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The Nazi hatred of the Jews

LAURENCE REES: Why did the Nazis hate the Jews so much?

DAVID CESARANI: The Nazis weren’t the only people who hated Jews during the 20th Century, but they hated Jews in a different way to most other people. There’s a long history of conflict between Judaism and Christianity, a millennia of conflict. There’s also a long history of conflict between Jews and non-Jews because of the social and economic relations between Jews wherever there have been substantial communities of the Jewish population and non-Jews around them. But those historic conflicts were contained within religious understandings - a conflict between Christianity and Judaism, and they were social, economic and sometimes political conflicts. What made the Nazis’ hatred of the Jews so unusual is that it was racial and it was biological. They believed that the Jews were not just the followers of an abhorrent religious doctrine, or that the Jews had grabbed too much economic influence, or even that they were too intrusive in politics or culture: what made the Nazis hatred of the Jews so different is that they believed that the Jews were biologically and racially distinct and that there was a kind of biological struggle for dominance over the entire human race between the Jews and everybody else.

This wasn’t something that could be solved through religious debate and argument, the conversion of the Jews, for example, wouldn’t do. The Nazis hated assimilated and converted Jews as much as they hated orthodox Jews. This was a struggle that was almost zoological, from the animal world. This was a struggle for survival between the human race and this Jewish species that the core group of the Nazis invested with almost a kind of supernatural demonic power, which was absolutely unprecedented.

LAURENCE REES: How and why did people take that seriously?

DAVID CESARANI: One of the peculiar developments in the middle of the 20th Century which makes Nazi anti-Semitism so powerful and ultimately so lethal is not that the Nazis were able to spread their poisonous fantasies through everybody else’s minds, it’s that there was a sufficient overlap between a traditional dislike of Jews and the Nazis own very radical, cosmological, biological hatred of the Jews. It wasn’t until too late in the day that people who disliked Jews for religious, social or political reasons, that were very traditional and actually rather conservative, realised that what the Nazis had in mind in their dealing with the Jews was something very different indeed. Let’s take the Catholic Church, for example. The Catholic Church was very happy to convert Jews. Catholics believed that Christ would return when all the Jews were converted and this was a fundamental element of Christian doctrine, more exaggerated in certain Protestant sects but nevertheless present amongst the Catholics.

Catholics, therefore, saw the Jews as a bit of a problem. Certainly if they were radical Jews, Bolsheviks Jews, but if these Jews would see the truth, see the light, would convert to Christianity and become good Catholics, then the problem of the Jews would disappear. They didn’t want to kill Jews.

And when they realised that the Nazis' solution to the so-called Jewish question was murder, the vast majority of Catholics were appalled by this and many of them, as we know, risked their lives to save Jews; they believed that Catholicism required them to save the lives of Jews because all human life was sacred. Now, what separated Nazi anti-Semitism from other anti-Semitism is the Nazis did not believe that all human life was sacred. They certainly didn’t believe that the lives of Jews were sacred, on the contrary they believed that every Jewish life, even a child, was a threat to the fatherland, the German Volk, and the human race, and had to be exterminated. That kind of biological, racial hatred was something quite unprecedented in human history. The Nazis were able to wrap it up in traditional hatred of Judaism, they used traditional stereotypes, and it wasn’t until too late in the day that people realised that what the Nazis had in mind was very different to what most anti-Semites had believed and had practised for centuries beforehand.

LAURENCE REES: How important was the feeling a number of non-Jewish Germans had about the Jewish role in the First World War?

DAVID CESARANI: Another thing that separates the Nazis apart from other people who dislike Jews is that the Nazis believed that the Jews had acquired vast power, and that they had used this power in a malign way. It was the power of the Jews that had led to the Bolshevik revolution, it was the power of the Jews that had led to revolution in Germany, had stabbed the German Army in the back and had brought down Imperial Germany. In the Nazis’ world vision not only were the Jews a force for evil, a Manichean, demonic force for evil, but they had vast power, they had their hands on the levers of power. They had to be eliminated, they had to be deprived of that power, they had to be broken and then destroyed. To the Nazis the entire course of world history vindicated that interpretation of Jewish power.

What happened in 1918 was simply one more example of the power of the Jews, and the level and power of the Jews. One reason that Hitler was keen to see the Jews segregated in Nazi Germany and subjected to increasingly harsh measures once the Second World War began, and why he wanted Jews segregated and eventually destroyed throughout the Nazi sphere of influence while the Nazis were fighting the war, was that he believed that if Jews were allowed to exist freely, to hold what he believed was economic and political power while Germany was at war, if they were within the German sphere of influence, they would do what they did in November 1918; they would stab Germany in the back.

So in Hitler’s eyes you had to destroy Jewish community after Jewish community wherever the Germans conquered, the countries they occupied, even the Jewish communities that were their allies - those Jewish communities had to be destroyed otherwise they would subvert the war effort and stab Germany in the back. That was a lesson that he had learned from 1918 but it was something that he believed could be seen throughout the workings of history: the malign power of the Jew.

LAURENCE REES: But there is no real evidence that anyone can point to of any reality behind any of this?

DAVID CESARANI: Hitler’s not unique in believing that there are mysterious and malign forces at work behind the scenes of history. Wherever life is complicated, and life is usually complicated, wherever political developments or the relations between states begin to unfold in a way that is difficult to comprehend, certainly difficult for ordinary people to comprehend, there is a temptation to see the hidden hand at work; hidden forces that cannot be identified. The only way that many people can explain what is happening to them is as the result of a conspiracy of hidden forces, and that fantasy has enormous appeal, and there are ruthless, cynical people who are willing to exploit that. Now, Hitler actually believed in this paranoid view of world history. There were others who went along with that because they knew it was a way of mobilising public opinion, getting voters into the polls to vote for them.

LAURENCE REES: And there’s this profound sense of illogicality, because they’re believing that the Jews are behind Capitalism in America and they’re also behind Bolshevism, the opposite ideology, in the Soviet Union. So how are they holding those two things together?

DAVID CESARANI: It’s nonsensical in one way but it’s also very sensible in another way. In this country, in Britain in the 20th Century, you find many donors to political parties who will donate money to the Conservatives and to the Labour Party just in case one wins and the other loses. People always try and back both sides against the middle. It is not inconceivable to believe that there are certain political forces in the modern world in the 21st Century. It’s very common for corporations to embody this, who are behind all political parties of the left or the right, and you make sure that whoever is on top’s interests come through. So what appears to be a nonsensical belief that the Jews could be behind Capitalism and Communism at the same time is not that unusual, and in fact the great corporations during the 20th Century did have economic relations with the Capitalist countries and with the Communist countries. Fiat in Italy had jolly good relations with the Communist parties as well as being a backer of fascism.

LAURENCE REES: But surely there's more to it than that. What this view of the Jews relies upon, is the belief that the Jews are operating without any core beliefs at all - other than crude self-interest. And the people who believe the Jews are like this, are thus, themselves, operating with a massive level of cynicism about how the world is structured?

DAVID CESARANI: We think of Hitler alone and we think of the great leaders as alone, but usually they are surrounded by a core or a clique, and there can be different world views or different ways of seeing politics amongst these groups. With Hitler you have absolute certainty and a measure of cynicism, but in a character like Goering you have absolute cynicism and not much absolutism. Hitler was quite unusual in that he did have a very rigid world view and a set of policies that he pursued. He was willing to trim at certain times, but he was fairly relentless. Other Nazis were much more flexible in their beliefs and extremely cynical in appearing to be absolutist. Himmler is one of the most notorious examples of this. You would have thought that Himmler was actually rigid in his beliefs, but at crucial moments Himmler was willing and able to be very, very flexible. And I think what makes the Nazi political machine and certainly its political leadership so dangerous is that it combined elements of absolute certainty with other elements of incredible cynicism and flexibility. That’s a very unusual combination. It enabled them to take power, to hold power and it almost led to them winning the Second World War.