Dec 20, 2006 4:35 pm


Journalist David Byers, visiting the Berlin locales of his family before the Nazi Holocaust, recently wrote a piece in which he comes up against his own incomprehension of the causes of anti-Semitism. Surveying the robotic habits of Germans in the streets leads him to wonder if mechanical conformity is a German national trait that permits the emergence of extremism. His answer:

This would be the convenient and intellectually lazy conclusion to draw, but I have my doubts. Support for the far right is highest in areas of enormous deprivation. In 1990 Germany did, after all, take the unprecedented step of absorbing a second- or even third-world country when the Berlin Wall came down. Large parts of the east are truly in a desperate state, with some having a population comprised of 80 percent men, I am told, who are mostly unemployed. Surely that, rather than a mechanical trip-switch of hate, better explains the rise of extremism?

Byers is right to reject the idea that the Holocaust could not have occurred in other societies, yet his economic explanation for the appearance of Nazism and now neo-Nazism in Germany is no less deficient for being common.

The economic explanation assumes that Jews are a tempting target in times of economic trauma without explaining why this should be so. Yet any theory of anti-Semitism that fails to explain its attractiveness to vast masses of people in different societies across time and space is foredoomed to obscure matters. The reasons for the resilient attractiveness of anti-Semitism are not economic envy, ethnic rivalry or competition for territory or resources, which are the usual stimulants for other forms of hatred. Rather, something on a different plane is occurring - a revolt against the restraints imposed by the Judeo-Christian heritage, seen variously as unnatural and denatured, a corrosive doctrine that destroys and frustrates the natural vigour and rightful strength of force-based cultures and utopian doctrines. Only in these conditions is it unsurprising that economic trauma in a militaristic culture like Germany's last century can lead to a declaration of war on the Jews.

Economic factors can be proximate or contributory factors in the operation of anti-Semitism, but are not the cause. Anti-Semitism needs no economic hardship for its creation, as a glance at Saudi Arabia will confirm - merely a utopian doctrine and, as I argued in this opinion piece, is therefore a common feature of all such doctrines.

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Daniel Mandel - 12/29/2006

An astute observation - totalitarian doctrines often serve to make the average person, the mediocre, the featureless, feel important. Poverty, not being confined to such people, may only be an incidental factor in their attractiveness. It should not surprise that Islamism has grown steadily in societies that enjoy properity. Doctrines that promise a great release from responsiblity and burdens, a sense of expansiveness or cosmic adventure and which simultaneously simplify one's loyalties, can have enormous drawing power. How silly to think that anti-Semitism arose in the past and arises now because of economic stress.

david foster - 12/22/2006

In his book "Diary of a Man in Despair," a German who lived through the Nazi era gave his impressions of the kind of people who were particularly attracted to Naziism. He mentioned low-level government workers (post office employees, etc) and teachers (elementary and high school varieties.) IIRC, he did *not* point to the very poor as falling into the Naziphile category. He *did* say that many women were strongly attracted to Naziism, in an almost erotic fashion.