Monday, February 15, 2010

A Lethal Obsession

Robert Wistrich is the archetype of the scholar. He speaks English with an Oxford accent, Hebrew like a Sabra, German like a yekke, and his French and Russian sound to me fully convincing. He probably speaks some additional languages, too. He has read any book or article relevant to his field, and the field is rather broad. He has written something like 20 books.

His newest book,A Lethal Obsession: Anti-Semitism from Antiquity to the Global Jihad just came out last month. It's more than a thousand pages long. The other day I saw a copy, and you wouldn't wish it to fall on your toe.

In spite of the title, it apparently focuses not on the longevity of Jew hatred, but on its post-Holocaust vitality. Anyone who wishes to speak with authority on this topic, must read the book, even though it will take a bit of effort. That's how one acquires authority: by working at it.

If you'd like to know about the thesis without the major effort, here's a fine review by Jeffrey Herf. (h/t Silke)
When Hitler made his famous threat to exterminate Europe’s Jews in 1939, many Western political observers did not believe he meant what he said. It was too incredible and without precedent. No political leader before had so bluntly and publicly announced his intention to engage in mass murder. And so the disgust that greeted Hitler was mixed with disbelief. But the leaders of our own time do not have the excuse of incredulity. As much as any historian can, Robert Wistrich has documented the fact that radical anti-Semitism is in earnest, that its geographic and cultural center of gravity has shifted, and that it has again become a factor in world politics. The advocates of this disgusting doctrine have the power from which to make good on their threats.

8 comments:

Anonymous said...

maybe it is lethal obsession to the point of the obsessed becoming suicidal i.e. I doubt every assurance I hear or read that Iran is not suicidal and so I liked this Orwell quote and I liked it also because it makes me feel that I am right in wondering why Israel does so poorly with the seduction by narrative - it was different way into the seventies (I know the left turned away earlier, but in my mainstream life it kept the aura of adventure and romance etc.)
Silke

“Hitler, because in his own joyless mind he feels it with exceptional strength, knows that human beings don’t only want comfort, safety, short working-hours, hygiene, birth control and, in general, common sense; they also, at least intermittently, want struggle and self-sacrifice. . . . However they may be as economic theories, Fascism and Nazism are psychologically far sounder than any hedonistic conception of life.”

http://www.nytimes.com/2010/02/14/books/review/Wheatcroft-t.html?nl=books&emc=booksupdateemb3

Barry Meislin said...

And then there are those...paragons... who insist, with complete sincerity and absolute conviction, that it is not possible to learn from the past....

That history teaches us nothing.

Can teach us nothing.

Paragons.

This Is Hell said...

You mistake hate for foolishness. People now don't ignore the Shoah because they are dull. They ignore it because they want another one.

Anonymous said...

Anyone here read Gotz Aly's 'Hitler's Benficiaries'? Umlaut over the 'o' in Gotz.

According to him, Hitler bribed the Germans with loot.

Bruce

Anonymous said...

Bruce
I read a lot of the extensive media discussion at the time of publication, then tried Aly's book and found it kind of sloppy.
Adam Tooze most vigorously debated Aly's all embracing claims, so if you google the two names combined you should get a good offer in English.

I can't judge whether on the bigger picture Tooze or Aly is right - my bet is on Tooze - but as to feel-good measures for the "masses" within Germany I think Aly has it pretty spot-on.
Silke

Yaacov said...

Bruce -
Aly is a very fine German historian, one of the top scholars on Nazism. He has written many books, some of which I've read, tho not this one. However, I remember reading about it when it came out, a few years ago. The thesis, if memory serves, wasn't exactly that Hitler bribed the German people, but rather that he created the conditions for them to rob the wealth and labor of the entire continent; this had many of them very pleased and encouraged them not to ask too much about who was being robbed or killed for them to be getting richer.

It's not THE explanation for Nazism and its crimes, but it's certainly plausible as one explanation among many.

Anonymous said...

Yaacov - Bruce
I remember two strains from the Aly-book
one that he claimed that the looting and forced labour of the conquered territory paid for most or a lot of the war so the purses of the German natives didn't have to suffer - that's what Tooze and others contested as to the extent Aly claimed.

And then there was the part of the improved social security laws, the distribution of looted Jewish furniture to the bombed out etc. i.e. Hitler and his buddies were smart enough to keep austerity for the population to a bare minimum.

In between these two big fields were the packets so many soldiers sent home, full of butter and lard and probably a lot else. I remember that there were much discussed quote from Nobel Laureate Heinrich Böll's wartime letters and the feeling of innocence they conveyed.
Aly's credentials as a historian are always disputed heavily but it's hard to tell how honest the criticism is because the critics never fail to point out that Aly is a former Maoist or something like that and once held or participated at a Uni in holding somebody out of the window threatening to let him fall. The book Bruce talked about seemed to me a hastily put together compilation of works by his students so maybe if the English version has been worked over by a lector it might be better reading
Silke

Anonymous said...

Yaacov, Silke- thanks.

There's a book by Ford Maddox Ford, from 1915 when he was still Ford Maddox Hueffner, 'Between St Denis and St George'. Anti-German propaganda, of course. It shows the loot of France showing up in German 1915 pawnshops, and its corrupting effect on German burgers- then the most moral people in Europe.
The sinister glamor of loot.
Intermittent reinforcement from packages arriving at random from loved ones in danger. The hope that each package might contain a lottery-prize treasure.
Ford thought all this was bound to have some lasting effect, even on solid German burger morality.

Bruce