David Cesarni’s posthumous Final Solution is an essential and magisterial history on Hitler’s war against Europe’s Jewish population, argues Chris Bambery.
At the close of the year it’s common to recommend a book that’s been your favourite read over the preceding twelve months. In line with that convention I am going to recommend one book which enriched my knowledge; I hesitate to say I enjoyed it. But I will be unconventional in that this book is far from a festive read.
David Cesarani’s Final Solution is, put simply, superb history, written clearly and holding back no punches. At many points I was moved to tears, but at the close I felt my understanding of Hitler’s war on the Jews was far greater, and that it reinforced my concerns about what is happening in today’s Europe. We are far from the 1930s or 1940s, but racism is very apparent and how easily racism turns to genocide is a thread throughout this book.
Published last year in hardback, and in paperback this year, Cesarani never got to hold a copy, having died in October 2015. I never met him but apart from admiring him as a historian I remember when we were mobilizing against the growth of fascism in England in the 1990s he was supportive of the need to combat that menace wherever and whenever it surfaced.
Final Solution traces the evolution of the Holocaust from Hitler’s coming to power to his suicide in Berlin. What Cesarani does is introduce you to a host of characters whose voices, usually from beyond an unmarked, mass grave, tell how normalcy faded away and an awareness of what was to befall European Jewry began to develop. There is nothing mawkish here. These witnesses are quoted factually but you cannot help becoming involved with them and concerned for them.
Not so with those who collaborated in mass murder, those like Chaim Rumkowski, appointed by the Nazis as Elder of the Jews, responsible for administering the Lodz ghetto until its final destruction and his own suicide as he faced his death (an act which, months earlier, might have acted to warn Jews and encourage resistance, but occurred far too late for that).
Until 1941 the Nazis saw the Jews as essentially hostages who could be traded or used to keep the United States in check. In the crazed world view of Hitler and his gang, Washington was in thrall to the Jews, and the Plutocrats of Wall Street were one wing of a giant, global Jewish conspiracy; communism and the Soviet Union being the other wing.
It was hoped that the Jews within the Third Reich and the occupied territories could be sent en masse to the French colony of Madagascar. This was ruled out because the Royal Navy remained intact, even though Vichy France was keen on this notion. Then, with the invasion of Russia, they were to be pushed beyond the Ural Mountains; the German halt line where they envisaged a militarized border beyond which the Jewish-Bolsheviks could be left to revert to barbarism. Either way it was, essentially, a medium to long-term death sentence.
Yet the genocidal impulse within Nazism was already clear after the September 1939 invasion of Poland.Although the initial target of destruction was the Polish upper stratum, the German army along with the SS and others could not help turning their guns, boots and whips on the Jews. The same impulse was immediately clear within hours of the German invasion of Russia. There again the immediate goal was the destruction of the Communist elite, but to the Nazis they were Jewish in the main. Again, German forces almost immediately began killing Jews and, of course, pogroms were launched against Jewish citizens in the Baltic States and the Ukraine.Cesarani is very clear on the role of the Germany Army and others in the state apparatus in direct involvement in mass murder.
However, the shift to the all-out physical destruction of European Jewry came at the close of 1941 after the Germans failed to take Moscow. The Third Reich faced a long war, one where it was already over stretched, with defeat a possibility. Within Germany Hitler feared a repeat of what had happened at the end of 1918 when famine and suffering had led to the revolution which ended the First World War. Food shortages were occurring, and the RAF was bombing German cities. Any possibility of forcing Jews out of Europe was gone. Hitler and his acolytes put the blame on the Jews and promised terrible revenge. This was when the decision to launch genocide was decided.
Yet what Cesarani shows is that there was not one organization responsible for the Third Reich’s policy towards the Jews, but a bewildering array of competing bodies. The SS would, over time, take the greatest responsibility, but it never had a clear field.I’m reminded of the response by the French collaborationist prime minister, Pierre Laval, on being told Germany was an authoritarian regime: “Yes, so many authorities.” The Third Reich was a mass of competing bureaucracies all ‘working towards’ Hitler. He gave a broad brush strategic overview and expected those under him to follow through on that.Thus, there was probably no single Fuhrer order regarding the Holocaust. What there was were a serious of speeches and instructions which said the Jews took responsibility for the war, and Germany’s ever likely defeat, and that they had to pay the price.
This was also his way of keeping himself in control as different government departments and state bodies rushed to curry favour by demonstrating their zeal in ‘working towards’ fulfilling his wishes. However, this required working within the limits of Germany’s overstretched war economy, relying on the supposed allies of the Third Reich in the subordinated countries and occupied territories, and relying, in the face of a man-power shortage, on auxiliary forces recruited from the occupied territories.
Like so many others I have pointed to the lunacy of putting the priorities of a struggling rail system towards the deportations of Jews to the death camps. What Cesarani makes clear is that the SS and others did not have priority for this and had to work round the military who did.
The argument that what made the Holocaust different was not simply the scale of the mass murder, which is truein itself, but the fact that a modern industrialised state used its industrial capacity to carry it out, is an important one. The Turks carried out genocide against the Armenians in the First World War but that involved mass shootings, starvation and death marches. The Nazis did the same but also evolved the gas chambers. What Cesarani again shows is that shortages of resources, bureaucratic muddle and the rushed nature of building the death camps is that industrial genocide often broke down and the Nazis stepped in to personally kill their victims.
The book is clear also that while others were targeted for elimination, the Roma for instance, the chief enemy of Hitler and co. were the Jews. That fixation meant they pursued the destruction of European Jewry with a determination and viciousness applied to no other group.
As 1942 developed, and particularly at its close with the defeat at Stalingrad, two things occurred. Firstly, up until then the Nazis had faced no opposition to their deportations eastwards. As it became clear what this actually meant, Jews began to resist in greater and greater numbers through revolts and uprisings, to flight and concealment.
This was not easy. For instance, in Poland and the Ukraine those who took to the forests, manly city dwellers, had to adapt very quickly or die. They faced death at the hands of not just the Germans but anti-Semitic Polish and Ukrainian partisans. Soviet partisans were somewhat more welcoming. In the West they faced armed bands drawn from home grown fascists in the Netherlands, France and Italy.
The end of the Third Reich
The other change was that by the close of 1942 Hitler’s allies began to draw back from full blooded participation in the Holocaust fearing what might befall them if the Allies won. Thus in 1941 the Romanian government and military had shocked even the Germans with their mass butchery of Jews in their own territory and as they advanced into the Ukraine. By 1943 they were trying to avoid German pressure to deport Jews to Auschwitz and other death camps, not out of humanitarian concern but in order to try and save their own necks.
As final defeat neared in 1945, Himmler and the SS once again tried to halt the killings, so they could use Jewish survivors as hostages once more, offering to trade them for badly needed war material or in their bizarre belief they could cut a deal with Britain and the USA.Not that Washington and London, especially, escapes Cesarani’s critical eye. Both failed Jews trying to flee tyranny pre-war and failed to act sufficiently after being provided by cast-iron proof of genocide. The US Air Force refused to bomb the train lines into Auschwitz claiming it was beyond their range, although they had bombed the synthetic fuel plant there.
The British were overly concerned with preventing Jewish immigration to Palestine, before, during and after the war. That raises difficult questions for those of us opposed to Zionism, but if the US, Britain and its Dominions had opened their doors to Jewish refugees before the war began,that would have created a safe home for the Jews. They did do that for people fleeing Eastern Europe post-war.
Cesarani does not duck difficult questions in this book. Neither does he write through the prism of the Cold War. It’s a book which is balanced in addressing Stalin’s policy towards the Jews in the same way as he does Churchill’s and Roosevelt’s. At the start he summarises World War Two in a couple of pages which are superb.
Not an easy read but one you will never regret, and one that is simply invaluable.
 See Chris Bambery, The Second World War: A Marxist History (PlutoPress 2014), p.144.
Chris Bambery is an author, political activist and commentator, and a supporter of Rise, the radical left wing coalition in Scotland. His books include A People's History of Scotland and The Second World War: A Marxist Analysis.