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…

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