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Nazism, millenarianism, and the Jews.

It is a grotesque irony of history that the greatest force of destruction set against the Jewish people should have been shaped by an idea conceived by the Hebrew prophets and later restated in bolder apocalyptic imagery by writers reacting to Greek and Roman rule of the Holy Land. I am, of course, referring to the millennial time of messianic redemption, a vision embodied in the revolutionary fervor associated with the Crusades. The thesis of this essay is that Nazism was a twentieth-century revolutionary millenarian sect closely resembling the millenarian sects that historian Norman Cohn described so well in his book, The Pursuit of the Millennium. (1) The patterns of symbolic meaning in medieval millenarianism were also present in Nazi millenarianism. Cohn identified five features of the picture of salvation presented by the medieval millenarian sects. Salvation was pictured as:

(a) collective, in the sense that it is to be enjoyed by the faithful as a collectivity;

(b) terrestrial, in the sense that it is to be realized on this earth and not in some other-worldly heaven;

(c) imminent, in the sense that it is to come both soon and suddenly;

(d) total, in the sense that it is utterly to transform life on earth, so that the new dispensation will be no mere improvement on the present but perfection itself;

(e) miraculous, in the sense that it is to be accomplished by, or with the help of, supernatural agencies. (2)

Studies of Nazism by Yehuda Bauer, Saul Friedlander, John Lukacs, and Uriel Tal reinforce the view that Nazism represented the recrudescence of millenarianism in its most destructive aspects. (3) Nazism's picture of salvation was collective (focused on Volksgemeinschaft or people's community), terrestrial or this-worldly, total in wanting to transform the world, and certainly a miraculous salvation wrought by the supernatural agency of God's working through the people, the party, and their leader, Adolph Hitler. (4) Other experiences that compel us to think of Nazism as a latter-day millenarian movement were the dislocation, distress, and humiliation Germany suffered in the loss of World War I to the Allied powers. (5) The number of dead, the economic depression, the ruination of currency, the humiliation of the Versailles Treaty, forced demilitarization, the loss of territory--all induced a national feeling of despair among German peoples of all classes. Despair deepened with the overthrow of the Czarist regime and the Bolshevik reorganization of Russia into a union of Soviet states.

The threat of a Communist revolution's taking over Germany frightened most people--not without reason. A Communist Germany would be welcomed only by urban workers who were voting in the early 1920's for the Social Democratic and Communist parties. Standing against these parties were the conservative Nationalist party, which included the Prussian landed elite, the upper middle class, the urban professionals, and a great number of rural voters. In addition, the handful of small, explicitly antisemitic parties that came into being after 1871 conditioned the German people to the idea that native-born Jews did not belong to Germany and were the real cause of the debacle of the Great War and the ensuing miseries.

The antisemitic parties also promoted the idea that Jews were the masterminds of the Bolshevik revolution and its spread to Germany. These one-issue parties never succeeded with the voters, but they filled the political atmosphere with a sense of the Jew as the betrayer of the German nation. It was an idea that would provide a rich source of anti-Jewish rhetoric once the Nazi party came into being and dramatically increased its appeal to German voters in 1930-33. Cohn has reminded us that one of the central fantasies of the medieval revolutionary eschatology is the Manichean-Gnostic bifurcation of the cosmos into good and evil: (6)
 The world is dominated by an evil, tyrannous power of boundless
 destructiveness--a power moreover which is imagined not as simply
 human but as demonic. The tyranny of that power will become more
 and more outrageous, the suffering of its victims more and more
 intolerable--until suddenly the hour will strike when the Saints of
 God are able to rise up and overthrow it. Then the Saints
 themselves, the chosen, holy people who hitherto have groaned under
 the oppressor's heel, shall in their turn inherit dominion over
 the whole earth. This will be the culmination of history." (7)

There should be no doubt that the Nazi party, an ideological movement with the characteristics of a religiocultic sect, regarded itself as working toward the "culmination of history." If there continues to be lingering doubt about how deeply or sincerely Hitler himself subscribed to the Manichean-Gnostic vision of the world, there should be no reason to doubt his capacity to persuade the German people as a whole that the Jews and they alone were the evil, the "tyrannous power" exercising sway over the world. To defeat the "tyrannous power," Hitler waged "a war against the Jews," to borrow that phrase from the title of Lucy Davidowicz's book. (8) He believed that he was waging that war on behalf of the Christian values of Western civilization. Hitler did not regard his war against the Jews as punitive or aggressive.

It was to be a purely defensive war. Here is what Hitler wrote at the end of the second chapter of Mein Kampf: "Today I believe that I am acting in accordance with the will of the Almighty Creator: by defending myself against the Jew, I am fighting for the work of the Lord." (9) When he became head of state in 1933, he felt he had to defend himself and the German people against the Satanic Jew, who had no other aim on earth than to destroy the German people. Here, if not earlier, was seeded the image of Hitler as prophet-redeemer of the German nation and Western civilization, redeemed from the Jew as world-menace. Hitler did not arrive at his opinions about Jews without help. We know that early in his career as a politician he came under the influence of the Viennese intellectual Dietrich Eckart, who was Hitler's mentor in Antisemitism. Eckart had an enormous ideological influence on Hitler and on the writing of Mein Kampf which was generously acknowledged by its author, who dedicated his book to his comrades killed during the 1923 putsch and to Dietrich Eckart.

Eckart's vision was apocalyptic: He believed that, more than striving for domination, the Jew was dedicated to the destruction of Christian civilization. (10) To prevent the Satanic Jew from achieving his ends, Germany had to commit itself to a moral struggle of monumental proportions in rescuing Christian civilization from the power of evil itself. Elie Wiesel is among a handful of romantic or mystically inclined authors who take the view that the Holocaust is inexplicable and can teach no lessons about evil and the causes of evil among human beings. (11) I used to incline to this view, but the recently published essays of Bauer and the books of Friedlander and Cohn have begun to change my thinking. The animus against the Jew did not commence with Hitler and the Nazis or with patterns of German Antisemitism at the turn of the twentieth century.

I believe the animus goes back to early Christian times and to the portrayal of the Jew in the Crusades as the Anti-Christ. What produced the image of the Jewish Anti-Christ in the Crusades was the presence of a fanatic, uncontrolled, destructive energy that Cohn dubbed "revolutionary millenarianism." Nowhere did this "revolutionary millenarianism" prove more destructive than in the Christian treatment of both Muslims and Jews in the places and times that fell within the scope of the military pilgrimages that comprised the Crusades. I am beginning to read the evidence of Hitler' s Germany in a similar way. It is true that in The Pursuit of the Millennium, Cohn hurdled centuries to argue the connection between the massacre of Jews in the Crusader Middle Ages and the scientific extermination of Jews under the Nazis in the twentieth century. Yet, careful examination of the two sets of historical events should convince us that the Holocaust happened because of the prior precedence of the Crusades.

At the center of both events was a revolutionary eschatology, a Manichean-Gnostic vision of the world divided into good and evil, a division that can only produce apocalyptic destruction. Let us look again at the parallels. At the root of both the Crusades and Nazism was a social myth that had become an effective, convincing, essentially murderous ideology: the Jew as the betrayer of Christ, later to become the Jew who betrayed the German nation in its hour of need. It was the Crusader masses, the pauperae, who, in their religious hatred, bequeathed to the Nazis the imagery of the Jewish Anti-Christ. Moreover, it was not Hitler's secularity but his squeamishness that accounts for his well-known aversion for butchering Jews as they were butchered in the First Crusade.

Hitler said that he preferred the elimination of the Jew by more "scientific" means. (12) He also should not be thought of as some embodiment of the Wagnerian pagan folk hero, a Siegfried, who disdained the Christian valuation of the Jew. Hitler could easily see what was obvious to everybody that one could not advance the racially oriented revolution he was leading if the Jew could evade racial categories by the mere process of seeking Christian baptism. What Hitler and those closest to him were pursuing was a revolutionary reconfiguration of Germany and Europe based on concepts of race and racial purity. This is a millenarian dream to be sure. Like all millenarian dreams, ancient or medieval or modern, no one thought to ask what the new relationships would be, the new arrangement of life once Satan was gone and the blessed Saints had come fully to power.

The Nazi sense of the millennium was conveyed by that protean expression, the "Thousand Years Reich." No one asked what the state of things would be 100 years into the "Thousand Years Reich." Would the German economy always remain sound? Would there not be the need of a Jew like Walter Rathenau to pull a purely Aryan Germany out of economic recession? Would a purely Aryan German society remain interesting and creative? Could it always remain so without its non-Aryan writers, actors, violinists? Would not even the most ideological of Nazis not begin to miss the cultural contribution of the non-Aryans? If one examines carefully the anti-Jewish measures taken in Germany from 1933 until the invasion of Poland on September 1, 1939, one cannot escape the feeling that Germany was swept up in a gigantic witch hunt.

The witch hunt was led or orchestrated by no more than a few hundred ideologically possessed Nazis bent on eradicating German society of the never more than one percent (approximately 550,000) German Jewish inhabitants. The overwhelming numbers of German citizens were not members of the Nazi party and were indifferent to anti-Jewish measures. Until the war reached German soil, the German people viewed the Nazi leadership as a wind that would pass over the country. Changing times would produce a new, more stable, and reputable government. One must doubt that the German people ever understood or appreciated the millenarian dreams and ambitions of the Nazis. It is doubtful they recognized Nazi millenarianism as the collective and mindlessly destructive infantilism it was, even when that infantilism in its earlier medieval expression formed a part of Germany's own history. However, the Germans were willing to go along with this infantilism because the Nazi party was, after all, legally voted into office and, in the early years, kept its campaign promises of putting people back to work and revitalizing the economy. Because of that achievement, the somewhat disagreeable matter of Nazi hostility toward the Jews could be overlooked.

Did the hard-core Nazis, beginning with Hitler, actually believe in their own millenarian fantasies about the Jewish Satan and the international Jewish conspiracy as set forth by the Czarist forgery, Protocols of the Elders of Zion, translated and published in Germany in 1920 (a pamphlet that sold 100,000 copies in its first printing)? The question makes me hesitate to break ranks with the functionalist historians of the Holocaust who by and large take the view that Hitler's Antisemitism was essentially pragmatic or political. (13) Certainly, Hitler used Antisemitism in his speeches to advance his party and his career. It is equally true that he ordered or authorized or condoned the program of extermination (including earlier Einsatzgruppen mass shootings), because Germany's early sweep through the U.S.S.R. resulted in the capture of great numbers of unwanted Jews, who were seen as a burden to be removed. The Wansee conference of January, 1942, was convened by Reinhard Heydrich to solve the problem of these unwanted Jews under Germany's control. These are facts, to be sure.

However, for me now the more persuasive framework for interpreting them is not functionalism but the intentionalist thesis that attributes a Jew-hating mentality to Hitler, a mentality that included all his millenarian fantasies and delusions.

In this regard it is illuminating to mention recollections of Hitler recorded by both the British Ambassador to Germany and the American consul general in Berlin during the Hitler period. The British Ambassador, Sir Horace Rumhold, said of Hitler: "Herr Hitler is himself responsible for the anti-Jewish policy of the German government and ... it would be a mistake to believe that it is the policy of his wilder men whom he has difficulty in controlling. Anybody who has had the opportunity of listening to his remarks on the subject of Jews could not have failed ... to realize that he is a fanatic on the subject." (14) The American diplomat, George S. Messersmith, communicating to Secretary of State Cordell Hull on November 1, 1933, said: "As I have already pointed out in previous dispatches and again in this one, Mr. Hitler himself is implacable and ... is the real head of the anti-Jewish movement. He can be reasonable on a number of subjects, but on this he can only be passionate and prejudiced." (15) Thus, he was fanatic, passionate, and prejudiced on the subject of the Jews.

It is precisely these emotions that cannot be explained, wrote historian John Lukacs in his incisive book about Hitler. Hitler's hostility toward Jews remains a mystery despite the psychologists' speculations that throughout his life Hitler hated the thing he most feared in himself, namely, that he might be partly Jewish through his paternal grandfather. (16) Lukacs proposed that to understand Hitler's fear correctly we must go beyond conventional antisemitic categories and speak of Hitler's paranoia about Jews, his "Judeophobia," in Lukacs' language. Lukacs wrote, "There is no evidence that [Hitler's] often-stated beliefs--that by persecuting the Jews he was acting as an instrument of God, and that the war had been forced on him by Jews--were meant for public consumption only." (17) That Hitler was carrying out a deadly millenarian fantasy about the Jews is argued by the perceptive Swiss historian Phillipe Burrin, who wrote:
 Around the Middle of September 1941, when he decided to kill the
 Jews, he certainly did not think defeat was inevitable. But he must
 have assuredly felt that it would take a great deal of luck in the
 future for him to win; and he saw clearly the price he would have
 to pay to avoid defeat. The extermination of the Jews, then, was at
 once a propitiatory act and an act of vengeance. By putting to
 death those thought of as his archetypal enemies--little did it
 matter to his obsessed mind that these were powerless and unarmed
 civilians--he was demonstrating his will to fight to the end. By
 means of the somehow sacrificial death of the Jews, he was
 fanatically steeling himself to achieve victory, to fight on to
 annihilation. At the same time, and above all, he was expiating
 spilled German blood, and avenging beforehand a possible defeat. He
 would conduct this exercise of vengeance, as it turned out, with
 mounting determination as the situation worsened, and as he
 advanced toward an apocalyptic end. (18)

It is precisely because Hitler's vision of the Jews and their destruction was apocalyptic that Friedlander proposed that we revise our thinking about Antisemitism to include a category he called "Redemptive Anti-Semitism," (19) which fuses both racial Antisemitism and religious Antisemitism as they must be fused if we are to take better account of Nazi hostility toward the Jews.

It is true that Hitler spoke of a nonreligious, more scientific or "rational" way of ridding Germany of the Jews, but what that came down to was a reversion to the older medieval anti-Jewish animus, an animus fused with pseudoscientific language about race and racial inferiority/superiority. In other words it came down to "Redemptive Anti-Semitism." Friedlander's definition of this term, along with the accounts of Lukacs and Burrin, offers the best insight into Hitler's Judeophobia. Friedlander wrote:
 [T]he Jew, in Hitler's description, was debistoricized and
 transformed into an abstract principle of evil that confronted a no
 less metahistorical counterpart just as immutable in its nature and
 role throughout time--the Aryan race. Whereas Marxism stressed the
 conflict of changing historical forces, Nazism and particularly
 Hitler's worldview, considered history as the confrontation of an
 immutable good and an immutable evil. The outcome could only be
 envisioned in religious terms: perdition or redemption (20)

I close with this most eloquent and incisive point about the Nazi millenarian vision made by Robert Ellwood, whose statement deserves to be quoted in full:
 By its very nature, a millennial movement is like placing a bet for
 the highest possible stakes against the game of history. The
 movement is wagering that history's ordinary desultory flow can be
 stopped dead, and through a convulsive religious/revolutionary act
 the river of destiny raised into a high sparkling-pure stream
 running under divine power, never again subject to the downward
 pull of gravity. If the wager fails and normal time again returns,
 then all is lost and the movement is discredited in most eyes. To
 keep the wager going, therefore, all the prophet's resources must
 be continually placed on the table: money, persons, armaments, the
 energies of sacred wars, even human sacrifice. The ultimate gamble
 requires the ultimate in commitment. In the end the bet can prevail
 only if spirit can prove itself truly superior in historical time
 to the way of all flesh, if grace can be shown greater than gravity
 in our time and space, for millennialism means this-worldly, not
 otherworldly, salvation. Therefore the stakes call for war to make
 millennialist will triumph even if, by the laws of the flesh, the
 millennium seems likely to lose on the field of battle; only thus
 can the power of spirit in this historical moment be tested. The
 Nazis gambled everything because they could do no other in the
 light of their original premises about the superiority of their
 race, their leader, their community, and their spirit; and they
 lost. (21)

(1) Norman Cohn, The Pursuit of the Millennium: Revolutionary Millenarians and Mystical Anarchists of the Middle Ages, rev. and exp. ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 1970). Cohn's concluding remarks, explicitly connecting Nazism to millenarianism, are the subject of a book-length study: James M Rhodes, The Hitler Movement: A Modern Millenarian Revolution (Stanford, CA: Hoover Institution Press, 1996). Also, for an excellent summary of the thesis inspired by Cohn and developed by Rhodes, see Robert Ellwood, "Nazism as a Millenialist Movement," in Catherine Wessinger, ed., Millennialism, Persecution, and Violence: Historical Cases (Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 2000), pp. 241-260.

(2) Cohn, Pursuit of the Millennium, p. 13.

(3) Yehuda Bauer, Rethinking the Holocaust (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2001); Saul Friedlander, Nazi Germany and the Jews, vol. 1, The Years of Persecution, 1933-1939 (New York: HarperCollins, 1997); John Lukacs, The Hitler of History (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1997); Uriel Tal, Christians and Jews in Germany: Religion, Politics, and Ideology in the Second Reich, 1870-1914 (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1975).

(4) "[Hitler] may have appeared more than a little ridiculous to outside observers, but he established a potent bond with the German masses through the charm of which he was capable and his impassioned oratory" (Elwood, "Nazism," p. 245).

(5) For a study of disaster as a root cause of millennialist thinking, see Michael Barkun, Disaster and the Millennium (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1974).

(6) For an instructive examination of Manichean-Gnostic thinking in Nazism, see Eric Voegelin, The New Science of Politics: An Introduction (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1952); and idem, Science, Politics, and Gnosticism: Two Essays (Chicago: Regnery Gateway, 1968).

(7) Cohn, Pursuit of the Millennium, p. 21

(8) Lucy Davidowicz, Hitler's War against the Jews, 1933-1934 (New York: Bantam Edition, 1986).

(9) Adolph Hitler, Mere Kampf cited in Friedlander, Nazi Germany and the Jews, p. 98.

(10) See Friedlander, Nazi Germany and the Jews, pp. 97-98.

(11) See Erie Wiesel, "Art and Culture after the Holocaust," Cross Currents 26 (Fall, 1976): 265.

(12) Lukacs, Hitler of History, p. 184.

(13) See Bauer for lucid discussion of the functionalism vs. intentionalism debate among historians of the Holocaust, in his Rethinking the Holocaust, pp. 29-30, 103-104.

(14) Cited in Friedlander, Nazi Germany and the Jews, pp. 68-69.

(15) Cited in ibid., p. 69.

(16) Lukacs, Hitler of History, p. 186.

(17) Ibid., p. 194.

(18) Philippe Burrin, Hitler et les juifs: Genese d'une genocide (Paris, 1989), p. 169, cited in ibid., pp. 194-195.

(19) See Friedlander, Nazi Germany and the Jews, chap. 3, pp. 73-112.

(20) Ibid., pp. 99-100.

(21) Elwood, "Nazism," pp. 259-260.

Thomas Idinopulos

Miami University

Oxford, OH
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Author:Idinopulos, Thomas
Publication:Journal of Ecumenical Studies
Geographic Code:4EUGE
Date:Jun 22, 2003
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