October 2007


A desert inside

By Robert Manne
A desert inside
Saul Friedländer’s ‘The Years of Extermination’

The first volume of Saul Friedländer’s history of the Holocaust, Nazi Germany and the Jews: The Years of Persecution, 1933-1939, was published ten years ago. It offered a modified version of the traditional interpretation, which had by then been subject to very serious scholarly critique. The traditionalists, or intentionalists as they were called, emphasised the central place of Hitler as the day-to-day decision-maker in the totalitarian state and of anti-Semitic ideology as the motive force in bringing about the extermination of the Jews. Their critics, the so-called functionalists, stressed the neo-feudal nature of the Nazi state, where decisions arose as a result of the frequently chaotic power struggles between overlapping rival agencies. While not denying the importance of Nazi anti-Semitic ideology, they de-emphasised its role as an independent policy force. The traditionalists thought that the road to Auschwitz was straight, that even before arriving in power Hitler had decided to exterminate the Jews of Europe and only delayed in the implementation of that plan until suitable circumstances arose. By contrast, their critics believed that the road that led to Auschwitz was twisted, that the decision for the extermination of the Jews only arose as a result of problems encountered during the prosecution of the war and of an unplanned process labelled “cumulative radicalisation”.

Although in the first volume, which concluded with the outbreak of World War II, Hitler and anti-Semitism were restored to a central place, Friedländer conceded that the interpretation of the first generation of Holocaust historians possessed one fatal flaw. If Hitler did indeed have a pre-determined plan for the extermination of European Jewry, the Nazi policy of encouraging Jewish emigration from the Reich to areas beyond likely German military control was impossible to explain.

Friedländer suggested a more complex picture than the one offered by either the traditionalists or their critics. At the heart of the fixed Hitlerian world-view was an ideology which he called “redemptive anti-Semitism”, the belief that the key to the future was the struggle to the death between the only two pure races on the face of the Earth: the culture-creating Aryans and the culture-destroying Jews. In his interpretation, before the coming of war in 1939 a gulf existed between the murderous intent implicit in Hitler’s words and thoughts, and the policy practice of the Nazi state, which was “restricted” to the ferocious domestic isolation and the brutal encouraged emigration of the German Jews. In the Reichstag on 30 January 1939 Hitler had issued a solemn warning. If international Jewry were once again to succeed in plunging the world into war, the result would not be the destruction of the German people but the destruction of the Jews. By the time Friedländer concluded his first volume it was clear that the central challenge of the second would be to show how that prophecy was fulfilled and how, during the period between the invasion of Poland and the suicide of the Führer, the ideology of redemptive anti-Semitism had come to be realised in the killing fields and the death camps of the East, where the murder of between 5 and 6 million European Jews took place.

In this second volume, The Years of Extermination: Nazi Germany and the Jews, 1939-1945 (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 870pp; $79.95), which was ten years in the writing, Friedländer’s task is daunting. Since the earliest histories of the Holocaust were written, several hundred relevant books and scholarly articles have been published. Much of this work has been inspired by the functionalist critique. In his preface Friedländer divides the new scholarship into two broad types. One category is the localised study: the murder of the Jews in particular districts; the work of middle-level functionaries. Without taking this work into account, as he understands, no plausible re-statement of the traditionalist position is possible. A second category is the construction of a new Holocaust paradigm, pioneered by the German historian Götz Aly, which argues that the mass extermination of the Jews must be understood as part of a larger process: Nazi racial engineering and ruthless slave-labour economic exploitation during the creation of the Third Reich’s Eastern Empire. Politely but firmly Friedländer dismisses this work as straightforwardly wrong. If the Jewish mass extermination was part of an imperial project in the East, the Nazi drive to locate the Jews of Western Europe and transport them to the death camps of Poland would simply make no sense.

Friedländer’s account of the Holocaust, which represents a synthesis of the traditionalist understanding and the findings of the new empirical research, can be summarised like this. With the occupation of Poland, Germany gained more than 2 million Jews. Yet at this time no new clear plan concerning their fate emerged. Post-invasion Nazi murder plans were aimed at the Polish intelligentsia, not at the Jews. It is true that after the occupation of Poland the Jews were treated with a casual, monstrous barbarity, of a character not seen in the Reich. It is also true that gradually, initially as a “temporary measure”, the Jews in the major cities of Poland were forced to move into ghettoes, where their labour was exploited and where vast numbers died of starvation-caused disease. Yet none of this amounted, at this time, to a systematic plan for Jewish mass extermination. Indeed, long after the occupation of Poland, Nazi Germany continued to support the emigration of the Jews under its control.

Even after the successful occupation of Norway, Denmark, Belgium, Holland and France in the early summer of 1940, Nazi plans for the ultimate solution to the Jewish question had still not been settled. Emigration had not yet been ruled out. Moreover, following the fall of France, officials of the foreign office and the SS were briefly committed to another potential solution: the deportation of Europe’s Jews to an SS penal colony on the African island of Madagascar. At this time Himmler described the “Bolshevik method” of mass murder as “un-German”.

After the Madagascar option faded, with the failure to defeat Great Britain and take control of the oceans, another so-called “Final Solution of the Jewish Question” was floated. The context was the imminent planned invasion of Russia. This solution referred not to death camps but to the transportation of European Jewry to a territory deep inside the Soviet Union. Because the plan for the Soviet attack was so secret, even in internal SS documents it was described in coded language as transfer to “a still-to-be-determined territory”. Clearly, this solution to the Jewish question was premised on a swift military victory in the East. Clearly, too, mass death was implicit in the idea of transporting several million European Jews to a colony in the frozen wastes of the Russian north.

Following the German invasion of the Soviet Union, systematic mass killings of Jewish populations took place in the Baltic states, Belorussia, Ukraine and Russia - by the end of 1941, 600,000 people. Friedländer once thought these killings constituted evidence that the Nazi regime had already reached its decision to exterminate the entire Jewish population of Europe. Like most contemporary Holocaust scholars, he has now abandoned this view. It is true that Hitler had designated the war in the East as “a war of extermination”. It is true that he regarded Bolshevism as a Jewish movement. Yet in the first anti-Jewish murders in the East following the invasion of the Soviet Union, only Jewish men, and not women or children, were the target. Moreover, inside the old German Reich, Jewish emigration had not yet been banned; the first mass transportations from the Reich to the East and the construction of the death camps in Poland - Chelmno, Belzec, Treblinka, Sobibor, Majdanek, Auschwitz-Birkenau - had not yet begun.

There are two main contemporary views about when “the fateful decision” was made. According to Christopher Browning, the decision came in the European autumn of 1941 in the “euphoria” created by the illusion that the German forces were on the verge of victory in the East. In October, as Browning points out, transportations from the Reich began; plans for the first death facilities were laid down; Jewish emigration was banned. According to Christian Gerlach, the fateful decision came later, only after Pearl Harbor. His evidence comes from a series of ominous remarks uttered in a series of speeches by Hitler and other Nazi leaders at this time, and from a cryptic Himmler diary entry of 19 December following a meeting with the Führer: “Jewish question / exterminate as partisans.” On this ultimately imponderable question, Friedländer steers a careful middle course. “The decision may first have been considered in October or even before, to become final only once the United States joined the war, the Soviet forces counter-attacked, and the dreaded ‘World War’ in the East and in the West, became a reality.”

Shortly after this time, the Nazi regime began to comb through every country of Europe open to their influence, in search of every last Jew to be transported to the East. Most were killed instantly; some were first put to work for the German war effort before their anticipated death. As Friedländer shows, Hitler was well informed about the progress of the campaign for the total extermination of European Jewry. In March 1943 he was handed a document entitled ‘The Final Solution of the European Jewish Question’. It recorded the transportation to the East of 2.5 million Jews. The document was returned by Himmler to Eichmann: “The Führer has taken note: destroy.” At this moment in his narrative, Friedländer momentarily loses his customary composure. Try to imagine this scene, he pleads with his readers. “It tells more about the regime and its ‘messiah’ than many an abstract treatise.” Was Hitler in any doubt about what had happened to that 2.5 million? For Friedländer the answer is obvious. Shortly after, in mid-April, Hitler spoke to Admiral Horthy, the Hungarian dictator. In Poland, Hitler explained, “if the Jews did not want work, they were shot; if they could not work they had to perish ... Why should one spare the beasts who wanted to bring us bolshevism?”

It is critical for Friedländer’s case that it was only following the decision for the systematic extermination of European Jewry, taken between October and December 1941, that Hitler finally abandoned all rhetorical restraint with regard to the struggle against the Jew. From this moment, as Friedländer shows, the war against the Jews was the primary mobilising myth of the Nazi regime. From this moment, until the downfall of his regime, both Hitler’s public rhetoric and his private conversation were dominated by the ferocious redemptive anti-Semitism that lay at the centre of his thought - about the Jew as the source of Bolshevism, plutocracy, cultural corruption; about the Jew as the malicious wire-puller behind Stalin, Churchill, Roosevelt; about the struggle being waged between the Aryan and the Jew for domination of the world. Time and again, Hitler now referred to the fulfilment of his prophecy of 30 January 1939. In destroying the Jew, the Germans were fighting on behalf of all mankind.

In Friedländer’s magisterial restatement of the traditional interpretation, the road to Auschwitz had indeed been twisted, as the functionalist critics had shown. But in the creation of the killing fields and the extermination camps, as the earliest interpreters of the Holocaust had always known, it was the world-view of the Führer that had been the ultimate determining force.

In Eichmann in Jerusalem, Hannah Arendt argued that during the Nazi era the moral collapse of European society had occurred. I know of no work that demonstrates this proposition more devastatingly than Friedländer’s The Years of Extermination. In the most general sense what Friedländer shows is the entire absence of any major social institution in occupied Europe that acted, in regard to the war the Nazis waged openly and remorselessly against the Jews, as an opposition or even as a countervailing moral force.

Even though the information about what was happening to the Jews was readily available, prior to the middle of 1944 Pope Pius XII did not on one occasion publicly condemn the Jewish mass extermination. A coded message that Pope Pius XII delivered at Christmas 1942, which his supporters often cite, was treated with derision by representatives of the Nazi state. What was true for the Pope was in general true for the Catholic Church as a whole. Virtually no one in authority publicly condemned the murder of the Jews. When the death of Hitler was announced, Cardinal Bertram of Germany quietly circulated a letter to the priests of his diocese asking them to deliver a solemn mass in memory of the Führer. The story of the Protestant churches was much the same, in Germany and most other parts of Europe. A lack of solidarity with the Jews was common even in many forms of political and military resistance. Friedländer quotes several clearly anti-Semitic utterances among the brave leaders of the July 1944 plot against Hitler. At most, they regarded Hitler’s anti-Jewish policy as “extreme”. He also cites considerable evidence of intense anti-Jewish feeling among members of the national resistance in Poland, one of whose members warned the Polish government-in-exile in London that if the Jews of Poland were to try to return to their homes after the war, they would be resisted with armed force.

In Hitler’s Willing Executioners, Daniel Goldhagen advanced the counter-intuitive and unsubstantiated proposition that anti-Semitism had deeper cultural roots in Germany than elsewhere in Europe. Friedländer’s account suggests otherwise. The Romanian pogrom of January 1941 was more savage than anything that had been seen in Europe until that time. Even the Germans were surprised at the ferocity of the anti-Jewish actions in Croatia. In Salonika the swift round-up of 50,000 Jews was accomplished without the smallest trouble. And in Vichy France anti-Jewish measures were at first almost entirely unresisted. Some of the evidence came to me as a surprise. In 1940 Michelangelo Antonioni hailed the viciously anti-Semitic film Jud Süss as a masterpiece. Some still had the power to shock. As late as April 1945 an official of the Red Cross reported approvingly of Theresienstadt, the Potemkin village-style concentration camp in the Protectorate. The behaviour of the Scandinavians provides the most important qualification to Friedländer’s general story of European moral collapse. In Denmark almost the entire Jewish population was saved once neutral Sweden belatedly made it clear that all those who reached their territory would be offered sanctuary.

Saul Friedländer is critical of Hannah Arendt’s unforgiving account of Jewish leadership during their people’s darkest days. But it has to be said that his own view is only gentler and more nuanced. He records how commonly the Jewish leaders in the West favoured their own citizens at the expense of alien Eastern refugees. In the early part of the war, at a time when Polish-Jewish refugees in Germany faced imminent deportation to the even harsher condition of occupied Poland, Chief Rabbi Leo Baeck fought to reserve all the visas to Palestine for Jews of German citizenry. A critic of Jacques Helbronner, the leader of French Jewry, claimed - justly, in Friedländer’s view - that “the fate of the foreign Jews does not touch him at all.” In Holland, the Jewish Council struggled to reserve the priceless “exemption cards” for their families and themselves. A Dutch Jew, Mechanicus, recorded in his diary: “Now that they have a respite from the breathless chase and the evil frenzy, they should dig down in their consciences, if they have a conscience at all.” With occasional exceptions, like the “basically decent” Adam Czerniakow, the head of the Warsaw Ghetto, the general portrait of leadership in the ghettoes of Poland offered by Friedländer is one of corruption and self-service. Few Jewish leaders, even those in safety, come out of this story well. In America, Rabbi Stephen Wise agreed to suppress an eye-witness report on the Holocaust after a conversation with the under-secretary of state. It was characteristic behaviour. In Palestine, according to Friedländer, the Zionist leadership evaluated the question of the mass extermination almost exclusively in terms of its impact on the future prospects of the Jewish state.

It was Primo Levi in his Auschwitz memoir, If This is a Man, who showed beyond argument the falsity of the consolatory hopes that extreme oppression strengthens the bonds of solidarity between its victims or that suffering ennobles. Friedländer’s portrait of the Jewish response to the Nazi onslaught is, in general and on balance, consistent with Levi’s understanding. No honest account of Jewish behaviour at this time of peril, no matter how disturbing, is omitted. Friedländer puts before us, for example, the despairing words of the Warsaw Ghetto moralist, the Yiddish novelist Yehoshua Perle: “Three times 100,000 people lacked the courage to say: No. Each one of them was out to save their own skin. Each one was ready to sacrifice even his own father, his own mother, his own wife and children.” Yet Friedländer does not allow Perle, or indeed anyone, to have the final word. Against the witness of those, like Perle, who thought the story only one of unrelieved and naked self-interest, he poses the history of the astonishingly courageous resistance movements in the Warsaw Ghetto or among the Sonderkommando of Treblinka and Birkenau. And against the witness of those, like the Lodz diarist Dawid Sierakowiak, who recorded the growing moral cancer of indifference to everything, he draws our attention to the saintly Dr Korczak of the Warsaw Ghetto, who marched at the head of the column of his beloved orphanage children as they were led to Treblinka and their deaths.

Very little is morally straightforward in this fallen world. The leader of the Jewish police in the Vilna Ghetto, Joseph Gens, who was responsible for shooting many Jews, was himself affected by the lamentations of the ghetto remnant as he spoke. We learn of a teenager in the Lodz Ghetto whose hunger was so ravishing that he stole the bread of his sister, and who was then overwhelmed by an unbearable guilt. Friedländer refuses easy judgement. In the end what we remember most distinctly are the howls, like those contained in the testament of the chairman of the Kovno Ghetto, Elchanan Elkes, which somehow manage to speak in a universal tongue and on behalf of all: “There is a desert inside me. My soul is scorched. I am naked and empty. There are no words in my mouth.”

The Years of Extermination is in my view not only the most important narrative history of the Holocaust. I find it difficult to believe that anything of comparable quality will be written in the future. Friedländer is old enough to have experienced the Holocaust at first-hand. He has lived long enough, and possesses enough intellectual stamina, to have read the vast mountain of research that has appeared over the past 30 years. Friedländer has wonderful historical judgement and impeccable moral taste. As his book reminds us, at the moments of its greatest achievement, history is one of the major Western literary forms.

Yet there is more to the power of the book than this. Friedländer argues in the preface to The Years of Extermination: “The role of historic knowledge is to domesticate disbelief, to explain it away. In this book I wish to offer a thorough historical study of the extermination of the Jews of Europe, without eliminating or domesticating the initial sense of disbelief.” He is uninterested in the arid scholar’s distinctions between fact and value, head and heart. In part Friedländer achieves his objective through drawing on the work of many diarists; even more it is because, in the way he draws upon this kind of material, he possesses a novelist’s eye. The small details are often what count. We learn in this book that Jews in Germany were forbidden the purchase of gingerbread; that an order arrived in mid-1942 requiring all pets in Jewish German households to be killed; that among the items sent back to Germany from Auschwitz were artificial limbs; that the fingers of the patients from a Jewish mental hospital on one transport were caught when the wagon door was closed; that in the Warsaw Ghetto children played a game of horses and drivers in the proximity of corpses; that when the Ravensbrück concentration camp was evacuated, six skeletal women prisoners pulled a cart which carried the wife of an SS officer who had overindulged on raisins; that one Jewish woman who died on a train to Treblinka was 99 years old.

There are a handful of books on the Holocaust for different reasons of greatest importance to me: Primo Levi’s If This is a Man; Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem; Victor Klemperer’s I Shall Bear Witness. On my bookshelf at least, alongside them, Saul Friedländer’s two-volume history will now take its place.

Robert Manne

Robert Manne is emeritus professor of politics and vice-chancellor’s fellow at La Trobe University. His most recent books are The Mind of the Islamic State and On Borrowed Time.

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