UC Santa Barbara > History Department > Prof. Marcuse > Courses > Hist 133d Homepage > Hist 133b+d Book Essays Index page > Student essay

Weiss, book cover

"The Roots of Antisemitic Sentiment and its Importance in the Holocaust"

Book Essay on:
John Weiss, The Ideology of Death:
Why the Holocaust happened in Germany?

(Chicago: Ivan R Dee, 1996) 427 pgs.
UCSB Call number: DS146.G4 W43 1996

by Hamza Minhas
March 14, 2008

for Prof. Marcuse's lecture course
The Holocaust in German History
UC Santa Barbara, Winter 2008

About the Author
& Abstract
and Links
$17 with preview
at amazon

About Hamza Minhas

I am an EAP student from England, studying for a history degree. In England I took a class on Europe post 1945, and for that class I chose to write an essay on the factors involved in setting the Holocaust in motion. This further inspired me to delve deeper into the Holocaust, its roots, and its main players. I chose this topic because I am very much interested in the causes of the Holocaust, and ideology and antisemitism was something that though I had touched upon, I had not gone into much detail before.

Abstract (back to top)

Antisemitism played a vital role in the rise of the Nazis, and eventually the Holocaust. Where were the roots of this strong antisemitism grounded? John Weiss gives a good survey of anti-Jewish sentiment from as early as medieval times, arguing that Germany was unique in its antisemitism, and the height to which that feeling rose, which is why the Holocaust was able to happen in Germany. Though I believe that events led to a creation of an environment in which the Holocaust could play out in Germany, I do not believe that antisemitism alone was the distinguishing factor, but other events, including the defeat of Germany in World War I and economic difficulties in Weimar Germany, allowed for a new, more radical wave of antisemitism to rise. It was this that allowed for the development of the Holocaust, and not old German culture, and older antisemitic traditions.

Essay (back to top)

Before reading the book, I hoped to find the roots of antisemitism, and the extent to which it spread in German society. Weiss refutes the argument that if Hitler did not exist, the Holocaust would not have existed. He criticises historians for their under-assessment of the long history of antisemitism already present in Germany (Weiss, vii). Furthermore, his argument is that though there was antisemitism in other parts of the world, including Germany’s neighbours, there were various features about Germany that made it unique, thus making it possible for the Holocaust to occur in Germany. However, saying that, I do not believe him to present a strong enough argument to prove that argument. Though he recognises that Hitler would not have come to power had it not been for other events, such as the depression and World War One, he does not really dwell on them much. Instead he argues that these further aggravated antisemitic feelings, which though true, does not really explain how much of an effect they had on Germany in other senses. By putting too much emphasis on antisemitism, he is too dismissive of the other factors, though accepting of them; thus resulting in an unconvincing argument. Even in his argument, readers may find it more convincing that it was the events that took place, such as the depression and the defeat in war, that makes Germany unique and not German antisemitism itself. He creates a narrative of events from medieval times to the Holocaust itself, and relates most things down to the hatred of Jews amongst the Germans that allowed for the rise of the Nazis. Arguably, he does not give a fair representation of the other side to the argument, cynically rejecting other views that argue antisemitism, though a factor was not the main one. I intend to explain how Weiss’s argument is unconvincing, and give a synopsis, including a review of the book.

The main body of the book deals with the history of Germany prior to Hitler, and then the reasons behind Hitler’s rise to dominance. Starting from medieval times, Weiss portrays a picture of a very strong antisemitic community in Europe, especially in the East. He states that it was in medieval Europe that the ‘iconography of modern antisemitism – the Jew as a deicide and a parasite – was created’ (Weiss, 19). This, he argues was a creation of medieval Christian thought, and Christian fundamentalists who argue that the very denial of Christ as saviour was damning enough (Weiss, 6). Stories of Jews and their satanic rituals became common, and popular. Weiss argues that it was not only the Jewish denial of Christ, but some other factors played a part in this early antisemitism too. He argues that famine and hardship amplified antisemitic feelings, as it was thus argued that the Jews were the cause of all these problems. This is a theme Weiss maintains throughout his book, that other events and crises all relate back to antisemitism – to the racist, it was the Jew who had created the problems in society, and thus when problems occurred, racist sentiments intensified. In medieval times this was the Black Death which killed more than a third of the population of Europe in the fourteenth century (Weiss, 18). He goes on to say that ‘it was in the midst of famine, plague, murder and religious exaltation, the modern stereotype of the Jew was fixed in the popular imagination’ (Weiss, 19).

The author then continues to put forward his case that the situation in Germany made it unique and different so that antisemitism in Germany would lead to the horrors of Holocaust, unlike antisemitism in other places. He does this by distinguishing key personalities in German history that, he argues, laid the foundations for the development of Nazi Germany. The argument he puts forward is that these people put forward antisemitic literature to gain support. The key individual here is Martin Luther, and the German Reformation that he initiated. After his failure to convert Jews to his newly put Christianity, Luther viciously attacked Jewish people. He reignited the past ideas of demonic Jewish rituals, and argued that the Jews were the ‘spawn of the Devil’ (Weiss, 23). He spoke on numerous occasions, as cited by Weiss that he wanted the Jews gotten rid of. Weiss declares that ‘he could hardly have spoken more plainly; death was his final solution to the “Jewish problem”’ (Weiss, 23). This he uses as evidence that Hitler and the Nazis were not the only group of people that advocated ‘death to Jews,’ but that it was an old principle, taken and applied by the Nazis. Not only this, but he argues that Luther had a large following, that ‘millions of peasants and rural artisans who, throughout modern German history, were the backbone of populist and racist social movements’ (Weiss, 24). Though Weiss agrees that Europe was pretty antisemitic, he argues that no other country was so aggressive and blatantly vulgar about the Jewish faith as was Luther and Germany (Weiss, 24).

Along similar lines, he reiterates that Germany was different to other European states. By the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, he argues the development of new science and commercial bourgeoisie created a secular culture. That though there was antisemitism, there were powerful enough ‘intellectual and political forces’ that could counter racist nationalism – mainly during the Enlightenment period (Weiss, 35). Thus again, his argument is supported by evidence that Germany was unique in its antisemitic background prior to the Great War, and therefore with these factors already present in society, it was the breeding ground for further racial hatred that would develop out of many hardships the Germans would soon face.

One of the prime examples of this was the first economic crash of 1873. The importance of Jews in the stock market and their various new businesses, gave racist Germans the chance to accuse Jews of ‘collective responsibility for the tragedies of trusting investors’ (Weiss, 83). Weiss provides evidence of this renewed sense of antisemitic hatred through the various examples of literature that was produced around this period. Things such as magazines, for example, the Gardenhouse magazine, and articles written by scholars of the time, Constantin Frantz for example (Weiss, 84). Following this crisis, though the church had been behind antisemitism, Pope Pius XI declared the Jews ‘the enemies of Jesus, they have no god but their money’ (Weiss, 85). In various novels and books, Jews are portrayed as evil, and satanic, and thus the average German would find reason to believe in antisemitic rhetoric.

One of the key points about Weiss’s arguments is that he relates racial theories, and Hitler to the populace at large. Skipping a few decades, Weiss later talks about how antisemitic beliefs and racial superiority were the only things that kept Hitler going. The development of social-Darwinism and genetics, Weiss argues, further instilled the idea into German minds that they were superior to Jews, as well as other parts of society considered inferior (Weiss, 129). Thus he argues that when Hitler was in Austria, and had lost his family, and his place in society, he was comforted only by the fact that he was still racially superior to the Jews, who at present were better off than he was (Weiss, 195). However, as Weiss argues, Hitler was not alone in this respect. Antisemitism was commonplace, and Hitler was one of millions of Austrians and Germans who had a deeply felt hatred to these ‘foreign’ elements of society. The literature that Hitler read was available to everyone else too. His heroes and idols, such as Karl Lueger and Richard Wagner, were the heroic figures of millions of others (Weiss, 202). Weiss uses evidence here of the popularity of Wagner’s shows, to prove this point. Furthermore, Weiss argues that even in his own Nazi party, Hitler was not the most extreme racist, and this can be seen by the many who complained the Hitler was too lenient on the ‘inferior races’ in Germany (Weiss, 191). Therefore, this he uses to back up his argument that other historians who claim ‘no Hitler: not Holocaust,’ are incorrect. Arguing that there were plenty of other men in Germany who wanted the same, if not more than Hitler, that he was not a crazed lunatic, but he was one of many who shared the same values in German society, and it was this that allowed Hitler’s rise.

Another instrument in Hitler’s rise to power was his political skill. According to Weiss, it was from Karl Lueger that Hitler learned his most important lesson, that ‘the art of all truly great national leaders at all times consists … not in dividing the attention of a people, but in concentrating it upon a single foe’ (Weiss, 202). This was the Jews. Again, here we see Weiss using antisemitism as the means by which Hitler gained support. Weiss argues that the ‘key to Nazi electoral success was their ability to connect antisemitic myths to the practical dilemmas of millions of Germans’ (Weiss, 271). The idea that race was responsible for social ills in Germany, proved a great focal point. Everything that was wrong with German society, unemployment, feminism, the non-traditional arts that were becoming more popular, all these things were because of the presence of Jewish blood in German society. Therefore by creating a focal point for the majority of the population, Hitler and the Nazis used the antisemitism already present in society to explain the problems that the Germans faced. The defeat of World War one, the Versailles Treaty, and even the depression, all because of the Jews.

At the same time however, Weiss talks about some of the opposing factors, things aside from antisemitism. He accepts that the depression was ‘the final blow to the public’ (Weiss, 270). Also, that ‘without the war and its traumatic consequences, there would have been no Nazi seizure of power’ (Weiss, 270). But he also goes on to say that, though this is true, there would have been no seizure of power had there not already been a strong antisemitic feeling already present in German society (Weiss, 270). One of the key drawbacks of Weiss’ book was the fact that he was very dismissive of other arguments. Not only this, but arguably, though his argument holds strong, one could choose to disagree with it. Like I said, he accepts that other factors played a crucial role, but he does not really delve into them. His entire focal point is that these factors further created antisemitic feelings. Though this is true, he does not elaborate on other issues that developed from these. For example, the depression created unemployment, and through this unemployment, various people found support in the Nazis because they promised to rebuild and remilitarise Germany, which would boost the economy and create jobs.

Staying on the critical side of things, Weiss does not really delve into other weaknesses in society, or the problems that were facing Germany. Some historians argue that it was the weakness of the Weimar republic which paved a way for Nazism, as to a high degree Weiss does by relating that the republic was a Jewish establishment, and thus uses it to argue that antisemitism was again the key basis of support. However, other historians, such as Harold Marcuse, suggest that though Weimar may have been unpopular, there is no evidence to suggest that Weimar would have been unsuccessful. Here, the argument is that Weimar may have succeeded had it not been for hyper-inflation in 1923, and the depression in 1929 (Marcuse, Lecture 31 st Jan). Though Weiss accepts that without all these events the Nazis would not have succeeded, the language he uses shows that he argues Weimar was doomed to fail from the start, because of its huge unpopularity. One last criticism of Weiss is that when he talks about the rise of other parties, especially the left, he almost dismisses this as a mistake in German society. By this, I mean that he accepts the Social Democrats were winning votes, and that the proletarian class was on their side, but he almost refers to this as if it is not important. That though this happened, everyone else wanted something else. He does not recognise the fact that though antisemitism might have been rife, some people, clearly a large majority of people, who were voting for these leftist parties, were also present in Germany. Therefore, arguably, had it not been for antisemitic feelings already present society, Hitler would not have risen to power. It was other events, such as World War One and the depression that were more important, as without them, antisemitism may have died out or have less of an impact, as it did in other societies. Weiss also argues that other countries had forces to counter these strong antisemitic feelings, such as in France with the Dreyfus affair, arguing that powerful secular and republic tradition was enough of a countervailing force (Weiss, 4).

In conclusion, one last point is about the extent to which German people knew, and if they did, why did they not stop these atrocities. Weiss argues that violence to Jews, though by some disliked, note the word disliked, and not resisted, the majority of the population was in favor of these antisemitic measures. He argues that it was clear from Nazi campaigns and propaganda that the Nazis were going to carry out strict measures against Jews. Therefore, anyone who voted for the Nazis knew what it entailed, and that therefore this proves that antisemitism at large in society was key in the Holocaust. Not only this, but the fact that thousands of people volunteered in the ‘final solution’ shows that it was not just the work of a few madmen (Weiss, 287.)

Weiss’ arguments are very strong, mainly focusing on antisemitic traditions in German society that explain the Holocaust. He uses numerous examples, arguably this makes the book very repetitive, but Weiss includes many examples to illustrate why his argument is the more sound one. The book is let down by the fact that it is very one sided, and Weiss is cynical of other historians views. The book does not necessarily a balanced view, but it needs a fair portrayal of other arguments about the holocaust, which Weiss does not give. He briefly touches upon other issues, but he mainly focuses on antisemitism. At times, I believe this lets him down, as he does not counter other arguments, but simply disregards them. On the whole, it was an interesting read, and he is very convincing, but I do believe that he needs to better acknowledge other strong arguments about the Holocaust, such as those mentioned in this essay.

Bibliography and Links (back to top)(links last checked 3/x/08)

Book Reviews

  • George M. Kren, in The American Historical Review , Vol. 102, No. 2. (Apr., 1997), pp. 472-474. (jstor)
    George Kren reviews two books looking at the causes of the Holocaust. Kren is fairly critical of Weiss, arguing that he does not really answer the question he set out to do. He explains how Weiss has presented a good history of antisemitism in Germany, and has used various examples of high profile figures such as Richard Wagner and others to prove that antisemitism was not a Nazi invention. However, Kren argues Weiss has failed to answer the question of why the Holocaust happened in Germany. Kren does not agree with the conclusion that the primary source of the Holocaust was in national German tradition.
  • Michael S. Sherry, ‘The Seeds of Hate’, The New York Times, (Jan., 1996). (NYT link)
    As one can see by the title, Michael Sherry explains how Weiss’s book shows how the factors needed for the Holocaust were already present in Germany, for example the Lutherans. He accepts that Weiss is very focused, perhaps gliding over some issues, but states that it is understandable based on the argument that Weiss puts forward. Nevertheless, he states that Weiss tells the story in a compelling way.

Other Books and Articles

  • Jay Y. Gonen, The Roots of Nazi Psychology: Hitler’s Utopian Barbarism (University Press of Kentucky; 2nd Edition, May 2003).
    Gonen looks into the role of ideology in shaping mass thinking, as well as antisemitism. He looks into how the Jews were portrayed in Germany. By doing this, he looks further into the economic, social and cultural history of Germany, giving a similar appraoch to John Weiss, looking at whether Hitler was an exception, or a ‘man of the people.’
  • William I. Brustein and Ryan D. King, “Antisemitism in Europe before the Holocaust” International Political Science Review 2004; 25-35. <http://ips.sagepub.com/cgi/reprint/25/1/35>
    The article looks at antisemitism not just in Germany but in other countries. Looking at the issue of whether antisemitism was more prominent in Germany than in other places such as France, Italy, Romania or Britain. It also looks at whether antisemitism had increased in intensity between 1899 and the Holocaust.
  • Dan Michman, “'The Holocaust' in the Eyes of Historians: The Problem of Conceptualization, Periodization, and Explanation,” Modern Judaism, Vol. 15, No. 3. (Oct., 1995), pp. 233-264. (jstor)
    This article looks at the various histories of the Holocaust. It is interesting because it looks at a number of historians and describes what their views are, and what they believe to be the primary cause of the Holocaust. It is a good, quick survery of numerous scholarly opinions on the topic.


  • Gary M. Grobman, “Classical and Christian Anti Semitism” (1990) <http://remember.org/History.root.classical.html>
    A teaching website that gives examples of classical and Christian antisemitic, or one should say anti-Jewish events, or ideologies. It is a good aid when looking for examples of antisemitism long before the Nazis ever came about.
  • Lauren Moe, “Anti Semitism: What is it?” (1997) <http://www.cdn-friends-icej.ca/antiholo/summanti.html>
    Gives a timeline of anti-Jewish events that took place, from 135 BC to 1983. Though brief, it again provides a good source of information for evidence of anti-Jewish sentiments in existence for a very long time.

(back to top)

Any student tempted to use this paper for an assignment in another course or school should be aware of the serious consequences for plagiarism. Here is what I write in my syllabi:

Plagiarism—presenting someone else's work as your own, or deliberately failing to credit or attribute the work of others on whom you draw (including materials found on the web)—is a serious academic offense, punishable by dismissal from the university. It hurts the one who commits it most of all, by cheating them out of an education. I report offenses to the Office of the Dean of Students for disciplinary action.

prepared for web by Harold Marcuse on 3/20/08; last updated:
back to top, to Hist 133d homepage, 133bd Book Essays index page; Prof. Marcuse's Courses page; Professor's homepage