Death Camp or Gulag…?

Death Camp or Gulag…?

New York City


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.)

Following from this attitude, Lazare has little sympathy for or interest in Nussimbaum’s real plight: that no matter how far he transformed himself culturally, politically, religiously, he remained equally a target because he was a Jew. Lazare presents as his own revelation something I bring up in the introduction: In a letter at the end of his life, when he was dying, Nussimbaum wrote that he hoped for an Axis victory in Russia. This is one of the main themes I announce at the beginning and examine throughout the book: Such disturbing contradictions are at the heart of his character and transformations. But we need also to consider that in the letter, he is writing to a Mussolini supporter who has become his main source of money for food and medicine, and who may be able to help keep his father from being deported to a Nazi death camp. Though it’s impossible to untangle all the motives Lev had in this last year of his life, it’s fairly certain that heartfelt support for Hitler was not one of them.

But Lazare mistakes the genre I am writing in, supposing that I am constructing a political tract or a heroic political biography in which I aim to propose my subject as a political model. For such readers, one needs to put a label on the cover: “Caution: Not intended for easy answers. Do not try any of this at home.” And while I don’t want to go into all the ways that Lazare twists my portrayal of Jewish Orientalism, I will gladly plead guilty on Nussimbaum’s behalf to his use of the East “as a backdrop for his own imagination.” In fact, Lev Nussimbaum’s main accomplishment was to create an “Orient of the Imagination–a mountainous realm insulated from political and ethnic conflict, a refuge where no secret policeman can follow, and where anyone with the courage to climb down a rope into the abyss is accepted.”



New York City

Sorry, but some answers are easy, most notably those having to do with the Nazis versus Soviets during World War II. Millions in Eastern Europe were most definitely not trapped between two “bloodthirsty regimes.” To the contrary, they were trapped by one regime and were yearning for liberation–yes, liberation–at the hands of the other. The Warsaw Ghetto freedom fighters, who included a sizable Communist contingent, would have been appalled at any suggestion that the two sides were on the same moral plane. So, presumably, would many of Reiss’s murdered relatives, whom he insists on dragging onstage at every opportunity. Monstrous as Stalin’s crimes were, he was not a Hitler, and the Soviet experience in general was far more complex than Reiss, with his simplistic worldview, seems to realize.

Reiss’s politics can be described as “anti-extreme” only in the context of a country increasingly dominated by the extreme right. Otherwise, they are evidence that while the left emerged victorious from the German Historikerstreit of the 1980s, here it is the other side that has come out on top. From The New Yorker on down, the party line is that Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union were both totalitarian, that all totalitarians are alike and that hence there was not a dime’s worth of difference between the two. My point about this sort of convergence theory is that it leads to sloppy thinking about specific causes and effects. The more one adheres to the belief that “extremists of the left and right are brothers under the skin,” the more differences between Nazi death camps and the Stalinist gulag seem to vanish and Auschwitz and Kolyma merge into one. It is then a short step to the right-wing thesis that since Stalin preceded Hitler chronologically, he paved the way for him politically, organizationally and ideologically.

Reiss takes umbrage at my remark that “he seems to regard the left as a bit more equal than the right” when it comes to responsibility for various twentieth-century horrors. But what other conclusion can one draw from his comment in The Orientalist that the radicals who assassinated Czar Alexander II in 1881 “indirectly caused the deaths of tens of millions who would perish in the famines and gulags of the next century”? The only purpose of such a statement is to get czarism off the hook and focus the blame instead on a handful of anarchists. Reiss would be outraged if some neo-Nazi website were to argue, for instance, that Herschel Grynszpan, the distraught Jewish teenager who shot a Nazi embassy official in Paris in retaliation for his parents’ deportation and death in 1938, was responsible not only for the Kristallnacht episode two days later but for all else that followed right down to the bombing of Dresden and the siege of Berlin. Yet how is that different from the intellectual shell game he is engaged in?

Of course the Jews who perished in the Nazi death camps did so regardless of their religious or political beliefs. But Nazi racism did not arise out of thin air; it derived from the myth of “Judeo-Bolshevism,” the idea that Communism was merely the latest manifestation of an age-old Jewish conspiracy aimed at undermining the Aryan nation. This in itself suggests that Nazism and Bolshevism were not brothers under the skin and that the Russian Revolution was not the uniformly negative phenomenon Reiss believes it to have been. Despite his efforts to drum up sympathy for Lev Nussimbaum, I must confess to feeling very little for a Jewish fascist who wrote in support of the Axis at a time when the Final Solution was well under way.

I will concede one point, however. Apparently, I was wrong to suggest that Reiss absorbed his politics from The New Yorker and must take him at his word that he developed his muddled ideas on his own.


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