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?

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