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Staaten als Täter: Ministerialbürokratie und “Judenpolitik” in NS-Deutschland und Vichy-Frankreich, ein Vergleich, by Michael Mayer.  Munich: R. Oldenbourg Verlag, 2010.   479 pp.  €64.80, $77.25.


Michael Mayer’s ambitious archive-based book compares the role of Nazi Germany’s ministerial bureaucracy to that of Vichy France in the persecutions of their Jewish populations during the 1930s and 1940s, a persecution that began in both cases with segregationist legislation and ultimately led to the death camps in Eastern Europe. He selects two periods for comparison.  What happened in Germany between 1933–1935, and 1938–1945, he argues, has its counterpart to what ensued in Vichy France during the years 1940/41 and 1942–1944.

              During the early days of each regime’s Jewish policies (1933–35 for Nazi Germany; 1940/41 for Vichy France) it was the traditional ministerial bureaucracies (foreign ministries, ministries of interior, justice, economics, etc.) led by traditional bureaucratic elites who were implementing measures reflective of a traditional form of antisemitism. In Germany these measures culminated in the Nuremberg Laws of September 1935 and in France, their German counterpart on which it was modeled, in the Jewish Statute of October 1940. These were the product of what Mayer calls in German, and which requires no translation, “Segregationsantisemitismus.” In essence these measures robbed Jews of their status as equal citizens, removed them from positions of influence in public life, encouraged their emigration, and, in the case of Germany, though significantly not of France, prohibited their marriage to persons outside their own religious/racial circle. In the eyes of the traditional elite, Mayer asserts, the Nuremberg Laws in Germany and the Jewish Statute in France represented a satisfactory solution to the Jewish Question.

              In the case of Germany, of course, the Nazis were anything but satisfied with such a solution. The German prohibition on marriage was a clear signal that in Germany at least, the tenets of traditional antisemitism did not at all square with Nazi intentions. Theirs was a far more extreme antisemitism rooted in fanciful understandings of German racial superiority under constant assault by the racial inferiority of Jews. Hence their frustration in September 1935 with what they considered the laxity of the definition of the Jew imposed by the Nuremberg legislation. By restricting the definition of the Jew to persons with three or four Jewish grandparents, it allowed someone with two Jewish grandparents to escape the classification with the designation of Mischling, presumably leaving them free, in however diluted form, to continue their polluting of the German blood stream. This was a compromise with the traditional elite that the radical antisemites (Mayer speaks of it as NS-Antisemitismus) were never willing to countenance.

              One of Mayer’s major points is that the German Nuremberg Laws and the French Jewish Statute were both products, independently, of an antisemitism rooted in the European historical tradition, meaning that even in defeat the traditional elites of Vichy required no pressure from their German overlords to initiate, quite autonomously, a segregationist antisemitism of their own. This conclusion merely buttresses the consensus among historians of France initially formulated initially by Robert Paxton and Michael Marrus. In fact, Mayer points out, this form of antisemitism was at the time a transnational phenomenon implemented not only in Germany and France, but likewise in Italy, Rumania, Hungary, and Yugoslavia.

              The next phase of Mayer’s analysis compares the transition from this more moderate antisemitism to the radical, racist NS-Antisemitism, a transition in Germany he dates from 1938 to 1945 and in France from 1942 to 1944—the era of the deportation of Jews to the death camps of Eastern Europe. This time for France, it was clearly pressure from its German occupiers that forced the Vichy regime to cooperate with the Nazi extremists who had gained control of Jewish policy in Germany. It would be “fully absurd,” Mayer claims, to believe that the Vichy regime had the potential within itself to perpetrate an Auschwitz.

              It is the transition in Germany to the radical antisemitism of the Nazis that occupies the second half of Mayer’s book and offers its unique and not always convincing analysis of how that transition came to be effected. That Goering’s appointment in late 1938 as coordinator of Jewish policy marks the eclipse of the role of the traditional bureaucratic elites and the full ascendency of Nazi racial radicals over Jewish policy is undisputed. What Mayer disputes is how that transition came about. It was not, as is so often suggested, by a process of “cumulative radicalization” or by way of a “twisted road,” both constructs, he argues, that posit the existence of a linear progression “that began with the Machtergreifung and led directly [geradewegs] to the destruction of European Jewry.” Such a line of continuity, Mayers says, did not exist. The segregationist antisemitism and the racial-biological antisemitism of the Nazis were two separate forms of that phenomenon. Rather than a cumulative radicalization, Mayer sees the radicalization of the persecutions as a consequence of the inability of the traditional elite, the ministerial bureaucracies, to go beyond, in effect, the Nuremberg Laws—which in fact were a product of a compromise negotiated between the bureaucrats and the party apparatus.

              The heuristic challenge Mayer presents is to be welcomed, though not entirely convincing. The transition he describes from one discrete form of antisemtism to another does not seem, to this reviewer at least, antithetical to the notion of cumulative radicalization. Contrary to his claim, moreover, cumulative radicalization does not suggest a direct linear (gradewegs) progression from the Machtergreifung to Auschwitz. In fact, its coinage by Hans Mommsen was aimed at countering any such idea. The book is, nonetheless, an important contribution to the understanding of a very important problem.

Karl Schleunes

History Department

University of North Carolina, Greensboro