A call for historical accuracy

Sir Richard Evans provides an unequivocal defense of the historical uniqueness of the Holocaust, an assertion which has increasingly come under attack in recent years.

Auschwitz-Birkenau (photo credit: REUTERS)
(photo credit: REUTERS)
THE HISTORIAN Sir Richard Evans, currently president of Wolfson College, Cambridge University and provost of Gresham College, London, is undoubtedly one of the most knowledgeable people on the history of the Third Reich. He is the author of the widely acclaimed trilogy published between 2003 and 2008 which charted the rise of Hitler’s regime (The Coming of the Third Reich), the consolidation of its grip on Germany (The Third Reich in Power), and the war it waged to fulfill its territorial and racial ambitions and which it ultimately lost (The Third Reich At War). He thus is uniquely qualified to comment on the historiography of the Nazi regime, and how the memory of the Third Reich and the Holocaust are currently being perceived.
This latest volume, which primarily consists of his recent book reviews and lectures, showcases the breadth of his knowledge and his deep erudition. Most important, it provides perceptive insights on a wide range of subjects related to the history of the Third Reich, in light of recent research which has sought, correctly or inaccurately in Evans’s opinion, to transform our understanding of Nazi Germany.
Thus he notes that one of the most remarkable changes in that respect has been the increasing intertwining of history and memory, reinforced by the extension of research into the post-World War II era. This volume is therefore Evans’s call for the record of the Third Reich to be subjected to the most careful historical scrutiny to ensure its accuracy, and a sound basis for establishing a true collective memory of Nazism.
The scope of Evans’s expertise is on abundant display throughout the book, as he tackles an extremely wide range of topics. They include Hitler’s relations with Eva Braun, the Krupp industrial concern’s close connections to the Nazi regime, how food supply issues affected war strategy, the German Foreign Office’s role in Holocaust crimes, and the theft of art and other cultural treasures by the Nazis.
For me, though, one of the most important contributions of this volume is Evans’s unequivocal defense of the historical uniqueness of the Holocaust. This assertion has increasingly come under attack in recent years, most frequently by historians who either claim that the measures taken by the Third Reich against the Jews were not original, or seek to equate Communist crimes with those of the Nazis by claiming that the former also deserve to be categorized as genocide.
A good example of this can be found in Evans’s first essay. He tackles a recently raised question: did the campaign of persecution and annihilation launched by the Germans in their colony of Southwest Africa (today Namibia) against the Herero and Nama tribes during the first decade of the twentieth century serve as an inspiration for the Final Solution?
In their fight against these peoples, the Germans used concentration camps, identified them by a special mark they had to wear, banned interracial marriages, and almost completely physically decimated them, with only approximately 15,000 (out of an estimated 80,000) Hereros and 10,000 (out of an estimated 20,000) Nama surviving the onslaught. With the emergence of post-colonial studies in the 1990’s, these facts prompted scholars to suggest that the Nazis merely adopted the policies of imperial Germany in Africa, and applied them in magnified form against European Jewry.
Evans, however, presents a very convincing case to prove that German colonialism did not inspire the Holocaust, and that there were very important differences between German imperial racial policies in Africa and the Final Solution in Europe. For the Nazis, the Jew was the ultimate world enemy, a cunning and ruthless opponent who conspired on a global level to totally destroy the German nation, and therefore had to be eliminated everywhere, and dealt with in a totally unprecedented manner. The African tribes, on the other hand, representing a regional ‘obstacle’ to German plans, were simply brushed aside, however brutally. In that regard, their fate was closer to that which the Nazis planned for the Slavs of Eastern Europe, whom Hitler dreamt would be replaced by millions of German settlers in the Lebensraum created by their decimation.
Of the eight sections of the book, the one which will probably be of most interest to readers of The Jerusalem Report is "The Politics Of Genocide,” in which Evans focuses on the war against the Jews and the unique aspects of the Final Solution, a subject which has become increasingly important in the wake of recent efforts by Eastern European governments and various historians to enshrine the canard of equivalency between Nazi and Communist crimes as historical truth.
In several essays, Evans clearly and precisely delineates the factors which make the Holocaust unique, and then explains the differences between the Shoah and other tragedies, such as the Armenian and Rwandan genocides, and a long list of Soviet crimes, starting with the Holodomor (the murder of three million, mostly Ukrainian, kulaks by man-made famine in the 1930s), and followed by the mass deportations of over one million Volga Germans and half a million members of other ethnic minorities from the Caucasus to Siberia, and the systematic mass murder in Soviet jails of at least tens of thousands of nationalists and counterrevolutionaries.
According to Evans, both the “why” and the “how” of the Holocaust combine to make it a sui generis historical event, but he attributes more importance in this regard to the former rather than the latter. In his words, the Shoah’s “peculiar characteristics derived from the fact that the Nazis regarded the Jews of Europe, and indeed the world, as a deadly universal threat to their existence, and that of Germany more generally, that had to be eliminated by any means possible, as fast as possible, and as thoroughly as possible.”
In this respect, Evans emphasizes the importance of the racial component of the Nazis’ anti-Semitism, which was the source and foundation of their hatred of the Jews’ and their determination to totally annihilate them, impressively refuting the arguments of those who claim that the decision to wipe out the Jews was linked to food supply problems or economic interests.
In addition to the ideological basis of the Final Solution, Evans also points to various factors in its implementation, which also were unprecedented and contribute to the uniqueness of the Shoah.
Firstly, it was not limited by time or geography.
In Hitler’s mind, the fight against the Jews was until the death of the last Jew anywhere on earth. Secondly, the Final Solution was initiated against a “world enemy” operating on a global scale whose influence was omnipresent in the halls of power. (Thus, for example, Nazi propaganda constantly presented Stalin, Churchill, and Roosevelt as tools of international Jewry.)
Further, the annihilation of the Jews was part of a plan for a global racial reordering and reconstruction on an almost unimaginable scale, which would have later included the mass murder of between 30 million and 45 million Slavs and other Eastern Europeans. In addition, it was launched by ideologues who viewed world history in racial terms, and finally, it was partially implemented by industrial means.
These factors are the reasons, as Evans clearly demonstrates, that tragedies such as the Holodomor do not qualify as genocide since it did not focus on Ukrainians because of their ethnicity but rather because of their economic status: a fifth of its victims were of other nationalities. True, the Armenian and Rwandan genocides are more similar to the fate of the Jews, but were not carried out with the same comprehensiveness and intensity as the Holocaust.
Perhaps of even greater importance in the context of contemporary politics, is Evans’s particularly harsh critique of Timothy Snyder’s 2010 work Bloodlands, which focuses on the mass murders committed by the Nazis and the Soviets from the early ’30s until the end of World War II, in the area from western Poland to eastern Ukraine, Belarus and the Baltic states, creating a false symmetry between the crimes of the two totalitarian regimes. After pointing to several historical mistakes in the book, especially Snyder’s claim that Hitler launched the Final Solution out of rage at the inability of the Wehrmacht to defeat the Red Army (as Evans notes, that decision was made while the Germans were still winning the war), he precisely explains why Snyder’s book, which was greeted with such enthusiasm in post-Communist Eastern Europe, is historically flawed and fails to grasp the uniqueness of the Holocaust.
In his words: “It was the comprehensive European, even global scale of the Nazis’ intentions toward the Jews that marked out the genocide from other exterminations of the period, or indeed of any period. By addressing Nazi anti-Semitism almost entirely in the context of Hitler’s plans for Eastern Europe, and drawing historical parallels with the mass murders carried out on Stalin’s orders in the same area, Snyder distracts attention from what was unique about the extermination of the Jews. The uniqueness consisted not only in the scale of the ambition, but also in the depth of the hatred and fear that drove it on. There was something peculiarly sadistic in the Nazis’ desire not just to torture, maim and kill the Jews, but also to humiliate them in public... The Slavs, in the end, were for the Nazis a regional obstacle to be removed; the Jews were a ‘world-enemy’ to be ground into the dust.”
This volume is yet another reason why we all owe a deep debt of gratitude to Professor Evans for his life's work, which so clearly and accurately has documented the crimes of the Third Reich as a warning to the world lest they be imitated or repeated.