The downward spiral of pre-World War II European Jewry

The downward spiral of pre-World War II European Jewry

In his new book, historian Bernard Wasserstein says Jewish culture was on the road to extinction even prior to the Holocaust. An interview with the author

Bernard Wasserstein in his book-lined office (photo credit: courtesy)
Bernard Wasserstein in his book-lined office (photo credit: courtesy)

LONDON — The history professor and I meet in an old Victorian-styled tearoom in central London’s Mayfair district. In conversation, Bernard Wasserstein is reserved, yet retains a courteous demeanor at all times. He talks in slow, drawn-out sentences, often pausing for long periods in between questions.

Bernard Wasserstein (photo credit: courtesy)
Bernard Wasserstein (photo credit: courtesy)

I begin by asking him about the central thesis that runs through his new book, “On the Eve, The Jews of Europe Before the Second World War.” Wasserstein, one of the leading researchers in European Jewish history, states that Jewish culture was in decline throughout Europe even before the Nazis took power in 1933.

From the shtetls of Lithuania, to the salons of Vienna, Jewish culture was already on the road to extinction, says the author. In his book Wasserstein attempts to prove that contrary to received wisdom, there was a growing awareness that Jews were approaching what the writer Joseph Roth once declared as “a great catastrophe.”

Wasserstein was born in London and has taught at universities including Oxford, Sheffield, Jerusalem, Brandeis, Glasgow, and Chicago, where he is now based. He has written several books on Jewish history such as “Britain and the Jews of Europe, 1939-1945,” “Vanishing Diaspora: The Jews in Europe since 1945,” and “Divided Jerusalem.”

I ask the historian, had the Jews been more culturally unified, might they have been a stronger political force in the period before WWII?

Wasserstein doesn’t seem to think so.

“Jews tried everything, some of them tried assimilation, and that didn’t work. In the Soviet Union, those that embraced socialism and communism, found that they were still thought of as outsiders. They tried Zionism, but that didn’t work. They attempted immigration elsewhere, but again that failed because the doors were closed everywhere. Each of these solutions was seen to address what’s called ‘the Jewish question,’ and each of them failed. Changing one of these variables would not have changed the outcome.”

The Jewish writer, political activist, Nobel laureate, and Holocaust survivor, Elie Wiesel, once described the strange paradox that haunts the Holocaust as thus: “[It] is an unspeakable evil. How is it possible to speak of it at all? Yet how is one not to speak of it?”

When one begins to think about genocide on an industrial scale, is it possible to find a root cause to this “unspeakable evil”?

Preceding the Holocaust was a culture across European society that had an unmitigated hunger for violence. Wasserstein says that religion and politics were two prevalent forces that encouraged this.

‘The Church was the main source of values at that time, particularly the Catholic Church in Poland, who were outspokenly anti-Semitic’

“We have to talk about the role of nationalism and the church. The Church was the main source of values at that time, particularly the Catholic Church in Poland, who were outspokenly anti-Semitic. It didn’t call for violence against Jews, but its underlying teaching: that the Jews were not part of the Polish nation, and were also an accursed people, certainly affected the way the majority of Poles thought about the Jews. It also affected the behavior during the war, when the question of whether to help Jews, or to help the Nazis against the Jews, became acute.”

“Part of this accepted attitude to violence in Europe at this time comes from the First World War, and the horrors of famine after it. There was also revolutionary violence throughout much of the continent, and that brought violence out of the toothpaste tube, as it were. Then when the Great Depression came, violence seemed a natural reaction to an extreme situation,” he adds.

In his book, Wasserstein spends considerable ink discussing the role Jewish intellectuals played in Europe up until the mid-1930s in shaping public discourse.
Arguments about politics and literature were debated across the pages of established liberal papers, such as the Neue Freie Presse or The Frankfurter Zeitun.

With historical hindsight, it’s often easier to suggest what course of action should have been taken. But given the potential power the Jewish press had, why was there not a more concerted effort to resist the poisonous propaganda machine of the Nazis before it was too late?

Wasserstein insists that by favoring this option, the Jewish press felt their true liberal values would have been sacrificed.

“These papers felt they should not be solely serving the Jewish interest. They were hostile to Nazism, and extreme nationalism, but they realized their position was precarious. When the Nazis came to power, they were able to stifle these papers, in some cases close them down, in other cases take them over. The papers felt their best hope in achieving a broad interest in society was not to insist on a parochial Jewish interest, but to try and show that what was being endangered by the role of extreme nationalism, and Nazism, was liberal values. And that lead them to downplay these rather specific Jewish aspects of what was going on.”

A figure that dominates Wasserstein’s work — perhaps a little more than he would like — is Adolf Hitler. For the historian, the psychology of Hitler’s mind serves little interest in itself.

‘I don’t think it would have been possible to stir up the same kind of hatred that Hitler did against the Jews with any other group’

“It’s less important what’s going on in Hitler’s head, but what’s more important is his ability to transfer his hatred into a collective psychopathology. I don’t think it would have been possible to stir up the same kind of hatred that he did against the Jews with any other group. Simply because there was no other group that had played such a central role in European society, but who were also regarded with deep-seethed cultural contempt.”

Looking back at the Holocaust, it seems strange, almost perverse, to talk about the progression of the European mind, given the barbarous acts of depravity that took place.

Nevertheless, Wasserstein posits that the memory of the Nazi genocide has affected what he labels “the European consciousness” in a very profound way, particularly in Germany since the 1960s. Despite this, one needs only to look at the horrific events that occurred in Srebrenica, Bosnia, in 1995, to see how quickly this can change, he says.

“European society has had what you might call an inoculating effect, as a result of the memory of what is often called the Holocaust — a term I don’t like to use. However, I wouldn’t put too much faith in that alone as leading to decent behavior.”

Bernard Wasserstein in his book-lined office (photo credit: courtesy)
Bernard Wasserstein in his book-lined office (photo credit: courtesy)
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