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Searching in vain for Hitler’s lethal edict

These two new histories of the holocaust add little to what is already known

This article is taken from the March 2022 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issue for just £10.

Historians of the Third Reich  have tried for years to search for the essential smoking gun — the document that shows unequivocally the moment when Hitler ordered the genocide of Europe’s Jews to begin. 

From everything we know about Hitler’s practice of dictatorship, such a document does not exist. There was perhaps, as Peter Longerich, author of this new study of the Wannsee Conference in January 1942, suggested in an earlier volume, an “unwritten order”. But probably not even an order. Everything that could be known has been examined with forensic thoroughness. 

Hitler’s Prophecy: The Key to the Holocaust Simon Burgess, (Vallentine Mitchell, £19.95)

What we have are Hitler’s prompts and nudges to those on the anti-Semitic front line to promote ever more radical solutions to the “Jewish question”. About his own paranoid vision of a world Jewish conspiracy that pitted German against Jew in a world-historical struggle there has never been any doubt. 

It is now some 80 years since the gathering of 14 senior ministerial officials and security personnel at the impressive mansion overlooking Lake Wannsee, on the outskirts of Berlin. The Wannsee Conference, once one copy of the minutes was discovered in 1947, has long been seen as a critical turning point in the long history of National Socialist anti-Jewish policy, the point at which, so it is often argued, a “final solution” embracing all the Jews of Europe was settled upon and then implemented with a grotesque thoroughness over the years that followed. 

This is an interpretation that has been widely debated, since the minutes show that no actual decision was taken, while the two principal architects of the genocide, Heinrich Himmler and Hitler himself, were absent. Much of the meeting was concerned with the complex legal arguments surrounding the so-called Mischlinge, part German, part Jewish, whose status was not clearly defined either at the conference or in the arguments that followed it over the next two years. 

Sceptics have seen the conference as a product of bureaucratic in-fighting, with the head of the Reich Main Security Office (RSHA), Reinhard Heydrich, trying to defend his brief to deal with the Jewish question, first granted in 1939 and renewed by a directive from Hermann Göring in July 1941, but increasingly challenged by the pre-emptive murder of hundreds of thousands of Jews in the wake of the invasion of the Soviet Union. On this reading, the conference was a step to the “final solution”, but not by any means the smoking gun.

Wannsee: The Road to the Final Solution Peter Longerich (Oxford University Press, £20.00)

The two books reviewed here have presumably been designed as anniversary books, though the purpose is not made explicit. Longerich has based his short account around a fresh translation into English of the protocol found in 1947 and useful brief biographies of the participants, but there is little that is not already well known, not least from his own publications. 

Longerich makes the case that the meeting was a critical one for Heydrich, whose “final solution” brief competed with Himmler’s impatient support in 1941 for ever more radical (i.e. murderous) if improvised solutions carried out by the security forces in the East, often with little prompting from the centre. 

In the aftermath of Wannsee, the two men moved closer together, Heydrich orchestrating the shift to a European-wide deportation of Jews in the conquered areas, Himmler’s men beginning the systematic, camp-based killing of Jews deemed to be unfit for labour, while those whose labour-power could be squeezed out before they died were sent to work camps or concentration camps. 

The onset of mass murder, whether immediate or through debilitating work, was certainly not new in spring 1942, but its scope and speed increased. With the war deadlocked, there was no longer anywhere to expel the Jews, so that the final solution became final in the sense in which history now knows it. 

Much of this analysis can be found repeated in Hitler’s Prophecy, a renewed attempt to find the missing link in explaining the Holocaust. Simon Burgess is convinced that historians have failed to take Hitler at his word when in January 1939 he told the German parliament that if Germany were ever to be plunged into a world war again, it would be Jewry who would be annihilated, not the German people. 

This, he claims, is the key to the genocide: once the war became truly global with the entry of the United States in December 1941, his prophecy was somehow put into practice by the apparatus of killing already in operation in the East. 

This is scarcely a revelation, though historians have been in many cases unwilling to read too much into the prophecy, given the great deal of history that followed. Hitler, it is well known, repeated his prophecy (dating it to the start of the war, to link war and anti-Semitism together) in 1941 and early 1942, and no doubt his lethal rhetoric was taken as a form of permission by those trying to work out what to do with the millions of Jews now under German rule. 

But there is so much more to the explanation of the genocide and its course, not least the need to examine where Hitler’s anti-Semitism came from, and how his fantasy of Jewish conspiracy was constructed and communicated, which might have placed the prophecy more squarely in its historical context. 

As it is, Burgess offers a short, accessible history of German wartime anti-Semitic persecution, but this makes clear that the mass murders in 1941 were the product of a complex set of circumstances and policy initiatives, but scarcely the product of the prophecy on which he focuses. 

This was an empire ruled with genocidal disregard for the new subject peoples

His final claim that historians have failed to grasp the importance of the shift to twin strategies of gassing and forced labour in spring 1942, which must have had Hitler’s imprimatur, is without substance. If anything, this is an overworked argument, particularly in much of the recent German-language literature.

What neither of these brief surveys addresses is the imperial paradox faced by Hitler and the National Socialist leadership once the drive for “living space” had begun. The areas in central and eastern Europe where the empire was to be constructed held the majority of Europe’s Jewish population; the further Hitler pushed his German empire eastwards the more Jews had to be ruled. There are few hints that Hitler really understood this paradox when he inaugurated the imperial project, but Germans on the ground in Poland, then in the Soviet Union, had to confront it on a daily basis. 

It was this ethnic reality that produced a confused response once the programme of empire-building had begun. Heydrich’s brief and Himmler’s terror in the East were designed to create an empire cleansed of Jews, one way or another. Since expulsion to Siberia was no longer possible by late 1941, murder became the obvious alternative. Hitler’s promptings pushed the whole system towards a comprehensive genocide to extend the partial genocide already practised since summer 1941.

It is also worth recalling that that the imperial project targeted millions of non-Jews as well, who were to starve, or be worked to death, or murdered in the hundreds of anti-partisan sweeps. The messy reality on the Eastern Front meant death to millions of Slavs and Roma as well as Jews. This was a toxic empire, founded on war and ruled with genocidal disregard for the new subject peoples. 

The Holocaust was the most extreme consequence of the dilemma of imperial rule, derived from the conspiracy theory that Hitler’s prophecy alluded to, and given nodded approval by the fourteen men assembled at Wannsee.

In the end, neither of these books really adds very much to what is already known from the extensive forensic efforts of a generation of Holocaust historians. As anniversary books, if such they are, they are a disappointment. Not so much a smoking gun as spent bullets. 

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