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Hitler’s Logical Holocaust

Deutsche Besatzungspolitik in Litauen 1941–1944 [German Occupation Policies in Lithuania, 1941–1944]

by Christoph Dieckmann
Göttingen: Wallstein, two volumes, 1,652 pp., €81.30

Jest taki piękny, słoneczny dzień: Losy Żydów szukających ratunku na wsi polskiej 1942–1945 [It Is Such a Beautiful, Sunny Day…The Fate of Jews Seeking Rescue in the Polish Countryside 1942–1945]

by Barbara Engelking
Warsaw: Stowarzyszenie Centrum Badań nad Zagładą Żydów, 292 pp., zł39.99
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Popperfoto/Getty Images
The offices of the Nazi newspaper Der Stürmer in the Free City of Danzig, circa 1935. The anti-Semitic poster in the window reads ‘Die Juden sind unser Unglück!’ (The Jews are our misfortune!).

Jan Gross and Irena Grudzińska Gross conclude their account of grave robbery after the Holocaust with a story from the very recent past. A Polish businessman, returning from Berlin, narrowly escaped death in an automobile accident. The following night, a Jewish girl appeared to him in a dream, addressed him by his first name as if he were a friend or a child, and asked him to return her ring. The businessman did have a gold ring, given to him by his grandparents, who had lived near Bełżec, one of the major death factories built by the Germans in occupied Poland.

Hoping to save themselves or their families, Polish Jews on the death transports of 1942 sometimes exchanged the valuable objects they had managed to take with them for water (or promises of water) with local Poles when the trains stopped short of their destination. Anything that remained was seized when the Jews had to undress before being led to the gas chambers. Gold teeth were removed from the corpses by Jewish slave laborers, and taken by the Germans. Some valuable objects were hidden by the Jewish laborers and were then exchanged with the camp guards, who were often Soviet citizens taken prisoner by the Germans. They exchanged the objects for food, alcohol, and sex in nearby Polish villages. Some of the valuables remained at the site of the gas chambers when the Germans retreated. After the war, the locals would dig up the corpses looking for gold.

The businessman did return the ring, as best he could: he gave it, along with a note, to the museum at Bełżec. In some ways his gesture and his story reflect the realities of today’s Poland. Every detail of his account—the commercial relationship with Germans, the business trip by chauffeur-driven car, even the travel on good roads—bespeaks a Poland that is today more prosperous than ever in its history. Liberated in 1989 from the communism that followed German occupation, allied to the United States in NATO since 1999, linked to its neighbors in the European Union since 2004, Poland is a beneficiary of the globalization of the post-Communist years.

As Donald Bloxham suggests in his Final Solution, the Holocaust can be seen, among many other things, as the final catastrophe accompanying the breakdown of what some historians call the first globalization, the expansions of world trade of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. It collapsed in three stages: World War I, the Great Depression, and World War II. Its fatal flaw was its dependence upon European empire. The process of decolonization began within Europe itself, as the Balkan nation-states liberated themselves first from the Ottoman Empire and then from the dominance of their British, German, Austrian, or Russian imperial patrons. The leaders of these small, isolated, agrarian nation-states found a natural harmony between nationalist ideology and their own desperate economic situations: if only we liberate our fellow nationals beyond the next river or mountain range from foreign rule, we can expand our narrow tax base with their farmland.

After a few false starts involving wars against one another, the Balkan nation-states turned against the Ottoman Empire itself in 1912 in the First Balkan War, effectively driving Ottoman power from Europe and dividing up the spoils (although not without a Second Balkan War, in 1913). The conflict that we remember as World War I can be seen as the Third Balkan War, as elements within the Serbian government tried to win territory from Austria just as they had recently done from the Ottomans. With the coming of World War I, the Balkan model of establishing nation-states spread to Turkey (which involved the mass murder of more than a million Armenians); afterward it was accepted in Central Europe. World War I also shattered a system of world trade, and inaugurated an era of European impoverishment that would last nearly half a century.

Adolf Hitler was an Austrian soldier fighting in that war, though in the German army. His anti-Semitic response to the defeat of Germany and Austria, articulated in Mein Kampf in 1925, is interpreted by Bloxham in The Final Solution as an intellectually spurious but politically powerful attempt to extract Germany from its fate as a defeated nation-state by restoring its imperial goals. The war itself had harmed the German homeland itself relatively little, since the country was never occupied. But Germany, which lost nearly 2.5 million dead in the war, was defeated, a brute fact that Hitler found inexplicable. If a reason for Germany’s defeat could be identified, then the program for Germany’s return to the center of world history could be realized.

Hitler falsely held the Jews responsible not only for the defeat of 1918, but for the postwar settlement. In the West, Jews were supposedly the principal source of the heartless finance capitalism of London and New York that permitted the painful food blockade of Germany in 1918 and the hyperinflation of the early 1920s. In the East, Jews were supposedly responsible for the communism (“Judeobolshevism”) of the Soviet Union. Jews around the world were responsible, argued Hitler, for the false universalisms of liberalism and socialism that prevent Germans from seeing their special destiny.

Hitler’s program for German revival was, at one level, a simple reenactment of the Balkan combination of nationalism with agrarianism, which he had praised in Mein Kampf. Germany must fight with its neighbors for “living space” in the East to achieve agricultural self-sufficiency. Unlike the Balkan states, of course, Germany was a great power that could envision not just gains of territory but a new land empire, something it seemed to have achieved in Ukraine at the end of World War I. Hitler’s obsession with anti-Semitism made the vision global both in its symbolism and in its ambition: an invasion of the East would mean the occupation of the part of the world where most Jews lived, the destruction of the Soviet Union, and the achievement of world power.

To attempt to realize the program of Mein Kampf, Hitler needed to win power in Germany, to destroy Germany as a republic, and to fight a war against the USSR. As Edouard Husson notes in his book on Heinrich Himmler’s deputy Reinhard Heydrich, the Great Depression made it possible for Hitler to win elections and begin his transformation of Germany and the world. In Hitler’s Germany after 1933, the state was no longer a monopolist of violence, in Max Weber’s well-known definition. It became instead an entrepreneur of violence, using violence abroad—terror in the Soviet Union, assassinations of German officials by Jews—to justify the violence at home that was in fact organized by German institutions. Hitler then used the alleged threat of domestic instability to justify the creation of ever more repressive institutions.1

For most of the 1930s Hitler maintained the pose that his foreign policy was nothing more than the classic Balkan one, the gathering in of fellow nationals along with their land. This was the justification given for the dismemberment of Czechoslovakia and the annexation of Austria in 1938. But in fact, as Husson shows, the takeover of these countries and destruction of their governments was a trial run for a much larger program of racial colonization further east.

Husson’s method is to follow the career of Heydrich, the director of the internal intelligence service of the SS, and the ideal statesman of this new kind of state.2 The SS, an organ of the Nazi party, was meant to alter the character of the state. It penetrated central institutions, such as the police, imposing a social worldview on their legal functions. The remaking of Germany from within took years. Heydrich understood, as Husson shows, that the destruction of neighboring states permitted a much more rapid transformation. If all political institutions were destroyed and the previous legal order simply obliterated, Heydrich’s organizations could operate much more effectively.

In particular, the destruction of states permitted a much more radical approach to what the Nazis regarded as the Jewish “problem,” a policy that Heydrich was eager to claim as his own. In Germany, Jews were stripped of civil rights and put under pressure to emigrate. After Germany seized the Sudetenland from Czechoslovakia in 1938, its Jews fled or were expelled. When Austria was incorporated into Germany, Heydrich’s subordinate Adolf Eichmann created there an office of “emigration” that quickly stripped Jews of their property as they fled anti-Semitic violence.

Historians tend to see World War II from two perspectives: one as the battlefield history of the campaigns by, and against, Germany; the other as the destruction of European Jews. As Hannah Arendt suggested long ago, these two stories are in fact one. Part of Hitler’s success lay in denigrating international institutions such as the League of Nations and persuading the other powers to allow his aggression in Czechoslovakia and Austria. As Bloxham stresses, the weakness of the Western powers meant that the fate of citizens, above all Jewish citizens, depended upon the actions (and existence) of states. The Evian Conference of 1938 demonstrated that no important state wanted to take Europe’s Jews.

Hitler, as Husson observes, apparently believed that, in the absence of American willingness to accept European Jews, European powers should ship them to Madagascar. The island was being considered as a place for Jews by Polish authorities at the time, though as a possible site for a voluntary rather than involuntary emigration. Husson writes that Hitler seemed to believe until early 1939 that Germany and Poland could cooperate in some sort of forced deportation to the island. Poland lay between Germany and the Soviet Union, and was home to three million Jews, more than ten times as many as Germany. Hitler, who wished to recruit Poland into a common anti-Communist crusade, presumably imagined that this deportation would take place during a joint German and Polish invasion of the Soviet Union.

Because Poland refused any alliance with Nazi Germany in the spring of 1939, Hitler made a temporary alliance with the Soviet Union against Poland. The Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact of August 1939 sealed the fate of the Estonian, Latvian, Lithuanian, and Polish nation-states, and it was particularly significant for their Jewish citizens. The joint invasion of Poland by both German and Soviet forces in September 1939 meant that Poland, rather than becoming some sort of junior partner to Nazi Germany, was destroyed as a political entity. Unlike Austria and Czechoslovakia, Poland fought the Germans, but it was defeated. Poland therefore offered a new opportunity for Heydrich, because its armed resistance created the possibility to initiate mass murder under cover of war.

Heydrich’s Einsatzgruppen were ordered to destroy the educated Polish population. Poland was now to be removed from the map, its society politically decapitated. The destruction of the Polish state and the murder of tens of thousands of Polish elites in 1939 did not destroy Polish political life or end Polish resistance. Auschwitz, established in 1940 as a concentration camp for Poles, also failed in this regard. The Germans murdered at least one million non-Jewish Poles during the occupation, but Polish resistance continued and in fact grew.

Nor did the destruction of the Polish state provide an obvious way to resolve what Hitler and Heydrich saw as the Jewish “problem.” At first Heydrich wanted a “Jewish reservation” established in occupied Poland, but this would have done no more than move Jews from some parts of the German empire to others. In early 1940 Heydrich’s subordinate Eichmann asked the Soviets—still German allies—if they would take two million Polish Jews; this was predictably refused. In the summer of 1940, after Germany had defeated France, Hitler, the German Foreign Office, and Heydrich returned to the idea of a deportation to Madagascar, a French colonial possession. Hitler wrongly assumed that Great Britain would make peace, and allow the Germans to carry out maritime deportations of Jews.

The Final Solution as applied to Poland’s Jews would thus take place in Poland, but it was still not clear, as 1940 came to an end, just what it would be. As Andrea Löw and Markus Roth remind us in their fine study of Jewish life and death in Kraków, Polish Jews were not simply impersonal objects of an evolving German policy of destruction. Kraków’s Jews, like those of Poland generally, had been organized under Polish law into a local commune (kehilla or gmina) that enjoyed collective rights. It was this institution that the Germans perverted by the establishment of the Judenräte, or Jewish councils responsible for carrying out German orders. Despite a few anti-Semitic laws in the late 1930s, Poland’s Jews were equal citizens of the republic.

When the republic was destroyed, German anti-Semitic legislation could immediately be imposed. German expulsions of Jews from their homes, which would have been an unthinkable violation of property rights in Poland, demonstrated that Jewish property was for the taking. The Germans themselves seized bank accounts, automobiles, and even bicycles. Pending some future deportation, the Jews of Kraków were held in a ghetto where they suffered from lawlessness, exploitation, misery, and death from disease and hunger. But this was not yet a Holocaust.

  1. 1

    For the economic version of this argument, see Adam Tooze, The Wages of Destruction: The Making and Breaking of the Nazi Economy (Viking, 2007). 

  2. 2

    For an excellent recent biography of Heydrich, see Robert Gerwarth, Hitler’s Hangman: The Life of Heydrich (Yale University Press, 2011), reviewed in these pages by Max Hastings ( The New York Review, February 9, 2012). 

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