“The Jews are our misfortune!” (Die Juden sind unser Unglück!). This was always the tag line on the cover page of Der Stürmer, a Nazi weekly tabloid published between 1923 and 1945. The editor of this incendiary paper, Julius Streicher, was tried and sentenced to death on October 1st 1946 at the Nuremberg Tribunal. The judgment against him read, in part:
“… In his speeches and articles, week after week, month after month, he infected the German mind with the virus of anti-Semitism and incited the German people to active persecution…”
There is a Spanish saying that reads “muerto el perro, se acabó la rabia”, which is used to express that it is much easier to kill the dog than to cure the rabies. Indeed, many trusted that with the defeat of Nazi Germany and its allies the problem of antisemitism would have been eradicated once and forever, that societies were now ultimately vaccinated against the recurrence of this scourge.
We know this was not the case and the killings in April in a Kansas Jewish Community Center or the deadly attack in Brussels’ Jewish Museum last weekend are only the most recent reminder that antisemitism is also a present-day reality.
As perplexing and incomprehensible as these crimes may appear, there is a rationale and an ideological structure behind them. Understanding them enables us to identify the threat of antisemitism at its first manifestations, and to treat the cases with the seriousness they merit, before it is too late.
Different from racism and negative or prejudiced attitudes towards a variety of groups or minorities, antisemitism is characterized by its abstractness and by the degree to which it is disconnected from any real inter-group relations. As the study released this month by the Anti-Defamation League shows, antisemitism is on display in countries without Jewish populations. Furthermore, individuals can harbour anti-Semitic views without ever having met a Jew.
Sociologist Theodor W. Adorno wrote that for the anti-Semite of past and present, Jews are neither a minority nor a religious community. They are the “negative principle as such.” In this explanation lies the core of its lethal nature. The Nazis believed firmly that the extermination of the Jews was a precondition to the world’s well-being. The killer of Kansas City’s JCC and the man who pulled the trigger in Brussel last Saturday (regardless of whether this perpetrator is also a neo-Nazi, a right wing religious extremist or a Muslim fundamentalist) saw the Jews as the incarnation of evil and as the cause of their own, their country’s and the world’s misfortune.
The dogmatic aphorism in Julius Streicher’s Nazi tabloid and these recent killings should serve as a reminder that the path that leads from anti-Semitic incitement to fatal anti-Semitic action is often short. There is no shortage of warning signs – the most recent one: far-right parties with strong anti-Semitic leanings making substantial gains in last Sunday’s EU Parliament elections. Unfortunately, for the victims, warnings signs always come too late.
Alejandro Baer is the Stephen Feinstein Chair and Director of the Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies. He joined the University of Minnesota in 2012 and is an Associate Professor of Sociology.