Today on Blogcritics
Home » Books » Book Reviews » Book Review: Studying the Jew: Scholarly Antisemitism in Nazi Germany by Alan E. Steinweis

Book Review: Studying the Jew: Scholarly Antisemitism in Nazi Germany by Alan E. Steinweis

Please Share...Print this pageTweet about this on Twitter0Share on Facebook0Share on Google+1Pin on Pinterest0Share on TumblrShare on StumbleUpon0Share on Reddit0Email this to someone

It is a common sop when faced with the sheer scale of the Holocaust to view the genocide as an aberration, as acts of a select number of Nazi Party officials to which the greater number of German citizens did not accede. Certainly the sheer depths of Nazi depravity was not known but neither was it without precedent. The racial purity laws, expulsion of Jewish civil servants, the Night of Crystals, and the ghettoisation of local Jewish people all pointed to German citizenry at large that they were witnessing a systematic process of dehumanisation, notwithstanding the reports of more brutal antisemitic policies in areas like Poland.

Therefore, even if one does not follow the thesis of a scholar such as Daniel Goldhagen who posits that the German people were willing participants, facilitators, and enablers of genocide (Hitler’s Willing Executioners:Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust) it is clear that there was a virulent antisemitism. This antisemitism, no doubt, built on the legacy of the intellectual antisemitism / antijudaism of the German religious heritage but, in the main German antisemitism was what Alan E Steinweis has called “emotional antisemitism” that mirrors Hitler’s own assessment of German antisemitism in the early 1920s “a simple antisemitism of emotion” (7).

This emotional antisemitism was an eclectic phenomena; it could be expressed in religious antipathy (the Jew as Christ-killer) or on general stereotypes of the Jew as international financier and hence enemy of the volk. In his introduction Steinweis shows that Hitler was sceptical that such emotional antisemitism was a suitable basis for a mass political movement. As early as 1919 writing to another decommissioned infantryman Hitler said “Antisemitism as a political movement may not and can not be determined by flashes of emotion, but rather through the understanding of facts. ” Consequently, Hitler and the National Socialist State apparatus that followed him desired an “antisemitism of reason” — it is precisely the cultivation and, tragically, often unprompted espousal of such a “reasonable” antisemitism that is the subject of Steinweis’ Studying the Jew: Scholarly Antisemitism in Nazi Germany.

The Nazi ascension to power, argues Steinweis, was carried through on the back of the emotional antisemitism Hitler had earlier derided. The Nazi State soon recognised however that if it were ever to fulfill Hitler’s stated (early) desire to ensure “the removal of the Jews altogether” the predominant religious view of Judaism must be repudiated; the Jew, other words must be viewed less in terms of personal enmity but as an inferior racial type. It is for this reason that the Nuremberg laws had so little time for the (albeit muted) complaints of Christian churches that the baptised Jew has renounced Judaism. One could not, the Nazis insisted, choose not to be a Jew. And so, it was necessary to develop in the academy (and therefore gain legitimacy) an “antisemitism of reason” which is precisely the facet of the Nazi State that Studying the Jew focuses on.

The problem for the Nazis is that the more overt racial antisemitism they proposed did not have the support of the academic establishment necessary to give professional and independent credence to Nazi anti-Jewish policy. Through a mixture of academics seeking professional advancement by ingratiating themselves with the Nazi party, a range of research grants to doctoral students and the establishment of Research centres on the “Jewish Problem” they sought to reverse this dearth and promote a scientific basis for their politics of hate and, later, as a justification for their mass murder. It is clear that this was part of a wider propaganda campaign to which many academics were more than willing to ride out to its brutal conclusions.

In each chapter Steinweis takes a couple of such leading thinkers and offers a reading of their scholarly output and, where appropriate, how these authors sought to rehabilitate themselves in the academic community. As a theologian one of the most disheartening features of the Nazi period was the near total capitulation of the church to and facilitation of Nazi hegemony. Of the intellectuals studied a disproportionate number are theologians or biblical scholars; on the level of expertise this is understandable given their own mastery of biblical languages but on the level of moral culpability it remains the case that it is the theological faculty that was most guilty for providing the intellectual climate in which made the murder of millions of innocents a conceivable policy — one of the primary leaders in this mould was Gerhard Kittel (1888-1948).

As a theological student I did not ever have the occasion to read the work of Kittel, with one exception. That one exception was the work for which Kittel was (and probably is) best known, namely the Theologisches Wörterbuch zum Neuen Testament. This multi-volume theological reference remains a work that is often cited to this day — despite the question of its own antisemitic prejudice. As Alan Steinweis points out, were it not for the groundbreaking research of Robert Ericksen which culminated in the 1985 book Theologians Under Hitler: Gerhard Kittel, Paul Althaus, and Emmanuel Hirsch (a book, incidentally, that I recommend) it is quite possible the English-speaking world would have remained largely ignorant of his part in the promotion of antisemitism despite the fact that he died awaiting trial after his arrest (having been at one point incarcerated for 17 months).

In what was one of his tamer writings on Kittel, on 1 June 1933, – that is, a matter of months after the election of the Nazis the previous January – publically lectured on “The Jewish Question” (Kittel’s lecture drew a response from Martin Buber). Steinweis summarises one aspect of Kittel’s speech thus:

In ‘The Jewish Question’ [Kittel] bemoaned the existence of hundreds of thousands of Jewish Mischlinge, who, he added, “contribute in many ways to unbridled Jewish influence” … The existing Mischlinge, numerous as they were, could eventually be absorbed into an Aryan and Christian Germany, provided that further mixed marriages could be prevented. In the absence of drastic measures against mixed marriage, however, Kittel believed the problem would fester. Mixed marriages, Kittel concluded, when not “radically prohibited,” ought at the very least to be strongly discouraged by forcing the Jewish partner “and all his progeny” to belong to the Jewish community and thereby suffer all the disadvantages of “guest status” (70-71).

And, this “guest status” was Kittel’s suggested approach after he had rejected the option of mass murder as impracticable(!) It is no surprise then that Kittel’s lecture was republished at public expense shortly thereafter by the Nazis. Nor is it a surprise that the archaeologist W F Albright — an author, incidentally, that I did read in college — wrote in the immediate aftermath of Kittel’s arrest that “In view of the terrible viciousness of his attacks on Judaism and the Jews, which continues at least until 1943, Gerhard Kittel must bear the guilt of having contributed more, perhaps, than any other Christian theologian to the mass murder of Jews by Nazis.”

What made the horror of Kittel’s antisemitism is not just the words but from whence the words came. Kittel was no SA thug, he was an intelligent and serious scholar. When he, as an eminent scholar of religion and the Bible confidently spoke of the enduring ‘wandering Jew’ and racial inferiority from the German people made attention – Kittel became a mouthpiece of Nazi propaganda and, being an academic, his voice had a credence it would not have had otherwise.

Kittel is just one of hundreds of professors who used their position to further a politics of hate and created a climate where the Nazi’s Final Solution became (for many) an intellectually defensible view; Studying the Jew offers many more such summaries if scholarly antisemitism, among those covered include Otmar von Verschuer, Hans Gunther, Karl Kuhn and Johannes Pohl. In the course of these portraits important questions (but, alas, no answers) are raised concerning the relation of academia and ideology.

Steinweis does offer an important survey of the study of the methods and some of the political implications of racialised study of the Jew but with its focus on biblical, historical and social scientific scholars the book is too narrow. The one name that invariably emerges in discussions of academia under Nazism is, of course, that of Heidegger. A summary of some of the controversy was set out in Thomas Sheehan’s famous New York Review of Books article “The Normal Nazi” in 1993. Although the extent of Heidegger’s culpability continues to exorcise minds given the field of study any antisemitism was of limited political consequence, the same cannot be said for Heidegger’s contemporary, namely the legal and political philosopher Carl Schmitt (1888-1985).

Schmitt’s Hobbesian denunciation of (liberal) democracy and support of the autocratic state was, as Raphael Gross has shown in Carl Schmitt and the Jews, very much founded on his antisemitic views. It is arguable that the characterisation of the ‘Jew as enemy’ to be expelled — along with from all other enemies — an act which for Schmitt is the apotheosis of “politics” – did create precisely the intellectual framework of an antisemitism of reason that Hitler felt necessary to legitimise Nazi barbarism (again, like Heidegger, there is a debate concerning the degree of Schmitt’s antisemitism).

Likewise, although understandably focused on the scholars themselves it would, given the crossover with the propagandist work of the Nazi Party have been helpful to have seen a little more on how the authorities viewed the work of academia and sought to cultivate it for their own ends.

In sum then, it is disappointing that Studying the Jew is a limited work in that the uses this primary research of Judaism was put by those who accepted these findings in other more politically potent subject areas (law being the primary example) means a fuller picture of how academia became part of a wider propaganda movement in Nazi Germany is not taken. Nevertheless, Studying the Jew remains a potent, tragic, and historically informative account of scholarly antisemitism in Nazi Germany and the uses to which this scholasticism was put. It is one that many an academic of whatever discipline would do well to read.

Powered by

About Cdenck

%d bloggers like this: