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VCU Menorah Review Winter/Spring 2005
Number 62
For the Enrichment of Jewish Thought

The Study of The Holocaust And its Discontents

The Politics of Hate: Anti-Semitism, History and the Holocaust in Modern Europe.
By John Weiss.
Chicago: Ivan R. Dee

A Review Essay by Peter J. Haas

The perennial question of how the Holocaust could happen in the middle of 20th-century Europe remains both pressing and unanswered. There have been, to be sure, no shortage of attempted answers, focusing on everything from the traditional Judeophobia of the Church, to the racism of Social Darwinism, to the emotional traumas of World War I to economic pressures of the Depression to individual psychoses. All of these avenues of approach have their utility, and all seem to answer at least part, but only part, of the question. It is certainly fair to say, however, that today, 60 years after the death camps hit their stride, we really do not yet have a satisfactory answer as to why the Holocaust occurred. At best we have intriguing and insightful studies that illuminate certain aspects of the myriad events that made up the Holocaust. But a final understanding still eludes us, and may in fact never be established. Yet as we gain further remove from the Holocaust and as scholarship in the area has matured, we do learn more and more about the various forces — political, economic, psychological, and intellectual — that lay behind the Shoah. Holocaust studies have already taught us a lot, even if one of the lessons is that there is still much more to be learned.

It was with these thoughts in mind that I approached the book at hand. When I first saw the title of John Weiss's book, The Politics of Hate: Ant-Semitism, History and the Holocaust in Modern Europe, I assumed that what was in front of me was a book that was going to analyze the politics of race and hatred that fueled the formation of the Holocaust as state policy. I thought I might learn something about how racial, religious or social hatred was used by 20th (and 21st) century politicians to achieve certain ends. I hoped that insights garnered by this study might make us more aware of when and where future genocides might be taking shape. In the end, however, Weiss’s book disappoints on all these fronts. It offers no new analysis and affords us no new insight. It simply tells us, albeit in a compact and fluent way, what we already know, namely that the Holocaust was the result of centuries of Judeophobia, which in the 19th century became the ideology of anti-Semitism and that this ideology became part of the political discourse in most of the countries of Europe in the decades leading up to World War II. While this is not trivial, it surely is ground that has been already trod by many scholars.

The book is broken down into 11 chapters. The first chapter is a general overview of the origins of European anti-Semitism. While well-written, as I said, the chapter contains no fresh research or new knowledge. It simply rehearses the centuries of Jew- and Judaism-hatred that were part of classical Western culture. This introductory chapter is followed by two chapters on the politics of anti-Semitism in Germany (up to 1914 and from 1914 forward); two chapters on the politics of anti-Semitism in the Austrian Empire (up to 1918 and from 1918 forward); two chapters on France (to 1914 and from 1914 forward); two chapters on Poland (to 1918 and from 1918 forward) and one chapter entitled “The Italian Exception.” All this is followed by a short chapter of “Concluding Speculations.” This organization of matters suggests that the author had in mind an analysis of how in the first four countries mentioned (Germany, Austria, France, and Poland) anti-Semites were able to deploy their Jew-hatred into mass (if not majority) political movements that in turn made acceptance (or at least toleration) of the Holocaust possible. The chapter on Italy was to make, as it were, the counter-case; that is, to present us with a country in which anti-Semitism did not become part of routine political dialogue. By contrasting the first four and Italy, the author would then be in a position to tease out what made the politics of Italy different and so derive lessons for the contemporary world. Unfortunately, this is not what happened. The recounting of all this history was not mined for nuggets of new insights into the political processes that generated the Holocaust.

The failure to carry out the apparent plan lies in the fact that in each of the chapters the politics of anti-Semitism in the relevant country is not so much analyzed as simply described. This is no small feat in its own right and has its own usefulness. Thus when reading chapter six “France Before 1914” the reader comes away with a good overall view of the role anti-Semitism played in France starting with the Revolution and Napoleon, through the political alignments of the First Republic, the rule of Charles X, the Second Republic, Napoleon III and the Third Republic and so on. Along the way we learn about the role of Alsace-Loraine, how the Action Française came into being, the role played by the Catholic Church, the impact of Edouard Drumont’s La France Juive, and the Dreyfus Affair. In short, one gets in a relatively brief sweep a good overview of the history of the shaping of French political anti-Semitism up to World War I. The problem, however, is that once again nothing that is said in this chapter is new. That is, the author has not gone into archives or done other primary research that throws fresh light on any of these developments. Further, there is no method of analysis that helps us understand the established data in a new way. To be sure the various parts are laid on the table and related to each other, but no new meaning emerges from this exercise. It is as if the author expects us to get the point on our own, or as if the data self-evidently provides for its own interpretation.

The interpretation of the facts leading up to the Holocaust is not, of course, self-evident. In fact the presentation here, by making this assumption, is misleading at a very fundamental level. The various chapters focus almost exclusively on one line of discourse, namely anti-Semitism, to the exclusion of virtually all other trends and forces except as they impact the development of anti-Semitic rhetoric. The result is that one could easily come away from reading Weiss’ book with the conviction that anti-Semitism was at the very center of all political discourse in the West during the 19th century. The chapters on France, for example, allude to other central issues such as the question of the nature of French society, the place of the monarchy in French identity, the struggles with modernity, the place of the Roman Catholic Church and so on. But these come across as side issues that are relevant only insofar as they nudge anti-Semitism in one direction or the other. It is of course true that there were always anti-Jewish or anti-Semitic voices in France, and there were times, as in the Dreyfus Affair, when anti-Semitism moved to center stage for a while. But France (or Germany or Poland or Austria) faced many other political agendas and for most of the time anti-Semitism was not at the center but at the fringes of these debates. In short, the brief overviews given here provide a rather distorted view of the politics of the century and a half leading up to the Shoah. In fact, anti-Semitism in 19th-century European politics is best understood in its larger context, as part of the complicated weave of political, social and economic struggles and activities that made up modern European states’ attempts to define themselves. It hardly needs to be said that there was much in French politics that did not denigrate Jews and even supported them. At the end of the day, then, the question is not whether or not there were anti-Semites in Europe, we all know that there were. The question rather is why and how this one stream of political rhetoric suddenly rose to become a European-wide policy of genocide in the 1940s. This is precisely what is not addressed in the book. As I noted above, it is as if the author assumes that by merely documenting the existence of anti-Semitism he has thereby in some way explained the Holocaust.

In this regard, the chapter on Italy is actually somewhat illuminating. Weiss does show us that anti-Semitism in Italy simply did not rise to the pitch, or achieve the resonance, that it did in the other four countries. Again, I am not sure this is news, but in his rehearsal of how anti-Semitism functioned (or did not function) in Italian political rhetoric, one begins to see a scheme of analysis. There does seem to be something fundamentally different about Italy. But what this is never becomes the subject of sustained reflection or methodologically rigorous analysis. The chapter on Italy is another parade of facts. Thus one comes to the last chapter hoping that this final speculation will finally at least limn out the possibilities for further research and reflection. But here again this expectation goes unfulfilled. Instead, the chapter gives us platitudes about how Europe is different nowadays, how ethnic tensions seem to rise in the wake of the fall of multi-ethnic empires and how the development of modern technology in general and weapons in particular has played a role in modern ethnic and racial genocides. Again, I have no particular quarrel with any of these conclusions, but they are neither strikingly new, nor do they really flow from the preceding chapters. In fact, ironically, the book may function best if read in reverse B the concluding chapter articulating the basic assumptions while the preceding chapters serve to illustrate those assumptions.

I should end by saying that this book is useful in its own way. It documents anti- Semitism in Europe in a clear concise and accessible way. But for those looking for an analysis of how the politics of anti-Semitism were used to overtake all other considerations to become the guiding ideology of Europe and so produce the Holocaust, then this book will not prove to be helpful. The Holocaust remains as inexplicable, and unexplained, as before.

Peter J. Haas holds the Abba Hillel Silver Chair of Jewish Studies at Case Western Reserve University, and is a contributing editor.

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