The Years of Extermination: Nazi Germany and the Jews – “no one stood up for Jews who were being murdered by the Nazis”
“An important new history finds noone stood up for Jews who were being murdered by the Nazis.”
Steven Welch, Reviewer
December 24, 2007
The Years of Extermination: Nazi Germany and the Jews.
Author: Saul Friedlander
Publisher: Weidenfeld & Nicolson
SINCE THE PUBLICATION in 1966 of his book Pius XII and the Third Reich, Saul Friedlander has been one of the internationally acknowledged experts on the Holocaust. In The Years of Extermination he has provided us with an up-to-date, authoritative account of the murderous Nazi assault against European Jewry during World War II.
As was the case with his previous widely acclaimed volume, The Years of Persecution 1933-1939, published in 1997, this is a conventional, non-theoretical work of synthesis aimed at a broad audience. The narrative is linear and the organisation strictly chronological. Each of the 10 chapters is given a title that simply indicates the time period covered, such as “December 1941-July 1942”. These 10 chapters are in turn grouped into three major parts: Terror (autumn 1939 to summer 1941); Mass Murder (summer 1941 to summer 1942); and Shoah (summer 1942 to spring 1945).
Any historian dealing with the Holocaust faces the daunting task of organising a vast amount of information about a complex set of inter-related episodes that unfolded across an entire continent. Friedlander has chosen to use the familiar triad of perpetrators, bystanders and victims to structure his narrative.
While acknowledging the importance of analysing Nazi policy-making, Friedlander is particularly concerned to move beyond a German-centred approach in order to provide what he terms a “more globally oriented inquiry” that allocates a central place in the story to the experiences of the Jewish communities targeted by Hitler.
The juxtaposition of the high politics of the perpetrators with the individual histories of their Jewish victims represents the most innovative and distinctive aspect of Friedlander’s approach.
In his examination of Nazi policy-making, Friedlander keeps the focus on Hitler and repeatedly stresses the centrality of the Fuhrer’s fanatical anti-Semitic ideology in seeking to understand why and how the Holocaust occurred. For Friedlander, ideas are both important and primary. He rejects explanations that stress the force of circumstances or that see the murder of European Jewry as a byproduct of a larger process of capitalist rationalisation or modernising social engineering.
In Friedlander’s view, Nazism is best understood as a form of political religion of which the major article of faith was anti-Semitism. “Hitler,” he observes, “perceived his mission as a kind of crusade to redeem the world by eliminating the Jews”.
In every chapter he provides extensive quotations from speeches and private declarations that leave no doubt about Hitler’s obsessive and pathological hatred for Jews.
Hitler convinced himself – and a very substantial number of his followers – that “the Jew” was the driving force behind both Bolshevism and capitalism. Stalin and Roosevelt, he insisted, were nothing but the latest frontmen for an ancient and ongoing global Jewish conspiracy aimed at destroying the Aryan race. This irrational and absurd world view provided the justification for the genocidal program that began to take concrete shape in the course of 1941.
While Friedlander stresses the importance of Hitler’s ideology as a crucial factor leading to the Holocaust, he insists that there was no extermination plan concocted in advance by Hitler and consciously pursued by the Nazi regime.
In line with several recent studies, he argues instead that the Nazis up to 1941 extended the same model of terroristic persecution developed within Germany in the late 1930s to the Jewish populations that came under their control. This approach focused on identification, segregation, expropriation, concentration and emigration, but not on physical extermination.
The invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941 opened a second, much more lethal phase of mass murder, with German mobile killing squads carrying out mass executions of Soviet Jews. In retrospect, the introduction of mass killing behind the Eastern Front can be seen as the beginning of what became the “final solution”, but Friedlander insists that these murder operations – which initially targeted only Jewish males – were designed primarily to hasten the collapse of the Red Army and the Soviet system and were not part of a calculated plan of mass extermination of the entire Jewish population.
The crucial turning point came with the entry of the United States into the war in early December 1941. From Hitler’s perspective, this transformed a European conflict into a true world war, and he was certain, of course, that the Jews were to blame for this decisive escalation. He responded by ordering the extermination of all Jews, thus fulfilling his January 1939 “prophecy” that if the Jews brought about a world war the result would be “the annihilation of the Jewish race in Europe”.
Beginning in summer 1942 the bureaucratically organised, industrialised extermination of the Jews of Europe in custom-built death camps hit full stride. Such a massive undertaking was unthinkable without the co-operation of mid-level technocrats and organisers aided by the leaders and populations throughout Nazi-controlled Europe.
Friedlander paints a damning portrait of the conduct of the bystanders. Passivity and indifference predominated, but in many cases the Nazis could count on the active support of non-German authorities and their security forces in facilitating the annihilation process.
As he points out, “not one social group, not one religious community, not one scholarly institution or professional association in Germany and throughout Europe declared its solidarity with the Jews”.
Friedlander is especially critical of the failure of the Christian churches, Catholic, Protestant and Orthodox, to respond to the onslaught against the Jews. He identifies the virulent anti-Judaism cultivated by Christianity over centuries as a major contributor to the anti-Semitic culture that, he argues, took hold in Germany under Nazism but also flourished in the rest of Europe as well.
The fact that Christian churches shared with Nazism anti-communist, anti-liberal and anti-materialist views rendered the churches incapable of coming to the defence of the Jewish population.
Pope Pius XII comes in for heavy criticism for his “selective appeasement” of the Nazis. While the Pope sought in some cases to raise objections to Nazi measures, his concern did not extend to the mass murder perpetrated against the Jews. The Pope’s silence stands as a disturbing example of the broader moral failure of the European and American spiritual and intellectual elites in the face of the Holocaust.
More than is the case in most Holocaust histories, Friedlander’s book strives to bring the voices of the victims into the story. He quotes extensively from a wide and diverse range of Jewish diarists, from the well-known, such as Viktor Klemperer and Emanuel Ringelblum, to more obscure figures such as the 12-year-old Dawid Rubinowicz and the teenage Moshe Flinker.
Their observations are by turns poignant, painful, revelatory and depressing. They infuse an essential individual, human dimension into the over-arching narrative of mass destruction. In the later chapters, one is repeatedly confronted by jolting “final entries” that signal that yet another individual has fallen victim to the vast Nazi killing program.
Friedlander’s book represents a major contribution to the study of the Holocaust. No small part of his achievement lies in his ability to highlight the crucial role of human agency in history. His account reminds us that the Holocaust was not a “natural” catastrophe, not something inexorable and unstoppable, but was instead the terrible consequence of conscious human decisions, aided and abetted by the widespread failure of the bystanders to act in opposition.
Steven Welch is senior lecturer in modern German history at the University of Melbourne.