Dif­fer­ent but the same

Robert Low finds a new the­ory strangely fa­mil­iar. Two women im­press Char­lotte Oliver

The Jewish Chronicle - - JUDAISM - RE­VIEWED BY ROBERT LOW


Yale Univer­sity Press, £20

HIS­TO­RI­ANS HAVE got the causes of the Holo­caust all wrong. That’s the c e nt r a l t e net o f Alon Con­fino’s new rein­ter­pre­ta­tion of the world’s worst- ever geno­cide.

Con­fino, a pro­fes­sor of his­tory at both the Univer­sity of Virginia and Ben Gu­rion Univer­sity, thinks most his­to­ri­ans have things in re­verse. They be­lieve an­ti­semitism was the Nazis’ pri­mary mo­ti­va­tion: “an ac­cu­mu­la­tion of the an­cient ha­tred through the ages paved the way and ul­ti­mately pro­duced the Holo­caust”. Not so, says Con­fino: “The Nazis i n t e r p r e t e d anew the past of Jewish, Ger­man and Chris­tian re­la­tions to fit their vi­sion of cre­at­ing a new world.” And that was a world with­out Jews.

That may sound to many of us who don’t have any pro­fes­sor­ships, never mind two, as ir­rel­e­vant hair-split­ting, but there’s more: Con­fino thinks Holo­caust his­to­ri­ans have left the hu­man el­e­ment out. I can’t imag­ine where he got this no­tion from: my book­shelves are full of per­sonal ac­counts of the Holo­caust and the build-up to it in all its ap­palling de­tail and I’m not even a his­to­rian.

Take the mag­is­te­rial di­aries of Vic­tor Klem­perer, which de­scribe in ex­tra­or­di­nary, mat­ter-of-fact de­tail the grad­ual tight­en­ing of the Nazi stran­gle­hold on Ger­many and its Jews, and from which Con­fino lib­er­ally (and sen­si­bly) quotes. OK, they’re not a his­tory writ- ten after the event but no­body who has read them can fail to be un­der any il­lu­sions about the Nazis’ ul­ti­mate in­ten­tions: the elim­i­na­tion of the Jews. And what about the tor­rent of nov­els, films and tele­vi­sion doc­u­men­taries about the Holo­caust that has en­gulfed us since the 1960s?

Or the Holo­caust mu­se­ums spring­ing up around the world? Do they leave any­body in doubt about what was go­ing on? Or, in other words, does it ter­ri­bly mat­ter if some histo- ri­ans (none named by Con­tino, by the way) take a rather too aca­demic and de­tached view? It’s what aca­demics tend to do, after all.

Con­tino him­self seems to favour a Freudian in­ter­pre­ta­tion of the Holo­caust: the the­ory that the relationship be­tween Ju­daism and Chris­tian­ity re­sem­bles the Oedi­pus com­plex, the New Tes­ta­ment usurp­ing the Old as the son usurps the fa­ther. The Nazis hate the Jews “be­cause they refuse to be saved by the Son and chose to re­main Cho­sen”. The im­pli­ca­tion, thought Freud, was that an­ti­semitism was ef­fec­tively es­sen­tial to Chris­tian­ity. (The new wave of Chris­tian Is­rael­haters are do­ing their best to prove him right.)

After the big build-up about his new ap­proach, Con­fino presents a well-writ­ten and not over-long ac­count of the per­se­cu­tion and de­struc­tion of the Jews in Europe from 1933 to 1945. If you’ve never read any­thing about that dread­ful pe­riod (and I’m guess­ing this is fairly un­likely for read­ers of this news­pa­per), this is an ex­cel­lent in­tro­duc­tion, but I kept wait­ing for the big new rev­e­la­tion that would over­turn ev­ery­thing I’d un­der­stood about the Holo­caust.

It never came. So the Ger­man elec­tion of 1933 and Kristall­nacht in 1938 were key turn­ing-points after which noth­ing would ever be the same again. Who’d have thought it?

Robert Low is con­sul­tant edi­tor, Stand­point


Ma­lig­nant mem­ber­ship: Nazi Party deputies in the Re­ich­stag, Ber­lin, 1933

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