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The Culture of Envy Print E-mail
By Bevil Bramwell, OMI   
Sunday, 10 August 2014

Götz Aly’s Why the Germans? Why the Jews? recounts the rise of anti-Semitism in the territories that became the German Republic. He describes some historical trends prior to the 1930s and his study might have a wider application even in this country – since we still have not learned everything that we can from the history of modern Germany. The route from sophistication to savagery is a parable for many countries like the United States that already calmly countenance the slaughter of countless unborn babies as just one of the acceptable costs of modernity.

A German observer in the 1930s, Kurt Blumenfeld, noted that: “People demand the ‘total’ state in which there are not parts of life that are outside politics.” This mindset fitted into the idea (1880s to the 1930s) of a single nation that would, Aly writes, “shower the masses with material security,” which at the time contrasted with: “The liberal idea that individual citizens had to be responsible for their own welfare.” This was an older form of liberalism and not the murderous version we have today, even among so many Catholics. For the newer liberalism, there are no truths and no intrinsically evil acts. Religion becomes what a clique wants it to be and, by definition, it is not religion any more.

Aly shows how a number of ideas like this one became a cover for the mass spread of anti-Semitism. Such mass ideologies constantly need to be examined since the come back in new and menacing forms. Ideologies such as materialism, the totalitarian state, and the ideology of abortion are just a few of the many that remain with us. Only what we know from revelation and what can be deduced from it can serve as an adequate benchmark for this re-examination.

As plausible as they might appear, the ideas in ideologies have little connection with reality and are quite hostile to authentic humanity – just try confronting an ideologue to see how hostile they are! The way that societies breed ideologies (unless their citizens are up to vigorously dealing with them) is the foundation of Aly’s argument as to why anti-Semitism in its active and passive forms was a mass ideology and not the province of a few lunatics.

This mass aspect relied on envy. Envy was, in Immanuel Kant’s words, “the feeling that ‘our own welfare is being diminished by the welfare of others.’” Long ago, Saint Cyprian wrote a book on envy and came to the same conclusion:

what a gnawing worm of the soul is it, what a plague-spot of our thoughts, what a rust of the heart, to be jealous of another, either in respect of his virtue or of his happiness; that is, to hate in him either his own deservings or the divine benefits – to turn the advantages of others into one's own mischief.

Illustration from a German primer: “Jews are not wanted here.”

The “it” in this case is envy. In America today, there seems to be envy in a great deal of our advertising, in the cult of celebrities, in much of the political discourse, especially about “inequality.” It may not be clearly targeted for the moment, but why appeal to envy at all?

Other trends that Aly tracked down included, for example, the act of self-conditioning by society: “forced sterilization and euthanasia functioned as an act of self-conditioning, crucial for the wholesale murder of Jews.” German society went through stages of increasingly violating humanity, which led up to the mass extermination of Jews. What is the toleration of abortion conditioning our society for? Did divorce and contraception prepare us for abortion? Lethal mass ideologies again!

Then there was ridicule: always the easiest route when one cannot argue for something logically. And let’s not forget the overwhelming racism, for example: “The destiny of a people must take precedence over the right of individuals.”(Fischer) Evidence also suggests that Germans in the 1870’s were “immature, formless, and unsure of themselves.”(Aly) This formed the basis for another component of envy, the fact that in contrast the Jewish minority in Germany had a solid self-identity that was resented. The orthodox Catholic minority in America experiences something similar today.

Not surprisingly, there was Schadenfreude in German anti-Semitism as well. Aly cites Immanuel Kant’s observations from the eighteenth century. People “coveted the sensation of contrast, the feeling ‘that one’s own welfare and even rectitude were all the greater when other’s misery or descent into scandal was laid under them as a reflective foil, bathing them in an even brighter light.’” In the United States, this had some echoes in national behavior after the scandals in the Church. It did not arise when scandalous things occurred in other religions or among sports figure or in Hollywood.

In Aly’s words, “there is no way around the pessimistic conclusion that evil can never be quarantined once and for all in a way that would rule out such horrors.” He is justifiably concerned that some cultures will become anti-Semitic again. I wonder if his argument doesn’t point to the potential for lethal prejudices against other groups as well.

Fr. Bevil Bramwell, OMI PhD is the former Undergraduate Dean at Catholic Distance University. His books are: Laity: Beautiful, Good and True; The World of the Sacraments; and, most recentlyCatholics Read the Scriptures: Commentary on Benedict XVI’s Verbum Domini.
The Catholic Thing is a forum for intelligent Catholic commentary. Opinions expressed by writers are solely their own.

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Comments (4)Add Comment
written by schm0e, August 10, 2014
Perhaps it's me, but I couldn't help notice that you kept citing America as an example, as if to suggest that America is about to become the next Nazi Germany.

This is a curious position to take since the recent anti-Semitic riots in Paris and London have rendered any recent public demonstration of that disease here to be merely despicable.

And then, too, how can any discussion about mass ideologies and anti-Semitism exclude the fully institutionalization of it in Islamic nations? I would look there for the germs from which that disease is spread to the West.

And speaking of that, it should be noted that bad ideas are spread by communication, and they are spread en masse by mass communication. Hitler could not have seduced the nation of Germany so far so fast without the new phenomenon of mass media.

Now then, back to America: It is fruitless, if nostalgic, to speak of nationalist ideology in a time of worldwide instant mass-media. Ideas - both good and bad - are irreversibly and inevitable global in nature. If America has been stupefied by "messiahs" and other liars, show me the nation that hasn't. I would argue that it is a coup of mass media, which masquerades as the masses in service of demagogues.
written by carol wolney, August 10, 2014
As commentators continue to make real and oblique references to nazi germany and the current social-political conditions in the US, it is, One, a matter of time before 'things get worse' and Two, an obvious condition of this predicament that a 'regime' focused on extreme liberality sets up a serious tension, which will determine another confrontation between Good and Evil.
written by Fr. Bevil Bramwell OMI, August 10, 2014
Hi Carol, I only drew some parallels that might be instructive. However I am not as pessimistic as you. I think that good people can make a change.
written by Carlos, August 10, 2014
America has succumbed to the culture of death for the most part. It is in the nature of the culture of death to ... die. But the culture of life will survive, and the Jews. I for one do not see any forces today that can exterminate the Jews. If the Roma Empire could not, then no one will ever do the job. Of course some may still try. While Israel thrives (even under rocket bombardment) their enemies suffer because they are thriving: "You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies. You anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows." The same goes for the Christian Western Civilization. Our business is to survive and rebuild. We have done it before and we will do it again: bigger and better. We are the civilization of life built upon an unmovable Rock.

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