General Introduction I - Prologue: The Intellectual and Mental Paths Leading to Mass Persecution

We are the heirs of the Enlightenment. This treasure is also a handicap as it leads us to underestimate the role of the irrational and of fear in history. Particularly, in the process that led to the destruction of Europe’s Jews by the Greater German Reich and its collaborators. The purpose is not to find “causes” but rather the attempt to create a cultural history unrelated to what was previously called “collective psychology” of the peoples. While genealogy cannot serve as an explanation, there cannot be an explanation without genealogy. And if all history is anthropology and archaeology, can we envisage a genealogy of the catastrophe?

The Original Anti-Judaism

The study of Christianity as a breeding ground for anti-Judaism is the foundation of any reflection on the catastrophe of the XXth century. The relationship daughter-religion/mother-religion (of Christianity vis-à-vis Judaism) constitutes the poisoned setting of the bimillennial relationship. Christianity did not see itself as another religion but rather as a substitute religion. These Christian roots, long known, are mentioned here, because while this anti-Judaism was secularized in the modern period (15th-18th centuries), the patterns of thinking were not changed. The Church teachings, which were passed on into popular beliefs, made the Jew out to be “son of the devil”. Spread by dictums and legends, these fears were hardened, and when the traditional world was shattered by modernity , the Jews became its symbol, and a sign of an ever-present evil in the world. Thus, as secularization progressed, the fascination-aversion vis-à-vis the Jews did not cease but transformed itself.

The first serious violence broke out at the end of the  11th century with the departure of the First crusade (1095-1096). This violence would steadily grow in magnitude leading to a history filled with massacres (during the Black Death in particular, 1348-1350), expulsions and demonizing accusations (ritual murder, desecration of the Host, poisoning of the wells).

Jewish marginality, apparent as early as the 11th century, turned to exclusion and segregation by the end of the Middle Ages. Ostracized as lepers, perceived as agents of the devil, the Jews created fear and inspired contempt. At the end of the 19th century the obsession with conspiracy took up, almost word for word, the chorus of a “Jewish Plot”, aiming to subvert the Christian world (cf. infra).

During the 14th and 15th centuries, the Jews of Catholic Spain constituted the most dynamic community of the Diaspora. Faced with the violence of this anti-Judaism, many Jews converted, but these nuevos cristianos remained stigmatized and were exposed as of 1449 to the statutes of “blood purity” (limpieza de sangre). The religious obsessions of the beginning (tracking the fake conversions) soon took on a social significance (not being a “new Christian” was a criteria for nobility), only to become, in a country that was forcibly opened to the world in the 16th century, a criterion of race concerning the Jews, the Muslims, the Black Africans and the Native Americans. This mutation from belief to race constituted a crucial milestone in the birth of modern racism.

The Gamble of Emancipation

This ostracism led numerous Europeans of the period of Enlightenment to assume that only the emancipation of the Jews could permit them to “become men again”. Emancipation, i.e. equal rights and the forwarding of faith to the private sphere, became very early on the motto of the Enlightenment, a pattern that had already been demonstrated by Rousseau (Emile, 1762). It was explained in detail by the Prussian Christian von Dohm (Über die bürgerliche Verbesserung der Juden, 1781), and in 1787, in France by Abbé Grégoire (Essai sur la régénération physique, morale et politique des Juifs – Essay on the Physical, Moral and Political Regeneration of the Jews). It triumphed with the Revolution of 1791, which passed the first emancipation law for the Jews on the Old Continent. However, the 19th century brought a brutal reversal of this optimism. The “solution” became the “problem”. It was no longer the “visible Jew” that was feared but rather the “vague Jew” (Edouard Drumont), one that melted in with the masses. And assimilation, far from being desired, became a source of anxiety.

Anti-Judaism, which had turned into antisemitism (the word was coined by the German journalist Wilhelm Marr in 1879), certainly took on the racism of its period, but it mainly constituted a “biological” answer (and thus became indisputable, for it is not possible to “change one’s blood”) to the promulgation of equal rights for Jews (complete in the German Reich in 1871), which created a feeling of an intolerable injustice.

The wave of Judeophobia that swept through Europe between 1880 and the Great War placed more emphasis on the limits of emancipation, while at the same time the Jews of Western Europe remained convinced that they were accepted and even integrated. In France, they perceived the victory of the Dreyfusards as that of law and justice. Thus, if the condemnation of Dreyfus was a crime under the guise of Reason of State, his grace was a favour accorded by this same Reason of State. Neither the concern for justice, nor the defence of the Jews, played an essential role in the “victory” of the captain. The emancipated Jews however remained generally convinced of the opposite. In their eyes, the cause of antisemitism was defeated between 1899 (amnesty) and 1906 (the rehabilitation).

While the emancipation process that was inaugurated by the French Revolution had facilitated integration, even assimilation, it did not neutralize the mechanisms of rejection. It rather fed them as equality and minimal difference fed the sentiment and the paranoia of conspiracy.

Modern anti-Judaism and the Concept of Race

Anti-Judaism during the 19th century, an heir of medieval demonology saw three forms of judeophobia: anti-capitalist judeophobia of the revolutionary circles, nationalistic judeophobia, distinct characteristic of the Europe of nationalities, and finally a racial judeophobia which, especially after 1860, built on the Aryan myth. The semantic shift from anti-Judaism to antisemitism illustrates this evolution. It fed the transformation of prejudice into an organised political movement. A first international antisemitic congress took place in Dresden in 1882, while the violence multiplied (Russian pogroms from 1881-1884) and the rejection was racialised. In 1887, Theodor Fritsch, one of the pioneers of German antisemitism, published the Antisemiten Katechismus (Antisemitic Catechism), the book was re-edited 25 times in seven years. He prepared a new edition published in 1907 entitled Handbuch der Judenfrage (Handbook of the Jewish Question); this change illustrates the shift from faith to race.

This rejection also had European roots. Established in Toledo in 1449, the limpieza de sangre statutes were initially opposed by prominent Catholic personalities (King John II of Castile, Pope Nicolas V, the Bishop of Burgos). This was in vain. The idea that ultimately prevailed was that “Jewish” blood was impure by its mere belonging to the “people of the deicide.” This obsession with defilement mirrored the social fear of the “Jew” who infiltrated nobility and from there, the body of the entire nation. For these reasons the statutes were eventually endorsed by the papacy in 1555, after most sectors of public life had already adopted them. It was only in 1865 that they were repealed in Spain.

Race and antisemitism

Believing in the idea of “race” immunizes against universalism. For the Englishman Houston Stewart Chamberlain (1855-1927), one of its main theorists, race is not a biological concept (in fact at the end of the 19th century, the biological sciences had invalidated this notion) but rather an ideological one. He wrote: “Race is not a primitive phenomenon, it is produced.” According to him, it raises the individual above himself, and in secularized societies it embodies this transcendence that connects us to the collective.

The second assumption: that races are of “unequal value” as explained by the German anthropologist Otto Georg Ammon (1842-1916). Any mix generates métis or mutts who are inferior to their respective ancestries and lead to a fatal decay. The theories put forth by the Frenchman Joseph Arthur de Gobineau in his Essai sur l'inégalité des races humaines (An Essay on the Inequality of the Human Races) (1853-1855) are very similar.

The Aryan myth originated from this context. It was fed by a double anxieties. How to remain Christian without denying the Jewish origins of Christianity? How to deal with democratic modernity that levelled out the statutes? This myth attempted to explain the origin of humanity by the existence of a white superior race that originated from Asia and subsequently, populated and dominated Europe. Forged from a linguistic root (Semitic languages), the “Aryan” myth put forth the opposition between the  "indo-European" world and the “Semitic” world. Western civilization would therefore be a stranger to Christianity and even more so to the Jewish Bible. Thus, the equal origin of men (Adam as a common ancestor) was swept away. The “biological” opposition between Aryans and Semites (in reality between Aryans and Jews) induced the idea of a necessary selection of the best (dolichocephalic vs. brachycephalic, an ideological construction that found support in Chamberlain’s book The Foundations of the Nineteenth Century/ Die Grundlagen des neunzehnten Jahrhunderts, 1899). Finally, the Aryan myth “scientifically” legitimized the European domination of the rest of the world. Only Nazism however would turn it into a political doctrine, which was accomplished by uplifting the Jewish-Aryan opposition as the key to human history, and by blaming the “Jew” for all the disorders in the world.

Four years later than Chamberlain’s book, The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, published in Russia in 1903, drew on and contributed to the ancient tradition of anti-Jewish demonology. This forgery, written by the Tsar’s secret police (Okhrana), was supposedly a summary of the secret meeting of the main “Jewish leaders” of the world (“Elders of Zion”), which was held right after the First Zionist Congress (Basel, 1897). It was meant to expose their domineering conduct on the planet, through lies, revolution, economic crisis and war. It was only after the Russian Revolution (1917), however, that this text found true success, when antisemitic and anti-Communist circles turned it into a classic of the anti-Jewish passion. It was almost immediately translated into several languages.

With a secularized perspective the antisemites of the 19th Century went back to the teaching of Lutheranism that made the Jews out to be satanic beings. Using the scientific cover fashionable at the time, in particular the cult dedicated to biology (the “race”), the “Jewish peril” took back word for word demonization from a religious perspective. It also took on the cover of Socialism with an anticlerical type of antisemitism that denounced the influence of the “coteries” and the “rich and powerful”, a mixture of priests, Jews, Free-Masons, parliamentarians and magistrates. This leftist antisemitism was also correlated with the utopia of a return to the Golden Age, a synonym for a humanity “purified” of all “Jewish” elements. It was based on the Rothschild Myth (the “Rothschild tribe”), by attributing to them and only them all the evils caused by economic concentration. Finally, this antisemitic Socialism at times was coupled with the racism of the end of the century: this was particularly true in Germany with the philosopher Eugen Dühring (Die Judenfrage als Racen-, Sitten- und Culturfrage, 1881; in English: The Jewish Question: A Racial Moral and Cultural Question with a World-Historical Answer, 1997.), for whom only “terror and brutal forces” would bring an end to the Jews, the “foreign parasites”.

According to this view, whenever the identity of a group or of an individual posed problems, both had to expulse from themselves “the Jew”, this portion of otherness, fabricated by Church teaching in Western society. There was a need to transform anxiety into focalized hatred towards this “bad object”. This despised figure of the “Jew” was thus heir to centuries of Christian demonization. It allowed the group to congregate while focusing its inner violence on that image: the jointly committed crime cemented the community of assassins, like a transgressive ritual.

Therefore, if the litany of grievances attributed to the Jews would generally seem of a rational form (they are greedy, cheap, arrogant, selfish, etc…), this essentialization (“the Jews”, “the French”, “the Germans”…) has in reality no connection with a rejection which is rooted in “the teaching of contempt” (Jules Issac). Because it is not so much the real Jew that the antisemite hates, but rather an imaginary subject whose figure condenses the faces of evil. In the West, antisemitism thus played a redemptive role early on. It was also early on that it locked itself into a paranoid scheme (them and us), making the death of the one the condition of the survival of the other.

It is on this cultural canvas that the frustrations of the democratic age are embedded. When equality becomes the key word, inequality of conditions is difficult to live with. This is when resentment turned into violence gets involved, a conjugation of the feeling of injustice and the realization of powerlessness. At the time of emancipation, the “Jewish difference”, perceived as an inequality, seemed justified. Thus, paradoxically, yesterday’s emancipation solution became the “Jewish Question” of the day. The resentment of the crowd was focalised around this solution. Antisemitism thus appeared as a redemptive ritual, rebellious to reason, as explained by the German historian and specialist of Latin Antiquity Theodor Mommsen (1817-1903), a few years before his death. He was one of the rare German intellectuals to challenge the gregarious nature of anti-Judaism. “You are mistaken if you think that reason has any power whatsoever. I did believe this also, and I continued to protest against this monstrous wickedness that is antisemitism. But it is useless, absolutely useless. Whatever I or anyone else can tell you, the arguments used will ultimately always be arguments of logic and morality; however no antisemite is sensible. The antisemites only listen to their hatred and their jealousy, their lowest instincts. Nothing else matters to them. They are deaf to the sound of reason, of law and of morality. It is impossible to influence them…. It is a terrible epidemic like cholera: it cannot be explained nor cured. We cannot but wait patiently for its venom to burn out and lose its virulence. ” (Quoted in Bensoussan G., 2006)


From there, colonial expansion, overseas emigration, settlement of the United States and South America rejuvenated it, and as an immediate result the level of violence increased. The transformation of the Old World into the New World, intimidating by definition, focalized on this Jewish factor, which Christian culture, through catechism and popular representations, had for a long time made the face of evil. While early Christianity had made Judaism out to be out-dated faith, the modern world secularized this scheme: It was no longer the Jewish religion that was too much but rather the Jewish sign, and soon the Jew himself.

Moreover, a close link connected the “Jewish question” to the current of negative eugenics that marked the first decades of the 20th century. It was particularly after 1918 that the notions of “worthless life” and the “burden of existence” were elaborated. In the second half of the 19th century, economic modernity, urban as well as intellectual, had de-structured traditional and masculine societies. It generated mass anxiety that took the form of anti-Enlightenment sentiment. The political, which had become a by-product of the biological, also racialized the “Jewish question” by inducing a rejection of the Jews who no longer had any alternative of action, such as conversion, which they had in the past.

This anti-Enlightenment was the result of a brutalisation of western societies which preceded the Great War by far. It was the heritage of a mass industrialization (which would later feed the concept of “total war”, Ludendorff, 1915), but was also inseparable from the demographic expansion on the Old Continent, the population of which doubled between 1759 and 1914. Society appeared as a body to purify, pushing aside the “useless mouths.”

This social Darwinism, part of the anti-Enlightenment current of “progress”, must be distinguished from reactionary anti-Enlightenment. By defining what is peculiar to human beings  (“le proper de l’homme” – reduced to biology), the anti-Enlightenment induced a norm based on exclusion. As the French philosopher and epistemologist Georges Canguilhem wrote: “One does not dictate norms to life.”

The Great War, which occurred within  this cultural atmosphere, would accustom the minds to anonymous mass death. With the mobilization of the collective of opinions, it would secularize the spirit of crusade. In this respect, the German post-war, as well as the Russian one, was one of the most dramatic. Convinced they had been betrayed, many Germans only with difficulty engaged in a demobilization of the mind. ‘14-‘18 remained a framework of reference for many.

Social Darwinism which had imposed itself in Europe in the second half of the 19th Century, and which had held the “battle of the races” to be the driving force of history, constituted the mundane reflection of the competition between industrialized nations of the time. Simultaneously, many German intellectuals (but not all) saw if the victorious wars led by their country between 1864-1870 as “proof” of its “racial superiority”. They also saw, like other Europeans, “proof” that human history is nothing other than a war of all against all. “We can find everywhere to the highest degree, a ruthless and relentless “bellum omnium contra omnes”, noted German Zoologist and Philosopher Ernst Haeckel in his Natürliche Schöpfungsgeschichte. Nowhere in nature, wherever one looks, there is this idyllic peace of which the poet speaks; rather there is a constant struggle and effort to destroy one’s neighbour and enemy; hence, a “stimulating” and “uplifting” vision of war. “Certainly accompanied by great maladies”, stated Otto Georg Ammon in 1900, among the pioneers of German Social Darwinism (and antisemitism), “they must not however be exaggerated. All in all, war is an advantage for humanity because it offers nations the only way to measure their strength, to ensure the victory of the fittest. War is the most elevated and grand form of the struggle for life.” From here stems the glorification of nationalism, colonialism, militarism and of racial competition. At about the same time the German geographer, Friedrich Ratzel, “father of geopolitics”, advocated the extinction of inferior races and the cohesion of the dominant race.

This glorification of battle prepared minds for “total war”, which ultimately implied  the massacre of civilians. The Great War lowered the threshold of private violence and turned it to conflict, which in the eyes of some was the natural state of the world. The battles of extermination of 1914-1918, particularly in Verdun and at the Somme in 1916, prepared post-war minds for “radicalized” solutions.

In societies shaped by Christianity and now shaken by a modernity that revived the question of origin, fear focused on the face of “the Jew”, because for centuries this imagined face soothed the bitterness generated by the changing world. The “Jew” became the scapegoatof democratic resentment in the past he was the “son of the devil” and the quarter master of the anti-Christ. The Jewish image in the West appears excessive considering its insignificant demographic mass (between 1 and 4% in 1939).

We must add to this picture of the contemporary world the resentment born of democratic modernity. During a time of equal rights, each person is responsible for his own destiny. Democratic progress is thus not necessarily synonymous with the progress of reason. As noted by Tocqueville in Democracy in America:  “the prejudice which repels the Negroes seems to increase in proportion as they are emancipated, and inequality is sanctioned by the manners while it is effaced from the laws of the country” In a world where the powers above remain silent and we alone are responsible for our lives, conspirational thinking makes us feel like a secret hand is the origin of the disorder in the world. Thus, the journalist G.K. Chesterton purportedly wrote of our discomfort: “Since men no longer believe in God, it is not that they no longer believe in anything, but rather that they are ready to believe in everything”.

Providence, which had become obsolete, took the form of a “plot”. This fear had never disappeared, but was replaced. The belief in plots, in a magic order, allows a person to escape the feeling of powerlessness. The notion of conspiracy (“they”…) and hidden connections explain the most obscure events. This thesis is not new. In 1868, in The Jews, Judaism, and the Judaisation of the Christians, the Frenchman Gougenot de Mousseaux assured his readers that the “Jewish devil” pulled the strings of history: “A center of command and direction always existed with the Jews since their general dispersion until today… Thus, the Jewish nation has always been conducted like a secret society that in turn gives momentum to other secret societies”. After the Bolshevik shock of October 1917, this conspiracy paranoia turned into the Judeo-Bolshevik conspiracy.

The German Soil

The obsession with “Jewish conspiracy” was anchored in German antisemitism. For Theodor Fritsch for example, one of the main representatives of the years 1880-1920, Jews, Communists, stateless men of finance, Freemasons and Jesuits, all participated in the same plot against his people.

Part of German culture revealed that this anti-Enlightenment concept, characterized by the rejection of democracy, the primitivity of its ethno-racial community (Volksgemeinschaft) and the glorification of “redemptive violence”. The revolution of the Enlightenment (Aufklärung), also a German reality, nonetheless failed in Germany in the first decades of the 19th century (see the defeat of the liberal movements in 1848). Some of the German elites also rejected France which had crushed them at Jena (1806) as well as the liberalism that the “Grande Nation” had brought in its wake. In Germany, this defeat had let the old division between culture and civilization reappear, and had put to the forefront the conviction of a “chosen people” invested in its mission to “regenerate humanity.”

Under Prussia’s leadership, Germany achieved its unification as a result of the aforementioned victories (Denmark 1864, Austria 1866, France 1870). Its principal architect, Bismarck, would benefit from a heroic cult for decades. His aura reflects the imprint of the warrior values on attitudes. In this patriarchal society marked by the force of authority and the need to obey, the widespread belief that strength outweighed law prevailed. At the same time, traditional German education remained characterized by a violence that was considered a guarantee to successful character formation. In this world where the key values were unconditional obedience and the dominance of the ethnic community (Volksgemeinschaft), the notions of “humankind” and “human rights” remained “democratic illusions” for a part of pre-1914 Germany.

“Racial Science”, drafted in the second half of the 19th century and basing itself on the anti-Enlightenment, affected all of Western Europe. This was particularly the case in Germany, where anti-Judaism was reinforced by the emancipation of the Jews. There, as elsewhere, racism was the “biological” answer to the proponents of natural equality. It allowed all the socially declassed to believe themselves virtually superior to any Jew, even the most brilliant of men.

The deification of nature and the negation of natural law, a biological view of the world and the rejection of human rights, thus very early on constituted several of the essential bases of Nazi ideology. In Germany, the political discourse had been prematurely won over by a medical vocabulary (infection, hygiene, purity, purification, the bubonic plague, cancerous tumors, etc…) evoking purification and selection. Hence, extermination.

Around 1910, when Germany seemed to be at the top of its power, part of its elite was plagued with the fear of deterioration. It saw the old order undermined by universal suffrage and “materialism”, key themes of Paul de Lagarde's work (Deutsche Schriften – German Writings, 1878-1886). This climate of anxiety was increased by a fear of siege (Germany encircled by the Entente powers, and lacking natural barriers, was forced to consider hostilities on two fronts), and of demographic order (fear of mass emigration of the natives and a just as massive immigration of Slaves and Jews.)

In what way does the term “the Jew” represent an important part of German thought during the 19th century? The German nation was established with difficulty in a country without “natural borders” and long deprived of a state framework. Hence, the praise of roots as opposed to the universal, a divide that awoke the old opposition between culture and civilization. Within this framework, industrialization was transplanted, which brought an end to rural Germany and the emergence of a global industrial power. Coupled with a huge population growth, Germany felt confined in its traditional borders.

The national rooting and pan-Germanism were enclosed in the cult of völkisch tradition (nationalism, racism, Aryan myth) which affirmed the existence of a German particularity, opposed to the notion of “humankind”. The idea of the “abstract man”, put forth by the Aufklärung and an essential characteristic of Enlightenment, seemed alien to a part of German thinking.

This denial of the universal would contribute to the breeding of Nazism – with it, also the denial of the Internationals (Catholic, Capitalist or Socialist, the common point among the last two being the presence of the “Jew”). Hence, the advancement of  Germanic law over the Roman. All this led to the rejection of the West as it was allegedly opposed to the “Germanic race”, since the 17th and 18th centuries, as well as the denial of liberalism (English and French) as opposed to (völkisch) tradition.

A part of German thought had divorced itself from the Enlightenment and could no longer relate to Catholicism, nor to the “religion of progress”, Democracy or Socialism. At the same time, Judaism was seen as the symbol of the universal for two reasons: because of the biblical message since the Bible teaches that men are descendants of the same ancestor, and due to their geographical dispersion.

A constructed figure, the “Jew”, appeared to be the existential enemy of a Germany that was finding itself: “the term ‘Jew’, strangely loaded with meaning in Germany’s Third Reich” wrote the great French Germanist Edmond Vermeil in 1938. (Doctrinaires de la Révolution allemande, 1918-1938.)

The Aryan-Semite divide became superimposed over the old opposition between culture and civilization, and the “defense of culture” appeared as an expression of resistance to a modernity which undermined a patriarchal and authoritarian society. As early as 1850, Richard Wagner argued that “authentic” Germany would be reborn if it excluded “its Jews”; similar positions were expressed by Wilhelm Marr in 1879, Eugen Dühring in 1881 and Paul de Lagarde. In their view, German culture had to be "de-jewified", as if the survival of the Reich depended on the cultural elimination of the Jews. This pattern of thought, of a paranoid type, remained the distinctive characteristic of antisemitic passion. This Germany which had challenged the universal and made of the Jews the anti-model and the model at the same time, saw itself as a “religious nation”, a “chosen” nation, invested in a “redemptive mission”. For this reason, antisemitism would never be on the sidelines of the Nazi regime, but rather at its very heart. It was rebellious to all rational logic, demonstrated by the recurrent conflicts between the Wirtschaftsverwaltungshauptamt and the Reichssicherheitshauptamt between 1942 and 1945.

The Great War and the treaty of Versailles were traumatic for Germany. The country feared falling back into the obscurity of second class and humiliation under the charge of the international community. Hence, the reappearance of the concept of the Reich that remained inseparable from the fanatical theme of the “election” of the German nation (opposed to the “Jewish election” in Sinai). More than anywhere in Europe, anti-Judaism was lived in Germany as a cultural code of integration. It was in this country, inhabited by the resentment of the vanquished, that the exclusion of the Jews ended up constituting an ideological cement, as is the integration of most was worth the exclusion of some. This is why there was no public protest against the regime's anti-Jewish policy, while the “T4 program” on the other hand did provoke protest. This was as if the persecution and dispossession of the Jews were not really experienced as such. Rooted in the longue durée, a European cultural soil predisposed a part of the German nation to accept the relegation of the Jews as self-evident.

Georges Bensoussan