Sunday, May 18, 2008

Nazi Germany's Years of Extermination, 1939-1945

I imagine it's just a coincidence, but I picked up Saul Freidlander's new book, The Years of Extermination: Nazi Germany and the Jews, 1939-1945, just a couple of day prior to President Bush's recent statements on appeasement, delivered during his visit to Israel.


I commented on the controversy in an earlier entry, "Bush's Knesset Address: Revisiting the Lessons of Appeasement."

The Years of Extermination's a massive tome, roughly 700 pages, not counting another 100 pagers of footnotes on documentary sources.

I'm not going to rush though it, in any case. I've got
a couple of books going currently, although I've commited to reading Friedlander in his entirety.

In the meantime, I wanted to share a passage from the introduction, on the nature of German anti-Semitism in the 1930s. We talk so much about racism and oppression in all the current debates over political correctness, foreign policy, the abomination of the American project, etc., but what people don't often do is bear themselves straight up, and pay respect to historical memory.


The peculiar aspects of the National Socialist anti-Jewish course derived from Hitler's own brand of anti-Semitism, from the bond between Hitler and all levels of German society, mainly after the mid-thirties, from the political-institutional instrumentalization of anti-Semitism by the Nazi regime and, of course, after September 1939, from the evolving war situation. In The Years of Persecution, I defined Hitler's brand of anti-Jewish hatred as "redemptive anti-Semitism"; in other words, beyond the immediate ideological confrontation with liberalism and communism, which in the Nazi leader's eyes were worldviews invented by Jews and for Jewish interests, Hitler perceived his mission as a kind of crusade to redeem the world by eliminating Jews. The Nazi leader saw "the Jew" as the principle evil in Western history and society. Without a victorious redeeming struggle, the Jew would ultimately dominate the world. This overall metahistorical axiom let to Hitler's more concrete ideological-political corollaries.

On a biological, political, and cultural level, the Jew strove to destroy the nations by spreading racial pollution, undermining the structures of the state, and, more generally, by heading the main ideological scourges of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries: Bolshevism, plutocracy, democracy, internationalism, pacifism, and sundry other dangers. By using this vast array of means and methods, the Jew aimed at achieving the disintegration of the vital core of all nations in which he lived - and particularly that of the German Volk - in order to accede to world domination. Since the establishment of the National Socialist regime in Germany, the Jew, aware of the danger represented by the awakening Reich, was ready to unleash a new world war to destroy this challenge to his own progress toward his ultimate aim.

These different levels of anti-Jewish ideology could be formulated and summed up in the tersest way: The Jew was a lethal and active threat to all nations, to the Aryan race and to the German Volk. The emphasis is not only on "lethal" but also - and mainly - on "active." While all other groups targeted by the Nazi regime (the mentally ill, "asocials" and homosexuals, "inferior" racial groups including Gypsies and Slavs) were essentially passive threats (as long as Slavs, for example, were not led by Jews), the Jews were the only group that, since its appearance in history, relentlessly plotted and manuevered to subdue all of humanity.

This anti-Jewish frenzy at the top of the Nazi system was not hurled into a void. From the fall of 1941, Hitler often designated the Jew as the "world arsonist." In fact the flames that the Nazi leader set alight and fanned burned as widely and intensely as they did only because, throughout Europe and beyond, for the reasons previously mentioned, a dense underbrush of ideological and cultural elements was ready to catch fire. Without the arsonist the fire would not have started; without the underbrush it would not have spread as far as it did and destroyed the entire world. It is this constant interaction between Hitler and the system within which he ranted and acted that will be analyzed and interpreted, as it was in Years of Persecution. Here, however, the system is not limited to its German components but penetrates all the nooks and crannies of European space.
When I read Years of Persecution, I was particularly disturbed by the growing segregation of Jews in Germany, leading up to the breakthrough event, Kristallnacht. I've read numerous works on Nazi history, starting back years ago with William Shirer, and then through graduate training with scholars like Daniel Jonah Goldhagen, Ian Kershaw, and Michael Burleigh. Each interpretation, each different historiographical thesis ... this history, frankly, is among the most important developments of modern times, for it requires one to consider the ultimate nature of supreme evil, and how each one of us can realize a personal philosophy of personal justice and right.

I'll have more on Friedlander as I move along in the book.

In the meanwhile check out
Richard Evans' review of Years of Extermination at the New York Times.

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