Survivors Testimonies Illuminate New Volume on Nazi Slaughter of Jews

by Rafael Medoff

(Book review published in Ha’aretz, February 10, 2017)

Final Solution: The Fate of the Jews 1933-1949,
by David Cesarani. St. Martin’s Press, 2016 – 1,016 pp.

There is no shortage of large, one-volume histories of the Holocaust. Typically they are distinguished from one another by relatively small degrees of emphasis or fine points of scholarly disagreement that the author considers momentous even if the reading public does not. In the case of ‘Final Solution: The Fate of the Jews 1933-1949,’ author David Cesarani proposes what appears, at first blush, to be a major difference between his analysis and that of his predecessors. “Unlike most previous narratives,” he asserts in his introduction, “this account contests whether Nazi anti-Jewish policy was systematic, consistent, or even premeditated.” (p.xxxi)

Professor Cesarani passed away last year, shortly before completing this manuscript, leaving one to wonder whether he would have retained that sweeping formulation if he could have had one last look at the introduction before it went to press. Frankly, the evidence that he presents over the course of the 1,000 pages to follow indicates that the Nazis were, in fact, as systematic, consistent, and premeditated as previous scholars documented them to have been. This is not to suggest that Cesarani’s book is fatally flawed merely because it does not live up to its author’s overly ambitious thesis statement. On the contrary, ‘Final Solution’ has its strengths and makes a number of valuable contributions to Holocaust scholarship. But a reader expecting startling new evidence or drastic new interpretations will be disappointed.

One of the book’s strengths is Cesarani’s frequent use of survivors’ recollections. This contrasts oddly with his complaint, in the introduction, that survivor testimony tends to be “highly charged,” “unrepresentative,” and “able to illuminate [only] a tiny corner of the sprawling historical tragedy.” (p.xxvi) Cesarani’s citation of passages from diaries, especially the writings of the noted German Jewish scholar (and convert to Christianity) Victor Klemperer, make for a more interesting and informative narrative than a dry recitation of names, dates, and statistics. Cesarani’s own account of the ‘sprawling historical tragedy’ is illuminated precisely by the human touch that the eyewitness testimony provides.

After all, it is one thing for Cesarani to report that German Jews in mid-1935 were terrified; it is much more powerful to read that Klemperer wrote in his diary on August 11: “We expect to be beaten to death at any moment.” (p.101) Historians surveying that distant era struggle to gauge to what extent popular antisemitism in Germany was manufactured by Hitler or already embedded in German society; Klemperer, who was immersed in that society, leaves no doubt as to his perspective: “Hitlerism is after all more deeply and firmly rooted in the nation and corresponds more to the German nature than I would like to admit.” (p.138)

Cesarani’s work is notable, as well, for the greater attention he pays to the phenomenon of sexual violence by the Nazis. It is not accurate to say (as Cesarani does, again in that overwrought introduction) that soon after the Holocaust, “researchers stopped even looking for or asking about…the rape of Jewish women and sexual exploitation of Jews in ghettos and camps, in hiding and on the run.” But that jab aside, Cesarani does appropriately include, to a greater degree than many other scholars, blunt references to the sexual victimization of Jewish women. It is important for readers to be aware of the full range of violence and degradation Jews suffered under Hitler.

Another important aspect of Cesarani’s narrative, which is given short shrift in some other surveys of the Holocaust, is the role of the bystanders. Cesarani recognizes that the story of Jews being persecuted and trying to escape is intertwined with the question of why so few of them were sheltered or otherwise aided by the Allies. Reflecting recent trends in Holocaust scholarship, Cesarani acknowledges how the Bergson Group activists staged “eye-catching” protests that “publicized the Jewish catastrophe,” and initiated congressional action that galvanized the Roosevelt administration grudgingly and belatedly to extend some limited assistance to the Jews. (pp.620, 694) This is a welcome contrast with those earlier Holocaust histories that omitted any mention of the Bergsonites.

At the same time, however, Cesarani reiterates the lazy distinction between President Roosevelt, who supposedly wanted “to relax visa controls on Jews hoping to emigrate to the USA,” and the State Department, which “squashed” his initiatives. (p.75). In reality, FDR was regularly briefed on, and approved, the ways in which the State Department acted to ensure that even the meager existing immigration quotas were seldom even close to filled. Then as now, the White House makes policy and the State Department implements it.

Moving from the prewar phase of anti-Jewish legislation and occasional pogroms to the early years of World War II, Cesarani chronicles the construction of ghettoes in German-occupied Poland and the unleashing of Einsatzgruppen, mobile execution squads that followed the German army into Poland and were assigned the task of eliminating partisans, Communists, and anyone else deemed potentially troublesome to the occupiers. Dozens, and sometimes hundreds, of Jews were murdered in these operations.

Cesarani perceives “a seamless continuity” (p.370) between the operations of the Einsatzgruppen in Poland and the squads’ actions accompanying the German invasion of the Soviet Union, in June 1941. Yet the evidence he musters suggests two very important differences. First, the Einsatzgruppen in Poland were not ordered to slaughter every Jew they found. They were instructed to wipe out troublemakers and given wide latitude to determine who merited execution; but that is not the same as systematic mass murder. By contrast, when the Einsatzgruppen moved into Russia, they were told by their superiors that “All Jews must be shot” (p.386), “The Jewish-Bolshevik system must be eradicated once and for all,” (p.389) and the like.

The other significant difference between the treatment of Jews in Poland in 1939-1941 and those in Russia in 1941-1942 was the nature and magnitude of the slaughter. Instead of sporadic executions of relatively small numbers of Jews, now “whole communities were rounded up and slaughtered.” (p.386) The mass murder of thousands, and sometimes tens of thousands, of civilians at a time required planning, logistics, and the diversion of security personnel from ordinary military duties. For the Nazis, the fight against the Jews did not detract from the war effort, but was very much a part of it.

Cesarani emphasizes what he perceives as the sporadic and inconsistent nature of the mass murder process in 1941-1942. He seems to suggest that the use of many Jews as slave laborers indicates a less-than-full commitment by the Germans to the annihilation of the Jews. “Selective mass murder” (as he calls it) in the spring of 1942 had by the mid-summer “morphed into something even more threatening,” that is, a more thorough and comprehensive murder process. “The change,” he contends, “was fed by security fears and anxiety about food supplies,” and especially by the assassination of senior Nazi official Reinhard Heydrich by Czech partisans. (p.479)

But one need only recall what preceded the Heydrich assassination to recognize the problem with Cesarani’s account. The “Holocaust by bullets” –the Einsatzgruppen massacres– had been going on for nearly a year, and claimed more than one million victims. The systematic gassing of Jews had been underway for months in death camps such as Chelmno, Sobibor, and Belzec. Orders had been given. Resources had been assigned. The decision to carry out mass murder–not “selectively,” but as far and wide as possible–must have been made long before Heydrich was killed.

Cesarani’s final chapters proceed in straightforward fashion through the construction of mass-death facilities at Treblinka and Auschwitz; deportations from the various occupied countries; the revolts in the Warsaw Ghetto and elsewhere; the deportation and gassing of over 400,000 Hungarian Jews; and, finally, the death marches out of the camps. This is all familiar territory, of course, but Cesarani is a skilled narrator and, as in his earlier chapters, makes good use of survivors’ diaries to bring history to life. Deportee Hedi Fried’s description of the scene near the entrance to Auschwitz employs a particularly memorable simile: “The long queue of women moved slowly towards a table where an SS man with his bloodhound was waving his stick like a conductor on a dais: ‘You right, you left, right, left, left.’ “

Even with military defeat fast approaching, the Germans did not ease up in their campaign to annihilate the Jews. There was little thought of conserving their resources for the battlefield or seeking ways to mitigate their postwar punishment at the hands of the Allies. “Instead of inspiring caution,” Cesarani writes, “the advance of the Allied armies accentuated the determination of Nazi true believers to wipe out the enemy within.” Moreover, Cesarani points out, it was not just the SS who “obsessively pursued their Jewish quarry” right up until the last moment, but German civilians, too; he describes little known episodes in which Jewish prisoners on death marches passing by German towns were massacred by “ordinary Germans [who] showed their racial superiority by casually murdering Jews in their vicinity.” Such events brought Cesarani to conclude that while “the scientific killing machinery,” the “well-considered deception techniques,” and “the active or passive cooperation” of the occupied populations were crucial in shaping the Holocaust, it was sheer “German persistence,” above all, that drove the war against the Jews.