Final Solution: The Fate of the Jews 1933−49 by David Cesarani (review)
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Final Solution: The Fate of the Jews 1933−49, David Cesarani (London: Macmillan, 2016), 1056 pp., hardcover $40.00, paperback $25.00, electronic version available.

Cesarani's title is significant: the "Holocaust" is a term he would like to retire as "well past its sell-by date." His dissatisfaction springs from what he sees as a disjuncture between the shallowness of the Final Solution's portrayal in popular culture, [End Page 115] education, and commemoration, and the richness of the findings scholars have unearthed in the archives of Eastern Europe since the end of the Cold War. Likewise, he believes the term obscures a contradiction between the depth of the anti-Jewish hatred shared by Hitler and his core of true believers, and their failure to produce a Jewish policy that was in any way "systematic, consistent or even premeditated." The mistake, he contends, has been "to read into Nazi policymaking a purposefulness that it lacked," and a reluctance to recognize that "there was no overall, centralized coherent policy or practice until late 1938" (p. xxxi). Thereafter, wartime exigencies would steer anti-Jewish policy (p. xxxi). Moreover, Cesarani charges, the term "Holocaust" supports a "lopsided" focus on Auschwitz, which sent many non-Jews to their deaths. The term thereby dilutes an essentially Jewish event. In Israel, he points out, there is a preference for the Hebrew terms Shoah or Churban, which immediately point to the Jews. Like Saul Friedländer, whose "integrated history" has raised the bar for all scholars of the Holocaust (the term is almost impossible to avoid), Cesarani strives for an "integrated history" focused "primarily and unapologetically on the Jews" (p. xxix).

Cesarani admits that "it may seem offensive to think about the Jewish fate in this way," because this would run against the grain of what historians have revealed about the central mission of Hitler and the Third Reich, making war" (p. xxxii); but the alternative would be to assume that Jewish policy was systematic, consistent, and (to varying degrees) premeditated (p. xxxii). Most previous narratives, he contends, have held that Nazi Jewish policy was systematic, consistent, and (to varying degrees) premeditated. One school believes that Nazi policy was driven by anti-Jewish obsession; another argues that it developed in non-linear fashion, driven by competing priorities and persons in a process Hans Mommsen called "cumulative radicalization." However different these approaches may have been, Cesarani claims, they ultimately assign to Nazi policymaking a purposefulness it lacked. For Cesarani, it was determined more by chance than by design.

To buttress his argument, though not to clinch it, Cesarani invokes what amounts to be a plausible theory about how history can happen: how something seemingly insignificant can have great historical consequences. For illustration—and for illustration only—he cites the seventeenth-century French philosopher Pascal's reference to the unpredictable historical significance of Cleopatra's reputedly lengthy nose. Had it been shorter, Pascal speculates, Mark Antony and Julius Caesar would have been much less likely to fall under her spell, therewith changing the course of history by sparing the ancient world its greatest civil wars. How is this relevant to understanding the Nazis and their Final Solution? "Ultimately," Cesarani contends, "the course of the war rather than decisions within the framework of anti-Jewish policy triggered the descent into a European-wide genocide" (p. xxxvi). Thus was the Nazis' "Final Solution" forged within the unpredictable exigencies of war. This should be no great surprise, Cesarani insists, because history has been "replete [End Page 116] with examples of unintended consequences and contingency" (p.xxxii). By ignoring this possibility, historians have missed what he calls "the single most important thing that determined the fate of the Jews—more important even than Hitler's anti-Semitism" (p. xxxxiii).

From the outset, the objective of Nazi Jewish policy, however confusingly pursued, had been to rid Germany of its Jews. With the onset of war in 1939, and Germany's astonishing early victories, its Jewish problem was expanded to include the large number of Jews in the "East," and soon thereafter those in Europe's "West" too. From that point the search was to locate a dumping ground...