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The Atlantic Monthly
Tuesday, March 16th, 2004


 

The Origins of the Final Solution: The Evolution of Nazi Jewish Policy, September 1939-March 1942 (Comprehensive History of the Holocaust)

by Christophe Browning

The War that Never Ends

A review by Benjamin Schwarz

Inexorably they invade publishers' lists. Relentlessly they occupy the bookstores. Overwhelmingly they seize the commanding heights of night tables (at least on the husband's side of the bed). Books on the Second World War. Of course, most of them are abysmal. But the war is, as John Keegan has written, "the largest single event in human history." It started with cavalry charges on the plains of Poland and ended with the atomic bomb. It ranged from the Arctic to Burma. It embraced nearly every conceivable dimension of organized human activity, at the most sophisticated and the most depraved levels. It consumed more than 60 million lives. There is no richer subject. In the past few years we've praised the best current titles about the war (Peter Schrijvers's The GI War Against Japan and Robert Gildea's Marianne in Chains, for example), revisited a few of the most lasting works (Evelyn Waugh's Sword of Honour trilogy, among others), and even excoriated some of the more sentimentalized books (see "The Real War," June 2001 Atlantic). This spring brings a new crop of titles -- some notable, and this one, which is extraordinary. Browning's is the first volume of Nebraska's authoritative and monumental Comprehensive History of the Holocaust, a series of at least fifteen volumes to be published over the next decade (this and two other volumes will examine Nazi policy; most of the remaining ones will assess the impact of that policy on each of the national Jewish communities in Europe). This book, which opens with the German conquest of Poland, in September of 1939, and ends with the first deportations of Jews to the death camps, in the spring of 1942, will almost certainly be the most important.

Browning -- one of the world's greatest scholars of the Holocaust, and the author of the meticulous, nuanced, and disturbing Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland -- has taken on the most contentious and knotty aspect of the Final Solution: how and why Nazi policy evolved, in the brief period between the autumn of 1939 and the autumn of 1941, from the persecution and planned expulsion of Jews to the detailed strategy of systematically murdering all Jews within Germany's grasp. (Debate on this topic has engendered a highly publicized, sometimes contrived, and increasingly arcane argument between historians in the "intentionalist" camp, who hold that from the 1920s onward Hitler intended to kill the Jews, and those in the "functionalist" camp, who argue that the Holocaust evolved piecemeal, as one set of opportunities and policies led to another.) This is a maddeningly convoluted question -- the scholar must distinguish ideological pronouncements from the implementation of policy; the acts of, say, frontline SS units from the plans and intentions of the Nazi leadership; the roots and manifestations of murderous anti-Bolshevism from those of murderous anti-Semitism (to give but a few examples). This historical thicket is rendered all but impenetrable by the facts that, as Browning lucidly and vividly demonstrates, German anti-Semitism was hardly a fixed concept but, rather, evolved and mutated with the ever shifting circumstances; that the Nazi regime and its chains of command and decision were highly decentralized -- which meant that at any given moment the interpretations and conceptions of, say, Goebbels and Rosenberg concerning the timing and realization of the Final Solution could vary significantly from those of Himmler and Heydrich; and, most important, that the documentary evidence is both vast and frustratingly incomplete. Scholars sometimes seem loath to acknowledge this last point, for fear that Holocaust deniers will use such recognition to support their contentions. But in trying to reconstruct and impose some narrative order on a tortuous set of political, military, bureaucratic, and administrative processes, the historian confronts gap after gap, because the relevant files of Himmler and Heydrich, the main architects of the Final Solution, were destroyed; we're left, Browning explains, "with copies of a few key papers ... that Himmler and Heydrich sent to others, but not with the vital internal working papers at the coordinating center." This means that much of the story this book sets out to tell must, perforce, be a matter of informed speculation. Here is where Browning triumphs. He's obviously mastered every pertinent document available -- from archives in Germany, the United States, the former Soviet Union, and Israel -- and assimilated them all into his sometimes day-by-day account of the development of Nazi policy. In sifting the evidence he makes clear what's known and what's not, what's probable, what's possible, and what's unlikely; with rigor and an unusually incisive writing style he places events, decisions, and debates in a precise historical context, paying heed both to strict chronology and to more amorphous considerations, such as the relationship between Germany's military fortunes in the East and shifts in the German public's and the Nazi hierarchy's mood and outlook. And above all, with exactitude he lays bare his own suppositions as he transparently builds his arguments and his narrative. A masterpiece of the historian's art, Browning's work should also force those scholars still contending with the rival concepts of functionalism and intentionalism to pursue more-fruitful arguments. He convincingly demonstrates that Hitler's abiding obsession with solving "the Jewish question" spurred the regime to ever more radical and comprehensive measures (and that the Führer participated in and approved of all major changes in policy toward the Jews). But he shows equally clearly that those changes in policy were often highly contingent and improvised. Perhaps most important, Browning sets what the Nazis called their "war of destruction" against the Soviet Union at the very center of his story. For all the executions and vicious abuse of Jews in Poland, for all of Hitler's nebulous exhortations and prophecies, it was the unprecedented scale, scope, and ferocity of Germany's race war on the Eastern Front -- the mass murder there of millions of non-Jews and Jews alike -- that truly radicalized Nazi policy and crystallized the vision of exterminating European Jewry. Browning inextricably links the history of the Holocaust to the history of the war itself (obvious as this approach may seem, the scholarly field of "Holocaust studies" has often drifted far from examination of the Second World War). His work serves as another reminder that if the war is the hinge of modern history, the hinge of the war was the epic clash in the East -- the main scene of the Nazis' defeat and the largest and most terrible conflict mankind has yet fought.


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