Confino Connects Holocaust Anti-Semitism to Nazis' Anxiety about History and Origins

Alon Confino, Professor of History at the University of Virginia, discussed his work on the connection between acts of racial violence against Jews during the Holocaust and the Nazis’ reinvention of their understanding of time and history in his lecture on Monday, April 15. The talk was sponsored by the Class of 1960 Scholars and the Department of History.

On June 9, 1938, Nazi paramilitary forces and German mobs destroyed the property of thousands of Jews across Nazi Germany and Austria, and sent thousands more Jews off to concentration camps. Later called Krystallnacht, this night frequently began with a symbolic burning of the Hebrew Bible. Confino’s talk used the burning of the Torah Scrolls on Krystallnacht as a starting point for a discussion about the Nazis’ vision of their place in history in relationship with minority ethnic groups.

Emerging from a century of colonization in Africa and the Middle East, the Nazis saw European and especially German civilization as superior and destined to dominate its inferiors across the world. To make this claim, however, the Nazis had to reconstruct a well-defined European identity and culture that could fit in with their own ideology. In their efforts to create a new European civilization, the Nazis reinvented the German sense of time and teleology, constructing a history that led directly to the Nazi regime.

Fasanenstrasse Synagogue in Berlin after Krystallnacht, November 9-10, 1938.

Jews challenged this sense of common European and German identity. With their own holy book and distinct sense of origins, the Jews represented the culmination of an alternate European history that did not fit in with the Nazis’ self-image.  The Nazis’ ultimate goal, then, was to create a new German Christianity, as well as a European civilization independent of any non-German history. In his 1943 speech at Poznan, for example, SS commander Heinrich Himmler described the extermination of the Jews as “an unwritten and never-to-be-written page of glory in our history,” thereby both erasing the Jews from German history and placing the extermination of the Jews as a step towards the ultimate goal of the glorification of the new German civilization. The Nazis therefore portrayed the Jews as everything that represented “un-German modernity”: liberalism, democracy, pacifism, Communism.

Lying at the heart of this anti-Semitism, of course, was the uncomfortable sense that Judaism in fact lay at the roots of an aspect of European culture central to German identity, Christianity. The Nazis’ cruelty towards the Jews, Confino argued, was rooted in a deep-seated fear of the Jews, a fear that most often provoked not only wanton cruelty but also resentful mockery. This view of Nazi anti-Semitism pushes against the traditional view of the Nazis as methodical, emotionless killers, and, in particular, highlights the tragedy of the Holocaust as symptoms of an underlying societal phenomenon of racism and racial fear that went well beyond the “cold-blooded killing” of the few in power, such as Himmel and Hitler.

Alon Confino, who grew up in Israel and received his B.A. at Tel Aviv University, is a professor of History at the University of Virginia.