As 1930s Europe moved towards the catastrophe of the Second World War, much of the greater part of the continent — for Jews — was being turned into a giant concentration camp. Bernard Wasserstein’s On the Eve, The Jews of Europe Before the Second World War, captures the sorrows and glories of European Jewry in the decades leading up the Nazi genocide. From the shtetls of Lithuania, to the salons of Vienna, Jewish culture was already on the road to extinction. Wasserstein’s book also proves that contrary to received wisdom, there was a growing awareness that Jews were approaching a cataclysmic extinction.
Bernard Wasserstein was born in London and has taught at Oxford, Sheffield, Jerusalem, Brandeis, and Glasgow Universities. He is now Ulrich and Harriet Meyer Professor of Modern European Jewish History at the University of Chicago.
He spoke to the Spectator about the role the Catholic Church played in spreading anti-Semitism throughout Europe, why Zionism did not offer a credible solution to the Jewish people in their moment of crises, and how the Holocaust has affected the European consciousness.
If Jews had been more culturally unified, might they have been a stronger political force in the period before The Second World War?
Jews tried everything, some of them tried assimilation, and that didn’t work. In the Soviet Union, those that embraced socialism and communism found that they were still thought of as outsiders. They tried Zionism, but that didn’t work. They attempted immigration elsewhere, but again that failed because the doors were closed everywhere. Each of these solutions was seen to address what’s called ‘The Jewish question’, and each of them failed. Changing one of these variables would not have changed the outcome.
What role did Zionists play in trying to organise mass immigration for Jews in this period?
The Zionist movement realised that the obstacle to Jewish immigration was British policy in Palestine. They came close in 1936/37 in persuading the British that since immigration to Palestine was rising up such hostility, the only solution would be a partition of Palestine. Then came Munich, and the British began to prepare for war. They dropped partition as they felt this would endanger their entire position in the Middle East. So the Zionists were left high and dry. They didn’t have the clout to create a Jewish state on their own. Zionism did not offer a solution in the 1930s, no more than socialism, assimilation, or collaboration did.
Why did this change drastically in the post war period?
Well the Zionists became military, demographically, and economically stronger. They also had a unique alignment with both the Soviet Union and the United States, who both backed the creation of Israel in 1948. What they didn’t have then were the six million Jews that were killed in Europe. People often say that Israel was a consolation prize after the mass murder of the Jews in Europe. Actually, far from strengthening the state of Palestine — as was alleged — it greatly weakened it, politically, because they didn’t have this great pool of citizens.
Initially many Jews were attracted to the ideas of communism, why did this change?
Well the high point of Soviet anti-Semitism came immediately after World-War-2: between 1945 and 1953, after Stalin’s death. This was when all the major Yiddish writers and cultural figures were rounded up and shot. It was also the period when the accusation of the so called ‘Doctor’s Plot’ happened: where supposedly, Jewish doctors were in the Kremlin trying to poison Stalin. This was followed by rumours that Stalin was considering deporting the greater part of the Jewish population to the Soviet East. During World-War-2, when large parts of Soviet territories were occupied by the Nazis, the Soviet population — particularly in the Ukraine, where a very large part of the Jewish population lived— were hostile to Jews. This did not come necessarily from the Soviet authorities, but from the population as a whole.
But wasn’t the Russian Revolution supposed to have emancipated the Jews?
It wasn’t the Bolshevik Revolution which freed the Jews, but the February Revolution. But in spite of those claims, the substratum of popular anti-Semitism clearly continued in that period. So the Soviets had not succeeded in solving the Jewish problem as they claimed.
Did the Catholic Church play a central role in spreading anti-Semitism in Europe in the 1930s?
The Catholic Church in Poland in that period was outspokenly anti-Semitic. It didn’t call for violence against Jews, but its underlying teaching: that the Jews were not part of the Polish nation, and were also an accursed people, certainly affected the way the majority of Poles thought about the Jews. It also affected the behaviour during the war, when the question of whether to help Jews, or to help the Nazis against the Jews became acute.
Is it easier to criticize what should have been done to prevent the Holocaust with the benefit of historical hindsight?
With hindsight it’s very easy to prescribe courses of action to both victims and to perpetrators. In the case of the Jews of Europe, however, there is a qualitative difference from other horrific events of the past century. Mainly, that Jews were not threatening, or at war with anybody. Nor were they seeking power in any country in Europe. Not only were they not united defensively, they were not united offensively. So this was very different to many of the genocides of the past century.
What factors encouraged violence to be the prevailing ideology at this period in European history?
Well we have to talk about the role of nationalism and the church. The Church after all was the main source of values. Then you have the role of education, or lack of it. Part of it comes from the First World War, and the horrors of famine after it. There was also revolutionary violence throughout much of the continent, and that brought violence out of the toothpaste tube as it were. Then when the Great Depression came, violence seemed a natural reaction to an extreme situation.
Why did the liberal Jewish press — given the potential power they had — not fight the poisonous propaganda machine of the Nazis more vigorously?
Papers like Neue Freie Presse or Die Frankfurter Zeitung were very established and read by educated, liberal elites. The fact that the most of them were owned by Jews, and had Jewish journalists, meant they felt they should not be solely serving the Jewish interest. They were hostile to Nazism, and extreme nationalism, but they realised their position was precarious. When the Nazis came to power, they were able to stifle these papers, in some cases close them down, in other cases take them over. These papers felt their best hope in achieving a broad interest in society was not to insist on a parochial Jewish interest, but to try and show that what was being endangered by the role of extreme nationalism, and Nazism, was liberal values. And that lead them to downplay these rather specific Jewish aspects of what was going on.
Was Hitler’s hatred for the Jewish race random?
Well he hated Jews more than anybody. This has been documented by his biographers about his experiences in Vienna in the First World War. It’s less important what’s going on in Hitler’s head, but what&rsquo
;s more important is his ability to transfer his hatred into a collective psychopathology. I don’t think it would have been possible to stir up the same kind of hatred that he did against the Jews, with any other group. Simply because there was no other group that had played such a central role in European society, but who were also regarded with deep-seated cultural contempt. Again, one has to go back to the teachings of the Church, particularly the Roman Catholic Church, but not exclusively.
How has the Holocaust changed political thinking in Europe?
The memory of the Nazi genocide has affected the European consciousness in a very profound way, certainly in Germany since the 1960s. This is not just in the behaviour of the political class, but in the German education system. It’s like German people born since the war had a kind of inoculation: as if they have received a jab that has made them immune against racism, anti-Semitism and violence. There are still prevalent right-wing movements in Germany, but less than say, The Netherlands. European society has similarly had a sort of inoculating effect, as a result of the memory of what is often called the Holocaust. However, I wouldn’t put too much faith in that alone as leading to decent behaviour.