm von Dohm, Wilhelm von Humboldt, and Karl August von Hardenberg were decried as un-German; Luther, Fichte, Duehring, and others were hailed as the legitimate representatives of the German spirit. The fact that such a choice had to be made shows that, rather than the past’s determining the present, it was the present that made its own connection with the past by adopting figures and trends with which it felt an affinity.

Of course, between the deeds of the Nazis and those figures accepted by them as their spiritual mentors, or designated by the historian as their precursors, there lies the hiatus of time. This is true not only of remote figures like Luther, but even of political antisemites of the late 19th century like Duehring, whose thinking may have had a demonstrable bearing on the emergence of Nazism. Duehring, to be sure, harbored an almost morbid hatred of Jews and anything reminiscent of Judaism, and was committed to the Darwinian concept of human history. But who could say in 1880 that fifty years hence, the ideas of this lonely philosopher would be adopted as a practical program by a political party, and that this party would acquire the apparatus of a mighty state to implement those ideas? Between Duehring and Hitler there is not only the gulf of a half-century of fateful history, but also the psychological difference between the man of thought, detached from the plane of action and giving free reign to his ideas and fantasies, and the man of uninhibited will who was prepared to act on those fantasies.

The perplexing interdependence of past and future can perhaps be illuminated by a mental experiment. Had France produced a French Hitler, or Hungary a Hungarian one, Drumont or Istóczy might have easily assumed the role of Duehring, as precursor of catastrophe. There is nothing frivolous in imagining such a contingency. France and Hungary each had its own antisemitic tradition, which could have emerged in radicalized fashion, and though these countries did not in fact produce a Hitler, when Nazi Germany gained control of them in the war the presence of local antisemitism insured acquiescence, sometimes enthusiastic, in the Hitlerite program.

But let us carry the mental experiment a step further. Is a Dutch Hitler imaginable? The notion seems absurd. Such a man would have had to create, ex nihilo, an antisemitic ideology and anti-Jewish impulses in the Dutch populace; the absence of these elements is documented not only in the history of Jewish-Gentile relations in Holland in the 19th century, but also in Dutch behavior toward Jews and Germans during the Nazi occupation.

Imagining fictitious events is a legitimate methodological tool for setting reality in perspective. History, however, consists of hard facts, things that occurred—and, once having occurred, became irreversible. You may be convinced that a Hitler could have arisen in France or Hungary, or for that matter that his rise could have been prevented in Germany. What might have happened does not belong to history; what happened does. The Hitler period is indelibly marked in the recorded history of all the European nations, first and foremost in the history of the German people; on an altogether different plane it has also become a part of Jewish history, never to be deleted or forgotten. It is the allotted task of historians to record these events as completely as they can. They must do so not in order to be able to predict the future, but to derive from a knowledge of the past a proper diagnosis of the present.

We may define Jewry as it left the ghetto as a community in need of rehabilitation—the objective of emancipation in its broad historical meaning. Antisemitism, on the other hand, represented a tremendous effort to impede this process of rehabilitation. The counterblast of antisemitism having reached a frightful climax in the Holocaust, the question to be asked concerns the direction in which we are moving at the present time. For rehabilitation has also in the meantime taken a momentous step forward, through the act of Jewish auto-emancipation, the establishment of a Jewish state.

The connection between the Holocaust, with all that it signified, and the establishment of Israel and the readiness of the majority of the Jewish people to protect it, is more than obvious. But what about the resistance to Jewish rehabilitation? Did it spend its vigor in the frightful act of the Holocaust, or is it only in a state of dormancy, ready to awaken on some future occasion?

To put the question differently, is there a lasting effect to the Holocaust? Does it operate as a permanent cathartic agent, paving the way to a final reconciliation between Judaism and its adversaries, or does it serve as a paradigm, proving that the Jew as Jew, either as an individual or as a collective, has a lower claim to existence and dignity than any other human group on earth? Indications of both tendencies could be pointed to in the history of the post-Holocaust decades.

Which tendency will prevail in the long run is the fateful question hovering over our generation.

The doubt implied in the question arises out of the context of past events. The answer to it is hidden in the womb of time.

Jacob Katz (1904–1998) of the Department of Sociology at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem was considered by many to be the foremost Jewish historian of the second half of the 20th century. For more information about Professor Katz, please see his website.