Professor Alan Confino discussed his book “A World Without Jews: The Nazi Imagination from Persecution to Genocide” and provided insight on the psychological basis of the Nazi consciousness Wednesday afternoon in the Mortara Center. The event, sponsored by sponsored by the Program for Jewish Civilization, featured Confino, who teaches at the University of Virginia and Ben-Gurion University in Israel, and discussed how the Nazis were motivated more by religious than racial motivations.
The Rev. Dennis McManus, S.J., a faculty member in the Program for Jewish Civilization, introduced Confino. McManus said that Confino’s work explores a different angle on the Holocaust than have numerous past studies, an angle that is crucial in order to completely understand the Nazi worldview.
“Something is missing from these studies, something that helps us understand the deepest levels of the Nazi mind and where the devastating image of the Jew comes from, how it is nourished and developed into the cultivation of hate towards Jews,” McManus said. “Perhaps it is within the bounds of social psychology that Professor Confino has opened up a great new door for us to understand.”
Confino began by mentioning the historical episodes of Nazis burning the Hebrew Bible in the front of German synagogues. “Recent accounts of the Third Reich do not address why the Nazis burned the Hebrew Bible,” Confino said. “This is because they regard racial ideology as the fundamental source of the motivation and the beliefs that led to the Holocaust. In burning the Bible, the Nazis directed their wrath against the religious and not racial symbol.”
In his book Confino questions what Nazis told themselves in order to legitimize the persecution and extermination of Jews. “When you are killing someone or a lot of someones you need a good story to go along with it,” Confino said. “No one likes to admit themselves to be the bad guy who is killing all these people for no reason. Most of us, even when we do bad things, we try to find a good reason to explain ourselves.”
Confino also discussed how the relationship between space and time in putting together the full spectrum of events in the Holocaust. “The category of space has become really important because scholars have become very aware, through colonial studies, that the Nazis built an empire in Europe,” Confino said. “The Nazi empire was a vast organization, especially towards the East. The Nazis wanted to colonize the East and use the people as slaves and use the resources of the land. This assessment has been very important, but there is something very important missing from the picture, which is the element of time.”
Confino then emphasized how his work distinguishes itself from other pieces on the history of the Holocaust. “I reject the dominant interpretation of racial ideology as the main motivation of the Nazis,” Confino said. “The Nazi imagination towards the Jews was more complex and it includes many other ideas.”
At the end of his presentation, Confino addressed how the Nazis read into the past in order to construct their dangerous narrative. He said that the Nazis picked and chose symbolic stories from the history of Jewish, Germanic and Christian relations that redefined understanding of national origins.
“Nazis built their identity, using present day ideas, mixing and matching, creating stories about themselves, based on facts, inventions and imagination,” Confino said.” Telling stories makes us feel human, but not all stories are humane. Stories give life and stories kill as well.”
Giulia Martins (SFS’18) attended the event and said she appreciated the ideas Confino presented.
“It is always refreshing to be exposed to ideas which differ to what we regularly see in history textbooks,” Martins said. “Professor Confino’s work is groundbreaking in the sense that it looks at the Holocaust through a completely different lens, one which assesses different factors which many other historians might have overlooked. I found his perspective to be fascinating”