In the nineteenth century, they arrived, before anyone else, at an understanding that, in the new world of modernity, competitive advancement—doing well on exams—would provide an alternative to advancement through bloodlines. Why the Jews did so well in societies that depended on some form of test-taking is a complicated historical question, though it may be as simple as that the tradition of Talmudic study could easily be “exapted” for the purpose. Paradoxically, only when the “national” groups entered this competition themselves and began to catch up did their hatred of the Jews take on a new ferocity. “As the gap in education closed, the degree of friction between Jews and majority populations increased,” Aly writes. “Envy is born of social proximity, not of the distance between two cleanly separated groups.”
The 1894 Dreyfus case, the original falling domino of what was to come, fits this pattern perfectly, and it makes sense that it happened in France, the first European nation to insure “careers open to talent.” Captain Dreyfus’s great sin was not being a Dreyfus but being a captain. And though Aly doesn’t cite this instance, his scheme maps perfectly onto the lives of the Nazis: Hitler was enraged at the Jews in Vienna not because Jews were practicing the arts instead of agriculture but because they wouldn’t let him into art school. Goebbels was a failed philosophical novelist, not a rabble-rouser. The circles of populist authoritarians, then and now, tended to be filled with embittered B-minus competitors.
And so we come to the last and still the most morally instructive thing about studying the Nazis now: we can see how tightly the elimination of the Jews was bound to a hatred of cosmopolitanism. Although huge numbers of the Jews who perished in the mass killings were poor religious Jews from Eastern Europe, many peasants and peddlers and small merchants, the main enemy, as Mengele understood, had always been the educated Jews of Western Europe. When an S.S. doctor wondered aloud why all the poor Jews of the East had to be killed, he recalled Mengele explaining that “it was precisely from this reservoir of people that the Jews drew new power and refreshed their blood. Without the poor but supposedly harmless Eastern Jews, the civilized West European Jews would not be capable of survival. Therefore, it is necessary to destroy all Jews.” The masses of poor religious Jews in Poland were almost accidental to the effort; the real target was the élite, who brought with them the bacillus of cosmopolitanism.
Adam Gopnik, “Measuring Man”, The New Yorker (22 June 2020), 80-81.