Tuesday, January 08, 2008

The Hatred That Does Not Die


The War Against the Jews: 1933-1945
by Lucy Dawidowicz

The single minded effort of the Nazis to annihilate European Jewry remains one of the most brutal, incomprehensible events in the history of the world. The consolidation of power by a group of extremists, who plotted and carried out murder on a massive scale, was accomplished precisely because no one thought such a thing to be possible. The destruction of the Jews was one element of Hitler's dream of transforming, with atavistic zeal, the social fabric of Europe and Asia. Dawidowicz's book, exhaustive in scope, attempts to deal with this by looking first at the history of German anti-semitism from its beginnings, through its 19th century renaissance, to its carefully plotted policy under Hitler. She then examines the Jewish response to the Nazi threat, conditioned by a centuries old cycle of active, then dormant, hostility.

The cunning of the Nazis in making a rhetorical call for the destruction of the "Jewish vermin" a historical fact is well-known, but it cannot be adequately explained without a metaphysical understanding of the potential for human evil and depravity. Arendt famously wrote of the "banality of evil" - the institution of bold laws and regulations, so clear in their intent as to be incomprehensible are described, but can we today, while recognizing the brutality of the Nazi leadership and the intoxicating power of its functionaries, truly understand the complacency of the German populace as they see a significant section of the population quickly being deprived of their most basic human rights?

Dawidowicz deals with the death camps only in an appendix, perhaps because their story is so familiar. She focuses instead on the formation and maintenance of the ghettos of Poland, in essence a different, urban sort of concentration camp. The institutions established by the Nazis for control, such as the Judenrat, ingeniously served to break the Jewish spirit by degrees. The misplaced optimism which rationalizes that things that are horrific cannot get worse only collapses when the trap has already sprung, and no hope remains.* The brave resistance in the Warsaw ghetto, doomed by its lateness, is well documented, and an attempt to rationalize the ghetto mindset is hard to accept by later generations who, with hindsight, see the enormity of the tragedy. But we draw back, unable to comprehend the evil and suffering that - even after Stalin, Cambodia, Kosovo, Rwanda, Darfur, etc. - has never been equaled.

*I am sadly reminded of the film "Schindler's List". After each encroachment and degradation, the constant refrain is "it can't get any worse" or "the worst is over". Alas, fatal optimism!


Postscript: I read this book in 2000, and it was a rather old book even then, having been published in 1975. Despite a plethora of Holocaust books since that time, I believe Dawidowicz's book is worthwhile reading. For a number of years, I read several works relating to the Holocaust, including the excellent memoirs of Primo Levi and Elie Weisel. I recall an acquaintance asking why I was so interested in this, since I "wasn't Jewish". Leaving aside the banality of the question, I respond now that I believe the Nazi program was an example of a successful and horrific enterprise - the manipulation of public consciousness to allow for the perpetration of an absolutely evil agenda. Unfortunately, the potential for such manipulation and abuse did not end with the fall of the Nazi Regime. In the words of Herman Goering, interviewed at Nuremberg:

Naturally, the common people don't want war, but after all, it is the leaders of a country who determine the policy, and it is always a simple matter to drag people along whether it is a democracy, or a fascist dictatorship, or a parliament, or a communist dictatorship. Voice or no voice, the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. This is easy. All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked, and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same in every country.

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