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Alex Callinicos


Method in his madness

(September 1994)

From Socialist Review, No. 178, September 1994.
Copyright © Socialist Review.
Copied from the Socialist Review Archive.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for the Encyclopaedia of Trotskyism On-Line (ETOL).

The Final Solution: Origins and Implementation
Ed: David Cesarani
Routledge £35

The Nazi extermination of the Jews still presses at the limits of human imagination and understanding. Steven Spielberg’s outstanding film Schindler’s List has, among other things, served to give particularly powerful shape to the old question: how could human beings have carried out so appalling a crime?

The difficulty has always been that the Holocaust was not primarily the result of an uncontrollable outburst of hatred, like the pogroms suffered by Jews in Tsarist Russia at the beginning of the century. There were episodes in the Holocaust that resembled these. For example, Dina Porat’s essay in this collection shows that, of the 230,000 Jews living in Lithuania when the Germans invaded the Soviet Union in June 1941, perhaps 8,000 were still alive when the Russian army reoccupied the area three years later. The rest died in a series of massacres very soon after the invasion, in which Lithuanian anti-Semites seem to have played a larger part than the Einsatzgruppen, the SS death squads.

But most Jews died as a result of a deliberate bureaucratically organised process run by the SS. First came the mass shootings and gassings practised by the Einsatzgruppen in the wake of the German armies as they drove through the western and southern Soviet Union in 1941–42. Then followed the mounting of murder by assembly line in the gas chambers.

One major reason for the switch from mass shootings to gas chambers as the means of extermination was the psychological damage which SS leader Himmler feared the shootings could cause the executioners. In December 1941, Richard Breitman tells us, ‘Himmler suggested social gatherings in the evening as a way of reinforcing camaraderie, but warned against the abuse of alcohol on such occasions. A good meal, good beverages and music would take the men “to the beautiful realm of German spirit and inner life”.’

The Holocaust was, then, a carefully planned affair. One major controversy among historians of the Third Reich has concerned just how much planning was involved.

Some argue that the doings of the regime were the result of a long term strategy which could be traced back to the will of Hitler himself. Others see the National Socialist state as one of warring bureaucracies, in which Hitler was more the arbiter than the tyrant.

This debate spills over into another, about when the decision to exterminate the Jews was taken. Did it pre-date the invasion of Russia? Did it roughly coincide with the invasion, in the summer of 1941, as the Einsatzgruppen fanned out into the USSR?

Or did the Final Solution emerge later, less through deliberate decision than as a result of a piecemeal process, in which the initiative was taken less by Hitler than by empire building SS barons like Himmler and Heydrich, the secret police chief? The absence of any ‘Führer order’ in which Hitler explicitly commanded the Holocaust makes this a subject on which speculation can enjoy pretty free rein.

What light do the essays collected in this volume shed on our understanding of the Holocaust?

Some are very useful. Christopher Browning relates the Nazis’ moves towards the Final Solution to the fortunes of war on the Eastern Front. He argues that in mid-July 1941, ‘convinced that the military campaign was over and victory was at hand, an elated Hitler gave the signal to carry out accelerated pacification and “racial cleansing” of Germany’s new “Garden of Eden”.’

The Einsatzgruppen were expanded and given orders to extend their previously selective massacres of Jews into full scale genocide. Then in September/October 1941, another moment of German victories, Hitler authorised the deportation of the European Jews to the east, and construction of the killing centres.

This analysis is helpful because it dovetails in with the main theme of the essays by Jürgen Förster, Christian Streit and Omer Bartov. They all stress that Operation Barbarossa – the invasion of Russia – was, as Förster puts it, ‘an ideological war of extermination’, waged to win German imperialism ‘living room’ in the east by conquering and enslaving inferior Slav races.

For the Nazis the Stalin regime was the stronghold of ‘Jewish Bolshevism’, the embodiment of all they hated. Regular German troops as well as the SS were imbued by National Socialist ideology, and saw themselves waging a race war in which no quarter would be given.

It was in this frenzied atmosphere that the first massacres of Jews took place, and that the Holocaust could be seen as an acceptable ‘solution’.

This conclusion is important. The extermination of the Jews arose from the imperatives of Nazi ideology. At the heart of this ideology lay a particular virulent form of racism. Racism is still with us. New holocausts are still possible. The fight against all that Hitler stood for goes on.

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