Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Two books on Jew hatred

The Holocaust looms over C20th European history as the great evil act of that murderous century. It has made racism the great public sin of Western civilisation, even though revolutionary socialism has killed far more people. At least until recently, it also made what had been an abiding feature of Christendom-cum-Western civilisation (Jew hatred) into something that put one outside the pale of civilised people.

Jew-hatred has been making a bit of a comeback within the West, mainly due to growing Muslim communities, though wider antipathy to Israel has also played a part. Indeed, Israel provides yet another example of what Freud called the Jews “great service”—of providing a focus for violent hatred expressing various anxieties. Where once Jews were denounced as a “rootless” people, Israel’s sin is now to be a state for a people. Where Jews were once denounced as being alien to Christendom-cum-Western civilisation, Israel is denounced precisely for being an exemplar of Western civilisation. Where Jews were once despised for being not remotely warriors, Israel is denounced for its militarism. The particular anxieties may shift, but the principle remains the same: the Jews can’t win and they (or their state) attract special opprobrium (given that—even on the most hostile view of Israel’s policies towards the Palestinians—there is nothing morally remarkable about them compared to other ongoing vilenesses that attract far less passionate and sustained denunciation).

But it is the Holocaust that gives anti-Semitism its horrible fascination. Jacob Katz’s From Prejudice to Destruction: Anti-Semitism, 1700-1933 and Peter Pulzer’s The Rise of Political Anti-Semitism in Germany and Austria are both very much written as books examining the prelude to the Holocaust.
Both books focus on Germany and Austria-Hungary, though Katz also deals with France. Katz starts with the shift (1700-1780) from “conventional” Christian Jew-hatred to the development in the Enlightenment of new forms of Jew-hatred. Voltaire is a major figure here, showing how contempt for the Jews could shift from being based on them not being Christian (i.e. having the wrong religious belief) to Judaism being the precursor to Christianity (i.e. fostering religious belief: indeed, the typical claim was, a particularly superstitious form of religious belief).

Katz then moves on to resistance in Germany (1780-1819) to pressures to grant Jews civic equality, a cause associated with French aggression. Then France (1780-1880), covering the Catholic reaction to Revolutionary equality, the development of the socialist indictment as Jews as capitalist-extraordinaires (whereby Jews—the perennial outsiders—get dramatically cast as the ultimate, powerful insiders) and liberal continuation of Voltaire’s complaints.

Then back to Germany (1830-1873) and battles over Jewish equality and shifting political images of the Jews, battles that were deeply intertwined with struggles over how to conceive German identity, both culturally and politically. A story that also plays out in his examination of Austria-Hungary (1780-1880), complicated by the complexities of national identities in the Danubian monarchy.

Having set the scene, Part VI The Movement examines the crystallization of the anti-Semitism movement in Germany, Hungary, Austria and France. The book finishes in Part VII Culmination examining the failure of anti-Semitic political parties prior to 1914, the coming together of race theory from Gobineau and Darwinism with anti-Semitism, particularly in the work of Houston Stewart Chamberlain, and their culmination in the most successful of all anti-Semitic political parties, the National Socialist German Workers Party. Katz then finishes which a chapter on Jew-hatred down the ages.

The interaction with racism strikes me as being somewhat more complex, as the Spanish "cleanliness of blood" laws, the pressures of slavery, and settlement of the neo-Europes, all fed into the mix. But Katz is probably correct in suggesting the main resonance in later C19th Europe was with Jew-hatred specifically.

Pulzer’s book is much more focused specifically on anti-Semitism as a political movement in Germany and Austria-Hungary. So he starts with a short Part on the Jews and their environment, moves on to the rejection of liberalism, then examines Germany from 1867 to 1900, then Austria-Hungary from 1867 to 1900, then both from 1900 to 1914 with an Epilogue on 1914-1938.

For a long time I had a great deal of difficulty getting any handle on anti-Semitism and Jew-hatred. It seemed such a bizarre belief to me. Much reading and thought has made it more understandable (though no less reprehensible). Katz and Pulzer tell similar stories and have complementary analyses.

Pulzer sees pre-1914 political anti-Semitism as being very successful in pervading much of German and Austrian society with anti-Semitic ideas—so much so, they largely did themselves out of political role: a common feature of “single issue” political parties. That success Pulzer sees as being a result of a late-starting, hugely socially disruptive, industrialisation occurring in societies where liberal institutions and their supporting ideas had also arrived late and put down shallow roots. The combination of social disruption and weak (and, to some extent, overwhelmed) liberal structures provided an avenue for scapegoat politics seeking comfortable uniformities and certainties combined with someone to blame and who those uniformities and certainties could be defined against. He does not see anti-Semitism as merely cynical politics (Karl Lueger, the notorious Mayor of Vienna being a major exception) but as largely being a genuine, if horrid, response to social disorientation.

Katz has a more all-embracing view because his focus is much wider one. In the West, Jew-hatred starts with Christianity. Even after Christian doctrine stopped being the formal basis of law, permitting Jewish emancipation, Christianity continued to be a basic discourse within European societies. Katz identifies a raft of orthodoxly Christian writers who provided a bridge between traditional Christian Jew-hatred and anti-Semitism. Moreover, Christianity was identified with national identity, creating an immediate bridge between Christian Jew-hatred and nationalist Jew-hatred (ie. anti-Semitism proper). Anti-Semites continued to use standard Christian anti-Jewish arguments. Even secularists such as Voltaire, Bruno Bauer and Eugen Duhring saw Christianity as the “higher” religion.

Katz argues that Christianity had created a culture and language of contempt for Jews that proved portable to new circumstances and new justifications. Something that the creation of Israel did not solve, merely provided another permutation in the continuing patterns.

Katz and Pulzer’s analyses are complementary rather than antagonistic. Though Pulzer is more struck by the way anti-Semitism did not gain much traction in the Anglosphere and northern Europe. But Katz is interested in why anti-Semitism happened at all, Pulzer why it had such power in Germany, Austria and Hungary.

For centuries, Jews were people with only a degraded place in Christendom, and barely any voice—particularly not in public affairs. As emancipation loomed and then occurred, many Gentiles were clearly insulted by the notion that the Jews be treated as their equals; taking it as an affront to their sense of identity and of what sort of community they belonged to, how that community was to be defined. So the notion that Jews had legitimate voice was also unacceptable. Indeed, they could so not be conceived as equals—as simply folk—that they could only be conceived as either degraded aliens or master-manipulators: but in either form they were corrupting pollutants of the social body.

A group easy to pick on because they were a minority and their voices were so easily discounted yet, at the same, time, a group onto whom all sorts of fears, frustrations and uncertainties could be vented. And who had to be conceived as sinisterly wealthy and powerful to justify being so fearful, to mattering so much. Which, of course, also reinforced the sense of the defining difference (in religion, nationality, race) as really mattering, so that one’s own identity was shored up. Something to cling to, particularly in a disorienting world of disturbing changes.

And we know where that led.

Katz and Pulzer have provided two enlightening, and complementary, studies of the path to the Holocaust.

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