• Email
  • Single Page
  • Print

Improvising the Holocaust

The Final Solution of the Jewish Question was a unique undertaking, its execution an industrial enterprise of unprecedented proportions. Yet it was only one in a series of murderous ethnic campaigns that began well before Hitler and is not yet over. Heinrich Himmler called the Final Solution a Flurbereinigung, a cleansing operation. Europeans have been practicing something like it from the time of the French Revolution but with one major difference: governments and peoples have been satisfied with forced assimilation, expulsion, deportation, and occasional massacres; the Nazis wanted to annihilate every single Jew. More than a few historical actions resembled the Final Solution—the Turkish massacre of the Armenians during World War I; Stalin’s deportation to Siberia of entire ethnic minorities, and the killing and expulsion of millions of ethnic Germans from Eastern and East Central Europe following World War II. But none aimed at the total destruction of an entire people.

Despite its popularity, ethnic cleansing is ultimately self-defeating. What indeed was the point in Nazi Germany’s dragging thousands of ethnic Germans back to Germany from Russia, the Baltic states, and even northern Italy, thereby giving other peoples the notion that they might as well expel the remaining Germans after the war? What did the Nazis gain by killing millions of Jews and other East Europeans, and what did the East Europeans gain by helping to kill the Jews during the war and by expelling the Germans later? There were, of course, some immediate benefits: houses to take over, shops to loot, factories and lucrative jobs that could be appropriated. But the German war effort would have profited immensely from a rational exploitation of its Jewish and Slavic workforce. Over three million young and strong Soviet soldiers were allowed to starve to death in the German POW camps. Thousands of highly skilled Jewish ghetto craftsmen were unable to complete the uniforms and boots they were making for the German army because it seemed more important to the Nazi leaders that all Jews be put to death.

As for the East Central European countries, they were set back by many decades, culturally, socially, and economically, by the decisions to get rid of their generally more skilled and better-educated Jewish and German inhabitants. We must remember that neither the extermination of the Jews nor the subsequent expulsion of the Germans could have taken place without the assistance of large numbers of Austrians, Czechs, Slovaks, Poles, Croats, Romanians, Hungarians, Ukrainians, Lithuanians, Latvians, Russians, Frenchmen, and others.
Christopher Browning, who discusses these painful matters in his new book, is a well-known expert on the Final Solution. His Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland,1 shows how a group of conventional, unfanatical policemen from Hamburg became willing killers of Jews when they were sent to Poland. His book was widely praised by historians when it appeared and was later attacked by Daniel Goldhagen, in Hitler’s Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust,2 as overcautious in failing to discern the endemic anti-Semitism Goldhagen believes was part of the German mentality.

Browning’s Origins of the Final Solution, in which Jürgen Matthäus writes one chapter and collaborates on another, is the first of three planned volumes on Nazi policy for the Final Solution, from the pre-war years to Germany’s defeat in May 1945.3 Thousands of books and a hundred times more printed essays, in over a hundred languages, have dealt with different aspects of the Holocaust. There have also been attempts at comprehensive histories, such as those by Martin Gilbert, Raul Hilberg, and Leni Yahil.4 But none is as substantial in every sense of the word as the trilogy promises to be, to judge from the present volume. Yet this monumental work concentrates only on Nazi policymaking. Browning and the other two historians, who have not been named, have decided to deal mainly with the Nazis and their allies, not with the victims of the Holocaust.

Browning’s book begins with the outbreak of the war in September 1939 and ends in March 1942 when the Germans were ready to liquidate the Polish ghettos and to transport Jews from France and Slovakia to the death camps. March 1942 marked the beginning of the European-wide liquidation of the Jews by industrial methods.

Although the history in the first volume of the trilogy will chronologically precede his, Browning devotes his introductory pages, which are written in clear, analytical prose, to the religious origins of modern racial anti-Semitism. In the eleventh century, religious anti-Judaism began to have economic, social, and political consequences as Jews were increasingly barred from many kinds of work. The campaigns against Jews also became xenophobic, and they were condemned for being unlike the Christian population. Still, the Jews remained the only legally recognized non-Christian group in Europe, and historians find it difficult to decide which is more characteristic of the Middle Ages, the long-term toleration of the Jews or their periodic murderous persecution. The Church itself approved of the oppression of the Jews, yet also set limits on it.

Anti-Semitism changed after the Middle Ages, when Jews were killed because of such imaginary crimes as “torturing the Host.” The modern anti-Semitism that began in the nineteenth century saw the Jews largely as members of a race and not of a religion. Jews were accused of fostering, among other dangerous tendencies, enlightenment, secularization, materialism, liberalism, Freemasonry, atheism, immorality, urbanism, capitalism, socialism, communism, and imperialism. Characteristically, twentieth-century radical anti-Semites, and the German Nazis, unhesitatingly adopted not only all the modern accusations against the Jews, but also the age-old charges that they were Christ killers and ritual murderers.

Why did the Germans, many of whom were highly cultured, initiate and largely execute the Final Solution? Browning is undaunted by previous criticism that he failed to acknowledge the degree to which German anti-Semitism was widespread. He divides German anti-Semites into roughly two groups. On the one hand there were those whose views were relatively moderate and conservative yet xenophobic, and who saw Jews as undesirable foreigners. On the other hand, there were radical anti-Semites whose anti-Semitism was what Browning calls “chimeric” and “redemptionist.” By this he means that the radical anti-Semites made Jews responsible for all the ills that befell their country, and thus believed that their elimination would redeem the nation. There can be no doubt, Browning argues, that the radical anti-Semites were never representative of the absolute majority of the German people, or even the absolute majority of Nazi Party members; but they got their way because of the indifference and passivity of most other Germans.

What greatly exacerbated the persecution of the Jews, Browning argues, was the way the Nazis bureaucratized anti-Semitism. Once an office of “Jew experts,” Judensachbearbeiter, had been created in virtually every branch and agency of the German government, anti-Semitism became institutionalized, and every so-called expert tried to prove his worth by issuing a flood of anti-Semitic regulations and orders designed for the persecution of Jews. As the historian Enzo Traverso has put it:

It was the bureaucracy that organized the application of the Nuremberg Laws, the census of the Jews and the partial Jews, the expropriation of Jewish property within the framework of the “Aryanization” of the economy, the herding of Jews into ghettos and their subsequent deportation, the management of the concentration camps and the killing centers.5

In emphasizing the bureaucracy, Browning echoes Hannah Arendt’s thesis of the banality of evil, which argued that bureaucrats like Adolf Eichmann would have been just as ready to perform other tasks as they were to send millions of Jews to the gas chambers. But Browning is also more prepared than Arendt was to argue that Jew-hatred, National Socialist conviction, greed, and rivalry with other services were also among the motives of the “Jew experts.” I question only whether there was anything particularly German about the actions of the bureaucracy. Dutch civil servants were not anti-Semitic, but they issued national identification cards that were virtually impossible to forge, and they collected and delivered to the German authorities extremely precise information about their Jewish compatriots. Or consider the Hungarian mayors who issued decrees carefully regulating the day and the hours when Jews would be allowed to visit a public bath. They did this at a time when practically all the Jews in their cities had already been deported to Auschwitz.

The mass killing of the Jews began soon after the German troops crossed the Polish frontier in September 1939, but this killing was still far from being seen as the only “solution.” In fact, German troops and the SS, including the SS police units called Einsatzkommandos, at first killed more non-Jewish Polish civilians than Jews, especially members of the Polish intel-ligentsia. As the chief of the German Army’s General Staff, Franz Halder, noted to an underling at that time, “It was the intention of the Führer and Göring to destroy and exterminate the Polish people.” The soldiers’ hatred was fed by the traditional German contempt for the Polish people. But there was also indignation within the army over the Polish massacre of thousands of German nationals in Poland during the first days of the war. And many Germans believed in the longstanding goal of gaining Lebensraum for the German people.

Browning rightly emphasizes that the Volksdeutsche, East European citizens of German nationality, became active in killing Poles and Jews. In short, ethnic cleansing was at the heart of much of what was happening in the East. Soldiers coming from the “civilized West” exhibited what seems to have been deep, visceral loathing of the “Jews, Polacks, and riff-raff.” Jews were known in Germany mainly as a relatively small minority much resembling the Germans, at least in their customs and behavior; but now the conquerors were confronted with 1.8 million Jews in the part of Poland the Germans were occupying. These Jews, many with long beards and earlocks, looked alien; they were often miserably poor and wore strange religious garb.

It seems clear from Browning’s account that in September 1939, Hitler and the other Nazis were not yet sure how they would solve the “Jewish problem.” As Browning carefully explains, Nazi racial policies were “not the result of any long-held blueprint”; Hitler, who hated the Jews more perhaps than any other group, was quite flexible about which course was to be followed in dealing with them. Tragically, however, two major developments sealed the fate of the European Jews: one was the war that made Jewish emigration more difficult and later impossible; the other was the German army’s virtual surrender to the Führer of what had remained of its autonomy.

During and after the Polish campaign, many German commanders expressed their outrage over the brutality of some of their own soldiers and even more over that of the SS, especially the Einsatzkommandos, as well as other police units who pillaged, burned, tortured, and massacred their Polish and Jewish victims. This was the only time during the entire war that local German commanders protested against what they saw as a dangerous breakdown of discipline. Yet, as Browning shows, nothing came of the protests because the army high command, long submissive to the Führer and bribed with enormous gifts and dazzling promotions, failed to say a word in protest. Also, many junior officers were committed Nazis. In any case, the best troops were soon withdrawn from Poland and sent to fight in the triumphant Scandinavian and Western campaigns where, at least in the early years of the war, there were, with relatively few exceptions, no atrocities, no burning of villages, no bearded old Jews to be humiliated, and no serious civilian resistance to the occupying forces. Thus the army lost its last opportunity to assert itself as a conservative counterweight to the radical Nazi leadership.

  1. 1

    HarperCollins, 1992.

  2. 2

    Knopf, 1996.

  3. 3

    These appear as part of a comprehensive history of the Final Solution, in fifteen volumes; most of them will deal with the “histories of each national Jewish community in Europe under the impact of the Holocaust.”

  4. 4

    Martin Gilbert, The Holocaust: A History of the Jews of Europe During the Second World War (Holt, 1985); Raul Hilberg, The Destruction of the European Jews (1961; revised edition, Holmes and Meier, 1985); Leni Yahil, The Holocaust: The Fate of European Jewry, 1932–1945 (Oxford University Press, 1990).

  5. 5

    Enzo Traverso, The Origins of Nazi Violence, translated by Janet Lloyd (New Press, 2003), p. 43.

  • Email
  • Single Page
  • Print