News report of Kristallnacht
News report of Kristallnacht Screenshot

In any discussion about European Jewry before the Shoah, a number of questions are invariably raised. One of the most pervasive, is why did the majority of European Jews seem so oblivious to the evolving deterioration of events to the point “that many tens of thousands, who might have left continental Europe in time, stayed on passively until it was too late?” as asked historian Saul Friedländer.

There is no doubt that during the 1930s, they had no way of knowing what awaited them, since the Germans themselves had not yet decided how they were going resolve the “Jewish Question.” German historian Christian Gerlach postulates that Hitler made the decision “in principle to murder all the Jews in Europe, either on or around December12, 1941…. At least that is when it was made public.”

Friedländer agreed that no one could have predicted the Shoah. Nevertheless, “a sense of imminent danger, of possible catastrophic changes, might have been expected from European Jews as soon as Hitler came to power.” Most Jews, he said, remained unaware that a fundamental developments had occurred.

The reason for this was quite clear. “Many German Jews—and European Jews in general—were unable to face the fact that assimilation, ‘symbiosis,’ had failed, that even all their efforts and hopes had been largely in vain. They were “not ready to evaluate the past critically and recognize that their real status differed from their legal status.” Abandoning “their illusions” would have forced them to confront “the most painful conclusions not only on an abstract level, but about the nature of Jewishness itself, and worse still, about their very physical existence in Europe…It would have meant severing strong and real “roots and trying a new course repellent to most: expatriation, whatever its geographical destination.”

“Nuanced Terrain”

To be fair, in Germany, the Jews struggled “to live with a plurality of identities and cultures,” according to intellectual historian Paul Mendes-Flohr. From the time Moses Mendelssohn (1729-1786) left the ghetto to become part of the enlightened educated German middle classes in search of mutual interests,

German Jews were not naïve about the challenges they would encounter. Hannah Arendt, a philosopher and political theorist, noted that German society, “confronted with political, economic, and legal equality for Jews, made it quite clear that none of its classes was prepared to grant them social equality, and that only exceptions from the Jewish people would be received. Jews who heard the strange compliment that they were exceptions, exceptional Jews, knew quite well that it was this very ambiguity—that they were Jews and yet presumably not like Jews which opened the doors of society to them. If they desired this kind of intercourse, they tried, therefore, ‘to be and yet not to be Jews.’”

Their response to National Socialism Mendes-Flohr said, was to reaffirm their connection —"to the German humanistic tradition,”--which was a striking demonstration of “defiance” and an expression of their “deepest inner reality.”

Jews as Revolutionaries

There were two conventional approaches to daily Jewish life in Europe, Friedländer claimed. Focusing inwardly led one group to becoming “apolitical citizens,” and thus did not appreciate the momentous reversals occurring in the German political arena. Others, who were fewer in number, assumed a substantial role in the growth and “expansion of modern capitalism,” which provoked many of the “antisemitic slogans of the nineteenth century.” The “relative preponderance” of Jews in the stock exchange, banking and the administration of the press in the last decades of the 19th century,

The primary cause for the pre WWII hatred of the Jews Friedländer asserted, was the active participation of a tiny proportion ot them in the revolutionary movements of World War I and beyond.
established the Jew’s position in this revolution, observed historian Jacob Katz.

In Germany and Austria, “the bitterest critics of the most hallowed values” were the Jews. The primary cause for the hatred of the Jews Friedländer asserted, was their active participation in the revolutionary movements of World War I and beyond. He noted that “the myth of the revolutionary, culture-destroying Jew, perhaps intent on world domination, penetrated into Western consciousness more strongly than ever before. The relentless revolutionary drive of a tiny proportion of Jews-actually ones what hardly any link with their community(‘non-Jewish-Jews”)—gave Jews as a whole a stigma which was to have the dire of consequences.”

A Final Note

Nothing the Jews could have done would have impeded the emergence of the Germany’s virulent antisemitism Friedländer acknowledged. “Nazi antisemitism, however, was able to reach its full scope because it did not encounter strong countervailing forces within European society.” Why? The Jew was viewed as an “outsider” and the Nazi as an “insider.”

The Jews could not have modified this perception of themselves, but undeniably, the fact that they were identified as revolutionaries, provided the Nazi propaganda machine with evidence that reinforced Western society’s view that Jews were “undesirable elements” that had to be “excluded.”

What motivated a small segment of Jewish society to become such ardent revolutionaries? Once they left the ghetto physically and spiritually, they found the non-Jewish society unprepared to a accept them beyond legal equality afforded any other citizen.

“There is a deadly logic in the dialectic of antisemitism,” Friedländer concluded.

Dr. Alex Grobman is a historian, who is senior resident scholar at the John C. Danforth Society, and a member of the Council of Scholars for Peace in the Middle East.