Review of Alon Confino, A World Without Jews: The Nazi Imagination from Persecution to Genocide

Contemporary Church History Quarterly

Volume 21, Number 2 (June 2015)

Review of Alon Confino, A World Without Jews: The Nazi Imagination from Persecution to Genocide (New Haven, London: Yale University Press, 2014), 284pp. ISBN: 978-0-300-18854-7.

By Christopher Probst, Washington University in St. Louis

Review of Alon Confino, A World Without Jews: The Nazi Imagination from Persecution to Genocide (New Haven, London: Yale University Press, 2014), 284pp. ISBN: 978-0-300-18854-7.

Every so often, a work of historical scholarship appears that alters the trajectory in its field of research. Where the history of Nazi Germany and the Holocaust is concerned, Christopher Browning’s Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland was one such work, as were Michael Burleigh and Wolfgang Wippermann’s The Racial State: Germany, 1933-1945 and Saul Friedländer’s majestic two-volume Nazi Germany and the Jews.[1] Alon Confino’s examination of “the Nazi imagination,” a thoughtful, eloquent, and provocative work of intellectual and cultural history, plows substantially new interpretive ground and may change the state of play in Holocaust studies for years to come.

Confino-WorldThe core of Confino’s argument is that Nazi antisemitism was based in fantasy, not reality. For Confino, “a key to understanding this world of anti-Semitic fantasies is no longer to account for what happened – the administrative process of extermination, the racial ideological indoctrination by the regime, and the brutalizing war – because we now have sufficiently good accounts of these historical realities.” Instead, “a key is to account for what the Nazis thought was happening, for how they imagined their world. What was this fantasy created by Nazis and other Germans during the Third Reich, and the story that went along with it, that made the persecution and extermination of the Jews justifiable, conceivable, and imaginable?” (6) The Nazi regime was trying to re-write the origins of German and European history and civilization. This main argument gives shape to the book, which Confino offers in three parts.

Part I covers the first five years of the Third Reich, from the appointment of Hitler as chancellor in January 1933 to the months leading up to the so-called Kristallnacht (“night of broken glass”) in November 1938. Here, the “common denominator” for German ideas about “the Jew” was the motif of the Jews as “creators of an evil modernity that soiled present-day Germany” (31). In Part II, Confino analyzes the attempt by the Nazi regime to eradicate the idea of the Jew as “the origins of moral past” in the period from Kristallnacht to the German invasion of the Soviet Union in late June 1941. In a chapter titled “Burning the Book of Books,” Confino poses (and answers persuasively) the question “Why did the Nazis burn the Hebrew Bible?” The chapter rightfully appears at the heart of the book, as it represents the core of Confino’s main argument. This is significant, as it moves religion, a crucial component of culture, from the margins of the historical argument closer to the center.

Part III examines the culmination of the Nazi genocide against the Jews of Europe from the onset of the Final Solution to the end of the Second World War and the Holocaust. Here, the Nazi regime attempted to expunge the idea of the Jew as “the origins of history”; they did this via mass murder, an attempt to actually remove them from history (and, perhaps – though Confino does not emphasize this – from the future).

Confino gets underneath the actions of the Nazis, offering an interpretation of what the Nazis thought was happening and what kind of world they wished to create. In so doing, he goes beyond thick description of life in the Third Reich, positing why the Nazis did what they did. Students in my courses on the history of Nazi Germany and the Holocaust often ask in understandably perplexed tones “but, why did the Nazis attempt to exterminate the Jews?” Implicit in this question is another, deeper question, one that historians are not often sufficiently poised to answer – why did Nazi hatred of Jews so consume them that they felt compelled to kill them all? Confino posits an elegant, incisive and credible answer to these questions.

Despite the originality of Confino’s conclusions, nowhere does he suggest that previous scholarship on these matters is either worthless or misguided. In fact, his work can be seen as building upon the current consensus of a “modified intentionalist” or “modified functionalist” position on the genocide against the Jews of Europe. Further, one can read Confino’s account not as a complete departure from the idea of Nazi Germany as a “racial state” but as a new direction in historical interpretation of the Shoah that perceives the pervasiveness of racial ideology in Nazi Germany as an outworking of the Nazi imagination of a world without Jews. Confino also recognizes more recent trends in Holocaust historiography, maintaining that the Holocaust “should be placed within a history of Nazi war and occupation, empire building, and comparative genocide. The Holocaust was not unique.” Even so, “it was perceived during the war as unique by Germans, Jews, and other Europeans, and if we want to understand why the Holocaust happened, we ought to explain this” (13).

In trying to build a world without Jews, so Confino, the collective Nazi imagination was immersed in irrational fantasy. “In persecuting and exterminating the Jews, Germans waged a war against an imaginary enemy that had no belligerent intentions toward Germany and possessed no army, state, or government.” (6) Confino’s work demonstrates that, while fantasies operate on a deeper (more unconscious) level than ideologies, they also have concrete expressions – including the burning of Hebrew Bibles and synagogues in November 1938, an outburst of violence that Confino does not believe can be explained by the ubiquity of racial ideology alone.

The emphasis on the irrational aspect of Nazi antisemitism is welcome. “The view of Nazi beliefs as guided by modern racial science gave Nazi anti-Semitism a rational slant, even though it was all fantasy. In fact, Nazi racial science, similar to every science, had an element of mystery, a poetic side, that the Nazis themselves were aware of” (7). Here, Confino rightly underscores the irrational and nonrational elements of Nazi thinking. Yet, in describing Nazi hatred of Jews as “all fantasy” (as he does more than once), Confino may be, on occasion, overstating this aspect of Nazi thinking (and of thinking in general).

As I have argued elsewhere, following Gavin Langmuir, irrational thought conflicts with rational empirical observation while nonrational language, which lies at the heart of religion, is the language of symbol, the kind of language found in art and affirmations of belief. Crucially for Langmuir, much of our thinking is “so ha­bitual, so much a reflex, that most of the time we are not aware of which way we are thinking.”[2] Further, Shulamit Volkov argues, “Any interpretation of reality is an independent, creative product of the human mind, and it is often all the more powerful for being partially or entirely false.”[3] Though Volkov was applying this rationale to nineteenth-century German antisemitism, it certainly applies to Nazi fantasies about purportedly “Jewish” Bolshevism, capitalism, criminality, and degeneracy. Such nuance in describing Nazi antisemitism occasionally eludes in Confino’s otherwise lucid and elegant account.

This sole caveat aside, Confino’s original and provocative interpretation gives historians and other specialists working on Nazi Germany and the Holocaust a welcome and penetrating jumping off point. It is bound to provoke discussion among historians and lay readers alike. Even more importantly, it might spur helpful new directions and methodologies in Holocaust studies.


[1] Christopher R. Browning, Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland (New York: Harper Perennial, 1993); Michael Burleigh and Wolfgang Wippermann, The Racial State: Germany 1933-1945 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993); Saul Friedländer, Nazi Germany And The Jews: The Years of Persecution (New York: Harper Perennial, 1998); Saul Friedländer, Nazi Germany and the Jews, 1939-1945: The Years of Extermination (New York: Harper Perennial, 2008).

[2] Christopher J. Probst, Demonizing the Jews: Luther and the Protestant Church in Nazi Germany (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2012), 3–5.

[3] Ibid., 23.