A World With­out Jews: The Nazi Imag­i­na­tion From Per­se­cu­tion to Genocide

Alon Con­fi­no
  • Review
By – September 22, 2014

A World With­out Jews is a provoca­tive and sug­ges­tive re-read­ing of Nazi anti-Semi­tism and the ori­gins of the Holo­caust. In fact, it is a book about ori­gins, his­tor­i­cal mem­o­ry, and nation­al cul­ture that main­tains that the Nazis envi­sioned a world with­out Jews long before they had the means to accom­plish it. It is this geno­ci­dal imag­i­na­tion and fan­ta­sy that Con­fi­no believes was at the heart of a civ­i­liza­tion­al reorder­ing of Ger­man ori­gins that required”, in the Nazi mind­set, the elim­i­na­tion of Jews. That new begin­ning, that new Gen­e­sis sto­ry, could not unfold as long as Jew­ish civ­i­liza­tion exist­ed, for the Jews reflect­ed an his­tor­i­cal past and a myth of ori­gin that had to be extir­pat­ed in order for a new Ger­many to arise. That helps explain why the Nazis burned the Hebrew Bible and Torah scrolls dur­ing Kristall­nacht and lat­er in East­ern Europe. In burn­ing these sacred objects they were direct­ing their wrath against reli­gious — not racial — sym­bols. Burn­ing Torah scrolls stirred imag­i­na­tions and emo­tions and the pos­si­bil­i­ties of a new, nihilis­tic cre­ation sto­ry. Right from the begin­ning, the Nazis were cer­tain of one thing which did not change until the last day of the Reich: the Jews and their his­tor­i­cal roots, real or invent­ed, from the Bible to the mod­ern peri­od had to be erased from Chris­t­ian his­to­ry at all costs and what­ev­er the con­se­quences. No cul­tur­al edi­fices that implied a cul­tur­al debt to the Jews could be left stand­ing. Their goal was the mak­ing of a new civ­i­liza­tion by uproot­ing key ele­ments of the old. 

Con­fi­no traces the way Ger­mans imag­ined a world with­out Jews that began in Jan­u­ary 1933, well before any­one could envi­sion the final con­clu­sion of the sto­ry in geno­cide. The key con­cept is imag­i­na­tion: a moral and his­tor­i­cal break was made not by plan­ning the even­tu­al exter­mi­na­tion, but by think­ing that a Ger­man world with­out Jews could be a real­i­ty. Once Ger­mans imag­ined a future with­out Jews, per­se­cu­tion and exter­mi­na­tion became pos­si­ble and even jus­ti­fi­able and was power­fully antic­i­pat­ed in the cul­ture of the pre­war years. The cen­tral metaphor of the Holo­caust for him is there­fore not Auschwitz but the burn­ing of the Hebrew Bible in the 1930’s.

Confino’s analy­sis and approach to under­stand­ing the ori­gins and mean­ing of the Holo­caust are high­ly orig­i­nal and edi­fy­ing. The writ­ing is pow­er­ful and con­vinc­ing and his evi­dence and con­clu­sions will cer­tain­ly push the bound­aries of Holo­caust schol­ar­ship and dis­cus­sion for years to come. He has helped us see how what was unimag­in­able was indeed a mat­ter of thought well before it became actu­al­ized in genocide.

Relat­ed content:

Michael N. Dobkows­ki is a pro­fes­sor of reli­gious stud­ies at Hobart and William Smith Col­leges. He is co-edi­tor of Geno­cide and the Mod­ern Age and On the Edge of Scarci­ty (Syra­cuse Uni­ver­si­ty Press); author of The Tar­nished Dream: The Basis of Amer­i­can Anti-Semi­tism; and co-author of The Nuclear Predicament.

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