From Hatered to the Holocaust

Q and A

UM historian explores how centuries of anti-Semitism culminated in genocide


Jefferey Herf


Jeffrey Herf's new book started from a simple question: Since virulent anti-Semitism existed in Europe for centuries, why was it only under the Nazi regime that it led to the mass murder of the Holocaust?

In The Jewish Enemy: Nazi Propaganda During World War II and the Holocaust, the University of Maryland, College Park historian writes that Hitler and his cronies put forward an international Jewish conspiracy as the driving force of modern history: Jews were to blame for Germany's wartime suffering.

Aided by the emergence of modern mass media that spread their propaganda campaigns, the Nazis literally declared war against the Jews in a way no other culture ever had, Herf contends.

"The conventional understanding of the phrase `war against the Jews' was the Holocaust," Herf says. "However, for the Nazi leadership, it referred to World War II as a whole as well."

What is the message you want people to take from your new book?

The book reminds us of the danger of conspiracy theories. What Nazi propaganda did was take bits and pieces of actual fact - Felix Frankfurter was on the Supreme Court and Bernard Baruch was active in American finance and government, and there were Jews in the Soviet government - vastly exaggerate their importance, and then weave them together into a conspiratorial narrative.

Nazi propaganda sought to explain a seeming mystery, namely why the Soviet Union was allied with the United States and Britain. Its emergence was not all a mystery. It was an alliance of strange bedfellows to fight a common foe, something that happens often in history. But according to the conspiracy theory, the reason it came into existence was because Jews were the glue that held it all together. The propaganda claimed to have solved a great riddle, enlightening the German people as to why the capitalists and communists were united against them.

It also presented Nazi Germany as the innocent victim of the aggression of the Jews, who, it claimed, started, escalated and prolonged World War II.

Is that how the Nazis' anti-Semitism differed from previous forms?

Most importantly, Nazi anti-Semitism was not only a set of prejudices and hatreds; it was also an interpretive framework, a way of understanding the world.

The core argument of the book is that the anti-Semitism of Nazi Germany provided a narrative of projection and paranoia. Once the war was interpreted as a war by the Jews against Germany, then Hitler and the other Nazi leaders interpreted their own policies as acts of retaliation for what the Jews were supposedly doing to Germany, to all Germans.

My task in the book was to understand not only what was unique about the Holocaust in comparison with other episodes of mass murder in history, but also what distinguished the radical anti-Semitism of the Nazi period from previous versions. To understand that, one has to look at how the Nazi leadership interpreted, or better, misinterpreted the history and course of World War II.

One striking thing is that Hitler repeatedly made claims about the Jewish conspiracy and publicly threatened to exterminate the Jews. In his famous "prophecy," he said that if the Jews were to start a second world war, it would not end in the extermination of the Aryan race, but rather of the Jewish race in Europe.

His interpretations were so preposterous and far-fetched that very few people took him seriously enough. Churchill was an exception.

Do you think the Nazis actually believed this? Or was it a tool they used to get and maintain power?

I am frequently asked that, and all I can say is that I have no evidence that Hitler and Goebbels and the other top Nazi leaders were in any way cynical about this. They did not in the private conversations we know about or in inter-office memos say anything like, "We are going to say that the Jews started the war as propaganda, but of course it's nonsense."

So I think they did actually believe it. How widespread that belief was in the German population is much more difficult to ascertain. But certainly at least some minority of the German population came to believe it. The longer the war went on and the more the government said this was a war by the Jews against the Germans, the more death and suffering there was, the more the hatred for the Jews intensified.

It was paradoxical, because the more Jews the Nazis were murdering, the more the propaganda blamed the Jews for the suffering the war was bringing to Germany and Europe. The Nazi regime told the Germans that if the Jews win the war, they would exterminate all of the German people. Again and again and again, they were told this war was a matter of life and death, of victory or annihilation. As strange as it sounds, Nazi propaganda represented World War II as a genocidal war by the Jews against the Germans.

But if that was the case, why were the extermination camps kept secret? Why were they not part of the fight against the Jews?

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