A World Without Jews: The Nazi Imagination from Persecution to Genocide by Alon Confino (review)
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A World Without Jews: The Nazi Imagination from Persecution to Genocide, Alon Confino (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2014), 304 pp., illus., hardcover $30.00, paperback $20.00.

Alon Confino's extended essay tries to develop new ways of thinking about Nazi antisemitism. Why did the Nazis want to murder all the Jews in the world? His answer: "Jews represented time, symbolizing evil historical origins that had to be eradicated for Nazi civilization to arise" (p. 14). Confino drew this conclusion by asking, "Why did the Nazis burn the Hebrew Bible?" (p. 3). That dramatic question opened for Confino a new way of thinking: historians should examine not only racial ideology, but imagination and fantasy. Confino's work contributes to a new trend in Holocaust scholarship that tries to understand the cultural fabric, and not only the actions that people took. The problem is that Confino's book does not provide sufficient evidence for his conclusions, which remain gossamer conjectures.

While most historians focus on racism when trying to understand Nazi antisemitism, Confino explores "the Nazi imagination" and "the history of emotions and imagination of Germans during the Third Reich" (p. 6). Studies of emotions often illuminate a historical era. Best known is Klaus Theweleit's study of the fantasies of [End Page 123] members of the post–World War I Freikorps. Distinguishing Theweleit's work are his sources: the autobiographies and novels of Freikorps members. With Confino, however, fantasies and emotions are based on conjecture because he does not cite primary sources of the very people whose motivations he claims to know.

The large-scale book burnings that occurred in parts of Germany in spring 1933, part of a Nazi "cultural cleansing," targeted books by Jews, Communists, pacifists, and scholars of sexuality; works by Freud and other psychoanalysts; and modernist literature. They also included editions of the Bible, though Confino does not indicate whether these were just the Old Testament, editions containing both the New Testament and the Old Testament, German translations, or original Hebrewand Greek-language Bibles.

But was throwing the Bible onto book-burning pyres in 1933 a symbolic eradication of Jewishness, or a revolt against the Churches and the entire culture they represented? After all, the so-called German Christian Movement was already in full swing, promoting, as Doris Bergen has demonstrated, a manly, antisemitic, amoral, and anti-doctrinal revolution within the Protestant Church.

Confino seems to have borrowed from the archival material I presented in The Aryan Jesus, about a Protestant Church Institute that sought to eradicate all elements of "Jewishness" from German religious life. But "dejudaization" was promoted by a significant number of theologians, and not just an undefined abstraction Confino refers to as "the Nazis." Does he mean Hitler, Himmler, Goebbels, Göring? The uneducated street thugs who joined the SA? The ideologically indoctrinated SS? At times, Confino conflates Nazis and Germans: "in burning the Bible, Germans expressed conceptions of historical time and origins" (p. 22). All Germans? All Nazis? Did Hitler want to "burn the Bible," eradicate "Jewish time," and link racial theory with Christianity? Confino offers no evidence from Hitler's written or oral statements.

During the Kristallnacht pogrom of November 1938, mobs mobilized by the regime torched synagogues across Germany and threw Torah scrolls, prayer books, and other Hebrew volumes into the flames. Burning the Bible did not simply express antisemitic rage, according to Confino, but enacted a larger fantasy: a Nazi wish to eradicate not just Jews, but Jewishness itself.

Did the thugs recognize Torah scrolls as the "Hebrew Bible" or the "Old Testament"? A scroll kept in a locked cabinet, covered in velvet cloth, and crowned with silver ornaments was more likely understood as an object precious to Jews—sufficient motivation to desecrate and destroy it. As Alan Steinweis has established, however, the pogroms were carried out not only by Storm Troopers, but also by locals with a variety of motivations—children egged on by their teachers, workers spurred by business owners, groups of Hitler Youth, or bystanders interested in loot. Although his argument concerns Nazi intentions, Confino cites only a few Jewish eyewitness reports of Kristallnacht, and not the volume of eyewitness...