Delusion and Belief

Developmental Time, Cultural Space

Publisher: Harvard University Press

Author: Jeffrey Herf

Format: Paperback
Published on: May, 2010
ISBN-10: 0674027388
Language: English
Pages: 400

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The Jewish Enemy is the first extensive study of how anti-Semitism pervaded and shaped Nazi propaganda during World War II and the Holocaust, and how it pulled together the diverse elements of a delusionary Nazi worldview. In an era when both anti-Semitism and conspiracy theories continue to influence world politics, Herf offers a timely reminder of their dangers along with a fresh interpretation of the paranoia underlying the ideology of the Third Reich.

Jeffrey Herf is professor of Modern European History at the University of Maryland.

About the Reviewer

David M. Walker, PhD is professor of History at Boise State University. Dr. Walker teaches classes in military and diplomatic history, specializing in US Military history, World War II, the History of Firearms and Tactics, and the History of US Foreign Relations.

Dr. Walker’s publications include: “The Early Nuclear Age and Visions of Future War” (2009), part of the anthology The Atomic Bomb and American Society: New Perspectives.

A video interview with him can be accessed here.

The Atomic Bomb and American Society: New Perspectives

Editors: Rosemary B. Mariner and G. Kurt Piehler

Publisher: U. of Tennessee Press
Format: Hardcover
Published: 2009
ISBN-10: 157233648X
Language: English
Pages: 470

For information on purchasing this book through Amazon at a special, discounted price, click here.

Drawing on the latest research on the atomic bomb and its history, the contributors to this provocative collection of eighteen essays set out to answer two key questions: First, how did the atomic bomb shape U.S. foreign policy and society as a whole? And second, how has American society’s perception of the bomb evolved under the influence of mass media, scientists, public intellectuals, and the entertainment industry?

This is the third in a series of essays in the LSS Newsletter exploring the Holocaust and Second World War as enactment of a paranoid fantasy.

The most important thing to understand about the Nazis is that they believed what they said—and that their actions followed as a consequence of what they believed. The greatest impediment to understanding the Nazis is the assumption that they were “rational actors.”

In November 1941, Joseph Goebbels published an article titled “The Jews are Guilty” in a news magazine . In this historical dispute, Goebbels wrote, “every Jew is our enemy, whether he vegetates in a Polish ghetto, or scrapes out his parasitic existence in Berlin or Hamburg, or blows war trumpets in New York or Washington.” Owing to their birth and race, Goebbels continued, all Jews belong to an “international conspiracy against National Socialist Germany.” The Jews wished for Germany’s “defeat and annihilation,” and did “everything in their power to help to bring it about.”

David Walker’s complete review essay of The Jewish Enemy appears on our website.

Click here to read the complete review essay.

We would appreciate your comments on this Newsletter — or the entire review essay. Leave your reflections and commentary below.

Reacting to those who did not share his view of the Jewish threat, Goebbels wrote: “One suddenly has the impression that the Berlin Jewish population consists only of little babies whose childish helplessness might move us, or else fragile old ladies.” By sending out the pitiable, the Jews might confuse some people, “but not us. We know exactly what the situation is.” If Germany lost the war, Goebbels explained, these “harmless-looking Jewish chaps would suddenly become raging wolves. They would attack our women and children to carry out revenge.”

Goebbels goes on to “tell it like it is”:

The Jews must be removed from the German community, for they endanger our national unity. When Mr. Bramsig or Mrs. Knöterich feel pity for an old woman wearing the Jewish star, they should also remember that a distant nephew of this old woman by the name of Nathan Kaufmann sits in New York and has prepared a plan by which all Germans under the age of 60 will be sterilized.

They should recall that a son of her distant uncle is a warmonger named Baruch or Morgenthau or Untermayer who stands behind Mr. Roosevelt, driving him to war, and that if they succeed, a fine but ignorant U.S. soldier may one day shoot dead the only son of Mr. Bramsig or Mrs. Knöterich. It will all be for the benefit of Jewry, to which this old woman also belongs, no matter how fragile and pitiable she may seem.

In June 1943, Goebbels stated. “Wherever one looks among our enemies, one sees Jew after Jew.” The Jews, Goebbels said, were “behind Roosevelt & his brain trust.” They were “behind Churchill as his prompters.” Jews were the “rabble-rousers behind the entire English-American-Soviet Press.” What’s more, Jews “are hidden in the Kremlin and are the real bearers of Bolshevism.”

How was one to understand the fact that capitalist nations like the United States and Great Britain joined hands with a communist nation—the Soviet Union—in the struggle against Germany? “The international Jew is the mortar that holds the enemy coalition together. With his world-spanning connections, he builds the bridges between Moscow, London & Washington. The war is his doing, he directs it from the shadows, and he will be its only beneficiary.”

Reading Goebbels’ remarks, one feels one is in the presence of a raving lunatic. Yet—as Herf demonstrates—statements like Goebbels’ embodied the ideology that generated both the Holocaust and Second World War. Goebbels’ thinking may seem insane or psychotic. However, the Nazi leadership promoted these ideas, and was able to persuade many Germans that they were true.

People dominated by the Enlightenment belief that human beings think and act based on rationality might react to Goebbels’ writings and speeches by reflecting or declaring, “He could not possibly have truly believed such fantastic ideas.” But why, then, would he make such claims about the Jews unless he believed they were true?

Herf confronts our natural tendency to be “skeptical” as follows:

Neither in the thousands of wartime memos nor in more private documents, such as the Goebbels’ diaries, does one find evidence that Hitler, Goebbels, Dietrich [the press chief], or their staffs disbelieved what they were writing, or viewed their anti-Semitic assertions as a cynical stratagem to fool the gullible masses. However intelligent or clever these men were, they were in the grip of an obsession that profoundly distorted their understanding of reality.

If sheer repetition, in public and private contexts, can be taken as proof of belief, then it appears that Hitler, Goebbels, Dietrich, their staffs, and an undetermined percentage of German listeners and readers, believed that an international Jewish conspiracy was the driving force behind the anti-Hitler coalition in World War II. If they regarded this aspect of their own propaganda with cynicism, they did not leave much trace of that skepticism behind. The sources point to the presence of true believers.

In David Walker’s review essay on The Jewish Enemy, he poses the question of why it has taken so long for historians to recognize that a fundamental cause of the Second World War was the Nazis’ beliefs about Jews. He suggests that one important reason is the “very human reaction of incredulity.” It is difficult to imagine or conceive that a war of the Second World War’s magnitude—causing death and suffering on a monumental scale—could have been “driven by a conspiracy theory.”

David Walker’s complete review essay of The Jewish Enemy appears on our website.

Click here to read the complete review essay.

We would appreciate your comments on this Newsletter — or the entire review essay. Leave your reflections and commentary below.

Presumably, it would be easier to believe that 60 million people died in the name of motives like territorial conquest, or wealth or power acquisition. Walker goes on to say:

It is often remarked that the barbarism of the Holocaust appears incomprehensible in light of Germany’s status as an educated, cultured and advanced society. Perhaps more unsettling is that the leadership of such an advanced nation believed in conspiracy theories—that the tremendous destruction of human life stemmed from belief in imaginary demons.

Why do we find it difficult to believe that people can be educated or cultured, and also barbaric? Why do we imagine that people cannot be intelligent—and at the same time possessed by “imaginary demons”? The problem is the common assumption that intelligence exists alongside rationality. Just because people are educated and intelligent doesn’t mean they cannot be possessed by irrational beliefs or fantasies.

One of the most irrational fantasies I’ve encountered in my study of Hitler, Nazi Germany and the Holocaust—one of the most profound impediments to understanding—is the belief the human beings make political decisions based on “rationality.” Why do we assume that humans’ thinking and actions are guided by “rationality”? Indeed, why do we find it difficult to imagine that entire societies or cultures may be “wrong”: that their belief-systems have no grounding in “reality”?

Having presented voluminous evidence supporting his thesis about the role of the Jewish enemy as the source of both the Holocaust and the Second World War, Herf concludes that the Nazi leadership

pushed to the extreme the widespread human capacity for delusion and belief in illusions. The assumption that these men did not believe these fantasies relies on an optimistic view of the power of human rationality, justified neither by the events of modern history nor by our now widespread awareness of the role of nonrational forces in human experience.

The weight of evidence leads to the conclusion that members of the Nazi leadership viewed the world in the way that they said they did, and supplied a narrative of events that seemed to offer an iron-clad explanation of them, as well as justification for uniting ideology and practice in war and mass murder.

The Nazis were in the grip of a paranoid fantasy. Hitler believed that if Germany did not destroy the Jews, the Jews would destroy Germany. Because the Jews sought to destroy Germany, it was imperative that Germany destroy the Jews. As Goebbels put it in the Fall of 1941: “World Jewry…is now suffering a gradual process of extermination that it intended for us, and that it would without question have carried out if it had the power to do so.”

The Holocaust and Second World War were generated when Germany acted on the basis of their illusions or delusions. We often associate delusions with mental illness. However, when many people within a society embrace a delusional idea, these people are no longer psychotic.

One may suggest that people who embrace a delusional idea within a culture are in the grip of a shared fantasy. Another term for shared fantasy is ideology. Nazi ideology reflected or embodied a shared fantasy. At this point, our inquiry genuinely begins. What was the nature of the fantasy that gave rise to and supported Nazi ideology? How may we account for the attraction or power of this fantasy? What was the meaning of the term “Jew” within the Nazis’ symbolic system?

Richard A. Koenigsberg, Ph.D
Telephone: 718-393-1081
Fax: 413-832-8145