History Professor Explores Origins of Nazis’ Animus Toward Jews

November 17, 2014

Alon Confino is intrigued with the stories Nazis told themselves to justify mass extermination.

“We all tell stories about our past,” said Confino, a native of Jerusalem and a history professor at the University of Virginia and at Ben Gurion University in Israel. “These stories are usually a combination of facts, embellishments, repressions and lies – not what really happened. We need stories to affirm our identities. We tell these stories not in order to get the facts right, but in order to understand our world.”

Confino’s latest book, “A World Without Jews: The Nazi Imagination from Persecution to Genocide,” published this fall by Yale University Press, traces how the Nazis imagined the Jews as a symbol of historical time that had to be erased for Aryan civilization to arise. According to this story, the Nazis constructed a new German, European and Christian history that owed nothing to the Jews.

He said that societies tell their stories to give meaning to their world, as a way of shaping their present.

“Societies tell different stories that change from generation to generation,” he said. “How the United States looked at the issue of slavery in the 1930s is different from how it looks at it now.”

The Nazis devised a narrative to justify evil.  

“The extermination of millions demanded a damned good story to go along with it, a story that would justify murder,” said Confino, who received a Guggenheim Fellowship for this project.

“What was this story? It uprooted all Jewish origins from Christian and European society, from the Bible to modernity. It was a dream about ‘pure’ origins that motivated the Nazis.”

Confino said German soldiers on the eastern front of the war knew their atrocities were a transgression of morality. “But they explained it in terms of an apocalyptic battle – we have to kill them or they will kill us,” he said.

As Confino investigated, he came to understand that the anti-Jewish actions the Nazi regime undertook in the early 1930s laid the foundation for the later extermination, but it was not an inevitable progression.

“You don’t start something with the act,” he said. “You need to imagine it first, somehow, to make it conceivable, and this in turn makes it legitimate. The need to imagine the dehumanization of the other is important, but once it starts, you don’t know where it will lead.”

Confino posits that the dehumanization did not inevitably have to lead to the gas chambers.

“In 1933, [Germans] could not imagine Auschwitz,” he said. “But they did begin to imagine a German society without Jews – in the school, the workplace, the neighborhoods. I follow in the book how Germans imagine a world without Jews; this is the metaphor that drives our story.”

As the aims of the Nazis broadened, so did their war against Jewish people.

“At the beginning of the Reich, in the immediate years after 1933, when they thought of the move from Weimar Republic democracy to one-party dictatorship, they wanted to remove the Jews from German society,” he said. “But when they started thinking about a racial civilization and a European empire, [they] needed a story to go along with that, a story that would justify their policies of expansion and extermination. Then they went in all-out war not only against Jews as lawyers or physicians, but also against Judaism and what it represented in the Bible and the Ten Commandments.”

Confino said that the Nazis, among all the books they burned, took pains to burn The Bible in an effort to purge Jewish history from scripture and Jewish influences in the New Testament. The Nazis wrote their own “New, New Testament” to remove the depths of the Jews from scripture and to remake Jesus as a manly warrior.

“This new vision of morality allowed them not only to persecute the Jews, but also to persecute European Christians,” Confino said.

“Setting out to create a new German identity, the rulers of Germany took the fight against the ‘un-German spirit’ very seriously,” Confino wrote in his book. “That is why the Nazis turned with such vehemence to the cultural domain, determined to cleanse the ‘Jewish Spirit’ from modern Germany. One event that epitomized the meaning of this new German identity: the burning of books across the Reich on May 10, 1933. The Nazis showed panache in announcing their identity by burning books, before they burned people, and a penchant for the hissing, crackling sound of pages devoured by fire.”

Noting that there is already a large, distinguished body of work examining the Holocaust, Confino said that at times scholars gain new insights by looking at existing and known facts in a new way.

“So much of writing is understanding old things in new ways,” he said. “Often it is the new combination of things that shows us new ways to think about them, and about us. How the historian chooses to tell the story is important because to write a history, certainly one of the Holocaust, without an act of imagination is an intellectual and emotional dead end. Erudite discourse and massive evidence should not obscure that while history aspires to be truthful, it first endeavors to be art. And it is in this sense that it can tell us something about ourselves.”

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Matt Kelly

University News Associate Office of University Communications