Final Solution: The Fate of the Jews 1933-49

Final Solution: The Fate of the Jews 1933-49
David Cesarani
Macmillan  950pp  £30

There are a great many studies of the Holocaust, but few scholars have relayed as graphically or in as much detail as David Cesarani the crimes and cruelties committed by Hitler’s Third Reich against the Jews of Europe. Throughout Final Solution he quotes the vivid personal testimony of those who were present as they recall almost indescribable barbarities and he often caps such a section with a brief recital of the most chilling statistics. 

Cesarani died aged 58 last October and, in his absence, was the recipient of this year’s Longman-History Today Trustees’ Award. His previous books include penetrating studies of the lives of Arthur Koestler and Adolf Eichmann, while his active advocacy helped create the Holocaust galleries at the Imperial War Museum and establish Holocaust Memorial Day in the UK. By the time of his death, Cesarani had completed the main text of Final Solution and he spent his last days and weeks going through the detailed references (which take up nearly 100 pages at the end of the book).  

Until 40 or so years ago, few historians of  the Second World War focused on the Nazi mass-murder of Jews, the whole subject tending to be subsumed within a narrative more likely to be predominantly political or military. People wrote (and read) biographies of such figures as Hitler, Stalin, Churchill and Roosevelt and there was a widespread appetite for books recounting the great battles and the men who led them. Then, as the wartime horrors gradually receded into the past, many who had survived them, hitherto often reluctant to talk about their painful experiences, came in old age to feel the urgent need to do so. Personal memories were recorded and videoed, archive banks accumulated, educational courses installed, exhibitions and museums inaugurated. The collapse of Soviet communism, furthermore, led to the opening up of previously unavailable sources in Russia and its former satellite territories, thus helping extend the reach of research from Germany itself to incorporate Eastern Europe, where many of the most heinous crimes had been committed. 

Meanwhile, a new generation of historians – not least in Germany – was trying to confront the large question of responsibility. How far could Hitler personally be held to account for the mass murder of European Jews? He had made his views, hopes and intentions about the Jews clear ever since publication of Mein Kampf in 1925, if not earlier. Maybe, argued some, the horrors of Nazism were essentially the implementation by Hitler and his henchmen of a carefully pre-planned policy. 

Contrasting this ‘intentionalist’ view, other scholars tended towards what came to be dubbed a more ‘functionalist’ interpretation of Nazi crimes. This held that, while the overall politico-philosophical outlook of Hitler and his followers had indeed been known from the outset, the detailed unfolding of their actions and their descent into the moral abyss could better be understood if seen against the constantly shifting (and rapidly deteriorating) military circumstances in which the Nazi leadership eventually found itself. 

The deeper truth, as always in such complex issues, no doubt contains elements of both, but Cesarani aligns himself resolutely with the functionalists. He is in good company, alongside such distinguished German scholars as Martin Broszat and Hans Mommsen, as well as Christopher Browning, Ian Kershaw and others. But, more than most, Cesarani is at pains to emphasise (perhaps over-emphasise) this approach. Thus, while Hitler had an overall view about, for example, the desirability of combining Austria and Germany, ‘it was characteristic that he had given little thought to the practical details of how this was to be accomplished’. Again and again – including at the notorious Wannsee conference of January 1942 – the ‘Jewish Question’ was left unresolved, says Cesarani. Something of a ‘sideshow’, it was ‘ill-planned, under-funded and carried through haphazardly’. This is not to deny that Hitler and his followers had an obsessive hatred towards the Jews. But the leitmotif that runs throughout the book is that it was ‘Germany’s economic exigencies, strategic priorities, military successes and setbacks [that] would decisively influence how Jews were treated’.   

In Cesarani’s view, Hitler thought of himself as a warrior and it was above all the experience of the First World War and of Germany’s ignominious defeat – engineered, he was convinced, by ‘international Jewry’ – that shaped his subsequent thinking. In the 1930s, the Nazi desire to render Germany free of Jews had included the possibility of forcing them to move to Palestine (which Eichmann visited in 1937). Once war had broken out and Nazi forces were moving eastwards across Poland, Jews came to be regarded as an available, invaluable, malleable and much-needed workforce. As such, they were concentrated in specially commandeered camps and ghettoes from which those too old or sick to work could be systematically ‘removed’: a brutal policy, which, as the Nazi regime found itself confronted by ever-increasing military pressure, especially from the Soviet Union, came to be applied in a somewhat desperate way to Jewish populations wherever they were encountered. Cesarani journeys right across the map of Europe in his quest to cover the detailed unfolding of Nazi Judenpolitik. Further, unlike many other works on the war and the Holocaust, Final Solution takes us beyond 1945, as Cesarani reminds readers of the continued sufferings of the millions who remained ‘deported’ and homeless in the years following the official end of the conflict. 

The book is not an encyclopedia and there are aspects of the wider story that Cesarani has not investigated or documented in any detail: the thoughts and feelings of the countless ordinary ‘perpetrators’, ‘bystanders’ and ‘collaborationists’, for example, or the fate of other (non-Jewish) victims of the Holocaust. But with its focus on the fate of European Jewry, Final Solution is an important and impressive book, extraordinarily wide ranging in its coverage and sources. It will go down as the magnum opus of a much-lamented and greatly admired historian of modern Jewish history.  

Daniel Snowman is a Senior Research Fellow at the Institute of Historical Research. His books include a study of the Hitler émigrés.

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