"A Calamity Almost beyond Comprehension": Nazi Anti-Semitism and the Holocaust in the Thought of W. E. B. Du Bois

By Brackman, Harold | American Jewish History, March 2000 | Go to article overview

"A Calamity Almost beyond Comprehension": Nazi Anti-Semitism and the Holocaust in the Thought of W. E. B. Du Bois


Brackman, Harold, American Jewish History


African-Americans have reacted to Jews not only as neighbors in the American communal polity but as a fellow diaspora people. This has been true at least since the late nineteenth century, when Caribbean-born Edward Wilmot Blyden embraced Herzl's Zionism as a template for Africa's redemption, and black newspapers in the United States expressed measured sympathy for Jewish victims of Russian pogroms.(1) The focus here is on the career of W. E. B. Du Bois, the preeminent African-American intellectual of the first half of the twentieth century, as a prism through which to view the global impact on African-American attitudes toward Jews during the period marked by the rise of Nazi Germany and the Holocaust.(2)

Born in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, in 1868 of a family lineage he described as "a flood of Negro blood, a strain of French, a bit of Dutch, but, thank God! No `Anglo-Saxon,'" William Edward Burghardt Du Bois became not only African America's leading thinker but an American master whose talents as a scholar, journalist, novelist, poet, activist and visionary were mostly ignored by the white Americans of his time. The recipient in 1895 of the first doctorate awarded to an African-American by Harvard for his history The Suppression of the African Slave-Trade (1896), he followed with The Philadelphia Negro (1899), the first serious study of the urban sociology of race relations, and The Souls of Black Folk (1903), the prophetic literary and political manifesto announcing that "the problem of the Twentieth Century is the problem of the color line." Du Bois was the moving force behind the creation of the interracial alliance which in 1909 formed the militantly integrationist National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) whose journal, The Crisis, edited by him from 1910 to 1934, successfully challenged Booker T. Washington's philosophy of racial accommodationism.(3)

Though Joel E. Spingarn, Arthur Spingarn, Henry Moskowitz, Rabbi 0Stephen S. Wise, Lillian Wald, and other Jews were prominent in the formation of the NAACP, Du Bois began his career tinged with fin de siecle anti-Semitism. Studying at the University of Berlin in the 1890s, he returned to the United States imbued not only with the latest in German scholarly methods but with his own version of the volkisch nationalism associated with historian Heinrich yon Treitschke. Described by Du Bois as "the fire-eating pan-German" and "by far the most interesting" of his professors, Treitschke modernized Luther's lament that "the Jews are our misfortune."(4) Du Bois rejected Treitschke's disparagement of Africans as a race without a history and mulattoes as an inferior breed but absorbed to some degree Treitschke's view of Jews as degenerate cosmopolitans incapable of assimilating into the organic nation state.(5) Though Du Bois recollected that he "followed the Dreyfus case" and was aware of "Jewish pogroms and segregation in Russia," his interest did not then translate into fellow feeling. When visiting Poland during a summer recess, he was light complexioned enough to have a question whispered in his ear by the driver of a rickety cab in a town north of Slovenia. The driver asked whether Du Bois wanted to rent a room in the part of town "unter die Juden?" He "stared and then said yes. I stayed at a little Jewish inn." Yet despite being mistaken for one, Du Bois found Jews to be "a half-veiled mystery" lacking a "strong middle class" and, as he complained about the Jewish passengers on the ship that carried him back to America, typified by "the low mean cheating Pobel [rabble]."(6)

The same sentiments pervaded the unsettling passages in The Souls of Black Folk disparaging as "heir[s] to the slave baron" the "shrewd and unscrupulous" Russian Jewish immigrants to the South who, together with the "thrifty and avaricious" Yankees, "could squeeze more blood from debt-cursed tenants." The putative victims of Jewish-Yankee exploitation were Du Bois's fellow African-Americans who figured in his romantic racialism as the newly chosen people, destined to infuse America's Anglo-Saxon civilization with desperately needed spirituality, passion, and "soul. …

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