Esther and Hitler: A Second Triumphant Purim
Abstract and Keywords
The Book of Esther tells the tale of a prime minister, Haman, who, through various political machinations, attempts to annihilate the Jews of the ancient Persian empire. Esther, queen of the empire and secretly a Jew, averts the disaster and, together with her uncle, Mordecai, is celebrated as the saviour of the Jews. The end of the book institutes Purim as a festival to celebrate ‘rest from their enemies’ and the turning of ‘sorrow to gladness’ and ‘mourning into a good day’. As early as 1935, parallels were being drawn between this story and the politics of the Nazi party, which are discussed in this article.
1The Book of Esther tells the tale of a prime minister, Haman, who, through various political machinations, attempts to annihilate the Jews of the ancient Persian empire (which, according to the story, then stretched from Ethiopia to India). Esther, queen of the empire and secretly a Jew, averts the disaster and, together with her uncle, Mordecai, is celebrated as the saviour of the Jews. The end of the book institutes Purim as a festival to celebrate ‘rest from their enemies’ and the turning of ‘sorrow to gladness’ and ‘mourning into a good day’. As early as 1935 parallels were being drawn between this story and the politics of the Nazi party. In perhaps one of the earliest examples, the Christian writer Wilhemina Stitch, in her otherwise simpering portrayals of female heroines, Women of the Bible, comments on the Book of Esther: ‘here is a man called Hitler whose temperament seems much akin to the villain of this piece’ (1935: 250).
In Jewish tradition, associating an enemy of the Jews with Haman is an age‐old custom, and it is the festival of Purim that provides a ritual enacting of the (p. 516) identification, and symbolic obliteration, of the current enemy of the Jews. The story of Esther is read in full at the festival, which accordingly provides the predominant frame for the reception of the story in Jewish tradition and places it in the context of the story of Israel and the Amalekites (as told in Exod. 17:8–6, Deut. 25:17–19, and 1 Sam. 15:1–34; for a more in‐depth narrative of the relation between Amalek and Haman see Horowitz 2006: 1–4.). Celebrations are framed specifically by the reading of Deuteronomy 25:17–19 on the Sabbath before Purim, Shabbat Zakhor (‘Sabbath of Remembrance’), which impels the congregation to ‘Remember (zakhor) what Amalek did’, namely, attacking the Jews whilst vulnerable on their exodus from Egypt (Exod. 17). Haman takes on the mantle of being this iconic enemy of the Jews because of the reference to him as an ‘Agagite’ in Esther 3:1, invoking the name of the king of the Amalekites, Agag. Historically, then, the term Amalekite was used in relation to various individuals and groups to mark them as enemies of the Jewish people (see the chapter ‘Amalek’ in Horowitz 2006). Although Hitler is only the last in a long line of Hamans, for many Hitler has become the unsurpassable fulfilment of the Haman–Amalekite typology.
The festival itself is geared around celebration of Haman's defeat, and despite the fact that the book carries Esther's name, it is Haman who is the anti‐hero of the day. Celebrated in spring in the Jewish month of Adar, Purim is a festival of tragicomedy, and as such is characterized by contradictions, expressed in the leitmotif of the topsy‐turvy. The festival mimics the contradictory impulses of horror and joy and of threat and release, as the terrors of immanent persecution are remembered only to be overwritten by an overwhelming sense of salvation. At the synagogue the most remarkable feature of the service is the reading of the Megillah, the scroll of Esther, accompanied by congregational uproar when the name Haman is read out. Obeying the injunction in 1 Samuel 25 to ‘destroy the Amalekites’, the name of Haman is obliterated from hearing as the participants shout, wave rattles, and stamp their feet so that his name is never actually heard throughout the retelling. Tradition tells of other practices of eradication: of putting Haman's name on the soles of shoes that would then be stamped, or on rocks that would be banged together (for more on the ‘beating of Haman’, see Goodman 1949: 324–5). Purim is in practice, then, very much about the celebration of Haman's defeat, marked overwhelmingly with the joy of survival.
During the period of the Third Reich there are numerous accounts of Jews drawing hope from the story of Esther as they saw its events replayed before their eyes. Miriam Chaikin outlines two notable examples of Purim celebrations during the war in her Make Noise, Make Merry: The Story and Meaning of Purim (a title which itself draws attention to the centrality of the ‘smiting’ of Haman to the festival). In The Warsaw Diary of Chaim A. Kaplan, found after World War II, the author writes of a Purim celebrated on 13 March 1941, in which the participants gather secretly. ‘We came sad and left sad,’ Kaplan writes, ‘but we had some pleasant moments in between’, gesturing towards the emotional relief from despair (p. 517) that many Jews found when they relived the story of Esther at Purim (Chaikin 1983: 72–3; see also Domnitch 2000: 72). Chaikin also cites Emmanuel Ringbaum who, writing from the Warsaw Ghetto, responded to corpses being carried through the streets to mass graves with: ‘People hope for a new Purim to celebrate the down fall of the modern Haman, Hitler’ (1983: 73). Towards the end of the war, the Jews of Casablanca instituted ‘Purim Hitler’ (a ‘Little Purim’ or Purim Katan in Jewish tradition, a local festival that imitates Purim in its celebration of a specific and local reprieve from threat or slaughter). Purim Hitler was celebrated on the second day of Kislev to commemorate the Allied forces landing on that date in Morocco in 1943, saving the Jewish community. They celebrate by reading Megillat Hitler (now held at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, DC), a scroll modelled on Esther that functions as a palimpsest, the biblical story overwritten with new historical significance as the story of threat and reprieve becomes specific to the Casablanca experience of celebration. Sometimes the relevance of Esther's story or a celebration of Purim isn't made explicit, the significance of the story being apparently all too obvious. There is evidence of Purim celebrations held at Terezin, a transit camp from 1941 to 1944. An inmate initiated an educational programme for children there, and amongst the recovered artworks now on display (hidden when the teacher was deported to Auschwitz) are pictures drawn by children for a celebration of Purim. There is also evidence of the performance of a folk‐play Esther (directed by Nora Fryd, with music composed by Karel Reiner) at Terezin in 1943 (see Robit and Goldfarb 1999). Although there is nothing to indicate how the inmates at Terezin understood Purim in this context, testimonies from the same period suggest that, at the least, it was an opportunity to express a symbolic obliteration of Hitler–Haman if not even anticipation of Hitler's defeat. Rabbi Prinz, in his ‘A Rabbi under the Hitler Regime’, writes of wartime Purim services: ‘Every time we read “Haman” the people heard Hitler, and the noise was deafening’ (cited in Horowitz 2006: 86).
After Hitler's defeat, the festival of Purim provided an opportunity for the open celebration of Jewish salvation and, most poignantly, ‘rest from their enemies’, and the Purim–Hitler nexus becomes more apparent in writings after 1945. Joseph Greenstein's Purim Portfolio, published by the Zionist Organisation of America's National Education Department in 1946, gives an explicit rationale for Purim celebrations. Here Greenstein states that the festival symbolizes ‘Jewish survival against the plotting and canards of Haman the prototype of Hitler’, and goes on to explain that ‘The observance of Purim this year will help us, for a few moments at least, to forget about the misery, the blood‐shed, the torment and the agony of our people…will instil in us renewed courage and faith in mankind…the Jewish people will survive’ (Greenstein 1946: 4). The function of Purim for Holocaust survivors is made explicit here: it provides a forum through which to celebrate Jewish survival, turning the focus from those lost to the remnant. Toby Blum‐Dobkin describes a celebration of Purim at the Displaced Persons Centre in (p. 518) Landsberg, Germany, in the same year. Having collected the testimonies of survivors, including her father Boris Blum (inmate 114520, Mojdanek), Blum‐Dobkin explains that the inmates at the camp organized traditional celebrations: a reading of the Megillah (scroll of Esther), school performances, banquets, literary parodies, and a carnival. Her father explains that ‘I saw in my imagination a Jewish carnival for the defeat of Hitler: the hanging of Hitler instead of Haman’ (Blum‐Dobkin 1979: 53). The camp is filled with images of hanging Hitlers and, in the tradition of dressing‐up common to Purim, one inmate dressed as Hitler himself. Blum‐Dobkin suggests that this masquerade provided psychological consolation: ‘The masquerade dictates and controls the actions of the character he is playing; in performing the exaggerated Nazi salute, the Jew can mock the Nazi and emphasize the transfer of power’ (ibid. 56). There are opposed drives evident in these two examples of Purim celebrations. Whilst Greenstein's reflections on his 1946 Purim demonstrates an inward impulse of celebration of Jewish salvation, Blum‐Dobkin reveals here a concurrent outward impulse of celebrating the defeat of the enemy, even to the extent that those participating note a new sense of empowerment.
Although the Haman–Hitler connection offered relief to many, to others the association only iterates the senselessness of Jewish suffering. Elie Wiesel's The Trial of God, perhaps one of the best‐known expressions of the theological despair ‘after Auschwitz’, is itself set at Purim and is even styled as a Purimshpil (a dramatic form specific to the festival); but it is not one that celebrates Haman's defeat. Instead, it dramatizes the theological anguish of the Holocaust for believers by putting God himself on trial for his apparent absence during the suffering. There are many detractors of the Haman–Hitler connection, including Jonathan Sacks, who considers links with the Book of Esther to underscore the disparities between Hitler's ‘systematic programme of extinction’ and earlier ‘inquisitions and pogroms’. The essential difference is that ‘redemption had always come, or if not redemption, refuge. In the Holocaust there was neither.’ (1992: 28) Emil L. Fackenheim, in his The Jewish Bible after the Holocaust, proposes in the light of the Holocaust that Esther is a story of luck, not providence. Esther is ‘a lesson in monumental good luck—a lesson supremely relevant, supremely painful, for a Jewish “generation” after a time of bad luck’ (1990: 62). Henri Raczymow, continuing this theme of luck, cites the opinion of his Uncle Avrum, which illustrates further the problems involved in aligning the Nazis and Haman:
Some people in the ghetto still believe in their own luck, thinking that, like Haman in the Book of Esther, the Germans will flip coins—their life or their death. They forget that Haman was Oriental, and enjoyed gambling and irony. Not the Germans. The Germans are not gamblers. They don't consult the fates. They decide and they execute. And they have decided. Nothing will prevent them from acting, neither their victory, of course, nor their defeat. Because when Stalin, Roosevelt and Churchill defeat them—and they will defeat them—we will no longer exist, and from the ash of our corpses flowers will have grown. (1995: 81–2)
(p. 519) Celebration of victory at Purim is rendered meaningless in this account in which ‘Nothing’—neither victory nor defeat—will hinder the inexorable will of Nazi destruction.
Nonetheless, many of those who lived through the Holocaust, both victims and survivors, meaningfully drew the connection. The association between the Nazis and Haman is made even more poignant for many Jewish writers by the fact that various Nazis themselves—Hitler included—made the association explicitly. In his excellent A Book of Hiding, Timothy Beal relates the story of Julius Streicher (itself cited from A. Roy Eckhart), who shouted ‘Purimfest!’ as he was being led to the gallows. ‘Ironically,’ Beal writes, ‘with his exclamation, Streicher identified himself not only with Luther’ (he defended himself at the Nuremburg trials by claiming that he was only ‘putting Luther's recommendations into effect’), ‘but also with Haman in the book of Esther, who is the architect of Jewish annihilation and who is ultimately sentenced to death on the very gallows he had built for the Jew Mordecai’ (1997: 6). Beal expresses the appeal of Nazi self‐reference to Hitler. He presumes Streicher's reference to Haman to be an afterthought, privileging his explicit self‐association with Luther. That the reference is unintentional appears to make the irony only sweeter to Beal: the Nazi cites the story of Esther but is ignorant of its ‘true’ application: that those who oppose the Jews will inevitably fail.
There are various accounts that testify to Nazi awareness, and subversion of, Purim celebrations. Blum‐Dobkin cites the account of Rabbi Shimon Huberband, who claimed that the Nazis hanged ten Jews on Purim in Zdunska Vola, Poland, in revenge for the hanging of the ten sons of Haman at the end of the Esther story (1979: 56). Domnitch alludes to the same episode, also explaining it ‘as punishment for having hanged the ten sons of Haman’ (2000: 73). The stories are cited here, it seems, as arrogant attempts by the Nazis to overwrite the Esther narrative and to underscore the new, Nazi narrative of Jewish defeat, not Jewish triumph. Again, the appeal is the irony of Nazi reference, even within the midst of their terrorizing, to a story that foretells their downfall.
Even more striking for many is Hitler's own apparent reference to himself as a second Haman. In fact, Hitler's reference to Purim, specifically that from his 1944 speech, has become the stuff of Jewish legend. Hitler addressed the Reichstag, as related by Philip Goodman in his seminal collection of Purim material, the Purim Anthology: ‘In a speech by Hitler on January 30, 1944, he said that, if the Nazis went down to defeat, the Jews could celebrate “a second triumphant Purim” ’ (1949: 375). The account Goodman gives here is as bare and simple as I have cited above. Yet, under the title ‘The Prophecy of Hitler’, Goodman powerfully invokes a picture of Hitler fervid in his speechmaking, an image swiftly replaced by that of the instant of his failure, when his ‘prophecy’ was fulfilled. As such, Goodman dramatically resurrects the dramatic irony of Haman's fall in Hitler's defeat.
Hitler's reference appeals to many who have subsequently written on Purim and who repeat Goodman's reference and relish in Hitler's recognition of his own (p. 520) identity as a second Haman. Hitler's implicit self‐identification seems to be so appealing for three reasons. First, there is the delicious sense of irony involved in Hitler's seemingly unwitting invocation of a story that foretells his own defeat, thwarting his over‐inflated sense of destiny, similar to that evident in Beal's identification of irony in Streicher's ‘Purimfest!’ Hitler's speeches, like Purim, are replete with invocations of Providence, and yet ultimately it is Purim's narrative that is played out in history. In claiming divine support, both sides conflate history and morality, thereby constructing Hitler's defeat as an expression of divine displeasure. Second, it underlines the importance of the Esther account as a framing story for Jewish suffering: even Hitler—although probably unintentionally, or stupidly—recognized the Esther story as the most pertinent to his endeavours. Third, and most significantly, it appears that it is Hitler's self‐designation as enemy of the Jews that makes his (already rather pernicious) position even more evil and makes his association with Haman more concretized. As self‐assigned enemy, his is a purposeful attack. It is the intent to destroy, not merely destruction itself, that seems important and that fits him to the Amalekite model. Domnitch glosses the significance of the Amalekites and why they are so hated:
The purpose of Amalek's existence was to menace the Jews and challenge their existence. The Amalekites, who had the audacity to attack the Israelites as they headed toward Mount Sinai, despised the ideals, beliefs and values of the Jews to the point of obsession. For the Amalekites, there was no room in the world for coexistence between Amalek and the Jews, whose status as God's chosen people filled them with rage. Haman, as all Amalekites who preceded him, was fixated upon the destruction of Jewry. (2000: 202–3)
What is significant about Amalek for Domnitch is his identity as the aggressor, and importantly, an aggressor who even risks existence to achieve the eradication of the enemy. By associating Haman with Hitler, the centrality of his agenda to destroy Jewry is highlighted. Controversially, emphasis on Hitler's self‐designated status as enemy makes the Holocaust more applicable to the story of Esther. As Fackenheim and others have pointed out, the lack of Jewish blood spilt in Esther is not echoed in the Holocaust. Yet, by focusing attention on Hitler's proclamation that he is a second Haman, his intent to annihilate Jewry is privileged. It is in his intent that he performatively resembles Haman, and it is his intent that is thwarted by Germany's defeat, despite the failure to prevent his annihilation of millions. In this specific sense, then, the Esther story better maps onto the Holocaust narrative. As such it substantiates ‘Intentionist’ historical readings of Hitler as someone, as David Engel explains, ‘carefully calculated in advance to facilitate the ultimate goal of total murder’, just like Haman, combating ‘Functionalist’ historical readings of the Holocaust in which mass murder evolved gradually ‘in an administrative climate in which Hitler himself provided little concrete direction’ (1999: 27). It is only within an Intentionist reading of Hitler that the Haman–Hitler connection makes (p. 521) any sense: it demands that Hitler acts from a ‘motiveless malignancy’ (as Coleridge characterized the actions of Iago), both evil and personally culpable.
Yet, it seems strange to liken yourself to the villain of a story that belongs to your enemies, and further to associate yourself with a villain who fails. Why would Hitler align himself with a failed persecutor of Jews, who exists in a book that overwhelmingly celebrates his defeat? Whilst Jewish legend records Hitler's reference to Purim, there has seemingly been no interest in his reasons for invoking the festival. Yet it is clear from his 1944 speech, as printed in the New York Times of 31 January, that he cites Purim in an oppositional way to that assumed. Hitler is not aligning himself with Haman or prophesying a second Purim for Jews in the light of his own downfall. Goodman's initial, very selective citation of Hitler's reference to Purim misrepresents its significance by removing its context, and the repeated use of Goodman as a source by succeeding writers has only worked to proliferate Hitler's ‘Prophecy’. Even those, like Blum‐Dobkin, who do cite the newspaper source more extensively continue to focus exclusively on its irony, an irony that is so breathtaking, it seems, that it has rendered investigation of Hitler's speech itself—readily available in translation in the New York Times—apparently superfluous. Yet it is a more profound analysis of Hitler's speech that reveals a striking resemblance to Haman. Hitler's citation of Purim is, in fact, to invoke common understandings of Purim as a triumphal, bloodthirsty carnival that signifies Jewish vindictiveness. As such, his reference to Purim posits Jews as aggressors—anticipating the ‘destruction of Europe’—and as such he performs Haman's role in asserting himself as the protector of civilization. As I outline below, Hitler is not explicitly placing himself in a binary conflict with the Jews or proclaiming his animosity towards them. Instead, like Haman, he paints the Jews as enemies of the state, destructive and dangerous, and appeals to self‐defence in order to justify attack.
Hitler gave his speech on 30 January 1944, over the radio, and, as Max Domarus notes, it was ‘directed at his English opponents rather than at the German Volk’ (2004: 2871). It is fitting, therefore, that the entire speech was printed in full the day after its delivery, in the New York Times (translated by the United Press) and was therefore readily available to Hitler's apparently intended English‐speaking audience. It is this version of the speech that is primarily considered in what follows, because of its status as the contemporaneously received version. The New York Times relates in its commentary on the speech that ‘It was wholly concerned with the alleged bolshevist threat to Europe and Germany's alleged part in standing it off single‐handedly’ (‘Hitler Sees Peril of Russia to All’, New York Times, 31 Jan. 1944). Or, as Domarus explains, Hitler tried to convince England that ‘in the event of a German defeat, Europe and England would become Bolshevik’ and that it would be ‘in England's interest to let Germany win’. Yet, as many scholars have noted, Bolshevism and Jewry are conflated in Hitler's thinking, meaning that the speech was far from being ‘wholly concerned’ with Bolshevism. In Mein Kampf, as David Engel writes, Hitler sets up ‘Marxism and Bolshevism as the Jews' main weapons in their perverted struggle for survival: by preaching international working‐class solidarity across racial lines, these doctrines deflected people's loyalties from their own racial groups’ (1999: 22–3). Engel claims that Hitler's association of Jewry and Bolshevism may have been ‘especially credible to some because it was rooted in a comprehensive, seemingly scientific world‐view’ (ibid. 23); Marx was, after all, Jewish. To consider Hitler's speech to be ‘wholly concerned’ with the ‘bolshevist threat to Europe’ is to misunderstand his reference. Instead, it is very much concerned with his reiteration of the Jewish threat, as is made explicit at various points in the speech. Crucial to his representation of Russia's threat to European civilization is his construction of Bolshevism and Jewry as a deadly threat to Germany. It is in proving the danger of Jewry that the reference to Purim is made. Like Haman, Hitler presents the Jews as a threat to civilization, appealing to the empire's/allies' sense of self‐protection, in order to create support for his assault.
The speech, unfortunately, contains a tortuous logic that requires lengthy commentary. Responding to the threat of Russian military success in Europe, Hitler claims that ‘in this struggle there can be only one victor, and that will be either Germany or Soviet Russia. German victory means the preservation of Europe and a victory by Soviet Russia means its destruction.’ He sets up the battle as one of irreconcilable difference that will result in the eradication of one side. Germany becomes a protector of European civilization against the uncivilized Russians, whom he paints as a threat to the ancient culture of Europe. He implicitly alludes to the cultural homogeneity widely associated with Bolshevik communism in explaining that Russian triumph would mean ‘the oldest cultural Continent would have lost its essential traits of individuality’. Setting up Russia as a supreme threat, Hitler claims Germany as the only possible saviour of Europe.
Hitler then moves on to the use of biological imagery in the speech, a use of language that substantiates his claim that the Bolshevik and Jewish aim is annihilation of Germany. By drawing on ideas of disease, bacteria, and immunity, his allusions to the threat of Bolshevism and Jewry are set in a frame of reference that demands the extreme discourse of eradication. Hitler introduces medical metaphor as he insists that England (and those countries like her) has ‘sold its soul to Judaism’, and likens it to a diseased organism which must ‘expel these bacteria by force from its body’. (It is remarkable, in the light of such comments, that the New York Times can claim that the speech is ‘wholly concerned with the alleged bolshevist threat’.) Hitler extends his medical analogy to illustrate the danger to the political body: ‘The opinion that it would be possible to live together peaceably and even to live in harmony with these ferments of decomposition is nothing but the belief that the body in time will reach a state in which it will assimilate cholera bacillus.’
Hitler's use of a metaphor of disease follows on from Luther's description of Jews as a ‘plague’ and the infamous anti‐Semite Hermann Ahlwardt's reference to Jews as cholera, posing the possibility that he may be citing Ahlwardt here (on Luther and Ahlwardt see Hilberg 1996: 32–3). In a system in which disease and immunity (p. 523) cannot coexist, it becomes logical to insist that neither can Bolshevism/Jewry and Germany coexist. Russian intention against Germany—and, according to Hitler's logic, European civilization—must therefore be a desire for annihilation: ‘the Kremlin would in case of victory decide on the complete extermination of the German people.’ The pertinent question for Hitler becomes one of ‘the salvation of Europe and the European states’ by the strong‐bodied Germany. He later claims: ‘Thus alone Germany has become immune from all attempts to infect her with the Bolshevik virus.’ Germany's very bodily presence, resistant to Russian infection, must, according to Hitler's logic, be eradicated by the Russians in order for them to be able to successfully infect Europe. It is this destruction of ‘healthy’ Germany by a Russia intent on infecting Europe that would lead to Jewish celebration. Throughout the speech Hitler is invoking a sense of Bolshevism and Jewry as being akin to bacteria, with Germany as the healthy body: Germany is both immune (having fought off Jewry) and under threat (from this new bacteria, Bolshevism). As such, Germany is somewhat paradoxically both strong and weak, victor and victim.
Hitler explicitly aligns this Russian annihilationist agenda with Jewish objectives: ‘This aim is also the openly admitted intention of international Jewry.’ He then goes on to warn that, ‘Unless Germany is victorious’, the ‘bearer of this culture’ will perish. Then comes his famous reference to Purim: ‘Jewry could then celebrate the destruction of Europe by a second triumphant Purim festival.’ Purim is therefore a celebration of destruction, and it is cited as proof of Jewish aggressive intention. It is notable that the editors of the New York Times include in parenthesis here, for those unfamiliar with Jewish tradition: ‘[The Purim festival marks the deliverance of the Jews from Haman.]’ The fact that Hitler needed no such gloss demonstrates the currency of his reference to Purim: it was evidently one with which he presumed his listeners would be familiar.
It is worth briefly turning to the version of the speech printed in Max Domarus's four‐volume collection of Hitler's speeches (which post‐dated much of the critical work on Purim as it was available in English translation only in 2004 and in German in 1987). Domarus translates the line as: ‘the devastating Jewish Ahasuerus [Xerxes] could celebrate the destruction of Europe in a second triumphant Purim festival’ (2004: 2873), which includes the extra detail of the king of the Persian empire. In Hitler's allegorical framework, the king of the Persian empire could only represent the president of the United States, Franklin D. Roosevelt. Hitler calls the gentile Ahasuerus Jewish, intimating that his part in saving the Jewish people from the attack of Haman revealed a secret Jewish identity. Hitler is therefore not only conflating Bolshevism and Jewry, but the United States as well, ruled as it is by the ‘Jewish Ahasuerus’; his message is that England, in guarding itself against Bolshevism, must also guard itself against Jews and the United States: all three wish for a Purim celebrating the destruction of Europe.
(p. 524) At the centre of Hitler's citation of Purim, then, is Jewry as the aggressor—he situates himself as a victim of Jewish violence, divinely preserved and engaged in military self‐defence. (He lauds the German people for ‘conducting this decisive life and death struggle’, ascribing their preservation to ‘the grace of God’.) He paints Nazi Germany in precisely these defensive terms: ‘This unified state, based on a solid national and political organization, had to create forthwith armed forces which…would be an adequate instrument to carry out the task of self defence.’ This military defence is the secondary enacting of a more primary cultural self‐defence, against Jews who are, for him, ‘these bacteria’. Although his speech, like the racist logic it draws upon, is (necessarily) illogical, confused, and contradictory; his message is nonetheless clear. Indeed, it is the speech's paradoxes (that Germany is both strong and weak, for example) that make its intentions all the more compelling. He paints Jews as aggressors, and their potential celebration of Purim becomes a dance on the grave of a cultured Europe and civilization per se. It is this logic of repaying vengeful violence that makes sense of the alleged Nazi hanging of ten Polish Jews ‘as punishment for having hanged the ten sons of Haman’ (Domnitch 2000: 73; Blum‐Dobkin calls it a ‘sadistic reversal’: 1979: 56). By presenting the hanging of the Jews as ‘punishment’, the Jews are represented as the perpetrators and the Nazi hangings become a response to aggression, in this case punishment and, as in Hitler's previous rhetoric, self‐defence. It is such an appeal to self‐defence that makes Haman's accusation of the Jews in Esther 3 succeed.
In invoking Purim to present Jewishness as inherently vengeful, Hitler was repeating what had become a common reading of the Book of Esther and would in all probability be familiar to those listening to the speech. It demonstrates that Hitler was cognizant of Christian anti‐Semitic reception of Esther, if not with Jewish practice itself. It is an interpretation of Esther that can be traced back at least to the nineteenth century. In 1848 Edward Tottenham, in a sermon on the failure of the Gunpowder Plot of 1605, claims that there is ‘much that is objectionable’ in contemporary Purim celebrations. ‘There is often great intemperance, and a spirit of revenge displayed, not merely in the record of Haman's cruelty…but in the curses they pronounce on him’ (Tottenham 1848: 13). Reading the Book of Esther to portray Jewishness as inherently violent and revengeful is what Elliot Horowitz calls a ‘liberal‐Anglican consensus’ in the late nineteenth century (2006: 27). As late as 1954, The Interpreter's Bible, unreflectingly, states that ‘There is in the book a spirit of revenge’ (1954: 845–6). Horowitz cites various pre‐ and post‐Holocaust examples of similar readings that demonstrate racist logic in their identification of the killings in Esther 9:2 as vengeful slaughter and, further, as representative of a Jewish ‘character’. They interpret a group (the Jews) in light of one set of actions (Esther 9:2); but importantly, it is an interpretation of Esther 9:2 that is unsupported by textual evidence, the biblical text being typically laconic at this point. It must be remembered that the Jews are here still under threat from the irreversible edict ordering their slaughter; they are authorized only to defend themselves (p. 525) following a second edict that allows them ‘to stand for their life, to destroy, and to slay, and to cause to perish, all the forces of the people and province that would assault them’ (Esther 8:11; for further discussion see Carruthers, (2009)). In contrast to those who cite the passage as evidence of Jewish vengeance, many commentators note the detail of the Jews' refusal to take any plunder from those they slay as evidence that it was necessary self‐defence (see Carruthers 2008: 256–65). Many of Horowitz's findings are breathtaking in the prejudice they reveal, perhaps because they are obviously so normative for the time. In one example he cites the Methodist scholar W. L. Northridge, who claims in 1937 that the book reveals ‘Jewish vindictiveness at its worst’, comparing the ‘unworthy elements’ in Judaism to a Christian ‘spirit of love’ (see Horowitz 2006: 37).
Hitler is drawing on a widely circulating Protestant reading of Esther that saw the slaughter at the end of the book as evidence of Jewish vengefulness per se. It is noteable that Horowitz, although providing the most extensive documentation of anti‐Semitic reception of the Book of Esther to date, misses Hitler as one of its proponents. In the context of citing the Nazi's deliberate subversion of Jewish holidays, their ‘perverse pleasure in suffusing Jewish holidays with suffering and slaughter’, Horowitz cites Goodman's reference to Hitler's 1944 speech and his ‘second triumphant Purim’. Horowitz's response, like Beal's, involves apparent irony as he goes on to note that Hitler was ‘evidently’ (2006: 91) unaware of the Casablanca local Purim that was already celebrating his (limited) defeat. Yet Hitler is not predicting Jewish response to his potential downfall but utilizing currently circulating prejudice against Jews to present Purim as evidence of Jewish aggression. Hitler is not reading the Book of Esther in his own unique way (although his mapping of Ahasuerus' ‘Jewish sympathy’ onto Roosevelt is novel). He takes a culturally resonant set of connections (Purim with aggression and social destruction) and maps it onto history to defend his own aggression. Hitler is merely escalating an existing sophistry: Jews equal Purim equals revenge.
It is striking that Jewish individuals and Hitler cite Purim for opposing purposes. We find here the reception of a biblical story functioning as a beacon of hope for one group and a firebrand of vilification for the other. Both are turning to the Book of Esther for what we might call historical narrative mapping: applying a narrative to historical events in order to make sense of those events by imposing an overarching logic or teleology. For Jews, Purim provides a narrative of divine providential protection; for Hitler, it provides an ‘explanation’ of Jewish character. In the case of Hitler's invocation of Purim, however, the Esther narrative is secondary and subservient to another narrative: that of the victim–victimizer dyad. Hitler's vilification of the Jews works according to the logic of this dyad in which victims are bestowed with an inherent innocence, and victimizers denied pity (on the Victim Triangle—Victim, Victimizer, and Rescuer—see Karpman 1968: 39–43). Michael Ovey explains the function of victim status, which signifies, amongst other things, ‘moral innocence’, ‘unique authority’, and ‘non‐accountability’ (Ovey 2006). To (p. 526) identify one's enemies as victimizers, then, is to tap into a morally transcendent site of victimhood. Hitler's abuses in the name of ‘victimhood’ are not unique to him but, as David Keen outlines (in relation to 9/11 and the subsequent ‘war on terror’), the invocation of victim status, through identification of an evil enemy, can be the pernicious beginnings of a spiral of violence that, far from alleviating feelings of threat or terror, exacerbates them to increase counter‐aggression. The identification of an ‘evil’ enemy (and the implied self‐status of victim) brings with it the carte blanche of violent behaviour against those which are deemed enemies. He warns: ‘focusing exclusively on some demonised group—however vicious and violent it may be—creates space for abuses by diverse actors who claim to be opposing this group’ (Keen 2006: 80). It justifies pre‐emptive attacks on any who are deemed a threat and justifies violent annihilation of the enemy (see ibid. 19–23).
By merely alluding to Purim, Hitler invokes a set of apparently pervasive assumptions about Jews that need no rational construction or defence. As such, the sophistry of Hitler's position remains masked. Similarly overshadowed is the blatant lack of logic in his position: to defend slaughter through an accusation of slaughter. To engage more profoundly with the story of Esther itself is to risk its potential disruption of his logic. To interpret Esther as a book that ‘proves’ Jewish vengefulness overwhelmingly ignores that in the Book of Esther the plotting Haman is the aggressor. The persecution of the Jews is ignored and implicitly overwritten, unlike the threatening decree that, as irreversible, cannot be overwritten and still hangs over the Jews' heads. The invocation of Purim is a commitment to an inherently illogical stance as it vilifies an action (slaughter) whilst sanctifying it in the name of victimhood. There is, then, a gamut of stultifying identifications circulating at various levels in Hitler's speech: he constructs ‘Jews’ and ‘victims’ as non‐historical, fixed identities oblivious to change or complexity. And indeed, the polarization of parties into evil–innocent and into victim–victimizer is a tempting move: especially when circumstances invite such an unambiguous response. Yet the invocation of singular, apparently self‐evident identities, whilst reassuringly rigid, numbs critical engagement, as Jean‐Paul Sartre warns: ‘The more one is absorbed in fighting Evil, the less one is tempted to place the Good in question’ (1948: 44). Sartre's warning compels a critical approach, so that any assignation of abstract and polarized characteristics, ‘evil’ or ‘good’, to a set of people or a person provokes suspicion.
Hitler's allusion to Purim in his speech fails to register long enough for critical engagement, and as such the story of Esther is not brought to bear on the arguments. Yet to keep the story of Esther in creative tension with its reception by Hitler intimates an even greater irony than that gestured towards by Beal or Horowitz. Hitler's reference to Purim demands that it be read in the light of Esther 3:8: Haman's strategy of misrepresenting the Jews to the king as a ‘certain people’ whose laws are ‘diverse from those of every people’ and counter to those of the empire. It is with reference to Purim, then, that Hitler not only inhabits the role of accuser, but does so by disquietingly replicating Haman's iconic role as enemy of the Jews.
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(p. 528) Sacks, Jonathan (1992), Crisis and Covenant: Jewish Thought After the Holocaust. Manchester and New York: Manchester University Press.Find this resource:
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As well as Beal 1997, Carruthers 2008, Engel 1999, Goodman 1988, and Horowitz 2006, see the collection Purim: The Face and the Mask: Essays and Catalogue at the Yeshiva University Museum February–June 1979 (New York: Yeshiva University Museum).
(1) I am grateful to the Leverhulme Trust and the Research Councils UK for funding research time, and to the Leverhulme Trust and AHRC for travels funds, that have enabled the writing of this essay.