Many people have wondered (as did I, when I was younger) why Jewish communities under National Socialist tyranny didn’t react (sooner) with armed resistance. (Individuals and smaller Jewish groups did, of course.) Contrary to what some people mistakenly assume, Judaism is not a pacifist religion, and the idea of meekly accepting one’s fate at the hands of one’s killers is not some sort of Jewish ideal.
Raul Hilberg, the doyen of Shoah historians, sees this very differently in “The Destruction of the European Jews”, (3rd Edition, Yale University Press, 2003, pp. 25-27). In response to “garden variety” oppressors, the Jewish community developed and honed an adaptive response over many centuries that ultimately relied on the oppressor’s self-interest: make them “not slaughter the goose that lays the golden eggs for them”.
[…] The alleviation-compliance response dates, as we have seen, to pre-Christian times. It has its beginnings with the Jewish philosophers and historians Philo and Josephus, who bargained on behalf of Jewry with the Romans and who cautioned the Jews not to attack, in word or deed, any other people. The Jewish reaction pattern assured the survival of Jewry during the Church’s massive conversion drive. The Jewish policy once more assured to the embattled community a foothold and a chance for survival during the periods of expulsion and exclusion.
If, therefore, the Jews have always played along with an attacker, they have done so with deliberation and calculation, in the knowledge that their policy would result in least damage and least injury. The Jews knew that measures of destruction were self-financing or even profitable up to a certain point but that beyond that limit they could be costly. As one historian put it: ‘‘One does not kill the cow one wants to milk.’’ In the Middle Ages the Jews carried out vital economic functions. Precisely in the usury so much complained of by Luther and his contemporaries, there was an important catalyst for the development of a more complex economic system. In modern times, too, Jews have pioneered in trade, in the professions, and in the arts. Among some Jews the conviction grew that Jewry was ‘‘indispensable.’’
In the early 1920s Hugo Bettauer wrote a fantasy novel entitled Die Stadt ohne Juden (The City without Jews).50 This highly significant novel, published only eleven years before Hitler came to power, depicts an expulsion of the Jews from Vienna. The author shows how Vienna cannot get along without its Jews. Ultimately, the Jews are recalled. That was the mentality of Jewry, and of Jewish leadership, on the eve of the destruction process. When the Nazis took over in 1933, the old Jewish reaction pattern set in again, but this time the results were catastrophic. The German bureaucracy was not slowed by Jewish pleading; it was not stopped by Jewish indispensability. Without regard to cost, the bureaucratic machine, operating with accelerating speed and ever-widening destructive effect, proceeded to annihilate the European Jews. The Jewish community, unable to switch to resistance, increased its cooperation with the tempo of the German measures, thus hastening its own destruction.
In sum, both perpetrators and victims drew upon their age-old experience in dealing with each other. The [Nazis] did it with success. The Jews did it with disaster.
Outside the immediate context of the Shoah, in a broader sense, it boils down to the importance of recognizing when the rules of the game have fundamentally changed, and therefore the old, tried-and-true, approach not only no longer can be expected to work, but clinging to it will be disastrous.
UPDATE: Jeff Dunetz at “Yid With Lid” has Gen. Eisenhower’s historic responses to the horror he was witnessing during the liberation of the camps. https://lidblog.com/yom-hashoah-holocaust-remembrance/