Commentary on Jeffrey Herf’s “Narratives of Totalitarianism: Nazism’s
Anti-Semitic Propaganda During World War II and the Holocaust”
Kimberly Baxter
Library of Social Science is continuing to present, analyze and promote the writings of Jeffrey Herf on Nazism, the Second World War, and the Final Solution—because we think his work is extremely important. Why? Herf demonstrates that both the Holocaust and the war against the Soviet Union grew out of a single paranoid fantasy: that “Jewish-Bolsheviks” were intent upon destroying Europe, and the world.

Yet there was no reality whatsoever to the claims of Hitler and Goebbels that Jews were a united, powerful group. The “history” that the Nazis brought into being—a gigantic episode of massive destruction—was based on no thing. Why do we find it disturbing to recognize this? Would we feel better if we could say that Nazi violence and mass-murder had to do with some thing?
Kim Baxter Kimberly Baxter is a philosopher and author, teaching at CUNY John Jay College of Criminal Justice. She earned her PhD from New School University.
Jeffrey Herf’s essay is a distillation of key ideas from his 2006 book, The Jewish Enemy, a study of how anti-Semitism shaped Nazi propaganda during World War II and the Holocaust.

In this essay, Herf argues that historians have underanalyzed the extent to which the Nazis’ delusional, paranoid beliefs generated the Second World War. At the core of the Nazis’ belief system was the idea that ‘International Jewry’ was a “racially unified political subject and the driving force of modern world history and international politics.” The Jews were waging a war to “exterminate” the German people.

Herf suggests that we rethink the idea that the Holocaust and World War II were distinct events:

For Hitler and the Nazi leadership, there were not two distinct wars—one against the Soviet Union, Britain, and the United States, called World War II—and another against the Jews, called the Final Solution.

The cataclysm of 1939 to 1945 “was one undivided war that an actual historical subject, ‘international Jewry,’ had unleashed and escalated. ‘Jewry’ was the driving, active historical subject working behind the scenes in Moscow, London, and Washington.” Herf argues that Nazi propaganda reflects how the Nazi leadership saw the war. As such, it can shed light on why the holocaust occurred.

In The Jewish Enemy, winner of the 2006 National Jewish Book Award (holocaust category), Herf writes,

The Nazi leadership pushed to the extreme the widespread human capacity for delusion and belief in illusions. The assumption that these men did not believe these fantasies relies on an optimistic view of the power of human rationality, justified neither by the events of modern history nor by our now widespread awareness of the role of nonrational forces in human experience.

The weight of evidence leads to the conclusion that members of the Nazi leadership viewed the world in the way that they said they did, and supplied a narrative of events that seemed to offer an iron-clad explanation of them as well as justification for uniting ideology and practice in war and mass murder.

Hitler and his leading propagandists, Herf says, entertained completely contradictory versions of events, one rooted in the “grandiosity of the idea of a master race and world domination,” the other in the “self-pitying paranoia of the much-besieged innocent victim.” Within the Nazi leadership, grandiosity and paranoia were “two poles of one underlying ideological fanaticism.”

Psychoanalytic theory can illuminate this puzzling juxtaposition. Freud described how these two traits are linked in the paranoid individual:

It will be remembered that the majority of cases of paranoia exhibit traces of megalomania, and that megalomania can by itself constitute a paranoia. From this it may be concluded that in paranoia the liberated libido becomes fixed on to the ego, and is used for the aggrandizement of the ego.
                                          Freud, Sigmund. “On the Mechanism of Paranoia”

The explanation for how these two opposing traits are linked sheds light on a phenomenon Horkheimer and Adorno described: Aggressors frequently see their victims as persecutors against whom they must defend themselves.

Frankfurt School theorist Franz Neumann asserts that there are two kinds of identification: libido-charged (affective) and libido-free (non-affective). Non-affective identification with an institution has rational elements, and entails loyalty that is transferable; affective identification is more regressive. Neumann calls the affective, libido-charged identification of masses with the leader that occurred in Nazi Germany caesaristic identification.

Neumann believed that this kind of identification emerges from an atmosphere of political apathy wherein individuals consciously reject the whole political system— because they see no hope of changing it. Partial paralysis of the state opens the way to a caesaristic movement. Members of the mass movement undergo “a nearly total ego-shrinkage” through their identification with the caesaristic leader.

Neumann concurs with Herf that the Nazi leaders believed their own propaganda. He believes that without exception in history—when the masses have affective (caesaristic) identification with a political leader—both the leader and the masses believe a conspiracy theory of history:

It is my thesis that wherever affective (i.e., caesaristic) leader-identifications occur in politics, masses and leader have this view of history: that the distress which has befallen the masses has been brought about exclusively by a conspiracy of certain persons or groups against the people.

He explains that the conspiracy theory of history is “a theory of history characterized by false concreteness…an especially dangerous view of history. Indeed, the danger consists in the fact that this view of history is never completely false, but always contains a kernel of truth and indeed, must contain it, if it is to have a convincing effect.”

The group that is perceived as conspirators in this view of history should not be understood as scapegoats “for they appear as genuine enemies whom one must extirpate and not as substitutes whom one only needs to send into the wilderness.” Neumann writes:

The connection between caesarism and this view of history is quite evident. Just as the masses hope for their deliverance from distress through absolute oneness with a person, so they ascribe their distress to certain persons, who have brought this distress into the world through a conspiracy.”

Herf notes that at times the Nazis employed “surprisingly gangster-like boasting about mass murder”. They typically did so when they were simultaneously projecting the agenda of vernichten and ausrotten (annihilation; extermination; total destruction) of the German people onto “international Jewry.”

Herf writes, “With confidence we can say that millions and millions of Germans were told on many occasions that the Jews had begun a war to exterminate the Germans, but that the Nazi regime was exterminating the Jews instead.” Herf explains the context of these messages to the German population:

With the paranoid logic of a war said to be waged by Jewry against Germany, and with the detailed day-to-day and week-to-week chronicle of events that appeared to flow from it, the Nazi leadership embedded the most extraordinary statements expressing its determination to exterminate and annihilate Europe’s Jews within a seemingly ordinary and normal narrative of attack and counterattack in war.

The denial of the uniqueness of the Final Solution was part of its implementation, because it was not an act of war in the sense that the term had been understood in Europe for centuries, but instead a mass slaughter of innocents. The interweaving of the extraordinary language of genocide with the more ordinary and conventional narrative of warfare was a central feature of Nazism’s anti-Semitic propaganda.

But, Herf explains, “This blunt speech about general policies went hand in hand with a complete suppression of any factual reporting about any actual information related to the Final Solution, from the mass murders by the Einsatzgruppen and police battalions behind the lines of the Eastern Front, to the operations of the death camps in Poland.” Thus, the Nazi leadership offered “to the silent, indifferent, and uncurious majority a fig leaf of plausible deniability.”

Although Herf provides compelling evidence that the Nazi leadership believed their own propaganda, he also documents their willingness to deceive the public. They felt justified in using any means necessary to lend credence to their conspiracy theory of history. The Nazis profiled contemporary Jewish figures in their propaganda to concretize their abstract theory.

For example, reports in multiple Nazi propaganda publications stated that the American author of Germany Must Perish was president of an organization called the “American Federation of Peace;” that he was closely associated with President Roosevelt; and that Roosevelt’s own ideas had inspired the book.

Actually, the book was an obscure, self-published tract that received poor reviews and whose author, Theodore Kaufman, had no connections to the Roosevelt administration. Nor was there any such organization called the “American Federation of Peace”; it was invented by the Nazis for propaganda purposes. The Nazis printed 5 million copies of a pamphlet containing excerpts from the book—which called for exterminating the German population through methods such as sterilizing German POWs.

As Herf explains, “Hitler, Goebbels, Dietrich, and their staffs were accomplished liars, as well as men immersed in the paranoid logic of a conspiracy theory that was, from the beginning, refuted by even the most elementary confrontation with fact.”