Why the Germans?
by Götz Aly
Metropolitan Books, 304 pp., $30
by Alon Confino
Yale University Press, 304 pp., $30
The two questions that make up the title of the German scholar Götz Aly’s latest book are the ones that many historians of the Holocaust have been attempting to answer for decades. And as the book’s subtitle suggests, the answer that Aly supplies is not radically new. The novel twist in his argument consists of the way he links envy and race hatred as causal factors: Aly argues that the German people’s “gnawing envy” of the Jews ended up combining “with a collectivist longing for a life among equals” and “paved the way for [the] racial theory” that the Nazis employed in their genocidal assault on the Jews in their own country and beyond.
What made the German Jews so enviable, Aly explains, was the way that they took advantage of the new economic opportunities that arose in the course of the 19th century, as the old feudal order gave way to the modern world. More literate and academically agile than their Christian peers, German Jews were “eight times more likely to earn a better class of secondary-school degree” and used their “educational head start” to pursue “well-paying forms of intellectual labor.” By 1914, Aly reports, they earned “five times the income of the average Christian.” As a consequence, “the Christian majority, only too conscious that they needed to move up the social ladder, became obsessed with how quickly Jews were bettering themselves.”
This economic disparity was hard enough for Germans to stomach, but it was all the more painful given their collective insecurity as the inhabitants of a historically divided polity. Thanks to the traumas of the Thirty Years’ War and the Napoleonic invasions, the German people lacked a sense of “self-confidence” and thus sought to overcompensate by embracing an exaggerated sense of national identity. Tragically, according to Aly, this identity was based upon “weakness, timidity, self-doubt, resistance to progress, pent-up aggression, and xenophobia.” The Germans’ resulting “hypersensitivity toward minorities” explains why anti-Semitic outbursts erupted in the early 1800s, not only in the writings of intellectuals, such as Ernst Moritz Arndt, Friedrich Ludwig Jahn, and Jakob Friedrich Fries, but in the form of pogroms, such as the Hep Hep Riots of 1819.