Telling Forbidden Stories: The Life of Arno Mayer

I’m going to offer this as a bit of a conviction: Complexity is not to be feared. Nor analysis, context, reconsideration, any of it. We don’t lose the ability to morally condemn just because we have come to a more nuanced explanation.

This morning, the New York Times published the obituary of Arno Mayer, an historian of 20th century Europe, who died last month at age 97. Before I read the article, I hadn’t heard of him. Now I am glad to know about his life and work, even as I am a bit perplexed by some of the controversy he engendered.

There are institutions in this country which design themselves specifically to protect free speech, and the University (as an institution) is one of them. The system of tenure was designed to ensure that professors could research, write, and speak freely about the consequences of their research without fearing that they would be dismissed for their political views. So it’s always especially distressing to see that while the formal mechanisms (keeping a job) work one way, there are countless other ways to discipline someone who holds views that threaten the collective narrative we’re wedded to.

Arno Mayer was a person who didn’t accept quietly some of the big stories about history, especially when his research and ideas led him in another direction.

It’s going to sound a little modest to explain this— like a big “what’s the big deal”— but Mayer was persuaded by a heresy that the rise of Hitler’s final solution was not fueled by Jew-hatred alone.  I know, I know— crazy, right? That there could have been factors other than hatred that influenced leaders and plummeted the world into war? Like self-interest and personal experiences and mistakes and national pride and modernity?

I’m probably the wrong person to write about this, because I was pretty old before I knew that the “World War II” that people were talking about was anything more than the Holocaust. As a kid, I thought countries were just fighting over Jews, and the fact that there were other geopolitical considerations was news to me eventually. In Mayer’s research and writing, Mayer came to believe that it was a worthy project to lay out all of the factors that gave rise to Hitler’s “final solution” to kill all the Jews.

You’d think— at least I’d think— that this would be a welcome addition to scholarship, to try to understand the way that systems (and people) in power develop into genocidal aspirants. If things start out as some sort of bias, and bloom into a desire to decimate an entire people, I’d sure like to understand the power dynamics and progression.

But that isn’t what happened, and here I’m going to quote at some length from the New York Times obituary.

Dr. Mayer argued that while antisemitism was rife within German society, it was only one of many reasons for the Nazis’ rise to power and subsequent invasion of the Soviet Union. Just as important was the specter of Soviet Communism, which drove the old German elite to support Hitler in the first place.

“If Hitler’s worldview had an epicenter,” he wrote, “it was his deep-seated animosity toward contemporary civilization, and not his hatred for Jews, which was grafted onto it.”

While the Nazis had imprisoned and murdered countless Jews already, Dr. Mayer argued, it was only when the invasion of the Soviet Union faltered, in late 1941, that Hitler and his circle decided on a systematic plan of extermination, which Dr. Mayer called the Judeocide.

While several prominent historians supported Dr. Mayer’s thesis — the Polish Jewish historian Nechama Tec called the book “a welcome addition to the existing literature” — many others denounced it. In a lengthy review in The New Republic, Daniel Jonah Goldhagen, then a graduate student at Harvard, called it “a mockery of memory and history.”

The Anti-Defamation League went further, adding Dr. Mayer to its list of “Hitler’s Apologists” in a 1993 report, accusing him of writing “historical scholarship which relativizes the genocide of the Jews.”

The Anti-Defamation League was founded in 1910, and has been the leading American voice against anti-Semitism for over a hundred years. Now they list their mission as “To stop the defamation of the Jewish people and to secure justice and fair treatment to all” with the dual goals of fighting anti-Semitism and protecting civil rights. 

So why are they wedded to the idea that the idea of hating Jews had to be the driving force behind Hitler’s rise to power? If I’m cynical for a second, I’d say that perhaps if your mission is to fight an enemy (like anti-Semitism), it matters a lot that the enemy you are fighting be a natural enemy. Not a choice that could be persuaded or shifted, but just something that people are born with. Maybe it’s more fundamental that way. 

Actually, I don’t know. 

Because it’s weird. Mayer was a Jew (interestingly, he calls himself a “non-Jewish Jew” in the introduction to his book  Plowshares into Swords: From Zionism to Israel). He fled the Nazis from his native Luxembourg, escaping by piling into a two-door Chevrolet with his family and fleeing south through France within hours of the German invasion, then onwards to Algeria, Morocco, then the United States. Four years after being forced out of his home, he enlisted and served with United States forces in WWII. And after the war he became a scholar of history, inspired by his own personal trauma of having barely survived the Holocaust. His father was a left-wing Zionist, and Mayer shared some of those sensibilities (although he grew disillusioned enough to criticize the way the country had embraced a  militarized nationalism).

Here’s a little episode that Mayer himself wrote about in explaining his own Jewish background:

It was with this background, in 1944, that I faced up to anti-Judaism during basic training in Company A of the Second Armored Replacement Battalion in Fort Knox, Kentucky. Early one evening after maneuvers, just after I had finished my assigned reading of the army’s daily news bulletin to the men in my barracks, a fellow soldier rushed forward and handed me a poem to recite. Its closing strain ran, more or less: “Once we have defeated the Krauts and the Maps overseas we’ll come home to kick the shit out to he Kikes and Niggers.” When I brazenly proclaimed my Jewishness they jumped me, and in the melee that followed I lost two front teeth.

From the preface of Plowshares into Swords: From Zionism to Israel

He goes on to detail disobeying orders to boost the morale (and court) the German rocket scientist Wernher von Braun.

In any event, it’s a little strange to call this guy a “Hitler apologist,” don’t you think? I do.

But here’s what is true: sometimes it seems that you can’t so much as analyze anti-Semitism without being called an anti-Semite. All the words of love of allegiance for Judaism don’t measure up to a skepticism with the dogma that there is just something unexplainable and unavoidable about the way that the world hates Jews. Trying to make sense of it gets you in trouble for offering “context” when there can be no explanation.

So I’m going to offer this as a bit of a conviction: Complexity is not to be feared. Nor analysis, context, reconsideration, any of it. We don’t lose the ability to morally condemn just because we have come to a more nuanced explanation.

I think people have in mind here a kind of sentencing trial, where a history of trauma or abuse or lack of opportunity is weighed against punishment. We judge Jean Valjean very differently than we judge Bonnie and Clyde, because the context of one is desperation and hunger and the other is psychopathy. Maybe the fear is that if we understand the mindset of anti-Semitism, and what nurtures it forward, we would just let people off the hook and root for their successes the way we want Valjean to triumph.

But it isn’t true. Understanding better why people choose to embrace hatred is going to make our world better. And not only because we have more ways to fight hatred, although that is also true.

Rather, it will make our world better because it is what the world needs. When you think about it, what is more likely to be lacking in the world: Nuance, research, and truth? Or people standing up to take an easy punch and criticize Hitler apologists? 

I’m going to say the former. Particularly when those so-called “Hitler apologists” are anything but. 

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