Email this review


A good general history that’s also a relentlessly depressing example of a subject that can never make for light reading.

Wistrich (Modern Jewish History/Hebrew Univ., Jerusalem; Antisemitism, 1992) reminds us that anti-Semitic references first appeared in the New Testament. There, Jews were denounced as enemies of the faith, obsessed with money, sex, and power. Massacres began with the Crusades and occurred regularly through the 19th century. While 18th-century Enlightenment ideals and the rise of democracy eliminated much of violent persecution from western Europe and its colonies, a vigorous anti-Semitism persisted in even advanced nations. Hitler, however, was different. The author writes of Hitler’s youth in vividly anti-Semitic Vienna and discusses the writers who influenced his thought and that of 20th-century Europeans, right-wing opinion as well as the mainstream. As a historian, the author seeks explanations, so he had assumed historical anti-Semitism explained the Holocaust. In fact, it explained only anti-Semitism. Hitler’s obsession with wiping out the Jews was his alone. Attacks on Jews played a minor role in the electoral success of Hitler’s party. If he had continued as a garden-variety anti-Semite, the Nazis would have gone along. The mechanics of the Holocaust make dismal reading: on the Allied side, every leading political and religious figure behaved badly; but most dismal of all, the author points, the Nazis could have killed nearly as many Jews simply working alone. An effort to kill every Jew was impossible without universal cooperation, of course—from national governments through local police through leaders of the Jews themselves. So in country after country, officials often cooperated with frightening enthusiasm. Later, many people who did so explained that they were forced to, that refusing would have provoked even worse Nazi atrocities of retaliation. But they were wrong. In every country that refused to cooperate (Bulgaria, Finland, Denmark, Italy), the Nazis simply grumbled and turned their attention elsewhere.

A solid addition to a vast literature.

Pub Date: Oct. 9th, 2001
ISBN: 0-679-64222-6
Page count: 320pp
Publisher: Modern Library
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Aug. 1st, 2001