A New Approach to the Holocaust

AP Images
Adolf Hitler congratulating Heinrich Himmler on his appointment to the post of Germany’s minister of the interior, 1943

It is fruitless to reduce the manifold evil of the Holocaust to a single cause. Ideology, charisma, conformism, hatred, greed, and war were all very important, but each was related to the others and all mattered within rapidly changing historical circumstances. In his profound study Holocaust, Peter Longerich puts forward an analysis that includes all these factors and shows how politics or, as he puts it, Politik, set them all in motion. In this amplified English edition of his Politik der Vernichtung (1998), Longerich preserves the German term Judenpolitik, and with good reason. In German Politik means both “politics” and “policy,” and the compound noun (Juden + Politik) gives a sense of a joining of concepts that English cannot quite convey. In Longerich’s analysis, Judenpolitik has three meanings: German policy toward Jews; the national and international politics of the Jewish question; and the manner in which discrimination against Jews and then their extermination permeated German political life between 1933 and 1945.

Longerich’s argument hinges on a distinction between two categories of destructive racial politics. He proposes that Hitler’s racist program to bring about a homogeneous Germany and a subjugated eastern empire was intended to be implemented in two ways, “positive” and “negative.” The “positive solutions” involved the elevation of the Germans above all others, as they demonstrated their manifest superiority in world culture and on European battlefields. The “negative solutions” required that elements inside and outside the German race that contradicted this vision be removed.

Longerich demonstrates that “positive solutions” were impossible as policy but effective as politics. “Negative solutions” had some promise of success, but, as it turned out, chiefly in combination with ambitious eastern wars. Meanwhile, the politics of destruction in both forms corrupted Germans and non-Germans. The political style of Hitler and other Nazi leaders was to issue general guidelines and to expect subordinates to find the ways to realize them. This meant that participants in Nazi crimes, both before and during the war, acted as creative conformists.

In Longerich’s account, Judenpolitik helped Hitler to consolidate power after 1933. It was impossible to perfect a German race, but it was possible to implicate Germans in “negative solutions.” Concentration camps first punished the Nazis’ political enemies, above all Communists and Socialists. They were then expanded in order to segregate and remold people deemed to be social outsiders, such as alcoholics, drug addicts, the chronically unemployed, homosexuals, and Jehovah’s Witnesses. The “negative solutions” that functioned well as politics were discriminatory measures applied to a small, loyal, and assimilated minority, the German Jews. Precisely because Jews had done much to create German civilization, the “Jewish spirit” could be blamed for any remaining defects in German culture and science, and Jews in all branches of learning could be…

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