Philip Spencer’s talk to the UCU meeting “Legacy of Hope: Anti-Semitism, the Holocaust and Resistance Yesterday and Today.”


Talk to the UCU meeting.

Legacy of Hope: Anti-Semitism, the Holocaust and Resistance Yesterday and Today.

27 January 2010

Professor Philip Spencer, UCU member and Associate Dean, Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, Kingston University.

I should like to thank the UCU for the invitation to come and talk today and about this topic. . It is always an honour and a privilege to talk on Holocaust Memorial Day, which is a very serious day for reflection and remembering. The Holocaust changed, or should have changed, the way we think about the world, about what was and is possible. It was a watershed of a kind, an unprecedented event, as Hannah Arendt was one of the first to describe it, in which a modern state deliberately sought to wipe a whole people, the Jews, from off the face of the earth, not just to oppress them or to exploit them or to force them out them from a particular area, or to steal their goods or resources or property (though they did that too and quite systematically at times) but to murder them, consciously, deliberately, intentionally.

We can remember this event for many reasons and in different ways and for different purposes – some general, some particular, and this is reflected in the different motifs that are, as it were, attached to the day from year to year. I want to focus today, here, in this context, on the question of anti-Semitism, on the hatred that was exhibited in the Holocaust, that lay behind the Holocaust, that drove the Holocaust, that made the Holocaust possible.

Before I start, however, let me correct a slight mistake in the title of my talk, which ends with a question mark which has somehow crept in. It should not be there. Anti-Semitism was, in my view, central to the Holocaust and I shall try to indicate how and why today. The Nazis were anti-Semites, of a particular, and indeed the most radical kind. They hated Jews in a particular and intense way and would not have killed them in such huge numbers if they had not been so. Anti-Semitism was central to the Holocaust – it was not incidental or marginal. It was central to Nazism, at the core of the belief system of the Nazi elite, a driving obsession. The Nazis may have downplayed it, on occasion, from time to time, but it was never anything but central to their belief system, to their way of thinking about the world, to what they saw as their most fundamental tasks.


This was not always understood by everyone. For some time after the Holocaust, as Shulamit Volkov has observed, relatively little attention was actually given to this distinctive feature of Nazism. Attention (in the West) was largely given to what were seen to common features of Nazism and Stalinism as twin forms of totalitarianism, while in the East, Nazism was seen as a product of monopoly capitalism, and as a form of fascism (and not all forms of fascism, as we know from the Italian case for example, had anti-Semitism at their core).It was only really in the late 1960s that anti-Semitism began to assume any prominence in Holocaust historiography, that this core element of Nazi ideology began to be studied in depth.

But this lack of focus was also the case, in important respects, both before and during the Holocaust, and this too needs some thinking about, perhaps especially here today. Because it was perhaps particularly true on the left. This may be surprising, if not shocking to many of you here today. After all, the left generally (and here I think about both left wing intellectuals and activists – in political parties and trade unions), is often thought to have been in the vanguard of resistance to Nazism and indeed to fascism more generally.

At one level this is of course true – the left were, after all the target in many ways of the Nazis – they identified communism, socialism, and liberalism as evils to be abolished – books advocating these ideas were burnt; left wing organisations were made illegal; their leaders and activists beaten on the streets, arrested, sent to concentration camps where they were tortured and killed (although still of course largely treated much better than Jews, unless they happened to be Jews themselves).

The left resisted the Nazis – not, as we know, very effectively, not for example in a united, clear-sighted way but still it did resist, courageously, determinedly in many cases, and suffered for this resistance. But it did not see anti-Semitism as a central problem – not before the Holocaust, not during the Holocaust and, to some extent, not after the event either.

Let me just give a few examples

The most sophisticated exponents of leftwing thought at the time, in Germany , were probably the members of the Frankfurt School. The names may be familiar to some of you – Horkheiner, Adorno. Marcuse. The School’s great expert on Nazism was Franz Neumann, who in 1942 wrote a very famous, in many ways brilliant book about National Socialism – called Behemoth. In it, he wrote the following: the Nazis “will …never allow a complete extermination of the Jews”. Anti-Semitism was, in his view, but a means to an end, a “spearhead of terror…only the means to the attainment of the ultimate objective, the destruction of free institutions, beliefs and groups”. It was not fundamental to the Nazi project. He insisted that one could, without difficulty, indeed one had an obligation to, “represent National Socialism without attributing to the Jewish problem a central role”.

On the political front, things were not much better. The German social democrats largely downplayed anti-Semitism. They never mounted any direct action against Nazi anti-Semitism from the outset, before the Nazis came to power. The leadership systematically refused to give any direction on this issue to party members as the Nazis came to power. And, once in opposition, driven underground, they did not create or supply or smuggle into Germany much in the way of illegal material on anti-Semitism. On the contrary, they feared that raising the question would alienate people, make it harder to sustain or forge opposition. Better then to downplay it.

And as far as the Communist party was concerned, it was no different. As Jeffrey Herf has observed, “the persecution of the Jews … played only a minor role in communist thinking about the resistance”. Until Die Rote Fahne headlined a protest against Kristallnacht in November 1938, what was happening to the Jews was not a priority for communist propaganda and it did not remain one after that either.

We can find all sorts of reasons to explain this blindness but, blessed as we are with hindsight, we can see that it was a serious mistake, and one we would be wise not to repeat. Anti-Semitism was central to the Nazi world-view. And it was deadly. The Nazis really did hate Jews, hated them enough to kill them, in huge numbers; hated them enough to want to kill them all, wherever they could lay their hands on them.

In this, Nazi anti-Semitism was, not so much different from earlier forms of anti-Semitism, as more radical – more radical both in intent and in execution.

A word first about execution – just to remind ourselves of the scale of this killing. Some 6 million Jews murdered – from right across Europe. They were murdered by various means – not just in the gas chambers but before, alongside and after that by shooting (approximately 1 million already before the extermination camps were set up); by starvation and disease in the ghettoes; in the transports; and then, when the camps had to be abandoned (though not before they had tried to hide the evidence) in the death marches back to Germany.

The ambition was to kill them systematically. That is why the extermination camps were built – to organise this murder systematically, using a factory system. Only this was a factory that did not produce goods (at least that was not its primary purpose, although slave labour was also involved) but primarily to produce corpses, ashes, to produce not commodities but death itself.

This was a radical project – it was not just to expel them from Germany or from Europe but to wipe them from the face of the earth. This was a new idea, or rather it was an idea that only the Nazis fully embraced and tried to implement. There had been before those who imagined that the Jews could somehow or other could be got rid of; that the Jews here or there should be killed but, as Frank Chalk and Kurt Jonassen noted some time ago, “even veteran anti-Semites found it hard to imagine that the Nazi regime seriously intended to make the Jewish people extinct”.

But they did. Now exactly when they came to this idea is a matter of some debate. Did they always intend to do it, or did it only crystallise at a particular moment in time, and why then? These are issues that continue to preoccupy historians, notably in the long-running debate between intentionalists and functionalists.

The view of one of the most eminent contemporary Holocaust historians, (originally a functionalist, albeit of a self defined moderate kind) Christopher Browning, is that this intent was arrived at in the late summer and early autumn of 1941, when the Nazis believed they were on the verge of total victory. It was conceived, he argues, in what he calls a “moment of euphoria” when they believed they could reshape the world according to their design. It was a world in which Jews had no place, none whatsoever. They had to be annihilated completely.

Why? Because the Jews were, in the minds of Hitler and the Nazi elite, responsible for all the evils that had befallen not just Germany, not just the Aryan race but humanity itself. The Jews were responsible for how Germany had come to the disastrous state it found itself in, defeated in the first world war, a war it should have otherwise won if it had not been “stabbed in the back” by the Jews . The Jews were responsible too for the second world war, no matter that this was started by the Nazis. The Jews were responsible for the continuation of the war when it should have been over; they were behind the decision of the British government to fight on when clearly beaten; they were behind the decision of the Americans to enter the war to support them (no matter that Hitler declared war on America) ; and they were behind too the Soviet government, the Jewish-Bolshevik menace they tried to destroy when they attacked the Soviet Union in the summer of 1941, an attack which so nearly succeeded because it took the Soviet regime so completely by surprise.

But the Jews were responsible more profoundly still, not just for these acts or these decisions by governments but for the entire systems which they ran – they were responsible both for the “plutocratic capitalism” embodied by America but also for Soviet communism, no matter that these seemed to everyone else to be diametrically opposed systems.

A new racial order, the Nazi utopia, could only come into being when all this had been swept away – American plutocratic capitalism, Soviet communism, liberal democracy, But all this could only be swept away if the Jews were eliminated entirely. This was, as Saul Friedlander has accurately defined it, a “redemptive anti-Semitism – the most radical form of anti-Jewish hatred”. It combined both racist ideas and religious notions of redemption and perdition, to form what he calls “an all-encompassing belief system”. It had “an apocalyptic dimension. The redemption of the Volk, the race or Aryan humanity would be achieved only with the elimination of the Jews”.

It is not easy to understand this view of the world. It is, variously, paranoid, in attributing such demonic and malign power to Jews. It is an upside-down view of the world, which projects onto Jews what the Nazis were in fact doing or planning to do to others. It is a contradictory view of the world, in which the Jews were seen both as weak and feeble and as super-powerful, demonic even. And it is a closed view of the world, devoid of empirical evidence and not open to refutation of any kind.

And it is, as it was perhaps to the left in the 1930s, tempting to dismiss it in some way, as not serious, as hiding something else, some other intent or purpose. It is so deranged, so at odds with any meaningful view of the world, that it is hard to believe that people could actually believe such things, actually take them seriously, let alone as a guide to action, as a motivation.

It is much easier, perhaps, to treat all this as demogogy, as exaggeration, as hyperbole, as flights of (extremely unpleasant) fancy, as rhetoric. And this is what many people did at the time and indeed have done so since.

But this would, in my view, be a mistake. Because the Nazis did, really, believe these things, and believe in them strongly enough in the end (whenever this end was arrived at) to insist on this objective, the annihilation of the Jews over and above all others. The annihilation of the Jews was not a means to another end; it was an end in itself. It was an absolute, over-riding priority, to be pursued over and above any other objective, even including winning the war. Resources were devoted to killing the Jews when from a military point of view they would far better have been spent ferrying troops or arms to the front. Economically, notwithstanding the use of slave labour, the murder of millions on gas chambers made no economic sense at all.

If we are going to take this way of thinking seriously, to give it its weight, we need to break out of a narrowly utilitarian way of thinking ourselves. We need, perhaps especially, to pay attention to what the Nazis were saying. For they advertised their hatred quite openly. They made no secret of their hatred for the Jews. They said they hated them repeatedly, over and over again, more and more insistently as time went on. They may, at times have downplayed it for immediate instrumental purposes, but they returned again and again to these core ideas and themes, each time with greater force and intensity, just as these ideas were radicalised themselves with each political and military triumph.

And others, of course, went along with it, even if they had not taken it seriously in the beginning, even if they did not themselves fully believe in any one of these ideas, let alone all of them. Gradually opposing voices fell silent (and they were not that strong to begin with). Fewer and fewer people contested what the Nazis were saying inside Germany as the 1930s were on; more and more people went along with it, and not just before the war but , increasingly, once the war had started. It turned out to be quite easy to get used to the disappearance of Jews, quite easy to take advantage of their disappearance to take over their property, at knock-down prices, quite easy to accept the loot sent home by soldiers in the family from plundered Jews across the continent – soldiers who we can see from letters sent home, had themselves taken on board much more of Nazi anti-Semitism than was once maintained (not least by former soldiers themselves).

But it was not only Germans who got used to this anti-Semitism. Almost everywhere the Nazis went, they found collaborators –among local nationalists, local racists, local Christians, local fascists. Some anticipated what could be done and took advantage of the climate created by the Germans, as we know from cases in Poland such as Jedwabne for example, where local anti-Semites took it upon themselves to slaughter Jews without German assistance. Others, for example in Lithuania or Latvia or the Ukraine, eagerly collaborated with the Germans in slaughtering Jews.

But this participation or collusion was not itself the driving force, any more than what was in many ways the more decisive participation of technocrats and civil servants and professionals of all kinds (including that of University lecturers, which we here should perhaps particularly remember). The Nazis could not have done what they did without this participation or this collusion, and considerable attention has been paid and must be paid to it, just as it has been paid and must be paid to the more general indifference that “greeted” the Holocaust. As Ian Kershaw, the author of the most authoritative biography of Hitler, so famously put it, “the road to Auschwitz was built by hate but paved with indifference”.

But it was built by hate, by anti-Semitism. The driving force, the inspiration, the sustaining motivation came from convinced anti-Semites and anti-Semites who never hid or concealed their hatred.

And this brings me to my final point. We can look back on all this and take it seriously in a way that may not have been possible before or during the event. We know that the Nazis were serious about their anti-Semitism, serious enough to attempt to murder all the Jews they could lay their hands on. And we can look back and see that they advertised this hatred quite openly, and more and more as time went on.

And we can draw some conclusions from this. In a brilliant review of Hitler’s so-called second book, which was written a few years after Mein Kampf (it came out in the summer of 1928 actually), another great Holocaust historian, Omer Bartov, has done exactly this and I should like to quote him at some length if I may, before coming to my own conclusions in the context of this meeting.
“Must we”, Bartov asks, “ read another ranting book by Hitler?” And his answer is a definitive yes. “ This book is certainly as close to the heart of darkness as a book can be. But it should have been read in its time, and it should be read now. It was an explicit warning to the world of what could be expected from the Führer of what was to become for twelve terrible years the Third Reich. When Hitler wrote it, no one could tell whether his plans and fantasies would ever be transformed into reality…Yet it was difficult to believe that anyone in his right mind would try to translate such rhetoric into policy. It was generally thought that in power Hitler would be constrained by the realities of diplomacy, the limits of Germany’s power, the national interests of the Reich, and the military, economic, and political partners with whom he had to make policy. 
Today we know that this was a fatal misunderstanding, rooted more in wishful thinking than in the kind of realism on which contemporary observers prided themselves and expected would eventually keep Hitler, too, in his place. Today we know that Hitler said precisely what he meant to say”.
But Bartov goes on to say something else which we would do well, I think, to dwell on here today. And it is this. Whilst Hitler was a politician and attentive therefore to what was possible at any one time, to what he could get away with (and this explains why anti-Semitism was sometimes downplayed), it never went away. Hitler was not just a politician, a political leader of a peculiarly nasty regime. He was also a pathological mass murderer who caused the death of millions and so Bartov insists, “it is important to know that he did precisely what he promised to do. For we still do not seem to have learned a simple crucial lesson that Hitler taught us more definitively than anyone else in history: some people, some regimes, some ideologies, some political programs, and, yes, some religious groups, must be taken at their word. Some people mean what they say, and say what they will do, and do what they said. . When they say they will kill you, they will kill you”.
So what I want to say then, to end on, is this. If today, even after the Holocaust, perhaps especially even after the Holocaust, people say they hate Jews and they hate them enough to want to kill them, we need to take them seriously. They very probably mean what they say and they may very well do what they mean.
And the reason for this, in the Nazi case and I suggest now today too, is that anti-Semitism is not a means to another end; it is not a cover for something else; it is not to be understood as a response to this or that difficulty, to unemployment, to exploitation, or even, let me say it, to occupation. It is what it is.
There used to be an idea on the left that anti-Semitism was all or some of these things, that it was, as the great German socialist August Bebel once put it, “the socialism of fools”. It was and is no such thing. It was not and is not socialism of any kind, foolish or otherwise. It was and is a hatred of Jews, a hatred which in the minds of the Nazis was taken to a radical end (though that is not to say it cannot be radicalised anew, that it cannot be rearticulated and reshaped). In their minds, it was a murderous hatred, one that led them to organise the slaughter of millions. If it was once, mistakenly, not taken seriously, we would be wise not to make this mistake again.

6 Responses to “Philip Spencer’s talk to the UCU meeting “Legacy of Hope: Anti-Semitism, the Holocaust and Resistance Yesterday and Today.””

  1. Hal Says:

    Very thoughtful. And cautionary. Thanks (Engage,) for reproducing this.

  2. Brian Goldfarb Says:

    Unfortunately, those who would most benefit from it, the pro-boycott lobby, including the UCU’s favourite “good Jews” (you know who you are) will not learn the lesson that Hamas, Hezbollah, etc, mean what they say.

    Worse, they may, of course already understand that Hamas, Hezbollah, etc mean what they say, and they don’t care.

  3. nanzcat Says:

    I look forward to Engage posting the rest of the talks from this gathering (even those from people you disagree with), as I assume in time they will.

  4. Absolute Observer Says:

    Interesting point. Have any of the other speakers granted permission for the papers to be uploaded on Engage? Indeed, were there any at the sessions with which one disagreed?

    From what I understand, the other papers were mainly of historical interest, and not dealing of the question of contemporary antisemitism; a question that, from other threads, appears to be denied in toto by at least some of representatives of the UCU present at the talks.

  5. nanzcat Says:

    I was unable to attend the event, and would like very much to be able to read all the speeches. The few people who I have heard from that did attend, spoke very highly of the day. I do hope the editors of Engage will contact all other speakers and ask for permission to post their talks. That really would be engaging. I am keeping an open mind, and until I see evidence that some people denied contemporary antisemitism, I prefer to believe that for once, people tried to approach things openly and fairly. Please put any direct evidence without comment to allow those of us who were too far away to attend, to engage with such a potentially valuable meeting.

  6. Mark2 Says:

    Yes – a very fine article which touches on thoughts I have been musing upon myself recently.

    The article urges basically, non Jews to take such threats seriously – when people say they hate they probably mean it. Yet this target audience is itself targeted by such people to only a somewhat lesser degree than the Jews. The likes of Al Quaeda say they want to destroy Western liberalism and restore the Caliphate – a form of imperialism. Yet Western liberals do exactly what Philip Spencer says they did in respect of Nazism – they look for all kinds of explanations and motivations other than those clearly stated.

    If Liberals (and Socialists etc) won’t beleive that they are themselves targeted what chamce do we poor Jews have?

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