George Steiner’s Vapid Excuse-Making for Anti-Semitism

February 11, 2020 | Irving Howe, Gabriel Schoenfeld
About the author: Gabriel Schoenfeld, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute, is the author of, among other books, The Return of Anti-Semitism (2004).

The philosopher, cultural critic, and novelist George Steiner died on Monday at the age of ninety. A French-born Jew, Steiner wrote extensively about the Holocaust and anti-Semitism. Yet for all his proclamations about the moral gravity of the Shoah, his sophisticated explanations for anti-Semitism often became indistinguishable from justifications. It is perhaps not surprising then that he was also a pioneer of the vicious hatred of Israel that has become so fashionable in left-wing circles. In a 1972 review of Steiner’s collection of essays In Bluebeard’s Castle, Irving Howe was among the first to detect this moral perversity:

Steiner . . . sees the triumph of Nazism as the last in a series of impulsive rebellions by natural man against the noble tyranny of monotheism, that dubious and unwanted blessing the Jews lowered upon the world. . . . If at first glance it seems flattering to the Jews to be told that they have been the “bad conscience” of Western history, bringing with them “the blackmail of transcendence,” a moment’s reflection ought to reveal that it is empty talk, at once grandiose and trivial.

Of what use is it, therefore, to remark [in response to Steiner] that “Western culture” can hardly be said to have killed the Jews, it was the Nazis who killed them, and indeed, it might be a little more plausible to say that “Western culture” destroyed the Nazis?

Steiner’s theory [moreover] has the immediate effect of releasing major institutions from their moral responsibilities. [If, as Steiner claims], “instinctual polytheistic . . . needs” lie behind the horrors of Auschwitz, then the Christian churches, with their frequently disgraceful records in regard to anti-Semitism in Germany, may partly be let off the hook. Indeed, if such overpowering instincts are at work, instincts that have kept breaking out through the entire course of human history, then how can anyone be held morally responsible for the Nazi murders?

In his 1983 novel The Portage to San Cristobal of A.H.—the initials standing for “Adolf Hitler”—Steiner took these reflections even farther, leading Gabriel Schoenfeld to classify him alongside the notorious Hitler apologist David Irving in a 1998 essay:

Steiner presents a Hitler [in this novel] who has survived the war, is tracked down in South America by Israeli agents, and is permitted to make a statement justifying his deeds. He does so in a lengthy and brilliant set-piece in which he asserts that the Nazi notion of a master race is nothing more than a borrowing from the Jewish conception of the chosen people; blames Judaism for provoking the Holocaust by bringing into the world a superior morality that “left man a guilty serf” and caused a festering, murderous resentment; and claims credit for saving the Jewish people because his Shoah led to the birth of the state of Israel.

Hitler’s soliloquy goes pointedly unanswered in Steiner’s novel, where it constitutes virtually its closing words. [In a later interview], Steiner confide[d] that the speech does not merely express the viewpoint of a fictionalized character but is intended as his own rationalization for the mass slaughter of European Jewry.

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