Based on Jeffrey Herf’s research, it is reasonable to conclude that the Nazis’ beliefs about the Jews—and actions that were generated based on their beliefs—grew out of a paranoid fantasy. Hitler put forth and promoted an idea about the Jews’ character—and the power and danger that they represented—that was, fundamentally, a delusion.
“The Jews” were not an organized group, had no power and constituted no threat to Germany or the German people. This is usually the starting point for my own research (see, for example, Koenigsberg, 2009). I begin with the assumption that Hitler and the Nazis were in the grip of an ideological fantasy or delusion, and then pose the question: “What was the symbolic significance of the Jew within Hitler’s mind and Nazi ideology?” Why did the word or idea “the Jew” evoke such anxiety and rage?
I’ve begun to understand, however, that a “prolegomenon” is necessary before I pose and attempt to answer this question. Many people assume that there must have been something that the Jews did—or were—that evoked such a radical response. It is difficult to imagine or conceive that such monumentally destructive actions proceeded based on nothing, or that they grew out of a fantasy.
People in Western culture are under the spell of another fantasy or delusion, namely the belief that human ideas and actions grow out of rational thought or decision-making. I often ask people (who are not experts on the Nazi period) to guess how many Jews there were in Germany in 1930 out of a German population of approximately 66 million. You—the reader—might like to guess now, before the next paragraph.
I posed this question recently to a highly intelligent, sophisticated graduate student in psychology. She estimated that there were 30 million Jews in Germany in 1930. A prominent anthropologist guessed 20 million. Even when I remind people that most of the 6 million Jews killed in the Holocaust were not Germans, I get guesses like 5 and 10 million.
According to Herf, the 1925 census identified 565,379 Jews in Germany, less than 1% of the population. Ingo Muller (1992) reports that 0.76% of Germans were Jews in 1930, substantially less than 1% of the population.
Another charge made by the Nazis was that the German government had been “riddled” with Jews. However, according to Milton Meltzer (1991), in the 19 cabinets of the Weimar Republic up to 1932, of a total of 237 ministers, only three had been Jews, while four or more were described as “of Jewish descent.” The final few governments preceding Hitler’s had no Jewish ministers.
Herf reports that in the central forum of political representation, the Reichstag, Jews were significantly underrepresented. Of the 577 members of parliament elected on September 14, 1930, 17 were of Jewish origin, and of the 608 members elected on July 31, 1932, 14 were. Herf says that the “notion of vast Jewish power had no factual basis,” and Meltzer concludes that the truth was “the opposite of what Hitler said it was.” Rather than an all-powerful threat, the Jews were the “weakest enemy Hitler could have chosen.” They had “no land of their own, no government, no central authority, no allies, no political weight.”
Despite these facts, we hesitate to draw the conclusion: that Hitler and the Nazis waged war for no reason at all, that is, on the basis of a paranoid fantasy. Why is it difficult to embrace this truth? Because we are under the dominion of the Enlightenment fantasy of rationality—which continues to dominate the academic world. Even 100 years after Freud, we don’t wish to acknowledge that human beings are driven by irrational, unconscious motives.
One may say that the beliefs and actions of Hitler and the Nazis were irrational; that many Germans were under the spell of a paranoid fantasy. Taking this a step further, Daniel Goldhagen (1996) suggests that the Nazis were in the grip of a “hallucinatory ideology,” and that their writings about Jews were so divorced from reality that anyone reading them might conclude that they were the product of the “collective scribes of an insane asylum.”
Looking at what the Nazis believed—as well as the extraordinarily destructive, horrific things they actually did, it is not difficult to conclude that the Nazis were mad. However, we find it disturbing to say this. In his essay on Nazism (2000), Ronald Aronson reflects upon our hesitance:
The rigorous use of ‘madness’ is deeply disturbing, which is perhaps one reason why it has been so conspicuously avoided in a century rife with madness. The functionalist bias of most systematic thought assumes that there is a reason for every societal act, a more or less rational intention behind political action. It offends the intellect to suggest that there is no reason behind a major policy — or that indeed its reason is profoundly & systematically irrational. ‘Madness’ is even more unsettling in suggesting that we may be living amidst a profound and destructive irrationality.
Terms like mad, or insane, typically are used to characterize individuals. But what are we to say about madness when it takes hold of an entire society? How are we to conceptualize madness that becomes normative within a particular culture?
Richard A. Koenigsberg, Ph.D
Director, LIBRARY OF SOCIAL SCIENCE