A World Without Jews? It's What the Nazis Wanted.

tags: Holocaust, Nazis, Jews

Alon Confino, a historian at the University of Virginia and Ben Gurion University, Israel, is the author of "A World Without Jews: The Nazi Imagination from Persecution to Genocide" (Yale University Press, 2014).


It can be read in different ways, offering different interpretations, but one key way to read my book is as a story of the Jewish spirit that haunted the Nazi imagination. It is a tale about the Nazis who--when they searched for the essence of their identity--ultimately found the Jews, whose history and origins seemed to define for the them who they were and what they were seeking.

Why did the Nazis, I ask, view the persecution and later extermination of the Jews as so urgent and fatal to their survival? A key to understanding this world of Nazi anti-Semitism is no longer to account for what happened—the administrative process of extermination, the racial ideological indoctrination by the regime, and the brutalizing war—because we now have sufficiently good accounts of these historical realities. Rather, a key is to account for what the Nazis thought was happening, for how they imagined their world. A history of the Holocaust must include the history of emotions and imagination of Germans during the Third Reich, for the fundamental reason that the persecution and extermination was built on fantasy, in the sense that anti-Jewish beliefs had no basis in reality. In the mind of the Nazis, this was a war about identity. Nazi anti-Semitism was all fantasy: nothing about it was driven by a desire to provide a truthful account of reality. Yet it was nonetheless believed by many Germans and therefore was for them real and truthful. What was this fantasy created by Nazis and other Germans during the Third Reich, and the story that went along with it, that made the persecution and extermination of the Jews justifiable, conceivable, and imaginable?

My answer is that for the Nazis and other Germans, Jews represented time, symbolizing evil historical origins that had to be eradicated for Nazi civilization to arise. The Nazis chose as their main enemy the Jews, an ancient people, with a long history and fundamental role in Christian, European, and German society, and a source of a long tradition of positive and negative moral, religious, and historical symbols. The Jews stood at the origins of the Bible, of Christianity, and, for many in Germany and Europe, of modernity’s liberalism, communism, and capitalism. Origins is a metaphor of being in time that implies legitimacy, roots, and authenticity. By persecuting and exterminating the Jews, the Nazis eliminated the shackles of a past tradition and its morality, thus making it possible to liberate their imagination, to open up new emotional, historical, and moral horizons that enabled them to imagine and to create their empire of death.

The Holocaust was about the Nazi dream of conquering historical time, past, present, and future. The Nazi empire in Europe was made possible by imagining first an empire of time. The Nazis had a revolutionary spatial policy to conquer the entire Continent, enslaving and exterminating millions. What, then, was the revolutionary concept of time that accompanied this revolutionary policy of space? What was the imagination of time and of history that gave meaning and legitimacy to their radical exterminatory policies?

I trace this question by exploring how Nazis and other Germans constructed the image of the Jew as a new register of historic time that linked notions of origins embedded in the ideas of race, Christianity, nationhood, Heimat, and history. Two of the innovative arguments of the book pertain to Nazi anti-Jewish motivations which, I argue, cannot be reduced to the hegemony of racial ideology, as current historiography has it, and cannot be severed from an imagination shaped by Christianity.

My approach is to follow the way Germans imagined a world without Jews. This is the leading metaphor that drives our story. Our starting point is the intentions of the Nazis and the policy of the German state starting on January 30, 1933: the construction of a Germany, and later a world, without Jews. I propose a shift in perspective--from what happened during the Holocaust and what Germans did or did not know about it, and from an emphasis on Auschwitz--to how Germans came to conceive of the idea of a Germany without Jews: how they came, from 1933 onward, to imagine this world, internalize it, make it part of their own vision of the present and future, at times even when they were opposed to Nazi policies.

Showing how the imagination in the 1930s anticipated destruction in the 1940s, I challenge the mainstream view in popular and scholarly understanding of the Holocaust that the mass murder of the Jews during the war had not been anticipated, that victims and perpetrators alike scarcely believed what was happening, that it was unimaginable and unrepresentable. My aim is to seek patterns of meaning and purpose in a world of fantasies that made the extermination possible precisely because it was, somehow, imaginable and representable.

In this sense, the Holocaust must be understood within the tradition of colonial genocides and within the framework of comparative genocides. But in themselves the European traditions of modern colonialism and racial ideas cannot account for the Holocaust, and their limits must be clear as well. Empire building, multiple genocides, and other wartime circumstances are of course important, but they cannot account for Germans’ culture and motivations. If the Holocaust was a result of mass murders in eastern Europe between Hitler and Stalin, why did the Nazis choose to exterminate the Jews of Corfu, and by extension of western Europe, who had no direct relation to this conflict? According to these views, implicitly and at times explicitly, anti-Jewish sensibilities were not of major importance in the making of the Holocaust. I wonder about that.

My view is different. The Holocaust should be placed within a history of Nazi war and occupation, empire building, and comparative genocide. The Holocaust was not unique. But it was perceived during the war as unique by Germans, Jews, and other Europeans, and if we want to understand why the Holocaust happened, we ought to explain this. The comparative approach to genocide sharpens the similarities but also the differences between the Holocaust and other genocides. On the one hand, the idea of exterminating racial groups had been building in European culture and politics for a century before the Third Reich. But on the other hand, it is evident that for the Nazis the persecution and extermination of the Jews was more urgent and historically significant than other genocides they committed. Although they set out to kill all the Jews immediately during the war, they did not have a similar policy for other groups of victims. This only begs the question: Why did the Nazis view the extermination of the Jews as so urgent and fatal to their survival? Why did Germans, Jews, and Europeans perceive during the war the extermination of the Jews as unlike any other genocide perpetrated by the Nazis?

By imagining a world without Jews, Germans told themselves a larger story during the Third Reich about who they were, where they came from, how they had arrived there, and where they were headed. This story placed the Third Reich within German, European, and Christian history, providing a moral justification and a historical meaning, and outlined the creation of a European civilization with a new sense of morality and humanity. Precisely because Nazism saw itself as a radical, novel historical departure, it paid particular attention to the past, that protean and essential factor of life in all societies. The more radical the break with past conduct and morality—as the Nazis set out to build an empire based on the systematic persecution and extermination of groups of people—the greater the need for a new national story to make sense of what was happening.

According to this story the Jews reflected a historical past—historical origins, to be exact—that needed to be extirpated in order for a new Germany to arise. To create a Nazi civilization, a new European order and form of Christianity, Jewish civilization had to be removed. Germany’s historical origins needed to be purified down to the Jews’ shared past with Christianity embedded in the Hebrew Bible.

We should pause for a moment and consider that by telling a story about themselves, Nazis and other Germans behaved much as we do. We all tell stories about ourselves, individuals as well as national collectivities, in order to give our lives purpose and meaning. These stories are the bedrock of our identity, although we often tell our stories not in order to get the facts right but in order to get them wrong, to explain our history and justify our motivations for doing things, the good deeds and especially the bad ones. Telling stories makes us human, but not all our stories are humane. This is the kind of Nazi story we are after in this book.

And this was the territory the Nazis sought to explore in their quest for self-understanding and for their inner self, which they ultimately found in their endeavor to make a world without Jews.

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