The more I read about the causes of the Holocaust (about 1000 pages in the last few years, including Götz Aly’s previous book Hitler’s Beneficiaries), the more I am convinced that Hitler was not the aberration we think him to be. This is not to say that his deeds are any less heinous or evil; rather, it’s an acknowledgment that the feelings and ideas and motives which drove and allowed the Holocaust are not limited to Germany in 1942. It’s a rejection of the comfortable lie that we can have all of the good things that Hitler promised (and he promised all of the “good” progressive things — social equality, wealth redistribution, massive welfare programs, etc) without having to pay the price one way or another. Fortunately, we have Götz Aly to tell us the hard truths.
I was a bit worried that, having read Hitler’s Beneficiaries only a few months ago, Why the Germans? Why the Jews? would be somewhat repetitive in its ideas and statistics. Happily, this is not the case at all, and this work — from 2011 but newly translated into English — is just as much required reading on the subject as is Beneficiaries.
Aly’s guiding questions in this book are these: How did German anti-Semites justify their resentment, envy, and hatred? What did contemporaries, both Jewish and Gentile, think about the motivation and burgeoning popularity of the anti-Semitic movement? In which social, political, economic, and war-related situations did animosity toward Jews especially increase, and why? He examines what initially made Germany so attractive to Jews, causing them to move there in large numbers and to thrive. He gives much consideration to the Treaty of Versailles and its effect on the German people, but he never allows it to be turned into an excuse.
This is a somewhat more personal work than Hitler’s Beneficiaries because Aly uses a lot of family letters and other documents to illustrate his arguments. His evaluation of them is honest and useful. But what impressed me most is the wisdom that Aly brings to his analysis, which was most evident to me in his discussions of envy. In my opinion, this book would be worth reading just for his insights about envy and how poisonous it is, as well as his cautioning against utopian philosophies. This is an absolutely necessary book.
My one complaint is Aly’s use of the word “Christian” as seemingly a catch-all for every German who wasn’t a Jew. I often couldn’t tell if he was using it synonymously with “Gentile” or as actually meaning a German who explicitly claimed Christian faith (of course, I’d argue that any person who condoned the Nazis wasn’t really a Christian at all, whether they claimed to be or not). It’s possible this was a translation issue, but I can’t tell.
I will give the final word to Aly himself: “The mortal sin of envy — together with a belief in collective happiness, modern science, and specific techniques of political rule — is what made the systematic mass murder of European Jews possible. There is no way around the pessimistic conclusion that evil can never be quarantined once and for all in a way that would rule out such horrors. Another event structurally similar to the Holocaust could still occur. Those who want to reduce the danger of its happening should work to understand the complex human preconditions of the Holocaust. And they should not kid themselves into thinking that the anti-Semites of the past were completely different from who we are today.”
Note: The publisher provided me with a free review copy. Quotations are subject to change.