WAS HITLER A RACIST? Is the view that he was guilty of genocide based on a historical misunderstanding? Merely to ask such questions is likely to arouse hostility and the suspicion that another attempt at writing revisionist history is about to be launched. But what if the terms ‘racist’ and ‘genocide’ are themselves key concepts in a revisionist version of history? What if it could be shown that they belong to a revision of history so huge in its scope and so successful in its execution that it is beyond the imagination of even the most extreme of Hitler’s apologists? What if this massive revision of history has already been accepted by the vast majority of intellectuals and educated people in the West?
Questions similar to these have often half-formulated themselves in my mind. But finding words in which to think the unthinkable is always difficult. I have been helped to do so now by a fascinating appendix to a recent number of Race and Class (Volume 32, Number 3, 1991) which appears under the title ‘A note on Ausländerfeindlichkeit’. The authors of this note, Annita Kalpaka and Nora Räthzel, make the interesting observation that ‘the term “racism” is virtually taboo in political and theoretical discussions in Germany … Instead one speaks of Ausländerfeindlichkeit – “hostility against foreigners”.’ The older term ‘racism’ is often suppressed, they argue, in order to avoid pointing to disturbing continuities between Germany’s democratic present and its National Socialist past. The new terminology ‘allows us to speak about the present whilst avoiding the analysis of recent history … It is not possible to analyse the historical roots of Ausländerfeindlichkeit, because it does not have any.’
This argument is clearly significant in its own right. But I want to suggest that a very similar analysis can be made of term ‘racism’ itself. Although in some contexts the word may be useful, in others it is dangerously misleading. If we accept the common view that Hitler’s anti-semitism was essentially ‘racist’ in nature and that his attack on the Jews of Europe can be usefully described by the term ‘genocide’, historical understanding will almost certainly suffer. For ‘genocide’ is rather like Ausländerfeindlichkeit. It is not possible to analyse its historical roots because it does not have any.
What the terms ‘genocide’ and ‘racism’ disguise is that modern ‘racial’ anti-semitism is the product of a centuries-old tradition of religious hatred, and that the biological theories of race which were used to reformulate this ancient prejudice at the beginning of the twentieth century were, in most important respects, nothing other than successful exercises in pseudo-science whose effect was to secularise and modernise an ancient religious idea. To make such a claim is not, or should not be, at all controversial. For it is now more than a quarter of a century since Norman Cohn expressed his view, in the foreword to his Warrant for Genocide, that ‘the deadliest kind of antisemitism, the kind that results in massacre and attempted genocide, has little to do with real conflicts of interest between living people, or even with racial prejudice as such. At its heart lies the belief that Jews – all Jews everywhere – form a conspiratorial body set on ruining and then dominating the rest of mankind. And this belief is simply a modernised, secularized version of the popular medieval view of Jews as a league of sorcerers employed by Satan for the spiritual and physical ruination of Christendom.’
As Norman Cohn acknowledged at the time, a similar argument had already been put forward as early as 1943 by Joshua Trachtenberg in his The Devil and the Jews, and demonological anti-semitism is generally recognised by historians of anti-semitism as having been born out of early Christian propaganda during the conflict between the Church and the Synagogue. Yet although the view which stresses the essentially religious origins of modern political anti-semitism has achieved wide currency among specialist scholars, it has made little headway outside the narrow circles within which such scholars tend to publish their learned articles. Indeed it is one of the most startling facts of twentieth century intellectual life that most educated people are almost completely unaware of the role which has been played by Christianity in general, and the New Testament in particular, in shaping the particular form of anti-semitic hatred which has dominated attitudes towards the Jewish people from the Middle Ages to the time of Hitler and beyond.
What is perhaps even more significant is that some of those who are aware of the historical arguments, fiercely resist them. Bernard Levin, for example, writing in The Times, challenges his reader to explain Jew-hatred ‘if you can’. ‘But you can’t,’ he continues. ‘The volumes which purport to explain this extraordinary attitude would circle the globe three times, yet none of them has ever got even reasonably close to the solution’ (The Times, 30 July, 1993). Levin goes on to reject the idea that anti-semitism has its roots in Christianity.
A similar view is taken by Frank Kermode who writes that ‘explanations that go back to . . . the crucifixion will hardly suffice nowadays . . . Perhaps it is an updated notion of wickedness that is really called for’ (LRB, 22 October 1992). Though such thinkers would probably readily accept the proposition that in the twentieth century we have secularised many of the Christian virtues, the notion that we might also have secularised some of the Christian vices is, it would seem, dismissed without a hearing.
When we deny the profound links which exist between modern anti-semitism and the traditional Christian faith as it is expressed in the New Testament we are, I believe, tacitly endorsing a form of historical revisionism far more sweeping, and ultimately far more dangerous, than any that has been enacted by David Irving in relation to the history of National Socialism. There can be little doubt that one of the most important of the many factors which hold this revisionist view in place, is our unthinking acceptance of terms like ‘genocide’ and ‘racism’.
The word ‘genocide’ was coined only in 1943 and, in that it was derived from the Greek word for ‘race’ (and the Latin word for ‘kill’) , it belongs to the same view of the nature of prejudice as the word ‘racism’. Because both words rely on a conceptual outlook which was only crystallised in the twentieth century, and which does not concern itself with the roots of anti-semitism (or any other form of prejudice), they, even more than Ausländerfeindlichkeit, function to block out disturbing historical perspectives. By doing so they prevent us from facing up to our own past.
Of course, according to the ordinary currency the words now have, Hitler was a racist and he was guilty of genocide - or at least of attempted genocide. Yet, if we could only bring ourselves to open up the historical perspectives that these words close down, we might recognise how misleading is the habit of mind they encourage and how insidiously they tend to confirm a common historical misunderstanding. For the tradition of anti-semitic hatred which Hitler inherited and which he manipulated for his own political ends was essentially a religious tradition.
Nor is it an updated notion of wickedness that we need in order to understand anti-semitism. What we need much more urgently is to excavate and imaginatively reconstruct an outdated notion of virtue. For hatred of the Jews has been one of the marks of Christian virtue in countless orthodox forms of Christianity from at least the third century down to our own century. And the fantasy that the Jewish people make up a Satanic host who must be cleansed from the face of the earth, though it was enunciated in almost precisely these terms by National Socialists in Germany in the twentieth century, is itself an ancient fantasy which belongs to the orthodox heart of Christian eschatology.
The fact that we have allowed ourselves to forget such cruel notions of virtue along with the destructive apocalyptic dreams which kept them company throughout almost all the centuries of Christian history, is not a mark of civilised progress. It is an intellectual tragedy. For it is this attitude, together with the myth of ‘racism’ with which we have surrounded the phenomenon of anti-semitism, which has helped to bring about that vast, almost unimaginable revision of our history within which the majority of educated people now live.
Over the past twenty or thirty years a number of scholars and historians have sought to challenge this view of history. Yet, because of the immense power of the historical myths which we have ourselves created, it is the secularised, revisionist view which still holds sway over our historical imagination. The process whereby, under the influence of the Christian church, anti-semitism became part of the very spirit of Europe, with tragic consequences which would ultimately extend far beyond Hitler’s Germany and far beyond the six million Jewish victims whose lives it claimed, is a story which has yet to be fully told.
Southwold, 1993. First published on this website, June 2002.
Joshua Trachtenberg's study of
the medieval demonisation of the Jewish people, The Devil and the Jews, has now been reissued. For details click here.