Laboratory for World Destruction: Germans and Jews in Central Europe
December 18, 2008
Imperial Austria and Germany from 1880 to the outbreak of World War I was a remarkable period in the cultural history of Europe. A list of writers, artists, composers, journalists, etc., would include a disproportionate number of Jews who made important creative contributions to the intellectual and artistic life of the continent.
The names of prominent Jews active during those years include such remarkable personalities as Albert Einstein, Sigmund Freud, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Arnold Schoenberg, Gustav Mahler, Arnold Zweig, Franz Kafka, Karl Kraus, and Theodor Herzl, among many others. If one adds politics to the mix, the roster of Jewish names would be equally prominent in the ranks of both the liberal and Marxist political parties of the time.
But fin-de-siecle Austria and Germany also included Wilhelm Marr, the German Reichstag deputy who coined the term “anti-Semitism”; Georg von Schoenerer, the Austrian anti-Semitic leader of the Pan-German movement; and the charismatic Karl Lueger, the anti-Semitic mayor of Vienna, whose political demagoguery made a lasting impression on a young Adolf Hitler, who arrived in the imperial capital in 1907.
In Central Europe, among German-speaking ethnics, the flourishing volkisch racial anti-Semitic movement became a breeding ground for the virulent hatred of Jews that culminated in the genocidal Third Reich.
Robert Wistrich, director of the Vidal Sassoon International Center for the Study of Anti-Semitism at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, has written an indispensible work that charts the course of events and ideas that ultimately led to the Holocaust. In fact, Wistrich locates the seeds of Hitler’s violently racist nationalism in the ethnic cauldron of the multicultural Austrian Empire, where he imbibed the semi-pornographic, anti-Semitic drawings of Lanz von Liebenfeld’s publication Ostara and shared the “volkisch paranoia reflected in the identity crisis of those German Austrians who felt increasingly on the defensive in the wake of Slav encroachment and Jewish emancipation.”
As one reads Wistrich’s tome, it becomes apparent that those Jews in Central Europe who had become thoroughly alienated from their Jewish identity not only distanced themselves from their ethnicity but ignored the dangerous signs of anti-Semitism that insinuated itself into the mainstream of both Austrian and German everyday life. Still others championed a Marxism that focused on the concerns of the proletariat at the expense of their fellow Jews.
Identifying wealthy Jews with capitalism, Social Democrats such as Victor Adler and communists like Rosa Luxemburg shared with anti-Semites the common conviction that “Jewish” capitalism was a corrupting influence throughout Central Europe. Echoing Karl Marx, they argued that the elimination of capitalism would resolve Europe’s “Jewish problem.” Yet, despite the Dreyfus Affair and the election of Lueger as mayor of Vienna, most Jews ignored the signs of things to come and convinced themselves that first and foremost, they shared a common bond with their fellow countrymen.
Aliens in their land
For Zionist pioneer Max Nordau, what distinguished Jewish emancipation in England was that it “already had been completed in the heart before legislation expressly confirmed it.” In Central Europe, however, Jews were not welcomed as equal citizens but were only grudgingly tolerated. Wistrich states that Jews failed to understand that the very equality they believed was shared with their countrymen was what was so ominous and threatening to anti-Semites. For volkisch racialists, Jews were viewed as “parasites” lacking a landscape (or homeland) of their own (a view of Jews that was not lost on the nascent Zionist movement).
Because Jews were essentially viewed as alien in their connection to the soil, the absence of a landscape made them less than human. As a consequence — so went the volkisch rant — Jews, like parasites, lived off the body of their adopted country and sought to impose their own cultural resources on the indigenous peoples of Europe. (Volkisch racial nationalists ignored the fact that Jews could trace their history in Germany to an era predating the settlement of the German tribes.)
Thus, as Jews entered into the mainstream of Central European life, their social mobility, scientific virtuosity, cultural innovation, economic success, and political radicalism was perceived as alien and threatening to the “racial essence” of the German people.
As Wistrich writes, “Judaism and Jewry mutated into a superhuman and subhuman peril…which threatened the complete extinction of German culture, the ‘Aryan soul,’ and Western civilization.”
These beliefs about Jews, which had their roots in the three decades before the Great War, carried over into the postwar period. By the 1930s, as Wistrich notes, “the brilliant flowering of Jewish intellect and creativity on the soil of Central Europe had been transformed by anti-Semitic mythology into its exact opposite — a diabolical plot by the Jews to…appropriate, seize, and destroy the cultural assets of the ‘host peoples of Europe.’”
Thus, Wistrich concludes, Jewish assimilation and achievement, rather than solidifying their status in European society, only made them more vulnerable to the onslaught of their anti-Semitic enemies. What began in Germany under Hitler in 1933 and soon spread throughout most of the European continent was an onslaught against the Jews that they were helpless to defend against.
The central core of Hitler’s ideology, states Wistrich, was built on a Manichean perception of the world. He conceived of his war against the Jews as a struggle of the “Forces of Light” against a fiendish enemy whose followers were determined to destroy Germany and the Aryan race. For Wistrich, “the deeper roots of Hitler’s murderous ideology go back to his formative years in the ethnic cauldron of the…multicultural Austrian Hungarian Empire, where the seeds of Nazism were sown in the cosmopolitan melting-pot of the early 20th century.”
Ironically, the same fin-de-siecle Vienna that spurred the anti-Semitic fervor that reached its climax in the Holocaust also spurred the advent of the Zionist movement that set in motion the events leading to the founding of the State of Israel.
Jack Fischel, emeritus professor of history at Millersville University, Pennsylvania, is the author of The Holocaust (Greenwood Press, 1998) and The Holocaust and Its Religious Impact (Praeger) and editor of the forthcoming Encyclopedia of American Jewish Popular Culture (Greenwood Press).