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How Was the Holocaust Planned?

Posted by Josh Rothman  June 20, 2011 10:02 AM

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Writing in The New York Review of Books, Yale history professor Timothy Snyder reviews four new books about the Holocaust: Holocaust: The Nazi Persecution and Murder of the Jews and Heinrich Himmler: Biographie, by Peter Longerich; Model Nazi: Arthur Greiser and the Occupation of Western Poland, by Catherine Epstein; and The “Final Solution” in Riga: Exploitation and Annihilation, 1941-1944 by Andrej Angrick and Peter Klein. Together, he writes, they constitute a "new approach to the Holocaust," and shed new light on one of history's most elusive questions: How, exactly, did Hitler go about ordering the final solution?

Timothy Snyder

It's commonly understood that the plan for the Holocaust was hatched at the Wansee Conference on January 20, 1942. Historians, however, have long questioned that idea. The Wansee meeting lasted only about an hour and a half, and many activities we now understand as part of the Holocaust were already ongoing, including the construction of death camps, and the gassing of Jews at Chelmo. The Holocaust, in fact, was not centrally planned in meticulous detail. Instead, broad goals were established, and individuals down the chain of command were allowed to take many of the decisive steps.

It's this process of delegation and incentivization, Snyder explains, that is coming into increasing focus. The Nazis, he writes, developed sweeping, politically appealing plans -- proposing, for example, to fill Poland with German farmers. Local officials were charged with achieving these aims, which the historian Peter Longerich calls "positive solutions" to the problem of German racial impurity. Inevitably, though, the plans proved impossible to carry out: millions of Poles and Jews stood in the way, with more arriving every day as they fled Western Europe. Eventually local officials proposed "negative solutions," which were always approved. The key was that, from Himmler on down the chain of command, individuals were "regarded as responsible for German racial consolidation, the 'positive solution,' but in fact controlled the coercive power needed for the crucial 'negative solution,' the mass murder of Jews that we call the Holocaust."

The Holocaust, in other words, was "ordered" via a system of incentives and permissions, rather than by means of a detailed plan. That's why, Snyder explains, "Historians of Germany have pushed the date of the crucial decision to eliminate all Jews later and later, until it seems that it could go no further":

They debate whether the critical moment was June 1941 (which few now believe), or October 1941, or December 1941. [Now Peter] Longerich calmly pushes through late 1941 and January 1942, the month of the Wannsee Conference, without recording a moment from which the Holocaust as total extermination was inevitable. He believes that there was in fact no crucial moment when Hitler decided, or communicated his decision, to kill all Jews under German control. In his view, “we should abandon the notion that it is historically meaningful to try to filter the wealth of available historical material and pick out a single decision” that led to the Holocaust.

The Holocaust, Snyder concludes, was a vast, group effort, facilitated by the widespread adoption of "scapegoating and murder as the response by lower cadres to imprecise signals from above." Evil doesn't have to come in a neat, person-sized package: it can be embodied in a system, too.

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About brainiac Brainiac is the daily blog of the Globe's Sunday Ideas section, covering news and delights from the worlds of art, science, literature, history, design, and more. You can follow us on Twitter @GlobeIdeas.
Brainiac blogger Kevin Hartnett is a writer in Columbia, South Carolina. He can be reached here.

Leon Neyfakh is the staff writer for Ideas. Amanda Katz is the deputy Ideas editor. Stephen Heuser is the Ideas editor.

Guest blogger Simon Waxman is Managing Editor of Boston Review and has written for WBUR, Alternet, McSweeney's, Jacobin, and others.

Guest blogger Elizabeth Manus is a writer living in New York City. She has been a book review editor at the Boston Phoenix, and a columnist for The New York Observer and Metro.

Guest blogger Sarah Laskow is a freelance writer and editor in New York City. She edits Smithsonian's SmartNews blog and has contributed to Salon, Good, The American Prospect, Bloomberg News, and other publications.

Guest blogger Joshua Glenn is a Boston-based writer, publisher, and freelance semiotician. He was the original Brainiac blogger, and is currently editor of the blog HiLobrow, publisher of a series of Radium Age science fiction novels, and co-author/co-editor of several books, including the story collection "Significant Objects" and the kids' field guide to life "Unbored."

Guest blogger Ruth Graham is a freelance journalist in New Hampshire, and a frequent Ideas contributor. She is a former features editor for the New York Sun, and has written for publications including Slate and the Wall Street Journal.

Joshua Rothman is a graduate student and Teaching Fellow in the Harvard English department, and an Instructor in Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. He teaches novels and political writing.


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