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Reviewed by:
  • Was ist Antisemitismus?
  • Georg Christoph Berger Waldenegg
Was ist Antisemitismus? by Wolfgang Benz. Munich: Beck Verlag, 2004. 256 pp. €19.90.

The hard-cover version of the book under review is illustrated with the representation of the page of a dictionary on which the entry "antisemitism" is left empty. It's unclear whether this decision was made in cooperation with the author, Wolfgang Benz. However, one thing is clear: Benz, chairman of the renowned Institut für Antisemitismusforschung at the Technische Universität Berlin, is a leading historian of modern and contemporary German-Jewish history. Thus, the reader has reason to expect that after having read the book he will be much better informed about anti-Jewish thought and will even find a plausible answer to the crucial question which also comprises the title of the book: What is antisemitism? This answer would also be a great progress in knowledge, since, firstly, generations of scholars have tried in vain to come to definite terms with the apparently eternal phenomenon of anti-Jewish thought, and, secondly, efficient action against it would then be much easier to take.

To say it bluntly: Such expectations, for several reasons, are only partly accomplished. First of all, Benz mostly treats aspects already well-known among scholars, without providing new insights. Perhaps this fact is in part due to the book's structure. We do not find a systematic analysis but rather a partly incoherent depiction and discussion of single relevant aspects in a total of thirteen chapters, some of which have already been published more or less identically elsewhere (a fact which is, curiously enough, not disclosed to the reader).

Moreover, Benz does not aim to provide "theoretical insight for academic use, but insights on causes, function and effect of hostility toward Jews," based on "empirical evidence" (p. 8). Accordingly, his imagined audience obviously [End Page 177] does not comprise members of the historiographical community, but people willing to learn basic aspects about anti-Jewish thought and its history. For this reason a paperback version of the book at the price of approximately $3.00 was published by the Bundeszentrale für politische Bildung (Federal Agency for Civic Education), an institution subordinated to the Ministry of the Interior, that "centres on the promoting awareness for democracy and participation in politics" (see http:///www.bpb.de, English version).

But even such an audience should have received at least a short review of the state of research, a brief outline of the primary and secondary sources used by Benz, and, last but not least, a different and respectively broader range of content; the title of the book is very general. And indeed, Benz does not only treat many different forms of anti-Jewish attitudes since the middle Ages (including the so-called "secondary antisemitism after the Holocaust" [p. 19]), but also shows several historical continuities and breaks, the greatest merit of his expositions. But he concentrates on the German aspects of this story without explaining why: only 25 of roughly 241 pages are dedicated to a comparison of the situation in Germany with the European situation in general and the Austrian and Swiss in particular.

Moreover, Benz's account suffers from a significant overdose of psychohistorical claims, based on problematic inductive reasoning and common-sense psychology rather than on reliable psychological and/or psychoanalytical findings: According to Benz, people with anti-Jewish attitudes must be—quasi per definition—subject to "paranoid and psychotic fears" (p. 12; cf. p. 64). Why? It might be plausible to argue that "the Jews" especially after the Shoah have "indeed . . . reason" to be "paranoid," but indirectly Benz claims that some Jews are in fact paranoid (p. 19). He even puts deceased personalities on the famous couch, calling, for example, Eugen Dühring a "paranoid loner" with "delusions" (p. 96). Adolf Hitler might indeed have had "pathological ideas" (p. 111), but was Houston Stewart Chamberlain "without doubt a muddle-head" (p. 101)? To be sure, his ideas about Jews and other races nowadays appear completely unreasonable, but apart from the fact that muddle-head is hardly a scientific term, undoubtedly not a few well-educated coevals found Chamberlains' opinions convincing. And...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1534-5165
Print ISSN
0882-8539
Pages
pp. 177-179
Launched on MUSE
2006-07-12
Open Access
No
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