New York City
In his March 28 review, “Jews Without Borders,” Daniel Lazare seems to misunderstand my book The Orientalist (as well as the novel Ali and Nino) while using both as a proxy to vent his apparent resentment at The New Yorker, from which he supposes I have “absorbed all too well” my political line. In Lazare’s personal media conspiracy, he must imagine me and David Remnick and a roomful of editors sitting around a table–or perhaps a graveyard at midnight–hatching our heinous plot to impose “moderation” on the world. First, let me plead guilty to believing that “the truth lies always in the middle, and that extremists of the left and right are brothers under the skin.” But let me also break the news to Lazare that I come by my anti-extreme politics on my own.
Though I think most Nation readers will see through his odd attacks, the insinuation that I prefer Nazis to Communists is deeply offensive. (It’s also illogical, since he has my number as a man of the middle.) As the introduction to this book makes plain, my interest in fascist Europe–and the unique character of Lev Nussimbaum–comes out of the fact that most of my family were wiped out by the Nazis. My mother herself barely escaped this fate.
Before working on The Orientalist, I had spent the previous five years writing about neo-Nazism and other far-right movements. Yet Lazare actually compares me to Ernst Nolte, the right-wing German historian who ignited the so-called Historikerstreit in the 1980s (before making a snotty remark to the effect that I’m not as serious an intellectual as he was, which I take as an inadvertent compliment), and misrepresents Nolte while he’s at it: Nolte wasn’t controversial merely because he compared Communist and Nazi terror but because he implied that the former justified the latter. The facts are that the Cheka did murder people of all ages in cold blood, often after torturing them in hideous and purely sadistic fashion; the Gestapo did model itself on the Cheka, and Gestapo chief Heinrich Müller was an avid admirer of Soviet secret-police methods. Of course, none of this mitigates Nazi crimes but rather the reverse: It compounds the nightmare of those years by showing that millions of victims were trapped between bloodthirsty regimes that strove as much to emulate and outdo each other in ruthlessness against internal “enemies” as they did to destroy each other on the battlefield.
But all this points to the more basic flaw in Lazare’s understanding of the period, which he can only see through the lens of his own political diatribes: He writes as though he is exposing a truth when he comments that Lev Nussimbaum did not leave Berlin in 1933 as an “anti-Nazi refugee.” For one thing, Nussimbaum left Berlin in 1933 for the main reason that all Jews who could left Nazi-run countries–not because they were politically anti-fascist but because they were Jews. Nazism persecuted primarily because of race, not politics, a fact that is apparently as hard for Lazare to grasp as it was for the old Stalinist government of East Germany. (I remember my visit to the concentration camp memorial at Buchenwald in 1990, when the SS barracks were still being run as an East German Communist Youth Hostel, and no mention at all could be found that most of the camp’s victims had been Jews.)