Hitler Came From Austria

It's all about (Heinz Christian) Strache. Austria, 2009.

Many still consider it an accident that Nazi ideology centred around antisemitism and that Nazi policy, consistently and uncompromisingly, aimed at the persecution and finally the extermination of the Jews.

Only the horror of the final catastrophe, and even more the homelessness and uprootedness of the survivors, made the “Jewish question” so prominent in our everyday political life.

What the Nazis themselves claimed to be their chief discovery — the role of the Jewish people in world politics — and their chief interest — persecution of Jews all over the world — have been regarded- by public opinion as a pretext for winning the masses or an interesting device of demagogy.

The failure to take seriously what the Nazis themselves said is comprehensible enough. There is hardly an aspect of contemporary history more irritating and mystifying than the fact that of all the great unsolved political questions of our century, it should have been this seemingly unimportant Jewish problem that had the dubious honour of setting the whole infernal machine in motion.

Such discrepancies between cause and effect outrage our common sense, to say nothing of the historian’s sense of balance and harmony. Compared with the events themselves, all explanations of antisemitism look as if they had been hastily and hazardously contrived, to cover up an issue which so, gravely. threatens our sense of proportion and our hope for sanity.

One of these hasty explanations has been the identification of antisemitism with rampant nationalism and its xenophobic outbursts. Unfortunately, the fact is that modem antisemitism grew in proportion as traditional nationalism declined, and reached its climax at the exact moment when the European system of nation-states and its precarious balance of power crashed.

It has already been noticed that the Nazis were not simple nationalists. Their nationalist propaganda was directed toward their fellow travellers and not their convinced members; the latter, on the contrary, were never allowed to lose sight of a consistently supranational approach, to politics. Nazi “nationalism” had more than one aspect in common with the recent nationalistic propaganda in the Soviet Union, which is also used only to feed the prejudices of the masses.

The Nazis had a genuine and never revoked contempt for the narrowness of nationalism, the provincialism of the nation-state, and they repeated time and again that their, “movement,” international in scope like the Bolshevik movement, was more important to them than any state, which would necessarily be bound to a specific territory. And not only the Nazis but fifty years of antisemitic history, stand as evidence against the identification of antisemitism with nationalism.

The first antisemitic parties in the last decades of the nineteenth century were also among the first that banded together internationally. From the very beginning, they called international congresses and were concerned with a coordination of international, or at least inter-European, activities.

General trends, like the coincident decline of the nation-state and the growth of antisemitism, can hardly ever be explained satisfactorily by one reason or by one cause alone.

Antisemitism reached its climax when Jews had similarly lost their public functions and their influence, and were left with nothing but their wealth.

When Hitler came to power, the German banks were already almost judenrein (and it was here that Jews had held key positions for more than a hundred years) and German Jewry as a whole, after a long steady growth in social status and numbers, was declining so rapidly that statisticians predicted its disappearance in a few decades.

Statistics, it is true, do not necessarily point to real historical processes; yet it is noteworthy that to a statistician Nazi persecution and extermination could look like a senseless acceleration of a process which would probably have come about in any case.

The same holds true for nearly all Western European countries. The Dreyfus Affair exploded not under the Second Empire when French Jewry was at the height of its prosperity and influence, but under the Third Republic when Jews had all but vanished from important positions (though not from the political scene).

Persecution of powerless or power-losing groups may not be a very pleasant spectacle, but it does not spring from human meanness alone.

What makes men obey or tolerate real power and, on the other hand, hate people who have wealth without power, is the rational instinct that power has a certain function and is of some general use. Even exploitation and oppression still make society work and establish some kind of order.

Only wealth without power or aloofness without a policy are felt to be parasitical, useless, revolting because such conditions cut all the threads which tie men together.

Wealth which does not exploit lacks even the relationship which exists between exploiter and exploited; aloofness without policy does not imply even the minimum concern of the oppressor for the oppressed.

More serious, because it appeals to much better people, is another common sense fallacy: the Jews, because they were an entirely powerless group caught up in the general and insoluble conflicts of the time, could be blamed for them and finally be made to appear the hidden authors of all evil.

The best illustration — and the best refutation — of this explanation, dear to the hearts of many liberals, is in a joke which was told after the first World War. An antisemite claimed that the Jews had caused the war; the reply was: Yes, the Jews and the bicyclists. Why the bicyclists? asks the one. Why the Jews? asks the other.

Adapted from The Origins of Totalitarianism by Hannah Arendt.  Photograph courtesy of Ehrfrucht und Liebe.  Published under a Creative Commons license.