The Culture of Envy

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.