Commentary Magazine

Rehearsal for Destruction, by Paul Massing

Breeding Ground for Nazis
Rehearsal for Destruction: A Study of Political Anti-Semitism in Imperial Germany.
by Paul Massing.
Harper. 341 pp. $4.50.


Rehearsal for Destruction is an illuminating and often moving account of the tactics of various groups in the Germany of the Kaisers in politically manipulating a latent, widespread, and often virulent anti-Semitism. This full-length study in English of the subject is the second published volume in the Studies in Prejudice series undertaken by the Department of Scientific Research of the American Jewish Committee.

Rarely a principal concern of the prominent political figures of the era, and never a monopoly of any important political party, anti-Semitism was nevertheless the means, always available and often used, to gain political advantage. Concerned with power, politicians scorned the Biblical injunction to love one’s neighbor in favor of an old adage: “He who persecutes Israel becomes a leader.” If this adage was not invariably confirmed, its success was sufficiently outstanding. And as the conditions which gave rise to anti-Semitism were not obliterated, a later generation of politicians, in a rage for power, hastened not merely to resurrect slogans half a century old, but also to fulfill their promise in gruesome detail.

In its main outlines. Dr. Massing’s story charts the failure of Germany to become a liberal state. “Modem Germany never was able to develop a bourgeois society patterned after the models of Western liberalism.” The middle class, either unable or unwilling (and incapacity and disinclination were bound together), never achieved political power and moral leadership. The ideology and values of liberalism, which elsewhere filled the void left by the destruction of feudal society, never took deep root in Germany. There the “feudal” groups remained in political and social control even after they had to a considerable extent lost the economic basis of their prestige. But their hold was precarious; casting about for help to bolster their position, they obtained support from the Mittelstand or petty bourgeoisie, i.e., lesser civil servants, shopkeepers, the professional classes, and the like. For the Junkers, anti-Semitism was a tool used, when it was deemed necessary, for winning the support of the Mittelstand. For the latter, however, it was a confused expression of social protest. Indeed, at times the protest took the form of simultaneous attacks on Junkers and Jews.

Complete legal emancipation of the Jews in Germany came with national unification. Achieved without fanfare and as a result of little direct agitation or struggle, Jewish emancipation was regarded by the ruling classes rather in the nature of a gift than of a right. Back in 1847 Bismarck, in a speech in the Prussian parliament, had professed to “love” the Jews and had conceded to them all rights except that of holding government position. In the Reich of Bismarck and Wilhelm II the Jews legally enjoyed all rights bar none; actually, almost as if to prevent them from “abusing” their privileges, they were tacitly but none the less effectively, barred from the civil and military services.

Beginning with the world depression of 1873, the Jews of Germany had more to concern themselves with than their exclusion from government jobs. One of the consequences of the economic difficulties of the following six years was the undermining of the prestige and prospects of German liberalism. Anti-Semitism in Germany became more than a mere “lunatic fringe” movement. Conservatives as well as National Liberals, Catholics as well as Protestants, Bismarck, the two Wilhelms (Kaiser Friedrich III, who ascended the throne in March 1888 and who is said to have labeled anti-Semitism “the shame of the century,” died in June of the same year), eminent university professors, noted and respected figures in business and public life, as well as various radical and disaffected groups, played at times upon anti-Semitic sentiments in the course of their “normal” political activities. Massing relates clearly, and documents thoroughly, the sordid story.



Only the socialists emerge morally untarnished, if intellectually naive. Holding with Bebel that “anti-Semitism was the socialism of fools,” they resolutely set themselves against any attempt to exploit the rich vein of prejudice that was at hand. For them, anti-Semitism was but an instrument wielded by the enemies of progress to hamper the inevitable evolution of a classless society in which anti-Semitism, along with the other evils of capitalism, would disappear. Never, in their efforts to win over the masses, did the socialists single out the Jews for attack, even when expediency beckoned.

Yet Massing’s criticism of the socialists’ “chronic underestimation” of the significance of anti-Semitism, and of their “dogmatic thinking,” is keen and perceptive. Devoting the last quarter of his two-hundred-page text and almost one-half of his documentary appendix to “socialism and anti-Semitism,” he clearly demonstrates the ingenuousness of the socialists on this issue. It is clear that the Social Democrats had no inkling of how malignant racism could become.

Massing excels in demonstrating the inadequacies of the Social Democrats in dealing with anti-Semitism. However, in his own analysis of the problem he tends to forget his own strictures and seems inclined to rely upon not unsimilar inadequacies. “Why,” he raises the question at one point, “did anti-Semitism become the ‘natural’ outlet for resentment which the objective process of capitalism engendered in specific groups?” But like the rest of us, he is much better at raising questions than at answering them. He relies too often on such general phrases as “socio-economic” and “sociopolitical” which cloak the need for further study and analysis. This is unfortunate, for generalities concerning capitalism have not been too helpful in understanding anti-Semitism.



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