Christopher Browning, The Origins of the Final Solution (2004)
In a brief two years between the autumn of 1939 and the autumn of 1941, Nazi Jewish policy escalated rapidly from the prewar policy of forced emigration to the Final Solution as it is now understood-- the systematic attempt to murder every last Jew within the German grasp. The mass murder of Soviet Jewry had already begun in the late summer of 1941, and only one-half year later the Nazi regime was ready to begin implementing this policy throughout the rest of its European empire and sphere of influence. The study of these thirty months-- from September 1939 through March 1942-- is crucial for understanding the genesis of the Final Solution and constitutes the core of this book. At this time the Nazi regime stood on the brink of a true watershed event in history. But why, after two millennia of Christian-Jewish antagonism and one millennium of a singular European anti-Semitism, did this watershed event occur in Germany in the middle of the 20th century?
Christians and Jews had lived in an adversarial relationship since the first century of the common era, when the early followers of Jesus failed to persuade significant numbers of their fellow Jews that he was the Messiah. They then gradually solidified their identity as a new religion rather than a reforming Jewish sect. First, Pauline Christianity took the step of seeking converts not just among Jews but also among the pagan populations of the Roman Empire. Second, the Gospel writers-- some 40 to 60 years after the death of Jesus-- sought to placate the Roman authorities and at the same time to stigmatize their rivals by increasingly portraying the Jews rather than the Roman authorities in Palestine as responsible for the crucifixion-- the scriptural origin of the fateful "Christ-killer" libel. Finally, the Jewish rebellion in Palestine and the destruction of the Second Temple motivated early Christians not only to disassociate themselves completely from the Jews but to see the Jewish catastrophe as a deserved punishment for the stubborn refusal to accept Jesus as the Messiah and as a divine vindication of their own beliefs. Christians and Jews, two small sects that had much more in common with one another by virtue of their monotheism and scriptures than either had with the rest of the tolerant, syncretic, polytheistic pagan Roman world, developed an implacable hostility to one another.
This hostility became historically significant in the course of the fourth century when, following the conversion of the Emperor Constantine, Christianity became first the favored and then the official religion of the Roman Empire. The religious quarrel between two small and relatively powerless sects, both at odds with the pagan world in which they lived, was suddenly transformed into an unequal relationship between a triumphant state religion and a beleaguered religious minority. Even so, the Jews fared better than the pagans. Triumphant Christians destroyed paganism and tore down its temples; but the synagogues were left standing, and Judaism remained as the sole legally permitted religion outside Christianity. Without this double standard of intolerance-- paganism destroyed and Judaism despised but permitted-- there would have been no further history of Christian-Jewish relations.
Seemingly triumphant Christianity soon faced its own centuries-long string of disasters. As demographic and economic decline eroded the strength of the Christianized Roman Empire from within, the western provinces fragmented and collapsed under the impact of the numerically rather small Germanic invasions from the north. The later invasion of the Huns from the east dissipated, but not so the subsequent Muslim invasion, which stormed out of the Arabian Peninsula and conquered half the old Roman world by the end of the seventh century. In the area destined to become western Europe, cities-- along with urban culture and a money economy-- disappeared almost entirely. A vastly shrunken population-- illiterate, impoverished, and huddled in isolated villages scraping out a precarious living from a primitive, subsistence agriculture- - reeled under the impact of yet further devastating invasions of Vikings from Scandinavia and Magyars from central Asia in the ninth and tenth centuries. Neither the Christian majority nor the Jewish minority of western Europe could find much solace in these centuries of affliction and decline.
The great recovery-- demographic, economic, cultural, and political-- began shortly before the millennium. Population exploded, cities grew up, wealth multiplied, centralizing monarchies began to triumph over feudal anarchy, universities were invented, cultural treasures of the classical world were recovered, and the borders of western Christendom began to expand.
But the great transformation did not bring equal benefits to all. Europe's first great "modernization crisis", like any such profound transformation, had its "social losers." A surplus of disgruntled mounted warriors-- Europe's feudal elite-- faced constricted opportunities and outlets. A new money economy and urban society eroded traditional manorial relationships. Expanding literacy and university education, coupled with an intoxicating discovery of Aristotelian rationalism, posed a potential and unsettling threat to traditional Christian faith. Growth, prosperity, and religious enthusiasm were accompanied by bewilderment, frustration, and doubt.
For all that was new and unsettling, incomprehensible and threatening, in this modernization crisis, the Jewish minority provided an apt symbol. The anti-Judaism (and "teaching of contempt") of Christian theologians that characterized the first millennium of Christian-Jewish antagonism was rapidly superseded by what Gavin Langmuir has termed "xenophobic" anti-Semitism-- a widely held negative stereotype made up of various assertions that did not describe the real Jewish minority but rather symbolized various threats and menaces that the Christian majority could not and did not want to understand.1 A cluster of anti-Jewish incidents at the end of the first decade of the 11th century signaled a change that became more fully apparent with the murderous pogroms perpetrated by roving gangs of knights on their way to the First Crusade.2 In the words of Langmuir, “These groups seem to have been made up of people whose sense of identity had been seriously undermined by rapidly changing social conditions that they could not control or understand and to which they could not adapt successfully."3
Urban, commercial, nonmilitary, and above all nonbelievers, the Jews were subjected both to the immediate threat of Europe's first pogroms and to the long-term threat of an intensifying negative stereotype. Barred from the honorable professions of fighting and landowning, often also barred from the prestigious economic activities controlled through guilds by the Christian majority, the Jewish minority was branded not only as unbelievers but now also as cowards, parasites, and usurers. Religiously driven anti-Semitism took on economic, social, and political dimensions.
In the following centuries the negative stereotype of xenophobic anti-Semitism was intensified and overlaid by fantastical and demented accusations, such as the alleged practices of ritual murder and torturing the Host. Such accusations seem to have originated in the actions of disturbed individuals finding ways to cope with their own psychological problems in socially acceptable ways.4 In the fertile soil of xenophobic anti-Semitism, such chimeras multiplied and spread, and were ultimately embraced and legitimized by the authorities. As the Jews were increasingly dehumanized and demonized, the anti-Semitism of the medieval period culminated in the expulsions and the widespread massacres that accompanied the Black Death.
Anti-Semitism in western Europe was now so deeply and pervasively embedded in Christian culture that the absence of real Jews had no effect on society's widespread hostility toward them. In Spain, the land of the last and greatest expulsion of Jews, even conversion was increasingly felt to be inadequate to overcome what was now deemed to be innate Jewish evil. The Marranos were subjected to ongoing persecution and expulsion, and notions of pure-blooded Christians-- eerily foreshadowing developments 500 years later-- were articulated.
Europe's Jews survived this escalating torrent of persecution because the Church, while sanctioning it, also set limits to it.5 And permeable boundaries allowed expelled Jews to escape and settle elsewhere. (The 20th century, in contrast, would not feature such permeable boundaries and effective religious limits.) The eventual slow decline in the virulence of anti-Semitism was due not so much to the relative absence of Jews in many parts of western Europe but rather to the gradual secularization of early modern European society-- Renaissance humanism, the fracturing of religious unity in the Reformation, the scientific discoveries of Galileo and Newton in the 17th century, and the Enlightenment. Western Europe was no longer a Christian commonwealth with religion at the core of its culture and identity.
During this relative respite, Jews filtered back into some areas of western Europe from which they had previously been expelled. However, the demographic center of European Jewry was now clearly anchored in the east. Jews had begun settling in eastern Europe in the medieval period, often welcomed by local rulers for the complementary economic functions they performed, and by the 18th century there had been a veritable Jewish population explosion. All Europeans-- Jews and non-Jews-- were profoundly affected by the "Dual Revolution" of the late 18th and early 19th centuries. The French Revolution signaled the emergence of liberalism and nationalism; the Industrial Revolution set in motion a profound economic and social transformation.
Initially the Dual Revolution seemed a great boon to Europe's Jews. With liberalism came "Jewish emancipation." In a few brief decades, the centuries long accumulation of discriminatory, anti-Jewish measures gave way to the liberal doctrines of equality before the law and freedom of conscience-- not just in England and France but even in the autocratic German and Austro-Hungarian empires. And the Industrial Revolution opened up unprecedented economic opportunities for a mobile, educated, adaptable minority with few ties to and little nostalgia for a.declining traditional economy and society in which they had been so restricted and marginalized.
But ultimately Europe's second great "modernization crisis" was fraught with even greater danger for the Jews than the first, nearly a millennium earlier.6
Once again the "social losers" of the modernization crisis-- traditional elites and small-scale producers in particular-- could find in the Jews a convenient symbol for their anguish. If the Jews were benefiting from the changes that were destroying Europe's traditional way of life, in the minds of many it seemed plausible that they had to be the cause of these changes. But in the far more secular and scientific world of the 19th century, religious beliefs provided less explanatory power. For many, Jewish behavior was to be understood instead as caused by allegedly immutable characteristics of the Jewish race.7 The implications of racial anti-Semitism posed a different kind of threat. If previously the Christian majority pressured Jews to convert and more recently to assimilate, racial anti-Semitism provided no behavioral escape. Jews as a race could not change their ancestors. They could only disappear.
If race rather than religion now provided the rationale for anti-Semitism, the various elements of the negative anti-Semitic stereotype that had accumulated during the second half of the Middle Ages were taken over almost in their entirety and needed little updating. The only significant addition was the accusation that Jews were responsible for the threat of Marxist revolution. With little regard for logical consistency, the old negative image of Jews as parasitical usurers (updated as rapacious capitalists) was supplemented with a new image of Jews as subversive revolutionaries out to destroy private property and capitalism and overturn the social order. After 1917 the notion of menacing "Judeo-Bolshevism" became as entrenched among Europe's conservatives as the notion of Jews as "Christ-killers" had been among Europe's Christians.
These developments in the history of anti-Semitism transcended national boundaries and were pan-European. Why then did the Germans, among the peoples of Europe, come to play such a fateful role in the murderous climax that was reached in the middle of the 20th century? Scholars have offered a number of interpretations of Germany's "special path" or Sonderweg, with England and France usually being the standard or norm against which German difference is measured. One approach emphasizes Germany's cultural-ideological development. Resentment and reaction against conquest and change imposed by revolutionary and Napoleonic France heightened Germany's distorted and incomplete embrace of the Enlightenment and "western" liberal and democratic ideals. The anti-westernism of many German intellectuals and their despair for an increasingly endangered and dissolving traditional world led to a continuing rejection of liberal-democratic values on the one hand and a selective reconciliation with aspects of modernity (such as modern technology and ends-means rationality) on the other, producing what Jeffrey Herf terms a peculiarly German "reactionary modernism." 8
According to another, social-structural approach, Germany's prolonged political disunity and fragmentation-- in contrast to England and France-- provided an environment less conducive to economic development and the rise of a healthy middle class. The failed liberal-national revolution of 1848 put an end to Germany's attempt to develop along the lines of, much less catch up with, France and England in concurrent political and economic modernization. Thereafter, the pre-capitalist German elites maintained their privileges in an autocratic political system, while the unnerved middle class was both gratified by national unification through Prussian military might, something they had been unable to achieve through their own revolutionary efforts, and bought off by the ensuing prosperity of rapid economic modernization that this unification unleashed. Fearful of rising socialism and manipulated by an escalating "social imperialism," the German middle class never became the mainstay of a strong liberal-democratic center as it did in the political culture of England and France.9 Germany became a "schizophrenic" nation-- an increasingly modern society and economy ruled by an autocratic monarchy and traditional elites-- incapable of gradual democratic reform.
A third approach asserts a German Sonderweg in terms of the singular breadth, centrality, and virulence of anti-Semitism in Germany. According to Daniel Goldhagen, "No other country's anti-semitism was at once so widespread as to have been a cultural axiom .... German anti-semitism was sui generis," (ie ‘unique’) and it "more or less governed the ideational life of civil society" in pre-Nazi Germany.10 Painting with a less broad brush, John Weiss is careful to place the late 19th-century loci of German anti-Semitism in populist movements and among the political and academic elites.11
Shulamit Volkov's interpretation of late 19th-century German anti-Semitism as a "cultural code" constitutes an admirable synthesis of major elements of these different, though not mutually exclusive, notions of a German Sonderweg. German conservatives, dominating an illiberal political system but feeling their leading role increasingly imperiled by the changes unleashed by modernization, associated Jews with everything they felt threatened by-- liberalism, democracy, socialism, internationalism, capitalism, and cultural experimentation. To be a self-proclaimed anti-Semite in Germany was also to be authoritarian, nationalist, imperialist, protectionist, corporative, and culturally traditional. Volkov concludes, "Antisemitism was by then strongly associated with everything the conservatives stood for. It became increasingly inseparable from their antimodernism."12 As Uriel Tal has noted, German conservatives made their peace with modern nationalism and the modern state by understanding them in terms of a traditional German "Christian
state" and traditional values that were seen as the distinct antithesis of the values identified with modern, emancipated, relatively assimilated Jews rather than traditional, religiously observant Orthodox Jews-rationalism, liberalism, "Manchesterism," and socialism.13 The result was a strange amalgam of religious and cultural but for the most part not yet racial anti-Semitism.
By the turn of the century German anti-Semitism had become an integral part of the conservative political platform and had penetrated deeply into the universities. It had become more politicized and institutionalized than in the western democracies of France, England, and the United States. But this does not mean that late 19th-century German anti-Semitism dominated either politics or ideational life. The conservatives and single-issue anti-Semitic parties together constituted only a minority. While majorities could be found in the Prussian Landtag to pass discriminatory legislation against Catholics in the 1870s and in the Reichstag against socialists in the 1880s, the emancipation of Germany's Jews, who constituted less than 1% of the population and were scarcely capable of defending themselves against a Germany united against them, was not revoked. And at the other end of the political spectrum stood Germany's SPD, which was Europe's largest Marxist party and consistently won the largest popular vote in German elections between 1890 and 1930.
In comparison with western Europe, one might conclude that Germany's right was more anti-Semitic, its center weaker, its left stronger, its liberalism more anemic, and its political culture more authoritarian. Its Jews were also more prominent. This prominence (to be sure, in those areas of life not dominated by the old elites, such as the professions and business, as opposed to the officer corps and civil service), the deep attachment of German Jews to German culture, and a relatively high rate of intermarriage indicate a German milieu in which Jews did not face universal hostility but in fact thrived. Anti-Semitism may have been strong in influential pockets, especially in comparison to the west, but it was not so pervasive or strident as in territories to the east, from which beleaguered east European Jews looked to Germany as a land of golden opportunity. And this image, it should be noted, was not shattered by the behavior of German troops in eastern Europe during the First World War.
The turn-of-the-century anti-Semitism of German conservatives fits well Langmuir's notion of "xenophobic" anti-Semitism. For them the Jewish issue was but one among many, neither their top priority nor source of greatest fear. As Langmuir notes, however, xenophobic anti-Semitism provides fertile soil for the growth of fantastic or "chimeric" anti-Semitism-or what Saul Friedlander has recently dubbed "redemptionist"
anti-Semitism.14 If Germany's xenophobic anti-Semitism was an important piece of the political platform of an important segment of the political spectrum, the "redemptionist" anti-Semites with their "chimeric" accusations-- from Jewish poisoning of pure Aryan blood to a secret Jewish world conspiracy behind the twin threats of Marxist revolution and plutocratic democracy- -were a group for whom the Jews (perceived above all as a racial threat) were the major preoccupation and obsession. However, at this time what Tal dubs the "anti-Christian racial" anti-Semites were still a fringe phenomenon. "In the period of the Second Reich ... the vast majority of voters still disassociated themselves from the non-Christian and anti-Christian attitude of modern anti-Semitism."15 Or as Richard Levy concludes, "One of the greatest failings of the anti-Semitic parties of the empire was their inability to recruit the German right to their own brand of 'sincere' anti-Semitism."16
The succession of traumatic experiences in Germany between 1912 and 1929-- loss of control of the Reichstag by the Right, a terrible war concluded in military defeat and revolution, runaway inflation, and economic collapse-- transformed German politics. Germany's divided and traumatized society did not provide a propitious base on which to establish a moderate, stable, functioning democracy. The right grew at the expense of the center, and within the former the radicals or New Right grew at the expense of the traditionalists or Old Right. "Chimeric" and racial anti-Semitism grew commensurately from a fringe phenomenon to the core idea of a movement that became Germany's largest political party in the summer of 1932 and its ruling party six months later. That fact alone makes the history of Germany and German anti-Semitism different from that of any other country in Europe.
But this singular event must be kept in perspective. The Nazis never gained more than 37% of the vote in a free election, less than the combined socialist-communist vote. In a highly divided Germany there was only one consensus. Over half the electorate (the combined Nazi-communist vote) did support some form of totalitarian dictatorship to replace the paralyzed Weimar democracy. The Nazis offered many messages to many voters. Germans voted for them out of frustration over political chaos and economic collapse, fear of the Left, and aggrieved nationalism, not just because of their anti-Semitic commitment. On the other hand, of course, those millions of Germans who voted for the Nazis for other reasons were not deterred by Nazi anti-Semitism either. The anti-Semitism of German conservatism and the German universities had made it politically and intellectually respectable.
Thus Hitler's coming to power would not only "unleash" the Nazis and their right-wing allies-- the longtime carriers of anti-Semitism in Germany-to harm the Jews, but would do so with the tacit support
of millions of Germans for whom the fate of the Jews weighed lightly or not at all on the scales in comparison with their other concerns, and increasingly with the active support of millions of other Germans eager to catch the political tide. (As William Sheridan Allen has succinctly concluded, many people "were drawn to anti-Semitism because they were drawn to Nazism, not the other way around.")17 At the same time, with staggering speed, the political parties and labor unions were abolished, and the civil service, education system, state and local government, and virtually all associational and cultural life were "coordinated." Germany ceased to be a pluralistic society, and there were no significant "countervailing" forces outside the alliance of Nazis and conservative nationalists on which the regime rested.
Hitler's conservative allies favored de-emancipation and segregation of the Jews as part of the counterrevolution and movement of national renewal. They strove to end the allegedly "inordinate" Jewish influence on German life, although this was scarcely a priority equal to dismantling the labor unions, the Marxist parties, and parliamentary democracy, and initiating rearmament and the restoration of Germany's Great Power status. It is most unlikely that the conservatives on their own would have proceeded beyond the initial discriminatory measures of 1933-34 that drove the Jews out of the civil and military services, the professions, and cultural life.
But what the conservatives conceived of as sufficient measures were for the Nazis scarcely the first steps. The Nazis understood far better than the conservatives the distance that separated them. As complicitous in the first anti-Jewish measures as they were in the wrecking of democracy, however, the conservatives could no more oppose radicalization of the persecution of the Jews than they could demand for themselves rights they had denied others. And while they may have lamented their own increasing loss of privilege and power at the hands of the Nazis they had helped into power, with strikingly few exceptions they had no remorse or regret for the fate of the Jews. To argue that the Nazis' conservative allies were not of one mind with Hitler does not deny that their behavior was despicable and their responsibility considerable. As before, xenophobic anti-Semitism provided fertile soil for the chimeric anti-Semites.
What can be said of the German people at large in the 1930s? Was the bulk of the population swept along by the Nazis' anti-Semitic tide? Only in part, according to the detailed research of historians like Ian Kershaw, Otto Dov Kulka, and David Bankier, who have reached a surprising degree of consensus on this issue.18 For the 1933-39 period, these historians distinguish between a minority of activists, for whom anti-Semitism was an urgent priority, and the bulk of the population, for whom it was not. Apart from the
activists, the majority did not clamor or press for anti-Semitic measures. But the majority of "ordinary" Germans-- whom Saul Friedlander describes as "onlookers" in contrast to "activists"19 -- nonetheless accepted the legal measures of the regime, which ended emancipation and drove the Jews from public positions in 1933, socially ostracized them in 1935, and completed the expropriation of their property in 1938-39. Yet this majority was critical of the hooliganistic violence of activists. The boycott of 1933, the vandalistic outbreaks of 1935, and the Kristallnacht pogrom of November 1938 did not have a positive reception among most of the German population. 20
More important, however, a gulf had opened up between the Jewish minority and the general population. The latter, while not mobilized around strident and violent anti-Semitism, was increasingly "apathetic," "passive," and "indifferent" to the fate of the former. Many Germans who were indifferent or even hostile toward Jews were not indifferent to the public flouting of deeply ingrained values concerning the preservation of order, propriety, and property. But anti-Semitic measures carried out in an orderly and legal manner were widely accepted, for two main reasons. Such measures sustained the hope of curbing the violence most Germans found so distasteful, and most Germans now accepted the goal of limiting, and even ending, the role of Jews in German society. This was a major accomplishment for the regime, but it still did not offer the prospect that most ordinary Germans would approve of, much less participate in, the mass murder of European Jewry, that the onlookers of 1938 would become the genocidal killers of 1941-42.
If neither the conservative elites nor the German public were committed to a further radicalization and escalation of Jewish persecution, the same cannot be said of Hitler, the Nazi leadership, the party, and the bureaucracy. Hitler's anti-Semitism was both obsessive and central to his political outlook.21 For him the "Jewish question" was the key to all other problems and hence the ultimate problem. Hitler's anti-Semitism created an ideological imperative that required an escalating search for an ultimate or final solution.
The emotional and ideological priority of Hitler's anti-Semitism and the wider understanding of history as racial struggle in which it was embedded were shared by much of the Nazi leadership and party. They defined and gave meaning to the politics of the Third Reich. They also provided the regime with a spur and a direction for ceaseless dynamism and movement. Within the polycratic regime, Hitler did not have to devise a blueprint, timetable, or grand design for solving the "Jewish question." He merely had to proclaim its continuing existence and reward those who vied in bringing forth various solutions. Given the dynamics
of the Nazi political system, a ratchet like decision-making process permitted bursts of radicalization periodically alternating with tactical pauses but never moderation or retreat. In the end "final solutions" would become the only ones worthy of submission to Hitler. As Goring announced on Hitler's behalf following the Kristallnacht pogrom in November 1938, the "Jewish question" had to be solved "one way or another." And in the case of the war that Hitler both intended and prophesied in January 1939 (thus setting a new level of expectation for his followers), an acceptable final solution would result in "the destruction of the Jewish race in Europe." Thus the combination of Hitler's anti-Semitism as ideological imperative and the competitive polycracy of the Nazi regime created immense pressures for the escalation of Nazi Jewish policy even without broad public support in that direction.
By the late 1930s, the escalation and radicalization of Nazi Jewish policy were also furthered by a process of "bureaucratic momentum." Within months of the Nazi assumption of power almost every branch and agency of the German government had appointed lower-echelon civil servants-- some of whom were longtime party faithful, some recent converts, some adaptable and ambitious careerists-- to a "Jewish desk" (Judenreferat) to handle all matters related to Jewish policy that impinged on their jurisdictions. No ministry affected by Nazi Jewish policy could afford to be without experts to advise it about the impact of Jewish legislation emanating from other sources, to participate in various interministerial conferences to defend the ministry's point of view, and of course to prepare the ministry's own measures. As this corps of "Jewish experts" (Judensachbearbeiter) proliferated and became institutionalized, the impact of their cumulative activities added up. The existence of the career itself ensured that the Jewish experts would keep up the flow of discriminatory measures. Even as German Jews were being deported to ghettos and death camps in the east in 1942, for instance, the bureaucracy was still producing decrees that prohibited them from having pets, getting their hair cut by Aryan barbers, or receiving the Reich sports badge! 22 Such a bureaucratic "machinery of destruction" was poised and eager to meet the professional challenge and solve the myriad problems created by an escalating Nazi Jewish policy. In Raul Hilberg's memorable phrase, the German bureaucrat "beckoned to his Faustian fate."23 Not just for Hitler and the party faithful but also for the professional experts of the German bureaucracy, the outbreak of war in September 1939 and the ensuing victories would offer the opportunity and obligation to solve the "Jewish question" and make history.