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The Incomprehensible Holocaust

As Mayer clearly indicates at the outset, he wishes to look beyond the Holocaust to find the causes of the crisis of Western civilization during the first half of the twentieth century. Justly castigating the now fashionable fragmentation of the historical discipline, Mayer proposes to recall “the centrality of ideology, politics, and war in human affairs.” First, he writes, we must abandon the vantage point of the cold war, for without discarding “the residual cold war blinkers” we cannot trace the interconnection of anticommunism and anti-Semitism; and it was anticommunism, he asserts, that led Germany’s old elites, whether in the army, the bureaucracy, or high industrial circles, to collaborate with the Nazi regime and support the military drive for unlimited living space in Eastern Europe, the precondition for the Final Solution.

Second, he argues, we must place the “Judeocide” in its pertinent historical setting, the great European upheavals of the first half of the twentieth century: World War I, the ensuing Bolshevik revolution, the Nazi counterrevolution, and World War II, which was, in Mayer’s view, the inevitable outcome of the Nazi counterrevolution. Mayer proposes an inclusive interpretative model in order both to explain the horrors of our time and to show that both Germany’s Eastern campaign and Judeocide were integral components of the Thirty Years’ War of the twentieth century.

Mayer believes the Bolshevik Revolution was the great emancipatory event in Eastern Europe, especially for the Jews, and that, in its liberating effects, it can be compared to what the French Revolution accomplished for Western Europe and its Jews. Tragically, however, the “time-honored elites” in Germany and East Central Europe weathered the crises of 1917–1919 and remained determined to preserve the unstable old regimes in which they still held power. The Great Depression caused the “power elite of big business and agriculture, seconded by the old civil- and military-service nobility” to turn to Hitler “because he, unlike them, was adept at rallying popular support for the defense of the established but endangered economic, social, and cultural order.”

Putting aside the question of how liberating was a revolution that systematically suppressed all competing revolutionary parties and dissenters of every kind, this sounds to me very much like the old Marxist adage about fascism being “the last bastion of capitalism.” But Mayer himself subsequently contradicts this thesis:

While big business at critical moments encouraged the Nazi defiance, it was not its prime mover…. Fascism prevailed in Germany less because some sectors of big business used it as a stratagem to save capitalism than because the old elites resorted to it to preserve their superannuated positions of class, status, and power.

Without a doubt the latter statement, not the first, is Mayer’s true thesis, but no matter; both theses, in assuming that the historian must assign a dominant role to one group or the other, are open to the same question. How can anyone determine who were the prime movers and who were merely secondary when considering, on the one hand, the vast horde of German noblemen, officers, judges, imperial bureaucrats, professors, and land-owners and, on the other, the no less numerous capitalists, industrialists, businessmen, managers, and commercial farmers?

Mayer sees the Nazi takeover and the war as reactionary moves, inspired primarily by anti-Marxism; Nazi anti-Semitism was for him far less important. “There is no evidence to support the view that the destruction of the Jews was the primary motive and purpose of Hitler’s pursuit of power and determination to go to war.” Even after the attack on the Soviet Union, Mayer states categorically and repeatedly, the Jews were not to be annihilated, only “extruded.” The invasion of Russia was

not to trap the Jews for a predetermined Judeocide. Rather, Operation Barbarossa was both a military campaign to conquer boundless living space in the east and a crusade to eradicate the Soviet regime and the Bolshevik ideology.

As Mayer sees it, only after the military drive against the Soviets had taken a disastrous turn, during the winter of 1941–1942, did the Nazis vent their frustrated anger on the Jews.

Indeed, had the blitzkrieg succeeded in the east as it had in the west the year before, Europe might ironically have been spared the worst horrors of the twentieth century.

It is impossible to agree with this reasoning. As other critics have pointed out, Hitler’s Judeocide was not merely a byproduct of Hitler’s anticommunist crusade; it was one of Hitler’s chief war aims. And Mayer seems to me factually wrong in tying the Judeocide to German setbacks on the Eastern front; there is ample evidence to show that the Einsatzgruppen, the specially formed police battalions of the SS, began the systematic liquidation of Eastern Jewry as soon as circumstances permitted, a few weeks after the invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941.

Other questions arise about Mayer’s analysis of the situation following World War I in Eastern Europe, the vast stretch of the continent lying between Germany, Italy, and the Soviet Union. In his view, this region was generally characterized by the survival of a reactionary anti-Marxist, anti-Bolshevik old order, a point which is essential for his overall thesis.

Along with the countries of the Iberian Peninsula, the countries of this rimland remained prime bastions of Europe’s fading old order, rooted in preindustrial economies. Their ruling classes were dominated by landed nobles and gentrified middle classes; their governing classes by civil and military service nobilities.

The old ruling elites, Mayer continues, all but blocked land reform in Eastern Europe, leaving smallholders and agricultural workers at the mercy of the landowners. But Mayer himself exempts Czechoslovakia, a democratic country dominated by bourgeois politicians and businessmen. And what of the others? The native Bulgarian nobility and the Serbian nobility had both disappeared under the Ottomans, and the Muslim landowners had left with the retreating Ottoman armies in the nineteenth century. Both independent Serbia and Bulgaria were essentially peasant societies. After World War I, the newly created Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia as well as expanded Romania seized the properties of German-speaking and Hungarian landowners, that is, most of the large estates, and distributed the land among the peasants.

Unfortunately, the peasants of Romania and Yugoslavia, short of cash and farming know-how, benefited little from the land distribution. The political and administrative leaders of Bulgaria, prewar Serbia, and postwar Yugoslavia had largely peasant roots or were descendants of small merchants. Romania and newly independent Poland were characterized by often violent struggles for power between disparate social groups, among them noble landowners.

Only in Hungary between the wars can one talk of the partial survival of the old order: aristocratic landowners, petty nobles, civil-and military-service nobility, and Jewish capitalists, but even in Hungary social change came in the 1930s, with people from both the middle class and lower-middle class demanding and getting more and more jobs in the civil administration and Jewish-owned enterprises.

The fall of the Romanov, Habsburg, and Hohenzollern empires,” Mayer writes, “brought a distinct relaxation of both official and informal discrimination” against the Jews. In reality official discrimination before World War I had existed at most in the Russian empire, not in the German Reich or in Austria-Hungary. There was unofficial discrimination and prejudice everywhere, of course, but at least in the lands under Francis Joseph, which comprised much of Central Eastern Europe, Jews had virtually unlimited opportunities for education and employment. They could, and did, become army generals, judges, civil servants, and cabinet members. They entered the hereditary nobility and sat in both houses of parliament. Never before and never since have the Jews of Central and Eastern Europe enjoyed greater personal dignity than the ancien régime of the Habsburg dynasty.

Here, then, is the crux of the matter. The dissolution of the Habsburg monarchy in 1918 marked the end, or the beginning of the end, of the old order of hereditary and service nobles, who had been tolerant of minority religions and ethnic groups to a degree unheard of since that time. The states that were carved out of the empire experienced grave economic crises and social upheavals. In Hungary, the only East European country where the old nobility had survived more or less intact, the nobles and the Jewish capitalists were pitted against people emerging from the middle and lower-middle classes who had an unquenchable appetite for political and economic power.

No doubt, in Hungary as elsewhere in Eastern Europe, both the old elites and the new social forces were anti-Marxist and anti-Bolshevik. But the new elites and their fascist and fascist-influenced parties—the Iron Guard in Romania and the Arrow Cross in Hungary were only two of many—were also étatist, anti-capitalist, anti-aristocrat, antiliberal, and xenophobic. They were also radically anti-Semitic, for they associated the Jews with everything they hated: Bolshevism, the old order of noble landowners and capitalists, foreign domination, and the Habsburgs. Because their countries were nation-states in name only, the new East European elites clamored for the forcible assimilation or the oppression of alien minorities, among whom they counted the Jews. Unfortunately, Arno Mayer nearly ignores the populist, social revolutionary element in East European chauvinism and anti-Semitism.

The coming of World War II brought cataclysmic regional conflicts and civil wars to the Eastern European countries, causing some of them to fall victim to Nazi aggression and others to jump on the Nazi bandwagon. The war also hastened social revolution and suppression of the ethnic minorities. The Jews were the first victims slaughtered by the Germans with varying degrees of assistance from local administrations and peoples. All the Eastern European regimes (where they existed) repeatedly adjusted their policy toward Jews to the dictates of “national interest” and the changing lines of battle. No Eastern European government was consistently murderous toward Jews during the war years; none was without guilt. As Arno Mayer himself points out, of all Hungarian social classes, the aristocracy resisted the Final Solution most consistently.

After the war came the turn of the 12 million German settlers in Eastern Europe: those who had not fled with the retreating German army were by and large driven out, deported, or killed. Other minorities were treated similarly, under the motto of settling accounts with fascists and Nazi collaborators. The drive against minorities continues to our day, against the Hungarians in Romania, the Turks in Bulgaria, the Albanians in the Kosovo region. The few remaining Jews and Germans are also leaving.

The tragedy of the East European Jews must be seen against this background. They were murdered by the German Nazis and the East European fascists, not by the entire population. Yet we must ask: What would have become of the East European Jews without Hitler? No doubt thousands of them would have sought their fortune in the West as part of the great migration begun at the end of the nineteenth century. Others would have been completely assimilated into a new industrialized society; but still others would have left because they found the radical nationalism in Eastern European countries intolerable.

As the Habsburg monarchy crumbled, it was only a matter of time before the old nobility, the imperial bureaucracy, and the German as well as Jewish bourgeoisie would give up their places to the sons and grandsons of native peasants. The new elite, unlike the old, has shown no patience for alien cultures. Such slogans of the interwar period as “Poland for the Poles” and “Romania for the Romanians” heralded the end of the multinational Eastern Europe. In the new national societies, there would have been little room left for Jewish life and culture.15

Why did it happen? Why did millions die and other millions survive? After plowing through many dozens of books, and having recalled my own experiences as both a victim and a witness, I have no clear answers, and Arno Mayer seems to me right when he asserts that Hitler’s Judeocide remains incomprehensible. But perhaps there are lessons, as suggested by Zygmunt Bauman’s forthcoming book, Modernity and the Holocaust:

The lesson of the Holocaust is the facility with which most people, put into a situation that does not contain a good choice…argue themselves away from the issue of moral duty…adopting instead the precepts of rational interest and self-preservation. In a system where rationality and ethics point in opposite directions, humanity is the main loser…. And there is another lesson of the Holocaust, of no lesser importance…. The second lesson tells us that putting self-preservation above moral duty is in no way predetermined, inevitable and inescapable. One can be pressed to do it, but one cannot be forced to do it, and thus one cannot really shift the responsibility for doing it on to those who exerted the pressure. It does not matter how many people chose moral duty over the rationality of self-preservation—what does matter is that some did.

August 31, 1989


The Incomprehensible Holocaust: An Exchange December 21, 1989

  1. 15

    On all this, see Ezra Mendelsohn, “Relations Between Jews and Non-Jews in Eastern Europe Between the Two World Wars,” in Unanswered Questions, pp. 71–83.

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