Eighty years ago tens of thousands of German Jews were arrested in a nationwide pogrom that became known as Kristallnacht, the Night of Broken Glass, because of the thousands of windows that were shattered in Jewish-owned shops, businesses, homes, and synagogues. Thus the Kristallnacht opened a new chapter in the Nazi extermination project. To that point, the regime had used murder as a means to terrorize Jews into emigrating. After the 9/10 November pogrom, it was suddenly thinkable that murder might mutate into an end in itself, into outright genocide, a word that had not yet been coined. But what led Hitler and the German people to believe with their actions they served a worthy cause? Why did the Nazi’s justified every escalation of persecution against the Jews as a response to what they alleged was a prior act of aggression by international Jewry?
That many communists were Jews has, with horrible frequency, been twisted to imply that all Jews were communists. The Nazis cast “Jewish Bolshevism” as a single scourge, and the return this decade of the far right has also witnessed a hideous return of anti-Semitism, not just in Europe but in the United States as well. (Nowhere is this more urgent than in Poland, where a new “death camp” law has been called tantamount to Holocaust denial, and where the populist Law and Justice government combines strident anti-Communist rhetoric with anti-Semitism of greater or lesser overtness.)
Jewish Bolshevism and revolution Emerged in the atmosphere of the destruction of Russia During World War I. When the revolutions of 1917 crippled Russia’s war effort, conspiracy theories grew up. The worldwide spread of the concept in the 1920s is associated with the publication of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a fraudulent document that purposed to describe a secret Jewish conspiracy aimed at world domination. The expression made an issue out of the Jewishness of some leading Bolsheviks (most notably Leon Trotsky) during and after the October Revolution.
In fact, one could say that the myth of the Jewish Conspiracy made Adolf Hitler. The former corporal, who claimed to have perceived the full truth of Jewish evil at the end of World War I while recovering in a military hospital from a gas attack, began his political career in Munich, a city profoundly shaken by its experience of the 1918 revolution in Munich. And the role that paramilitaries played in chasing Munich’s revolutionaries from power and unleashing a wave of retributive violence convinced a broad spectrum of Bavarians that the threat of Bolshevik power must be met with firm and determined force. Thereafter, Munich became a center of activity for the extreme German Right. The Nazi Party, and its leader, Adolf Hitler, emerged in this political milieu, drawing on the memory of the Bavarian revolution to justify their ideological belief in the Jewish threat to German society.1
But Bolshevism did not make Hitler an antisemite. The threat of Judeo-Bolshevism did not become a constant theme in his speeches until the summer of 1920, possibly influenced by Baltic German émigrés who had gathered in Munich, as well as the constant press coverage of the Russian Civil War. Hitler’s personal fixation with Jews predated the war. In the context of Germany’s defeat, the German revolution of 1918, and the political turbulence that ensued, his hatred became an ideology. Hitler’s conviction that Bolshevism was a Jewish plot, a fixed vision once formed, gave substance and intensity to his ideas about the Jewish enemy.
Only as Hitler began to develop his views on German imperial expansion and the importance of “living space” in the East did he begin consistently to describe the Jewish plot as a racial and ideological enemy that represented both an implacably hostile Jewish Bolshevist system and, at the same time, a reservoir of brutal Asiatic sub-humanity. All these ideas crystallized gradually in Hitler’s thinking. Once they gelled, however, they never changed, remaining central to Nazi ideology to the last hours of the Third Reich in 1945. Jewish Bolsheviks were bloodstained terrorists. They had inspired the “November criminals,” who had stabbed the German people in the back in 1918. And they were deceitful enemies on a mission to impose Jewish rule over the world. Hitler believed it was the German people’s historic calling to protect the world from Judeo-Bolshevik evil. German annihilation would leave the entire world helpless before this great enemy. As he wrote in Mein Kampf: “If, with the help of his Marxist creed, the Jew is victorious over the other peoples of the world, his crown will be the funeral wreath of humanity and this planet will, as it did thousands of years ago, move through the ether devoid of men.”2
There was, however, an important difference that loomed ever larger once Hitler seized power. After 1933, the Nazi vision of the the Jewish Bolshevist conspiracy, fused with broader dreams of German dominance in Europe and racial imperialism in the East, was transformed. Once a language of anti-democratic and antiliberal opposition to a republic seen as un-German, it became instead a strategic vision for a reborn Germany that could, in fact, be realized.
As an example the Nazi mythology of the Kampfzeit, the “period of struggle” between 1919 and 1933 when the Nazi Party fought for power, there was there was the portrayal of an alleged martyr named Horst Wessel. Son of a Protestant pastor and military chaplain, Wessel came of age in an intensely nationalistic milieu; after 1918 Wessel’s father had a brief career as a political agitator, moving from the pulpit to the public square to denounce Germany’s defeat, the Treaty of Versailles, Jews, and the Bolshevik menace, before he died in 1921.3 After his father’s sudden death, Wessel took part in various right-wing student organizations before joining the Nazi Party and the Sturmabteilung (SA), or Storm Troopers, also known as the Brownshirts. He soon displayed talents as a speaker and organizer, taking charge of an SA Storm section in the working-class district of Friedrichshain in Berlin, challenging the Communist Party for control of the streets in the neighborhood, and working to “redeem” truly German workers from the foreign and degenerate ideology that had seduced them. In 1930, he was shot by Albrecht Höhler, a member of the local Communist Party. When Wessel died three weeks later, Joseph Goebbels orchestrated a provocative and imposing funeral procession through the working-class districts of Berlin. This was the first act in Wessel’s “resurrection.” In the years that followed, the story of the life and death of Horst Wessel became central to the Nazi cult, and the regime ritually commemorated its comrade as a victim of Communist brutality who still—in the words of the “Horst Wessel Song”-“marched in their ranks in spirit.”4
Albrecht Höhler was not a Jew. But this did not prevent Goebbels and other Nazis from working to give Wessel’s killer a Jewish face. As Wessel lay in the hospital in Friedrichshain, Goebbels denounced the “subhuman” and “murder-crazed, degenerate Communist bandits” who had shot him.5 Soon after, Hanns Heinz Ewers, best known until then for writing erotically charged horror tales, was commissioned to write a biographic novel about Wessel, after impressing Hitler in a personal meeting.
Wessel’s killer in the novel was a pimp named Höhler, incited to act by a Jewish girl named Else Cohn (“an anti-fascist girl, a small, ugly person”) who in turn was following the orders of “Kronstein,” the leader of the Reds in Warsaw. Those who cared to read this novel did not need to be told that Cohn and Kronstein were agents of an international Jewish conspiracy.6 Ewers also wrote the script for a film, Hans Westmar: One of Many, that was based on the details of Wessel’s life. In this work, too, many of the Communist leaders are embodiments embodiments of ideological and racial menace: a Russian commissar sent by Moscow, a mannish woman, and a wildly stereotypical Jew with a shock of tangled white hair, dark round glasses, bushy eyebrows, and a large nose, who incites the Berlin workers to acts of violence, but who flees from it himself.7
For many Germans, thus the tense political situation of the early 1930s recalled the tumultuous years immediately after 1918, when revolutionaries had briefly ruled in Munich and the Communist Spartacists, led by Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg, had vied for power in Berlin. Bourgeois Germans across the country had feared the contagion of revolution. In some cities they had formed civil defense groups to protect themselves and their property. Nationalist newspapers had fed their fears with headlines that proclaimed an impending “flood” of Bolshevik violence, the virulent spread of “Russian chaos,” and the prospect of a bloodbath in the streets. After the first turbulent postwar months, the chance of an actual civil war evaporated, but the fears remained, reinforced by detailed and highly politicized accounts of revolutionary terror in Munich and other places, and by press coverage of state repression in the Soviet Union. As the Weimar Republic descended into crisis once again after 1929, Nazi Party activists preyed on memories of postwar revolutionary upheaval, warning that Germans must defend themselves against a new wave of revolutionary unrest or else become slaves to alien masters.8 The political unrest of the early 1930s afforded many opportunities to stoke those fears.9 Young men in the Nazi SA and the Communist Red Guard clashed in the streets over symbols and public spaces, nowhere more intensely than in Berlin. The city was the capital of the Weimar Republic and of a Prussian state still governed by democratic parties.
Throughout the last years of the Weimar Republic, antisemitic articles filled the pages of Attack, the Nazi newspaper for Berlin founded by Joseph Goebbels. Goebbels and other writers for the paper routinely tied Jewish Communists to Prussian state and Berlin municipal authorities: all were faces of the “Jewish-Marxist power” that ruled over Germany. No one was a greater target for Nazi slander than the vice president of the Berlin police, Bernhard Weiss (always called by the false and Jewish-sounding name of “Isidor” in the newspaper), a German-Jewish liberal who was routinely defamed as an agent of Jewish Bolsheviks and Jewish capitalists. Such men were the true enemies who had killed Horst Wessel, “soldier of the German revolution,” as he fought to conquer Berlin for the Nazi movement. The memory of Wessel’s death, Goebbels prophesied after his funeral, would inspire Germany’s awakening and sweep them all away.10
After Hitler came to power in 1933, Nazi Party leaders kept alive the memory of Communist violence during the “time of struggle.”11 According to the myths they told about themselves, Germany had almost been destroyed in November 1918. In his 1935 address to the Nuremberg Party Congress, Joseph Goebbels rehearsed this history to mobilize party members. He began by denouncing the “criminals” of November 1918. He retold the depredations committed by Jewish Communist revolutionaries in Munich in 1919 and even reprised the false accusation that a Jewish girl named Else Cohn had played an important role in the murder of Horst Wessel. All this was a background to the great transformation that 1933 had brought. Now, he said, “we have completely overcome this menace … [W]e know how to cope with these insidious forces.” Adolf Hitler had “set up a barrier against world Bolshevism against which the waves of this vile Asiatic-Jewish flood break in vain.” History would give him credit for “having saved Germany … by overthrowing Bolshevism and thereby saving the whole civilization of the West.”12
Officials at the Ministry of Propaganda elaborated on this premise, explaining the widespread support of German workers for Communism before 1933 in racial terms. Beginning in 1933, the Institute for the Study of the Jewish Question, under the direction of Eberhard Taubert, the top ministry specialist for anti-Bolshevik propaganda, produced a series of studies that “revealed” the Jewish Communist leaders who had colonized workers’ minds in Germany. The foreword to one such work, Jew and Worker, asserted that the problem was not one of “leader and follower, but of seducer and seduced,” “the most unnatural partnership and political parasitism of a racially alien element, in every respect unequal to the German worker.” In keeping with the narrative of redemption through National Socialism, the racial “expert” F. O. H. Schulz, who wrote the book, concluded optimistically that “in this era of national [völkisch] upheaval,” the German worker had recognized that the “opium of Judo-Marxism” could lead only to the “atomization of the people [Volk],” and had thus begun to “free himself.”13 Nazi vigilance against the Jewish Bolshevist enemy had prevented a second November 1918.
After 1933, the Nazi Party promoted a vision of authentic German culture with a series of popular exhibitions demonizing “Jewish art Bolshevism.” These efforts culminated in the massive show of “degenerate art” that toured Germany in 1937.14
Hounded by the Nazi state, the Communist Party soon ceased to be a political force in Germany. The purpose of anti-Communism began to change. In 1935 Heinrich Himmler reimagined the role of the security services as “preventive defense” in anticipation of a future war. From that point on, a more powerful Schutzstaffel (SS) could move against a wide range of ideological and racial foes by justifying their actions as preemptive strikes against enemies whom the German people would inevitably meet in battle sooner or later. Reinhard Heydrich, head of the Security Police, explained this “transformation” in broad ideological terms for a 1935 article in the SS journal Schwarzes Korps: “When our short-term objective was suddenly achieved, most of our fellow combatants believed … our opponents had simply disappeared.… Unfortunately our fellow combatants have actually only seen and fought oppositional parties. They do not realize that these parties are merely the external forms of intellectual forces … that want to exterminate Germany with all its powerful forces of blood, spirit, and soil.… [T]he form of battle has changed. The driving forces of the enemy remain eternally the same.” In this eternal struggle for national survival, Bolshevism was clearly “one of the most important instrumental creations of the Jews.”15 Judeo-Bolshevism became a symbol of the need to wage a ruthless war of preemptive defense against racialized threats to national security. In 1941, this ideology would come to drive a murderous onslaught against Jews across the Soviet Union.
1. Ian Kershaw, Hitler, 1889–1936: Hubris (London, 1998), esp. 110–116. On revolution in Bavaria, see Alan F. Mitchell, Revolution in Bavaria, 1918–1919: The Eisner Regime and the Soviet Republic (Princeton, NJ, 1965), and Eliza Ablovatski, “The 1919 Central European Revolutions and the Judeo-Bolshevik Myth,” European Review of History 17, no. 3 (June 2010): 473–489. One example of a contemporary assessment is Josef Karl, Die Schreckensherrschaft in München und Spartakus im bayr: Oberland (Munich, 1919).
2. For “funeral wreath of humanity,” see Paul R. Mendes-Flohr and Jehuda Reinharz, eds., The Jew in the Modern World: A Documentary History (New York, 1980), 485–487, quotation on 487. On Hitler’s ideological development, see Kershaw, Hitler: Hubris, 60–69; 149–153, and 240–250. More generally, see Claus-Ekkehard Bärsch, Die politische Religion des Nationalsozialismus: Die religiöse Dimension der NS-Ideologie in den Schriften von Dietrich Eckart, Joseph Goebbels, Alfred Rosenberg, und Adolf Hitler (Munich, 1998).
3. Manfred Gailus, “Vom Feldgeistlichen des Ersten Weltkriegs zum politischen Prediger des Bürgerkriegs: Kontinuitäten in der Berliner Pfarrer Familie Wessel,” Zeitschrift für Geschichtswissenschaft 50, no. 9 (2002): 773–803.
4. Daniel Siemens, The Making of a Nazi Hero: The Murder and Myth of Horst Wessel, trans. David Burnett (London, 2013); Jay W. Baird, To Die for Germany: Heroes in the Nazi Pantheon (Bloomington, IN, 1990), 73–108.
5. Baird, To Die for Germany, 82–83.
6. Citations and analysis in Karl-Heinz Schoeps, Literature and Film in the Third Reich, trans. Kathleen M. Dell’Orto (Rochester, NY, 2004), 83–87, citations on 85. Hanns Heinz Ewers, Horst Wessel: Ein deutsches Schicksal (Berlin, 1932).
7. On the film, see Jay W. Baird, “Goebbels, Horst Wessel, and the Myth of Resurrection and Return,” Journal of Contemporary History 17, no. 4 (October 1982): 633–650, here 642–645.
8. On political violence in the Weimar Republic, see Dirk Schumann, Political Violence in the Weimar Republic, 1918–1933: Fight for the Streets and Fear of Civil War, trans. Thomas Dunlap (New York, 2009), and Andreas Wirsching, Vom Weltkrieg zum Bürgerkrieg? Politischer Extremismus in Deutschland und Frankreich, 1918–1933/39 (Munich, 1999), esp. 299–330 and 461–467. On violence and the SA more generally, see Sven Reichardt, Faschistische Kampfbünde: Gewalt und Gemeinschaft im italienischen Squadrismus und in der deutschen SA (Cologne, 2002).
9. On the political unrest of this period, see Dirk Blasius, Weimars Ende: Bürgerkrieg und Politik, 1930–1933 (Göttingen, 2005), and Heinrich August Winkler, Weimar, 1918–1933: Die Geschichte der ersten deutschen Demokratie (Munich, 1993), 477–521.
10. On Goebbels and Berlin, see Wirsching, Vom Weltkrieg zum Bürgerkrieg? 461–467; citations on 465–466. See also Joseph Goebbels, Der Angriff: Aufsätze aus der Kampfzeit (Munich, 1935), 308–321.
11. Adolf Ehrt and Hans Roden, Terror: Die Blutchronik des Marxismus in Deutschland: Auf Grund amtlichen Materials bearbeitet (Berlin, 1934).
12. Joseph Goebbels, Communism with the Mask Off: Speech Delivered in Nürnberg on September 13 1935 at the Seventh National-Socialist Party Congress (Berlin, 1935), citations on 13, 33.
13. F. O. H. Schulz, Jude und Arbeiter: Ein Abschnitt aus der Tragödie des deutschen Volkes (Berlin, 1934), 7, 174.
14. Björn Laser, Kulturbolschewismus! Zur Diskurssemantik der “totalen Krise,” 1929–1933 (Frankfurt am Main, 2010); Eckhard John, Musikbolschewismus: Die Politisierung der Musik in Deutschland, 1918–1938 (Stuttgart, 1994); and Olaf Peters, ed., Degenerate Art: The Attack on Modern Art in Nazi Germany, 1937 (Munich, 2014).
15. Michael Wildt, An Uncompromising Generation: The Nazi Leadership of the Reich Security Main Office, trans. Tom Lampert (Madison, WI, 2009), 137. See also Peter Longerich, Heinrich Himmler, trans. Jeremy Noakes and Lesley Sharpe (Oxford, 2012), 193–194, 202–203.