Most historians of my generation, born on the eve of the Nazi era, recognize either explicitly or implicitly that plowing through the events of those years entails not only excavating and interpreting a collective past like any other, but also recovering and confronting decisive elements of our own lives. This recognition does not generate any agreement among us about how to define the Nazi regime, how to interpret its internal dynamics, how to render adequately both its utter criminality and its utter ordinariness, or, for that matter, where and how to place it within a wider historical context.1 Yet, despite our controversies, many of us share, I think, a sense of personal involvement in the depiction of this past, which gives a particular urgency to our inquiries.
For the next generation of historians—and by now also for the one after that—as for most of humanity, Hitler’s Reich, World War II, and the fate of the Jews of Europe do not represent any shared memory. And yet, paradoxically, the centrality of these events in present-day historical consciousness seems much greater than it was some decades ago. The ongoing debates tend to unfold with unremitting bitterness as facts are questioned and evidence denied, as interpretations and commemorative endeavors confront one another, and as statements about historical responsibility periodically come to the fore in the public arena. It could be that in our century of genocide and mass criminality, apart from its specific historical context, the extermination of the Jews of Europe is perceived by many as the ultimate standard of evil, against which all degrees of evil may be measured. In these debates, the historian’s role is central. For my generation, to partake at one and the same time in the memory and the present perceptions of this past may create an unsettling dissonance; it may, however, also nurture insights that would otherwise be inaccessible.
Establishing a historical acccount of the Holocaust in which the policies of the perpetrators, the attitudes of surrounding society, and the world of the victims could be addressed within an integrated framework remains a major challenge. Some of the best-known historical renditions of these events have focused mainly on the Nazi machinery of persecution and death, paying but scant attention to the wider society, to the wider European and world scene or to the changing fate of the victims themselves; others, less frequently, have concentrated more distinctly on the history of the victims and offered only a limited analysis of Nazi policies and the surrounding scene.2 The present study will attempt to convey an account in which Nazi policies are indeed the central element, but in which the surrounding world and the victims’ attitudes, reactions, and fate are no less an integral part of this unfolding history.
In many works the implicit assumptions regarding the victims’ generalized helplessness and passivity, or their inability to change the course of events leading to their extermination, have turned them into a static and abstract element of the historical background. It is too often forgotten that Nazi attitudes and policies cannot be fully assessed without knowledge of the lives and indeed of the feelings of the Jewish men, women, and children themselves. Here, therefore, at each stage in the description of the evolving Nazi policies and the attitudes of German and European societies as they impinge on the evolution of those policies, the fate, the attitudes, and sometimes the initiatives of the victims are given major importance. Indeed, their voices are essential if we are to attain an understanding of this past.3 For it is their voices that reveal what was known and what could be known; theirs were the only voices that conveyed both the clarity of insight and the total blindness of human beings confronted with an entirely new and utterly horrifying reality. The constant presence of the victims in this book, while historically essential in itself, is also meant to put the Nazis’ actions into full perspective.
It is easy enough to recognize the factors that shaped the overall historical context in which the Nazi mass murder took place. They determined the methods and scope of the “Final Solution”; they also contributed to the general climate of the times, which facilitated the way to the exterminations. Suffice it here to mention the ideological radicalization—with fervent nationalism and rabid anti-Marxism (later anti-Bolshevism) as its main propelling drives—that surfaced during the last decades of the nineteenth century and reached its climax after World War I (and the Russian Revolution); the new dimension of massive industrial killing introduced by that war; the growing technological and bureaucratic control exerted by modern societies; and the other major features of modernity itself, which were a dominant aspect of Nazism.4 Yet, as essential as these conditions were in preparing the ground for the Holocaust—and as such they are an integral part of this history—they nonetheless do not alone constitute the necessary cluster of elements that shaped the course of events leading from persecution to extermination.
With regard to that process, I have emphasized Hitler’s personal role and the function of his ideology in the genesis and implementation of the Nazi regime’s anti-Jewish measures. In no way, however, should this be seen as a return to earlier reductive interpretations, with their sole emphasis on the role (and responsibility) of the supreme leader. But, over time, the contrary interpretations have, it seems to me, gone too far. Nazism was not essentially driven by the chaotic clash of competing bureaucratic and party fiefdoms, nor was the planning of its anti-Jewish policies mainly left to the cost-benefit calculations of technocrats.5 In all its major decisions the regime depended on Hitler. Especially with regard to the Jews, Hitler was driven by ideological obsessions that were anything but the calculated devices of a demagogue; that is, he carried a very specific brand of racial anti-Semitism to its most extreme and radical limits. I call that distinctive aspect of his worldview “redemptive anti-Semitism”; it is different, albeit derived, from other strands of anti-Jewish hatred that were common throughout Christian Europe, and different also from the ordinary brands of German and European racial anti-Semitism. It was this redemptive dimension, this synthesis of a murderous rage and an “idealistic” goal, shared by the Nazi leader and the hard core of the party, that led to Hitler’s ultimate decision to exterminate the Jews.6
But Hitler s policies were not shaped by ideology alone, and the interpretation presented here traces the interaction between the Führer and the system within which he acted. The Nazi leader did not take his decisions independently of the party and state organizations. His initiatives, mainly during the early phase of the regime, were molded not only by his world-view but also by the impact of internal pressures, the weight of bureaucratic constraints, at times the influence of German opinion at large and even the reactions of foreign governments and foreign opinion.7
To what extent did the party and the populace partake in Hitler’s ideological obsession? “Redemptive anti-Semitism” was common fare among the party elite. Recent studies have also shown that such extreme anti-Semitism was not unusual in the agencies that were to become central to the implementation of the anti-Jewish policies, such as Reinhard Heydrich’s Security Service of the SS (Sicherheitsdienst, or SD).8 As for the so-called party radicals, they were often motivated by the kind of social and economic resentment that found its expression in extreme anti-Jewish initiatives. In other words, within the party and, as we shall see, sometimes outside it, there were centers of uncompromising anti-Semitism powerful enough to transmit and propagate the impact of Hitler’s own drive. Yet, among the traditional elites and within the wider reaches of the population, anti-Jewish attitudes were more in the realm of tacit acquiescence or varying degrees of compliance.
Despite most of the German population’s full awareness, well before the war, of the increasingly harsh measures being taken against the Jews, there were but minor areas of dissent (and these were almost entirely for economic and specifically religious-ideological reasons). It seems, however, that the majority of Germans, although undoubtedly influenced by various forms of traditional anti-Semitism and easily accepting the segregation of the Jews, shied away from widespread violence against them, urging neither their expulsion from the Reich nor their physical annihilation. After the attack on the Soviet Union, when total extermination had been decided upon, the hundreds of thousands of “ordinary Germans” (as distinct from the highly motivated SS units, among others) who actively participated in the killings acted no differently from the equally numerous and “ordinary” Austrians, Rumanians, Ukrainians, Baits, and other Europeans who became the most willing operatives of the murder machinery functioning in their midst. Nonetheless, whether they were conscious of it or not, the German and Austrian killers had been indoctrinated by the regime’s relentless anti-Jewish propaganda, which penetrated every crevice of society and whose slogans they at least partially internalized, mainly in the context of the war in the East.9
By underscoring that Hitler and his ideology had a decisive impact on the course of the regime, I do not mean in anyway to imply that Auschwitz was a preordained result of Hitler’s accession to power. The anti-Jewish policies of the thirties must be understood in their context, and even Hitler’s murderous rage and his scanning of the political horizon for the most extreme options do not suggest the existence of any plans for total extermination in the years prior to the German invasion of the Soviet Union. But at the same time, no historian can forget the end of the road. Thus emphasis is also placed here on those elements that we know from hindsight to have played a role in the evolution toward the fateful outcome. The history of Nazi Germany should not be written only from the perspective of the wartime years and their atrocities, but the heavy shadow cast by what happened during that time so darkens the prewar years that a historian cannot pretend that the later events do not influence the weighing of the evidence and the evaluation of the overall course of that history.10 The crimes committed by the Nazi regime were neither a mere outcome of some haphazard, involuntary, imperceptible, and chaotic onrush of unrelated events nor a predetermined enactment of a demonic script; they were the result of converging factors, of the interaction between intentions and contingencies, between discernible causes and chance. General ideological objectives and tactical policy decisions enhanced one another and always remained open to more radical moves as circumstances changed.
At the most basic level, in this two-volume account the narration follows the chronological sequence of the events: their prewar evolution in this volume, their monstrous wartime culmination in the next. That overall time frame highlights continuities and indicates the context of major changes; it also makes it possible to shift the narration within a stable chronological span. Such shifts result from the changes in perspective my approach demands, but they also stem from another choice: to juxtapose entirely different levels of reality—for example, high-level anti-Jewish policy debates and decisions next to routine scenes of persecution—with the aim of creating a sense of estrangement counteracting our tendency to “domesticate” that particular past and blunt its impact by means of seamless explanations and standardized renditions. That sense of estrangement seems to me to reflect the perception of the hapless victims of the regime, at least during the thirties, of a reality both absurd and ominous, of a world altogether grotesque and chilling under the veneer of an even more chilling normality.
From the moment the victims were engulfed in the process leading to the “Final Solution,” their collective life—after a short period of enhanced cohesion—started to disintegrate. Soon this collective history merged with the history of the administrative and murderous measures of their extermination, and with its abstract statistical expression. The only concrete history that can be retrieved remains that carried by personal stories. From the stage of collective disintegration to that of deportation and death, this history, in order to be written at all, has to be represented as the integrated narration of individual fates.
Although I mention my generation of historians and the insights potentially available to us because of our particular position in time, I cannot ignore the argument that personal emotional involvement in these events precludes a rational approach to the writing of history. The “mythic memory” of the victims has been set against the “rational” understanding of others. I certainly do not wish to reopen old debates, but merely to suggest that German and Jewish historians, as well as those of any other background cannot avoid a measure of “transference” vis-à-vis this past.11Such involvement of necessity impinges upon the writing of history. But the historian’s necessary measure of detachment is not thereby precluded, provided there is sufficient self-awareness. It may indeed be harder to keep one’s balance in the other direction; whereas a constantly self-critical gaze might diminish the effects of subjectivity, it could also lead to other, no lesser risks, those of undue restraint and paralyzing caution.
Nazi persecutions and exterminations were perpetrated by ordinary people who lived and acted within a modern society not unlike our own, a society that had produced them as well as the methods and instruments for the implementation of their actions; the goals of these actions, however, were formulated by a regime, an ideology, and a political culture that were anything but commonplace. It is the relationship between the uncommon and the ordinary, the fusion of the widely shared murderous potentialities of the world that is also ours and the peculiar frenzy of the Nazi apocalyptic drive against the mortal enemy, the Jew, that give both universal significance and historical distinctiveness to the “Final Solution of the Jewish Question.”