Sunday, December 7, 2014

Moishe Postone: Anti-semitism and National Socialism

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.

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... Read more: