Commentary Magazine

The Return of the Devil

In 2011, the acclaimed fashion designer John Galliano lost his job at Christian Dior. The reason, as Daniel Jonah Goldhagen explains in his latest book, The Devil That Never Dies, was repeated outbursts of anti-Semitism. Galliano flew into rages, once before a group of Italian women whom “he must have imagined were Jewish.” “‘I love Hitler,’” he yelled, “‘People like you would be dead. Your mothers, your forefathers would all be f—king gassed and dead.’” On another occasion, the gallery director Geraldine Bloch said Galliano had grabbed her hair and shouted: “Dirty Jew face, you should be dead.” He told her: “Shut your mouth, dirty bitch, I can’t stand your dirty whore voice.” Bloch said Galliano had made “thirty anti-Semitic remarks in forty-five minutes.”

On the face of it, Galliano’s case could be explained away or at least understood as a frail, unbalanced personality’s sudden descent into obscenity, due to drunkenness or some other intoxication. In the course of abusing Bloch, Galliano spoke insultingly as well of her Asian boyfriend. Of course, people under similar circumstances lash out at women, gays, blacks, and Muslims. The very fact that the Dior company fired Galliano, moreover, would suggest that anti-Semitism is still seen as something especially and particularly offensive, as it has supposedly been in Europe for nearly 70 years.

But as Goldhagen makes plain, Galliano’s behavior was in fact less extraordinary, by many current standards, than Dior’s reaction. In a growing number of countries, what Galliano said—a vindication of genocide—is part of the dominant culture and is supported by government media or educational agencies. And in those countries where open anti-Semitism is still culturally rejected or legally suppressed in theory, people and institutions are less and less likely to frown upon it or act against it. Galliano thus may not be a remnant of a previous pathological stage of European culture, but rather a symptom of what lies ahead.

The Holocaust scholar Alvin H. Rosenfeld is suggesting about the same in Resurgent Antisemitism (Indiana University Press, 576 pages), a collection of essays he edited. And he wonders, along with Goldhagen, how such a thing—both the withering of the Holocaust in the public conscience and the return of pre-Holocaust anti-Semitism—could even have happened. After all, he writes, “our measure of the bad at its worst has a name that sits heavily in our psyches and ominously in our moral vocabulary: Auschwitz. To those moved by its memory, no dread surpasses the dread of that place.” Indeed, the implicit or explicit motivation of those who, in one capacity or another, Jewish or non-Jewish, wrote about the Holocaust or recorded testimonies or reflections about it—eyewitnesses, historians, philosophers, theologians, law experts, poets, novelists, journalists, movie or TV directors—was, until recently, Never again.

In its immediate wake, many wondered whether civilization as it had hitherto existed (Western civilization or civilization at large) could still exist or function after such crimes. The critic Theodor W. Adorno observed in 1949 that no one could write poems after Auschwitz. That did not sound like an overreaction at the time but a self-evident truth. Inasmuch as civilization, among whose glories is poetry, could go on or be allowed to go on, it had to be rebuilt on a total rejection of the Holocaust and what had led to it. And by implication, it had to be rebuilt on a thorough knowledge of the Holocaust as an event and as a process. “Broadly disseminated through virtually every medium of Western culture for decades,” Rosenfeld writes, “knowledge of the Holocaust was believed to nullify any prospect of its return.”

But what if Never again was just a passing fancy? What if, even more perversely, Holocaust memories and pieties, and even Holocaust studies, have now been interwoven into the new mantras used to justify anti-Semitism? What if evil—if not the devil, to use Goldhagen’s metaphor—has outsmarted civilization and used its efforts to recivilize Europe and harness anti-Semitism to its own end? Was it utterly naive to believe, as so many people did, that an unprecedented shock—first delivered in the spring of 1945 by the images of the Nazi camps released in American movie theaters and elsewhere on the personal orders of General Dwight D. Eisenhower—would precipitate a lasting moral reset?

It would appear so. For anti-Semitism is back with a vengeance, and the longing for, or the actual planning of, a second genocide of the Jews is now in vogue in the Islamic world and in other parts of the world. “How aggressive this new anti-Semitism is likely to get and, ultimately, how destructive it will be if it proceeds unchecked, are open questions,” Rosenfeld remarks. “Precisely because no certain answers are available, these questions evoke a sense of unease” that “converts the resolute power of ‘Never again’ to its unnerving opposite—‘Ever again!’”


Daniel Goldhagen won instant celebrity in 1996 with Hitler’s Willing Executioners, a book that took off from the findings of Christopher Browning’s Ordinary Men. Browning had investigated the background and behavior of Reserve Police Battalion 101, an auxiliary German unit involved in anti-Jewish genocidal activities in Poland. He concluded that they were neither fanatic youths like the SS troopers nor hapless draftees remolded by steel discipline, as were the Wehrmacht fighters, but just average, middle-age Germans doing their part for the Fatherland on noncombat missions. Browning focused especially on these facts: that the Battalion men’s tasks included mass murder, that their superiors had told them about it beforehand (and that they were free to leave if this was beyond them), and that most of them simply agreed to go ahead with the killing.

While Goldhagen recognized the importance of Browning’s work, he disagreed with the author’s interpretation of his findings. By and large, Browning had insisted, like many earlier Holocaust historians, on explaining the actions of Battalion 101 as reflecting specific elements of German culture, such as obedience to authority and group loyalty. Goldhagen wondered why Browning and most of his predecessors had failed to mention or single out an even more specific element: anti-Semitism. He undertook to review the Battalion 101 case—and in fact the entire Holocaust process—by examining the effect of anti-Semitism on Germans. Jew-hatred, he pointed out, had been pervasive throughout German history and the German national narrative. Long before the advent of Hitler, moreover, German Jew-hatred had been an “eliminationist” anti-Semitism, aiming at the removal of Jews from German society and even at the annihilation of the Jews as a people and as a race. Thus, in Goldhagen’s view, the Germans were not lured or compelled by Hitler into the Holocaust in the period of 1933–1945: They took part willingly in a crime they had harbored in their souls for generations. And it could even be argued that it was because of anti-Semitism, rather than in spite of it, that Hitler achieved so much ascendancy over the Germanic nations.

The reaction of most Western historians specializing in the Third Reich and the Holocaust, from Ian Kershaw to Raul Hilberg, and from Omer Bartov to Yehuda Bauer, was either chilly or downright hostile. Fritz Stern, the eminent German-born historian of Jewish descent whose converted family fled in 1938, even charged Goldhagen with “anti-German racism.” The German public thought otherwise. The German translation of Hitler’s Willing Executioners made a sensation. Many German historians and philosophers agreed that while Goldhagen might have simplified or at times misunderstood some issues, he was correct on his main claim: that German anti-Semitism played the most essential role in the Holocaust, and that the hitherto near obliteration of that fact in Holocaust-related academic research was, to say the least, puzzling.

There was logic to this unexpected acceptance of the Goldhagen thesis in Germany, of all places. For the first time since the end of Hitler’s war, Germany enjoyed in the 1990s what might be termed national serenity. The country was elated about the end of the Cold War, the fall of the Communist regime in Eastern Germany, and a peaceful reunification. As a result, it was ready and eager to learn about many suppressed sides of its narrative. Goldhagen could have settled on this qualified victory and then built up a classic academic career. But he had no patience for such things. After 1996, he published two equally ambitious and controversial books, one on the Catholic Church’s responsibility in the Holocaust and what he posited as its “duty to repair” (A Moral Reckoning, 2002), and the other a global history of genocide (Worse Than War, 2009). Following them, The Devil That Never Dies (Little, Brown and Company, 496 pages) focuses our attention on the seemingly ineluctable return of eliminationist schemes, directed either against a section of the Jewish people, Israel, or against the Jewish people as a whole.

The book does not shy away from what might be called “information overkill.” Goldhagen makes his case by providing evidence. He does not always break new ground here; what he does is gather detail slowly and at length. American Jews, who live in an environment largely free of anti-Semitism, walk proudly in front of their synagogues, community centers, and schools. European Jews, who are facing a revived anti-Semitism in their daily life, are learning to hide or to make themselves invisible, to withdraw behind fences and police protection. (As the bitter European Jewish joke has it: “Looking for the local synagogue? Just go until you see police cars parked.”) Denmark has shown a high degree of toleration and even sympathy for Judaism since the 17th century, and managed to salvage most of its Jewish community during World War II. But what is it like today to be a Danish Jew?

Orthodox Rabbi Yitzi Loewenthal, who despite the numerous attacks on Jews in Copenhagen still walks there openly as a Jew, won’t dare to in Odense, Denmark’s third largest city: “In Copenhagen I go with a kippah, but when I come to Odense, I remove all external signs that I’m a Jew. I just don’t dare.” Why? Because of an experience in Odense: “I waited for the train, which was late, when they approached and began to hit me. They could see I was a Jew because I had my kippah on. When one woman on the platform began to shout, they disappeared again.” The image of a rabbi inspecting himself, perhaps in the mirror, to ensure that all signs of his Jewishness are absent is remarkable and a sure sign of unbearable hostility and danger for Jews.

What does it mean exactly that 40 percent of all people in the 10 major European countries held the opinion, in 2007, that “Jews have too much power in international finance markets”? It means, Goldhagen makes clear, that “about two hundred million people in the European Union (not including Ukraine and Russia)”—more than twice the population of Greater Germany in 1939—agree, 60 years after the Holocaust, with one of the basic tenets of pre-Holocaust anti-Semitism.

The devil that never died does not reside in Europe only, of course. What exactly did Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei have on his mind when, on a Friday speech on February 3, 2012, he likened Israel to “a cancer that must be removed”? And what did it mean when, the following day, the government-controlled Fars News Agency published an article by “former governor of Iran’s Kish province Alireza Forghani,” in Farsi and English, that described how Israel can be obliterated “in less than nine minutes” and “itemizes the number of people the Iranians would target for extermination in each of Israel’s major regions,” until he reached the sum total of 7 million souls? What Khamenei had on his mind, Goldhagen spells out, is genocide. And he adds that Forghani’s computation is “eerily reminiscent, perhaps not by accident, of the Wannsee protocol, the record of the meeting in January 1942 at which the Nazi leadership detailed…the already ongoing program to exterminate all of European Jewry, which included a country by country itemized list of the numbers of Jews the Germans intended to kill.”

Goldhagen sees anti-Jewish “eliminationism” as literally Satanic: For purposes of their own, Christianity and Islam often made a Satan of Judaism, the earlier faith they stemmed from, and then this Satan grew out of any theological control and engulfed not only his creators but much of what came to be known as “Western civilization” and finally “world civilization.” Indeed, the Holocaust provoked a lot of soul-searching in the West. Not so, however in the Communist countries, nor in Islamic countries, where Nazi tropes infected traditional prejudice. Upon his return, Satan “globalized” and gathered new, untapped strength. Goldhagen calls “people of good conscience” to unite against him, and particularly against the present genocidal threats. But he seems to doubt that Satan “will ever die.”


Whereas Goldhagen devoted his entire career to the Holocaust and genocide issues, Alvin Rosenfeld started as a specialist of William Blake and other poets, slowly moved from literature at large to the literature of the Holocaust, and then reached Holocaust and anti-Semitism issues proper. The turning point was A Double Dying: Reflections on Holocaust Literature (1980), a study of literary books dealing with the Holocaust as literary books, rather than as testimonies, investigations, or philosophical essays. Imagining Hitler (1985) focused on a different, yet closely related, matter: how Hitler as a character and Nazi Germany as a society found their way into fiction. Rosenfeld perceived from the very beginning that the main assumption of post-Holocaust culture—knowledge is prevention—did not make sense when applied to literature. Indeed, the Holocaust was outrageous and obscene, and so was the whole Nazi system that produced it; but the business of literature was not to pass judgment on outrage and obscenity, but to explore it, if not to exploit it.

It was not only literature, Rosenfeld soon realized, but the whole of Western academic culture—history, sociology, anthropology, and political science—that tended in an almost mechanical way to dissociate or decouple the Holocaust from the Jewish people, much as Christian or Islamic theology had dissociated the Jews from the Bible and from the Abrahamic faith. One consequence has been the routine equation of Zionism with Nazism, and the use of the word genocide to describe Israeli conduct toward the Palestinians. Another one was that growing numbers of self-described progressive Jews were indulging in that kind of rhetoric. Rosenfeld addressed that issue in an essay published in 2006 under the aegis of the American Jewish Committee called “‘Progressive’ Jewish Thought and the New Anti-Semitism.”

In 2011, Rosenfeld published The End of the Holocaust, where he summed up a 30-year intellectual journey into these matters. By then, many authors besides him and Goldhagen—the Hungarian Nobel Prize laureate Imre Kertesz, the Israeli philosopher Elhanan Yakira, the Austrian-Israeli author Manfred Gerstenfeld, the Vilnius-based American scholar Dovid Katz, the Lithuanian philosopher Leonidas Donskis, the German writers Matthias Küntzel and Henryk Broder, to mention a few names—had expressed concerns about the fading away of the Holocaust as a moral marker, the exploiting of Holocaust-related sensibilities, and the intertwined phenomena of Holocaust denial and calls for a new, “real” Holocaust. Rosenfeld quoted them extensively and closed his essay on Kertesz’s somber predicament: “Because Auschwitz in fact occurred, it has now been established in our imaginations as a firm possibility. What we are able to imagine, especially because it once was, can be again.”

As the editor of Resurgent Antisemitism, Rosenfeld had some of these authors restate their views in an updated or sharpened way, and had others join in expressing their own warnings. Each story is fascinating. Take, for instance, the account of the Kafkaesque symmetries and crossovers between Hungary and Romania by Sylvia Peremiczky, the director of the Jewish Museum in Budapest. Both countries emerged as modern polities in the second half of the 19th century. Both had large Jewish populations, either in absolute or relative numbers. In everything else, they sharply differed.

Hungary was the largest single state in Central Europe before the First World War, and as a result of its size it had a demographic problem: “Hungarians constituted only 48 percent of the population among a multitude of increasingly restive ethnic/language groups with independence ambitions of their own.” The solution for the ethnic Hungarians was to grant “the 5 percent of Jews unconditional political and social emancipation in 1867.” With the Jews “registered as Hungarian of the Mosaic faith,” the Hungarians were able to claim an instant majority at the stroke of a pen” while Jews were “more than happy to adopt the Hungarian language, culturally assimilate and take front and center in a driving national development.”

This “Jewish Hungarian Camelot” collapsed in 1918, along with a defeated Habsburg Empire. Hungary was mercilessly amputated of two-thirds of its territory and 40 percent of its ethnic population. The partly Romanian-populated Transylvania was given to Romania by the Trianon Treaty, “on the promise that Romanian Jews would be emancipated.” From then on, Peremiczky observes, embittered Hungarian nationalists who had never been perfectly happy with the Jewish Camelot anyway indulged in paranoid notions of a “Jewish plot” against their country.

In pre-World War I Romania, by contrast, “ethnic Romanians constituted the overwhelming majority of the population” and had no need for Jews, who, even if born in the country, were treated as foreigners and interlopers. The Trianon Treaty enlarged Romania by 114,000 square miles but lowered the ethnic Romanian population to less than 70 percent and increased the Jewish population to 5 percent. Anti-Semitic Romanian nationalists thus developed a different version of anti-Semitic paranoia, according to which “Jewish infestation” would undermine the viability of the larger new country, either to the benefit of a revanchist Hungary or of the “Jewish” Soviet Union. A smaller Hungary was blamed on the Jews; the dangers of a larger Romania were blamed on the Jews.

Both countries were participants in the Holocaust—though belatedly so in the case of Hungary (only in 1944, when a pro-Nazi coup ousted Regent Miklos Horthy, who had protected the some 800,000 Jews who had fallen under his authority), and only in certain areas or in the occupied Soviet Union in the case of Romania. Today, both countries, as members of the European Union, are uneasy about the Holocaust and often unwilling to recognize their responsibility in it. And both are plagued with new openly anti-Semitic parties.

Zvi Gitelman, professor of political science and Jewish studies at the University of Michigan, expands upon some of these themes in an essay in which he points out that “one of the most troublesome issues for several of the post-Communist states is that significant numbers of their citizens collaborated with the Nazis…in the mass murder of Jews.” Holocaust denial has grown disturbingly popular in some precincts. But a much more widespread response is to insist that Jews were not the only victims of genocide in World War II—or that they were responsible for acts of genocide themselves.

But while other groups—Gypsies, Soviet POWs, Polish elites, Serbs, and so forth—were indeed murdered en masse or subjected to lethal repressive tactics, they were not sentenced to death as a whole and without any exception like the Jews, nor put to death, as a rule, in the same highly tailored and sadistic way as the Jews. The accusation of Jewish responsibility for the genocide rests on the allegedly prominent role played by Jews in Bolshevik and Soviet terror and tyranny. In Ukraine, the Great Famine of 1932–1933 engineered by the Soviet authorities is frequently described as a largely “Jewish” anti-Ukrainian “Holocaust.” Indeed, this view informed the Ukrainian government’s official doctrine under the administration of Viktor Yushchenko (2005–2010). He once pleaded for “mutual forgiveness” between Ukrainians and Jews.

Gitelman’s response is to check some facts and figures regarding the involvement of the local Gentiles and Jews in the two totalitarian regimes. There were high numbers of Gentiles in Central and Eastern Europe who supported Nazi Germany, condoned the German-engineered murder of the Jews, and involved themselves in it. In places where the Germans encouraged local nationalism (the Baltic countries, Hungary, Romania, West Ukraine), active support rose dramatically up to at least one-fifth of the population. West Ukraine, which had been controlled by Poland until 1939 and whose 4.5 million population was more homogeneously Ukrainian than East Ukraine’s, provided the bulk of the 600,000 Ukranians who served the German occupation regime directly, including the Ukrainian police officers who, according to a report, “enforced the ghettoization process, provided cordons during ghetto clearing operations and mass shootings, escorted Jews to local shooting sites or to the train headed for the death camp Belzec, carried house to house searches and combed forests for hidden Jews.” More than “80,000 West Ukrainians volunteered for the SS Halychyna Division, of whom 13,000 ultimately served.”

But what about Jewish support for Communism and the Soviet Union? Indeed there was a high proportion of Jews—“non-Jewish Jews, in Isaac Deutscher’s terminology,” who had cast away their religion and any loyalty or link to their people—in the initial Communist leadership in Russia and other Central European or East European countries: an average of 20 percent and in some cases even more. But, as Gitelman points out, most Jews in Central and Eastern Europe were in fact not “politically reliable” from a Communist standpoint: Where democratic elections were held, an overwhelming majority of them supported either moderately liberal or moderately conservative parties. In pre-1939 Poland, the country with the largest Jewish minority in Europe and in the world—one-tenth of the global population—“only 2 to 7 percent of the Jews voted for the Communist party or its fronts.” Fifty percent supported the ruling conservative party, granting it more than twice as many votes, proportionally, as Catholic Poles. And yet the argument that Jews tormented Europeans with their Communism remains strong.

Islamic anti-Semitism, a crucial issue given the growing importance of Islam in the contemporary world and its adhesion to extreme and unreconstructed forms of Jew-hatred, is the subject of stunning essays by Rifat N. Bali and Jamsheed K. Choksy of Indiana University. Both point to the pervasive influence, on cultures already soaked in traditional hostility toward Jews, of 19th-century and early 20th-century Western anti-Semitism: Bali remarks that Turkish secular nationalists like to distribute and quote Hitler’s Mein Kampf, whereas Islamists insist on the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. Gunther Jikeli comments on various surveys conducted on young European Muslims’ perception of Jews (either young Muslims born in Europe or who immigrated to Europe as children): As a rule, “surveys suggest that anti-Semitic attitudes are stronger and are held more frequently among Muslims in Europe than among non-Muslims” and that Muslims may express two, three, or even four times more anti-Semitic views than non-Muslims do. Acquiescence to a new Holocaust, and to the unsparing logic of Hitler’s Holocaust, is frequent. Non-Arabs (including members of Berber or Kurdish minorities from nominally Arab countries) tend to be less anti-Semitic than Arabs; liberal or irreligious Muslims less so than fundamentalist Muslims.


Both Goldhagen’s study and Rosenfeld’s collection are nightmarish by any standard and do suggest that some malevolent powers are at work again. The devil of Goldhagen’s imagining may not be metaphor. Many Jews are too monotheistically inclined, or maybe just too uneasy with the irrational, to believe in such things. But the Talmud mentions, quite surprisingly, a Faustian pact in relation to anti-Semitism in the treatise Gittin, page 56a:

Onkelos, the son of Kolonikos, was the son of Titus’s sister. He had in mind to convert himself to Judaism. He went and raised Titus from the dead by magical arts, and asked him: “Who is most in repute in the other world?” Titus replied: “Israel.”

“What then,” Onkelos said, “about joining them?”

Titus said: “Their observances are burdensome and you will not be able to carry them out. Go and attack them in that world and you will be at the top as it is written, Her adversaries are become the head, etc. Whoever attacks Israel becomes head.”

Onkelos did not heed his uncle’s advice; he converted to Judaism and became a great Torah scholar. Still, the troubling promise stands: Anti-Semitism secures political dominion. One thinks of Hitler, a wretched creature, a non-person until the age of 30, who suddenly became a leader and reached absolute dominion by engaging in genocidal anti-Semitism. The Talmud provides uncanny insight in the phenomenology of anti-Semitism—from Rome to the Third Reich, and from the Third Reich to Khamenei’s regime in Iran. It is truly the philosophy of Titus, a complete and resolute embrace of the powers of Darkness.

About the Author

Michel Gurfinkiel is the founder and president of the Jean-Jacques Rousseau Institute, a conservative think tank in France, and a Shillman/Ginsburg Fellow at the Middle East Forum. He is the author, among other books, of Un Devoir de Mémoire, an essay on education in Holocaust awareness.

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