You know how Godwin’s law says that every internet argument eventually breaks down into someone calling someone else Hitler or a Nazi? This is one of my greatest pet peeves in life, because it’s not just online arguments that devolve into Holocaust finger-pointing…you can find this stuff all over our culture. Want to paint someone as evil? Just connect them to the Holocaust in some way (see The Kite Runner and Girl With a Dragon Tattoo to name just two) and your work is over.
I’m fine with saying that Hitler and his Nazis were evil (though it seems likely that there was some level of nuance within the huge organization of the SS, and some were probably much worse than others) but it just seems lazy to use them as shorthand for evil when they were neither the first or last to prove that evil does exist in our world.
This Slate.com article answers the fascinating question of who people equated with pure evil before Hitler:
Before World War II, who was the rhetorical worst person in history?
The Pharoah. In the 18th, 19th, and early 20th centuries, many Americans and Europeans had a firmer grasp of the bible than of the history of genocidal dictators. Orators in search of a universal symbol for evil typically turned to figures like Judas Iscariot, Pontius Pilate, or, most frequently, the Pharaoh of Exodus, who chose to endure 10 plagues rather than let the Hebrew people go. In Common Sense, Thomas Paine wrote: “No man was a warmer wisher for reconciliation than myself, before the fatal nineteenth of April, 1775 [the date of the Lexington massacre], but the moment the event of that day was made known, I rejected the hardened, sullen tempered Pharaoh of England for ever.” In the run-up to the Civil War, abolitionists regularly referred to slaveholders as modern-day Pharaohs. Even after VE Day, Pharaoh continued to pop up in the speeches of social reformers like Martin Luther King Jr.
It’s so interesting to think that when people want to talk about real evil, they go to someone who picked specifically on the Jews. This reminds me of a fascinating book I read called The Dream of Scipio. The book takes place in three different time periods, and at first there doesn’t seem to be any real connection between the three narratives. As the story progresses you see more and more threads between them, but mostly what you see is that the use of Jews as scapegoats is the beginning of the end for any society. (It’s an outstanding book that I highly recommend.)
Part of me wants to recommend that we go back to using Pharaoh as the prototype for evil, but I have to admit, Hitler does sound like he was better at being evil than Pharaoh. Hitler killed more people, and had a very efficient system for getting rid of people. Plus, we know for certain that Hitler did exist. Pharaoh is more of a mythic figure, and thus carries less weight. Perhaps in another thirty years when we’re more removed from WWII we’ll revert to Pharaoh, or rely less heavily on Hitler. In the meantime, it’s still helpful to have some historical perspective.
When I’m back in London there’s a building I like to visit. If you’re an art lover and you’ve been to London you may know the place. It’s the Whitechapel Gallery in London’s East End. But it’s not the art that I go for, it’s the building itself or rather its new-old addition – the former Whitechapel Library.
The original gallery building opened in in London’s East End in 1901. It seemed like an odd location. The neighbourhood was dodgy. Outsiders were scared to set foot in the area. In his book People of the Abyss, the writer Jack London tells of the horrified reactions of people when, in 1902, he told them he was planning on living there for a while. “You don’t want to live down there!” they said alarmed.” London fared no better with the good folks at Thomas Cook and Son, an English travel company that sent intrepid travelers all over the world and refused to take him a stone’s throw away to the East End. You can’t do it you know,” they told him “It is so – ahem – unusual. Consult the police.”
Fortunately this was also the age of philanthropists with the winning combination of a zeal for social reform and deep pockets. Samuel Augustus Barnett, a social reformer and clergyman who’d moved to the East End, believed that the poor folks, native born and immigrants, in the crowded Whitechapel tenements deserved a library no less than Londoners in wealthier areas. He persuaded John Passmore Edwards, another social reformer, to dig into his wallet and fund a library for the residents of Whitechapel. The library opened in 1892. And what a library it was.
They called it The University of the Ghetto and it acquired legendary status. The area was home to vast numbers of poor Jewish immigrants with a thirst for knowledge. Because of Jewish borrowers the library built up the largest collection of Jewish and Yiddish literature in any British library. It was a refuge and meeting place for all-sorts: radical thinkers, school children, dockers, office workers and down and outs. They browsed the shelves and sat at the wooden tables in the reading room. And the list of writers and artists who got their start at number 77 Whitechapel High Street was long.
But times change. When it came time for me to join the library it was the late 1960s and the writing was already on the wall for the Jewish East End. The Jews had started moving on to pastures suburban. The generation of writers, artists, scholars, scientists, doctors and lawyers who’d got their start at the library had made their way in the world. At age five I knew nothing of the legions of readers that had gone before me. But the day I stepped over the threshold of number 77 Whitechapel High St and walked past the glazed tile picture of the old Whitechapel Haymarket, the library worked its magic. Number 77 became my second home. I asked to be taken to the library at every opportunity. When I was old enough I disappeared there for hours. You name it, I’ve read it. My favourite was Jewish literature. Like thousands before me, I sat at the wooden tables alongside all sorts.
Back home one university vacation, I returned to the library only to discover that Jewish literature had disappeared. The dwindling Jewish community had taken its toll and the books had been moved to the basement. “Not much call for them anymore I’m afraid,” the librarian told me. “Would you like to see them?” she asked. Of course I did. The caretaker opened a door and led me down dark stairs into the library basement. It was a Jewish bibliophile’s paradise. I wandered the shelves of books and yellowing old newspapers in Yiddish and English. Many I’d read, some I’d been meaning to read, some held no real interest and others were in Yiddish which I barely read, but still each book was somebody’s world. How many worlds were dumped here underneath the feet of the pedestrians of Whitechapel High St?
From time to time I would visit my books. It was wonderful down there in the basement. Just me and my books. Occasionally a member of the library staff would pop their heads in to check on me. In time, the library sold off the books to university libraries. I bought some. Today they sit on my shelves. Occasionally, when I have writers’ block I’ll open one, just the smell of the old paper with its patina of thumbprints of generations of Jewish immigrants is enough to ignite the imagination again.
In August 2005, Whitechapel Library closed its doors after 113 years. It reopened a tube station away as the Idea Store, a fabulous 4 storey building with thousands more books, a café, free internet, a crèche and even a dance studio. I do believe Passmore Edwards would have approved.
The old building was bought by the Whitechapel Gallery next door. In 2009 it reopened as part of the Gallery after a massive renovation. Not long after, I went to check on the old girl. The Haymarket was gone. The original stair case and balustrade up to the reading room remained. There was not a trace of the old dark basement. Instead of books, you’ll find brightly lit toilets and a baby changing room. Up the in old reading room, the doors and windows looked just the same. And those old wooden tables were just as I remembered. I got chatting to the young woman at the front desk. I mentioned I’d come to see the old library. “Funny, we’ve had a few people like you wanting to see the old library. Must have been a special place.”
I popped in again last month. Up in the old reading room on the first floor I shared my memories with the Gallery archivist. He told me: “Some people come here and say they just want to stroke the tables.” Makes sense to me.
Check back all week for more posts from Gloria Spielman. Marcel Marceau: Master of Mime just received a silver medal in the 2011 Moonbeam Children’s Book Awards.
Can an anti-Semite reach correct conclusions about Jews? Here is Jeffrey Herf in his book Reactionary Modernism on the work of Werner Sombart, a leading German sociologist of the early twentieth century:
“Sombart stressed four aspects of European Jewish social history that contributed to the origins of modern capitalism. First, the Jews were dispersed in different countries and thus had international contacts. Second, their existence as outsiders forced them to be more attentive to new economic opportunities and to favor economic rationalism over local custom and tradition. Third, because Jews had been excluded from full citizenship rights, they turned their attention away from politics to economics. Fourth, Jewish wealth made banking and lending possible, activities from which modern capitalism was born.”
All those points seem both valid and interesting out of context, and indeed Sombart’s 1911 book The Jews and Modern Capitalism was not seen as anti-Semitic when it was published. Furthermore, the records of Sombart’s feelings on Nazism is vague and contradictory, and his views seem to have fluctuated over his lifetime. Nonetheless, reading more about Sombart, one feels certain he was basically pretty hostile to Jews – at one point he even wrote that he didn’t like Berlin department stores because their ‘crass juxtapositions’ were a product of Jewish sensibilities.
So where does that leave his sociological insights? The fact is, anti-Semites do spend a lot of time thinking about Judaism – more time than a lot of Jews spend thinking about Judaism. Occasionally, they are going to come up with something solid. When I was researching the history of anti-Semitism for Boxer, Beetle, I encountered this problem often, and it seems to me that at a hundred years’ distance, maybe it’s finally time to go back to some of these old sources – even if we have to employ the intellectual equivalent of those steel boxes with built-in lead-lined gloves like they install in nuclear research laboratories.
Ned Beauman is the author of Boxer, Beetle. It was shortlisted for the Guardian First Book Award and the Desmond Elliott Prize upon its initial UK release last year, and has recently been praised by the New York Times as ‘funny, raw and stylish’. He has been blogging all week for MyJewishLearning.com and the Jewish Book Council‘s Author Blog.
Henry Ford might be the most famous American anti-Semite, but it’s not widely known that the industrialist only narrowly escaped having to answer for his vitriol in court. In 1927, the heroic Jewish lawyer Aaaron Sapiro sued Ford for remarks that Ford had made about Sapiro in his book The International Jew (later popular among the Nazi Party). Unfortunately, the libel case ended in a mistrial, and had been pretty precarious from start to finish. As Time magazine reported: ‘During the life of the Sapiro-Ford trial the following events were chronicled: Henry Ford was badly battered in an automobile accident. Stuart Hanley, lawyer for Mr. Ford, suffered a back strain. Two of Aaron Sapiro’s children came down with scarlet fever. Milton Sapiro (brother) splintered a wrist in another automobile crash. Senator James A. Reed of Missouri, chief counsel for Mr. Ford, went to the Henry Ford hospital with an acute attack of gastrointestinal trouble. Superstitious observers whispered that the trial was hoodooed.’
What the article neglects to mention is that Ford probably contrived his injuries in order to avoid appearing in court. There’s something almost Ballardian about an automobile tycoon deliberately staging his own automobile accident. But what I like even more is the bluff that followed. Sapiro’s team were having trouble serving a subpoena to Ford. ‘Eventually the server threw it on Ford’s lap through the open window when he stopped his car at an intersection,’ writes Hadassa Ben-Itto in The Lie That Wouldn’t Die, his history of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. ‘Ford suffered severe loss of face when the judge summarily rejected his lawyer’s argument that the service of the subpoena was faulty, claiming that the document had not actually landed in his client’s lap, but slipped to the floor of the car between his knees.’ One imagines that Ford was soon fantasising about a luxury version of his own Model A with two new features perfect for the busy anti-Semite: triple-gauge crash simulator and velvet-upholstered subpoena guard.
“And I want to say something to you on this day, the Ninth of Av: Those who will succeed in escaping this catastrophe will live to experience a festive moment of great Jewish joy: the rebirth and establishment of the Jewish state. I do not know whether I myself will live to see it–but my son will. I am certain of this, just as I am certain that the sun will rise tomorrow morning.”
–Ze’ev Jabotinsky, August 10, 1938
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“The man who seeks to wipe out his own past is thrown into a state of constant hatred of himself….The old cannot be cut out clean. There ensues a sort of spiritual gangrene.”
–Shmarya Levin, Youth in Revolt
Find more Wise Fridays wisdom on MJL.