Books March 2008

The 2,000-Year-Old Panic

A newly reissued novel evokes the charms and hatreds of a lost world—and the enduring contradictions of anti-Semitism.

A NAZI PROPAGANDA pamphlet from 1933

A sour old joke from prewar Germany has two elderly Jews sitting in a Berlin park, with one of them reading a Yiddish paper and the other one scanning the pages of Der Stürmer. The latter Jew is laughing. This proves too much for the former Jew, who says: “It’s not enough you read that Nazi rag, but you find it funny?” “Look,” replies the other. “If I read your paper, what do I see? Jews deported, Jews assaulted, Jews insulted, Jewish property confiscated. But I read Der Stürmer, and there’s finally some good news. It seems that we Jews own and control the whole world!”

Anti-Semitism is an elusive and protean phenomenon, but it certainly involves the paradox whereby great power is attributed to the powerless. In the mind of the anti-Jewish paranoid, some shabby bearded figure in a distant shtetl is a putative member of a secret world government: hence the enduring fascination of The Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion. (Incidentally, it is entirely wrong to refer to this document of the Czarist secret police as “a forgery.” A forgery is a counterfeit of a true bill. The Protocols are a straightforward fabrication, based on medieval Christian fantasies about Judaism.)

From the archives:

Black Lamb and Grey Falcon (January-May 1941)
Rebecca West's sweeping story of a region in turmoil.

Of course when Jews do achieve actual power, like the famous Roth­schilds, they often become the targets of even more envy than other plutocrats. Political anti-Semitism in its more modern form often de-emphasized the supposed murder of Christ in favor of polemics against monopolies and cartels, leading the great German Marxist August Bebel to describe its propaganda as “the socialism of fools.” Peter Pulzer’s essential history of anti-Semitism in pre-1914 Germany and Austria, which shows the element of populist opportunism in the deployment of the Jew-baiting repertoire, is, among other things, a great illustration of that ironic observation. And then there is the notion of the Jews’ lack of rooted allegiance: their indifference to the wholesome loyalties of the rural, the hierarchical, and the traditional, and their concomitant attraction to modernity. Writing from the prewar Balkans in her Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, Rebecca West noticed this suspicion at work in old Serbia and wrote:

Now I understand another cause for anti-Semitism; many primitive peoples must receive their first intimation of the toxic quality of thought from Jews. They know only the fortifying idea of religion; they see in Jews the effect of the tormenting and disintegrating ideas of skepticism.

The best recent illustration of that point that I know comes from Jacobo Timerman, the Argentine Jewish newspaper editor who was kidnapped and tortured by the death-squad regime in his country in the late 1970s. In his luminous memoir, Prisoner Without a Name, Cell Without a Number, he analyzes the work of the neo-Nazi element that formed such an important part of the military/clerical dictatorship, and quotes one of the “diagnoses” that animated their ferocity:

“Argentina has three main enemies: Karl Marx, because he tried to destroy the Christian concept of society; Sigmund Freud, because he tried to destroy the Christian concept of the family; and Albert Einstein, because he tried to destroy the Christian concept of time and space.”

The three cosmopolitan surnames involved in this anti-Trinity, it was made perfectly clear to Timerman between thrusts of the electric cattle prod, were considered to be no coincidence. But notice that this is an anti-Semitism that is full of dread as well as of disgust and contempt. That is perhaps what distinguishes it from other forms of racism. Almost every tribe or ethnicity has a rival tribe or ethnicity that it views as inferior or dirtier or more primitive: the Hutu with the Tutsi, the Sinhalese with the Tamil, the Ulster Protestant with the Irish Catholic, and so forth. The “other” group will invariably be found to have a different smell, a higher birthrate, and a lazier temperament. These poor qualities are sometimes attributed even by Jews to Jews: elevated German and Austrian Jews once wrinkled their nostrils at the matted sidelocks and large families of the poor Ostjuden who had come from the backwoods of Galicia and Silesia; and Ashkenazi-Se­phardic rivalry in Israel sometimes recalls and resembles this hostility. But garden-variety racists do not usually suspect the objects of their dislike of secretly manipulating the banks and the stock markets and of harboring a demonic plan for world domination. Gregor von Rezzori, in his newly reissued novel Memoirs of an Anti-Semite, meshes the micro and macro versions of interwar anti-Semitism very skillfully indeed:

They spent their childhood skipping among mounds of horse dung and flocks of gay sparrows, warbling Hebraic words of wisdom in Jewish schools … disappearing then to the next town. They returned gangling, cheeky, precocious, and self-confident a couple of years later, unfurled little red flags, and chanted socialistic marching songs; then they went off again. The next time they came back they were unrecognizable—polished, poised, coiffed, and manicured, lugging doctorates on their proud shoulders; they dug themselves in and became dentists, high-school teachers, professors of music, and God only knows what other intellectuals, married similar solid burghers and produced streams of progeny, teaching them to speak refinedly through their noses, packing them off to the Sorbonne to get equipped the better to meddle with the course of the history of civilization.

“Jealousy born of envy” is the way that Rezzori (1914–1998) elsewhere summarizes this combination of anti-intellectualism fused with the hatred of material success and the suspicion of social and international mobility. If the Jew isn’t a mutinous prole, he is a stinking bourgeois! (And don’t fail to notice those “streams of progeny,” even though Jews are not invariably known for their philoprogenitive capacity.)

If there was ever a time and place where all these ancient insecurities and uncertainties were allowed their very fullest scope, it was the terrain of the former Austro-Hungarian Empire between 1918 and the Anschluss, or abolition of Austria by its assimilation into Greater Germany, in 1938. The figures of Marx and Einstein and of course Freud were very much imbricated in the numerous interlocking Vienna and Budapest circles, but it’s the imaginative literature and literary journalism of that epoch and that space that still make one catch one’s breath. Here is the world, now as lost to us as Atlantis, of Robert Musil’s The Man Without Qualities and Joseph Roth’s The Radetzky March; of Stefan Zweig’s Beware of Pity and Elias Canetti’s Crowds and Power. Here, also, are some of the most arresting polemics and feuilletons ever written, by such masters of the genre as Ernst Fischer (whose memoir, An Opposing Man, I would propose as one of the great autobiographies of the 20th century) and Karl Kraus. The main reason for the utter erasure and obliteration of this historic territory was precisely the madness of anti-Semitism, which grew to a point where it eclipsed all culture and civilization and became self-destructive and suicidal. Yet it is interesting and sometimes touching to note how many Jews manifested a sympathy with, and even a nostalgia for, the old Austro-Hungarian dispensation. It had had at least a respect for pluralism and for minorities, and Joseph Roth, for one, preferred it to the stark and brutal Teutonic efficiency that aimed to replace it. Karl Kraus (like Roth, a cosmopolitan refugee from Judaism) became famous for saying loftily, when asked why he never wrote anything about Hitler, that nothing occurred to him when he heard the name.

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Christopher Hitchens is an Atlantic contributing editor and a Vanity Fair columnist. More

Christopher HitchensFor nearly a dozen years, Christopher Hitchens contributed an essay on books each month to The Atlantic. He was the author of more than ten books, including A Long Short War: The Postponed Liberation of Iraq (2003), Why Orwell Matters (2002), God Is Not Great (2007), and Hitch-22 (2009). He was a contributing editor to Vanity Fair, and wrote prolifically for American and English periodicals, including The Nation, The London Review of Books, Granta, Harper's, The Los Angeles Times Book Review, New Left Review, Slate, The New York Review of Books, Newsweek International, The Times Literary Supplement, and The Washington Post. He was also a regular television and radio commentator.

Hitchens began his career in England, in the 1970s, as a writer for the New Statesman and the Evening Standard. From 1977 to 1979 he worked for London's Daily Express as a foreign correspondent and then returned to the New Statesman as foreign editor, where he worked from 1979 to 1981. Hitchens has also served as the Washington editor for Harper's and as the U.S. correspondent for The Spectator and The Times Literary Supplement. From 1986 to 1992 he was the book critic at New York Newsday. He also taught as a visiting professor at the University of California, Berkeley; the University of Pittsburgh; and the New School of Social Research.

Born in 1949 in Portsmouth, England, Hitchens received a degree in philosophy, politics, and economics from Balliol College, Oxford, in 1970.

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