It can happen here

Alan Milward

  • Hitler and the Final Solution by Gerald Fleming
    Hamish Hamilton, 219 pp, £12.95, January 1985, ISBN 0 241 11388 1
  • Hitler in History by Eberhard Jäckel
    University Press of New England, 115 pp, $9.95, January 1985, ISBN 0 87451 311 1
  • Albert Speer: The End of a Myth by Matthias Schmidt, translated by Joachim Neugroschel
    Harrap, 276 pp, £9.95, March 1985, ISBN 0 245 54244 2

When in 1975 Lucy Dawidowicz published The War against the Jews she started the swell of one of those waves of intellectual hysteria which betray the yearning for conformity among American historians. The intention of the book was entirely justified and laudable. In her judgment, historians had not given the massacre of the European Jews the importance it deserved as a central event in the history of our century. Her book set off a clamour for ‘holocaust studies’ as a uniquely instructive branch of history, and at the peak of this hysteria some distinguished scholars even began to demand that ‘holocaust studies’ should become a compulsory subject in school and university. The impact of the book was scarcely less than that of Roots, stripping bare the deep concern of the United States with its own ethnic composition. The fact that all this fuss was mainly a fuss about the nature of American society meant that the subsequent contribution of ‘holocaust studies’ to explaining the massacre has been derisory compared to the noise which they generated. The massacre is first and foremost a problem in German history, and in the German Federal Republic the issues raised by Dawidowicz have stimulated an altogether higher level of debate and a controversy of profounder significance for all societies.

This debate seeks to explain the genesis and execution of the massacres. Its protagonists fall roughly into two groups. On the one hand are those who see an unbroken causal chain leading from the blood-curdling anti-semitism which the young Hitler already evinced in 1918 to a comprehensive ‘final solution’ which he had always intended. For them, Hitler bears the prime responsibility for the awful event. At some point, they argue, he gave the fateful order to which his life and thought had tended. On the other hand stand those who believe the massacres arose from the inner dynamics of the Nazi state. A process of bureaucratic rivalry in an atmosphere of increasing radicalisation, they suggest, led to sporadic, disorganised mass killings which eventually coalesced, with Hitler’s acquiescence, into the ‘final solution’. Even if at some date Hitler did give the fateful order, the massacre of the Jews, they argue, was already under way. The two sides are not divided on political, religious or social lines. Each counts in their ranks men who have devoted their lives to a relentlessly truthful history of the Nazi state. Yet the question which is posed is, inescapably, that of where in German society the ultimate responsibility for the massacre should be laid.

About this Dawidowicz had, and still has, no doubts. It is to be attributed to centuries of virulent anti-semitism in Germany, the fundamental, indispensable cause of the rise of Hitler and the Nazi Party. ‘Of the conglomerate social, economic and political appeals that the NSDAP directed at the German people,’ she wrote in The War against the Jews, ‘its racial doctrine was most attractive.’ There is, it has to be said, no evidence that this was so and a great deal that it was not so. Yet in The Holocaust and the Historians (1981) she has not changed her mind. ‘A whole people’, we read, was ‘deranged’, the Germans were ‘possessed’, they were ‘truly mad’. ‘The Judenfrage,’ she tells us, ‘riveted all Germany.’

Of course, no one, not even those who place the responsibility on Hitler’s shoulders alone, would argue that his intentions, if such they were, could have been carried out without sympathy and support from elsewhere in German society. But as the best study of public opinion in the Third Reich, that of Ian Kershaw on Bavaria, a traditionally anti-semitic area, tells us with grim precision, to the population as a whole the massacre of the Jews ‘was of no more than minimal interest’. Anti-semitism was a force, not one of the strongest ones, in political mobilisation for the Nazi Party: murdering the German Jews was not. Indeed, the most strenuous efforts were made to keep the whole affair secret from the population for fear that it might encounter political opposition even from loyal and important party activists. Dawidowicz, whose own research contributed usefully to the subject, has got her needle stuck and her explanation is no improvement on the early post-war daemonic interpretation of Hitler and the Nazis – that we are faced with events which defy rational explanation. She is herself writing what she spitefully berates so many other historians for writing on this theme – poshlost, defined by Nabokov as ‘bogus profundities’. The existence of generations of anti-semitic politics is certainly not without importance in the story. It was not, however, a peculiarly German phenomenon and although it helped the Nazi Party’s rise to power, as well as helping that party once in power, it is a far from sufficient explanation for the massacre of the Jews. What offers a better explanation?

Dawidowicz, again, is certain of the answer. The historical evidence that for a long time after taking power Hitler sought to resettle the German Jews elsewhere is swept aside. No plans for resettlement, she argues, were seriously intended, and between mid-December 1940 and March 1941 the Führer gave the order to kill. Very few, if any, of those who support this general position would date the fateful order so early. The deliberate slaughter of the Russian Jews began with the invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941. It was carried out by the so-called Einsatzgruppen, paramilitary squads under the control of the security service. They began to be specially trained for their task in May. It is very difficult to believe, given everything we know about the Nazi state, that this special training could have been initiated without an order from Hitler. It was he who in March made clear to the military that the Russian war would be a war of annihilation, and it was he who bore the brunt of the subsequent political argument in which the military demanded a clear statement that the responsibility for the annihilation would not be theirs, and he in turn demanded that the military commanders should nevertheless not impede what was going to happen. He seems to have explained to others the horror to come. Alfred Rosenberg, charged in April by the Führer with the ‘central direction of questions of the east European area’, minuted to himself: ‘What I do not want to write down today, but will never forget.’ No direct, unambiguous order, however, has been found.

Nor, were one to be found, would it show that the fate of Germany’s own Jews had been settled. The evidence points undeniably to the fact that the start of the shooting and killing by other brutalities of two million Russian Jews by the Einsatzgruppen was motivated by Hitler’s refusal to add them to the population under German control: it was not, in other words, part of a more comprehensive plan. The first mass-murders of German Jews – those who had been deported to Riga and Kovno – took place only in late November. They were shot in pits. But in July work had begun on the transformation of parts of the concentration camps at Oswiecim (Auschwitz) and Majdanek into extermination camps. The first killings by mass-gassing did not begin there, however, but in the camp at Chelmno in December. This had been built for the purpose, never having been a concentration camp. Yet even here the gassing was carried out by carbon monoxide in small mobile vans. This primitive equipment had been designed for the euthanasia programme, whose work had been halted by political protest. Men and equipment – surplus to capacity, as it were – were transferred to Poland. It was only in early spring 1942 that the death camps in Treblinka and Belzec began to process successive trainloads of deportees from Germany through those false shower-rooms dispensing cyanide gas which have become the image of the massacre. Again no order has been found.

The nearest thing to an order that exists is the one signed by Goering on 31 July 1941 and addressed to the head of the security service, Reinhard Heydrich, to prepare a ‘total solution’ of the Jewish question in all territories under German influence. Many authorities were involved. The euthanasia programme had been run from the Chancellery. The concentration camps were run by the SS, on which the security service depended. Poland was run by a governor-general. It was not until January 1942 that all these authorities came together in one conference to discuss the issues. It is therefore plausible to argue, as Martin Broszat, the best historian of Nazi Germany, argues, that the fate of the German Jews was determined haphazardly, at several different levels. (Professor Broszat, incidentally, is the man who has given most encouragement to others in the field.) The ghettos created in the Polish cities were impossibly overcrowded; there was no food; there was no longer anywhere left to which it might be possible to send the deported German Jewish population. Hitler’s policy had run into an impasse, out of which Himmler and the SS found a way on which Hitler only later bestowed his approval.

To this debate two British writers, David Irving and Gerald Fleming, have contributed thunderous points. Irving claims, what no respectable German author has claimed, that not only was Hitler not the author of the ‘final solution’: he did not even know about it until 1943. He thought the Jews were being ‘evacuated’, because that was his policy and that was the word the documents repeated. Himmler together with the eastern Gauleiters staged an ad hoc operation and ‘pulled the wool over Hitler’s eyes’. The blind Führer was meanwhile still searching for a Jewish homeland. Fleming goes absolutely the other way, claiming to be the first person to prove beyond all reasonable doubt that Hitler did give the fateful (but unwritten) order before the end of summer 1941. He also argues that this had always been Hitler’s intention. The whole of the German debate is thus confined between these two British extremes.

Irving’s argument is part, a crucial part, of his attempt, sustained throughout the two volumes of Hitler’s War to portray Hitler as just another political leader, unable to give time and attention to questions which were not his immediate concern at any particular moment, dependent, over a wide range of issues, on the independent initiatives of his most important subordinates, and giving an impulse to the state system rather than being absolutely in command of it at all times. Rightly, he claims that after the war surviving leaders of the Nazi state made an attempt, which involved much falsification of personal records and diaries, to lay the responsibility for everything that had happened in the Nazi period on Hitler’s shoulders. He claims to be redressing the balance and ‘de-mythologising’ Hitler. He is quite right to attack other historians for their uncritical use of such obviously suspect sources. But what are we to make of his own historical method? He insists that an entry in Himmler’s telephone notebook on 30 November 1941 is decisive proof that Hitler was against the first mass-killings of the deported German Jews in Riga and Poland. The entry was made after a conversation with the Führer and concerns a phone call to Heydrich immediately afterwards. It reads: ‘Jewish convoy from Berlin. No liquidation.’ Irving paraphrases this as ‘Himmler was obliged to telephone from Hitler’s bunker to Heydrich the explicit order that Jews were not to be liquidated’ (Irving’s italics). There is no intention to mislead here: the document is illustrated in Irving’s book. But, as Fleming shows, and as the wording implies, the logbook entry refers to one specific convoy and to an exceptional order to prevent its liquidation. There had been bureaucratic errors of a potentially troublesome kind. Earlier liquidations had involved about fifty medal-holders from the First World War. The proper place for them was the ghetto for the aged in Theresienstadt in Bohemia.

Fleming has been given access to materials kept in Soviet archives in Riga. From these he shows that when the first German Jews were shot in Riga in November 1941, before the date of Himmler’s logbook entry, the Reichskommissar for the Eastern Territories, Hinrich Lohse, in whose area Riga lay, was told by Himmler through an SS general that the massacre was the Führer’s ‘wish’. Elsewhere in the book he shows elegantly that ‘wish’ always meant ‘order’. Similarly ‘evacuation’ and ‘transit to camps in the east’ meant ‘extermination’ and were the only words which the Führer’s own secretariat would allow to be used in reports submitted to him. So much for the wool over Hitler’s eyes. Fleming also tries to demonstrate that the first gassings in Chelmno were not a local initiative but were undertaken at the Führer’s ‘wish’. Here, however, his method, in which the evidence is clustered unchronologically around his themes, lets him down. When the evidence which is not strictly relevant has been scraped away, all that is left is the fact that the Gauleiter of the area believed himself to have understood the Führer’s ‘wish’ as personally communicated to him in autumn 1942. Given that the wish was communicated a year after the killings had begun, this does more to support the other side of the argument.

Yet the accumulation of evidence, direct and circumstantial, in Fleming’s book, as well as in recent papers by the American historian Christopher Browning, persuasively suggests a sequential pattern of policy which is virtually impossible to envisage without what would have been tantamount to an initial order from the Führer, no matter how conveyed and to how few. And the evidence is very strong that this order was given before the close of summer 1941. This of course does not mean that even three months before that Hitler had made such a decision, and even less that the stench of Treblinka was already fixed in the mind of the disturbed young misfit in Vienna. Nevertheless what Hitler said and wrote he later wrought and it was his ‘wish’ which inspired the deed.

This is essentially Eberhard Jäckel’s position. He has long argued that Hitler’s deeds, in the matter of the Jewish massacres as in most others, were a fulfilment of his early intentions. From this standpoint he now retreats a little, allowing that recent research does shed considerable doubt both on the unswerving nature of Hitler’s intentions and on his capacity to make the state system respond to them in a straightforward way. Above the noise of clashing facts, however, he raises the banner of effective generalisation. Nobody except Hitler ever advocated systematic killing by the state as a solution to the ‘Jewish question’; all participants who subsequently testified said the orders had come from Hitler; and no other act of such scope was initiated by subordinate agencies. The last point is particularly telling; even if we accept Irving’s argument that only a few things can be of central interest to the leader of a state at any time, it is difficult not to believe that Hitler’s concern with the Jews was not central to all his thinking, so much so that by the time of his suicide it was his sole concern. Jäckel writes with fairness, knowledge and good sense, but his book still leaves the central question of responsibility unclear.

To suppose that the simple-minded and ludicrous model of the domestic and external relationships of a major power and a rich and highly-developed society which was hatched in Pasewalk military hospital in 1918, and written up so badly in Landsberg prison five years later for an insignificant political party, could be transmuted into the reality of this utter horror seems at first thought silly. That no doubt is why Broszat and others would not accept it. How could Hitler himself impose the murder of six million people on the Nazi system?

The answer is much more spine-chilling than Dawidowicz’s explanation. Generations of anti-semitism were not needed. Hitler did not, as she claims, harness ‘an enormous apparatus of men, institutions and facilities just in order to murder the Jews’. There were about three thousand men in the Einsatzgruppen in the Soviet Union. They were carefully chosen from the security service, the secret police and sometimes from SS military formations. The German Jews were killed by fewer people, although certainly more than the seventy which Irving suggests. They were killed either outside Germany or in Polish areas which had just been re-annexed to Germany. Their bodies were disposed of mainly by non-Germans, mostly themselves destined to die. Their killers came from the security service, secret police and the SS, although the organising expert had been chief of the Stuttgart criminal police. Naturally, news of an event on such a scale had to leak. The two main sources of leakage were soldiers on leave from Russia and the train crews who carried the ‘evacuees’. They knew what was happening all right, and so did the large number of railway officials (who charged the SS half-price for children) and civil police without whom it would have been impossible. Talking about it was a severe criminal offence; resisting it meant likely death. But then it was not a matter of major interest. And in a system where even senior ministerial officials and heads of important ministries often did not know for a long time that what they occasionally glimpsed was part of a comprehensive plan, how could the rest of the population know that the disappearance of neighbours and the tales told by soldiers and train-drivers testified to a ‘final solution’? And those who feared, suspected and guessed mostly did so once the deed was more than half-done.

Would it have made any difference if they had known or had understood earlier? Obviously not. At Nuremberg Albert Speer, the Minister of War Production, made a public display of unreservedly accepting guilt for a crime about which he claimed to be ignorant because, he argued, he could have known about it had he wanted to. Before he became a famous man, when he was only Inspector-General of Buildings for the Imperial Capital, his office, as Mathis shows, was in charge of implementing the revised 1939 law on Jewish tenancies. The idea was that Jewish apartments would be registered, their inhabitants eventually moved elsewhere in Berlin, and the apartments used to rehouse ‘Aryans’ displaced by Speer’s rebuilding projects and later by war damage. In March 1941 Hitler complained that there were too many Jews in Berlin and the head of a section of Speer’s Inspectorate-General attended a conference at which Eichmann was asked by Goebbels to work out a programme for removing them.

In late November, when three thousand apartments were commandeered, their occupants were ‘evacuated’ to Riga. One of Speer’s officials who followed him to the Ministry of War Production kept throughout an office journal, a slight, chatty chronicle of the minister’s daily meetings. Later, when Speer was in Spandau gaol laying the foundations of his subsequent career in writing and television, the same official was his link with the outside world and with publishers. This man removed from the journal, which was presented to the German Federal Archives, a few sentences which referred to these facts and Speer knew he had done so – one more example to reinforce the point made by Irving. This, however, is the only point made by Mathis in what is otherwise an absurd publication which should have appeared as a small article in a minor journal. The petty pomposities of the book actually show how remarkably truthful Speer was in all other respects except the central dark complicity with the Führer’s ‘wish’. In this, he was faithfully representative of the government and the government of the population.

The case for ‘holocaust studies’ emphasised that the holocaust was a unique event. Much of Dawidowicz’s work is taken up establishing the claim that for no other race has extermination been planned and attempted. She bestows a certain grudging sympathy on the Armenians and on the Poles, but devotes almost a whole chapter to attacking Polish historians for trying to ‘appropriate’ the holocaust. Many would not accept this claim to uniqueness, but in one important sense it should be accepted. The massacre was carried out by the government of a highly-developed, civilised and rich modern state, like ours. How far did it depend on the particular and curious structure of the Nazi state and the Nazi movement? Not all that much. A secret operation; a number of ideologically loyal killers no greater than could easily be found in any other society where a similar but much smaller mass movement might exist; the full might of the law to support the government; an assault of prejudice from the newspapers; a population largely indifferent or, where they were involved, mainly at a purely personal level of moral outrage, of likes and dislikes; and at the top the ‘wish’ of four major leaders at most, but, on the balance of the evidence, of only one.

For such factual niceties Dawidowicz has a strident contempt. The detailed work of the Munich Institute of Contemporary History, for long the leading research centre in Nazi history, induces tedium, she finds, and lacks ‘emotionalism’. But had the movement for ‘holocaust studies’ triumphed, against what or whom would we now most effectively direct the emotional outrage which she wants us to express and to instil in others? Not primarily against the targets she selects, but against others who made the massacre possible and whom she scarcely mentions. If moral outrage were to have been effective, its only chance would have been before the secret policemen took over and the lawyers and judges began to explain that the government, although so different, was nonetheless legal, and the law, although so changed, was right because it was made by the government. This would have left about three months for effective action. By the end of April 1933 it was already too late for moral outrage and Hitler could, if he so wished, at an opportune moment, give, not the one fateful order, but the several different ones which, as Jäckel shows, were needed. In this sense, Karl Dietrich Bracher was quite right to call his book, which was the first to weave a coherent account of these events into a political analysis of the Nazi state, The German Dictatorship.

Speculation about the German character or the supposed peculiarities of German political thought and tradition is escapism. It is to us and our societies that the lesson of history points. And if we are to arm ourselves with moral outrage it should be directed against the first steps of all those who turn the power of government and the law from its true purpose of protecting all citizens to the purpose of protecting the government: domestic spies of all kinds, unknown and unknowable security services subject to no control but that of their masters, ministers and judges contemptuous of the people they govern. It may be noted that the law of Britain, as approved by the present Attorney-General, would appear to forbid under severe penalty any British civil servant from doing what we are asked to criticise Nazi civil servants for not doing.

This does not mean that anti-semitism is irrelevant to the story. When bombs thudded into quiet German suburbs many inhabitants believed that the international Jewish conspiracy of which they had heard so much was so clever as to punish them personally for deporting their Jewish neighbours. Anti-semitism was one factor, among many, that helped the Nazi movement into political prominence. It helped the Nazi Party and Hitler, once in power together, to fix in the mind of much of the population that there was something called ‘the Jewish question’. And every question needs an answer. The Nazi movement itself had several and could not agree on them. After summer 1941 Hitler had only one, most dreadful of all, the one which, in Himmler’s words, was ‘never to be written’, and it was Hitler who made sure that it was this one which was chosen. The machinery with which he put it into practice did not especially depend on the many peculiarities of the Nazi movement or the Nazi state. It could exist – it does exist – in several developed, civilised countries and will probably come to exist in many more in the future.