For most readers, it is a rare and even unique experience to view the Holocaust through German eyes. With the long-awaited and much-anticipated publication of “Holocaust: The Nazi Persecution and Murder of the Jews” by Peter Longerich (Oxford University Press: $34.95, 645 pps.), we are able to find out for ourselves what the Shoah means to a German scholar who has studied the subject deeply and with discernment.
Twelve years ago, Longerich first published his findings in a field of Holocaust scholarship known as Täterforschung (“perpetrator research”), which focuses on the workings of the machinery of genocide rather than the sufferings of its victims, but the work remained unavailable in English until now. In the meantime, he achieved a certain celebrity as a witness for the defense in the failed libel case that Holocaust-denier David Irving brought against historian Deborah Lipstadt. As it turns out, the passage of time allowed Longerich to expand his book in light of the documents that became available only after the fall of the Soviet Union and the opening of state archives in Eastern Europe.
Longerich takes up the technical debate in Holocaust scholarship between the “intentionalists,” who see the Holocaust as the intended result of a plan conceived and implemented by Adolf Hitler and other Nazi leaders, and “structuralists,” who see it as the unpredictable and uncontrollable result of the Nazi bureaucracy that they put into place. Ultimately, he refuses to embrace either one.
“It seems to me that Holocaust research has now reached a point where the debate has to reach out beyond such oppositions and dichotomies,” Longerich writes. “It is clear that the battles between one-dimensional explanations can no longer do justice to the complexity of the object of our study — the systematic murder of the European Jews.”
Indeed, Longerich argues that there is merit to both sides of the debate. He proposes that the highest level of leadership in Nazi Germany — the “centre,” as he puts it — and those who were in charge of the ghettoes, the camps and the fighting front (“the periphery”) stood in a “dialectical” relationship with each other. The Nazi headquarters issued “a mélange of orders and intentions” that were interpreted, applied and “radicalized” by their dutiful minions. What started with “Hitler’s manic obsession…to create a Europe free of Jews” led to “shootings or to the provision of gas vans or the construction of extermination camps.”
“[T]he centre could only act because it knew that its impulses would fall on fertile ground at the periphery, and the decision makers at the periphery based their own actions on the assumption that they were in harmony with the policy pursued by the centre.”
Although Longerich rarely describes in detail what actually happened to the victims, he has clearly mastered the documentary evidence, and he offers a way to understand exactly how the ravings of one evil man can turn into genocide on an industrial scale. The path from the “anti-Semitic rowdyism of the National Socialist mob” to the systematic ghettoization of the Jewish population under German control and finally the invention, construction and operation of the death camps was hardly a seamless process, as Longerich points out, and the Holocaust seems inevitable only in retrospect.
Indeed, Longerich allows us to see some of the tragic events of the Holocaust in provocative ways. He recounts a conversation between Hitler and Goering about the so-called Madagascar project — the creation of a Jewish colony in Africa or elsewhere — in the days after the pogrom known as Kristallnacht, and we hear Goering’s taunt to the Western democracies: “[Hitler] will say to the other countries, ‘Why are you always talking about the Jews? Take them!’” Faced with a world that refused to shelter the Jews that Nazi Germany sought to exclude, Hitler was emboldened to pursue his goal of creating a “racist utopia” by any and all means available.
Longerich argues that the “decisive turning point” in the history of the Holocaust was reached as early as the outbreak of World War II, in the autumn of 1939, when the bureaucratic euphemism favored by the Nazis — the “Final Solution” — now “equated to millions of deaths.” But the single most unsettling insight in “Holocaust” is the suggestion that the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941 sealed the fate of the Jews in Germany and occupied Europe.
The Wannsee Conference, where the “unified programme for the destruction of all European Jews” was adopted in January 1942, took place only after the United States had entered World War II. Hitler’s speech to the Nazi leadership on the day after the German declaration of war on the U.S. can be seen as “a further appeal to accelerate and radicalize the extermination policy that had already been set in motion with the mass executions in the Soviet Union, in Poland, and Serbia and the deportations from Central Europe,” as Longerich writes.
“As regards the Jewish question,” Goebbels confided to his diary, “the Fuhrer is resolved to make a clean sweep.”
Given the sheer quantity and diversity of the historical evidence, and the vast accumulation of scholarship, one of the great accomplishments in “Holocaust” is its clarity and accessibility. Although no single work can encapsulate an historical phenomenon as complex as Nazi Germany’s war against the Jews, the English version of Longerich’s study surely belongs on any short list of essential books about the Shoah.