Posts Tagged With: jewish history

The Destruction of the European Jews

Hilberg - Destruction of Jews

Hilberg, Raul. The Destruction of the European Jews. With a new postscript by the author. New York: Harper Colophon Books, 1979.

 

The result of twelve years of research, this book is an important work for understanding the Nazis’ infamous “Final Solution to the Jewish Question.” But, as Hilberg makes perfectly clear in his preface, despite the title, this book is not a piece of Jewish history. Instead, readers should understand that this is a work of German history. He writes, “let it be pointed out that this is not a book about the Jews. It is a book about the people who destroyed the Jews…The focus is placed on the perpetrators” (v). As such, we learn the gradual radicalization of the Nazis’ plans to create a Jew-free Europe. Because it’s based on a wide range of Third Reich documents, this book opened up a vast source of information for English-speaking scholars to study this period of history.

Hilberg begins by situating the Nazi persecution of Jews into a larger, Western context. In fact, he places this persecution into a Christian tradition that dates back to the fourth century. Since that time, he argues, there have been three anti-Jewish policies in the Western world: “conversion, expulsion, and annihilation” (3). Ultimately, what makes the “Final Solution” unique in history is its scale: the sheer magnitude of the operation and the extreme totality of its goals. Otherwise, Hilberg states, “we discover that most of what happened in those twelve years had already happened before. The Nazi destruction process did not come out of a void” (3).

Hilberg then studies, in minute detail, the three steps of the destruction process. The first was a matter of defining exactly who should be classified as a Jew (43). Science played a crucial role in helping Nazis label Europe’s Jews. But Hilber’g book also reveals how these scientific (and legal) definitions of Jewishness could also cause problems for the bureaucracy intent on getting rid of Jews within its jurisdiction. Some Nazi officials, like Ministerialrat Bernhard Lösener were able to use the ambiguous term Mischling (mixling) to appropriate some Jews as predominantly German, thus saving their lives (272). The second step of destruction was the expropriation of Jewish land and wealth. Meticulous research reveals how the German bureaucracy maneuvered property taxes, wage regulation, and “Aryanization” of German profession campaigns. The third, and most gruesome stage was the actual destruction of the Jews themselves. Hilberg provides disturbing details about the industrialized, “conveyer belt” efficiency with which the Nazi killing centers ran (624-629).

This study can be placed in the “functionalist” camp in the debate about the ultimate aims of the Nazis regarding the Jews. Hilberg shows that as time went on, Nazi ambition changed. It was no loner feasible to continue pushing Jews eastwards since the war aims became to conquer that same land for Lebensraum. The most famous death camp, Auschwitz, was first built as a labor camp and only later equipped with gas chambers (574). Even the method of gassing went through evolutions: carbon monoxide was eventually replaced by the more efficient Zyklon B, even though it was more expensive (568, 628). Ultimately, Hilberg concludes that the focus of Nazi visions shifted from creation (of an Aryan race) to more closely focusing on destruction (of the Jews) to fulfill that vision.

Ultimately, I question his conclusions about the role of Jews in the process. They appear throughout the book as passive victims, marching to their own doom. Hilberg claims that this has been a historical tactic used by Jews to alleviate the persecution of their people (17). “In two thousand years they had deliberately unlearned the art of revolt,” he states (624). The outcome of this argument is as clear as it is questionable: “The Jewish community, unable to switch to resistance, increased its co-operation with the tempo of the German measures, thus hastening its own destruction” (17).

Hilberg’s book is an excellent source for encyclopedic knowledge. I learned several things that, even after studying this period for the past eight years, I didn’t know. And I think he pretty adequately shows that the Holocaust was the result of a process of radicalization. While it was Hitler’s vision all along to control a Jew-free Europe, Hilberg shows that this didn’t always mean killing all Jews. Only by 1941 did Nazi leadership come up with the “final solution.”  However, as I mentioned before, I do find Hilber’s conclusions about the level of Jewish complicity in their own destruction troubling to say the least.  But, perhaps this is a result of the fact that he chose to focus his study solely on the perpetrators.

For more books on modern German history and the history of the Holocaust, see my full list of book reviews here. 

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The Making of the Jewish Middle Class

Kaplan - Jewish Middle Class

Kaplan, Marion A. The Making of the Jewish Middle Class: Women, Family, and Identity in Imperial Germany. New York: Oxford University Press, 1991.

In this entertaining cultural history, Marion Kaplan explores the ways in which Jewish women were instrumental in the formation of the Jewish middle class in the German Kaiserreich (1871-1918). Her study highlights the ways in which these women navigated their lives in a manner that shaped religious, national, gender, and class identities for their entire families. This book calls into question the notion that Jews in imperial Germany simply assimilated into German culture. Instead, Jewish identity was renegotiated and reconstructed during this period, and Kaplan shows that this negotiation took place largely in the private sphere thanks to these Jewish women.

The dynamic of separate spheres is important to Kaplan’s work, and she shows that the private and public spheres were actually only rarely separate. While Jewish men went into new professions to earn more income, and thus position their family more firmly in the middle class, “it was in the household and family…that the most marked embourgeoisement took place” (4). Jewish women were expected to reign over the bourgeois realm of domesticity, and keep up appearances of respectability. They were meant to rear good, cultured German children who knew good manners and would conform to the expected bourgeois standards. In essence, the home and family members were supposed to display the family’s Bildung, or “authentic respectability” gained through self-cultivation (9). Kaplan argues that too many historians have focused only on men in their studies of Bildung because, until the twentieth century, women were barred from higher education and most jobs. But, this focus overlooks the central role that women played in setting the tone for the family’s Bildung: teaching manners, exuding Gemütlichkeit, and steadying support of her husband and family (25).

The home was an important site for another reason; this is where the mothers practiced acculturation, rather than the full-scale assimilation that has been suggested in other studies. By looking only at the public sphere, one gets the impression of assimilation, of Jews trying to become as “German” as possible. But turning one’s gaze to the private sphere, one sees that many women “continued to perform rituals, cook special Jewish dishes, and think and act in terms of Jewish life cycles, family networks and the Jewish calendar” (63). Women picked and chose how “German” their families would become, and by no means did they intend to give up their Jewish heritage. In fact, Kaplan argues that as the number of men going to synagogue and sticking to Jewish rituals steadily declined, women increasingly became the sole guardians of Jewish traditions in the German middle class (64). With the development of “optional ethnicity” for Jews, the “significance of women’s religious practices moved from periphery to core” (84).

The second half of Kaplan’s book describes the difficulty Jewish women faced when trying to enter the public sphere by entering higher education or the work force. In both of these ventures, they faced double discrimination as women and as Jews. These chapters remind readers that anti-Semitism was an everyday aspect of life in imperial Germany. One area that Jewish women were able to flourish in was social work. This endeavor explicitly connected the private and public spheres by extending the feminine (private) care of the sick, impoverished, or hungry in the public arena. “They then insisted that their traditional household duties extended, with the blessings of religion, to local and then national benevolent duty” (226). Kaplan sees this as a secularization of Jewish philanthropy, a transformation from religious to national duty.

Ultimately, Kaplan shows how these developments shaped not only Jewish middle class life, but also German middle-class life in general. Bourgeois Jewish leisure activities, higher average marriage ages, expanded role of domesticity and motherhood, and other factors all impacted German culture at large.

For more books on the history of modern Germany, see my full list of book reviews here.  

Categories: Book Review, German History, History | Tags: , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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