No functionalist explanation of the Holocaust and no scapegoat theory of anti-Semitism can even begin to explain why, in the last years of the war, when the German forces were being crushed by the Red Army, a significant proportion of vehicles was deflected from logistical support and used to transport Jews to the gas chambers. The specificity of the Holocaust requires a much more determinate mediation in order even to approach its understanding.
Anti-Semitism and National Socialism
By Moishe Postone
What is the relation of anti-Semitism to National Socialism? The public discussion of this problem in the Federal Republic has been characterized by a dichotomy between liberals and conservatives, on the one side, and the Left, on the other. Liberals and conservatives have tended to emphasize the discontinuity between the Nazi past and the present. In referring to that past they have focused attention on the persecution and extermination of the Jews and have tended to deemphasize other central aspects of Nazism. By underlining the supposed total character of the break between the Third Reich and the Federal Republic, this sort of emphasis on anti-Semitism has paradoxically helped avoid a fundamental confrontation with the social and structural reality of National Socialism. That reality certainly did not completely vanish in 1945. The condemnation of Nazi anti-Semitism, in other words, has also served as an ideology of legitimation for the present system. This instrumentalization was only possible because anti-Semitism has been treated primarily as a form of prejudice, as a scapegoat ideology, thereby obscuring the intrinsic relationship between anti-Semitism and other aspects of National Socialism. On the other hand, the Left has tended to concentrate on the function of National Socialism for capitalism, emphasizing the destruction of working-class organizations, Nazi social and economic policies, rearmament, expansionism, and the bureaucratic mechanisms of party and state domination. Elements of continuity between the Third Reich and the Federal Republic have been stressed. The extermination of the Jews has not, of course, been ignored. Yet, it has quickly been subsumed under the general categories of prejudice, discrimination, and persecution.
In comprehending anti-Semitism as a peripheral, rather than as a central, moment of National Socialism, the Left has also obscured the intrinsic relationship between the two. Both of these positions understand modern anti-Semitism as anti-Jewish prejudice, as a particular example of racism in general. Their stress on the mass psychological nature of anti-Semitism isolates considerations of the Holocaust from socioeconomic and sociohistorical investigations of National Socialism. The Holocaust, however, cannot be understood so long as anti-Semitism is viewed as an example of racism in general and so long as Nazism is conceived of only in terms of big capital and a terroristic bureaucratic police state. Auschwitz, Belzec, Chelmno, Maidanek, Sobibor, and Treblinka should not be treated outside the framework of an analysis of National Socialism. They represent one of its logical end points, not simply its most terrible epiphenomenon. No analysis of National Socialism that cannot account for the extermination of European Jewry is fully adequate. In this essay I will attempt to approach an understanding of the extermination of European Jewry by outlining an interpretation of modern anti-Semitism. My intention is not to explain why Nazism and modern anti-Semitism achieved a breakthrough and became hegemonic in Germany. Such an attempt would entail an analysis of the specificity of German historical development, a subject about which a great deal has been written. This essay attempts, rather, to determine more closely what it was that achieved a breakthrough, by suggesting an analysis of modern anti-Semitism that indicates its intrinsic connection to National Socialism. Such an examination is a necessary precondition to any substantive analysis of why National Socialism succeeded in Germany. The first step must be a specification of the Holocaust and of modern anti-Semitism. The problem should not be posed quantitatively, whether in terms of numbers of people murdered or of degree of suffering. There are too many historical examples of mass murder and of genocide. (Many more Russians than Jews, for example, were killed by the Nazis.) The question is, rather, one of qualitative specificity.
Particular aspects of the extermination of European Jewry by the Nazis remain inexplicable so long as anti-Semitism is treated as a specific example of a scapegoat strategy whose victims could very well have been members of any other group. The Holocaust was characterized by a sense of ideological mission, by a relative lack of emotion and immediate hate (as opposed to pogroms, for example), and, most importantly, by its apparent lack of functionality. The extermination of the Jews seems not to have been a means to another end. They were not exterminated for military reasons or in the course of a violent process of land acquisition (as was the case with the American Indians and the Tasmanians). Nor did Nazi policy toward the Jews resemble their policy toward the Poles and the Russians which aimed to eradicate those segments of the population around whom resistance might crystallize in order to exploit the rest more easily as helots. Indeed, the Jews were not exterminated for any manifest “extrinsic” goal. The extermination of the Jews was not only to have been total, but was its own goal—extermination for the sake of extermination—a goal that acquired absolute priority.
No functionalist explanation of the Holocaust and no scapegoat theory of anti-Semitism can even begin to explain why, in the last years of the war, when the German forces were being crushed by the Red Army, a significant proportion of vehicles was deflected from logistical support and used to transport Jews to the gas chambers. Once the qualitative specificity of the extermination of European Jewry is recognized, it becomes clear that attempts at an explanation dealing with capitalism, racism, bureaucracy, sexual repression, or the authoritarian personality, remain far too general. The specificity of the Holocaust requires a much more determinate mediation in order even to approach its understanding.
The extermination of European Jewry is, of course, related to anti-Semitism. The specificity of the former must be related to that of the latter. Moreover, modern anti-Semitism must be understood with reference to Nazism as a movement—a movement which, in terms of its own self-understanding, represented a revolt. Modern anti-Semitism, which should not be confused with everyday anti-Jewish prejudice, is an ideology, a form of thought, that emerged in Europe in the late nineteenth century. Its emergence presupposed earlier forms of anti-Semitism, which had for centuries been an integral part of Christian Western civilization. What is common to all forms of anti-Semitism is the degree of power attributed to the Jews: the power to kill God, to unleash the Bubonic Plague, and, more recently, to introduce capitalism and socialism. Anti-Semitic thought is strongly Manichaean, with the Jews playing the role of the children of darkness. It is not only the degree, but also the quality of power attributed to the Jews that distinguishes anti-Semitism from other forms of racism. Probably all forms of racism attribute potential power to the Other. This power, however, is usually concrete, material, or sexual. It is the potential power of the oppressed (as repressed), of the “Untermenschen.” The power attributed to the Jews is much greater and is perceived as actual rather than as potential. Moreover, It is a different sort of power, one not necessarily concrete.
What characterizes the power imputed to, the Jews in modern anti-Semitism is that it is mysteriously intangible, abstract, and universal. It is considered to be a form of power that does not manifest itself directly, but must find another mode of expression. It seeks a concrete carrier, whether political, social, or cultural, through which it can work. Because the power of the Jews, as conceived by the modern anti-Semitic imagination, is not bound concretely, is not “rooted,” it is presumed to be of staggering immensity and extremely difficult to check. It is considered to stand behind phenomena, but not to be identical with them. Its source is therefore deemed hidden—conspiratorial. The Jews represent an immensely powerful, intangible, international conspiracy. A graphic example of this vision is provided by a Nazi poster depicting Germany—represented as a strong, honest worker—threatened in the West by a fat, plutocratic John Bull and in the East by a brutal, barbaric Bolshevic Commissar. Yet, these two hostile forces are mere puppets. Peering over the edge of the globe, with the puppet strings firmly in his hands, is the Jew. Such a vision was by no means a monopoly of the Nazis. It is characteristic of modern anti-Semitism that the Jews are considered to be the force behind those “apparent” opposites: plutocratic capitalism and socialism. “International Jewry” is, moreover, perceived to be centered in the “asphalt jungles” of the newly emergent urban megalopoli, to be behind “vulgar, materialist, modern culture” and, in general, all forces contributing to the decline of traditional social groupings, values, and institutions. The Jews represent a foreign, dangerous, destructive force undermining the social “health” of the nation.
Modern anti-Semitism, then, is characterized not only by its secular content, but also by its systematic character. Its claim is to explain the world—a world that had rapidly become too complex and threatening for many people. This descriptive determination of modern anti-Semitism, while necessary in order to differentiate that form from prejudice or racism in general, is in itself not sufficient to indicate the intrinsic connection to National Socialism. That is, the aim of overcoming the customary separation between a sociohistorical analysis of Nazism and an examination of anti-Semitism is, on this level, not yet fulfilled. What is required is an explanation that can mediate the two. Such an explanation must be capable of grounding historically the form of anti-Semitism described above by means of the same categories that could be used to explain National Socialism. My intention is not to negate sociopsychological or psychoanalytical explanations, but rather to elucidate a historical-epistemological frame of reference within which further psychological specifications can take place.
Such a frame of reference must be able to elucidate the specific content of modern anti-Semitism and must be historical, that is, it must contribute to an understanding of why that ideology became so prevalent when it did, beginning in the late nineteenth century. In the absence of such a frame, all other explanatory attempts that focus on the subjective dimension remain historically indeterminate.
What is required, then, is an explanation in terms of a social-historical epistemology. A full development of the problematic of anti-Semitism would go beyond the bounds of this essay. The point to be made here, however, is that a careful examination of the modern anti-Semitic worldview reveals that it is a form of thought in which the rapid development of industrial capitalism, with all its social ramifications, is/ /personified and identified as the Jew. It is not merely that the Jews were considered to be the owners of money, as in traditional anti-Semitism, but that they were held responsible for economic crises and identified with the range of social restructuring and dislocation resulting from rapid industrialization: explosive urbanization, the decline of traditional social classes and strata, the emergence of a large, increasingly organized industrial proletariat, and so on. In other words, the abstract domination of capital, which—particularly with rapid industrialization—caught people up in a web of dynamic forces they could not understand, became perceived as the domination of International Jewry. This, however, is no more than a first approach. The personification has been described, not yet explained. There have been many attempts at an explanation yet none, in my opinion, have been complete. The problem with those theories, such as that of Max Horkheimer, which concentrate on the identification of the Jews with money and the sphere of circulation, is that they cannot account for the notion that the Jews also constitute the power behind social democracy and communism. At first glance, those theories, such as that of George L. Mosse, which interpret modern anti-Semitism as a revolt against modernity, appear more satisfying. Both plutocracy and working-class movements were concomitants of modernity, of the massive social restructuring resulting from capitalist industrialization. The problem with such approaches, however, is that “the modern” would certainly include industrial capital. Yet, as is well known, industrial capital was precisely not an object of anti-Semitic attacks, even in a period of rapid industrialization. Moreover, the attitude of National Socialism to many other dimensions of modernity, especially toward modern technology, was affirmative rather than critical.
The aspects of modern life that were rejected and those that were affirmed by the National Socialists form a pattern. That pattern should be intrinsic to an adequate conceptualization of the problem. Since that pattern was not unique to National Socialism, the problematic has far-reaching significance. The affirmation by modern anti-Semitism of industrial capital indicates that an approach is required that can distinguish between what modern capitalism is and the way it manifests itself, between its essence and its appearance.
The term “modern” does not itself possess an intrinsic differentiation allowing for such a distinction. I would like to suggest that the social categories developed by Marx in his mature critique, such as “commodity” and “capital,” are more adequate, inasmuch as a series of distinctions between what is and what appears to be are intrinsic to the categories themselves. These categories can serve as the point of departure for an analysis capable of differentiating various perceptions of “the modern.” Such an approach would attempt to relate the pattern of social critique and affirmation we are considering to characteristics of capitalist social relations themselves.
These considerations lead us to Marx’s concept of the fetish, the strategic intent of which was to provide a social and historical theory of knowledge grounded in the difference between the essence of capitalist social relations and their manifest forms. What underlies the concept of the fetish is Marx’s analysis of the commodity, money and capital not merely as economic categories, but rather as the forms of the peculiar social relations that essentially characterize capitalism.
In his analysis, capitalist forms of social relations do not appear as such, but are only expressed in objectified form. Labor in capitalism is not only social productive activity (”concrete labor”), but also serves in the place of overt social relations as a social mediation (”abstract labor”). Hence its product, the commodity, is not merely a product in which concrete labor is objectified; it is also a form of objectified social relations.
In capitalism the product is not an object socially mediated by overt forms of social relations and domination. The commodity, as the objectification of both dimensions of labor in capitalism, is its own social mediation. It thus possesses a “double character”: use-value and value. As object, the commodity both expresses and veils social relations which have no other, “independent” mode of expression. This mode of objectification of social relations is their alienation.
The fundamental social relations of capitalism acquire a quasi-objective life of their own. They constitute a “second nature,” a system of abstract domination and compulsion which, although social, is impersonal and “objective.” Such relations appear not to be social at all, but natural.
At the same time, the categorial forms express a particular, socially constituted conception of nature in terms of the objective, lawful, quantifiable behavior of a qualitatively homogeneous essence. The Marxian categories simultaneously express particular social relations and forms of thought. The notion of the fetish refers to forms of thought based upon perceptions that remain bound to the forms of appearance of capitalist social relations.
When one examines the specific characteristics of the power attributed to the Jews by modern anti-Semitism—abstractness, intangibility, universality, mobility—it is striking that they are all characteristics of the value dimension of the social forms analyzed by Marx. Moreover, this dimension, like the supposed power of the Jews, does not appear as such, but always in the form of a material carrier, the commodity.
At this point I will commence with a brief analysis of the way in which capitalist social relations present themselves. I will thereby attempt to explain the personification described above and clarify the problem of why modern anti-Semitism, which railed against so many aspects of the “modern,” was so conspicuously silent, or was positive, with regard to industrial capital and modern technology. I will begin with the example of the commodity form.
The dialectical tension between value and use-value in the commodity form requires that this “double character” be materially externalized. It appears “doubled” as money (the manifest form of value) and as the commodity (the manifest form of use-value). Although the commodity is a social form expressing both value and use-value, the effect of this externalization is that the commodity appears only as its use-value dimension, as purely material and “thingly.” Money, on the other hand, then appears as the sole repository of value, as the manifestation of the purely abstract, rather than as the externalized manifest form of the value dimension of the commodity itself.
The form of materialized social relations specific to capitalism appears on this level of the analysis as the opposition between money, as abstract, and “thingly” nature. One aspect of the fetish, then, is that capitalist social relations do not appear as such and, moreover, present themselves antinomically, as the opposition of the abstract and concrete. Because, additionally, both sides of the antinomy are objectified, each appears to be quasi-natural. The abstract dimension appears in the form of abstract, universal, “objective,” natural laws; the concrete dimension appears as pure “thingly” nature.
The structure of alienated social relations that characterize capitalism has the form of a quasi-natural antinomy in which the social and historical do not appear. *This antinomy is recapitulated as the opposition between positivist and romantic forms of thought.* Most critical analyses of fetishized thought have concentrated on that strand of the antinomy that hypostatizes the abstract as transhistorical—so-called positive bourgeois thought—and thereby disguises the social and historical character of existing relations. In this essay, the other strand will be emphasized—that of forms of romanticism and revolt which, in terms of their own self-understandings, are antibourgeois, but which in fact hypostatize the concrete and thereby remain bound within the antinomy of capitalist social relations.
Forms of anticapitalist thought that remain bound within the immediacy of this antinomy tend to perceive capitalism, and that which is specific to that social formation, only in terms of the manifestations of the abstract dimension of the antinomy; so, for instance, money is considered the “root of all evil.” The existent concrete dimension is then positively opposed to it as the “natural” or ontologically human, which presumably stands outside the specificity of capitalist society. Thus, as with Proudhon, for example, concrete labor is understood as the noncapitalist moment opposed to the abstractness of money. That concrete labor itself incorporates and is materially formed by capitalist social relations is not understood.
With the further development of capitalism, of the capital form and its associated fetish, the naturalization immanent to the commodity fetish acquires new dimensions. The capital form, like the commodity form, is characterized by the antinomic relation of concrete and abstract, both of which appear to be natural. The quality of the “natural,” however, is different. Associated with the commodity fetish is the notion of the ultimately law-like character of relations among individual self-contained units as is expressed, for example, in classical political economy or natural law theory.
Capital, according to Marx, is self-valorizing value. It is characterized by a continuous, ceaseless process of the self-expansion of value. This process underlies rapid, large-scale cycles of production and consumption, creation and destruction. Capital has no fixed, final form, but appears at different stages of its spiraling path in the form of money and in the form of commodities. As self-valorizing value, capital appears as pure process. Its concrete dimension changes accordingly. Individual labors no longer constitute self-contained units. They increasingly become cellular components of a large, complex, dynamic system that encompasses people and machines and which is directed by one goal, namely, production for the sake of production. The alienated social whole becomes greater than the sum of its constituting individuals and has a goal external to itself. That goal is a nonfinite process. The capital form of social relations has a blind, processual, quasi-organic character.
*With the growing consolidation of the capital form, the mechanical worldview of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries begins to give way; organic process begins to supplant mechanical stasis as the form of the fetish.* Organic theory of the state and the proliferation of racial theories and the rise of Social Darwinism in the late nineteenth century are cases in point. Society and historical process become increasingly understood in biological terms. I shall not develop this aspect of the capital fetish any further here. For our purposes what must be noted is the implications for how capital can be perceived.
As indicated above, on the logical level of the analysis of the commodity, the “double character” allows the commodity to appear as a purely material entity rather than as the objectification of mediated social relations. Relatedly, it allows concrete labor to appear as a purely material, creative process, separable from capitalist social relations. On the logical level of capital, the “double character” (labor process and valorization process) allows industrial production to appear as a purely material, creative process, separable from capital. The manifest form of the concrete is now more organic. Industrial capital then can appear as the linear descendent of “natural” artisanal labor, as “organically rooted,” in opposition to “rootless,” “parasitic” finance capital.
The organization of the former appears related to that of the guild; its social context is grasped as a superordinate organic unity: Community (Gemeinschaft), Volk, Race. Capital itself—or what is understood as the negative aspect of capitalism—is understood only in terms of the manifest form of its abstract dimension: finance and interest capital. In this sense, the biological interpretation, which opposes the concrete dimension (of capitalism) as “natural” and “healthy” to the negativity of what is taken to be “capitalism,” does not stand in contradiction to a glorification of industrial capital and technology. Both are the “thingly” side of the antinomy. This relationship is commonly misunderstood.
For example, Norman Mailer, defending neo-romanticism (and sexism) in The Prisoner of Sex, wrote that Hitler spoke of blood, to be sure, but built the machine. The point is that, in this form of fetishized “anticapitalism,” both blood and the machine are seen as concrete counter-principles to the abstract. The positive emphasis on “nature,” on blood, the soil, concrete labor, and Gemeinschaft, can easily go hand in hand with a glorification of technology and industrial capital. This form of thought, then, is not to be understood as anachronistic, as the expression of historical nonsynchronism (Ungleichzeitigkeit), any more than the rise of racial theories in the late nineteenth century should be thought of as atavistic. They are historically new forms of thought and in no way represent the reemergence of an older form. It is because of the emphasis on biological nature that they appear to be atavistic or anachronistic. However, this emphasis itself is rooted in the capital fetish.
The turn to biology and the desire for a return to “natural origins,” combined with an affirmation of technology, which appear in many forms in the early twentieth century, should be understood as expressions of the antinomic fetish that gives rise to the notion that the concrete is “natural,” and which increasingly presents the socially “natural” in such a way that it is perceived in biological terms. The hypostatization of the concrete and the identification of capital with the manifest abstract underlie a form of “anticapitalism” that seeks to overcome the existing social order from a standpoint which actually remains immanent to that order. Inasmuch as that standpoint is the concrete dimension, this ideology tends to point toward a more concrete and organized form of overt capitalist social synthesis. This form of “anticapitalism,” then, only appears to be looking backward with yearning. As an expression of the capital fetish its real thrust is forward. It emerges in the transition from liberal to bureaucratic capitalism and becomes virulent in a situation of structural crisis.
This form of “anticapitalism,” then, is based on a one-sided attack on the abstract. The abstract and concrete are not seen as constituting an antinomy where the real overcoming of the abstract—of the value dimension—involves the historical overcoming of the antinomy itself as well as each of its terms. Instead there is the one-sided attack on abstract reason, abstract law, or, at another level, money and finance capital. In this sense it is antinomically complementary to liberal thought, where the domination of the abstract remains unquestioned and the distinction between positive and critical reason is not made.
The “anticapitalist” attack, however, did not remain limited to the attack against abstraction. On the level of the capital fetish, it is not only the concrete side of the antinomy which can be naturalized and biologized. The manifest abstract dimension was also biologized—as the Jews. The fetishized opposition of the concrete material and the abstract, of the “natural” and the “artificial,” became translated as the world-historically significant racial opposition of the Aryans and the Jews. Modern anti-Semitism involves a biologization of capitalism—which itself is only understood in terms of its manifest abstract dimension—as International Jewry.
According to this interpretation, the Jews were identified not merely with money, with the sphere of circulation, but with capitalism itself. However, because of its fetishized form, capitalism did not appear to include industry and technology. Capitalism appeared to be only its manifest abstract dimension which, in turn, was responsible for the whole range of concrete social and cultural changes associated with the rapid development of modern industrial capitalism.
The Jews were not seen merely as representatives of capital (in which case anti-Semitic attacks would have been much more class-specific). They became the personifications of the intangible, destructive, immensely powerful, and international domination of capital as an alienated social form.
Certain forms of anticapitalist discontent became directed against the manifest abstract dimension of capital personified in the form of the Jews, not because the Jews were consciously identified with the value dimension, but because, given the antinomy of the abstract and concrete dimensions, capitalism appeared that way. The “anticapitalist” revolt was, consequently, also the revolt against the Jews. The overcoming of capitalism and its negative social effects became associated with the overcoming of the Jews.
Although the immanent connection between the sort of “anticapitalism” that informed National Socialism and modern anti-Semitism has been indicated, the question remains why the biological interpretation of the abstract dimension of capitalism found its focus in the Jews. This “choice” was, within the European context, by no means fortuitous. The Jews could not have been replaced by any other group. The reasons for this are manifold.
The long history of anti-Semitism in Europe and the related association of Jews with money are well known. The period of the rapid expansion of industrial capital in the last third of the nineteenth century coincided with the political and civil emancipation of the Jews in central Europe. There was a veritable explosion of Jews in the universities, the liberal professions, journalism, the arts, retail. The Jews rapidly became visible in civil society, particularly in spheres and professions that were expanding and which were associated with the newer form society was taking. One could mention many other factors, but there is one that I wish to emphasize.
Just as the commodity, understood as a social form, expresses its “double character” in the externalized opposition between the abstract (money) and the concrete (the commodity), so is bourgeois society characterized by the split between the state and civil society. For the individual, the split is expressed as that between the individual as citizen and as person. As a citizen, the individual is abstract as is expressed, for example, in the notion of equality before the (abstract) law, or in the principle of one person, one vote. As a person, the individual is concrete, embedded in real class relations that are considered to be “private,” that is, pertaining to civil society, and which do not find political expression.
In Europe, however, the notion of the nation as a purely political entity, abstracted from the substantiality of civil society, was never fully realized. The nation was not only a political entity, it was also concrete, determined by a common language, history, traditions, and religion. In this sense, the only group in Europe that fulfilled the determination of citizenship as a pure political abstraction was the Jews following their political emancipation. They were German or French citizens, but not really Germans or Frenchmen. They were of the nation abstractly, but rarely concretely. They were, in addition, citizens of most European countries.
The quality of abstractness, characteristic not only of the value dimension in its immediacy, but also, mediately, of the bourgeois state and law, became closely identified with the Jews. In a period when the concrete became glorified against the abstract, against “capitalism” and the bourgeois state, this became a fatal association. The Jews were rootless, international, and abstract. Modern anti-Semitism, then, is a particularly pernicious fetish form. Its power and danger result from its comprehensive worldview which explains and gives form to certain modes of anticapitalist discontent in a manner that leaves capitalism intact, by attacking the personifications of that social form.
Anti-Semitism so understood allows one to grasp an essential moment of Nazism as a foreshortened anticapitalist movement, one characterized by a hatred of the abstract, a hypostatization of the existing concrete and by a single-minded, ruthless—but not necessarily hate-filled—mission: to rid the world of the source of all evil.
The extermination of European Jewry is the indication that it is far too simple to deal with Nazism as a mass movement with anticapitalist overtones which shed that husk in 1934 (”Roehm Putsch”) at the latest, once it had served its purpose and state power had been seized. In the first place, ideological forms of thought are not simply conscious manipulations. In the second place, this view misunderstands the nature of Nazi “anticapitalism”—the extent to which it was intrinsically bound to the anti-Semitic worldview. Auschwitz indicates that connection.
It is true that the somewhat too concrete and plebeian “anticapitalism” of the SA was dispensed with by 1934; not, however, the anti-Semitism thrust—the “knowledge” that the source of evil is the abstract, the Jew.
A capitalist factory is a place where value is produced, which “unfortunately” has to take the form of the production of goods, of use-values. The concrete is produced as the necessary carrier of the abstract. The extermination camps were not a terrible version of such a factory but, rather, should be seen as its grotesque, Aryan, “anticapitalist” negation. Auschwitz was a factory to “destroy value,” that is, to destroy the personifications of the abstract. Its organization was that of a fiendish industrial process, the aim of which was to “liberate” the concrete from the abstract. The first step was to dehumanize, that is, to rip away the “mask” of humanity, of qualitative specificity, and reveal the Jews for what “they really are”—shadows, ciphers, numbered abstractions. The second step was to then eradicate that abstractness, to transform it into smoke, trying in the process to wrest away the last remnants of the concrete material “use-value”: clothes, gold, hair, soap.
Auschwitz, not the Nazi seizure of power in 1933, was the real “German Revolution,” the attempted “overthrow,” not merely of a political order, but of the existing social formation. By this one deed the world was to be made safe from the tyranny of the abstract. In the process, the Nazis “liberated” themselves from humanity. The Nazis lost the war against the Soviet Union, America, and Britain. They won their war, their “revolution,” against the European Jews.
They not only succeeded in murdering six million Jewish children, women, and men. They succeeded in destroying a culture—a very old culture—that of European Jewry. It was a culture characterized by a tradition incorporating a complicated tension of particularity and universality. This internal tension was duplicated as an external one, characterizing the relation of the Jews with their Christian surroundings. The Jews were never fully a part of the larger societies in which they lived nor were they ever fully apart from those societies. The results were frequently disastrous for the Jews. Sometimes they were very fruitful. That field of tension became sedimented in most individual Jews following the emancipation. The ultimate resolution of this tension between the particular and the universal is, in the Jewish tradition, a function of time, of history—the coming of the Messiah. Perhaps, however, in the face of secularization and assimilation, European Jewry would have given up that tension. Perhaps that culture would have gradually disappeared as a living tradition, before the resolution of the particular and the universal had been realized. This question will never be answered.