The history of the Jews is a history of expulsion. England expelled the Jews in the 13th century. They were forced to leave France in the 14th century, Spain and Portugal in the 15th century. Martin Luther called for their homes to be destroyed and their schools burned down in the 16th century. Until the founding of the state of Israel in 1948, the Jews had no safe place of refuge.
For that reason alone, the publication of “Europe Against the Jews 1880 – 1945,” by historian Götz Aly is highly relevant. In it, he gives compelling answers to a question that is pressing to this day: What prepared the breeding ground for the virulent anti-Semitism in Europe that made it possible for the Nazis to find support for their “final solution” project in other European countries?
Mr. Aly begins with the end, the return of the Holocaust survivors to their homelands. Whether in the Lithuanian capital, Vilnius, the Czech city of Bohumín, Eger in Hungary or the Austrian capital, Vienna, the same scene was repeated in early 1945. Pitiful figures stood in front of their old homes and were either turned away or faced open hostility. Other people were now living in their homes, people who had taken over their businesses and belongings. The scenes showed “that the Jews were standing in front of the doors not unexpectedly but as unwanted people,” writes Mr. Aly.
It is an indication of how pronounced the willingness was to support the mass murder of Jews in the countries allied with or occupied by Nazi Germany. Mr. Aly has no doubt that the genocide in the gas chambers took place on the initiative of the Germans. Without Hitler’s racist war against the “Jewish-Bolshevik” Soviet Union, the crimes in the German extermination camps in Poland are unimaginable. Quite rightly, however, the author stresses that the initiator could not have committed the genocide alone. “Without the many collaboratively assisting administrative officials, police, politicians and thousands of local murderers, the monstrous undertaking couldn’t have been carried out with such breath-taking speed.”
Collaborators were involved in work in the camps and took part in the mass shootings, they robbed Jewish property, betrayed Jews in hiding and were given rewards for it. Using Poland as an example, the British historian David Cesarani showed in his 2016 book, “Final Solution,” that the majority of Poles most likely didn’t see Jews as being in need of protection but rather as articles of trade and a source of income.
The Nazis took advantage of the hatred of Jews that had already been festering there for a long time.
What led to this brutalization? Mr. Aly’s answer is that the Nazis took advantage of the hatred of Jews that had already been festering there for a long time. The exuberant and extreme nationalism that had engulfed almost all of Europe in the late 19th century had fueled it. In order to idealize the national image, foreign minorities were increasingly marginalized and ostracized. In 1894, the cry “Death to Jews” echoed throughout France. In 1913, anti-Semitism was the state religion in Romania. Between the winter of 1918 and spring of 1921, at least 150,000 Jews lost their lives in pogroms in Ukraine. And in 1934, the motto of many Poles was “Don’t buy from Jews.”
Underlying this anti-Semitism was an interest in damaging the Jews economically or confiscating their property, as well as the ideological guiding principle of a pure nation that punishes ethnic deviation. Mr. Aly doesn’t address it, but this guiding principle is today celebrating a renaissance in the right-wing populist movement – be it the Alternative for Germany, Orbán’s Hungary, Kaczyński’s Poland, Putin’s Russia or Trump’s America.
There is another parallel that links the triumphant spread of anti-Semitism until 1945 and the current neo-nationalism, and that is the flirtation with authoritarian rule and radical measures. In the wake of World War I, the forced deportation of minorities was celebrated. The French resettled hundreds of thousands of Germans from Alsace-Lorraine, the Greeks drove out the Turks and the Turks “cleaned” their territory of Greeks. Forced expulsions of whole ethnic populations, according to Mr. Aly, became “accepted practice in European politics.”
Mr. Aly first rose to prominence with his works on National Socialism, but he is controversial among academics. For example, he claims in “Hitler’s Beneficiaries: Plunder, Racial War, and the Nazi Welfare State” that the Germans lived in the lap of luxury during World War II due to the Nazis’ policy of plundering. His thesis of a “convenience dictatorship” completely turns a blind eye to the drastic lack of civilian consumer goods and the catastrophic size of the national debt.
There is only one substantial objection to raise against his new book. The author underestimates the role also played by archaic anti-Jewish prejudice – Jews as enemies of the Christian faith and national communities – in the rise of modern European anti-Semitism.
Ultimately, it was an explosive mixture of ancient prejudices, jealousy and avarice, ethnically-charged nationalism, friend-foe mindsets and authoritarian rule that led to the genocide of 6 million European Jews. There were also exceptions. For example, Belgian bank employees, police and judges refused to help the German occupiers in plundering and deporting Jews. Around half of the Belgian Jews were saved. The Danes successfully resisted the introduction of the Star of David. Almost all of the Jews in Denmark escaped the death transports.
Back then, Belgians and Danes had to risk their lives. Fortunately today, the fight against national chauvinists mostly only calls for civil courage and not heroism.
Michael Brackmann is an editor with Handelsblatt. To contact him: email@example.com