Friday, February 6, 2009

The Back Of My Mind

I have been perusing my friend Amos Elon’s great book about the Jews of Germany, The Pity of It All, whose narrative culminated in a sorrowful look at Weimar. I confess that re-reading those later pages is not a good idea just now. Avigdor Lierberman's Yisrael Beiteinu Party is surging; the centrist parties are all finding ways to say they will work with him. 

Here is what Amos has to teach us about Weimar in the late 1920s, or at least what we derive from his vivid narrative:
  • There was a national consensus, left over from a generation of war, that the people has suffered deadly, degrading blows which must never be suffered again; a people encircled by mortal enemies and nervous about internal traitors infected with a naïve liberalism; a people grieving for the dead, bonded by blood and sorrow and an ancient myth of transcendence.
  • Even leaders in the “center” of German politics appealed to this consensus, believing that the demagogues who appealed to it most stridently, violently, tearfully, would remain marginal and controllable nuisances. But rightist activists were up and coming, disproportionately youthful, hardened by combat, exhibiting discipline but scoffing at laws, creating chaos and then clamoring for order.
  • Given Weimar's sad consensus, disunity seemed the main danger, while order seemed the charge of prestigious military leaders, who were accustomed to command in a state of siege.  Some had mentored the law-breakers and praised their sincerity. They certainly were willing to go along with those who argued about the need to find a solution to the threat of internal enemies.
  • Politicians of the left, in contrast, were considered mere opportunists, too distant, petulant and cosmopolitan to do any ordinary worker much good—especially when the common good was being sacrificed to a freer market economy, booming intermittently because of foreign loans and shifting markets, but allowing manifest disparities of wealth.  And the disparities were between, on the one hand, unemployed (or near-unemployed) workers, half-educated, half-pious, prudish, feeling deprived at the family table, and, on the other, an élite, over-educated, over-sexed, well-connected, too-conspicuously enjoying luxurious stuff and decadent, worldly art.
THE MERE SUGGESTION that there might be any parallels here to Israel’s “situation,” or to the fate of its center, is a serious violation of the consensus here.  Could any Israeli extremist ever seriously be compared to any Nazi?  

Elon makes clear in his book that the triumph of fascism in Germany was not at all inevitable; that, as he later told me, it might well have been preempted in various European countries by a timely show of force—in fact, by a coalition of centrist generals and social democratic leaders buttressed by outside powers.  

Still, it would be less disquieting to witness this election without the patterns projected from Elon’s book in the back of my mind.

9 comments:

Alex Stein said...

Interesting post. I think, though, that you've missed out the single most important reason for the fall of Weimar - the economic crash. Without it, surely the Nazis would never have come to power. We're not quite at hyperinflation levels yet...

fiddler said...

Suggesting any parallels doesn't mean suggesting history will repeat itself to the letter, which of course it never does. The current economic crisis isn't nearly as bad as the one in the late '20s/early '30s, and Israel lacks an equivalent of the Wilhelminian heritage that was at the root of much of the anti-democratic forces then.
OTOH the SPD had used up much of their credit on the left with their brutal quelling of the Spartacus insurrection of 1919, even openly colluding with the far-right Freikorps. Strategically most disastrous was probably the splintering of the left, with the SPD viewing the USPD (and the communists) as more deadly enemies than the far right. In my impression there's a similar rift in Israel between the Zionist and the non-Zionist left, the Zionist consensus taking the place of the Weimar consensus you describe, both taking precedence over the democratic make-up of the state. And the centre's attitude towards the demagogues is echoed in Netanyahu's toward Feiglin.

Does that mean Feiglin or Lieberman = Hitler? I think that's a red herring, as if anything not quite as bad as the Nazis would be a good thing.

Anonymous said...

I think, though, that you've missed out the single most important reason for the fall of Weimar - the economic crash. Without it, surely the Nazis would never have come to power.

The economic crisis in Weimar was the catalyst for an existential crisis. I would argue that Israel is suffering an existential crisis even in the absence of economic hardship.

Anonymous said...

Dummkopf. Not used to this comment protocol. The above comment was mine.

marc b.

Shoded Yam said...

I think the ideological character of the Israeli extreme right is somewhat more textured and nuanced than that of similer movements in other countries. It's absolutist and totalitarian nature, rather than being a fractile of 20th century facism, is actually rooted in halacha and the tribalism of the tanach. As such, it's adherents natuarlly take umbridge with such labels as "Nazi", never once taking recognition of the fact that there own kahane's and feiglin's are no less odious despite the lack of teutonic flavor.

Of course on the other hand, you have "Leibermans". Basically nothing more than a well financed, and connected racketeer, who senses an oppurtunity, inflames public opinion with such melo-dramatic devices as "loyalty oaths", games the system, and then leverages his subsequent popularity into a cabinet post and the eventually, the Prime Ministers office. Leiberman is a mobster from moldova. Putin is the paradigm here, not Hitler. Neither Israel, Israelis, Arabs, Palestinians or whathaveyou are Leiberman's concern. Leiberman is Leiberman's concern. Autocracy is not the goal. Kleptocracy is.

Syd Walker said...

I have what many may consider a heretical view on this.

I think a lot of pro-Israeli commentators actually relish comparisons between Israel now and Germany in the 1930/40s.

The Nazi comparison, far from being the worst possible insult against modern Israel, is ideologically useful to the State that's fast becoming the most unpopular on earth.

This is for a few reasons:

1/ It suggests that all the German Nazis were about was nutty, authoritarian, militatistic madness (in the manner of Leiberman & co). That is something of a myth. The main reason for Hitler's rising popularity in Germany by the late 1930s was the success of his economic program. Hitler's regime showed it is possible for a modern nation to succeed economically, mainly by applying Keynesian policies - even without support from the major Anglo-American-Jewish banking houses. That 'lesson' is dangerous to some very powerful vested interests.

2/ The comparison frightens some people, who become even more scared about confronting Israel and the Israel Lobby than before.

3/ It legitimizes, yet again, the Israeli State - by re-inforcing its key Origin Myth ie. the myth that it was born as a direct consequence of the Shoah, in response to the Shoah - and as protection against future Shoahs.

The truth is more subtle. I think it more accurate to suggest the modern Israeli state is the product of long-term strategic planning by major Jewish banking interests. Evidence for this goes back to the 1880s - before Adolf was a twinkle in his father's eye.

I might add I write this in a spirit of humility. I don't pretend certainty. I'd be interested in intelligent criticism and feedback.

Y. Ben-David said...

Avishai's comparison of his political opponents with Fascism and Nazism is an ancient tactic of the Israeli Left (part of which, MAPAM, were ardent admirers of Stalin) which grew stale decades ago. They tried as late as 1977 to compare Menachem Begin with Mussolini. Young Israelis, even those of the Left, think Avishai's comparison is ridiculous. Just shows how out of touch Avishai is with reality and how little he knows about Israel society.
Of course, for Avishai's elitist group, any tactic is legitimate in trying to maintain power. Avishai claims Lieberman is a rabble-rouser, so he himself then uses the same tactic to smear his political opponent. The Left and its failed "peace process" has been totally discredited, and after bringing two unsuccessful wars on Israel in 3 years (remember how Olmert told Avishai personally a year ago at a party with tears in his eyes that he would be the one to finally bring peace to Israel?) there is nothing left for Avishai's people to do except call their opponents Fascists in a roundabout way. This is why the Left is going to lose badly in these elections. Moral and intellectual bankruptcy.

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