The Simon Wiesenthal Center put on display this week the first known anti-Semitic writing of Adolf Hitler, a letter he typed and quite legibly signed in 1919. Unfortunately, at the same time, they put a politically correct spin on what the letter actually says, while glossing over some inconvenient facts about people who were saying exactly the same thing as Hitler at exactly the same time.
As you can read here, the letter says nothing at all about exterminating, annihilating, or otherwise killing any Jews. In fact, Hitler pointedly rejects the whole idea of pogroms against the Jews, disdaining such violence as based on “emotional grounds,” in contrast to his own loftier “anti-Semitism based on reason.”
At the very moment Hitler was writing, pogroms were racking the nearby Ukraine, during which some 35,000 to 50,000 Jews were murdered. The Hitler of 1919 disdained that approach, championing instead the “systematic legal combating and elimination of the privileges of the Jews, that which distinguishes the Jews from the other aliens who live among us (an Aliens Law). The ultimate objective must, however, be the irrevocable removal of the Jews in general.”
Today, with the benefit of hindsight, the rabbi who put the letter on display said that if people had taken bets in 1919, “they all would have bet this is a lot of nonsense, nothing would happen like this. And 22 years later, it happened exactly as he wrote it.” But it didn’t happen at all as Hitler wrote it. What happened 22 years later was the commencement of the “Final Solution,” the systematic extermination of the Jews of Nazi-conquered territories. That’s not what the letter says – it says “removal,” an entirely different and not very novel idea.
The first “removal” of Jews was effected by the Roman Empire, back in the 2nd century. After the second major rebellion in Palestine, which cost thousands of Roman lives and massive sums of Roman money to subdue, the frustrated Emperor Hadrian ordered the permanent removal of all Jews from Jerusalem, and even renamed the city.
In the 13th century, it was England’s turn. King Edward I, perpetually short of funds, extracted money from his Jewish subjects by every means he could imagine, until they had very little left. They still owned property, though; Edward solved that problem by his 1290 “Edict of Expulsion,” removing every Jew from the country. This Edict was not repealed until 1656.
King Philip the Fair of France was only mildly impressed, because Edward’s inefficiency let a lot of money slip from his grasp. Philip thought that secrecy of preparation and suddenness of action were the keys. On July 22, 1306, every Jew in France was arrested. Within weeks, they were escorted to the borders and expelled – without any of their property, which Philip retained for himself. Currency went into the treasury, chattels were auctioned off, and account debtors were instructed to pay their debts to the Exchequer of France. Just as importantly, all debts owing from the king to the removed Jews were cancelled.
There weren’t that many Jews in England and France to remove, but there were lots of them in Spain. In 1492, Ferdinand and Isabella ordered them all either to convert to Christianity or leave. Many who elected to convert did so falsely, while secretly continuing their Jewish practices; rooting out these pseudo-converts was one of the principal aims of the Spanish Inquisition. Many who did leave wound up in Ottoman Turkey, whose Sultan could not believe his good fortune: “Allah has struck the king of Spain with blindness, that he should impoverish his realm to enrich mine.” Many of the highest government positions in 16th century Turkey were filled by Jews.
In Germany itself, Jews had been removed from Vienna and Linz in 1421, from Cologne in 1424, Augsburg in 1439, Bavaria in 1442 and again in 1450, and from cities in Moravia in 1454. So when Hitler talked about removing Jews in 1919, there is little doubt about what he actually meant. What’s fascinating, though, is that Hitler was not the only voice calling for removing Jews from Germany and the rest of Europe: the loudest clamor arose among Jews themselves.
Late in the 19th century, Theodore Herzl launched the “Zionist” movement, to create a location where the Jewish religion could predominate and Jewish politicians could rule. At first, Herzl was intrigued with a British offer of land in East Africa. But Jewish God experts said no, it had to be Palestine, because that was the place that previous Jewish God experts said was intended for them. So Palestine it was; the fact that Palestine was already occupied by other people was a triviality to be disregarded. Some of Herzl’s predictions in his seminal 1896 work The Jewish State seem rather Pollyannaish now: “If we only begin to carry out the plans, anti-Semitism would stop at once and forever. For it is the conclusion of peace.” Further:
But the Jews, once settled in their own State, would probably have no more enemies. As for those who remain behind, since prosperity enfeebles and causes them to diminish, they would soon disappear altogether. I think the Jews will always have sufficient enemies, such as every nation has. But once fixed in their own land, it will no longer be possible for them to scatter all over the world.
So in Herzl’s vision, all Jews would remove from Germany and elsewhere to gather in Palestine, and the few party-poopers who stayed behind would conveniently vanish. This held little appeal at all for most Jews, simply trying to live their lives as best they could; the joke going around in Herzl's hometown of Vienna was "We Jews have waited 2,000 years for the Jewish state, and it had to happen to me?" In fact, 63 years after Israel’s independence, most of the world’s Jews have chosen to stay put. The prospect of this disturbed the Zionist Vladimir Jabotinsky no end, as he wrote in 1904:
That feeling of national ego is deeply ingrained in a man’s “blood”; in his racio-physical type, and in that alone. We do not believe that the independent spirit lies in the body; we believe that a man’s spiritual outlooks are primarily determined by his physical structure. … For that reason we do not believe in spiritual assimilation. It is inconceivable, from the physical point of view, that a Jew born to a family of pure Jewish blood over several generations can become adapted to the spiritual outlooks of a German or a Frenchman. A Jew brought up among Germans may assume German customs, German words. He may be wholly imbued with that German fluid but the nucleus of his spiritual structure will always remain Jewish, because his blood, his body, his physical-racial type are Jewish. The basic features of his spirit are a reflection of the basic traits of his body. And a man whose body is Jewish cannot possibly mold within himself the soul of a Frenchman. … A preservation of national integrity is impossible except by a preservation of racial purity, and for that purpose we are in need of a territory of our own where our people will constitute the overwhelming majority.
Not surprisingly, this was music to the ears of Europe’s anti-Semites. Kaiser Wilhelm put it bluntly: “I am all in favor of the kikes going to Palestine. The sooner they take off the better.” The obvious question becomes, if there were two groups who wanted the Jews removed from Germany – the Nazi types and the Zionists – why didn’t they just work together? The answer is that they did, in ways so shocking that you will definitely want to read about them next week …