- The Continuities of German History: Nation, Religion, and Race across the Long Nineteenth Century
German historians once routinely built their explanations of the Third Reich and its genocidal policies on the foundations of deep historical continuities. In their narratives of the Nazi regression into barbarism, they variously emphasized the legacies of late mediaeval anti-Semitism, the inherited traditions of Prussian militarism, the enduring streams of post-Enlightenment “anti-modernism,” or the persistence of pre-industrial, anti-democratic aristocratic elites and Germany’s [End Page 177] “special path” (Sonderweg) of socio-political (mis)development. In the 1980s, however, David Blackbourn and Geoff Eley deconstructed the Sonderweg thesis and other arguments about long-term continuity, identified the considerable scope of bourgeois social and political influence in imperial Germany, and pointed out that the most aggressively authoritarian forces in early-twentieth-century Germany were largely middle-class and self-consciously “modernizing,” rather than aristocratic or backward-looking. In the wake of this critique, German historians have turned to conjunctural or shorter-term explanations of Nazism and the Holocaust that focus on cultural-political transformations associated with what Detlev Peukert called the “classical modern” in the early twentieth century or on the perpetrators and agencies responsible for Nationalist Socialist anti-Jewish and mass extermination policies during the Nazi era itself. Indeed, in the most important recent attempt to take stock of the German twentieth century, Konrad Jarausch and Michael Geyer emphasize the profound discontinuities of Germany’s “shattered past” and locate the impetus for the Holocaust in the explosive fusion of “catastrophic nationalism” and virulent anti-Semitism in the aftermath of the First World War.
Taking the beginning of the Nazi campaign systematically to murder Jews in 1941 as his point of orientation, Helmut Walser Smith rejects the views of these “chronologically myopic historians” (p. 3) and argues that the nature of the Holocaust can only be properly understood if we acknowledge its connections to the long arc of religiously motivated violence against Jews in Europe since the late mediaeval era. Early outbreaks of Christian violence dating back to at least the fourteenth century throughout “Germany,” Smith maintains, were memorialized in Christian art and iconography, re-enacted in Christian festivals, and “rooted in popular consciousness” (p. 215) well into the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Following a similar pattern and script, which variously invoked accusations of ritual murder, host desecration, Jewish betrayal, and unfair Jewish privilege, they found expression in events as distant in time in Germany as the Hep Hep Riots of 1819, the campaigns against Jewish emancipation in 1848 – 1849, the Scheunenviertel riots in Berlin in 1923, Nazi attacks on Jews and synagogues in November 1938, and the mass executions carried out by the SS beginning in 1941.
These anti-Jewish rituals and attacks became “modern,” according to Smith, when they were re-directed by nationalism and racism during the long nineteenth century. The German nation as a concept, he argues, was “discovered” as early as the sixteenth century by map-makers charting the geography of central Europe. But it was transformed in the early nineteenth century as German philosophers and nationalist intellectuals authored an “epistemic shift” that displaced earlier Renaissance understandings of the nation as a collective identity manifested in material conditions external to the perceiving subject — that is, in the cities, towns, forests, lakes, rivers, mountains, and language encountered in the world — to a post-Kantian idealist definition of the nation as the collective expression of a self-contained, self-determining, and interiorized human subjectivity. The emergence of this constructivist definition of nationhood, which Smith traces in [End Page 178] relation to the writings of Johann Gottlieb Fichte after 1807, figured an organic unity of character, “general Christianity,” and language that subordinated the individual to the nation and rigidly excluded non-Germans, including Jews, to the point of contemplating their expulsion — an exclusionary perspective that elevated still-intact forms of traditional anti-Semitism to the larger community of the nation.
The “eliminationist racism” of the latter half of the nineteenth century effected a...