I got to know Jeffrey Herf a little in the early 1990s, when he contributed occasionally to the Wall Street Journal on German politics. In those days, I suggested to him a number of books he ought to write. He politely declined my advice – and yet nonetheless somehow contrived to rise to become one of America’s most eminent historians anyway. I can only imagine how successful he would have been had he listened to me.
The Jewish Enemy: Nazi Propaganda During World War II sets out to answer a seemingly simple question: How did the Nazi regime explain and justify their war to ordinary German citizens?
As elsewhere in Europe, memories of the first world war remained raw in Germany in 1939. Richard Evans, author of to my mind the best history of the Third Reich we have in English (two volumes published, one to go) details the war reluctance of ordinary German citizens. Hitler’s rapid-fire victories over Poland, Norway, the Low Countries and France amazed and excited his people. But the triumphs of 1940 faded in 1941. Britain hung on, America edged closer to war, and the war kept growing: Yugoslavia, Greece, North Africa, and at last the Soviet Union.
Hitler’s blitzkrieg, never cheap even in German lives, now weltered into an apocalyptic bloodbath. Herf tells us:
In December 1941, Hitler reported to a stunned Reichstag that 160,000 German soldiers had died since June 1941 on the eastern front. According to important recent research, the actual figure by the end of November was 282,330. By the end of December 1941, the toll for eight months since Operation Barbarossa had begun had risen to 324,528 deaths. The German home audience never heard those figures. They were 572,000 in 1942; 812,000 in 1943; 1,802,000 in 1944; and 1,540,000 from January to May 8, 1945.
As the suffering accumulated, Hitler and the Nazis ever more frantically sought to persuade the German people that their war of aggression should instead be seen as a war of national defense and survival. Germany had not started the war. Germany had been forced into war. And guess who was to blame?
HE BEARS THE GUILT FOR THE WAR!
So shouts a German propaganda poster from the spring and summer of 1943, a time of disasters for the Germans. A strongly sinewed male arm and finger explode out of the upper right corner, to point at a cowering fleshy figure in opera hat and and white tie in the lower left. The cowering figure wears a yellow star bearing the word, “Jude.”
Herf quotes from Hitler’s speeches, from Goebbel’s diaries and many articles, from Nazi propaganda in all its forms in which again and again the same astonishingly audacious claim is made: It was Germany that had been attacked in 1939 – by the Jews. The war was a
struggle driven by world Jewry’s immeasurable hatred against Aryan people as such, against their spirit, worldview, and culture. The Jewish wire pullers in London, in New York, and not least in Moscow planned and prepared this war with shameless campaigns of agitation … so that nations would take up arms against the Aryan powers of the earth. …
What does world Jewry seek? For thousands of years, it has aimed at nothing but Jewish world domination.
Those were the words of a directive from the Reich Press Office in August 1941, dictating to newspaper editors all over Germany and occupied Europe the line they were to follow. As Herf shows, the Reich Press Office took its orders from Hitler personally: The Office’s director, Otto Dietrich, was one of Hitler’s closest intimates – closer often that Goebbels himself. Dietrich was hanged at Nuremberg in 1945.**
Herf suggests that it would be a great mistake to read such words as mere cynical propaganda. Whatever doubtful thoughts might privately be held by others in the German wartime elite, Hitler, Goebbels and the top Nazis by 1941 seem genuinely and sincerely to have convinced themselves that they had been attacked – and that the helpless people they were murdering by the million were really the masters of a giant overwhelmingly powerful world conspiracy aimed at poor, pitiful Germany. Herf again:
Since the formulation of the concept of ideology during the French Revolution, political sophistication in modern politics has meant looking beyond manifest statements for their latent or real meaning and viewing ideas as instruments for other purposes. This rationalist bias prevented observers from seeing Nazi anti-Semitic propaganda as anything more than a bundle of rationalizations opportunistically seized upon by base and evil men. Despite the vast literature on Nazi Germany, World War II, and the Holocaust, the rationalist bias about human motivation has persisted ….
Perhaps I have said enough to begin to suggest some of the contemporary relevance of this book. It is not after all only dead Nazis who have persuaded themselves that terror and murder are merely reasonable and defensive responses to Jewish infiltration and aggression. Such claims have large currency in our modern world as well. I see them often in my own email inbox.
The idea that Germany was waging a war of defense against Western aggression, the deployment of the discourse of anti-imperialism and anticolonialism, and the assertion that the Jews were “the common denominator” in the anti-Hitler coalition remained enduring features of [Nazi] wartime propaganda.
This propaganda was not intended merely for German domestic opinion.
In an effort to take advantage of existing American anti-Semitism, Nazi propaganda sought to contrast Roosevelt, his supposed Jewish brain trust and powers behind the scene, and the power of New York (and to a lesser extent Hollywood), with the “real,” that is, non-Jewish, American people.
A very familiar performance, no?
Nor did the Nazis omit the trope – also familiar from my inbox – that the Jews manipulated other people into doing their fighting for them.
The Nazis very consciously sought to communicate their paranoid world view to the Arab and Muslim world, with some considerable success.
Hitler’s ally, Amin al-Husseini, the grand mufti of Jerusalem (and apparently a cousin of Yasser Arafat’s) adopted this theme in his propaganda broadcasts to North Africa and the Middle East.
The strength of Jewish influence in America has clearly come to the fore in this war. Jews and capitalists have pushed the United States to expand this war, in order to expand their influence in new and wealthy areas. The North Africans know very well the unhappiness the Jews have brought to them. They know that the Jews are the vanguard fighters of imperialism that mistreated North Africa for so long. They [the North Africans] also know the extent to which the Jews served the imperialists as spies and agents and how they seek the energy resources of North African territories to expand their wealth. … The American intervention in North Africa strengthens the power of the Jews, increases their influence and doubles their misdeeds. America is the greatest agent of the Jews, and the Jews are the rulers in America.
Husseini had devoted his life to the extermination of the tiny Jewish settlement mandated by the League of Nations. Yet he turned this experience on its head to argue that instead it was the Jews who sought to conquer, enslave, and massacre the Arab world. If the Allies won the war, he warned,
Israel would rule the whole world, the Arabian fatherland would suffer an unholy blow, and the Arab countries would be torn apart and turned into Jewish colonies.
One final contemporary observation. My old chum Dinesh D’Souza has triggered a controversy on the NRO site with a book arguing that Americans should understand that many “traditional Muslims” (as he terms them) feel themselves under assault from a libidinous and libertine United States. I won’t deal with the merits and demerits of Dinesh’s book here. Let me just draw on Herf for two important insights into the failure of arguments like Dinesh’s:
1) The fact that people very sincerely and passionately believe themselves to be assailed by a sinister outside force does not necessarily mean that they are in fact so assailed. Delusional paranoid lunatics can be very sincere.
2) People in the grip of paranoid delusion are not easily assuaged. Hitler and his crew would not have felt themselves safe from “the Jewish enemy” until they had murdered every Jew on earth, enslaved every Slav, and smashed the power of Great Britain and the United States. Maybe not even then. Likewise, Osama bin Laden and his crew – Mahmous Ahmadinejad and his mullahs – the Hamas suicide bombers and their financiers in Saudi Arabia are unlikely to be satisfied by the suppression of raunchy pop videos – or, for that matter, a lower American profile in the Persian Gulf or a UN seat for the Palestinians. Their grievances are large, even cosmic – and to palliate them will demand a price from which even the most sedulous American appeaser would ultimately flinch.
** Update: Reader Steve Zerbst corrects me. Dietrich was not hanged. He served a short sentence in Landsberg prison and died of natural causes in 1952.