- Three New Perspectives on the Holocaust
Because the Holocaust remains a deeply unsettling subject, it continues to attract a great deal of scholarly energy. One indication of how much is the collective length of the three new studies under review here: almost 2,200 pages. Yet the extant literature is already so extensive that each new entrant comes with a heavy obligation to justify itself.
The late David Cesarani's sweeping new narrative history faces up to this challenge squarely at the outset, and his response has much to recommend it. First, he identifies a genuine problem: the "yawning gulf between popular understanding of this history and current scholarship on the subject" (p. xxv). Second, he sets out to remedy this by correcting a number of persistent myths about the Holocaust long discredited by research, namely, that anti-Semitism played a decisive role in bringing Hitler to power, that murdering the Jews was the Hitler's and/or the Nazi regime's plan from day one, that the machinery of deportation and death was well oiled and technologically sophisticated, and that slaughtering the Jews detracted from the German war effort. Each of these assertions, Cesarani rightly contends, is not merely wrong but rather the opposite of the truth.
Nor are these the only salutary contributions that Cesarani makes. He bravely challenges prevailing piety about survivor testimony and the taboos it upholds, many related to humiliating, often sexual situations [End Page 569] (pp. xvi–xvii). He correctly reminds us that "the current narrative is lopsided" in favor of events in Western Europe, as opposed to those in the East where most Jews died (p. xxvi). And he is—again appropriately in my view—adamant that the Holocaust was primarily about Jews because only they "were characterized as an implacable, powerful, global enemy that had to be fought at every turn and finally eliminated" (p. xxxix). Finally, in particularly strong passages, he vividly recreates the excruciating dilemmas of the Jewish Councils and the ultimate futility of any reaction they chose; shows how Nazi pressures shattered Jews' solidarity and often their moral standards; makes clear that most German perpetrators were both aware of what they were doing and convinced of its rightness; and exposes the extensive collaboration provided by numerous Poles in identifying, attacking, and helping to kill Jews.
But key interpretations strike me as overdone. The general argument that developments in the war dictated the fate of the Jews is true with regard to the growing reluctance of the Reich's allies to surrender their Jews to Himmler as the tide turned against Germany. The point also holds with regard to the Jews of France, who might have died if the invasion and breakout from Normandy had been delayed. Conversely, of course, the duration of the war—the time it took the Allies to win—extended the massacre. But the claim (p. 294) that the "pause" in the euthanasia action in August 1941 was not a consequence of protests by German clerics—but rather of Germany's slower than expected advance into the USSR, mounting air raids, and increased shortages at home—is not substantiated by any information in the three secondary sources cited.
With regard to the onset of the Final Solution, Cesarani makes two other war-related arguments that I find unconvincing. First, he contends that the murder of the Polish intelligentsia (Operation Tannenberg) was a more important "bridge" to the Final Solution than the massacre of the mentally and physically handicapped in German institutions (Aktion T4; p. 286). But I can see no reason to choose between them: Tannenberg was a harbinger of mass shooting by the Einsatzgruppen, but T4 heralded (and supplied the personnel for) the mass gassing of Jews.
Second, Cesarani asserts that the decision for the Final Solution occurred at the end of 1941 as "the result of...