How the Jews Defeat­ed Hitler: Explod­ing the Myth of Jew­ish Pas­siv­i­ty in the Face of Nazism

Ben­jamin Ginsberg
  • Review
By – March 17, 2014

One of the most com­mon assump­tions about the Holo­caust is that Jews did not active­ly or effec­tive­ly resist their own exter­mination; that they often were pas­sive and occa­sion­al­ly com­plic­it in the face of death. The not­ed schol­ar Raul Hilberg, for exam­ple, wrote about an almost com­plete lack of resis­tance, and Han­nah Arendt claimed that the Nazis depend­ed on the coop­er­a­tion of the Juden­räte (Jew­ish Coun­cils) and the Jew­ish police to admin­is­ter the final solu­tion.” Polit­i­cal sci­en­tist Ben­jamin Gins­berg chal­lenges these assump­tions, broad­ens the mean­ing and scope of resis­tance, and con­vinc­ing­ly argues that the Jews not only resist­ed the Ger­mans but actu­al­ly played a major role in defeat­ing Nazi Germany.

If resis­tance is nar­row­ly defined and sit­u­at­ed in ghet­tos and con­cen­tra­tion camps, then obvi­ous­ly Jew­ish resis­tance was doomed to fail­ure: des­per­ate and unarmed Jews in East­ern Euro­pean vil­lages, ghet­tos, and death camps hard­ly had the means to resist, yet they often fought brave­ly in a los­ing effort and iron­i­cal­ly were accused of pas­siv­i­ty in sit­u­a­tions where no one could have resist­ed. But ghet­tos and con­cen­tra­tion camps are not the cor­rect places to look for effec­tive resis­tance. If you broad­en the def­i­n­i­tion and scope of resis­tance, Gins­berg argues, then Jews respond­ed quite vig­or­ous­ly and effec­tively, con­tribut­ing sig­nif­i­cant­ly to the defeat of Hitler.

Gins­berg finds that Jew­ish resis­tance man­i­fest­ed in four dif­fer­ent areas. First, Jews served with dis­tinc­tion as mem­bers of the Sovi­et army, as offi­cers and enlist­ed men, and as engi­neers who designed and built many of the piv­otal Sovi­et weapons — includ­ing the T‑34 tank, the Katyusha rock­et, and the MiG‑3 fight­er plane. Sec­ond, they made vital con­tri­bu­tions to the Allies — the Sovi­et Union, the Unit­ed States, and Great Britain — in the fields of espi­onage and intel­li­gence, par­tic­u­lar­ly crypt­analy­sis. (In fact, the term crypt­analy­sis” was coined by America’s fore­most ana­lyst, William Fried­man. Fried­man’s heav­i­ly Jew­ish group at the US Army’s Sig­nals Intel­li­gence Ser­vice, pre­de­ces­sor of today’s NSA, pio­neered mod­ern code break­ing.) Third, many Jews served in the Unit­ed States mil­i­tary forces and served as advis­ers to Pres­i­dent Roo­sevelt, assist­ing him in his efforts to weak­en the iso­la­tion­ist sen­ti­ments domes­ti­cal­ly and pre­pare for war. Final­ly, Jews played impor­tant roles in sev­er­al of the major Euro­pean anti-Nazi resis­tance move­ments, par­tic­u­lar­ly in Poland, Greece, and Yugoslavia. Par­ti­san war­fare did not defeat the Nazis, but it did has­ten their defeat: it may have been respon­si­ble for killing as many as 50,000 Ger­man troops and dis­rupt­ing frag­ile mil­i­tary sup­ply lines.

This is an impor­tant book that presents orig­i­nal chal­lenges to the myth of Jew­ish pas­siv­i­ty. There are some aspects of Ginsberg’s analy­sis and assump­tions that one could quar­rel with: the char­ac­ter­i­za­tion of Jew­ish resis­tance, for exam­ple, as a form of cumula­tive rather than col­lec­tive action con­sist­ing of dis­parate groups, indi­vid­u­als, and organiza­tions in dif­fer­ent coun­tries chan­neled by a com­mon threat is prob­lem­at­ic. Did nuclear sci­en­tists or Sovi­et gen­er­als and engi­neers of Jew­ish back­ground do their work or assume lead­er­ship because they were Jews, or were they moti­vat­ed by nation­al, sci­en­tif­ic, or oth­er inter­ests? Gins­berg seems to imply that because they were Jews respond­ing to the Nazis it is enough to think of them as the Jews” react­ing in a com­mu­nal fash­ion. He also includes a lengthy after­ward sec­tion compris­ing of more than twen­ty-five per­cent of the book that explores issues like anti-Semi­tism and the Amer­i­can Left, black anti-Semi­tism, Islam­ic anti-Semi­tism and Jew­ish self-loathing that have noth­ing to do with the premise of the book. These issues aside, How the Jews Defeat­ed Hitler makes for com­pelling read­ing; it pro­vides a need­ed cor­rec­tive to the myth of Jew­ish pas­siv­i­ty, and it will trans­form how schol­ars and the informed pub­lic view Jews and the Holocaust.

Relat­ed Content:

Michael N. Dobkows­ki is a pro­fes­sor of reli­gious stud­ies at Hobart and William Smith Col­leges. He is co-edi­tor of Geno­cide and the Mod­ern Age and On the Edge of Scarci­ty (Syra­cuse Uni­ver­si­ty Press); author of The Tar­nished Dream: The Basis of Amer­i­can Anti-Semi­tism; and co-author of The Nuclear Predicament.

Discussion Questions