Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Measuring the Pervasiveness of Antisemitism

Were the Nazis antisemites? Were the Germans of that time? Silly question, you might think: if the Nazis weren't antisemites, who ever was? If a sizable chunk of their society didn't hate Jews, who got rid of them all over Europe and sent them to the East to be killed? Who set up and ran the killing machine?

That's common sense, of course. Yet common sense isn't as common as we'd like. Over the decades there have been popular narratives of the Nazi era which earnestly claimed that the authentic Jew-haters were few and far between, and it was all sorts of other things that motivated people (if they even noticed what they were doing). Indeed, by the 1980s, the mainstream of historians of Nazism were busy downplaying the centrality of Jew hatred and playing up other things. Eventually some of them - most notably, a largish group of young German historians - re-examined the historical record and came back to report that Yes, hatred of the Jews had been pervasive and significant in the story of their persecution and mass murder. Till this very day, however, it's not hard to find well-intentioned folks who will earnestly tell you that No, it was man's inhumanity to man or some such fairy tale.

All of which is a long introduction to this link. Behind it you'll find a report by Julie Birchill about the ambiance of Jew hatred in today's UK. Anyone can read the Guardian and see the antisemitism in it; what's harder to do is know if the haters there are representative of anything. That's why reports from the field such as Burchill's are so important. These are not far out loonies, she's telling. Or perhaps they are, but there are lots of them.

(h/t Divest).


Ibrahim Ibn Yusuf said...

There's no such word as pervasity. It's perversity, or pervasiveness. I believe you meant the latter.

For God's sake, the thesis of a unique hatred of Jews by the German people, which was propounded by Daniel Goldhagen, has been exposed as premium bullshit by serious scholars like Yehuda Bauer. Your depiction of such a thesis as mainstream is ludicrous.

Yes, there's a lot of Jew Hatred (why the caps??) in Britain. Some Jews are elected to Parliament or appointed to Cabinet positions to burden them with obligations they wouldn't otherwise have. Others are responded to when they pen pieces for the Jewish Chronicle. Finally, Rowan Laxton said "fucking Jews, fucking Israelis" at the crucial venue of a gym. Small wonder that the British Jewish community is on the verge of extinction.

Yaacov said...

Thanks, Fake-Ibrahim. I fixed it.

As for the rest, I think what I wrote explains itself reasonably well.

Barry Meislin said...

pervasity (noun): The pervasiveness of perversity.

Can there be a better word that describes the times?

It's certainly, a word that was just begging to be coined. For which, many thanks.

(And many thanks to Julie Burchill for her unstinting heroism, pace Orwell on telling the truth in a grossly dishonest age.)

Anonymous said...

I opt for pervasity after looking at the book-section of the London Times this morning where two different teasers tell me about Diana's interest in Judaism and regret over having married into a German family
mind you I don't object to that stuff as such but that these two topics are chosen to create interest is a tell all of what sells - i.e. Jews and sex (with somebody with monster-genes)


Sergio said...

British historian Ian Kershaw has this notion that the "jewish question" was not the main concern of the average german, the obsession being the province of core ideological nazis; he claims that "indifference" to the fate of the jews was the main characteristic, to which another historian (I don't recall the name) retorted that given the extent of the shoah, this was deadly enough.

Now, it is quite naive to dismiss the widespread antisemitic feeling in Europe, and its pervasiveness is by far the best explanation for the complicity (not just indifference) of the population all over.

zionist juice said...

a german satirical magazine once brought it to the point:

mr ibn yusuf,
that is an interesting interpretation of goldhagen's thesis ....

Anonymous said...

in about 1983 a very devout Catholic lady in her 70s fully committed to love-thy-neighbour and swooning about the new black African priest celebrating mass in her church "just like unser Herr Jesus" told me without the slightest discomfort or hesitation that when she was in service before the war to a Jewish lady she fooled/cheated her by letting the vacuum cleaner run while taking a break. I got to know her pretty well, she was the kind who would never ever cheat on anybody or even dare to think that a boss might be too demanding but since her boss happened to be Jewish ...

my own grandfather used to say about his WW1 experiences that he much preferred to stand in the trench next to a Jew as compared to an Austrian but at the same time could giggle endlessly at his sister's to him endearing naughtiness who used to throw chestnuts from her balcony into the foliage hut (Laubhütten) of her Jewish neighbors in Hamburg while at the same time telling me that I should behave politely when dealing with believers (even if they happened to be Catholics)

I could go on and on with anecdotes full of contradictions like these and of course all of them hadn't known anything about "that" which is btw the only part of their stories which I find hard to believe.

By all this I mean to say that to date I have to come across any non-vertigo-inducing analysis that synchs with my experiences growing up amidst the perpetrators and probability dictates that I must have known quite a number of those.

Anonymous said...


My father's best friend escaped from Vienna after the Anschluss by walking to Brussels, through Germany. He once told me that, while in Austria, the people immediately recognized him as Jewish. He said this was especially true of groups of children who would spot him as he was entering a village. In Germany, on the other hand, this did not happen. He feels that the Austrians were just much more obsessed with Jews and therefore able to spot them.

This is not intended to disagree with your point. Obviously, enough Germans were antisemitic enough to perpetrate the Holocaust and that took a lot of dedication. But both my father (who was might be best described as a Hungarian Jew who grew up in Serbia) and his Viennese friend stressed to me that the Germans were far from the most antisemitic people in Europe, at least on a gut level. They would put the Poles and Austrians (and probably other groups as well) much higher on the scale of deep-seated antisemitism. Of course, this is the kind of prejudice that a Jew needed to know about in order to survive in Central Europe before the war. Exactly how relevant it is to the Holocaust, I am not certain.

David E. Sigeti

Yaacov said...


You mean Sigeti comes from Sziget? And here I was vaguely tagging you as Italian. My Bad.

I didn't mean to say the Germans were the worst antisemites.They weren't. There's the famous joke about the time traveler who goes back to 1900 and tells people that within a few decades a large European country would round up the Jews and kill them all. "Ah, the French, they're capable of anything" was the constant response.

Though of course, the Holocaust was a German project, even if they had all sorts of sub-contractors. But my point was to emphasize how hard it really can be to document the pervasiveness of a complex popular sentiment. Figuring out what the main strands are isn't that hard - you read blogs and websites today; your read pamphlets and newspapers a hundred years ago. Figuring out how many people subscribed to the trash, how seriously they did so, how important a motivator it was for them - these are all much more complicated to know. To the extent that serious researchers can go seriously wrong about it.

Anonymous said...

that other Europeans are more anti-semitic than we are or (hopefully) were I read quite often. For me today that is besides the point (but was of course not for people on the run at the time) because it took our "genius" for organizing stuff to get the murder going and to keep it running.

For me one of the most frightening details is that at the RSHA (Eichmann's place) people like me were sitting and checking invoices from the Reichsbahn as to whether they had correctly charged 4 Pfennig per kilometer per human being. One day when I feel I can bear to read it I am going to check whether the fare for children or the disabled or the pensioners was lower in the same way it was for normal travel. My bet is that the same rules were applied.

As to recognizing Jews by looks: in 1953/1954 the writer Hermann Mostar appeared on TV and my mother would invariably exclaim "oh watt'n Jud"
- as I had read a book by Mostar which made me love history till this day that confused my 11 year old self very much. Why was his nose supposed to be more interesting than what he had written about the connection between herring fishing and the reformation?
Just to be clear my mother was what we classify as "kein Nazi" (no Nazi) but still when she saw a somewhat bigger nose she parrotted Goebbels' speech and forgot how proud she was of being a native speaker of Hochdeutsch. It took more than another decade for her to connect the dots. Probably she wouldn't have qualified as anti-semitic but in all likelihood she would have done as she was told as she would have never said no to a doctor.

Anonymous said...


Yes, Sigeti was originally spelled Szigeti, which means "islander". My grandfather changed the spelling when the family moved to Yugoslavia after World War One. The name is only about a century old (in our family). As with many Hungarian Jews, my great-grandfather Magyarized the name in the late 19th century. When my grandfather was born, the name was Suesser (sorry, I cannot type with an umlaut).

Point taken -- I just thought the story, being on topic, was too good not to tell.


You write both movingly and very informatively about growing up with the memory of Nazism and among people who had been Nazis and people who had clearly been influenced by Nazism. I hope that this is not a source of continuing pain for you. It is people like you who have made post-war Germany, whatever its faults, into a bulwark for peace in Europe. This is not a minor accomplishment.

David E. Sigeti

Anonymous said...

thanks for the kind words
but do not forget that we had it very very good after the war, much faster than the European victors did, if I judge from the way the French and especially the British looked who came to work at my German employer in the early 70s.

I wouldn't trust us too much, if the level of general well-off-ness should decline significantly. then In my belief all too easily Bertold Brecht could be proved right again "Der Bauch is fruchtbar noch ..." (the belly is fertile still ...) - when I met my first Americans I was always amazed how democratic they were on a personal level. Maybe it just was common decency but at the time it struck me as democratic.

BTW at that same employer I did personnel administration and there were two or three Americans who had escaped from Nazi reign on similarly perilous paths as your father's friend - their American employer liked to send them to the German subsidiary because of their language skills and amazingly enough they were invariably polite and even friendly with me. Our fellow Europeans at the time then called us fascists under any conceivable pretext - very understandable after what we had inflicted on them but the more amazing that none of these German born Americans ever even came close to doing it.