A Biblical Theory of the Holocaust

By Meyer, Karl E. | Moment, May-June 2015 | Go to article overview

A Biblical Theory of the Holocaust


Meyer, Karl E., Moment


A WORLD WITHOUT JEWS: The Nazi Imagination from Persecution to Genocide

Alon Confino

Yale University Press.

2014, pp. 284, $30.00

No topic in history has provoked a greater outpouring of books and treatises than Hitler's Third Reich. As of 1995 there were 25,000 titles on the Nazi era, and by the year 2000, the total reached "a whopping 37,000," according to author Alon Confino, who cites a scholarly list compiled in Darmstadt. This continuing flood attests to the ongoing struggle, within and without Germany, to comprehend the motivations behind the rise of National Socialism and its monstrous offspring, the Holocaust. As frankly phrased by Richard von Weizsacker, Germany's first president following reunification, hardly any nation is free from blame for war, but "the genocide of the Jews is unparalleled in history," to quote his address marking the 40th anniversary of Germany's surrender in 1985.

Unlike the massacre of an estimated million or more Armenians in Turkey just a century ago, the Holocaust was not limited to a specific country but was pursued with relentless zeal in German-occupied Eastern Europe and the Balkans, with the willing complicity of Hitler's nominally sovereign allies in Italy, Central Europe and Vichy France. Yet the principal architect of this unparalleled atrocity was a Western country previously esteemed for its learning and literacy, its devotion to music and the arts, and its presumed piety. So what propelled Hitler's killing machine?

Alon Confino, a widely published historian at the University of Virginia and Israel's Ben Gurion University, offers a fresh, sobering explanation. The concept of a Final Solution, in his view, stemmed from the Nazis' imagined future of a world without Jews, specifically joined to their determination to eliminate all links to the Old Testament. With its roots in pre-Hitler Germany, he writes, this vision found tangible expression in the burning of Hebrew Bibles at the outset of the Nazi era, leading inexorably to Kristallnacht, or the Night of Broken Glass, on November 9, 1938, when Nazi gangs trashed hundreds of synagogues, sacked Jewish-owned stores and burned venerable Torahs.

Among contemporary witnesses, Confino summons Joseph Roth, a prescient journalist and novelist born in 1918 in Galicia in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, at the epicenter of Europe's "Bloodlands" (the apt term devised by Yale's Timothy Snyder). Hitler's aim from the outset, Roth wrote, was to burn books, murder Jews and cleanse Christianity of its Hebrew taint. In Roth's words, "This Third Reich is only the beginning of the end! ... For the first time Jews are not being murdered for crucifying Christ but for having produced him from their midst. If the books of Jewish or supposed Jewish authors are burned, what really is set fire to is the Book of Books: the Bible."

Confino is a fluent writer with an eye for salient episodes and quotations, gleaned from a wide range of published sources. He moves from bonfire to battlefield, composing a tapestry of unremitting horrors, as in his account of the invading German Army's Police Battalion 309 as it burst into Bialystok, a key city in Soviet-occupied northeastern Poland, on June 27, 1941. The commander was under orders to "clean up" a city of 100,000 inhabitants, of whom roughly half were Jews. The cleansing culminated when the invaders herded 700 Jews into the city's principal synagogue, dating to 1664. …

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