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Review Essay of The Jewish Enemy

Review Essay of The Jewish Enemy

by David M. Walker

Herf, Jeffrey. The Jewish Enemy: Nazi Propaganda During World War II and the Holocaust. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2010.
Developmental Time, Cultural Space

Publisher: Harvard U. Press
Author: Jeffrey Herf

Format: Paperback
Published on: May, 2010

For information on purchasing this book through Amazon at a special, discounted price, click here.

The Jewish Enemy is the first extensive study of how anti-Semitism pervaded and shaped Nazi propaganda during World War II and the Holocaust, and how it pulled together the diverse elements of a delusionary Nazi worldview. In an era when both anti-Semitism and conspiracy theories continue to influence world politics, Herf offers a timely reminder of their dangers along with a fresh interpretation of the paranoia underlying the ideology of the Third Reich.

Jeffrey Herf is professor of Modern European History at the University of Maryland.

About the Reviewer

David M. Walker, PhD is professor of History at Boise State University. Dr. Walker teaches classes in military and diplomatic history, specializing in US Military history, World War II, the History of Firearms and Tactics, and the History of US Foreign Relations.

Dr. Walker’s publications include: “The Early Nuclear Age and Visions of Future War” (2009), part of the anthology The Atomic Bomb and American Society: New Perspectives.

A video interview with him can be accessed here.

The Atomic Bomb and American Society: New Perspectives

Editors: Rosemary B. Mariner   and G. Kurt Piehler

Publisher: U. of Tennessee Press
Format: Hardcover
Published on: 2009

For information on purchasing this book through Amazon at a special, discounted price, click here.

Drawing on the latest research on the atomic bomb and its history, the contributors to this provocative collection of eighteen essays set out to answer two key questions: First, how did the atomic bomb shape U.S. foreign policy and society as a whole? And second, how has American society's perception of the bomb evolved under the influence of mass media, scientists, public intellectuals, and the entertainment industry?

Few approach World War II in Europe as the product of a conspiracy theory. This is true for university classrooms, and in popular histories of the war. However, World War II in Europe is only explicable when confronting this historical truth. Consider how the Third Reich explained to its citizens why the war raged on in the summer of 1941:

In order to subject the world to domination by Jewish money and blood, Churchill, Roosevelt, and Stalin, as instruments of world Jewry, have opted for war. They have received war in return! The German Army has already delivered decisive blows against its enemies and will not rest until it has achieved final victory and the Jew has been exterminated. Now the richly deserved fate of Jewry will be pitilessly realized. It will perish according to its own law, “An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth” along with those who do its business.(1)

This example from the regime’s Word of the Week wall poster is a powerful example of the type of primary sources that Jeffrey Herf utilizes in The Jewish Enemy: Nazi Propaganda during World War II and the Holocaust. The poster harbors three themes: One, that the regime conspiratorially blamed the ongoing war on Jews. Two, that the German state had begun what later became known as the Holocaust. Three, that the German government very publicly pronounced all of this on a wall poster seen by thousands of ordinary Germans.

That the Reich would broadcast to its people and to the world that the killing of Jews had begun—is the core of the book’s three main arguments. Herf’s first contention is that the Reich leadership believed the conspiracy theory—that an encircled Germany at war with the world resulted from the (fictional) Protocols of the Elders of Zion—an imagined Jewish plot to take over the world. In the Nazi’s view, only they fully understood the danger and took steps to prevent Jewish world domination. In retaliation, the Jews were trying to exterminate Germany.

The Nazi leadership identified Jews as Germany’s primary enemy during the war. Herf’s second argument is that—because the regime viewed the Jews as the major threat—the Holocaust became inseparable from the war on the battlefronts. The Holocaust naturally flowed from the Nazi mindset about war.

In Adolf Hitler’s view, the Jews were paying for their crimes and exterminationist plans for the German nation. He hinted at the Final Solution in his January 30, 1939 address to the Reichstag—when he spoke of his role as a “prophet” revealing the future:

If international finance Jewry inside and outside Europe should succeed in plunging the nations once more into a world war, the result will be not the Bolshevization of the earth and thereby the victory of Jewry, but the annihilation of the Jewish race in Europe.(2)

Herf’s third argument, pulling together the first two, is that the Reich government did not hide its beliefs or motives during the war, or its actions to annihilate the Jews. Instead, the regime broadcasted it to the world, and to its own citizens. In addition to the weekly wall posters, Herf gathers lesser known speeches that have survived, such as a Goebbels’ address given at Friedrich Wilhelm University on December 1, 1941.

By the late fall of 1941, the Einsatzgruppen in the east had carried out numerous “special actions.” As winter approached, the machinery of the state moved towards a “final solution”. Dr. Goebbels spoke to an intellectual audience comprised of civilians and military personnel, and did not hold back. In one of the more chilling quotes marshaled by Herf, Propaganda Minister Goebbels referred to the Fuhrer’s prophecy and noted:

We are now experiencing the implementation of this prophecy. Jewry is thus enduring a fate that is hard but is more than deserved. Sympathy or even regret is wholly out of place. World Jewry—in unleashing this war—made a completely false assessment of the forces at its disposal.

It is now suffering a gradual process of extermination that it intended for us, and that it would without question have carried out if it had the power to do so. It is now perishing as a result of Jewry’s own law: “An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.”(3)

The war turned against Germany in 1942. Herf shows how the National Socialists explained why a private war with Poland resulted in Germany fighting a life or death struggle against the combined might of the British Empire, the Soviet Union and the United States. Only Hitler and the Nazis could explain the war, and how the war was going: the result of Jewish financial plutocrats in London and New York—and Jewish Communists in Moscow—working together to fulfill the Jewish dream of world domination. From this perspective, only Germany understood the truth and, most importantly, was fighting to annihilate the Jewish threat.

Hitler “prophecy” of January 1939, as well as his last will and testament of April 1945, referred to the annihilation of the Jews. So did Himmler’s 1943 secret speech to SS officers talking frankly about annihilation, as well as entries in Goebbels’s diary. Herf takes these well-known items, and adds much more. The reader is faced with an avalanche of material supporting his main arguments, leaving the reader to conclude that teaching World War II without emphasizing the role of conspiracy theory—and the openness with which the regime spoke about the annihilation of the Jews—is an old fashioned way of understanding the war.

What Herf does not tackle, except obliquely, is why the fact that Hitler was open about the Final Solution began to disappear from view after the war. One could get the impression that the Holocaust was a secret undertaking—with knowledge about it limited to the SS and other organs of the Nazi State.

The National Socialist’s war against the Jews, their conspiracy theory of Jewish world domination, and how expressive the Reich government became in explaining this to the public—all of this faded after the end of World War II. Historians show a few garish propaganda posters with images of the Jew pulling the strings in Washington, London and Moscow. However, the centrality of these ideas faded. The Holocaust became an appendage to World War II in Europe.

After World War II, with the emergence of the Cold War and the West German state, increasingly “blame” was placed exclusively on the Nazi party. This can be seen by the treatment of World War II in the historiography. The war on the battlefronts, strategy, even the politics of the war, became separated from the Holocaust.

The public understood the Holocaust as proof of Nazi crimes and malevolence, but separate from war aims and strategy. World War II histories, especially in the United States, discussed the Jews as Nazi scapegoats (a word frequently used). However, the war itself was conceived as being driven by more “understandable” motives. Many wondered why the Germans wasted their resources on the Holocaust—when they had a world war to fight.

The Nazis killed the Jews because they saw them as racially inferior to the master race: this was the end of the story for most of the interested public. The fact that historians in the US passively encouraged this view might partially be explained by the Cold War, and West Germany’s new status as an ally. More fundamental, however, was the very human reaction of incredulity: that an event the magnitude of the Second World War could have been driven by a conspiracy theory.

Historians in Germany during the past twenty years have begun grappling with the German public’s tendency—since the end of the war—to assign blame and knowledge of war crimes exclusively to the Nazi party apparatus, and the SS in particular. An important historical museum exhibition, titled “War of Annihilation – War Crimes of the Wehrmacht 1941-44,” toured Germany from 1994-99, causing a rethinking of what ordinary Germans believed about the Holocaust—and its link to the war on the eastern front.(4) This rethinking has only slowly penetrated the American public, with World War II German Army re-enactors still plentiful in many communities.

Re-enactors wearing SS uniforms are frowned upon, but not so the German Army. One volume histories of the war assigned in college courses have only slowly begun the transformation in thinking: merging the war in Europe, especially the war on the eastern front, with the Holocaust—as one intimately connected event.

Two recent works, Evan Mawdsley’s 2009 World War II: A New History, and Thomas Zeiler’s 2010 War of Annihilation: A Global History of World War II, show that the discussion of the Holocaust as a central component of World War II is now finding its way into university classrooms and the American public consciousness.(5) These follow on monographs such as Geoffrey Megargee’s 2007 War of Annihilation: Combat and Genocide on the Eastern front, 1941.(6)

Herf’s mining of new resources brings us the most complete picture to date regarding what the public in Germany might have seen and heard on a daily basis—about why Germany fought the war, and what actions the state took to fight its enemies. He has a word of warning though, suggesting that Daniel Goldhagen’s 1996 Hitler’s Willing Executioners perhaps goes too far, writing in the bibliographic essay that Goldhagen “in my view extrapolated well beyond what the evidence could bear.”(7)

Herf shows that although the German people were constantly exposed to certain news, it’s hard to prove the impact of wall posters and other materials. Still, it is difficult to shy away from the conclusion that the regime boasted to its citizens about the annihilation of the Jews—as a war aim being fulfilled—and that the German people knew more about it than histories have traditionally shown. Herf may claim that Goldhagen’s thesis goes too far, but his own evidence and analysis goes a long way in supporting Goldhagen’s basic premise.

The evidence Herf presents about the regime’s clarity in admitting publicly the ongoing annihilation of the Jews is difficult to counter. Awareness of how widespread knowledge of the final solution had become—and about the German Army’s complicity in genocide—has challenged many observers. The evidence was there all along, but could easily be ignored by readers interested only in military affairs. After reading The Jewish Enemy and seeing the centrality of the Holocaust to German war aims and actions, readers may begin to see old sources in a new light.

Hitler’s conferences with his generals on military matters offer glimpses of how Hitler spoke of the final solution—in casual remarks in front of Army officers and civilian stenographers. At a June 1943 military conference at the Berghof, occupational officials in the east discussed the problem of squeezing production from the locals. Hitler quoted one official complaining that he needed to have more skilled workers, but “all the Jews have gone.”(8)This suggests that Hitler viewed the destruction of the Jews as central to the war, and that production came second. In light of the evidence Herf has accumulated, this makes sense.

Herf realizes some might object to his thesis: did the Nazis actually believe in the Jewish world conspiracy? Or did they trumpet this idea in order to motivate Germans to fight, or to explain away the errors Hitler had made in bringing Germany to war with Great Britain, the United States, and the Soviet Union?

Rational actors have a habit of assuming their antagonists are also rational. Historians would prefer to explain Germany’s motives in terms of age old war aims of territorial conquest, and wealth and power acquisition. Herf tackles this head on:

Neither in the thousands of wartime memos nor in more private documents, such as the Goebbels’ diaries, does one find evidence that Hitler, Goebbels, Dietrich [the press chief], or their staffs disbelieved what they were writing, or viewed their anti-Semitic assertions as a cynical stratagem to fool the gullible masses. However intelligent or clever these men were, they were in the grip of an obsession that profoundly distorted their understanding of reality.(9)

It is often remarked that the barbarism of the Holocaust appears incomprehensible in light of Germany’s status as an educated, cultured and advanced society. Perhaps more unsettling is that the leadership of such an advanced nation embraced conspiracy theories—that the tremendous destruction of human life stemmed from belief in imaginary demons.

The Reich leadership believed in a world Jewish conspiracy. Jews, they imagined, acted as puppeteers—standing behind both the democratic capitalist West, and the totalitarian Communist East. How else could one explain the alliance of two opposites? Such beliefs are mind bending to those outside of the conspiracy worldview. However, Herf presents evidence that leads to no other conclusion: the rulers of an educated, cultured and advanced society were indeed conspiracy theorists.

Hitler and his associates believed what they were saying. Contradictions to Nazi arguments did not persuade the regime that their thinking was wrong. Herf does not address general aspects of the conspiratorial mind. However, ignoring contradictions is a feature of this mind. Moreover, belief that one has discovered the truth behind the façade—the formula to unlock history—is euphoric for conspiracy theorists, and makes for self-righteous behavior. Conspiracy theory lay at the heart of this tragedy.

Today, the media is awash in conspiracy theories. Most normal people and governments dismiss them as silly fodder for television audiences and book sales. However, these theories—like those put forth by the Nazis—are similar, building upon false understandings of history and historical causation.

One recent work, Voodoo Histories: The Role of the Conspiracy Theory in Shaping Modern History (David Aaronovitch, 2010), looks at several twentieth century conspiracy theories, including the Protocols, and finds similar ways of thinking about historical causation and methodology. The September 11, 2001 conspiracy theories are the same structurally as John F. Kennedy assassination conspiracies.(10)

There is a tragic irony that the misunderstanding of history and belief in conspiracy theories itself is part of historical causation. Ignorance of history and historical causation leads people to act on their poor understanding. This appears to be an unalterable fact of human history.

Further irony is the modern conspiracy theory that denies the history of the Holocaust itself. The Holocaust, conspiracists claim, is a fraud perpetrated by the Jews to found the state of Israel. First brought to mass attention in 1993 by Deborah Lipstadt in Denying the Holocaust: the Growing Assault on Truth and Memory, this theory argues that Jewish deaths during the war were fictitious or highly exaggerated.

A more recent work, Denying History: Who Says the Holocaust Never Happened and Why Do They Say It? (Michael Shermer and Alex Grobman, 2009) investigates how Holocaust denier conspiracy theorists go wrong in understanding how we know things about history. Shermer is also known for Why People Believe Weird Things (2002), which discusses Holocaust deniers as well as believers in government cover-ups of crashed UFOs. Like Aaronovitch, Shermer finds that all conspiracy theorists have the same flawed, structural argument.(11)

To say that the National Socialists were weird is almost to put too light a touch on things. Herf does not discuss the Nazis in these terms, but the implications seem clear. The Nazis believed weird things: about history, about Jews, and about their powers to shape the world as they imagined it should be. The Third Reich is the example of what happens when extraordinarily poor critical thinking skills wind up in the hands of those with power—resulting in tragedy and misery on a continental scale. Conspiracy theories should not be treated as simply silly.

Unfortunately, the Third Reich’s legacy of conspiracy theory lives on—as Herf noted discussing several occasions when Goebbels invited the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, Amin al-Huseini, to broadcast speeches to the Islamic world. Soon after the November 7, 1942 allied invasion of French North Africa, Huseini spoke over airwaves that beamed into the Middle East:

The American intervention in North Africa strengthens the power of the Jews, increases their influence, and doubles their misdeeds. America is the greatest agent of the Jews, and the Jews are rulers in America.(12)

The impact of such rhetoric from 1942 on—including events leading up to and after September 11, 2001—cannot be demonstrate directly. However, readers of The Jewish Enemy will not find it difficult to imagine how this may have worked. The Protocols are still widely available in the capitals of the near east, and the Iranian regime hosted a Holocaust denial conference in Tehran in 2006.

The Jewish Enemy demonstrates the intimate nexus between World War II and the Holocaust. In light of the wreckage of Europe in 1945 and destruction of over half of European Jewry, Herf states that the “inclination to view political statements as deception designed to hide real intentions, rather than as assertions in which word and meaning coincided, was a barrier to understanding what Hitler meant”(13) This observation has great merit. Viewing the Holocaust and World War II for what it was allows for greater understanding of German political aims and strategy during World War II.


(1) Jeffrey Herf, The Jewish Enemy: Nazi Propaganda during World War II and the Holocaust (Cambridge and London: Harvard University Press, 2006) p. 110.

(2) Ibid. 52.

(3) Ibid. 125-126.

(4) “War of Annihilation – Crimes of the Wehrmacht 1941-44,” exhibition sponsored by the Hamburg Institute of Social Research (1994-99). A second incarnation of the exhibition “Crimes of the German Wehrmacht: Dimensions of a War of Annihilation” followed in 2001. A book edited one of the historians who prepared the original exhibition is available; The Discursive Construction of History : Remembering the Wehrmacht’s War of Annihilation / edited by Hannes Heer … [et al.] ; trans. Steven Fligelstone (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008)

(5) Evan Mawdsley, World War II: A New History (Cambridge University Press, 2009); Thomas Zeiler, War of Annihilation: A Global History of World War II (Oxford University Press, 2010)

(6) Geoffrey Megargee, War of Annihilation: Combat and Genocide on the Eastern front, 1941 (Rowman and Littlefield, 2007) Megargee is also a researcher at the US Holocaust Memorial Museum.

(7) Herf, The Jewish Enemy, 371; see also Daniel Goldhagen, Hitler’s Willing Executioners (New York : Knopf, 1996)

(8) Helmut Hieber and David M. Glanz, editors, Hitler and His General: Military Conferences 1942-1945 (Enigma books, 2002) p. 159-160.

(9) Herf, The Jewish Enemy, 88

(10) David Aaronovitch, Voodoo Histories, the Role of the Conspiracy Theory in Shaping Modern History (New York: Riverhead Books, 2010)

(11) Deborah Lipstadt, Denying the Holocaust, the Growing Assault on Truth and Memory (New York: The Free Press, 1993); Michael Shermer and Alex Grobman, Denying History, Who Says the Holocaust Never Happened and Why Do They Say It? (Berkley: University of California Press, 2000); Michael Shermer, Why People Believe Weird Things (W.H. Freeman, 1997)

(12) Herf, The Jewish Enemy, 172-173.

(13) Ibid. 167.