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Studying the Jew
Scholarly Antisemitism in Nazi Germany

By Alan E. Steinweis
Harvard University Press
HC, 203 pg., US$29.95
ISBN: 0-6740-2205-X

Scholarly pursuit

By John W. Nelson
web posted February 5, 2007

Studying the JewThere's a memorable scene in Europa Europa, Agnieszka Holland's brilliant film adaptation of Solomon ("Solly") Perel's memoir of his experiences as a Jewish-German teenager in World War II, in which the entire edifice of Nazi racial science is dismantled in the span of two minutes.  Passing himself off as an ethnic German orphaned by the war, Solly bounces from one perilous and unbelievable situation to the next, eventually finding himself enrolled in a school for Hitler Youth and wearing the very uniform of those indoctrinated to kill him.  A self-described sheep in wolf's clothing, he manages to conceal his Jewish identity from his classmates and teachers – until a lecture on racial science threatens to remove the mask.

How do you recognize a Jew?, asks the lecturer (the vulgarity of the question enhanced by his own resemblance to a cross between Hermann Göring and Alfred Rosenberg).  There's the hooked nose, of course.  The high forehead.  The protruding ears.  The shifty eyes and the wild gesticulation with the hands.  But science, he explains to his young acolytes, science is incorruptible when it comes to detecting those physical characteristics peculiar to the Jew.  To demonstrate this claim, he calls one of the gems of the Nordic race before him to the front of the class: Solly.

Standing there helplessly as the lecturer's calipers chart his skull and his anxious eyes are located on the color chart, Solly awaits the verdict with palpable fear.  Finally satisfied with his calculations, the lecturer announces to the class with an air of certainty and just a hint of disappointment that Solly does not belong to their most noble race, but declares him nonetheless an authentic Aryan.  Recalling this moment many years later in his memoir, Perel pronounces a verdict of his own: "At this instant thousands of research projects by Nazi racial scholars reached a point of utter absurdity, their alleged scholarly competence uncovered for what it really was: zero!"

It's a reasonable conclusion, if not an entirely accurate one.  As Alan Steinweis documents in Studying the Jew, the scholars at the forefront of Nazi Jewish studies (anti-Semitic studies, to be exact) were neither "intellectual frauds" nor "Nazi party hacks."  They were often trained and accomplished academics, a small number of them already possessing a degree of expertise in some areas of Jewish studies (thanks in no small part to the extensive research that had been conducted by so many Jewish scholars themselves over the years).  As talented as they were, Steinweis writes, they "acknowledged no contradiction between intellectual responsibility and hatred for Jews".  Thus, it was not their formal competence as scholars that was in question, but their intellectual honesty – a point further illustrated by the fact that aspects of their research (statistical information, for example) proved useful to Jewish scholars after the war.

This should not be construed to mean that those engaged in anti-Semitic studies were any less mendacious or ideologically motivated.  Their output during the twelve years of Hitler's Germany may have exhibited the trappings of scholarship ("empirical research, inductive logic, documentation of sources, and citations to previously published work"), but these were not closeted scholars animated by the pursuit of knowledge, sifting through evidence with an unbiased eye.  These were the eager and essential Schreibtischtäter ("desk perpetrators") – intellectuals in the service of the Reich driven by political or professional opportunism and racial animosity, whose published "findings" helped pave the way for the Final Solution (whether that was their intent or not) by advancing "the Nazi regime's efforts to win intellectual and social respectability for anti-Jewish policies by supplying an empirical basis for longstanding antisemitic prejudices."

It was Hitler himself who had promoted the idea of an "empirical" foundation for anti-Semitism as early as 1919.  The personal revulsion that he and others of his kind felt toward the Jews needed to be more than just an unfocused emotional response.  ("We don't want to be emotional anti-Semites who seem to create a mood for pogroms.")  Agitated conspiracy theorists warning of the machinations of international Jewry were one thing.  But to mold anti-Semitism into a clear and convincing political program, he believed, it had to be established upon a body of facts that offered demonstrable proof of the racial distinctiveness of Jews and the "degenerative effect" they had on the German nation: Jew-hating within the limits of reason alone, as it were.  And yet, Steinweis notes, Hitler still recognized the need for an emotional component of his program, for the real value of his scientific anti-Semitism lay in its potential "to become the ‘basis of a mass organization' that was determined to put antisemitic principles into practice."

Where that practice ends is known all too well.  Less well-known is the role played by these anti-Semitic scholars, and this short but dense study does an admirable job of tracing the development of Nazi Jewish studies, the initial Nazification of the university (a process which left few departments untouched), and the substantial degree of influence these scholars had on the policies and people of the Third Reich given the relative inaccessibility of their work.  (Steinweis characterizes their output as a kind of highbrow anti-Semitism – distinguished from "out-and-out propaganda" by its scholarly apparatus – which trickled its way down to the masses through Party speeches, school textbooks, novels, newspapers, unabashed propaganda films and posters, and other organs of the controlled press.) [1]

If the perversion and politicization of scholarship during this period weren't a disturbing enough story, Steinweis follows the careers of many of these scholars after 1945 to expose the tendency of postwar Germans (academics included) "to excuse, rationalize, or disregard the involvement of prominent individuals in the Nazi campaign against the Jews, especially those whose antisemitic actions had been bureaucratic or rhetorical."  Hans Globke, for example, co-author of an influential 1936 commentary on the Nuremberg Laws, would be appointed chief of staff to Chancellor Konrad Adenauer in 1953.  Fritz Lenz, once head of the "Race Hygiene" office at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for Anthropology, Human Heredity and Eugenics, would go on to teach at the University of Göttingen until his retirement in 1955.  Friedrich Euler, a specialist in genealogy and author of such articles as "The Penetration of Jewish Blood into the English Upper Class" (1941), would be awarded the Distinguished Service Cross in 1990 [!] by the German government for contributions to his field.  "As with so many other scholars who had collaborated with the Nazi regime," Steinweis remarks, "Euler's contributions to antisemitic scholarship were swept under the rug." 

More of an academic monograph than a work of popular history, Studying the Jew is tightly argued and tightly written, and the meticulous research that went into it is everywhere on display.  Descriptions like that usually mean "a dry and laborious volume reserved for specialists," but Alan Steinweis has produced what will surely be an enduring contribution to the literature of the Holocaust: an insightful and authoritative exposé of the Nazis' much-vaunted "weapons of scholarship" and the intellectual elite who fashioned them – an elite that was not so far removed from "ordinary men. ESR


[1] The deep penetration of anti-Semitic propaganda into the daily life of the average German in the Third Reich has recently been documented by Jeffrey Herf in his equally commendable work, The Jewish Enemy (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2006). 

John W. Nelson can be reached at jwnelson2@hotmail.com.

Buy Studying the Jew at Amazon.com for $29.95


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