Rule by Inspiration

John Connelly

  • The Origins of the Final Solution: The Evolution of Nazi Jewish Policy 1939-42 by Christopher Browning
    Arrow, 615 pp, £9.99, April 2005, ISBN 0 09 945482 3

In the eyes of the Nazis, to die for the Third Reich was a privilege, a privilege reserved for ‘Aryans’. In 1943 that perception began to change, however. With Allied armies pressing in on Germany from several fronts, the Nazi leadership recruited ‘subhuman’ Slavs for military service, and by the war’s end hundreds of thousands of them had fought for Germany, among them Slovak, Croatian and Ukrainian SS units. Slavic workers supposedly constituted a threat to racial purity, but by 1945 labour shortages were so dire that millions were brought into the heart of Germany, where they worked and mixed with locals.

If Nazi racial doctrine was adaptable in some ways, in others it was not. In the summer of 1944, militarily priceless railway carriages were criss-crossing Central Europe, carrying tens of thousands of Jews to their deaths. Many of these Jews were highly skilled workers: that did not matter. A second front had just opened in the West, and able-bodied German men were kept out of the fighting in order to kill Jews: that, too, did not matter. The focus on this racial enemy was so intense that even with Soviet guns within earshot in January 1945, the SS did not simply abandon Auschwitz and run, but methodically gathered the few remaining prisoners together and marched them deep into central Germany. More than half died along the way. The war was lost, a Nazi future an impossibility, yet the killing of Jews continued.

The chaotic final days of Nazi Germany reveal the unusual place of the Holocaust among the regime’s crimes: it served no other end. But a wider glance at 20th-century history also reveals the particularity of the Holocaust among acts of genocide. Nowhere else did a modern state so concentrate its scientific, economic and bureaucratic resources on killing for killing’s sake; in no other case does one have such a sense of airtight determination. Once they had decided sometime in 1941 physically to eliminate the Jews, Nazi functionaries attempted to find and kill every Jew they could get their hands on, in and beyond Europe.

However, shift your attention to the early years of the war, and examine the recorded discussions, written correspondence or diary entries of Nazi leaders, and this apparently preordained and ruthlessly consistent policy is nowhere to be found spelled out. We know that the earliest mass killings occurred after the attack on the Soviet Union in the summer of 1941, but if we ask how leading Nazis imagined the future of Europe six or seven months earlier, we find no hint that they were planning to kill the Jews. At that point they intended in all seriousness to ship them to Madagascar. It was only the failure to invade Britain that caused them to abandon this plan sometime early in 1941.

More troubling still is that when the mass killings did begin, they appeared to come out of nowhere. Historians have yet to find a document from Hitler ordering them to start. SS units that followed German troops into the Soviet Union in 1941 had orders to shoot only Bolshevik commissars and Jewish men, though in late August some units began to include Jewish women and children. Hitler approved this escalation only after the fact. And Hitler’s hand is not evident in the steps leading to the building of death camps. The first experiments with Zyklon-B gas, the construction of the first crematoria, the use of gas vans: all were the result of local initiatives in the summer and autumn of 1941. As late as the following year we have records of Hitler confiding to aides that Jews should be deported, if not to Madagascar, then to the Soviet Union. Did he not know that the Final Solution was already well under way?

The historian’s dilemma is that the Holocaust seems to have been two things at the same time: on the one hand, the most implacable slaughter executed by any dictatorial state; on the other, a set of measures that emerged suddenly and without any explicit order from the very top. In a sense this dilemma is a creation of the historians themselves. Some are so impressed by the outcome of the Holocaust that they fail to see how the Nazis, who were bent on racial war from the beginning, could have done anything other than conceive the Final Solution. Others have been concerned to emphasise historical contingency, imagining that a specific act or decision in 1941 triggered the Holocaust, but that up to that point things could have gone differently. For the former, the Nazi movement and its leader were so set on eliminating the Jews that the Holocaust was subject to no contingency but was instead determined by thousands of steps all leading in the same direction. Contingency and determinism between them shape all historical narrative, but nowhere have they clashed so violently as in interpretations of the Holocaust.

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