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Book review by Jay Levinson
Hitler, the Germans, and the Final Solution
by Ian Kershaw
Yale University Press, New Haven & London: 2008 (ISBN: 978-0-300-15127-5) & International Institute for Holocaust Research, Yad Vashem, Jerusalem
Ian Kershaw has written a well thought-out analysis providing keen insight into the progression from German anti-Semitism to Nazi genocide. In both a review of academic literature and his own understanding, the author raises key questions and provides his own perspectives.
According to Kershaw the Nazi message of Aryan supremacy, the need for territorial expansion (Lebensraum), and ante-Semitism fell upon increasingly eager ears. This was a three-part message developed by Adolf Hitler, who mesmerized the German people with this platform of superiority that was designed to feed hate and encourage expansionism.
Who was Hitler? Throughout the book one gets the picture of a complex man who cherished his public image and was a master of charisma, yet a leader who "played it safe" and did not take chances. Little did he commit to writing, lest he be held accountable for mistakes.
A comparison is made with Stalin, who was a bureaucrat who grew up in the system. He knew how government works and how to make it work to suit his aims. Hitler, on the other hand, was an outsider, who super-imposed his will and the will of the Nazi party upon the German government. He was not a bureaucrat in the classic sense. Often his meetings were without minutes (sometimes summarized in the diaries of participants, but without official records), and he notoriously did not read reports. The image he strove to create was the infallible Führer, leading the German nation and above the daily nitty-gritty of government.
Who were the German people whom Hitler led? Kershaw makes it clear that there was no one German people. There were those who voiced opposition to Nazi policies, and were able to halt the euthanasia programme in 1942. There were those who voiced vehement support for Nazi dogma. And there were those who looked the other way and remained silent, a criminal complacency. Kershaw is very clear --- the German public knew, if not about the gas chambers which were a tightly guarded secret, then certainly about mass murders by firing squads. As the author writes, "
information about the Final Solution was widely available, and
the significance of that information was widely comprehended." In another quote he eloquently states, "The road to Auschwitz was built with hate, but paved with indifference. Kristallnacht was also no secret. It was wanton destruction, cold-blooded murder, and the theft of property in clear sight of all. Curiously, a government planned rampage such as Kristallnacht was never repeated. Kershaw is of the opinion that the government realized that it had gone too far, when it gauged public opinion. And yes, the Nazis were very sensitive to public opinion as long as the war appeared to be going in their favour. They even had a government office to keep track of popular opinion.
The biggest question is, who is responsible for the Final Solution? The author is clear --- Hitler's message of anti-Semitism fell upon people with a latent hate for Jews. But, how did that hatred terminate in genocide, the attempt to wipe out an entire people?
Kershaw is very clear on one major point. In his opinion Adolf Hitler did not initiate the implementation of extermination. He encouraged it. He tacitly approved it. He looked forward to its results. But, he had no grand plan. (He was incapable of that.) Nor did he give the signal to start. He bears, however, unquestionable responsibility and guilt for every drop of blood spilt, for every life lost. Kershaw feels that guilt, however, should be placed on a large number of Nazi officers, since he estimates that they initiated the mass killings.
The date of the Final Solution is unclear. Kershaw devotes considerable discussion to the setting of exact dates. What is clear is that mass murder began in November-December 1941, when the tide of the war turned against Germany. The envisioned Blitzkrieg toppling of the Soviet Union was stalled by Russian resistance and the cold winter. Deportation of Jews from Poland to the "East" was no longer a practical measure. Absorption of Jews from European countries into Poland as a temporary holding area was also not a viable measure. Thousands had been murdered on the Russian Front. Commanders in Poland saw this as their alternative as well --- extermination of the Jews as opposed to transport --- and they quite rightly surmised that it would meet with the approval of the Fürher. After all, Hitler in his well-publicized and oft-repeated "prophesy" of 30 January 1939 foresaw Europe without Jews --- Jüdenrein. Those commanders were much more culpable than usually thought. There was no room for the lame excuse of only following orders. They initiated those orders!
The author raises numerous key questions. For example, it was convenient for the Federal Republic to limit the Nazi period from 1933 to 1945, then start a clean slate with a "New Germany." This, however, ignores the stark reality that the German people who had shunned genocide were still the residents of even the "New Germany."
Is objective history of the Third Reich possible today. As long as it is impossible to talk about Nazi Germany without "moral guilt" lurking in the shadows, it will be hard to write nbiased history. Maybe that will take another two, three, or four centuries.
This book is certainly a "must" to read as one strives to comprehend the incomprehensible ---- how hate turned into mass murder, committed by a "modern" and civilized" country.
from the October-November 2009 Edition of the Jewish Magazine
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