October 29, 2011 | 6:29 pm
Posted by Jonathan Kirsch
My next book is a biography of an early Jewish resistance fighter who has been mostly overlooked in history, and so I am thinking a lot nowadays about Hitler’s “war against the Jews” and how, when and why the Jews fought back. That’s why I read with special interest Timothy Snyder’s recent review of “The End: The Defiance and Destruction of Hitler’s Germany, 1944-1945” by Ian Kershaw (Penguin, $35) in The New Republic (November 3, 2011).
Snyder is the author of “Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin,” which I reviewed earlier this year in The Jewish Journal. His book has been criticized (although not by me) for pointing out that Poland and Eastern Europe were the killing grounds for millions of non-Jews — the casualties of what Isaac Bashevis Singer once called “Hitler’s hell and Stalin’s hell” — as well as the six million victims of the Holocaust. The death toll is undeniable, of course, but some Jewish readers complain that Snyder blurs the distinction between the Shoah and the other crimes against humanity that took place during the Second World War.
In “The End,” Kershaw, a distinguished British historian of Nazi Germany, addresses the question of why Nazi Germany fought to the bitter end — and, not incidentally, continued to murder Jewish men, women, children and babies — even though, starting as early as 1943, its eventual defeat by the Allies already seemed inevitable.
Ironically, it was the blood-stained Heinrich Himmler, executor of the Final Solution, who tried to open peace negotiations with the Allies in the last days of the Third Reich, but Hitler himself shrilly insisted on fighting to the last German and only put a pistol in his mouth when the Red Army was about to take him prisoner. His single most fanatical follower, Joseph Goebbels, also arranged to die in the Führerbunker along with his wife after they had performed one last marital act by murdering their six young children.
Snyder, always provocative, points out that there is a certain tragic linkage between the Holocaust and Hitler’s refusal to consolidate his early victories and sue for peace before it was too late.
For example, Snyder argues that German civilians were aware, subliminally if not always literally, of the crimes that were being committed by Germans in uniform. “German boys and girls in 1944 and 1945 were wearing clothing taken from murdered Jewish boys and girls in Belarus, but this did not mean that they saw or thought about those murders,” muses Snyder. “Yet in some sense those murders were present in German life.”
Second, and crucially, Snyder points out that the moral complicity of the German population at large helps to explain why the Germans continued to fight in 1944 and 1945; indeed, Snyder suggests that one of Hitler’s goals in conceiving and carrying out the Holocaust was to make sure that they did.
“Germans in 1944 were considering the world not so much from the point of view of the uncertain future of 1945, but rather in the certain knowledge of what Germans had done to others in the previous months and years,” explains Snyder. “Might this have had something to do with their willingness to fight on, as Kershaw suggests here and there? Peter Longerich has argued that one of the political purposes of the Holocaust was to bind Germans to the regime, precisely because they knew that the world could not forgive them.”
Historians continue to debate what deserves to be called an act of resistance under the dire circumstances of the Holocaust, and it can be argued that there was much more Jewish resistance than was conceded by an earlier generation of scholars. But the fact remains, as TK obliquely reminds us, that no amount of resistance would have deterred Hitler from carrying out the Final Solution and, in fact, may have encouraged to the Germans to kill Jews at an even more frantic pace.
Jonathan Kirsch, author and publishing attorney, is the book editor of The Jewish Journal. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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