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Hitler’s Logical Holocaust

BPK, Berlin/Art Resource
Reinhard Heydrich, Acting Reich Protektor of Bohemia and Moravia, who was responsible, according to an order signed by Hermann Göring in July 1941, for organizing ‘a general solution of the Jewish question throughout the German sphere of influence in Europe’

The German invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941 was meant to be the fulfillment of Hitler’s great imperial plans. In fact, German power reached far enough east to control the major lands of Jewish settlement in Europe, but not far enough to reach Moscow or destroy the Soviet Union. At the very beginning of the invasion, German forces conquered lands that had already been conquered by the Soviets during the same war, and drove out the Soviet occupation regime.

It was in this zone of double destruction of the state that the Germans began, for the first time, to organize the killing of Jews in large numbers. In entering eastern Poland, which had been annexed by the Soviet Union in 1939, the Germans encouraged local attacks on Jews by Poles. The most notorious example, in the town of Jedwabne, was described by Jan Gross in an earlier book.3 In the Baltics, where the Soviet Union had destroyed three independent states in 1940, local support for German policies was easier to organize. Lithuania was especially significant, since it was a state destroyed by the Soviets that was also home to a large number of Jews. In entering Lithuania in summer 1941, the Germans were destroying a Soviet political order that had itself just destroyed the Lithuanian state.

In doubly-occupied Lithuania, German entrepreneurs of violence such as Heydrich had far greater resources and far greater room for maneuver than in Germany or even Poland. The Einsatzgruppen, which in occupied Poland had chiefly killed Poles, in occupied Lithuania chiefly killed Jews. A provisional Lithuanian government, composed of the Lithuanian extreme right, introduced its own anti-Semitic legislation and carried out its own policies of murdering Jews, explaining to Lithuanians that Bolshevik rule had been the fault of local Jews, and that destroying them would restore Lithuanian authority.

This was a German policy implemented in considerable measure by Lithuanians, but it could not possibly have worked without the prior destruction, occupation, and annexation of the Lithuanian state by the invading Soviet Union. A considerable number of the Lithuanians who killed Jews had just been collaborating with the Soviet regime. After the Germans abolished the provisional Lithuanian government and imposed direct rule, the scale of the violence increased substantially, now with no central political Lithuanian authorities but with the cooperation of Lithuanian policemen and militiamen.

As Christoph Dieckmann writes in his landmark study, the “Lithuanian countryside was transformed in the second half of 1941 into a giant graveyard of the Lithuanian Jews.” By his reckoning, some 150,000 Jews were murdered in Lithuania by November 1941. It is suggestive, as Husson notes, that both Heydrich and his immediate superior Heinrich Himmler visited the Baltics in September 1941, right before a series of meetings with Hitler. Bloxham agrees that for Hitler’s regime, early local collaboration in the mass murder of Jews “signaled what was possible.” Deporting Jews had proven to be impossible. What was possible was murdering them where they lived. This was a Holocaust.

There can be no doubt that Hitler’s policy was to eliminate Jews from all lands under German control. But for most of his rule, from 1933 through 1941, he had no plausible way to remove them. It was only in the summer of 1941, eight years after seizing power, three years after his first territorial enlargement, two years after beginning a war, that Hitler could envision ways to carry out a Final Solution. The method that proved workable, mass murder, was developed in a zone where first the Soviets had destroyed independent states and then the Germans had destroyed Soviet institutions.

Then the Holocaust spread quickly, and with almost equal force, into the places where the state was destroyed only once: eastward into the lands of the pre-war Soviet Union, where German power replaced Soviet power and Jews were killed by bullets, and westward into occupied Poland, where most of the killing was by gassing. Gassing facilities such as Bełżec were built, and gas chambers were added to the Auschwitz camp complex. In the Soviet Union non-Germans were needed to carry out the mass shooting, and Soviet citizens were willing to take part; in Poland the Jews killed in the gas chambers were those who had already been forced into ghettos, and could thus be killed more systematically.

The Holocaust was less comprehensive where Hitler’s intentions encountered the rule of law, no matter how attenuated or perverted. The German ally Slovakia at first deported its Jews to Auschwitz, although it later reversed that policy. In the Netherlands, which were under German direct rule, three quarters of the Jews were murdered. Independent Bulgaria, Italy, Hungary, and Romania, although German allies, generally did not follow German policy, and the Italian army saved a considerable number of Jews. Romania had its own policy of killing Jews, which it reversed in 1942. Hungary did not send its Jews to German death camps until invaded by Germany itself. In Nazi Germany itself about half of the Jews alive in 1933 died a natural death. The Germans almost never killed Jews who were British subjects or American citizens, even when they might easily have done so.

Nazi Germany was a special kind of state, determined not to monopolize but to mobilize violence. The Holocaust was not only a result of the determined application of force but also of the deliberate and practiced manipulation of institutions severed from destroyed states and of social conflicts exacerbated by war. As Jan Gross is careful to stress, the deportation to the death facilities was the “main disaster” that befell Poland’s Jews, and it came “at the hands of the Germans.” But what of the quarter-million or so Polish Jews who somehow escaped the gassing, and who sought help among Poles in 1943, 1944, and 1945? Gross, along with Jan Grabowski and Barbara Engelking, records the undeniable fact that most of these people were murdered as well, perhaps half of them by Poles (following German policy and law) rather than by Germans.

Together, these Polish historians make two essential arguments that help us to understand the workings of deliberate Nazi persecution after the destruction of the Polish state. One is the continuity of personnel and of obedience. In general the Polish police continued to function, now taking orders from the Germans. Whereas in 1938 their job included preventing pogroms in independent Poland, in 1942 they were ordered to hunt down Jews. Second, local governments could be mobilized to capture Jews who had escaped the gas chambers. Poles in a given area were named as hostages, to be punished if a hunt for Jews failed. Local leaders were personally responsible for keeping their districts free of Jews, and could easily be denounced if they failed to do so. In the event of a successful hunt for Jews, local leaders were responsible for the distribution of Jewish property.4

Peasants in the countryside, as Engelking and Grabowski demonstrate, were unconcerned with protecting the reputation of the Polish nation (with which they likely did not identify), but obsessed with their position relative to their neighbors.5 Peasants figure in all of these books as competitive, jealous, and concerned above all with property. Under German occupation, peasants regularly denounced one another to the Germans on all conceivable pretexts. This “epidemic of denunciations,” as Grabowski puts it, made the prospect of rescuing a Jew from the German policy of destruction extremely difficult. Peasants noticed when a neighboring family was collecting more food, keeping different hours, or even bringing home a newspaper. All of these were signs that a Jew was being hidden, and led to denunciations which had overlapping motives: desire for the property of the Jews and those hiding them, and fear of collective German reprisals.

In this situation, as Engelking observes, it was highly irrational for Polish peasants to help Jews: “in the case of Jews seeking aid the costs of refusing them were zero, and the costs of helping them were enormous.” As she and Grabowski both show, very often Poles acted as if they were rescuers, took the Jews’ money, and then turned them in to the police. In Grabowski’s study of dozens of cases of rescue and betrayal, he found that the Jews who were rescued rather than betrayed were precisely those who found their way to people who were not thinking of personal gain. This also holds of course for Poles such as Jan Karski and Witold Pilecki who voluntarily entered, respectively, the Warsaw ghetto and Auschwitz.6 As Grabowski is careful to stress, there were such people in the county he investigates, and throughout occupied Poland. Engelking recalls Wacław Szpura, who baked bread three times every night for the thirty-two Jews he rescued.

To be sure, Nazi official anti-Semitism created incentives in the regions in which this last painful episode of the Holocaust took place. Popular anti-Semitism made it less likely that Poles saw their Jewish neighbors as people about whom they should have concerns, and more likely that they would fear denunciation by their neighbors.7 The ethical obsession of all three Polish historians under review is the undeniable reality that Poles often brought about the death of Jews when they might instead have simply done nothing. But we have many reasons to doubt that only anti-Semites killed Jews.

For one thing, action is no simple guide to ideology. Grabowski concludes, from careful study of individual cases in one region, that Poles who murdered Jews were more likely to join the communist party that ruled Poland after the war. This confirms a suggestion that Gross made more than a decade ago: that people who collaborate with one occupation are likely to collaborate with the next. The frequency of double collaboration, a natural corollary of double occupation, forces us to restrain our tendency to explain violence by ideological conviction. The Poles who appear on the cover photograph of Gross’s Golden Harvest, digging for gold at Treblinka, are continuing, as communism arrives, the theft that was endorsed by German policy. The Polish communist regime, on a far larger scale, also continued this process, nationalizing the formerly Jewish businesses and property that the German occupation regime had seized from Jews that it murdered.

Poland’s communist regime, in power for more than forty years, concocted a myth of the Holocaust in two stages: first portraying (falsely) Poles and Jews as equal victims, then suggesting (anti-Semitically) that passive Jews should be grateful to the heroic Poles who tried to rescue them from their own helplessness. This line was taken in 1968, when the communist regime expelled several thousand of its citizens, among them Jan Gross and Irena Grudzińska, on the spurious charge of “Zionism.” The work of Gross, Grabowski, Engelking, and other Polish historians is, inevitably, a response to the myths of the Communist era, which are still convenient for some Polish nationalists of today, as well as an attempt to reestablish the Holocaust as a central part of Polish history.8

In the last decade many pioneering studies of the Holocaust have appeared in the Polish language. This reflects a genuine and impressive attempt to address the real trauma in the Polish past. It is no denigration of the courage and intelligence of Polish historians to note that it also reflects the security of an independent Poland anchored in international institutions and prosperous within the global economy. If we understand the Holocaust as, among many other things, the worst consequence of the collapse of the first globalization, we might see its civil and considered discussion as one of the achievements of a second globalization, our own. In such a world a ring might be returned, but such a world is a fragile thing.

  1. 3

    Jan Gross, Neighbors: The Destruction of the Jewish Community in Jedwabne, Poland (Princeton University Press, 2001); see also Wokół Jedwabnego, two volumes, edited by Paweł Machcewicz and Krzysztof Persak (Warsaw: Instytut Pamięci Narodowej, 2002). 

  2. 4

    These books complement Christopher Browning’s classic Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland (HarperPerennial, 1998), which accurately portrays the German police as the guiding force in the hunts for Jews, but which does not consider local institutions in any detail. 

  3. 5

    The sociology of betrayal and rescue in the cities was different: see Gunnar S. Paulsson, Secret City: The Hidden Jews of Warsaw, 1940–1945 (Yale University Press, 2002). 

  4. 6

    Their reports are published: Karski’s Story of a Secret State: My Report to the World (London: Penguin, 2011); and Pilecki’s The Auschwitz Volunteer: Beyond Bravery, translated by Jarek Garliński (Aquila Polonica, 2012). 

  5. 7

    Brian Porter-Szücs devotes an important chapter to this subject in his Faith and Fatherland: Catholicism, Modernity, and Poland (Oxford University Press, 2011). A recent profound study of the reorientation of Catholic theology regarding Jews is John Connelly, From Enemy to Brother: The Revolution in Catholic Teaching on the Jews (Harvard University Press, 2012). 

  6. 8

    For an explicit attempt to address certain Communist-era myths, see Dariusz Libionka and Laurence Weinbaum, Bohaterowie, hochsztaplerzy, opisywacze: Wokól Zydowskiego Zwiazku Wojskowego (Heroes, swindlers, storytellers: On the Jewish Military Association) (Warsaw: Stowarzyszenie Centrum Badań nad Zagładą Żydów, 2011); see also Mikołaj Kunicki, Between the Brown and the Red: Nationalism, Catholicism, and Communism in Twentieth-Century Poland (Ohio University Press, 2012). 

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