Best-selling author Götz Aly is a one-dimensional historian. He starts with a provocative premise then selectively combs through the archives for historical evidence to support his his thesis. This makes for entertaining TV talk shows and radio interviews, but it is bad history. In his 2005 book Hitlers Volksstaat his provocative thesis was that the Nazi regime essentially "bought" the support of the majority of Germans by redistributing the private wealth and property it appropriated from German Jews as well as the industrial and agricultural goods it plundered from occupied territories. In Unser Kampf he turned his attention to the anti-authoritarian, anti-war student upheaval in Germany of the 1960s, finding that it was a totalitarian movement with roots in Hitler's Mein Kampf.
Götz Aly's latest reductio ad adsurdum is an essay on the origins of the Holocaust - Warum die Deutschen? Warum die Juden? ("Why the Germans? Why the Jews?). Here Aly's provocative thesis is that the history of anti-Semitism in Germany which resulted in the mass murder of 6 million Jews can be distilled to one word: Neid (envy). For Aly, Jews in 19th century Germany were quick to take advantage of the modernization of society and the economy, leaving German Christians behind in the dust. This created feelings of inferiority, resentment and Neid. Eventually these dimwitted Christians embraced irrational views to compensate for their backwardness and inability to compete:
"Die Verschlafenen neigen dazu, Trägheit als Nachdenklichkeit, mangelnde Schlagfertigkeit als Tiefsinn, fehlende Bildung als Innerlichkeit auszugeben"
("Those left behind have a tendency to spin inertia as thoughtfulness, lack of initiative as profundity, and lack of education as inner purity.")
Götz Aly documents Jewish success by examining the German high school Abitur results as well as tax receipts from the period.
This deep feeling of resentment also found its expression in a longing for egalitarianism, which the Nazis exploited with the utopia of the Volksgemeinschaft where everyone was racially - if not economically - equal. But equally culpable - for the historian Aly - were the Social Democrats, or any group that demanded social justice or a more equitable distribution of wealth in German society:
Im Rückblick betrachtet, leisteten reformerisch-friedliche Gleichheitsbewegungen wie die Sozialdemokratie, die Gewerkschaften oder die Begründer der katholischen Soziallehre der Gewalt ungewollt Vorschub ...«
("In hindsight all of the peaceful equal rights reform movements like social democracy, trade unions, or the Catholic social teachings contributed to the violence...")
Certainly there was an enormous amount of resentment among the German population which the NSDAP cleverly exploited. But I have a number of problems with Aly's central thesis that Neid was the prime factor behind the Holocaust.
First, there were plenty of Jewish factory workers, shopkeepers, nurses, etc. who did not belong to the prosperous bourgeoisie who were the object of "Christian" resentment and envy. Yet these lower-class Jews were subjected to the worst persecution under the Nazi terror. They were detained and transported to the death camps not because they were successful, but because of their non-Aryan racial status.
Secondly, it is historically misleading to talk about "German Christians". The anti-Semitic Deutsche Christen movement was comprised largely of lower-class Protestants. German Catholics were far less likely to join the NSDAP and even in the "crisis elections" of 1928 and 1932 remained loyal the Zentrum (Center Party). (This not to ignore the doctrine of "Jewish deicide" which was a central tenet of Vatican teachings until the Second Vatican Council).
Finally, it is absurd to blame the Social Democrats - the party of Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg - for the virulent anti-Semitism of the Nazis. No doubt there were plenty of SPD party members who harbored anti-Semitic views, but the official party platform attacked the crude racial theories of the extreme Right. The party's goal of getting better working conditions and higher wages for all German working men and women was not based on resentment and envy of Jews, as Götz Aly claims in his essay. That is the worst disparagement of the memory of the thousands of social democrats and anti-Nazis who perished in the concentration camps. I can see where it is useful for conservative political forces to have Götz Aly available whenever someone in the opposition questions policies that enrich the wealthy, hurt the poor, and exacerbate social inequality. The Hof-Historiker can run to his NS-era archive and find echoes of anti-Semitism and "totalitarianism".
Anyone who is genuinely interested in the origins of anti-Semitism in Germany is advised to steer clear of Götz Aly and instead read the late Amos Elon's The Pity of It All: A Portrait of the German-Jewish Epoch 1743 - 1933 (deutsche Version: Zu einer anderen Zeit: Porträt der jüdisch-deutschen Epoche 1743 - 1933).