Encyclopedia of Trotskyism On-Line: Revolutionary History, Vol. 8 No. 4
Lebensraum and the Holocaust
MARTYN Housden is a historian best known for his work on resistance in Nazi Germany. His new book is a biography of Hans Frank, a prominent Nazi lawyer, who became the Governor General of occupied Poland and was hanged following the Nuremberg Trials. Frank is interesting for several reasons. Involved in the decisions leading up to the Holocaust, he wrote an 11,000 page personal diary, which has been used as a key source for many different accounts of this period. Charged at the Nuremberg Tribunal, Frank’s life also enables the historian to reverse one drawback with much of the English-language literature, a concentration on the period leading up to 1933, to the exclusion of the later years of genocide and decline.
For all these reasons, Housden’s book is a welcome addition to the academic literature. Unfortunately, it suffers from a series of structural weaknesses, which are likely to restrict its interest to all but specialists. One problem is that the biographer has been unable to gather any information of substance about Hans Frank’s first 20 years. The story begins with an impressionistic young bourgeois, romantic and slightly histrionic, and amenable to fascism. It is hard for the reader to contextualise Frank’s politics, or to imagine that any other options were open to him. The next problem is a consistent tone of surprise, which Housden adopts at Frank’s conversion to fascism. As an educated man, we are repeatedly told, Frank should have been immune to such politics. The idea that the educated should have been uniquely immune to fascism seems to have nothing much more behind it than the biographer’s own self-identification as a member of the same group.
Housden avoids the sex-and-scandal style of biography, but his adoption of a dry, distant style actually reduces the interest of the narrative. For example, Housden generally avoids quoting directly from Frank’s diaries. This choice denies him the opportunity to make critical or ironic use of Frank’s self-important worldview.
Such decisions become problematic as we approach the key events of Frank’s life. Lacking any sense of rival understandings, it is the biographer’s own choices that are made to seem problematic. On the one hand, Housden wishes to argue that Frank was a minor Nazi dissident, a ‘loyal opponent’ of Adolf Hitler’s arbitrary rule. On the other hand, Housden is rightly critical of Hans Frank’s later self-defence, the argument he gave at Nuremberg, that as a relatively junior official unconcerned with matters of policing or state policy he could not be blamed for the events of the Holocaust which took place in territories under his purely nominal control.
The evidence for Frank’s opposition stems from the summer of 1942, when, caught up with increasing intra-party criticism of his own lavish lifestyle, and that of his friends, Frank feared for his own political future. Hans Frank responded by returning to Germany, touring the Universities of Berlin, Vienna, Munich and Heidelberg, lecturing on the status of German law. The theme of his lectures was the necessary independence of the legal system, which should remain free of external control. ‘It was an amazing episode’, Housden writes, ‘in a bizarre time.’ Yet for all the undoubted stress and trauma of this episode, Housden has more difficulty in demonstrating that any single member of Frank’s audience perceived his speeches as the staking out of an alternative politics. Contrary to Housden, what seems to have happened is that Frank’s speeches were received as the repetition of standard Nazi clichés. The tension was all in his head. There may have been the hints of coded disagreements in his speeches, but to magnify these to the status of ‘opposition’ (as Housden does) is a disservice to Hitler’s genuine opponents.
Housden’s judgement of Frank’s involvement in the Holocaust is more persuasive. He cites Frank boasting that one way of solving food shortages would be to end the provision of rations to 1.2 million Polish Jews. He demonstrates the lawyer’s involvement in the process of genocide. Yet the style of the book remains distant, choices are presented outside Frank’s terms of reference, and his own voice is curiously absent. Just as biography, I suspect the book would be more interesting, if only Housden had taken seriously Frank’s claims to have missed key decisions, and therefore by taking his self-deception seriously, if Housden had showed how far Frank had lied to himself. Reading this book, a comparison came to mind with Richard Evans’ recent demolition of David Irving. Sometimes it is necessary to take such charlatans seriously, just in order to show how far they have lied.
Updated by ETOL: 28.10.2011