Nazi Germany and the Jews, Vol. 1: The Years of Persecution

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Nazi Germany and the Jews, Vol. 1: The Years of Persecution

By Saul Friedlander
HarperCollins, 1997
436 pp. $30.00
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Friedlander's lifelong work on Nazism and the fate of the Jews in the twentieth century culminates in this volume. Hitler's obsession with the Jews was the most extreme form of "redemptive" anti-Semitism, different from (albeit related to) classical Christian anti-Semitism. It was "born from the fear of racial degeneration and the religious belief in redemption," defined as liberation from the Jews, "as their expulsion, possibly their annihilation." Hitler was a fanatic, but also a tactician who knew how to combine prudence with sudden and devastating decisiveness. Friedlander provides both a macroscopic view and many telling individual stories. He shows how the moves toward economic "aryanization" and expulsion from many sectors of life accelerated as of 1936, how segregation led to a policy of expulsion and, after the Kristallnacht of November 1938, of official approval of violence. He points out that persecution was worse in Austria, after the Anschluss.

He describes not only the often surreally absurd and degrading hatred shown by the Nazi legislation but also the general lack of opposition by the German churches, universities, and public. Even more striking is the behavior of Germany's neighbors and other countries. The expulsion of Polish Jews from Germany was ordered to preempt a Polish closure of the border to them. It was the Swiss who requested that all German Jews traveling to Switzerland have the letter "J" stamped on their passports. The British, not long before the war, closed off Jewish immigration into Palestine. On March 15, 1939, George Kennan said he did not want a "Jewish acquaintance who had worked many years for American interests" and had taken refuge in the Prague delegation, where Kennan had been posted that year, to kill himself there, "partly on general Anglo-Saxon principles and partly to preserve our home from this sort of unpleasantness." And yet, ever since 1936, Hitler had given a worldwide audience to his fear of Jewish power and plots, and in his speech before the Reichstag on January 30, 1939, he warned that "if the international Jewish financiers in and outside Europe should succeed in plunging the nations once more into a world war, then the result will [be] . . . the annihilation of the Jewish race in Europe!" Friedlander's sober account of the cries of the hyenas and the silence of the sheep stokes the reader's shame about what happened at that time, and at what has more recently happened in the Caribbean, central Africa, and the Balkans.