Renowned Historian Talks Anti-Semitism, Holocaust at Local Event
In a recent lecture at the Center for Jewish History at 15 West 16th Street, aptly (albeit long-windedly) titled “Anti-Semitism and Judaeophobia: A Critical Analysis of the Development in European Anti-Jewish Sentiment During the Interwar Period,” John Lukacs, 88, showed himself to be a historian in the truest sense of the word. Sponsored by the YIVO Center for Jewish Research, the talk was trim, concise, and focused, almost to a fault at times.
The historian rarely strayed from the advertised topic, even when references to recent historical events might have illuminated some of his key points. Over the course of his lecture, Lukacs traced the development and consequences of certain ideas, namely Europe’s long history of anti-Jewish sentiment, for better and worse, forcing his audience to draw their own conclusions about their contemporary implications.
Luckacs’ argument hinges on the distinction between Judaeophobia and anti-Semitism. Alleging that many students of history tend to treat these phenomena interchangeably, Luckacs contends that it is in fact more useful to think of them as separate, albeit amorphously-related entities.
Judaeophobia has existed since ancient times. Early Christians (and today’s Mel Gibsons) lambasted the Jews as “Christ-Killers,” based on the spurious claim that they bore some special responsibility for betraying the founder of Christianity to the Roman Empire. Following their expulsion from Israel by that self-same empire, the Jews established communities all throughout Eastern and Western Europe in a period known as the Diaspora.
Local attitudes towards the outsiders varied according to time and region, ranging from reluctant acceptance to hostility. Lukacs noted that in most cases, the Jewish sense of “otherness” was primarily of a religious nature. In more enlightened countries, Jews who renounced their religion (or chose to practice it in secret) were permitted to assimilate and in some cases even rise to positions of high authority. Even so, often the Jewish people ran afoul of the then all-powerful Catholic Church. Indeed, the Spanish Inquisition constituted an organized attempt by the ruling House of Aragon to expunge the Jewish faith from the nation on behalf of the Pope. Those who refused to convert were forced to leave the country.
To be sure, Jews were not always permitted the option of voluntary conversion. Prior to the late 19th century, 80% of Europe’s Jewish population lived in Eastern Europe. Their dispersion began with the pogroms, in which the Russian Tsar and later the White Army (the anti-Bolshevik faction in the Russian Civil War) ransacked Jewish villages and murdered civilians, forcing Jews from the Pale of Settlement to seek asylum elsewhere. Many Jews fled to the ostensibly more civilized nations of Western Europe, unintentionally abetting the rise of a far more dangerous strain of anti-Jewish sentiment: anti-Semitism.
Whereas Judaeophobia was theological in origin, this new form of prejudice was rooted in racial and folk traditions. At this point, the Jewish people ceased to be the symptoms of a problem (namely, the Jewish faith) that could be ameliorated through conversion and occasional outbreaks of violence, and became the problem itself. According to this line of the thinking, the very presence of Jews was a blight on the purity of native peoples, whose race and/or shared history endowed them with an inherent superiority.
Nevertheless, Lukacs contends that the Holocaust was not inevitable and that Hitler’s incorporation of anti-Semitism into Nazi ideology was in part opportunistic. There is some historical evidence to support this claim, such as the Nazi’s “Madagascar Plan,” which would have cleansed Germany of its Jewish population through forced deportation rather then murder. It was only at the urging of top Nazi officials Himmler and Goebbels, Lukacs argues, that Hitler settled on his Final Solution.
When it came time for the inevitable post-lecture Q&A, some audience members took issue with this assertion, pointing to examples of Hitler calling for the murder of Jews long before coming to power. Lucaks countered that these statements, far from representing Hitler’s complete views, were in part demagogic tactics to rally the German people around new leadership. The Jews were, as ever, convenient scapegoats for a nation desperate for any source of unity.
Lest it appear that he was trying to whitewash Hitler’s anti-Semitism, Lukacs pointedly explained that just because Hitler did not plan the Holocaust from the beginning, doesn’t mean he wasn’t an anti-Semite, but rather that his anti-Semitism was not preordained to culminate in genocide. This might strike some as an inexcusable projection of humanity (or at least human motivation) onto one of history’s most reviled villains.
However, the notion of the Final Solution having been implemented as a last resort is in a way more tragic than if it had been planned all along. The sad truth is that throughout history, the Jewish people were perpetually dispossessed: hounded, harassed, occasionally accepted, but never truly at home in any of the disparate places where the currents of intolerance deposited them. That this period of exile ended in extermination is no less tragic as the last-ditch effort of a soulless bureaucracy (Lukacs’ claim) than as the long-held scheme of a preternaturally evil individual.
In keeping with his laser-like focus on the interwar period, Lukacs did not explore the ramifications of his historical argument on events following World War II, most conspicuously the founding of Israel. One might wonder: how does Zionism tie into Lukacs’ historical narrative? Does anti-Zionism constitute a new, 20th- century permutation of anti-Jewish sentiment? If so, how does it compare and contrast with Judaeophobia and anti-Semitism? Or is it unfair to even conflate Zionism with Judaism? Lukacs’ deliberate refusal to address such questions was curious and a bit anti-climactic, somewhat akin to sitting in a movie theater and watching Godzilla wreak havoc on Tokyo, only for the film to burn up just as Mothra dramatically soars onto the screen.
Minor gripes aside, Lukacs introduced enough compelling historical cud for the audience to chew on. It will be the task of future historians to examine the implications of Lukacs’ ideas in the realms of post-war and contemporary history. If said historians are true to their inspiration, the conclusions they reach will be anything but clear-cut.