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.
In the postwar decades, when the killing of the Jews seemed only one crime among many, students of Nazi Germany tended to the determinist camp. Overawed by the magnitude of the event, they felt the signs of its coming had been there for all to see, especially in Mein Kampf, but also in other pronouncements of Hitler’s, such as this from January 1939: ‘Today I will be a prophet once again. If the international Jewish financial establishment in Europe and beyond succeeds in plunging the peoples of the world into yet another world war, then the result will not be a Bolshevisation of the globe and thus a victory for Jewry, but the annihilation of the Jewish race in Europe.’ The link between intention and act seemed clear and intimate. In 1961, Raul Hilberg produced a massive study, The Destruction of the European Jews, which reflected this tendency: premeditation was obvious, and stage followed stage in necessary sequence, from measures denying Jews a place in public life, to those denying them life altogether.
By the late 1960s, younger historians had begun to contest the ‘totalitarian paradigm’, of which inexorability was so large a part, as a product of the Cold War. The early work, projecting the Nazi state as carrying out its agenda like clockwork, struck the newcomers as mechanistic; in the words of Ulrich Herbert, it ‘amounted to little more than recording the steps in an apparently automated process’. Where did the dynamism of this process come from? What caused the Nazis suddenly to abandon the idea of deportation to Madagascar and begin to shoot Jews en masse?
Some historians have continued to debate whether Hitler did or did not give a precise order, but most now regard the question as irresoluble and perhaps not all that important. Hitler hated making clear, binding decisions, especially in sensitive matters. Preferring rule by inspiration, he signalled his preferences to subordinates in the form of vaguely expressed wishes. They then competed for his favour. Like other leading Nazis, he employed indirect, or metaphorical language: to insiders, ‘special treatment’ or ‘evacuation’ meant ‘killing’. There is scant evidence to indicate that Hitler was directly aware of the killing after it began.
In the past decade, yet another generation of researchers, especially in Germany, has therefore gone beyond Hitler or outside Berlin, and explored the places in Eastern Europe where in 1941 the SS crossed the threshold into genocide. They have attempted at the same time to enter the minds of the perpetrators, a task fraught with danger. We can try to empathise with people in the past, but how do we know we’ve got it right? In this case, how do we know whether the killers themselves felt they had crossed a threshold into a new form of evil? Contingency lies in the eye of the beholder. We now call their crime ‘genocide’, but that word didn’t exist in their day: indeed, it was their actions that led to its coining. For them, perhaps, the move from killing some, to killing all Jewish men, and finally all Jews, would have seemed a natural progression from the earlier brutality.
According to the records left behind by members of the SS units, they often targeted Jewish women and children because they ‘threatened the security’ of German occupation forces. In his pioneering work on the Holocaust in Lithuania, Christoph Dieckmann has concluded that the ‘sudden murder of a large part of Lithuanian Jewry’ in August 1941 seemed a ‘way of minimising security and policing concerns’. Units frequently listed problems supposedly caused by Jews: for example, a shortage of housing or the spread of epidemics. Dieter Pohl, too, has written that ‘murder of the Jews functioned increasingly as a reaction to various problems.’ Some SS reports refer to Jews as ‘useless mouths’ and Christian Gerlach, in his pathbreaking work on Nazi food allocation, has concluded that the Holocaust was a part of ‘starvation policy’: a ‘means’ of managing broader economic interests. Götz Aly and Susanne Heim have been struck by concerns about ‘overpopulation’ in Eastern Europe voiced in the correspondence of Nazi technocrats. For them, the Holocaust was a part of larger plans to modernise a backward region where too many people worked on the land.
These new studies reflect the wealth of archival information that has recently emerged from Eastern Europe, but also a sense of dissatisfaction with how little we still know about how the killings actually took place. As Pohl notes, prior to his work, the only studies on occupied Poland concerned Warsaw. Gerlach’s is the first detailed work to have appeared on the Holocaust in Belarus. But though they add valuable perspectives, the new studies do not add up to a new interpretation; the whole is less than the sum of the parts. Field commanders, with their limited local knowledge, may have written dozens of reports referring to Jews as ‘useless mouths’ or ‘surplus population’, but that does not mean that the Holocaust was really about food shortages or land management. Why were these killers in the Soviet Union to begin with? Why was it only the Jewish ‘unproductive eaters’ or ‘surplus population’ who were killed down to the last man, woman and child?
What has been displaced in this new picture is ideology – which in fact coloured every perception of the professional Nazis. The authors I have cited may know more than anyone else about Nazism, but when they get down to events the ideological context fades from view, like the absent God of modern theology: necessary, but so distant as to seem irrelevant. When we see soldiers shooting women and children as ‘unproductive eaters’, then we know that they were operating in a peculiar frame of reference. Before they set foot in the Soviet Union, the killers were looking through the lens of an extreme anti-semitism. Without this lens, they may not have resisted killing, but they might have left on record some hint of surprise or doubt, some indication that they had asked themselves the most basic question: why are we doing this? Instead, they accepted whatever phantasmagoric vision was applied to the context in which they operated: in Russia, Jews were Bolsheviks; in Poland, they were carriers of pestilence; in Germany, plutocrats.
Remarkable in these new studies is the insistence that the perpetrators were guided by rational motives, which is itself a reaction to a much older literature, often written by émigrés from Germany, which treated the Holocaust as an event lying outside history, in which forces were unleashed that drew deeply on wells of irrationality, and individuals relinquished their humanity. For these younger writers, anything that implies ‘the insanity defence’ smells like an apologia: Gerlach argues that his work on Nazi starvation policy demonstrates that the perpetrators did not have the excuse of ‘madness’. We see here both a desire not to flinch from looking into the heart of darkness, and a laudable optimism, as if making such crimes fully explicable might help to prevent their recurrence. But could the perpetrators’ behaviour be considered fully rational? Are there not ways of procuring food or reducing overpopulation short of genocide?
For the Nazis, the dangers posed by the Jews transcended the evidence of the senses and normal cost-benefit calculations. Walter Gross, head of the Nazi Party’s Office of Racial Politics, once justified the exclusion of Jewish children from schools on grounds of their ‘invisible influence’ on the ‘soul’ of German children. Nazi leaders, otherwise devotees of racial science, ignored the scientists when it came to the Jews: they proclaimed them a pure race, whereas all the other groups – Gypsies, Slavs, Poles – were racial mixtures, with some potentially valuable ‘blood’. The Jews were the only group defined legally in Nazi-era laws, an ‘honour’ accorded to no one else, not even to racially insecure Bavarians, who wanted recognition as ‘Germans’. Because they were the only group so precisely defined, Jews were also the only group the Nazis could attempt to eradicate as a whole, the only targets of genocide in its most extreme form.
Academics build careers by refuting existing wisdom, and their debates tend to be polarised. In Holocaust scholarship, especially so: was Nazi genocide modern or barbaric? Was Hitler an absolute dictator or a remote inspiration? Was the Final Solution premeditated or improvised? Did it result from cool calculation or hallucinogenic derangement, from an ideology of hatred or competing material interests, from the centre or the periphery? Was it a product of Germany’s peculiarly virulent anti-semitism, or of a bureaucratic logic common to all modern states?
At a time when Holocaust history is full of such debates, Christopher Browning provides a desperately needed synthesis. For him, the Holocaust grew out of ideological obsession, was furthered by callous bureaucratic ambition, and realised in technologically sophisticated killing centres, but also in the face-to-face murders of pogroms. Where appropriate, he empathises with the perpetrators in order to try to understand them, and he acknowledges that judgments about the orders Hitler may or may not have given are speculative.
Other researchers, especially outside Germany, have hesitated to see the Holocaust as part of a larger agenda of racial restructuring, insisting instead on its ‘uniqueness’. Browning shows, however, that a comparative perspective makes clear the exceptional place of Jews in Nazi ideology and practice. He writes in detail of the sufferings of Soviet prisoners (of five million captured, three and a half million died) and the Polish intelligentsia (the most terrorised group early in the German occupation), but then concludes:
When large numbers of people had been shot, Jews had always been shot in disproportionate numbers. When massive expulsions had been planned, it was never intended that any Jews would be left behind. And when food had been scarce, Jews had always been the first to starve . . . When, in the context of racial imperialism, ‘war of destruction’, and crusade against Bolshevism, Germans were willing to kill millions of others, they were also willing to kill all Soviet Jews.
The rationales quoted in recent German studies for the killing of Soviet Jews are thus shown to be an excuse rather than a deep motive. Browning notes that the Nazis often ‘presented ideology-driven decisions on the fate of the local population in terms of economic necessity’. At one point he recalls that Goebbels’s state secretary Leopold Gutterer held Jews responsible for ‘every problem from the lack of housing to the shortage of strawberries’. At a certain moment, no reason was too feeble to justify killing them. When did the Nazis reach that point? In Browning’s account, the war and the Final Solution were inextricably linked and aimed at the same goal: ‘Nazi racial policy was radicalised at points in time that coincided with the peaks of German military success, as the euphoria of victory emboldened and tempted an elated Hitler to dare ever more drastic policies. With the “war of destruction” in the Soviet Union underway and the imminent prospect of all Europe at his disposal, the last inhibitions fell away.’
Based on his unparalleled knowledge of the relevant documentation, Browning believes that Hitler probably ordered the killing of Europe’s Jews in September 1941. (Others have suggested the spring, July and December.) But the question of the precise week when Hitler gave such an order, or whether he did so at all, is secondary:
As the ultimate embodiment of Nazi ideology as well as the constant inciter and mobiliser of the party faithful, Hitler had certainly legitimised and prodded the ongoing search for final solutions. His obsession with the Jewish question ensured that the Nazi commitment would not slacken, that the search for a solution one way or another to this self-imposed problem would not fade away into obscurity or be indefinitely postponed. No leading Nazi could prosper who did not appear to take the Jewish question as seriously as Hitler did himself.
Note the ‘self-imposed’. Nazi officials may often have described the killings as a way to solve ‘problems’, and some historians have treated these problems as taking on a life of their own, at some point leaving the Nazi perpetrators no other way to resolve them short of murder, but Browning’s point is that the problems grew out of the perpetrators’ choices, such as embracing the Nazi ideology or joining the SS. No one was forced to do any of this. As Browning showed in an earlier, now classic work, Ordinary Men (1992), the killers were not ordered to kill, but rather given the choice between doing it or asking for some other duty.
But even if they willed it, did the Nazis also premeditate their crime? And if they did not, can they be held fully accountable? Browning writes:
Only at the end of this journey of innovation did the Final Solution take on an air of obviousness and inevitability that could not have been apparent to the perpetrators at the time. These pathfinders to the Final Solution, these inventors of a bureaucratically organised assembly-line mass murder, groped their way along a trail filled with contingencies and uncertainties. These uncertainties, however, must not disguise the fact that the perpetrators sensed what was expected of them and what they were looking for. The extermination camp was not an accident. It did not result from some mysterious process of spontaneous generation. It was a horrific monument to the perpetrators’ problem-solving abilities, but they needed lead time to invent and construct it.
Browning has a special kind of historical imagination, which reads history not so much in terms of what was intended, as in terms of what was successively excluded. At each stage the Nazis further constricted the possibilities of a Jewish future in Europe. To read history in this way implies a willingness to take advantage of hindsight, but it does not impose the benefit of hindsight on actors in the past. Contrary to paradigms popular in the Cold War, the Nazis were not rulers who could force their will on circumstances; they were fallible humans who groped their way from one evil to a greater evil.
Quoted on the jacket of the hardback edition, Ian Kershaw calls Browning ‘one of the world’s leading historians of the Holocaust’. Actually, Browning’s position is unique. He alone takes us from the ‘ordinary’ killers to the extraordinary deed, exhausting the archives but projecting meaning, finding room for ideological impulse as well as banal desire, placing the crime in full historical context while seeing its specificity. In his writing one finds no trace of political, national or ideological bias. He does not attack those with whom he disagrees, but rather integrates their findings. He shows sympathy with victims of all kinds, but it only occasionally comes to the surface in a book of resolute scholarship.