The Magazine

How Odd of God .  .  .

Milton Himmelfarb on the worlds of Judaism.

Apr 30, 2007, Vol. 12, No. 31 • By DAVID GELERNTER
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Even more famous than the "earn-like-Episcopalians" bon mot is his epoch-making observation, "No Hitler, no Holocaust." Modern historians hate the "great man" (or "greatly evil man") view of history; "for them what counts is geography, demography, technology, mentalités." Of course, there were and are exceptions--such as Gertrude Himmelfarb herself. But again, the trend that is described in this 1984 essay is still going strong. The author compresses a shattering load of truth into three sentences: "The obedience of Himmler and the SS was to Hitler, not to anti-Semitism. . . . Hitler made the Holocaust because he wanted to make it. . . . Hitler was ex-Christian and anti-Christian."

Notwithstanding, "we would rather talk about socioeconomic stresses and strains, political backwardness, group psychopathology, religious hatred, racism"--than the paganism of the Third Reich or the unspeakable evil of one man.

This particular essay is brilliant but incomplete. Others have the same characteristics; but incompleteness is especially disturbing here, where the author has such an enormous truth to deliver. The essay reads like a transcript of thoughts thrown out in a small seminar by a brilliant professor, to be completed by eager graduate students (whose comments go unrecorded). "Let me summarize, fill in some lacunae, and draw some conclusions," he writes at the end, before closing with a list of seven bullet points. Which is just what a professor might say in closing, but not what a scholar should write in closing. We don't hear enough about General Erich Ludendorff's anti- Christian views and Teutonic paganism. We do learn that Hitler "scorned Judaism and Christianity not like Ludendorff the Teutonizer but like Voltaire the Enlightener." But no explanation follows. There are Hitler pronouncements that support this claim (although Himmelfarb doesn't cite them); there are also pronouncements that suggest other wise--and there is the Wagner cult Hitler belonged to, the pseudo-Teutonic rites and ceremonies he loved. Himmelfarb emphasizes that the Holocaust was a pagan and not Christian phenomenon, but doesn't tell us nearly enough about Germany's paganism or Hitler's.

Despite the occasional essay that stops short or leaves us not quite satis fied, Jews and Gentiles is a brilliant book. The author is an essayist and informal historian, an expert on Judaism and a master of style. Samuel Johnson was hard to describe, too (essayist-bio grapher, lexicographer-conversationalist). But you will find, beneath the enormous dome of St. Paul's Cathedral, the marble statues of four great "benefactors of the English people"--and Samuel Johnson is one of them. Himmelfarb deserves an equally conspicuous monument, and will never get it. Which might be just as well. No statue could be a better monument than this book: witty and moving, inspiring and eye-opening and wise--and above all, memorable, because Himmelfarb had the clarity, wisdom, and nerve to see the big picture.

David Gelernter, professor of computer science at Yale and a national fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, is the author of the forthcoming Americanism: The Fourth Great Western Religion.