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?
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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