- “Final Solution”: Nazi Population Policy and the Murder of the European Jews
This fine translation makes available in English one of the most significant works on the Holocaust published in the past decade. Götz Aly’s “Final Solution” demonstrates the importance of examining Nazi Germany, World War II, and the Holocaust in relation to one another rather than isolating them by too narrow a gaze. To understand the origins of Nazi genocide, Aly contends, we need to approach the murder of Europe’s Jews as part of a monstrous project to transform the face of Europe. Aly traces the emergence of the Holocaust in a combination of analysis and chronology that moves from German conquest of Poland in 1939 to the Wannsee Conference in 1942.
Aly’s title captures his central argument. The Nazi murder of European Jews during World War II, he maintains, was inextricably linked to a broader agenda of deportation and resettlement. From October 1939, Aly points out, Heinrich Himmler, the “architect of genocide,” was also “Reich Commissioner for the Consolidation of German Nationhood.” In that capacity, Himmler oversaw the program that was to bring half a million “Volksdeutschen”—ethnic Germans living outside Germany—“home to the Reich” and settle them in the homes, farms, and workshops of people deemed unworthy inferiors. It was not only Jews who would be forced out to make space for the new arrivals; Himmler, Heydrich, and their underlings targeted Polish gentiles for [End Page 147] expropriation and expulsion too. They even cooperated with colleagues in the T-4 program to murder occupants of mental institutions in order to clear beds for “fragile” ethnic Germans.
According to Aly, it was not success but the failure of one grandiose resettlement scheme after another that upped the murderous ante repeatedly between 1939 and 1942, culminating in a program of systematic annihilation. Clashes among the myriad bureau cracies and interests involved in the German-conquered east, self-imposed pressures to meet targets for eviction and settlement, the growing impatience of ethnic Germans who had been promised much and often received little, military miscalculations and setbacks—these factors combined to create a situation in which Nazi experts reached for ever more radical “solutions” to the problems they had created for themselves. Their “final solution” was murder of those at the bottom of their feeding chain: patients of mental institutions, Polish gentiles, and above all, Jews.
Aly combines a familiar, top-down approach to the study of Nazi decision-making with a middle-out perspective. It is not only Hitler and Himmler who interest Aly but also lesser-known perpetrators like Peter-Heinz Seraphim, “Jew expert” at the Krakow Institute for German Activities in the East, or Rolf-Heinz Höppner of the Central Resettlement Office in Posen. Precisely those men in the middle generated much of the labyrinthine paper trail that Nazism left behind. Indeed, one of Aly’s greatest contributions is his exposure of some less familiar sources in numerous, extensive quotations, many of them from underutilized German, Polish, and Russian archives.
“Final Solution” speaks to many debates about the Holocaust. A functionalist, Aly stresses the initial experimental nature of the programs of destructions. He describes Hitler as neither an all-powerful nor a weak dictator, but rather a political handler who inspired and empowered his subordinates to find ways “to make the apparently impossible possible” (p. 257). Aly recasts the familiar quotation—“How much was known?”—in terms of German acquiescence: “Why did the Germans want to know so little?” (p. 244). Instead of seeking a specific “Führer Order” that unleashed the Holocaust, Aly describes the decision as a process, in which ideology, possibilities, and initiatives at all levels converged on genocide.
Aly, I am convinced, is right to see connections between resettlement of ethnic Germans, expulsion of Polish gentiles, and murder of Jews. But...