Alon ConfinoA World Without Jews: The Nazi Imagination from Persecution to Genocide

Yale University Press, 2014

by Anna Fishzon on March 3, 2015

Alon Confino

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[Cross-posted from New Books in HistoryAlon Confino’s A World Without Jews: The Nazi Imagination from Persecution to Genocide (Yale University Press, 2014) begins with a vivid and devastating scene in the small German town of Fürth on November 10, 1938: Jews are forced from their homes and assembled in the main square.  Many are made to stand for hours at the local community center; the men are beaten, humiliated, and transported to Dachau.  There is a good deal of symbolic violence, too.  The synagogue and all its contents are vandalized and then destroyed.  The Torah scrolls are rolled out, stamped on, and set ablaze.

Book burning was a common ritual during the Third Reich but Confino ponders: why did the Nazis burn the Hebrew Bible?  Historians’ standard explanations for the Holocaust – racial ideology, administrative, technologically-driven processes of extermination, the brutalization of war, and the dynamics of competition between Stalin and Hitler — cannot fully account for why this foundational text of European-Christian civilization was desecrated and set on fire repeatedly in Germany in the years leading up to World War II.  Nor can such explanations render or lend insight into the hatred, murderous resentment, and sadism expressed by Germans toward their Jewish neighbors during this time.  A number of groups were persecuted under National Socialism but Jews were special, contradictory figures, and both inferiority and awesome powers were attributed to them.  Confino ask how Nazis fantasized about Jews — the place the Jew came to occupy in the Nazi imagination – and seeks to show the ways such fantasies set the context for and enabled mass deportations and death camps.

The answers provided in Confino’s book unfold within an apparent paradox.  On the one hand, the Nazis wanted to eradicate the Jews from the story of Aryan origins — to expunge Jewish memory, sever the tie between Judaism and Christianity, and take the place of the Jews in historical time.  This is why some burned the Torah and even attempted to excise all references to Jews in the New Testament.  Others, however, especially in the years after Kristallnacht, became obsessed with preserving synagogues and all sorts of books and judaica in museums – with making Jews the objects of commemoration and rewriting their past.  Since Nazis linked the murder of the Jews to redemption and strove to weave their victory over Jewish influence into a narrative of a new Aryan civilization, Confino argues that the impulse to commemorate Jews while simultaneously destroying Jewish life is not as paradoxical as it might initially seem.

A World Without Jews pays careful attention to the imaginings as well as emotions of both Germans and Jews, tracing outbursts of obscene violence to unbearable intimacies.  Through contemporaries’ diaries, letters, and photographs Confino attempts to get at the feelings and sensibilities undergirding ritual mockery and guilt-driven denials and to capture what many conventional social and political histories miss: that communities are built (and destroyed) not only on beliefs, narratives, and economies but affects, too.

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