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A World Without Jews: The Nazi Imagination from Persecution to Genocide

A World Without Jews: The Nazi Imagination from Persecution to Genocide

by Alon Confino

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A groundbreaking reexamination of the Holocaust and of how Germans understood their genocidal project

Why exactly did the Nazis burn the Hebrew Bible everywhere in Germany on November 9, 1938? The perplexing event has not been adequately accounted for by historians in their large-scale assessments of how and why the Holocaust occurred. In this gripping


A groundbreaking reexamination of the Holocaust and of how Germans understood their genocidal project

Why exactly did the Nazis burn the Hebrew Bible everywhere in Germany on November 9, 1938? The perplexing event has not been adequately accounted for by historians in their large-scale assessments of how and why the Holocaust occurred. In this gripping new analysis, Alon Confino draws on an array of archives across three continents to propose a penetrating new assessment of one of the central moral problems of the twentieth century. To a surprising extent, Confino demonstrates, the mass murder of Jews during the war years was powerfully anticipated in the culture of the prewar years.
The author shifts his focus away from the debates over what the Germans did or did not know about the Holocaust and explores instead how Germans came to conceive of the idea of a Germany without Jews. He traces the stories the Nazis told themselves—where they came from and where they were heading—and how those stories led to the conclusion that Jews must be eradicated in order for the new Nazi civilization to arise. The creation of this new empire required that Jews and Judaism be erased from Christian history, and this was the inspiration—and justification—for Kristallnacht. As Germans imagined a future world without Jews, persecution and extermination became imaginable, and even justifiable.

Editorial Reviews

Jewish Review of Books - Gavriel D. Rosenfeld

“Stimulating . . . chilling . . . [Confino] skillfully shows how the Nazis pursued their own origin myth by attacking Jewish history and memory.”—Gavriel D. Rosenfeld, Jewish Review of Books
H-Net Reviews - Amos Goldberg

“One of the most important books on the Holocaust to be published in recent years . . . both a methodological and a historical breakthrough.”—Amos Goldberg, Journal of Genocide Research
Fathom - David Cesarani

“Confino’s study is a triumphant demonstration that Nazi anti-Jewish policies are within the realms of comprehension and that it is possible to find the words to explain them accessibly and forcefully.”—David Cesarani, Fathom
German History - Devin O. Pendas

“Incisive . . . a major new interpretation of the Holocaust . . . Confino is such a subtle and persuasive writer . . . his speculations are never less than compelling.”—Devin O. Pendas, German History
Moment - Karl E. Meyer

“Confino is a fluent writer with an eye for salient episodes . . . He moves from bonfire to battlefield, composing a tapestry of unremitting horrors . . . [an] important book.”—Karl E. Meyer, Moment
Contemporary Church History Quarterly - Christopher J. Probst

“A thoughtful, eloquent, and provocative work of intellectual and cultural history . . . [that] may change the state of play in Holocaust studies for years to come.”—Christopher J. Probst, Contemporary Church History Quarterly
Contemporanea - Thomas Weber

“Incisive . . . Confino [is] one of the most gifted historians of modern Germany . . . A World Without Jews sheds genuinely new light on the inner workings of the Third Reich.”—Thomas Weber, Contemporanea
Dan Stone
"Thousands of books explain the political, social, and institutional origins of the Holocaust. As Alon Confino shows with style, sensitivity and nuance, the Nazis also built their racial state and committed genocide on the basis of German collective memory. An important and challenging book that pushes the boundaries of Holocaust history, A World Without Jews will be widely read and keenly debated."—Dan Stone, Royal Holloway, University of London
Steven E. Aschheim

“In this refreshingly provocative re-reading of Nazi anti-Semitism, Alon Confino depicts a civilizational reordering of German origins and the making of a radically transgressive new European order.  He sensitively analyzes how this counter-narrative was cruelly and fanatically implemented from 1933 on and illustrates it in almost unbearably graphic photographs.”—Steven E. Aschheim, author of At the Edges of Liberalism
Timothy Snyder

“In this sensitive intellectual history, Alon Confino maintains that the Nazis envisioned a world without Jews long before they found the means to kill them. This is a book about the Holocaust, but it is also something more: an attempt to make us see how what we call unthinkable was indeed a matter of thought.”—Timothy Snyder, author of Bloodlands
Wendy Lower

"In this pioneering exploration and explanation of Nazi antisemitic violence as a failed cultural revolution, Alon Confino's presentation is compelling, convincing, and long overdue. Uncovering new evidence and reexamining what has been known in an original way, A World Without Jews is an important history of culture as an agent of genocide."—Wendy Lower, author of Hitler’s Furies, National Bood Award Finalist
Open Letters - Steve Donoghue

“Quietly devastating . . . [a] short, staggering new book . . . an absolutely horrifying portrait . . . at once so disturbing and so hypnotic to read . . . in clear, unsparing prose . . . . Deserves the widest possible audience.”—Steve Donoghue, Open Letters
Jewish Journal - Jonathan Kirsch

“Bold and provocative . . . important.”—Jonathan Kirsch, Jewish Journal
Tablet - David Mikics

“Persuasive.”—David Mikics, Tablet
Los Angeles Review of Books - David Biale

“Confino has done a great service by drawing our attention to the mythic dimension of the Nazis’ apocalyptic war against the Jews.”—David Biale, Los Angeles Review of Books
Jewish Book Council - Michael N. Dobkowski

“Highly original and edifying . . . the writing is powerful and convincing and [Confino’s] evidence and conclusions will certainly push the boundaries of Holocaust scholarship and discussion for years to come.”—Michael N. Dobkowski, Jewish Book Council
Mark Roseman

“A very original and persuasive account of the Holocaust. With style, imagination, and confidence, Confino has offered a telling critique of the reading of the Nazis as racial ideologues and shown how Nazi persecution was embedded in Christian imagery and memory.”—Mark Roseman, Indiana University
Journal of the American Psychoanalytical Association - Arnold D. Richards

“I have read many books on the Holocaust . . . but I have found Confino’s book the most illuminating.”—Arnold D. Richards, Journal of the American Psychoanalytical Association
Library Journal
Confino (history, Univ. of Virginia; Foundational Pasts: The Holocaust as Historical Understanding) focuses on a less examined part of Kristallnacht. Why, on November 9, 1938, did Christian Germans, in synergy with the Nazi Party, celebrate the burning of the Hebrew Bible that night throughout Germany? By 1938 the Jews were largely removed, both physically and economically, from most of German life, yet they loomed large in the Nazi imagination. Confino sees the burning of the Hebrew Bible as part of a process whereby the Nazis, considering the Jews as the source of all evil in the world, moved logically to an effort to create a new version of Aryan history that severed Christianity from its Jewish origins. Hence the Bible burning. Thereafter, the Jews' very existence needed to be destroyed in order to assure a racial utopia. The popularity of Nazi ideology among the general population meant that while the idea of Auschwitz did not exist in the 1930s, its purpose was easily accepted when it was created. VERDICT Well written and with a provocative thesis, this book will interest Holocaust scholars as well as students of modern genocides.—Frederic Krome, Univ. of Cincinnati Clermont Coll.
Kirkus Reviews
An insightful new study that develops the theme of Jewish annihilation as necessary to the Nazi myth of genesis. Using a wealth of standard historical sources, such as anti-Jewish propaganda, as well as evidence considered unique in the history of genocide, such as the Nazis' burning of the Bible, Confino (History/Univ. of Virginia; Foundational Pasts: The Holocaust as Historical Understanding, 2011, etc.) pursues the chilling buildup to the Holocaust, from 1933 onward, in Germany as emotional, messianic and not at all secretive. The Nazi message from the beginning was to purge Germany of the evil (namely, Jews) responsible for "every phenomenon of the modern world objectionable to the Nazis," from bolshevism to liberalism to democracy (the list is a long one and nearly laughable). The burning of the Torah and other texts, conducted like a national festival, seems puzzling outside of sheer Nazi hooliganism, but it was an act posited by Confino as a deliberate, public consolidation of Nazi intention and legitimacy. Everyone would participate in the purge of "contaminated" books, and these symbolic "acts of purification," repeated and rehearsed in subsequent anti-Jewish laws on both the local and national level, goaded regular Germans into an emotional response "that claimed to link the individual to the collectivity based on anti-Jewish sentiments." The destruction of synagogues, for example, was a way to destroy history, severing any connection between Jews and Christians in order to make way for a new German national myth of genesis. Desecrating the Hebrew Bible was an intimate act of violence, requiring all five senses, as Confino hauntingly portrays, and it allowed the Nazis to supersede the Jews as a chosen people, to extinguish Jewish authority over the past—and claim history and time itself. A thoughtful study that represents Nazism less as a "banality of evil" and more as an "intimate brutality."

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A World Without Jews

The Nazi Imagination from Persecution to Genocide



Copyright © 2014 Alon Confino
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-300-18854-7


A New Beginning by Burning Books

Of all man's instruments, the most astonishing is, without any doubt, the book. The others are extensions of his body. The microscope ... the plow and the sword.... But the book is something else: the book is an extension of memory and imagination because what is our past other than a set of dreams? Which difference exists between remembering of dreams and remembering of the past? This is what a book does.

Jorge Luis Borges, "El libro"

Now do you understand why I've been getting migraines?" wrote Betty Scholem from Berlin on April 18, 1933, to her son Gershom, the renowned kabbalah scholar at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. "A small event: the Zernsdorf bus normally stops on our street before the bus stop, so we don't have to walk so far. This time, someone called out to the driver as he lowered the steps for us: 'So, for this pack of Jews you're making an extra stop!!'"

When Adolf Hitler was appointed chancellor of Germany on January 30, 1933, Betty Scholem knew immediately that things were bad, but she could not have imagined how quickly they would turn significantly worse. The Scholems were a typical German-Jewish middle-class family, steeped in German culture. In the decades following 1900, they had good reason to feel that their place in Germany was secure. Arthur, Betty's husband, was a self-declared atheist, a "modern man," and a devoted patriot. At Christmastime the family home was decorated with a tree as a symbol of German national identity. The two oldest sons, Reinhold and Erich, followed in their father's footsteps and joined the family printing business, sharing Arthur's respectable, bourgeois values. But the two youngest sons, Werner and Gerhard, as Gershom was then called, opposed the First World War, so enraging Arthur that he threw Gerhard out of the house. Werner ultimately became a communist and gained election to the Reichstag in 1924 as a member of the party, while Gershom became a Zionist and emigrated to Palestine in 1923. The optimism that once characterized the Scholem family as German Jews shattered before Betty's eyes. Arthur died in 1925. The Nazis arrested Werner and his wife on February 23, 1933, and Gershom was far away in the Levant. The normal, safe, everyday neighborhood life she had taken for granted all those years collapsed around her, as it did for all German Jews.

And so it went all over the Reich. In small Creglingen in Württemberg, a hamlet of a few thousand souls, including seventy-three Jews, members of the SA, allegedly searching for weapons in Jewish homes, attacked the local synagogue on Sunday, March 25, 1933. Interrupting the service, they took sixteen men and marched them in a parade of degradation to the town hall, where they severely beat and whipped them. Two did not survive; sixty-seven-year-old Hermann Stern and fifty-two-year-old Arnold Rosenfeld died in their native city, next to those they regarded as neighbors. In Breslau, on the other side of the Reich, young Nazis assaulted Jewish judges and lawyers in the courthouse on March 11. They moved from room to room, screaming at Jews to get out, chasing judges and lawyers, some in official garb, into the street. The court closed for three days, and when it reopened, the president of the court ruled that only 17 of the 364 Jewish lawyers who practiced law in Breslau would be allowed to enter the building and appear in court. Ludwig Foerder, a veteran who was wounded in the First World War, and a man named Geldfeld, chairman of the Board of Governors of the Jewish community, were among those chased from the building. Outside, Geldfeld turned to Foerder: "Just tell me, to whom will it be possible to complain about this outrage?" "Distinguished Privy Councilor," came the answer, "I fear there is no longer any such place."

Knowing with hindsight the end of the story of Jewish persecution in the Third Reich more than ten years later, we often view 1933 as the beginning of a gradual process of discrimination. In fact, it was an avalanche. The Third Reich began, not with a slow increase of violence against Jews, but with a massive, explosive attack on their civil, political, and legal rights in precisely the everyday places where one feels most secure—buses, workplace, home, one's own body. After January 30, 1933, on a daily basis Nazis desecrated synagogues, smashed windows of Jewish shops, and subjected Jews to acts of degradation in Königsberg, Chemnitz, Cologne, Krefeld, Munich, Berlin, and many other localities all over the Reich. Jewish life became expendable, killing Jews a nonpunishable offense: a Jew was lynched in Kiel on April 1, 1933, while on April 11, guards from the SS (Schutzstaffel, Protection Squad, the elite unit of the Nazi Party) in Dachau removed four Jewish inmates from the newly established concentration camp and shot them out in the open. Adolf Hitler had been chancellor for a mere ten weeks.

In one respect, the violence against Jews following January 30 wasn't new. After the First World War anti-Jewish acts had been widespread in German society. The violence markedly increased after the Reichstag elections of September 1930, which saw the electoral breakthrough of the Nazi Party. On the Jewish New Year on September 12, 1931, there were bloody skirmishes on Berlin's elegant Kurfürstendamm. Stormtroopers habitually assaulted synagogues and Jewish shops and attacked Jews in public. There was some continuity between the anti-Jewish violence of the Nazis in the Weimar Republic and in the immediate years after the seizure of power.

At the same time, January 30, 1933, did represent a turning point. The Weimar Republic, which lasted from 1919 to 1933, was a democracy based on the rule of law and on a constitution that was one of the most progressive in the world. Jews were protected by the police and defended by the courts, even if individuals within these two institutions harbored anti-Semitic sentiments. The Third Reich, in contrast, permitted and encouraged violence against Jews. On February 22, 1933, Hermann Göring, the second in command in the Nazi Party who was nominated Prussian minister of the interior in Hitler's new government, used his authority to enroll fifty thousand SA men into the police as auxiliary force. These stormtroopers, key perpetrators of anti-Jewish violence, were now invested with official authority to carry out their brutality. After January 30 it was common for police officers to refuse to lend succor to Jewish victims, asserting that "police duties do not include the protection of Jews." On July 22 the government announced an amnesty for all crimes committed during the "National Socialist Revolution," and as a result all pending cases of murder, assault, and house break-ins were closed.

For Nazis and other Germans, "the Jew" represented different and often contradictory things. Some SA men of humble origins resented the Jews as rich capitalists and greedy bankers and wanted to do away with the Jews as well as with much of capitalist industrial society, going back to a bucolic idea of premodern, small hometown existence, which one Nazi Party leader called "anti-capitalist nostalgia." Others resented the Jews' role as owners of large companies such as the department store chain Tiez, which had fourteen thousand employees, or the Berlin-based Ullstein publishing empire. But many businesspeople and middle-class Germans shared none of these ideas; instead, they saw the Jews as carriers of insidious communist ideas to bring about a Bolshevik revolution in Germany. For still others, such as Achim Gercke, a specialist for race research in the Ministry of the Interior, the racial issue was paramount. To him, the anti-Jewish laws promulgated by the ministry were important to educate Germans that "the national community is a community of blood" that must reject Jews regardless of their political affiliation. Many Germans resented the overrepresentation of Jews in key areas of public and professional life, such as the universities, medicine, and the law. Others simply saw the Jews as plotters par excellence, as conspirators united in a worldwide cabal to control the world, be their aim communist, capitalist, religious, or something else altogether.

Adolf Hitler epitomized the ability of anti-Semites to believe simultaneously in a mishmash of imaginary, diverse, and contradictory views about the Jews. For him, the Jewish conspiratorial activity spanned the entire globe and all of history. His anti-Semitism had Christian and metaphysical elements—he talked about the Jews as devils, as enemies of truth and virtue—as well as economic and political components—he ranted against the Jews as instigators of the French Revolution, equal rights, communism, and capitalism. Hitler saw the Jews as a race, a biological fact that cannot be altered by any change of name, belief, or religion, but he also viewed his anti-Semitism in religious terms: "Today I believe that I am acting in accordance with the will of the Almighty Creator," he mused in Mein Kampf, which he wrote in the mid-1920s. "By defending myself against the Jew, I am fighting for the work of the Lord."

Everyone in Germany had his or her own idea of "the Jew." But there was a common denominator in the first months and years of the Nazi regime of all these disparate and conflicting views. The Nazi anti-Jewish story had an internal unity and shared a central motif: the idea that the Jews were the creators of an evil modernity that soiled present-day Germany. The adjective jüdisch, or Jewish, was attached to every phenomenon of the modern world objectionable to the Nazis, and then some. Jews were responsible for bolshevism, communism, Marxism, socialism, liberalism, capitalism, conservatism, pacifism, cosmopolitanism, materialism, atheism, and democracy; for Germany's defeat in the First World War, the 1918 November Revolution (which brought an end to the war and the German Empire), and the Weimar Republic; for Weimar's culture of entertainment in the cabaret and club scene, as well as for sexual freedom, psychoanalysis, feminism, homosexuality, and abortion; for modernist, atonal, and jazz music, for Bauhaus architecture, and for abstract painting represented in impressionism, postimpressionism, cubism, Dadaism, and expressionism.

The accusation against Jews as rootless cosmopolitans, a people whose loyalty is not to any specific nation but to an abstract ancient religion, had been common in Europe since the French Revolution. Nationalists in different countries, from France via Hungary to Russia, denounced Jews as alien to the intrinsic identity and culture of the homeland and as unable to shed their inherent rootlessness. The Nazis adopted this idea while fitting it to their own period. In 1933, the Nazis did not have in mind genocide and extermination—this came only later. What they did begin to imagine was a new, improved, pure Germany without the Jews and the modern vices caused by them. What was imperative was the total destruction of Weimar democracy, of the rule of law, and of German liberalism as well as communism.

The Nazis promoted their own modernity, a racial society of pure Aryans based on the idea of a strong leader and of a nation poised for European hegemony, an alternative ideology to liberalism in the West and communism in the East. They proposed a united national community devoid of class and party political strife and of aristocratic and bigwig privileges, the benefits of technology, communication, and modern science in the service of the people, a national will embedded in Hitler, and support for a style of representational art. What concerned the Nazis and their supporters in 1933 was the present. They pinned their hopes on a transformation of current politics, culture, and identity, and they thus made the Jews into the enemy in the fight for a new German society: the campaign against them in the early years of the Third Reich was tied up with the campaign against democracy, liberalism, and communism—against all that the name Weimar Republic represented. The persecution of the Jews not only involved anti-Semitism but clinched the anti-Marxist and antiliberal vision of modernity shared by Nazis as well as by many Germans who did not identify themselves as Nazis.

If the Jews were the chief enemy of the Nazi revolution, the linchpin in the crushing of one modernity and the making of another, it is because only they represented in the minds of the Nazis and other Germans at one and the same time different, and often opposing, enemies. They could represent Marxism and liberalism, democracy and bolshevism, communism and cubism (not quite the artistic style for social realists). The idea of "the Jew" was powerful precisely because it added up into a whole that was bigger than the sum of its parts. Of course, not all Germans and Nazis linked Jews to all these attributes. But this is precisely the point: the Jew symbolized different enemies of a German regeneration to different people. The formidable image of the Jew as the origin of an evil modernity was precisely that it could mean many things to many people while still providing a common denominator of redeeming Germany from its present decline.

Betty Scholem, Hermann Stern, Arnold Rosenfeld, and Ludwig Foerder were victims of a wave of Nazi violence that not only targeted Jews but engulfed all of German society in 1933. The terror was widespread, against communists, socialists, trade union leaders, and left-leaning liberals, and more comprehensively against all those who expressed dissent in public, were regarded by the Nazis as ideological enemies, or were nonconformists of some kind. On March 25, at the same moment Jews in Creglingen were savagely beaten, stormtroopers, SS, and police units in forty-five other localities across the Reich occupied and demolished trade union offices. On the same date that Jewish lawyers were terrorized in Breslau, Felix Fechenbach, former secretary of the socialist leader Kurt Eisner and the current editor of the Social Democratic newspaper in Detmold, was taken into custody at the other end of the Reich together with other socialist leaders in the province of Lippe. He was shot dead on August 8 while allegedly being transferred to Dachau.

When Hitler was appointed chancellor on January 30, 1933, his power was by no means absolute, and many in Germany believed that his political career would be brief. Yet within seven weeks a Nazi revolution swept Germany carried out by enthusiastic Germans, and Hitler became a dictator. In the weeks leading to January 30, Field Marshal Hindenburg, the old, ill, conservative president of the Weimar Republic, had not been prepared to sanction Hitler's appointment until he was satisfied that the chancellor's power would remain limited. Hitler headed a government in which all the posts but two were held by conservatives, with Franz von Papen, a key conservative wheeler-dealer, as deputy chancellor. The conservatives, who included aristocrats, army officers, big landowners, and industry captains, wanted to use the Nazis as legitimation and support for the destruction of Weimar democracy, but without handing actual political power to Hitler and his party. Many upper-class conservatives disdained the Nazi Party's populist, mass appeal and the humble social origins of its leaders, including Hitler. Von Papen, confident in Hitler's limited room for political maneuver, is purported to have said to a friend, "In two months we'll have pushed Hitler into a corner so hard that he'll be squeaking." He was not the only one who thought so. "Nobody thinks [Hitler's cabinet] can last till the spring," wrote Christopher Isherwood, the British writer who lived in Berlin at the time and whose stories on the last days of Weimar inspired the musical Cabaret.

But Hitler had several key advantages. Political realism forced the conservatives around President Hindenburg to work with him, and in truth they needed him more than he needed them. They wanted to replace the Weimar Republic with an authoritarian regime with limited political rights and aggressive policies against liberals, socialists, and communists. They had key social and economic roles yet lacked the political power and mass following that Hitler enjoyed. He was the leader of Germany's largest political party. At the end of January 1933 the National Socialists boasted 719,446 members organized in ten thousand local branches in dozens of communities big and small all over the Reich. These followers were determined to make their mark on history when on Monday, January 30, shortly after one o'clock in the afternoon, the radio announced Hitler's appointment. At eight o'clock that evening the Nazi masses displayed their tremendous power in a torchlit parade from Berlin's largest park, the Tiergarten, passing under the triumphal arch of Brandenburg Gate and on along the Wilhelmstrasse, where the Reich Chancellery and Hitler's hotel, the Kaiserhof, were located. Hitler reviewed the parade from a hotel window; President Hindenburg stood and observed the crowds at the next window. The French ambassador, André François-Poncet, watched the event from the embassy on Pariser Platz, by the Brandenburg Gate:

The torches [the marchers] brandished formed a river of fire, a river with hastening, unquenchable waves, a river in spate sweeping with a sovereign rush over the very heart of the city. From these brown-shirted, booted men, as they marched in perfect discipline and alignment, their well-pitched voices bawling warlike songs, there rose an enthusiasm and dynamism that were extraordinary. The onlookers, drawn up on either side of the marching columns, burst into a vast clamor. The river of fire flowed past the French Embassy, whence ... I watched its luminous wake.


Excerpted from A World Without Jews by ALON CONFINO. Copyright © 2014 Alon Confino. Excerpted by permission of Yale UNIVERSITY PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Meet the Author

Alon Confino is professor of History at the University of Virginia and at Ben Gurion University, Israel. He lives in Charlottesville, VA.

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