The time has come at last to consider what, during the Enlightenment and within the dark heart of nihilism which took root in the generation who fought the First World War, was generally referred to as the Jewish Question.
As with our story in macrocosm, the major roots of Judaism in the West lay in the soils of the Roman Empire. Recall that, in the opening stages of that empire, it was a polytheistic and arguably-pluralistic society, at least insofar as the state did not forbid private religious practice as long as public religious ceremonies in the Roman style were observed. Romans as a rule also valued antiquity, which was one of the reasons they so admired the Greek and Egyptian civilisations both before and after Romans came to rule them.
The Roman Empire was introduced to Judaism — or, more properly, Judaism was introduced to the Roman Empire, whether Judaism liked it or not — when the Romans conquered the eastern coast of the Mediterranean, an area that geography nerds nowadays call the Levant and the Romans called Judea. As it happened, the civilisation in Judea had one of the oldest recorded religious traditions in the world, and certainly the oldest the Romans had encountered; this predisposed Roman elites to look favourably upon Judaism as a religious practice, so long as the religious and state leaders of Judea did not interfere with the public rituals of the Roman state religion or encourage rebellion against Roman authority.
Unfortunately for the Romans, and especially unfortunately for the inhabitants of Judea, the local authorities eventually undertook a series of revolts over the century and a half following the supposed birth of an itinerant cult leader known then as Yeshua ben Yosef, to whom we shall return in a bit.
It must be noted that many regions revolted against Roman rule as Rome conquered the Mediterranean, and though no two revolts were quite the same, they usually ended the same way: the revolting forces were utterly crushed by the Roman army, the rebels were massacred, survivors were crucified by the hundreds or the thousands and left to die in agony, and whoever was left at home were sold into slavery or forced into exile. This happened innumerable times to uncounted peoples, both before and after the two major Jewish rebellions, and most of the time these measures were so comprehensive that the only traces we have of these peoples are what records the Romans may have made of their utter dissolution.
These measures were taken against nearly a thousand Jewish villages over the course of the Jewish Wars, culminating in the dismantling of the polity of Judea, which the Romans restructured into the province of Syria Palaestina. Unlike so many North Africans, Iberians, Celts, Dalmatians, Germans, or Anatolians, however, the survivors of the destruction of Judea did not melt into the populations across which they were dispersed as slaves or refugees.
Exiled and enslaved Judeans were generally accepted across the Roman Empire after their centralised political power had been destroyed, likely under the assumption that they would assimilate into the general population at some point. And while many individual Jews did assimilate, both in the Roman Empire and in every other place and time Jews have lived, the Jewish people as a whole have to this day refused to disappear. This is remarkable, essentially unprecedented amongst the peoples Rome subjugated, and it became a defining feature of how the Jewish people in Europe related to the dominant religious and state structures amongst whose followers they found themselves living over the centuries.
The defining feature of how those religious and state structures — and a great deal of their followers — eventually came to relate to the Jews, of course, is antisemitism. Like the Jewish people themselves, antisemitism has been a fixture of the West since before the West came into existence — certainly before our somewhat-arbitrary starting point of the Great Schism, at least.
Antisemitism is something more than garden-variety bigotry or racism; it is deeper than mere tribalism or xenophobia; it is more complicated than religious chauvinism; it is more sinister than an esoteric and elaborate conspiracy theory.
Though it certainly is all of those things, what has made antisemitism so durable and so dangerous is both more personal and more essential to the foundations of Western civilisation than any bigotry or tribalism or conspiracy theory. Antisemitism’s animating force within Western civilisation is a sort of spiritual envy, and jealousy, and the punctured ego of a gift rejected. These feelings renewed and deepened and abstracted themselves, generation upon generation, until they infiltrated into and amalgamated with some of the foundational ideas and philosophies with which the West itself was born.
We turn our attention back to Yeshua ben Yosef, who, if he existed as a figure in history rather than simply a figure of history, was a mystic and a rebel and the founder of a small sect of Judaism during a time when Judea was lousy with rebellious mystics founding small sects of Judaism. His sect made enough trouble with the authorities that he was supposedly condemned as a traitor, captured, and crucified; such a fate was far from remarkable for troublemakers in most regions of the Roman Empire, and if the historical record could be wound back and played again, that could well have been the end of Yeshua ben Yosef and the sect he founded.
Of course, history does not admit to being rewound, and the aforementioned sect became a cult that survived Yeshua’s crucifixion. Even so, this particular cult wasn’t much different than other cults forming and dissolving across Judea at the time, based upon disputes over this or that doctrine, claims to have fulfilled such and such prophecy, what have you. Usually these cults would gather a few dozen followers, last perhaps long enough for the first generation of members born into the cult to become rebellious teenagers, and fall apart to be forgotten by time.
Yeshua’s cult was different, or at least it became different. As the story goes, a charismatic and powerful Jew by the name of Saul of Tarsus — who had dedicated a great deal of his charisma and power to suppressing the cult and persecuting its members in the years following Yeshua’s crucifixion — had a vision on the road to Damascus, a vision whose biblical description coincides rather remarkably with the symptoms of an epileptic fit. This vision-slash-fit also happened to convince him to join Yeshua’s band of misfit toys.
The new convert helped to turn the operation from an exclusively-Jewish mystery cult into a breakaway religious movement bent on winning converts among the Romans. At first these converts were expected to convert to Judaism on the whole, which is…kind of a tall order, even today, and was a decidedly unappealing proposition for many in classical antiquity. Among (a frankly inordinate number of) other things which must be undertaken, if you were a man you had to face the prospect of circumcision in an era where anaesthetics were rudimentary and antibiotics wouldn’t be properly discovered for nearly two thousand years.
Saul eventually formed a sub-sect of the cult that he could lead himself, wherein he convinced his followers to loosen the “converts must actually become Jewish” rule, and eventually to more-or-less de-Judaise themselves. Saul began promoting his sub-sect of Yeshua ben Yosef’s cult to all comers in the eastern Mediterranean on far more relaxed terms. Since he was a man of letters writing to a general audience in that time and in that place, he wrote primarily in Ancient Greek; in order to appeal to his audience, and to serve as a more effective ambassador for his organisation, he used the Greek version of his name, Paulos. He also forwent Yeshua’s name in his promotion of the cult, rather preferring Yeshua’s title, Saviour Anointed. This he naturally also wrote in Greek, as Iesous Christos — or, in modern English, Jesus Christ.
As we have already seen, and as anyone with even a passing familiarity with history already knows, the cult of Yeshua ben Yosef became the religion of Christianity. Through the work of Paul the Apostle, that religion took root in all corners of the Roman Empire and beyond. Eventually, as Rome descended into chaos, Christianity became the official state religion — and thence the deepest and most ancient bedrock upon which the West was founded.
The followers of Christianity claimed the cosmology of Judaism for their own. They adopted the God of Abraham as their own object of worship, recast the indigenous European pantheons and folk traditions as the angels and demons of the Semitic tradition, and developed what a tech-savvy inhabitant of the modern world might consider an iteration upon Jewish philosophy and theology. Principally, this iteration claimed that the legendary Jewish figure of the Messiah had come to Earth in the body of Jesus Christ, fulfilling one of the most important prophecies in Judaism.
Though plenty of Jewish individuals converted to Paul’s new-and-improved version of Judaism, especially in the first few generations, Jews as a whole were not won over by these claims. As previously alluded to, in the period just before Rome wiped Judea off the map you couldn’t through a rock around Sinai without hitting some Shimeon, Lazarus, or Yonathan claiming to be the fulfillment of a Jewish prophecy, and most of them thought they were the Messiah. Some Yeshua ben Whoever-the-fuck from the middle of nowhere was about as likely to be the Messiah as your aunt Ruth, especially once the Romans destroyed Judea and scattered most of the Jewish people to the four winds.
Christians, from the beginning, felt the ebullience of any fresh convert; Christianity provided many answers for the questions plaguing life in the later Roman Empire, and it gave a great deal of comfort to the downtrodden, the sick, and the meek of Roman society, particularly to women. And as Christianity not only survived Roman repression, but went on to become the official state religion, its adherents viewed its tenets not merely as useful ways to live one’s life but as the one and only correct narrative of the past, present, and future of the Universe.
But the Jews didn’t think so. The same resilience which kept them from dissolving into the pagan Roman Empire kept them from abandoning Judaism for the new variant that claimed to succeed it. And for the Christians invested with state power in and after the late Roman Empire, this refusal to succumb to the bliss of Christianity amounted to a rejection of the truth — a blunt denial of the divinity of their own God’s only begotten Son, the anointed saviour sent to rescue humanity from its original sin.
As Christianity spread throughout Europe, uprooting and replacing the various indigenous European religions with often-brutal finality, the certainty of its truth only became more cemented in the minds and hearts of its adherents. The devolution and disappearance of the Roman Empire did nothing to shake the confidence of the faithful; they kept proselytising, by the pen and by the sword, and by 1053, the name of Jesus was revered from Rome to Reykjavik, from the Duchy of Connaught to the Duchy of Novgorod. The Italians and the Greeks and the Celts and the Germans and the Slavs had all abandoned the gods and customs of their ancestors in favour of worshipping Jesus Christ and, through him, the God of Abraham.
But the Jews remained, and most everywhere Christians went, Jews either followed or had preceded them. Decade upon decade, century upon century, Jews refused to abandon Judaism and join the fold of Christianity. Eventually, in the Christian imagination, a practicing Jew was not simply engaging in an outdated tradition with a superseded cosmology in pursuit of their own spiritual fulfillment (which, remember, would have been reason enough to kill them) — they were making a deranged and sinister mistake in failing to recognise the fulfillment of their own religious narrative, a mistake which supposedly mocked their own God and thereby tempted His ire.
As those centuries ticked by without Jesus returning and actually saving humanity from the mud and muck and misery of existence, the lingering presence of the Jews became a convenient scapegoat upon which to exorcise the broken promises of Christianity’s own unfulfilled prophecies. The concept of the scapegoat itself — like so many Western references, from David and Goliath to Jonah and the Whale to the Good Samaritan — is ultimately Jewish in origin; specifically, it refers to a ritual in which a community’s sins were magically infused into a pair of goats, one of which was sacrificed and the other of which was driven into the wilderness, carrying the aforementioned sins with it.
As scapegoats for the broken promises of medieval Christianity, Jews faced plenty of ritual murder and casting-out, in state-sanctioned pogroms and spontaneous riots and individual acts of depredation. They were expelled wholesale from villages, from regions, and from entire countries, over and over again; for failed harvests, for the plague, for perfidious moneylending, for stealing Christian children and baking their blood into Passover matzos — for all manner of deranged lies, big and small. And all committed by people claiming to worship the Jewish god, saying bastardised versions of Jewish prayers, giving their children Jewish names, telling each other fables and parables and stories from Jewish holy texts.
A potential Jews’-eye-view of their experience in the West can be summed up succinctly in this excellent scene of an otherwise-mediocre film. The relevant monologue is transcribed as follows (irrelevancies removed without annotation):
There is no culture — save for the Semitic culture. The last known culture before that was the Greek, and there will be no culture after. Nothing.
The heart of any culture is to be found in the hero: who is that man who is revered?
In the Classical world, it is the warrior; but in the Western world, it is the Man of God. From Moses to Christ — the Prophet, the Penitent. Such a figure was unknown to the Greeks; unheard-of; unimaginable.
Because there is only a man of God, not a man of gods; and this God is the God of the Jewish people — there is no other God.
We see him purloined. Purloined in the West.
How do you steal a god?
The Jew beholds his tormenter dressed in the vestments of his own ancient culture. Everything bears a strange familiarity; the fit is always poor, and the hands are always dripping blood.
That coat…didn’t that belong to Uncle Haim? What about the shoes?
It is impossible to summarise the entire history of Judaism and attendant antisemitism in a few dozen words, much less a few thousand, but I find the above text both evocative and informative. The undercurrents of pedestrian chauvinism and the implicit argument between the Semitic and Hellene factions of Jewish thought are interesting in their own right, but for our topic, I would like to consider the reappropriation of the Jewish god.
Christians purloined the God of Abraham, and have never forgiven Jews for failing to be grateful for the theft.
I’ve already mentioned that antisemitism involves both jealousy and envy. In contemporary English, the distinction between the two has largely disappeared, and the resultant feeling described by “jealousy” usually only pertains to people who lack confidence in their romantic partners’ fidelity. But the distinction is still an important one, and these distinct feelings that Christians have for Jews — on an instinctual and abstract level if not a conscious and interpersonal one — helped to motivate the West’s original sin.
Envy, simply stated, is the yearning for things not rightfully yours; it is the harsh whisper that tells you others are undeserving of all their bounty while you must toil away in your squalor. In its more benign forms, it can motivate one to strive to acquire supposedly-lacking possessions or attain some desired level of fitness or attractiveness — to keep up with the Joneses and hopefully surpass them in ostentatious and ultimately useless displays of conspicuous consumption. In its more sinister forms, envy drives us to destroy others, to rob them of their possessions, of their dignity, of their lives — often not even to acquire what they have, but rather to bring them to a state of deprivation and a position of economic or psychological inferiority. In this extreme it is a siphon for our own iniquities, giving us license to project our deficient qualities upon others, and to punish them for our perceived sins.
Jealousy is a bit more complicated. Perhaps ironically, it requires a certain amount of empathy, or at least the ability to understand that others will feel envious, and to guard against their envy. Like envy, it involves a certain kind of greed, but in this instance it is greed for what one has already accumulated rather than what one has yet to lay hands upon. Its milder forms engender a healthy respect for privacy and an equally-healthy suspicion of others. Left unchecked by broader empathy and humility, however, the seeds of that engendered suspicion can grow into the fruits of paranoia. If envy inspires the hordes to break down the gates and ransack the castle at any cost, jealousy is what drives the miser to build the castle and surround it by alligators in the first place.
So how do you steal a god? It turns out it’s easier than one might think; it’s happened to the Jews in two major heists, first by Christians and then by Muslims, and each of these have bred innumerable acts of grand theft deity among and between them. We have already explored part of this story with our treatment of the Reformation; delving into more detail for the thousands of theological smash-and-grabs that have taken place entirely within the Christian and Muslim worlds is well beyond the scope of our purpose.
In any case, or at least The Case of the Theft of YHVH by That Awful Epileptic Tarsine, Christians were envious of Jews’ continued insistence that they were the Chosen People of God, and Christians were jealous of the god with which they had absconded. Judaism was not frozen in time, and Jews kept right on believing in — and arguing about — the God of Abraham, almost entirely without any respect whatsoever for what Christians thought of it. This continued relationship with their god makes Christians’ theft of it a bit like modern-day piracy, in that nothing tangible was actually removed from anywhere, and yet the thieves nevertheless gained access to the theological equivalent of intellectual property to which they were not entitled by that property’s custodians.
The question which naturally arises when one takes the above analysis seriously is…how did Judaism survive the jealousy and the envy of Christianity, when so many other belief systems proved all too mortal to Christianity’s proselytic avarice? When so many indigenous European gods were euhemerised or sanctified or demonised or simply destroyed, their worshippers’ descendants brought into the fold as Christians and induced to forswear those gods whom their ancestors held dear, why were Jews even allowed the option of refusing to convert in the first place?
At least part of the answer may, perhaps paradoxically, lay in the cause of the very feelings of envy and jealousy which motivated so much Christian antipathy for and depredation upon the Jews. That is, Jews’ theological proximity to their god — the god Christians had stolen as their own — lent Judaism a legitimacy to Christians which indigenous European traditions simply lacked. Indeed, to this day a significant number of Christians insist that the Jewish people must exist in some form until Jesus returns to the Earth, whereupon the Jews will finally end Judaism themselves by converting to Christianity en masse, as one of the flagstones on the path to Armageddon.
As we have already mentioned, many individual Jewish communities, and even the entire Jewish population of countries, were expelled or exterminated or driven underground at various points during the Dark and Middle Ages. The most famous examples of this are the Spanish expulsion of Iberian Jews following the Reconquista and the English expulsion of British Jews in 1290, but there were innumerable other such incidents across and beyond what would become the West.
Many communities within Eastern Europe (particularly Poland), and to a lesser extend the Holy Roman Empire, were especially welcoming to Jews driven out of other areas. This helps explain why Ashkenazi Jews (that is, the Jews of Central and Eastern Europe) developed Slavic and Germanic varieties of Yiddish as Hebrew fell out of common usage outside of Jewish liturgy. It also explains why there were so many Jews in Germany, Poland, Belarus, and Ukraine when compared to England, France, Spain, or Scandinavia.
In the polities in which Jews were tolerated, and occasionally even welcomed, they were largely confined to segregated urban districts called ghettos. Inhabitants of these ghettos were not generally considered citizens of the states in which the ghettos were situated; rather, the Jewish ghettos were treated as corporations responsible for governing themselves and providing taxes to the state on a collective basis. Jews were restricted to a small number of occupations, excluded from civic institutions outside of their ghettos, and forbidden from owning any land or assets not contained within those ghettos. This arrangement persisted in most of Europe for centuries, and only began to unravel during the Enlightenment.
The question with which we opened this essay, and with which many Jewish and non-Jewish figures concerned themselves in various senses from 1750 until 1942 — that is, the Jewish Question — was not a philosophical discourse on the resilience of the Jews in the face of Christian oppression. It was rather more practical and pedestrian, initially posed in Britain, and can be crudely rephrased as “what are we to do with all these Jews we’ve got ‘round here?”
The first answer, beginning in France in 1791 and extending piecemeal across the rest of Europe over the next century or so, was emancipation. Similarly to the case of African-American slavery, Jewish emancipation in principle meant that Jews should be given the full rights and responsibilities of citizenship. This was not simply a process of top-down liberation, not won in a single proclamation or after the end of a conclusive war; it was a long, slow, often fraught conversation among and between the Jews and the Christian civil authorities governing the emerging nation-states of the Concert of Europe. Many Jewish communities themselves had to be convinced that assimilation was even possible, let alone desirable, and some Jewish communities have remained virtually isolated even to this hour.
Yet by the time the German Empire pulled itself together in 1871, a great number of Jews had joined civil society across Britain, France, and Germany. Also similar to the emancipation of American slaves, this did not lead and has not led to the elimination of anti-Jewish bigotry in general, and it did precious little to diminish the more sinister antisemitism that had taken root in Europe over the previous millennium and a half. Nevertheless, by the outbreak of the First World War, tens of thousands of Jews in France and hundreds of thousands of Jews in Germany saw themselves as French and German citizens, willing to fight and to die on the orders of their respective governments.
Indeed, the desire for emancipated German Jews to take part in the war as a proof of their citizenship eventually led to eighty-thousand Jewish men serving on the front lines (with a further twenty-thousand in non-front-line roles) by war’s end. As we know, that war’s end came with German capitulation after years of hunger and privation and stalemate.
And make no mistake, the German Army capitulated after it was thoroughly and unmistakably defeated in the field, in an impossible strategic position, with mere weeks to go before British and French and American forces were free to overrun the country from all sides. It was precisely to stave off this unutterable catastrophe that the German High Command pressured the government in Berlin to sue for peace, before the army was simply destroyed.
The old men of the General Staff used the fact that they sued for peace without being defeated on German soil to later argue that they had not been defeated in the field at all, and in fact had been betrayed by a German civil government filled with fifth columnists, defeatists, and — naturally — a bunch of emancipated Jews. Those fifth columnists and defeatists and Jews signed the Treaty of Versailles, which wasn’t actually a particularly harsh peace treaty as these things went and was the third-harshest treaty to come out of the First World War — the Treaty of Trianon completely dismantled the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk mutilated the Russian Empire to a much greater extent than Versailles did to Germany — but which nevertheless imposed steep reparations and territorial concessions from the defeated Germans.
The antisemitism which emancipation had not abolished, and which the vicissitudes of industrialised warfare had only exacerbated, offered a ready-made excuse for the humiliation and the continued hunger and economic devastation in the years following Versailles. Among an ultimately decisive minority of Germans, Jews were not fellow citizens suffering a bitter peace and forced to accept unilateral guilt for the war, but rather the same scapegoats that Jews had been for the preceding fifteen hundred years.
This minority had plenty of opportunity for scapegoating, as the German Revolution following the end of the war resulted in a chaotic and ineffectual republican government who could barely keep the country from descending into civil war. They also came up with the brilliant idea to simply print money in order to pay the war debts they had inherited from the German Empire, which triggered hyperinflation to such an extent that families went shopping with a wheel barrow and simply burned the paper bills for fuel rather than buying wood or coal — and this as the “Roaring Twenties” erupted elsewhere in the West.
Germans, then, had to see their enemies enjoy unprecedented wealth and cultural ascendancy in the decade following the end of the war while they saw their own society descend into turmoil and uncertainty and want. When the New York Stock Exchange collapsed in the fall of 1929, plunging the Anglosphere into the Great Depression and worsening the situation in Germany to near-hyperinflation levels, there were not enough goats in Germany to scape.
It would be a lie to say that German society writ large was founded upon overt antisemitism in the years following the First World War, but it would be just as dishonest to imply that German society — along with most other societies of Europe and its American offspring — had no fertile soil in which its latent antisemitism could take root to emerge once more.
Antisemitism was not the sole animating force of any group or cause or party in Germany. Yet, given everything we have covered, we can be confident it is not precisely a coincidence that antisemitism was a particularly strong element of the faction which came to power in 1933.
Christopher Hitchens was wont to point out that antisemitism is something more sinister than simple bigotry or xenophobia — that a society can last for centuries while infected with racism or religious chauvinism or ethnic tension, but any society which becomes fixated upon the Jews as boogeymen is a society in which things are about to go very wrong, very quickly. That is perhaps a bit overstated (post-Reconquista Spain and England in the 1300’s weren’t especially hellish when compared with their neighbours), but the strange death cult which gained control of Germany in 1933 did their very best to justify Hitchens’ polemic.
Over the following twelve years, this death cult would do everything in its power to redefine the nation of Germany, and the very spirit of the West itself, in opposition to Judaism to an extent that had never been seen before. They rejected the first answer to the Jewish Question, and instead settled upon a second answer, which they attempted to make final, and — within Europe, at least — very nearly succeeded. In the process, they deranged and destroyed many aspects of German culture, some of which have yet to recover, and some still which never will.
We will explore these twelve years and their consequences for the West as we know it in the next instalment.