Germany is now known as the site of the most horrific anti-Semitic slaughter in history, the Holocaust. But well before Hitler's rise, as Michael Brenner shows in his new book, In Hitler's Munich, there was a long history of Jewish communal life in Germany, as well as a long history of anti-Semitism. There was even a Jewish premier of Bavaria in the years after World War I, the journalist and revolutionary Kurt Eisner. Eisner was assassinated by an anti-Semite, Count Anton Graf von Arco auf Valley. Arco-Valley, as he is more commonly known, had Jewish ancestry—a reminder of the complicated nature of German-Jewish relationships even before the rise of Nazism.
German Jews were not only heavily involved in politics. They were also prominent in business, academia, and German literature. Brenner also makes the interesting counterfactual claim that if somehow Eisner had not been assassinated and had helped navigate Germany to a successful post-World War I democratic status, the history books of today might have seen Germany in a similar light as France, which also had Jewish politicians involved in its post-World War I journey to a relatively secure democratic state.
And yet, as Brenner explains, the Eisner assassination was far from the only anti-Semitic flashpoint of those years. He also explores Germany's equivalent of the Dreyfus trial: the accusation and unjust conviction of the German-Jewish journalist Felix Fechenbach for treason. As in the Dreyfus affair, the case against Fechenbach had anti-Semitic origins and ended with a pardon. Another warning sign was Adolf Hitler's beer hall putsch, in which Hitler and his goons briefly tried to take control of the government. The revolt was put down in short order, but Hitler got a laughably short sentence from a Bavarian court that was notoriously lenient toward Aryan and anti-Semitic malefactors.
Brenner's book is not for beginners. In fact, he tells the reader multiple times that incidents he discusses, including Hitler's rise, are told in greater detail elsewhere, allowing him to gloss over some well-known events while focusing on the specifics of his thesis. This could potentially be off-putting to the general interest reader, who may not have the depth of knowledge about the subject that Brenner has or assumes his readers have.
Brenner, however, is not interested in just a straight-up history of a fascinating but depressing period that led to the creation of one of the most murderous regimes in history. The book is really asking a fundamental question, or perhaps a series of fundamental questions, about history, destiny, and human agency.
One question is about whether things had to play out the way they did. By focusing on the flashpoints, Brenner shows that there were a number of ways in which things went wrong but did not have to. If the incidents he discusses had happened in a slightly different way, Germany's history, and the world's, might have unfolded very differently.
A second question regards the Jews themselves. Things were bad for the Jews in Germany in some ways, but good in other ways. The Jews had a long history there and had success in many important fields. In addition, some of the surrounding nations, such as Russia and Poland, were often far worse to their Jewish populations. The Jews had reasons to think that Germany, while not perfect, might have been the best option for them at the time. And yet, with the Eisner assassination and the Fechenbach trial, and Jews beaten on the streets of Munich in random fashion—a phenomenon that unfortunately happens all too often in America today—most German Jews decided that staying in Germany was a viable option. Tragically, of course, this was very much not the case.
A third question driving Brenner is a societal one. After World War I and the fall of the Kaiser's government, Germany could have gone in a liberal democratic direction, and indeed tried to for a while. It ended in failure, with Hitler's ascension to the chancellorship with only 43.9 percent of the vote in 1933. Once in office, Hitler seized the reins of power and too many Germans were willing to go along with it, leading to disastrous results for the country and the entire world.
Could such a thing happen today? Could it happen here? We of course must hope that our institutions are stronger and that such a thing is not possible in the United States. That said, we also never thought we'd see another land war in Europe, and believed that free speech would always be considered to be a value on all sides of the political debate.
It was not that long ago when President Ronald Reagan would say unifying things like "liberty binds us together." And yet today too many people in political life do not value liberty, and are instead seeking order or equity or something else. Brenner's book is a reminder of the importance of strong institutions, the value of liberty and, for Jews, the need to always have a passport ready and a suitcase packed.