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  • A World without Jews: The Nazi Imagination from Persecution to Genocide by Alon Confino
  • Juergen Manemann
A World without Jews: The Nazi Imagination from Persecution to Genocide. By Alon Confino. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2014. Pp. xii + 284. Cloth $30.00. ISBN 978-0300188547.

“Why?” is always the question that comes up in the face of Auschwitz. Holocaust survivor and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Elie Wiesel warned historians of the arrogance behind any attempt to answer that question. Wiesel is afraid that answering the question “why?” silences all questioning and thus contradicts remembrance. For the historian, this admonition means looking for answers that do not suppress questions but instead generate new ones. In his book A World without Jews, historian Alon Confino begins with a Jewish joke told during World War II: “A group of Nazis surrounded an elderly Berlin Jew and demanded of him, ‘Tell us, Jew, who caused [End Page 192] the war?’ The little Jew was no fool. ‘The Jews,’ he answered, then added, ‘and the bicycle riders.’ The Nazis were puzzled. ‘Why the bicycle riders?’ ‘Why the Jews?’ answered the little old man” (vi).

Confino tries to tackle this question. He takes a new route, going beyond the debate between functionalists and intentionalists. His hypothesis: “The Nazis perpetrated the Holocaust in the name of culture” (242). In the debate over the extermination of the Jews, there has been a kind of cultural forgetfulness. In the astonishment over how a people of poets and thinkers could stray into such barbarity, and consequently lose their culture, scholars have neglected the causal nexus between destruction and culture. The structure of his argument hinges on the question of the burning of the Hebrew Bible; the relevant chapter stands literally at the center of his book. Confino criticizes the fact that, until now, this issue has gone unnoticed in the historiography of National Socialism. In his view, it is obvious that the Nazis’ actions had not only racist but also affective and symbolic significance. “A history of the Holocaust,” he argues, “must include the history of emotions and imagination of Germans during the Third Reich, for the fundamental reason that the persecution and extermination was built on fantasy, in the sense that anti-Jewish beliefs had no basis in reality” (6).

In his view, book burning represented a medium of national redemption for the new Germany (529). Confino traces the outlines of this cultural mood, rooted less in race and more in imagination. The focus was not just on a race but on what Adolf Hitler called a “spiritual race” (69), with the Nazis aiming to create a new world. For this fantasy to come true, the idea would have had to enter people’s imaginations and feelings (76). An “emotional community” must have existed “that claimed to link the individual to the collectivity based on anti-Jewish sentiments” (79). “In their anti-Jewish violent public actions Nazis created a vision of the world beyond how it really was” (81). Without this vision, Auschwitz would never have happened. For this reason, he posits, the so-called Night of Broken Glass—culminating in the “destruction of the Book of Books”—should be seen as an element of the continuum leading to industrial murder (115). Attacks on the Hebrew Bible were nothing new. But in this performative act of burning the sacred books of the Jews, the Nazis seemed to have proclaimed themselves the Chosen People (122). Confino criticizes previous historical research for neglecting this connection (119): “The Bible was destroyed because it was disturbingly important for the Nazis” (121).

Anyone dealing with Auschwitz, Confino believes, needs to bring the idea of a world without Jews—a new Creation—into the center of historical research (10). The Nazis, he says, were not simply following in the antisemitic tradition; rather they were trying to create a new world without Jews: “I have explored how the Nazis looked at the past, not how the past produced the Nazis” (23). Confino argues that the Holocaust should not be picked out from history as a singularity but instead should be [End Page 193] described in the context of war, conquest, and comparable genocides...


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