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The Incomprehensible Holocaust

More than anything else, they were soldiers—soldiers by choice. Political soldiers, in the service of evil. The military was more than employment for them, more than a career. It was a way of life.

No SS man was obliged to serve in a concentration camp, but most saw no reason to avoid it. Once there, they grew into the job and became more wicked daily, as had the woman I once saw in a German television documentary on the Majdanek trial. A Bavarian farmhand, she first became a prison guard and then a supervisor in a concentration camp, where one of her specialties was drowning “unruly” Jewish women in the latrine. After the war, she went back to being a farmhand until she was arrested and tried. During the trial she sat in the dock, an old peasant woman, knitting.



Scholars of the Final Solution have been called the skilled craftsmen of the “Holocaust enterprise” and, to be sure, they earn rewards in fame, royalties, and endowed Holocaust Chairs. Understandably too, some critics worry about the possible ritualization and trivialization of a subject which cannot be treated like any other historical study. Can mass murder be dealt with as one more academic topic? Can it be submerged in a mass of footnotes? In the words of Nora Levin: “The world of Auschwitz was, in truth, another planet.”11 But as Michael Marrus argues in his excellent survey The Holocaust in History, “the alternative, silence, is surely a counsel of despair.” In any case, the writings of a good many contemporary scholars make admirable efforts to understand something that is basically incomprehensible. I am thinking here in particular of the work of such scholars as Marrus, Uwe Dietrich Adam, Yehuda Bauer, Randolph L. Braham, Martin Broszat, Christopher R. Browning, Lucy S. Dawidowicz, Saul Friedländer, Martin Gilbert, Raul Hilberg, Michael H. Kater, Walter Laqueur, Robert J. Lifton, Charles S. Maier, George L. Mosse, Gerald Reitlinger, Karl A. Schleunes, and Shulamit Volkov. Most of these writers, and others as well, are cited in Marrus’s work; several have contributed to or are discussed in Unanswered Questions, also under review here.

A question addressed by all these historians concerns the centrality of anti-Semitism in Nazi ideology and in German public opinion. Most historians agree that anti-Semitism was not a predominant ideology in nineteenth-century Germany. Or are we to forget that anti-Semitism was more virulent in France and Russia at the turn of the century than in Germany, and that during World War I German troops marching into Russian territory were received as liberators by the Jewish population? Nor was anti-Jewish ideology a constant preoccupation of the leaders of the Third Reich. Only a minority of the early Nazis were “paranoid anti-Semites,” and anti-Jewish propaganda did not do much for the Party’s popularity before 1930. It was, however, absolutely central to the thinking of Hitler, for in his perverted version of Darwinism the Jews were the “antirace,” a mortal threat to his plans, to the German nation, and to the human race.

As Saul Friedländer has explained, it was fanatical hatred of the Jews that distinguished Hitler’s ideology from that of the other fascists, not his anti-Marxism, which was common to all of them. The Jews, not the Marxists or the Bolsheviks, were the targets of Hitler’s first and last ideological statements. He could, and did, conclude an alliance with Stalin, whom he admired in many ways; an “arrangement” with the Jews was unthinkable for him. What remains unexplained, therefore, is why so many Germans willingly participated in the Final Solution. Some writers point to the demonic appeal of Hitler. Others repeat, although less categorically, Hannah Arendt’s thesis on the banality of evil: the willingness of the faceless bureaucrats to do what they perceived to be their Führer’s wish, especially because the incessant power struggle within the Nazi bureaucracy could be won only by gaining the approval of its supreme arbiter.

Historians also generally agree on the uniqueness of the Holocaust: unlike the other monsters of the twentieth century, the Nazis aimed at total success. As the German liberal historian Eberhard Jäckel has written:

Never before had a state…decided that a specific human group, including its aged, its women, its children and infants, would be killed as quickly as possible, and then carried through this regulation using every possible means of state power.12

In 1986, a number of German historians, Ernst Nolte and Andreas Hillgruber among them, raised the issue of the uniqueness of the Holocaust, arguing that it was only one of several cases of genocide, and that the Nazis were merely imitating Stalin’s “Asiatic” politics. The ensuing Historikerstreit, the “Dispute of Historians” over recent German history, aroused the educated German public, painfully bringing home such issues as German self-respect, national identity, and Germany’s place among civilized nations. Nolte’s and Hillgruber’s position was angrily rejected by the philosopher Jürgen Habermas and scores of liberal German historians. The emerging consensus seems to be that while there is little use in constantly worrying over German national identity, and even though it may have been excessively self-accusing on the part of some historians to try to turn the Holocaust into a (West) German national obsession, it would be far worse to attempt to forget it. The Holocaust was indeed unique, the only true genocide of our times.

Yet a disturbing dilemma remains for historians. At least two thousand learned books have been written on the murder of 5.1 million Jews and considerably fewer on the death, by artificially created famine, deportation, and outright murder, of 14.5 million Soviet “class enemies” (kulaks), or on the total number of victims of Stalinist terror, estimated at some 20 million.13 Even less has appeared on the Communist massacres in China, Cambodia, and Tibet or, for example, on the murder of the Nigerian Ibo. Such a vast discrepancy cannot be explained away by the shortage of archival sources, or by the argument that the Ukrainian kulaks, unlike the Jews, were determined enemies of their state. Why then were the children of kulaks also treated as class enemies, regardless of their social and economic condition? It appears that the preoccupation with the Jews and their killers reflects a tendency to concentrate on those who are “ours”: the educated and civilized West Europeans. Not only has the history of the Holocaust been a central and necessary concern of the Jewish communities in the Western countries but historians generally have been overwhelmed by the spectacle of a nation once thought to be among the most “civilized” destroying one of the most civilized of peoples. They have been less concerned with the mass murder of peasants.14

How did the Holocaust take place? The question is the subject of a complex historical debate, separating “intentionalists” from “functionalists,” and the extremists in each camp from the moderates. The intentionalists argue for a “straight path,” meaning that Hitler’s thinking from very early on followed a coherent line, calling implicitly and explicitly for the elimination of Jews. The question of just how early divides the extreme and more moderate intentionalists. Moreover, as Ernst Nolte sees it, because the Nazis hated modernity more than anything else, and because, for them, Jews in Germany were the quintessential representatives of modernity, they never flinched in their early decision to do away with them. Hitler only awaited the favorable opportunity before issuing the orders to his underlings.

For their part, the functionalists uphold the theory of a “crooked path,” arguing that the Third Reich was a maze of competing power groups, rival bureaucracies, and threatening personalities, and that the Final Solution occurred only as a result of these rivalries. It emerged “bit by bit,” writes the Munich historian Martin Broszat, depending on local initiatives by such vicious and aggressive leaders as the SS General Reinhard Heydrich, the chief of the Nazi security system. In this setting, the role of Hitler could only have been indirect. He gave no instructions that anyone has been able to document; rather, his underlings attempted to follow faithfully, as Hans Mommsen argues, the vision of an ideologically obsessed but essentially lazy leader. Still, no serious historian has argued that Hitler would not have known what was happening.

Such a summary only hints at the range of issues discussed in The Holocaust in History and Unanswered Questions. Yet I am tempted to agree with Saul Friedländer, who writes that even though the functionalist argument fits better with the main tendencies of modern historical analysis, the evidence itself strengthens the traditional intentionalist position, chiefly because of Hitler’s pathological hatred of the Jews. Hitler controlled the rhythm of the anti-Jewish measures, and while he was restrained between 1933 and 1939 by his conservative allies as well as by world opinion, and while between 1939 and 1941 he was groping for a new solution to the “Jewish Question,” in 1941 he no longer had any grounds to hesitate. According to Friedländer’s explanation, Hitler knew that the invasion of the Soviet Union would burden him with millions more Jews, and therefore planned the massacres well in advance; he subsequently would have given direct orders for their execution. But Friedländer also writes,

The historian’s paralysis arises from the simultaneity and the interaction of entirely heterogeneous phenomena: messianic fanaticism and bureaucratic structures, pathological impulses and administrative decrees, archaic attitudes within an advanced industrial society.

Or as Martin Broszat has pointed out: any thesis concerning the Final Solution is a matter of probability, not certainty. No written order by Hitler to proceed with the Final Solution has ever been found; yet the justification for extermination was already spelled out in Mein Kampf.


The Dissenter

The Holocaust is not the primary concern of Arno Mayer’s historical research. Nor, to be just, is it that of several other historians whose names I have listed above. But Mayer, who was born in Luxembourg and who in 1940 had to flee the Nazis, is deeply concerned with the subject, and has grown impatient with what he perceives as a trivialization and fragmentation of Holocaust studies. Finally, as is shown by his numerous publications, Mayer’s interest lies in the survival into the twentieth century of the “old order” in Central and Eastern Europe, and in what he sees as the disastrous consequences of that survival. In Why Did the Heavens Not Darken? he sets out to prove that the upper classes and powerful economic forces that dominated the old order were instrumental in Hitler’s political triumph, in the anti-Bolshevik crusade against Soviet Russia, and, albeit less directly, in the murder of the European Jews. I do not believe that Mayer has accomplished his purpose, for one reason because of his excessive assurance, which invites the reader to become a believer without giving him the evidence on which to base a belief. His book lacks notes or footnotes, and only secondary sources are listed in the bibliography.

  1. 11

    Nora Levin, The Holocaust: The Destruction of European Jewry, 1939–1945 (Schocken, 1973), pp. xi–xii.

  2. 12

    Eberhard Jäckel, “Die elende Praxis der Untersteller,” Die Zeit (September 12, 1986), as quoted in Charles S. Maier, The Unmasterable Past: History, Holocaust, and German National Identity (Harvard University Press, 1988), pp. 75–76. On Maier’s work, see Gordon Craig’s “Facing Up to the Nazis,” in The New York Review (February 2, 1989).

  3. 13

    The figure on the number of Jewish victims is that of Raul Hilberg in Unanswered Questions, p. 171; the figure on Stalin’s victims is that of Charles Maier in The Unmasterable Past, p. 74. For a detailed analysis of Stalinist terror, see Robert Conquest, The Harvest of Sorrow: Soviet Collectivization and the Terror-Famine (Oxford University Press, 1986). The still widely used figure of six million Jewish dead was the estimate of Adolf Eichmann.

  4. 14

    This theme is, incidentally, most thoughtfully explored in Maier, The Unmasterable Past, pp. 71–84.

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