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The Years of Extermination: Nazi Germany and the Jews, 1939 - 1945
By Saul Friedlander
870 pages, $39.95.
In the early years of the war, the jaded German tourist could give himself an unusual treat: a visit to the graveyard of the Warsaw Ghetto to see for himself how the Final Solution was progressing. And because he could, he did.
"Most of them show no sympathy at all for the Jews," noted a ghetto diarist in 1941. "On the contrary, some of them maintain that the mortality among the Jews is too low. Others take all kinds of photographs. The shed where dozens of corpses lie during the day awaiting burial at night is particularly popular."
Welcome to Disneyland, Nazi style.
But why do we need yet another reminder of these nightmare years? A historian of the Holocaust has to offer more than a collection of horrors, even though history "seems to turn into a series of mass killing operations and, on the face of it, little else."
The world of the death camps and licensed murder came into being because of ascertainable causes that need explanation.
Tel Aviv University professor emeritus Saul Friedlander, a survivor, meets this difficult challenge successfully. Against the background of the increasing role anti-Semitism played throughout the war years, he sets a country-by-country account of the disintegration of the Jewish communities of Europe under the twin pressures of German and local policies. He then gives depth and atmosphere to the whole by quoting copiously from the diaries and letters of the victims, some of which have only recently come to light.
Friedlander's careful analysis of Nazi policies gains immensely from his central perception, not shared by all historians, that Hitler was the prime mover behind the Final Solution. By the simple but effective technique of paying close attention to the frequency and venom of his public and private references to Jews, he pinpoints the entry of the US into the war as the probable time when Hitler finally decided to proceed with the mass extermination of the Jews.
While he is not the first to opt for this date, Friedlander's account is unusually detailed and convincing. In essence, Hitler regarded Roosevelt's increasing anti-German activities as the work of Jewry. Once Roosevelt joined the Allies, Hitler had to keep the promise he made in 1939 to make the Jews pay for embroiling the world in war. And he kept close tabs on progress, meeting SS chief Heinrich Himmler at least once to brood over meticulously compiled statistics of the number of Jews murdered in the death camps and elsewhere.
Even after the war turned decisively against the Third Reich, the Nazis realized that anti-Semitism was the only mobilizing myth that could keep the Germans and their collaborators together. Intelligence reports on Polish public opinion noted that hatred of the Jews was the one factor on which Pole and Nazi could find common ground. It was no surprise, therefore, that the closing months of the war saw a rising tide of murderousness, even though common prudence, to say nothing of decency, might have dictated otherwise.
Despite Nazi fantasies, Jews outside occupied Europe had marginal influence on the war. Hitler raved that the Jews planned the firebombing of Hamburg, but in reality they could not even persuade the Allies to bomb Auschwitz and its rail communications. The only air raid that did directly save Jewish lives was an American attack on Budapest in July 1944. The Hungarian government, having thus been reminded who was winning the war, halted transports to the death camps.
Resistance from the societies in which Jews lived to the Nazi extermination drive was sporadic and mostly ineffective. Even those few who took a public stand against it were occasionally compromised by anti-Semitic views. The churches only rarely mustered protests against the murder of Jewish converts to Christianity. The unconverted were mostly left to fend for themselves.
Occasionally there were gestures of human sympathy, even from Germans. "A mother saw that her little girl was sitting next to a Jew: 'Lieschen, sit down on the other bench, you do not need to sit next to a Jew.' At that an Aryan worker stood up, saying: 'And I don't need to sit next to Lieschen.'"
But in the absence of any supportive social group or organization, such gestures, however heartwarming, never gained sufficient traction to present obstacles to the drive for extermination.
And what could the victims do? Nothing. What the author notes of the occupied eastern territories was true almost everywhere. "No law, no rule, no measure protected a Jew."
Their host countries, with few honorable exceptions, let them be devoured by the wolves and even joined in the feast.
Under these awful pressures, Jewish unity crumbled. Assimilated French Jews stressed their patriotism, while doing little to protect Jews who had recently immigrated to France. The well-off tried bribery. The Jewish councils mostly played for time, sacrificing the weaker in the hope, usually vain, that the war would end before the Germans came for them. As diarist Etty Hillesum put it, "Nothing can ever atone for the fact, of course, that one section of the Jewish population is helping to transport the majority out of the country." A few opted for armed resistance. Nothing worked.
The surviving diaries of the few who survived, and the many who did not, show their oscillation between hope and despair, at the mercy of every passing rumor, their relief at having got through another day overshadowed by presentiments of doom.
German soldiers, needless to add, saw things differently. "Beasts in human form," wrote one about their captives. Some even thought the Jews were worse than the Nazi regime had claimed and openly spoke of the need to kill them.
These views were expressed far beyond the circles of the true believers, and testify to unimaginable moral degradation. Friedlander quotes copiously from letters written by soldiers who witnessed the murders and either approved of them or found nothing exceptional about them. Even civilians far from the death camps had a good idea of what was going on.
And this degradation spread: One of the first murderous acts of the SS after the seizure of Poland was the killing of more than 3,000 non-Jewish mental patients so that the buildings in which they were housed could be used as barracks. This was not the slaughter of people regarded as a mortal enemy; this was murder for the sake of convenience.
Much of this is not new of course. What gives this book unusual force is Friedlander's quiet and understated tone, leaving the horror to emerge in the diaries of the victims and other contemporaneous accounts. Nearly always he leaves the last word to their last words, an act of restraint that makes tangible this upside down world, and that makes this history so complete.
The Years of Extermination, which won the Frankfurt Book Fair peace prize, is the continuation of an earlier work about the prewar period, but it stands on its own. Little time is devoted to "what if" scenarios, fantasies of rescue or moral grandstanding. This is a clearly written, unillusioned work that cannot be recommended highly enough.