A new batch of books by Laurence Rees, Peter Hayes and David Cesarani tries to crack the puzzle: Why the Jews? And why the Germans? Josef Joffe reviews.
[JB comment, perhaps unfair: Well, in other words (worlds?), don't blame the Germans?]
By Laurence Rees
PublicAffairs, 509 pages, $32
By Peter Hayes
Norton, 412 pages, $27.95
By David Cesarani
St. Martin’s, 1,016 pages, $40
Image from article, with caption: ‘Stolpersteine’ (‘Stumbling stones’) embedded in Berlin sidewalks to memorialize individual Jews killed in the Holocaust.
Why the Holocaust? And why the Germans? The classic answer is that Jew-hatred was as German as beer and bratwurst. “From Luther to Hitler,” runs a pat phrase. The Holocaust was embedded in Teutonic DNA, as a classic cliché had it.
But this tale does not withstand scrutiny.
Anti-Semitism was a fixture all over Europe. The ghetto dates back to antiquity. England was judenrein for 400 years. In Spain, the Jews were expelled in 1492. Pogroms were the European routine.
So Germany was part of the mainstream—also for good. In the 19th century, German Jews acquired full civil rights at the same pace as elsewhere. The Kaiser had to contend with a strong parliament, an independent judiciary and a boisterous press. Universal suffrage came to Germany in 1919, a decade before Britain.
Nationalism über alles? Germany wasn’t unique here either. Anglos got high on “The White Man’s Burden,” Americans on “Manifest Destiny.” Racism? The Britons had Houston Stewart Chamberlain and the French Arthur de Gobineau : Both wrote best sellers on racist pseudo-science. France plunged into anti-Semitic frenzy during the Dreyfus affair. Hitler’s “Mein Kampf” came a generation later.
In Europe, Germany was not a freak, but family. Yet this kinship merely sharpens the puzzle a new batch of books tries to crack: Why the Jews, why the Germans?
These three treatises are superbly written and researched, synthesizing the classics while digging deep into a vast repository of primary sources. Yet they travel different explanatory roads.
Laurence Rees’s “The Holocaust: A New History” resists a single answer. He starts out with a letter Hitler penned in 1919: “The Jew,” he wrote, had unleashed a “racial tuberculosis among nations.” The “final aim” had to be “uncompromising removal.” But how did 1919 lead to 1942, when the Wannsee Conference laid out the “Final Solution”?
“Unquestionably,” Mr. Rees argues, Hitler was the “individual most responsible for the crime”: No Hitler, no Holocaust. But wait! According to Mr. Rees, the Nazi system “also played a part” by encouraging “subordinates to devise their own way of best fulfilling the overall vision.”
This take recalls the renowned German historian Hans Mommsen, who, in 1983, coined the term “cumulative radicalization.” There was no Hitler ukase, nor a plan. The Holocaust was a kind of free-for-all, with regime factions trying to outdo one another in “improving” the machinery of murder.
Mr. Rees’s third answer centers on the vagaries of politics. How and when it was to be done would change in response to whatever was “politically acceptable at any given moment.”
All true. But then, who done it? Hitler or his henchmen acting on their own? And if happenstance and opportunity paved the road to the murder of six million, then the Führer recedes along with the “self-radicalizing system,” and contingency takes over.
But there may be good reason for such indeterminacy. In “Why? Explaining the Holocaust,” Peter Hayes rightly notes that “incomprehension is the default position.” The Holocaust was not “pre-programmed by German history.” Nor was it an “exclusively German project” because it also “suited the objectives of many other Europeans.” The French and the Dutch collaborated willingly while the East Europeans served as hands-on accomplices of annihilation.
So, why the Germans? Yes, the Nazis could draw on the rich humus of anti-Semitism that targeted the Jew as the source of their nation’s miseries: humiliation in World War I, the Depression, capitalism and all. But in the end, Mr. Hayes argues, the Germans did it because they could. It just took them a while to stumble on the means of industrial genocide.
“The Nazi regime engaged in a three-stage discovery.” First, it learned that it could go after Germany’s Jews “without encountering serious resistance” at home or abroad. Then it realized that complete expulsion was impossible. At this stage, they were still looking at Madagascar as a dumping ground for Europe’s Jews. Finally, after the attack on the Soviet Union in mid-1941, the Nazis had “the means and the opportunity” to annihilate them.
Now, the killing grounds beckoned far to the east in Germany’s newly occupied territories, conveniently located in forests or near major railroad lines. But it was still a winding road of contingency that led to Auschwitz. As late as May 1940, SS chief Heinrich Himmler had called the “Bolshevist method of the physical destruction of a people . . . un-German and impossible.” It would take another year until Reich Marshal Hermann Göring launched the search for “an overall solution of the Jewish question in the German sphere of influence.”
But how to do it, if shooting was so “inhumane”—for the killers, that is? As Mr. Rees recounts as well, the regime first experimented with carbon monoxide then exhaust fumes funneled into moving vans and stationary chambers. Finally, in early 1942, it hit on cyanide. Auschwitz commandant Rudolf Höss discovered how “productive” Zyklon B was. The cost of murder “ultimately came out to about two German pfennigs (pennies) a person,” less than one U.S. cent.
Mr. Hayes makes his most original point when addressing a stock question: Why did the Germans invest ever more precious resources in mass slaughter while they were already losing the war? Why finish off the Jews rather than save the Reich?
Opportunity costs are a legend, Mr. Hayes argues, for mega-murder hardly put a dent into the war effort. He marshals astounding numbers in making this compelling case. In 1942-44, the regime used just two trains per day on average to move three million people to the camps. Compare that to the 30,000 trains per day the Reichsbahn ran overall in 1941-42. In 1944, when the U.S. and the Soviet Union were closing in, extinction still came cheap: three trains per day to deport 440,000 Hungarian Jews in eight weeks.
The annihilation of the Jews was “low-overhead, low-tech and self-financing.” The victims had to pay for their railroad tickets to extinction, while the SS made a fortune on renting out their doomed slaves to industry. Boundless evil was a bargain.
Published posthumously, David Cesarani’s “Final Solution: The Fate of the Jews 1933-1949” fills almost three times as many pages as Mr. Hayes’s book. Though also written in the dispassionate language of the historian, his treatise sears the heart. It brings the murdered back to life. The reader feels the bullet slicing through the brain, the gas as it takes 20 minutes to choke out life.
We see Belzec Death Camp through the eyes of Rudolf Reder, who arrived there in 1942. Within minutes, he recounts, the prisoners “were struck by the terrible truth.” They saw how “the women, naked and shaved, were rounded up with whips like cattle to the slaughter.” No one “could have any illusions about their fate.” Some screamed. Others lost their minds. “Two hours was the time it took to prepare for murder and for murder itself.”
Interweaving such harrowing detail with larger economic and military themes, the vast tapestry of Cesarani’s research will assure “Final Solution” a prominent place in the growing library on the Holocaust. Yet on the never-ending issue of explication, the book raises its own questions.
The author claims that his “account contests whether Nazi anti-Jewish policy was systematic, consistent or even premeditated.” Alas, there is no contest because the world’s historians began to lay out the hesitant, snaking road to annihilation decades ago. This consensus has long since replaced the Hitler-centric interpretation.
Though this reviewer bows before Cesarani’s towering memorial to Europe’s Jews, he is not convinced by his answer to the eternal why. Cesarani thinks he has found a new one rooted in a war that turned from easy Blitzkrieg into looming disaster.
By 1942, the Germans faced a “quandary: how to fight and win a war with limited resources against more powerful enemies.” How to feed, house and guard millions of Jews who could no longer be dispatched to the dumping grounds beyond the Urals? The short answer: If you can’t get rid of them, kill them.
Except, as Mr. Rees reminds us, the idea of “killing the Jews quickly rather than let them starve” goes back as far as the summer of 1941, when the Wehrmacht was lunging toward Moscow virtually unopposed. And the camps practically paid for themselves, as Mr. Hayes shows.
The evidence adduced by Cesarani is ambiguous. He quotes an entry in Goebbels ’ diary from July 1941: “food situation in Berlin is very bad.” So he ratcheted up the propaganda campaign against the Jews—not as worthless mouths to feed, but as agents of “plutocracy and Bolshevism,” an old Nazi standby. But agitprop is not intent to kill down the line. Its function is to distract, deflecting blame from the regime to an ancient scapegoat.
Later in the book, by 1942-43, Cesarani’s causal argument shifts from resources to security. In his blood-curdling Posen speech of 1943, Himmler justified annihilation by targeting the victims as “secret saboteurs” and “agitators.” Hence it is our “duty to our people to destroy this people which wanted to destroy us.” So now, the Jews are not a burden, but a menace. Again, what is rationalization, what is causation? Why did the regime drive 113,000 Jews on the “Death Marches” into the Reich? In early 1945, the Germans were truly starving.
Finally, it is back to the Big One: anti-Semitism. “The war,” writes Cesarani, “made large numbers of Germans receptive to [Hitler’s] message—that the Jews were to blame [as] a constant source of subversion, an enemy that had to be vanquished.” Cesarani has brought us full circle, from sustenance to security to the Jew as cosmic culprit.
Distilling Mr. Hayes and Cesarani down to their essence yields two theories. The Germans did it because they could, argues Mr. Hayes. But means do not explain the end. Nor does practicality reveal purpose, which is the enduring riddle.
Cesarani argues that once the war tilted against the Reich, the Nazis did it because they had to. But recall that when Göring ordered up an “overall solution” in July 1941, the Wehrmacht was still on a roll in Russia. Defeat became real only when the Germans surrendered in Stalingrad in early 1943. Yet the machinery of death at Auschwitz had begun to grind one year earlier, and Hitler believed in the Endsieg (final victory) until his last days.
Meantime, Mr. Rees avoids the single-cause trap by remaining resolutely “catholic” and invoking a broad range of factors that don’t ultimately add up. “Take your pick,” the book seems to whisper.
That said, all three authors have contributed magnificently to the vast corpus of Holocaust literature. Looking at the multiplicity of answers, hard-core social scientists might carp “overdetermination”—too many theories in search of one truth.
But history isn’t science, and this is why, after thousands of tomes, the Truth remains elusive. Though we know ever more, the Holocaust is still unfathomable because it defies the human imagination—and may do so until the end of time.
So there will be more books. For now, these three serve as excellent guides for the perplexed.
—Mr. Joffe is editor of the German weekly Die Zeit and a fellow at Stanford’s Hoover Institution. His latest book is “The Myth of America’s Decline.”