Different but the same
Robert Low finds a new theory strangely familiar. Two women impress Charlotte Oliver
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