OF IMAGINATION AND GENOCIDE
A BOOK DISCUSSION BASED ON A WORLD WITHOUT JEWS, BY ALON CONFINO
Comments by Anthony Signorelli
I just finished reading A World Without Jews: The Nazi Imagination from Persecution to Genocide, by Alon Confino, and I must say: What a read! Although I am not a student of Nazism or the Holocaust, the subtitle captured me…”The Nazi Imagination….” What is the Nazi imagination? What could that mean, and why would it be a way to understand the Holocaust? My curiosity would not let it go.
A Country Re-Imagines Itself
According to Confino, Germany was developing a new imagination of itself in the early 1930s as Hitler rose to power. There was an anti-Jewish view that morphed into a new German imagination — that there could be a Germany without Jews. The articulation of this imagination caught people on all sides. Whether you were anti-Jewish, neutral, pro-Jewish, or, in fact, Jewish, you were caught up in the question of the Jewish role in German society. The Nazis certainly encouraged this view, and Nazism danced with this societal question, reinforced it, and was reinforced by it. In many ways, its rise to power brought out what had been a dormant but widespread view.
There Is No Way Out
The imagination of “a world without Jews” is powerful for at least two reasons. First, it captures everyone, no matter your actual position. As evidence, Confino focuses on the widespread events in German society that happened at very local levels — small towns that passed laws persecuting the Jews, street events like burning the books on May 10, 1933, and Kristallnacht, a night of violence against Jewish businesses, homes, and synagogues, on November 9–10, 1938. These and many similar events occurred throughout Germany in these prewar years, and millions of regular Germans participated, watched and cheered, or merely shrugged at the violence they observed. There are even many cases of Germans encouraging their children to cheer and jeer at the parading of Jews through the streets of towns they had lived in for generations.
Governmentally, Hitler was first elected with 33% of the vote, and shortly after rising to power, captured 44%. He did not have a majority of Germans on his side. And yet, he had plenty of Germans who shared his image of a Germany without Jews, and sharing this image was enough to capture the on-looking energy of everyone in Germany. If there had been an Internet, I am sure that the entire opposition would have been checking their favorite sites day in and day out for the latest outrageous act of an anti-Jewish nature — hence, keeping their minds caught in the same imaginative net.
Local Persecution Enabled
Second, with a powerful, well-honed societal image, acts of persecution no longer require direction from the top because it has become cultural. Individuals, small groups, small businesses, and local governments took it upon themselves to persecute the Jews in Germany. They didn’t need directives from above, but rather took action on their own accord. They were inspired by the societal image. Horrible acts of persecution could be carried out in service of that great vision. Although different in many ways, the so-called lone wolf actors of ISIS seem to be similarly inspired today — the imagined enemy, the infidels, must be destroyed, and the result is individual acts of terror. Indeed, some similar, horrible imagination appears in most attempted genocides, including Rwanda, Kosovo, and other places.
Imagination to Persecution to Genocide
Confino posits that such imagination is a necessary precursor to persecution, and eventually genocide. Alone, imagination cannot create genocide, yet without it, genocide cannot occur. Discriminatory imagination is cultivated in persecution, which usually means disallowing immigration, disempowering the target community, and deportations. The story of Germany suggests that a society may be more ready to engage genocide after the imagination has been well cultivated with years of such persecutions. The general pattern is to discriminate, disallow, disempower, deport, and finally, destroy. Thus cultivated, the imagination emanates from the top, resonates at the bottom, and inspires people at the cultural or individual level to act.
Confino’s main point is that imagination begins and is cultivated long before the horrific events of genocide actually occur precisely because genocide requires a society to execute it. Large numbers of people at the individual and local level must comply willingly, and that means an image must drive the culture and their actions. Reflecting on our own history, I wonder what powerful image drove American slavery in the time before the Civil War, and how that image has changed since then, if at all. It makes me wonder what image we carry in any era that sits just below the level of consciousness, yet drives our collective behavior.
And America… What Do We Do?
If Confino is right and it starts with an idea, which is cultivated through persecution, and under certain conditions moves into genocide, should we not ask where the line is as persecution at the cultural level appears to become more prevalent in our own country and in our own time? As America restricts immigration, increases deportations, and experiences increased bullying and hate crimes at the local level, we can at least ask the question: Are we cultivating a similar pattern? Are we entering a similar process?
I do not pretend to know the answer here, though I, like many people, have deep misgivings. I suppose that, perhaps like many Germans in 1933, I observe the cruel persecutions, oppose them, and perhaps even resist. Yet then, I also wonder… Am I not like those Germans, caught in a similar imagination — caught on the other side, to be sure, but still in the same thing? And if that is true and I can have that awareness thanks to this book, how can I be different? How do I free myself from that monstrous trap, and cultivate a different imagination? How do I do that as an artist, an intellectual, or even a business person, in hopes of providing a different path from the one Confino so carefully elucidates? Indeed, how do we all work to engage a different dream?