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the jewish enemy

6 november 2019

The Nazis killed millions of Jews in largely secretive fashion. They hid death camps like Sobibor from public view. To this day Holocaust deniers leverage that secretiveness into insane assertions that the Shoah never happened. One often hears that the German people did not know what was happening to the Jews. The sudden absence of all Jews from Germany must have been a clue, but maybe German Gentiles honestly thought they'd all just been relocated. Nevertheless, as Jeffrey Herf showed in his 2006 book The Jewish Enemy, the Holocaust took place in front of a backdrop of Nazi propaganda preaching the extermination of all Jews, everywhere. The only defense for ignorance became the principle that the rhetoric of Hitler, Goebbels, et al. was too insane to be believed. Things were just as insane as the Nazis advertised, though, and worse.

Everybody the least aware of Nazism knows about Joseph Goebbels. The Nazi propaganda chief was indeed a major figure, but Herf argues that Goebbels was responsible for only part of the Nazi media machine, and crucially was not in frequent direct contact with Adolf Hitler. Goebbels' frequent antagonist Otto Dietrich was closer to Hitler. Dietrich would prepare daily news digests for Hitler, and then would transmit finely-tuned instructions, based on Hitler's direction, to the vast state-owned press. If we don't know as much about Dietrich as about Goebbels, it's because Dietrich worked behind the scenes instead of giving big speeches. And partly too because, unlike Goebbels and Hitler, Dietrich didn't kill himself at the end of the war. He survived to be tried at Nuremberg, where it was in his interests to downplay his role in the Holocaust. Dietrich did not escape sentencing, but he was able to deflect blame for Nazi rhetoric onto the departed Goebbels. Herf shows, however, that Dietrich maintained finely calibrated control of the Nazi message throughout the pre-war years and the entire war.

Herf does address one large element of Nazi propaganda that was within Goebbels' remit. Goebbels directed the production of "wall newspapers," large garish posters that perfectly filled a media niche in the large, pedestrian-and-cyclist oriented cities of the Third Reich. Herf doesn't reproduce any of these wall newspapers as illustrations – at least not in the Kindle edition that I read – but he quotes liberally from their texts, and describes them; and images of the wall newspapers are readily Googlable.

Herf chronicles a thread of anti-Semitism in wall newspapers and other Nazi media. One would expect Nazi rhetoric to be anti-Semitic, but Herf argues that a specific kind of anti-Semitism prevailed, especially during the war years. The racist anti-Semitism of Julius Streicher and his newspaper Der Stürmer was a constant. But by wartime, the prevailing Nazi argument was not that Jews were racial vermin. It was almost the opposite: the idea that Jews were evil geniuses, pulling the puppet-strings of anyone who defied Nazism. Hitler, Dietrich, and Goebbels presented a conspiracy theory on a global scale: "Jewry," everywhere, latent, sinister, was devoted to the extermination of the German people. The Germans had been forced to counterattack, and their war aims prioritized the extermination of the Jews.

An irony, then: Nazi propaganda trumpeted the extermination of the Jews in the loudest possible terms, while keeping the actual extermination of the Jews the darkest of secrets. Those who preferred not to imagine the Holocaust could perhaps read "extermination" as metaphorical. As a result, the Big Lie came packaged in the most effective form: the utter truth.

It's easy to call Hitler and his propaganda lieutenants disingenuous. Their addiction to mendacity was so reflexive that it's hard to see them as sincere in their actions. But Herf argues that at some level – that of Goebbels' private diairies, for instance – Nazi leaders were convinced that there was an international Jewish conspiracy, and that it was especially effective in mobilizing Hitler's enemies. Stalin's defiance was overdetermined, because Bolshevism had non-racialist reasons for hating the Nazis. Churchill was perhaps just a stubborn idiot. But the wall newspapers' favorite punching bag was Franklin Roosevelt, always seen as the ultimate pawn of Jewish interests.

Herf refutes the drahtzieher (wire-puller) theory at some length, which seems unnecessary as the theory is quite mad, but Holocaust denial is still so active that one imagines many readers needing a primer in the essential realities: there weren't many Jews in the Soviet, British, or American leadership circles, and if there had been – and they'd been as powerful as Hitler believed – why wouldn't they have bombed the death camps, or for that matter facilitated the flight of Jewish refugees before the death camps were in operation? Omnipotent "Jewry" seemed curiously unable to prevent the destruction of its people. But of course that's the clinching evidence for Nazi superiority: that they were able to "defeat" their principal enemy despite that enemy's near-superhuman power.

"Genocide," says Herf, "was the Nazis' response to international Jewry, which they perceived as a unified, historically active, and above all political subject that was waging war against Germany" (152). I tend to think of genocide as a crime, as postwar tribunals saw it. Nazis saw it as legitimate warfare. Their beliefs do not justify their killings. But they explain those killings, and they explain how a rhetoric long thought to be figurative and evasive was ultimately neither.

In the mind of Hitler and those convinced by him, "grandiose visions of world domination by a master race coexisted with the paranoia of the righteously indignant victim" (270) of a sinister "Jewry." Herf ultimately says that we cannot know how far the average German was party to such paranoia (276). But we've recently learned how fervently a pretty sharp critical thinker like Martin Heidegger could endorse the Nazi vision of baneful Jews and suffering Gentiles. Germans were bombarded with messages about how Jews were out to get them, and as war conditions grew worse, those messages grew stronger. And Germans fought on against impossible odds, through increasing privation and mounting casualties. To some degree, it's reasonable to conclude that this propaganda had material effects.

Herf, Jeffrey. The Jewish Enemy: Nazi propaganda during World War II and the Holocaust. 2006. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2008. D 810 .P7G337