In a lecture in Dessau in January 1924, my grandfather Alfred Wiener provided his audience with what he regarded as the perfect example of antisemitic thinking.
It came from a publication with scholarly pretensions that was circulating among völkisch German opponents of the Jews, and blamed us for the loss of the First World War. “The unhappy Kaiser Wilhelm II has Jewish blood in his veins,” the publication had alleged and “this is the reason for the misfortune that has descended on the fatherland. This Jewish blood allegedly entered the house of the Hohenzollern through the late Queen of Great Britain and Ireland, Victoria, who had illicit congress with a Jewish physician, Wolf.”
Alfred’s lecture was recently published in a book of his pre-Holocaust warnings called The Fatherland and the Jews. The book arrived in time for people to read it before encountering the extraordinary comments about Adolf Hitler this week by Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov. The Führer, Lavrov alleged, had “Jewish blood”.
The reason for his comment was to justify Russia characterisation of its appalling crimes in Ukraine. He argues Russia is trying to “de-Nazify” that country and deals with the awkward fact that its President is a Jew by suggesting that, essentially, so was Hitler.
My grandfather appreciated that at the same time as being almost amusingly ridiculous, such allegations about Jewish blood are incredibly dangerous. And must be treated as such.
First, there is the obvious attempt to distort the history of the Holocaust and thus insult every Jew who died in it. This naturally and correctly produces an angry response from every member of the Jewish community. Jews are being blamed for their own mass murder.
But this is only part of a bigger argument that Lavrov is lending support to. This argument is that Jews are to blame, basically, for everything. If you can, in all apparent seriousness, argue that there is Jewish blood in whoever you fancy and that Jews are among the worst antisemites, then you can blame Jews for anything.
In his articles promoting antisemitism in the United States the car manufacturer Henry Ford blamed Jews for jazz, short skirts, rising rents, the decline of American literature and, well, the list was endless. Much of it was absurd, but it it made a tremendous impact on Adolf Hitler. He kept a picture of Ford on his desk. He often talked of how he admired him.
This shows we are right to take the Russians comments seriously, rather than simply dismissing them. What Lavrov has done — setting aside the irony — is a classic Nazi technique. And, sadly, history suggests that classic Nazi techniques can be very effective.
There is an extraordinary symmetry to Lavrov’s comments, indeed to the entire attempt by Russia to characterise Ukraine’s Jewish-led government as Nazi. It was always the Nazi allegation that Bolshevism was a Jewish plot.
The episode is a reminder of the threat posed to Jews of illiberalism of all sorts. Nazism, Bolshevism and Putinism are all ideologies that are based on conspiracy theories. Power is being manipulated by a secretive elite. On the surface the elites they identify are different in nature – capitalist exploiters, communist subverters, metropolitan rootless internationalists. But it is noticeable how when they turn on these elites, the elites seem to be the same people. They seem to be predominantly Jews.
There has been a lot of discussion of whether it is right to compare Putin to Hitler. The reasons for the comparisons are obvious. The mistake isn’t to make the connection between these two figures. It is to assume that Hitler is the only kind of monster that poses a threat to Jews.
Putin comes from a recognisable Russian imperialist tradition to which Stalin also belonged and that tradition was always and everywhere an horrendous threat to Jews. The idea of resisting the Nazification of Ukraine isn’t a new one. It has been the way Russia has behaved toward that place for most of the last century. And it puts Jews in peril more than Nazis.
We have all supported the Ukrainian resistance. And part of the reason for this is that we can see parallels. What Lavrov has revealed is that his war isn’t just analogous to a war on Jews, it is a war on Jews.
Daniel Finkelstein is associate editor of The Times