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A New Approach to the Holocaust

Driving Jews eastward was not a feasible way to eliminate them because no lightning victory came and the Soviet state did not collapse. As Longerich sees matters, Hitler chose in the autumn of 1941 to proceed with plans for the Final Solution by deportation anyway, shipping German Jews to the east despite the absence of a victory, and forcing local SS and civilian authorities (people such as Jeckeln or Greiser) to deal with new arrivals in conditions of overcrowding and chaos. Whereas other historians have linked Hitler’s decision to Stalin’s deportation of Volga Germans or a euphoria of victory associated with the German autumn offensive known as Operation Typhoon, Longerich emphasizes Britain’s decision to remain in the war and increasing American involvement on the side of the British. In his account, Hitler believed that suffering but surviving Jews could be used as hostages to deter London and Washington from war. Whatever the reason, the deportation of Central European Jews to the east was a crucial moment, since it indicated that the Final Solution would take place during the war, and established a link between prior deportation plans and ongoing mass shooting.

The August 1941 massacre at Kamianets Podils’kyi in Ukraine had set a precedent. Its main organizer, Friedrich Jeckeln, was reassigned to the north, to serve as the higher police and SS leader at Riga. His tasks there included liquidation of the ghetto established in the occupied Latvian capital—taken first by the Soviets during the German-Soviet alliance, and now occupied by the Germans. Andrej Angrick and Peter Klein’s excellent study of the Riga ghetto, informed by Eastern European sources and available now in English translation, provides a precise and ghastly description of what this meant for those local Jews. With laudable thoroughness, they describe the organized shooting of Jews, the first form of industrial-scale mass murder.

On November 30, 1941, Jews in groups of five hundred or a thousand were assembled in the ghetto by Germans with Latvian assistance. The aged and the sick were shot on the spot. Those too weak to march for two hours carrying possessions were shot along the way. As the Jews approached the Rumbula Forest, a cordon of Germans and Latvians narrowed the marching column into a single-file line. Jews left their suitcases at a first station, their clothing at a second station, and their remaining valuables at a third. Then they walked on ramps down to pits, lay down on the ground or more likely on the corpses already beneath them, and were shot in the back of the neck. Some 14,000 Jews were shot on November 30 alone; in all some 27,800 were killed in this episode of mass murder.5

East of the 1939 border between Germany and the Soviet Union, in places like Riga, Jews were generally shot. West of that border, for example in the Warthegau and the General Government, they were generally gassed. As Epstein shows in her biography of Greiser, whatever the final method of murder, the logic of escalation in the second half of 1941 was similar. Unwelcome transports of Jews from Germany and elsewhere in Central Europe generated mass killing of Jews held in ghettos. When Greiser learned in September 1941 that German Jews would be deported to the Łódź ghetto, he apparently bargained with his superiors for the authority to kill Jews and Roma who were already there to make room for the newcomers.

In the Warthegau, the Germans had already used gas vans to asphyxiate inmates of Polish hospitals. The police crew charged with this operation was now given the responsibility for gassing Jews. Gas vans were parked at a manor house at Chełmno—a town in western Poland thirty-seven miles northwest of Łódź—and used there from December 8, 1941, to murder Jews. By killing the sick, the young, and the old, Greiser made Łódź into a kind of work camp. This would last until 1944, when he finally yielded to pressure from Himmler to send most of Łódź’s Jewish inhabitants to Auschwitz.6

War against the Soviet Union did not transform politics as the Nazis imagined it would. Though the Germans starved more than four million Soviet citizens, the Hunger Plan as such could not be carried out. Generalplan Ost, though implemented on a small scale, became a distant dream. The Final Solution took place, but not according to plan. Rather than being a war aim, it became part of the war itself. Hitler in August 1941 spoke of a war against Jews. That December, after the Soviets began a counteroffensive at Moscow and the Americans entered the war, Hitler spoke of a world war brought about by the Jews. He recalled his “prophecy” of January 1939, when he had promised extermination to the Jewish race should Jews foment a world war. Killing was not the original technique of the Final Solution, but it was the technique whose efficacy Himmler proved. Longerich’s magnificent biography of Himmler reveals him navigating among different policies of destruction,7 finding the ways to match Hitler’s immediate needs with Germany’s practical possibilities. The grand “positive solution” of a racially ennobling war gave way to the total “negative solution” of the planned destruction of the people defined as the chief enemy, the Jews.

Historians of Germany have pushed the date of the crucial decision to eliminate all Jews later and later, until it seems that it could go no further. They debate whether the critical moment was June 1941 (which few now believe), or October 1941, or December 1941. Longerich calmly pushes through late 1941 and January 1942, the month of the Wannsee Conference, without recording a moment from which the Holocaust as total extermination was inevitable. He believes that there was in fact no crucial moment when Hitler decided, or communicated his decision, to kill all Jews under German control. In his view, “we should abandon the notion that it is historically meaningful to try to filter the wealth of available historical material and pick out a single decision” that led to the Holocaust.

Longerich grants the significance of Greiser’s murder of Jews by gas at Chełmno in December 1941, but finds another crucial moment of escalation in spring 1942, when he records a second wave of shootings in the east, the construction of a large death factory at Treblinka for the destruction of the Warsaw Jews, and the addition of a gas chamber to the concentration camp at Auschwitz for the murder of the Jews of Silesia. He believes that the assassination of Himmler’s most important associate, Reinhard Heydrich, on June 4, 1942, led to the acceleration of gassing throughout the General Government. “Ours is the holy duty to avenge his death,” said Himmler, and in July he ordered the complete liquidation of the Jews within the General Government by the end of the year.

Himmler also went to Auschwitz that month and witnessed gassings. It was only in the summer of 1942, Longerich maintains, that mass killing was finally understood as the realization of the Final Solution, rather than as an extensively violent preliminary to some later program of slave labor and deportation to the lands of a conquered USSR. To see mass killing as itself the Final Solution was, in Longerich’s view, to abandon the prospect of any military victory over the USSR in the near future. Here I would have been grateful for more detail about the summer 1942 offensive (and indeed Soviet actions generally) in the Soviet Union, which, like the autumn 1941 offensive, was perhaps more important than Longerich credits. In Longerich’s account, as in Holocaust history generally, the Soviet Union figures as a kind of external constraint, enabling or disabling German policies, rather than as an agent in its own right.

In July 1942, the German leadership approached its allies about the deportation of their Jews to death facilities. In this scheme, the attempt to involve Germany’s allies had a political motive. Just as participation in anti- Semitic discrimination bound Germans to the Nazi regime in the 1930s, so the cooperation of Germany’s allies in the Holocaust would make surrender impossible for them in the 1940s. Others seemed to share this calculus. Italy and Bulgaria, the states that resisted German demands for Jews, did in fact change sides. Romania had its own program for the mass killing of Jews, but reversed its policies as the tide of war visibly turned in 1942, and then it changed sides in 1944. Hungary deported Jews from territories it annexed from dismembered Czechoslovakia in 1939 and forced native Jews into brutal labor duty where many died, but the regime declined to send Jews to the death factories. The deportations of Jews under Hungarian rule began in 1944 after the Hungarian regime tried and failed to reverse alliances, seeking support from the Allies; the Germans then invaded and installed their own regime.8

The emerging image of a Holocaust resulting from political motives denies Longerich’s readers the expected moment of doom at the bottom of a descending narrative arc. More obstinately than almost all other historians, Longerich resists the temptation to insert a novelistic climax into the history of the extermination of the Jews. Yet nothing about Longerich’s account questions the importance of the Führer and his ideology. On the contrary, he shows precisely how Hitler achieved his racist ends, emphasizing that his political style required of the Germans not just obedience but initiative, and showing how the pattern of creative conformity established before 1939 enabled bloody escalation during the war.

Longerich unites ideology and institutions within an interpretation sufficiently flexible to connect Nazi aspirations to Nazi policies. He thereby avoids both extremes of the debates about timing: the popular assumption that after Hitler’s rise to power in 1933 everything was inevitable, and the scholarly search for a particular moment in 1941 when the definitive decision was made. Instead, he shows how the ideological vision of a world without Jews could motivate both successful domestic politics and catastrophic war while in both cases furthering the Holocaust.9

The search for a “positive solution” of purified Germans did not work within Germany itself, but fostered the political habits of consolidation through scapegoating and murder as the response by lower cadres to imprecise signals from above. “Negative solutions” were easier to undertake during wartime, but impossible to implement fully against Slavic populations who far outnumbered the German colonizers. Slavs were killed in the millions, but never targeted for complete elimination like the Jews. Germany’s racist colonization provided opportunities for men such as Greiser, who was not among the most convinced anti- Semites, and Jeckeln, who was. Their actions can be seen as creative obedience to Himmler, who was in his turn accommodating Hitler.

Longerich’s impressive study of Judenpolitik is not a detailed recounting of the Holocaust, and makes no claim to take account of the perspective of the Jews who died and the neighbors who watched, collaborated, or more rarely rescued. But it supplies the best account we have of the relationship between anti-Semitism and mass murder, and conveys a melancholy plausibility.

  1. 5

    Jeckeln also had German Jews shot, which exceeded his authority. 

  2. 6

    On conditions in the ghetto, see Andrea Löw, Juden im Getto Litzmannstadt: Lebensbedingungen, Selbstwahrnehmung, Verhalten (Göttingen: Wallstein, 2006). 

  3. 7

    The book bears comparison to Ian Kershaw’s monumental Hitler: A Biography (Norton, 2008) and deserves translation. 

  4. 8

    It would have been interesting to know how Longerich would handle the politics of German alliance negotiations with Poland between 1934 and 1939 and with the Soviet Union in 1939. On issues of Hungarian and Romanian sovereignty and the Holocaust, see Holly Case, Between States: The Transylvanian Question and the European Idea during World War II (Stanford University Press, 2009). Bulgaria did deport the Jews of Thrace and Macedonia. 

  5. 9

    Another essay would be required to explain the recent parallel literature on the political economy of the Holocaust, from Christian Gerlach, Kalkulierte Morde: Die deutsche Wirtschafts- und Vernichtungspolitik in Weißrußland 1941 bis 1944 (Hamburg: Hamburger Edition, 1999) through Adam Tooze, The Wages of Destruction: The Making and Breaking of the Nazi Economy (Viking, 2007). 

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