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September 03, 2007

William D. Rubinstein wonders how a nation came to be enthralled by a belief-system quite as insane as genocidal anti-semitism: The Years of Extermination: Nazi Germany and the Jews, 1939-1945 - Saul Friedlander

Posted by William D. Rubinstein

The Years of Extermination: Nazi Germany and the Jews, 1939-1945
by Saul Friedlander
Pp. 870. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2007
Hardback, 30

This is the second, eagerly-awaited volume of Saul Friedlander's history of Nazi Germany and the Holocaust. His first volume, The Years of Persecution, was published in 1997 to great acclaim: it dealt with the Jews in Nazi Germany prior to the Second World War, when Nazi policy was to remove all Jews from German public life, brutalize them, strip them of their citizenship and livelihoods, and force them to emigrate. The second volume deals with the wartime period, when Nazi hegemony extended throughout Europe and the genocide of the Jews began in earnest.

It goes without saying that this is a very good book, probably the best general synthesis of the Holocaust period now available. A number of very good histories of the Holocaust already exist, of course, especially by Raul Hilberg, Lucy S. Dawidowicz, Martin Gilbert, Gerald Reitlinger, and others but - curiously, and despite the fact that more books have been written on the Holocaust than on virtually any event in modern history - good general syntheses are surprisingly rare. This book is also necessarily very long, although it is continually gripping as well as inevitably harrowing.

Probably the deepest impression taken from this book is the all-consuming, utterly pitiless hatred of the Jews shown by Hitler and his inner circle who, quite literally, blamed the Jews for all of the evils in the world. While a great deal about the Holocaust remains inexplicable, this aspect of Nazi policy remains the most inexplicable of all. Jews did not control the world. They did not start the Second World War as Hitler claimed (he did); they were not engaged in an international conspiracy against Germany; they did not "control" either Roosevelt's America or Stalin's Russia, as Hitler believed and Nazi propaganda continuously proclaimed.

No sane person could believe that they did any of these things, and, if Hitler had been killed in the trenches in 1916, no one apart from the crackpot far right would have believed any of these things. One is forced to the conclusion that the Holocaust occurred because Hitler, a demented lunatic, had made himself dictator of Europe. Such an explanation is, of course, wholly inadequate, and, for the past seventy years commentators and historians have been searching for a more plausible and comprehensive explanation for Hitler and his enormities.

Hitler's delusional beliefs about the Jews is one thing, but how he could convince both his entire state apparatus and many, possibly most, Germans that he was right remains an even more basic unanswered question.

There are no ready answers for these questions, and Friedlander refrains from offering any. Anti-semitism, as he and many others have noted, was a major component of the anti-modernist and authoritarian far right as it emerged in Europe - but not in the English-speaking world - after 1870, and especially after 1918, when it was heavily influenced by deep hostility to the Bolshevik Revolution, almost universally seen on the far right as largely "Jewish", and, as well, by a component of traditional Catholic theological anti-semitism and by social Darwinism.

Nevertheless, Hitler's anti-semitism was so extreme, violent, and monomaniacal, that it can truly be termed unique. Fascism per se was not necessarily anti-semitic: Mussolini was not anti-semitic until the 1930s and had many Jewish associates; nor was Franco anti-semitic. He opened Spain's doors to Jews fleeing the Nazis during the War. Even in countries like Horthy's Hungary, which enacted legislation to limit the number of Jews in businesses and the professions, a distinction was usually drawn between "good" Jews (the assimilated, patriotic ones) and "bad" Jews (foreigners and Bolsheviks). Hitler has often been discussed by psychiatrists - Robert G. Waite's The Psychopathic God remains probably the most cogent psychological study of the dictator. Perhaps no other profession is qualified to discuss him.

Apart from bringing to life Hitler's utterly central obsession with the Jews, Friedlander discusses many of the key historiographical questions about the Holocaust, usually very judiciously. He does not really know why or when Hitler turned to genocide. The deliberate mass murder of the Jews began with the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941, but whether Hitler intended genocide from the very start of the campaign or somewhat later, with the killing of literally every Jewish person not fully initiated for some months, has long been a major matter of debate among historians. Friedlander concludes, rightly in my view, that Hitler intended genocide from the start, and probably had it in mind as early as 1940 when he began planning for Operation Barbarossa. On the other hand, the full implementation of the killing policy was probably delayed until later in 1941, and Friedlander rightly links its extension throughout Europe with America's entry into the War.

On other issues, I would take issue with Friedlander, who is not wholly innocent of hindsight in discussing the reaction of the Allies and the Vatican (about which he has previously written sensibly). He accurately notes that it was the Nazis who closed the doors to Jewish emigration from Europe in 1940-41, and not the Allies who barred them from entering, but also criticises the Allies for making immigration more difficult in 1940, before anyone knew what the fate of Europe's Jews would be. He also presents a balanced view of the complex and controversial inaction of Pope Pius XII, arguably without fully assessing the pressures he was under or the fact that more visible action might well have led to a Nazi crackdown on the Vatican and any Jews which the Church was hiding.

Friedlander's book is deeply harrowing and disturbing, even to those who have been hardened by innumerable previous depictions of the Holocaust. It represents an excellent up-to-date synthesis of what has been written on the genocide of the Jews. He documents what occurred, but cannot explain it. Perhaps because the task is impossible.

William D. Rubinstein is professor of modern history at the University of Wales-Aberystwyth. He is the author of The Myth of Rescue: Why the Democracies Could Not Have Saved More Jews from the Nazis (Routledge, 1997), Genocide (Longman, 2004) and Men of Property: The Very Wealthy in Britain since the Industrial Revolution (Social Affairs Unit, 2006) and co-author of Philosemitism: Admiration and Support for Jews in the English-speaking World, 1840-1939 (Palgrave Macmillan, 1999).

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