Studying the Jew: Scholarly Antisemitism in Nazi Germany

Article excerpt

Studying the Jew: Scholarly Antisemitism in Nazi Germany, by Alan E. Steinweis. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2006. 203 pp. $29.95.

In December of 2006, the Iranian Foreign Ministry's Institute for Political and International Studies hosted a conference on the Holocaust in Tehran for the stated purpose of denying Israel's legitimacy as a Jewish state. It was the first instance in which a state had sponsored a gathering of Holocaust deniers from around the world. The institute's head, however, claimed that the purpose of the conference was not to deny the Holocaust, but to "provide an appropriate scientific atmosphere for scholars to offer their opinions in freedom about a historical issue." This appeal to scholarly objectivity echoes Adolf Hitlers demand, made in 1919, that "emotional anti-Semitism" be superseded by an "anti-Semitism of reason." Such a putatively "scholarly" agenda would. Hitler claimed, provide a "clear understanding of the consciously or unconsciously systematic degenerative effect of the Jews on the totality of our nation(TM) (p. 7). Less than a year later. Hitler conceded that the resulting "scientific antiSemitism" would have to co-exist with more traditional forms of irrational Jew hatred, thus foreshadowing the murderous mixture of technical efficiency and sadism that characterized the Holocaust.

In this important analysis of Nazi-era Jewish studies, Alan Steinweis demonstrates how scholars from what had been the world's greatest universities responded to Hitler's call for an "anti-Semitism of reason." He begins with a survey of the institutional context and the social and political purposes Jewish studies served. He argues that scholarly study gave racial antisemitism a scientific imprimatur, legitimized antisemitic policies, and in some cases was put to practical use during the war and Holocaust. The bulk of the book examines the nature of these endeavors through detailed profiles of individual "race theorists," theologians, historians, and social scientists, some well-known and others heretofore obscure.

Studying the Jew complements both Max Weinreich's little-known 1946 study Hitler's Professors and very recent scholarship demonstrating the deep complicity of German academic culture with National Socialism. Hundreds of scholars representing every discipline and every significant university and scientific institute put their talents and prestige at the regime's service. Their betrayal of traditional scholarly standards and their contribution to the regime's crimes went largely unpunished after 1945 as compromised scholars flooded back into universities, laboratories, and clinics in both postwar Germanys. This restoration was facilitated by their own narratives of defense and justification in which they claimed to have rejected Nazi ideology by remaining true to scholarly standards of objectivity, therefore avoiding political engagement altogether. Any formal affiliations with the regime, according to this exculpatory myth of a victimized professorate, were superficial and coerced.

This claim was true in part. In 1936, the regimes education minister, Bernhard Rust, pronounced that objectivity in scholarship was a chimera because of the "fact" that different races comprehend the world differently. But Rust also asserted that German scholars would be free to pursue their research agendas as long as they were not themselves Jewish and their work served the "German people." Steinweis illustrates how those who studied Jews and Jewish culture did some recognizably "scholarly" work yet abandoned any pretense to objectivity when they oriented their research toward supporting antisemitic policies. That most did so willingly (some without ever joining the Nazi Party) illustrates the deep vein of personal and institutional corruption that ran through German academic culture. …