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.

In 1939 and 1940 the Führer was still concerned about world opinion and with this in mind he sometimes restrained his overeager underlings. In fact, Browning argues, he took a “twisted” and not a “straight” road to total annihilation. The Nazis set up ghettos into which they crammed not only the Jews from central Poland, from Warsaw to Kraków, but also the thousands who had been driven out of what used to be western Poland and was now part of the Great German Reich. Jews also arrived in the ghettos from Russian-occupied eastern Poland, either driven out by the Soviets or as refugees from communism.

But the crowded Polish ghettos, Browning argues, were not meant to be what they later became—way stations for deportation and extermination. Rather, they were seen as holding pens before emigration. Drawing on a huge collection of documentary evidence, Browning claims that in 1939 and 1940 the Germans viewed the ghettos as a necessary evil in preparation for expelling the Jews. Their major concern at that time was with the Polish farmers whom they deported en masse to make room for German settlers arriving from the Baltic States, Bessarabia, and the Soviet Union. The Jews, who had no land to surrender, were to go to the French island colony of Madagascar where, so the Nazis expected, most would succumb to the bad climate.

The plan to send some four million European Jews to Madagascar was put forward in Germany before World War II and, as Browning notes, it gained favor with some Polish, British, and French politicians. Now, following the defeat of France, the Nazis invested considerable effort in realizing the plan. Jews were to become self-sufficient on the island under the rule of a German governor. It was the British pursuit of the war and the British navy’s domination of the seas that put an end to what had been a mad dream in any case; at best, according to a Polish commission, no more than five thousand to seven thousand Jewish families would have been able to settle on the island. Yet the policy of expelling Jews from Germany continued. In late October 1940, for instance, 6,504 German Jews were expelled to Vichy France, where the government angrily protested and then put the Jews into its miserable internment camps. In return, the French tried to push the German-Jewish and Polish-Jewish refugees in France over the border into the Reich; but the German authorities proved stronger, of course, and continued to dispatch German Jews into France.

The expulsion of large numbers of Jews into central Poland from territories annexed from Poland by Germany also continued with the aim of making the Reich judenrein. Later the German forces again and again came across Jewish groups they had already evicted and these Jews were then either killed by the advancing armies or herded into camps. Still, during the first two years of the war, German behavior toward the Jews followed the violent but familiar tradition of European ethnic cleansing. It was often murderous but it was not intended to eliminate Jews altogether. Amazingly, Browning observes, Jewish emigration from the Third Reich was permitted until October 18, 1941, although by that date emigration had become impossible, blocked less by the Germans than by the countries to which they might have gone.

All this seems to be a straightforward story, yet Browning again and again cautions us that in reality nothing was clear and simple in the Nazi empire. Most plans were affected by intrigue and by contradictory projects and orders given by competing powers within the Nazi world. The Führer himself was the source of vague or contradictory commands, and this allowed his satraps to fight among themselves about what should be done. Thus the expulsion of the Jews from the Reich to the east was again and again slowed down by the refusal of the local German authorities to accept them. Nor, Browning writes, were the local German authorities willing to carry out SS leader Reinhold Heydrich’s plan to create a big reservation for Jews around Lublin in Poland. What remained constant, however, was the willingness of German party bosses, bureaucrats, jurists, soldiers, ideologues, medical doctors, professors, journalists, and others to treat Jews as nonhumans.

The Germans in charge of the Polish Jews were divided into two basic groups, whom Browning identifies as Attritionists, who looked forward to the Jews dying off from starvation and disease, and the Productionists, who wanted them to work for the Nazis. But even the ghetto administrators who argued that Jews must be fed decently so that they would be fit for work considered this a temporary measure until the problem would be taken out of their hands and the Jews would disappear. The method that could be used to cause that disappearance remained unclear for quite some time. The Productionists often prevailed. In the L/ódå«z ghetto, for instance, as late as the spring of 1943, 80,000 Jews worked for the German war economy.

Even before the fatal German attack on the Soviet Union in June 1941, another momentous development took place: the gradual extermination of the “Aryan” and Jewish handicapped in the Reich. This proved to be an important step toward the Final Solution. “In comparison to the ‘twisted road,'” Browning writes, “that led to the mass killing of Jews and ‘Gypsies,’ the path to the killing of the handicapped was extraordinarily straight.” By August 1941, over 70,000 handicapped had been put to death in hospitals and clinics but then the protest of church leaders and of the German public forced Hitler to put an official end to the killings. In reality, the murder of the handicapped continued but with fewer people taking part and in secret, meaning that a great many “euthanasia experts,” among them scores of doctors and trained nurses, now became available for other forms of murder as well as for biological experiments on their Jewish, Roma, and Polish victims.

As Browning argues, there was never a single, simple decision to order that the Holocaust take place. There was, rather, a fateful chain of events with, as its crucial element, Operation Barbarossa, the invasion of the Soviet Union. Even at the planning stage, Hitler expressed the hope that the attack on Nazi Germany’s ally would deal a fatal blow to the “Jewish-Bolshevik intelligentsia,” which, in turn, would cause the British to give up the fight. Amazingly, the top army leaders agreed with this bizarre argument and they, too, were of the opinion that the “intelligentsia put in [power] by Stalin must be exterminated.” The army high command, again surrendering to Nazi leaders, agreed that the jurisdiction of the military courts should be restricted to internal army matters, and that no officer or soldiers could be held responsible for killing a Jew or a Russian civilian. As Omer Bartov notes in his recent, excellent, book Germany’s War and the Holocaust: Disputed Histories, the complete lawlessness of the soldiers with regard to the local population did not weaken discipline. On the contrary:

Wehrmacht commanders were initially anxious lest the progressive brutalization of their troops lead to a widespread demoralization. In fact,…these conditions enhanced unit cohesion, fighting morale, and motivation. Faced with the grim realities of an extraordinarily brutal and costly war, on the one hand, and with the prospects of harsh punishment for any attempt to evade it, on the other, the soldiers were now given outlet for their accumulated fear and anger, especially when officers turned a blind eye to ostensibly forbidden actions.6

Even such a future martyr of the anti-Nazi resistance as Colonel General Erich Hoeppner justified the aggression against the Soviet Union in an order to his troops by invoking the “defense of European culture against a Muscovite-Asiatic deluge” and the “warding off of Jewish Bolshevism.”

From the very first day of the attack on the Soviet Union, Jews were shot en masse, usually as “plunderers,” although it is still a question why such a ridiculous accusation was considered necessary, not to mention the formal indictment of thousands of men, women, old people, and children. Ninety percent of the early victims of the Einsatzgruppen were Jews. This statistic is, incidentally, not Browning’s but that of the German historian Jürgen Matthäus, the author of the important chapter entitled “Operation Barbarossa and the Onset of the Holocaust.” Among other things, Matthäus demonstrates that a great many Lithuanians, Latvians, Ukrainians, Romanians, and others lent a helping hand to the Germans in the killings. As a Hungarian-American I was pleased to note that, according to Matthäus, the Hungarian occupation forces in Ukraine “largely abstained from following the German example”; but then, late in the spring of 1944, the Hungarians made up for the omission by handing over nearly half a million of their Jewish fellow citizens to Adolf Eichmann.

For many a German soldier, the killings were a blood sport. “Infants were flying in a wide circle through the air and we shot them down still in flight, before they fell into the pit and into the water. Let’s get rid of this scum that tossed all of Europe into the war and is still agitating in America,” wrote the Viennese police secretary Walter Mattner to his wife on the occasion of the mass murder that took place in Mogilev, Belorussia, in early October 1941.

It was in late 1941 that the idea of solving the Jewish question through the annihilation of all the Jews of Europe began to take form. But because of what Browning calls the polycratic nature of the Nazi regime, this did not mean that all Nazi officials received the same orders. The Princeton historian Arno J. Mayer argues in his Why Did the Heavens Not Darken? The “Final Solution” in History7 that the onset of the Final Solution was closely connected to the German army’s early setbacks on the Eastern Front. Because they could not annihilate the Soviet Union, the Germans, Mayer argued, decided at least to annihilate the Jews, whom they held responsible for Soviet Bolshevism. Browning, on the contrary, finds evidence that closely associates the beginning of the Holocaust with the triumphs of the German army in the east. It was almost as if every success of the Wehrmacht in capturing a million or so Red Army soldiers in 1941 advanced the hitherto vague plans of the Nazi leadership for a final solution. It was only when Hitler felt optimistic about the military situa-tion that he allowed huge deporta-tions of Jews from the Reich and their annihilation in the East to take place.

Interestingly, the first time the Wehrmacht itself initiated and carried out the extermination of Jews was not in Russia but in occupied Serbia. On this subject, Browning is a recognized authority. He explains in detail how the German army, confronted by persistent resistance activity, chose large-scale revenge, with one hundred civilians usually executed for every German soldier killed and fifty civilians executed for every German soldier wounded. In France, where the Germans wanted to preserve the good will of the population, they chose their victims from among the people whom the French were also likely to despise, that is, “Polish Jewish Communists.” In Serbia, no such selectivity was possible; so, for example, the entire workforce of a factory producing airplanes for the German war effort was shot in retaliation for a resistance attack as well as all the children in a school; Jews were also invariably included. But because few Jews lived in Serbia, most of the executed Jews were German and Austrian would-be émigrés whose legal passage down the Danube and ultimately to Palestine had been blocked by the local German authorities. When we consider that the German high command had sent mostly Austrian officers and Austrian soldiers to Serbia, because they were expected to better understand the mentality of the Balkan peoples, it is an irony of history that, in Browning’s words, “central European refugees, mostly Austrian, were shot by troops of predominantly Austrian origin in retaliation for casu-alties inflicted by Serbian partisans on the German army!” As a result,occupied Serbia soon became judenrein.

Toward the end of 1941 the Nazis equipped trucks with poison gas that could be used to kill Jews. On December 8, systematic gassing began in the Polish town of Chel/mno. In January 1942, at Wannsee, just outside Berlin, some of the most important leaders of the Nazi Reich formally agreed on the total annihilation of the European Jews. Poison gas chambers were set up in various parts of Eastern Eu-rope as well as such places as Semlin in Serbia. Browning concludes, and there is little reason to disagree with him, that the Final Solution was the result of many trials and hesitations but that it was the military triumphs of the German army that made the mass executions possible. German policy toward the Jews became radically more murderous with the Wehrmacht’s military successes; the later setbacks could no longer keep the German leaders from pursuing their goal. As for the German people, most were onlookers; many even disapproved of such excesses as the so-called Kristallnacht on November 9, 1938, but disapproval did not bring about a sense of solidarity with the persecuted Jews or a willingness to help them.

Browning might have been more selective in presenting his enormously detailed evidence, and he might have spared the reader some of the many references to names, titles, functions, quotations, orders, and counterorders that fill the pages of his book. But without them, he and his collaborator, Jürgen Matthäus, may not have been able to write what must be called the definitive work on the road Germany took toward the Final Solution during the crucial first three years of the war.

This Issue

September 23, 2004