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David Cesarani’s Final Solution is a magisterial work of history that chronicles the fate of Europe’s Jews.
Based on decades of scholarship, documentation newly available from the opening of Soviet archives, declassification of Western intelligence service records, as well as diaries and reports written in the camps, Cesarani provides a sweeping reappraisal that challenges accepted explanations for the anti-Jewish politics of Nazi Germany and the inevitability of the “final solution.” The persecution of the Jews, as Cesarani sees it, was not always the Nazis’ central preoccupation, nor was it inevitable. He shows how, in German-occupied countries, it unfolded erratically, often due to local initiatives.
For Cesarani, war was critical to the Jewish fate. Military failure denied the Germans opportunities to expel Jews into a distant territory and created a crisis of resources that led to the starvation of the ghettos and intensified anti-Jewish measures. Looking at the historical record, he disputes the iconic role of railways and deportation trains. From prisoner diaries, he exposes the extent of sexual violence and abuse of Jewish women and follows the journey of some Jewish prisoners to displaced persons camps. David Cesarani’s Final Solution is the new standard chronicle of the fate of a heroic people caught in the hell that was Hitler’s Germany.
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The Fate of the Jews 1933â"1949
By David Cesarani
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2016 David Cesarani
All rights reserved.
THE FIRST YEAR 1933
Protest and boycott
Hitler's priority on taking office was to make good his promise to repair the economy and restore national unity. Terminating parliamentary democracy was both a means to this end and a fundamental Nazi objective. Hitler did little that appeared immediately relevant to Germany's Jews as Jews. The drastic restrictions on individual rights and the extension of police powers seemed more to do with political warfare. In those first heady weeks there was nothing to suggest that the state posed a threat to innocent citizens who belonged to an innocuous religious minority.
At the inaugural meeting of the new cabinet Hitler obtained agreement to hold fresh elections on 5 March 1933. The coalition would seek an absolute majority in order to pass legislation suspending parliamentary government. The election campaign then got under way with the customary marches, rallies and raucous propaganda. As usual, 'electioneering' led to street violence. The SA and SS targeted communist and socialist bases; the leftists defended themselves. Now, however, the National Socialists were in government and the SPD was compelled to act with circumspection in case it provoked a crackdown. On 22 February, Göring enrolled 50,000 men of the SA, SS and Stahlhelm as 'auxiliary policemen' in Prussia. François-Poncet noted sardonically that the government had 'entrusted the maintenance of order to the very forces that were disrupting order'.
The odds in the one-sided electoral contest were tipped further when an arson attack on the Reichstag building gifted the government a pretext to take even more power into its hands. The fire was started on the night of 27 February by Marinus van der Lubbe, a demented Dutch ex-communist. It is not clear if the Nazis were implicated, but Göring didn't hesitate to claim that the blaze presaged a communist putsch. He ordered the police to round up KPD leaders and thousands of rank and file. The next day President Hindenburg issued an emergency decree suspending civil rights, permitting the police to make arrests, search houses and confiscate property without a warrant. The security forces were empowered to take people into 'protective custody' in anticipation of a crime being committed by or against them. For good measure the Nazi interior minister William Frick slipped into the decree a clause extending the writ of central government throughout the individual states, laying the foundations for an unprecedented centralization of power in Germany.
Terror gripped the left. Anyone who had once challenged the Nazis, particularly if they were Jewish, felt vulnerable. The SA set up makeshift detention centres in derelict factories, the basements of office blocks, and disused army barracks. These sites were dignified with the technical term 'Konzentrationslager' (concentration camp). Unsupervised by the regular police or the judicial authorities, they became a byword for brutality.
The aspiring English novelist Christopher Isherwood captured the mood in the weeks before the March election. 'Every evening, I sit in the big half-empty artists, café by the Memorial Church, where the Jews and left-wing intellectuals bend their heads together over the marble tables, speaking in low scared voices. Almost every evening, the SA men come into the café ... Sometimes they have come to make an arrest. One evening a Jewish writer, who was present, ran into the telephone box to ring up the Police. The Nazis dragged him out, and he was taken away. Nobody moved a finger. You could have heard a pin drop, till they were gone.'
The decapitation of the KPD and harassment of SPD party workers created a distinctly uneven playing field. The Nazi campaign also benefited from an inrush of funds from industrialists and big business, keen to be on the winning side. Despite this massive effort the NSDAP only managed to push its share of the vote up to 43.9 per cent. To cross the 50 per cent threshold the National Socialists had to continue in coalition with Hugenberg's DNVP. While frustrating, the continuation of a government with conservative ministers had the virtue of lending the Nazis an air of respectability. The leadership strove to reinforce this impression with the ceremony to mark the opening of the new Reichstag. It was held on 21 March at the garrison church in Potsdam, rich in imperial history. Newsreels showed Hitler, clad in a cutaway coat, alongside the president and members of the old royal family. It was a gloriously sunny spring day, but it marked the eclipse of democracy in Germany.
At the first session of the parliament, held in Berlin's Kroll Opera House, the Nazis bullied through an Enabling Act that allowed the government to make laws without the consent of the Reichstag or the president. The two-thirds majority to amend the constitution was attained by excluding the KPD delegates and twisting the arms of the Catholic Centre Party. Only the ninety-four socialist delegates bravely stood their ground. Leopold Schwarzschild marvelled at the speed and ease with which the National Socialists brushed aside the constitutional safeguards protecting individual rights. As a National Socialist tsunami toppled mayors, local government officials, police commissioners, and any office holder considered inimical to the 'national revolution' he reflected, 'History is brutally unsentimental.'
During the election campaign, SA violence had been directed towards political opponents. Afterwards, party activists turned on the Jews. From early March a rash of local boycotts spread across the country. Unauthorized picketing and marking of Jewish-owned stores and shops was often accompanied by thuggery, especially if the proprietors objected. These incidents were not centrally planned or coordinated, but they stemmed from the well-honed Nazi practice of using intimidation to drive a wedge between Jews and non-Jews, signifying who was a secure member of the Volksgemeinschaft and who was a vulnerable outsider. But whereas anti-Jewish violence and stigmatization before 1933 had represented an assault on the law and the republic, the fact that the law was now enforced in the name of Adolf Hitler created unforeseen complications. It was one thing to defy the state when it was the creature of the 'November criminals'; it was quite another when it was the vehicle for the 'national revolution'. To muddy the waters further, many state and municipal authorities, as well as private organizations, began taking measures against Jews. These were often justified as a response to 'spontaneous' and 'popular' anger directed at the Jewish population. SA men who triggered such 'self-cleansing' actions then felt empowered to seek fresh targets. Within days of enjoying electoral legitimacy and constitutional sanction, the Nazi leaders found themselves presiding over a spiral of discrimination and violence. It resulted in friction between party activists and the police, threatened to undermine the new regime's authority as the guardian of law and order, compromised its image as responsible politicians and triggered an international backlash.
In Berlin, the day after the election, SA men worked their way down the Kurfürstendamm picking on anyone who looked Jewish to them. The correspondent for the Manchester Guardian reported that 'many Jews were beaten by the Brown Shirts until their heads and faces flowed with blood. Many collapsed helplessly and were left lying in the streets until they were picked up by friends or pedestrians and brought to the hospital'. On 7 March the old synagogue in central Königsberg was set on fire and, two days after that, Jewish-owned stores. East Prussia soon became notorious for persistent and widespread anti-Jewish activity. In Gollnow, near Stettin, the owner of a department store complained to the mayor when a storm unit demonstrated outside his establishment. The mayor at first advised him to close, but when the proprietor refused to oblige he sent the police to keep order. At night the SA returned and defaced the building anyway.
On 11 March storm troopers invaded Jewish-owned department stores and shops in the centre of Breslau, forcing them to close. An SA detachment barged into the court buildings and compelled Jewish lawyers and judges to suspend business. The disturbances continued until the police intervened 'forcefully' to restore order. The siege of the courthouse went on for three days and only ended when a senior judge agreed to limit the number of Jewish lawyers to seventeen. In a country that prided itself on being a Rechtsstaat, a state of law, the violation of judicial premises and the harassment of the judiciary was tantamount to desecration, not to say contempt of court. But it was a deliberately symbolic act, indicating that the law applied to, and could only be administered by, Germans for Germans. The SA were inciting Germany's new rulers to articulate this shift and to validate it. As the final settlement in Breslau indicates, the naturally conservative and rightward-leaning judiciary found it relatively easy to accommodate to Nazi conceptions.
Over 27–29 March disturbances occurred in cities across the Ruhr. In Bochum Nazi rowdies smashed the display windows of thirteen shops while in Dortmund shots were fired into the establishment of a Jewish merchant. A hundred Jews were taken into 'protective custody' by the SA. The local rabbi and five other Jews were forced to parade through the street in Oberhausen. A Jewish court official and several Jewish men were later treated to 'protective custody' by Brownshirts.
Once they were transferred to the SA detention centres, Jewish men were in extreme danger and suffered disproportionately compared to internees from other backgrounds, mostly political prisoners. Rabbis and Orthodox Jews, who were distinctive because of their beards, were singled out for brutal treatment. In what would become a trademark practice, many had their beards crudely shorn. If they were held over Jewish holy days, the SA (who, like the SS, had a spiteful familiarity with the Jewish ritual calendar) made a practice of inflicting particular humiliations, displaying a hatred of Judaism as much as of Jews. KPD members with Jewish names were also selected for especially rough handling. SA men delighted in tormenting Jewish lawyers who were placed in their hands, relishing the fate of those like Hans Litten who had prosecuted Nazis or engaged in anti-defamation work. In Dachau, of approximately one hundred political prisoners who were dead by May 1933, a dozen were Jewish.
Thanks to diplomatic dispatches, the coverage by foreign correspondents, and private communications (including stories told by returning visitors), foreign governments and the public in other countries were kept abreast of these grim developments. The plethora of information that reached the British Embassy in Berlin from consuls around Germany caused Sir Horace Rumbold to warn the Foreign Office that a 'massacre' of Jews was on the cards. In a private letter to her family in England, Lady Rumbold noted 'All sorts of terrorising of Jews and socialists ... It is hateful and uncivilised.' Over this period the New York Times, the Chicago Times, the Los Angeles Times, the Atlanta Constitution and the Washington Post carried 455 articles and editorials on Hitler and the Jews (half in the New York Times alone). Two hundred local newspapers in the USA printed 2,600 pieces on events in Germany.
The reaction was swift and sharp. In the USA and Britain the extensive coverage of events led to outrage in Jewish communities. Within days of Hitler taking power, 4,000 Jewish war veterans took to the streets in New York carrying banners decrying Nazi atrocities. Jews on both sides of the Atlantic demanded that their governments intervene or at least condemn what was happening. In the course of March Jewish leaders conferred repeatedly and a head of steam built up for a boycott of German goods and services.
However, the American Jewish leadership was at odds over what steps to take. The differences of approach reflected deep rifts in the Jewish population. The assimilated and well-off section that stemmed largely from the German Jewish immigration of the mid-nineteenth century tended to favour quiet diplomacy with State Department officials and politicians. This tactic was routinely used by the 'uptown' American Jewish Committee (AJC). The more recent and more numerous immigrants from eastern Europe, who were predominantly lower-middle and working class, tended to respond viscerally and noisily to news of Jewish suffering. Many were enrolled in trade unions and socialist organizations; a significant portion were Zionists. The American Jewish Congress represented this section of the population and was consistently more activist and vocal. But the clamour alarmed the patricians of the AJC. On 20 March a deputation led by Cyrus Adler, AJC president, called on the US administration to 'make proper representations' to the German authorities. At the same time, it condemned 'boycotts, parades, mass meetings and other similar demonstrations'. This injunction reflected their instinctive discretion and reluctance to legitimize the politics of the Jewish masses; it was also a calculated response to pleas from German Jews not to launch attacks on the Naziled coalition.
Their discretion was of no avail. The American Jewish Congress, led by the charismatic Rabbi Stephen Wise, went ahead with a mass rally in Madison Square Gardens. When the doors opened on 27 March, 20,000 Jews filled the auditorium, leaving 35,000 milling around outside. They heard anti-Nazi speeches from Senator Robert Wagner, former presidential contender Al Smith, the president of the American Federation of Labor, the mayor of New York, and two bishops. On the same day 10,000 Jews marched through Brooklyn, with roughly the same number rallying in Chicago and Los Angeles. Six thousand Jews demonstrated in Baltimore, 3,000 in Newark and Washington, and 2,500 in Atlantic City. It was estimated that a million people had rallied against the Nazis, making it one of the largest demonstrations of its kind in US history.
When the AJC asked Wise not to go ahead, he replied that if mainstream Jewish organizations refused to organize protest events their place would be taken by 'Socialist Jewish meetings, Communist Jewish meetings'. His comment offers an insight into the triple bind in which American Jews found themselves. They were under pressure from German Jews not to act, while the Jewish street clamoured for action. Behind-the-scenes lobbying failed to meet these popular demands and left the way open for radicals who would confirm prejudices about Jews on both sides of the Atlantic. Whatever they did was liable to backfire on them or on the German Jews.
Calls for a boycott of Germany posed even more acute dilemmas. During March, a self-made millionaire and communal activist, Samuel Untermyer, put himself at the head of a spontaneous movement to persuade Jews and non-Jews to desist from purchasing goods originating from Germany. When both the AJC and Wise leaned on Untermyer he retorted that 'The Hitlerite Party is bent on the extermination of the Jews in Germany, or upon driving them out of the country.' By October 1933 the American Jewish Congress buckled to pressure from its constituents and declared support for the boycott. It was joined by Hadassah, the largest mass-membership Zionist organization in North America.
A similar dynamic unfolded in Britain, where letters calling for a boycott poured into the London Jewish Chronicle. The editor, Jack Rich, took up the cause in a leading article on 24 March. 'If, as seems evident ... there is a strong longing to institute a boycott of German goods and services, by all means let it be done. Let Jews, here and in every land, borrow from the Germans their weapon of the boycott and turn it against them.' The JC was influential at the best of times; this issue sold out completely.
As in America, the established Jewish leadership presided over a socially stratified and ideologically fissured community. Neville Laski, the president of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, was a lawyer from Manchester. He led a body that was elected mainly by synagogue members, but broadly articulated popular feeling amongst the Jews who had immigrated to England from Russia and Poland around the turn of the century. Leonard Montefiore, president of the Anglo-Jewish Association (AJA), was more of a patrician, who spoke for the wealthier and highly assimilated section of the Jewish population. Laski temperamentally sided with the more reticent Montefiore and tended to discount what his members were saying. At a meeting with Robert Hankey, permanent undersecretary at the Foreign Office, on 21 March, they deprecated noisy demonstrations, while Hankey warned strongly against giving any official sanction to a boycott.
And as in the United States the caution of the official Jewish leadership did nothing to inhibit the wider expression of opinion. The boycott movement spread like a bush fire through the East End of London, where 100,000 Jews lived. Signs appeared in shop windows announcing that the owners did not deal with German suppliers. On Friday 24 March, after businesses closed early for the Sabbath, thousands of Jews marched from the East End to the German Embassy. The following Sunday there were angry exchanges at an emergency conference, called by the English Zionist Federation, when Laski refused to place the Board of Deputies at the head of the boycott movement or organize a protest rally. His admonition that it would antagonize the Germans and make life difficult for 'moderates' like Papen was met with derision. Delegates found it harder to dismiss the pleas of German Jews. Laski and Montefiore succeeded in winning time to arrange a decorous mass meeting to be addressed primarily by non-Jewish figures.
Excerpted from Final Solution by David Cesarani. Copyright © 2016 David Cesarani. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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Table of Contents
List of Illustrations
1. The First Year, 1933
2. Judenpolitik, 1934–1938
3. Pogrom, 1938–1939
4. War, 1939–1941
5. Barbarossa, 1941
6. Final Solution, 1942
7. Total War, 1943
8. The Last Phase, 1944–1945