“It makes no difference what men think of war, said the judge. War endures. As well ask men what they think of stone. War was always here. Before man was, war waited for him. The ultimate trade awaiting its ultimate practitioner.”
Cormac McCarthy, Blood Meridian, or The Evening Redness in the West
War and Death, 1939–1949
As I closed my introduction to this review, I noted that the only genuine mystery attached to the Jewish fate during World War II was that there should ever have been anything mysterious attributed to it at all. I may have been a little rash. You see, in more ways than one, “the Holocaust” as a cultural concept has performed one of the greatest vanishing acts in history — the disappearance of the Jews as active participants in a war that certainly took place between 1939 and 1945, but which began long before and continues until the present. Examining the thousands upon thousands of histories of World War II, one would get the impression that there was not only one war, but also only one aggressor. Quite how and why “the Jews” leave the historical stage as belligerents in 1939, when the preceding six years had witnessed them engaging in international propaganda wars, political manoeuvring, and targeted assassinations in several European countries, has been surprisingly overlooked.
Instead of answering genuine mysteries like this, the relevant historiography has been preoccupied by posing pointless questions that have obvious answers. For example, given the German-Jewish relationship prior to 1939, is it really so illogical to conceive that the German armed forces would view Jews as a security threat throughout Europe but especially on the Eastern Front? Further, is it really any wonder that the most common means of dealing with this threat would be the construction of what really amounted to POW camps for Jewish civilians, termed ghettos for the sake of cultural and historical familiarity? Or that rationing in these ghettos would be roughly equivalent to that seen in POW camps? Strangely enough, however, only in the second decade of the twenty-first century are we witnessing the emergence of histories that accept plain realities such as these.
Reflecting a growing scholarly consensus, Cesarani concedes at the start of his exploration of the years 1939–45 that what may have appeared at first glance as anti-Jewish measures during this period were not “necessarily driven by anti-Jewish sentiment.” In 1939 “the German economy had been revved up to breaking point.” As a result, from the beginning of the war effort, the German pursuance of armed conflict was fatally linked to geo-strategic and economic exigencies, and a fanatical concern with security. Food and fuel would always be scarce, meaning that almost every German move in the war was made with a degree of desperation. Germany had only one real chance at victory, and to achieve this victory it would have to overwhelmingly succeed in every tactical advance it undertook. It would also be forced to adopt unsentimental methods in order to secure these victories.
Ruthlessness was a feature of the times. Although the organized elimination of classes of human beings has probably been occurring since the dawn of human history, the French Revolution pioneered the concept in modern times, and the perfection of this danse macabre reached its apogee with the Communists of the Soviet bloc, who led the way in torture and execution squads. Not surprisingly, the desperate and probably over-ambitious Germans formed their own such squads as part of 1939’s Operation Tannenberg, with the purpose of “liquidating” the Polish intelligentsia. Ominous sounding though it was, scholarship has revealed that the German effort was half-hearted by comparison to its Soviet counterparts, and that meetings intended to thrash out its details “were left until the last minute.” Importantly, as Cesarani notes, “Jews were not the target of Operation Tannenberg. … There is no surviving record of any conferences to determine policy on Jewish questions” during this period. Indeed, “rather than treating Jews as a special security threat … [the National Socialist leadership] did not have a clue about how the huge Jewish population should be treated as a whole.”
The situation only altered when Jews began to present themselves as a security threat. Cesarani reports that the first weeks of the war witnessed “the killing of hundreds of ethnic Germans … notably in Bydgoszcz.” Not only did these incidents set an appalling precedent for the future conduct of the war, but they also revealed a curious pattern — most of the towns and villages that witnessed the massacre of ethnic Germans had heavy Jewish populations. Indeed, as one contemporary Wehrmacht Lance Corporal, Paul Rubelt, wrote in a dispatch from the Front, “Jews were for the most part the evil doers in Lwow.”
This leads us neatly to the curious absence from the relevant historiography of what we might term the “war aims” of Jewry. Rather obviously, these centred around the defeat of the German nation and the destruction of the German ethnicity. I don’t attribute any moral position to this aim, positive or negative. It is simply an historical fact that it was in Jewish interests for the German military to be defeated and the German people to be severely punished. Just as the National Socialist political triumph in 1933 unleashed “high pressure” in Germany, then Austria, and then in neighboring countries, so too did the arrival of the Germans unleash “high pressure” in Poland. This disrupted what had until then been a rather profitable status quo. In Poland, notes Cesarani, Jews “dominated trade and commerce throughout the country. … There was a wealthy elite of industrialists, merchants, bankers, and professionals.” Like their counterparts elsewhere, until the arrival of the Wehrmacht they had managed to suppress dissent against this state of affairs for some time.
Wehrmacht soldiers discover massacred ethnic German women and children in Bydgoszcz, 1939
When the levee finally broke, Jewish thoughts were consumed with ambitions for revenge. Cesarani tells the story of one Polish Jew who confided in his diary in the early days of the German invasion “Jews won’t let Hitler get away with it. Our revenge will be terrible.” And, of course, in many places across Poland it was. In retaliation, the death squads formed under Operation Tannenberg undertook the task of grim but militarily necessary reprisals. Jews in turn would up the ante where possible, although from establishment histories of the period we would think that the Jewish population didn’t produce men of fighting age, merely women and children. Histories of actions of the Jewish ethnic group as a whole remain absent from historiography for the period, representing one of the strangest and unaddressed lacunae in the historical discipline.
The focus on German ethnocentrism has of course remained constant, though it is heading in new directions. It is now understood that Hitler was genuinely concerned from the beginning of the war about the fate of ethnic Germans across Eastern Europe, and historians have now reached a consensus that the stereotype of the “land-grabbing madman” must be dispensed with. Carving up Poland after the swift victory, Hitler ceded huge swathes of the Baltic to Stalin in return for the “right to evacuate ethnic Germans and bring them home to the Reich.” For Hitler, blood and soil were intertwined, but blood took precedence. While ethnic Germans looked West for succour, the Jews were unanimous in looking East to the Communist giant.
The carving up of Poland was welcomed by Jews who, as Cesarani states, “looked upon the Bolsheviks as redeeming Messiahs.” One contemporary Jew wrote “When the news reached us that the Bolsheviks were coming closer to Warsaw, our joy was unlimited.” Jewish interests were of course divergent from yet another section of the population – the Poles themselves. Cesarani notes that ‘this was not how the Poles saw it, least of all when the Soviet occupation authorities unleashed their own terror.” Noting the split in interests and war aspirations of the divergent populations of the newly conquered territory, it was Heydrich who advanced the first logical step to maintaining some semblance of stability — the segregation of the populations.
After the evacuation of ethnic Germans, Heydrich argued that many but by no means all Jews should be compelled to move out of small towns intersecting German supply lines, where, as one SD memo related, “the Jews have taken a decisive part in sniper attacks and plundering.” They would instead be concentrated in cities were they could be better supervised and offer less of a threat. Far from being sinister and all-encompassing, Heydrich added that it was perfectly reasonable to exempt “trade Jews” and others who could offer provisioning for German troops. Meanwhile, outside the war zone, Jews were unaffected. Cesarani writes that in Germany “Jews suffered nothing worse than a severe curfew. Ex-civil servants still got their pensions.” An SD report from Worms remarked that Jewish residents and shoppers possessed a comportment “marked by a striking air of security and confidence.”
Despite the fact that the Germans had made no efforts to single out Jews on the Eastern Front, the propaganda war waged by the international Jewish community continued apace. Among reports geared specifically towards Allied governments were sensationalized accounts of what was happening to Jews in German concentration camps. The more educated among the civil servants receiving these reports were sceptical to say the least. In April 1940 one official at London’s Whitehall remarked in an official document: “Jewish sources are always doubtful.” Rex Leeper, head of the Political Intelligence Department commented to colleagues a few months later that they should discount Jewish information sources because “as a general rule Jews are inclined to magnify their persecutions.” While Jewish influence was weak in some areas, it was remarkably strong in others. In contrast to the “tug-of-war” over the financing of Jewish emigration just a couple of years earlier, according to Cesarani by 1940 the British taxpayer was paying 100% of the bill for Jewish emigration and “refugee” support.
Germany’s swift victories on the Western Front posed new problems. Under the French Vichy regime Judenpolitik was introduced that largely mirrored the German effort. Some French Jews accepted that the “game was up” fairly quickly, with one French Jewish leader remarking in his journal that there were indeed “too many Jews in press, film, banks, politics” and that they had rankled the native population with “their inborn exuberance.” Similar measures were soon required in Holland, where brawls between Jewish youths and Dutch Nationalists had become commonplace. Propagandized stories about little Dutch Jews hiding in secret annexes seem to pale somewhat when one considers that it was a mass Jewish assault on Dutch Nationalists at an ice cream parlor on February 19, 1940, that finally forced the Germans to act against Jews in the region. What began with the taking of around four hundred young Jewish males into custody, slowly morphed into stricter measures intended to minimize inter-ethnic conflict and security risks.
Meanwhile, as the war intensified in the East, the ghettos took shape. Initially semi-permeable, the sealing of certain residential areas became essential due to the spread of typhus [a disease commonly associated with Ostjuden] between 1941 and 1942. Although biased histories have attributed the presence of typhus among the Jews to German mistreatment, Cesarani distils modern medical histories of the ghettos by stating simply that “Jews arriving from small communities brought diseases with them and were more prone to die than the indigenous population.” Increasing death rates in the ghettos over time were not due to a German-induced decline in the health of the original ghetto population, but the increased rate of movement of diseased and dying rural Jews into the ghetto. Or as Cesarani states, ‘typhus was commonly imported by [new arrivals] and the worst phases of the disease coincided with major inflows, in January-May 1940 and January-March 1941.”
Aside from health reasons, local officials in Warsaw also consented to the creation of a Jewish ghetto because of Jewish activity on the black market, inflating food prices and restricting supply. Once the ghetto had been created, the level of Jewish wealth behind the walls was still quite remarkable. Cesarani writes that one Jewish family retained “a Polish maid for several months, and a Jewish maid thereafter.” If conditions were not optimal for many Jews inside the ghetto, then this was far from the fault of the German administration. Cesarani concedes that much of the suffering among the poor of the ghetto was “the result of decisions made by Jews.” Although the cash-strapped Germans provided the funds for the ghettos and the creation of most of the industries therein, Jews began preying upon one another in a hive of “corruption and inequity.” As such, one chronicler reported that in certain quarters of the ghetto “fashion is in full swing again. … Smartly dressed women promenade up and down.” Others dined with “caviar, smoked salmon and brandy.” One Warsaw diarist wrote that “a number of caviar shops have been set up.” Another, Mary Berg, recorded that “new cafes and expensive grocery stores have appeared, where everything can be had. On Sienna Street and Leszno Street, women are seen in elegant coats and dresses fashioned by the best dressmakers.” In some of the bars one could get “fine wines and deliciously prepared cotelettes de volaille or boeuf Stroganoff.” As impoverished Jews died outside such establishments, the German authorities watched this startling inversion of parasitism, eventually bringing in film crews to document it for wider audiences.
Even the invasion of the Soviet Union brought no great change in the Jewish policies of the Third Reich. Cesarani remarks that German Judenpolitik remained in a “holding pattern” and that “Operation Barbarossa did not produce any specific initiatives regarding the Jews.” However, the realities of the war soon took its toll on this approach. For a start, the question of Jewish loyalties came irresistibly to the fore. It wasn’t just that Jews were anti-German — it was that they were pro-Bolshevik to a man. While Poles looked to the East with horror, one Jewish contemporary recalled that in every village Jews “welcomed the Red Army with joy.” It was perhaps unsurprising then that when Germans came under fire in villages full of “civilians,” Jews were suspected. One of the curiosities of Cesarani’s account of these instances is his refusal to link Jews explicitly with their rather obvious sympathies. Although citing clear Jewish support for the Bolshevist cause, he remarks that German death squads would seek out “Communists and Jewish civilians” for retributive action. His repeated use of the word “civilian” in conjunction with Jews is arguably as superfluous as it is over-used, and clearly designed to mask Jewish interests and actions — just as they were originally masked by Jews adopting “civilian” camouflage to strike at German troops.
Once again, one is left with the absurd impression that the Jewish ethnicity is entirely incapable of producing men of fighting age, and that these men would never, ever have undertaken to damage the fortunes of the German military.
Although the subject of sensationalized reporting and histories, the most up-to-date research has confirmed that the targets of German anti-partisan execution squads (Einsatzgruppen) were “Jewish men, more or less of military age.” However, even faced with gangs of Jewish assassins and whole communities seething with revenge fantasies, the German “death” squads could be remarkably lenient. In Lithuania and Latvia, even when local Nationalists arrested Jews as Communist sympathizers, German officers frequently released Jews from incensed locals. Cesarani writes that after the capture of Minsk, while the Jewish Communist elite were executed, “several thousand Jews were actually released.”
This was remarkable, not least because it risked alienating the local population. As the Soviets retreated they had massacred all of those held in their military prisons. Correctly seen as Soviet allies, if not dedicated Communists, Jews were spared the kind of local retribution that was rapidly becoming a daily feature of the war in the East. In Romania, Jews had been consistently caught “signalling to Soviet bombers during an air raid or spying for the Red Army.” But when Romanians took retributive action “the Einsatzgruppen reports express persistent criticism of Romanian conduct.”
Such mild conduct was eventually counter-productive for a German military that couldn’t afford to be targeted behind the lines. By 1942 German supply lines had been severely damaged by partisan activity. Isolated pockets of Jews and Communists were “being equipped by airdrops and reinforced by officers and commissars who were parachuted in to lead them.” Partisan activity had a monumental effect on the Leningrad Front, eventually forcing Hitler to adopt a directive specifically for the “bandit war.” Although history has recorded a very anti-Jewish interpretation of this directive by Himmler (“All Jews must be shot”) the scholarly consensus is that this was more desperate rhetoric than policy. Indeed, Cesarani notes that across the Front there was “still no uniformity about anti-Jewish policy.”
This might actually be surprising given that partisan activity was by now concentrated heavily along the Minsk-Moscow highway — the main artery for the German Army Group Centre that happened to pass “through a chain of cities and towns with substantial Jewish populations.” Cesarani describes it as a mere “coincidence” that these predominantly Jewish cities and towns were centres of the most vicious partisan activity of the period, though regarding Jews he at least admits in one generous remark that it was “not irrational to think of [Jews] as a foe.”
Aside from German security measures, as the Front advanced, long suppressed ethnic conflicts bubbled to the surface. Almost every riot or seizure of property was rooted in expressions of national ethnic interest. In Lithuania, where the Jewish minority had amassed “nearly 40 per cent of all residential dwellings,” essentially becoming landlords to the rightful heirs of the land, the release of ethnic discontent was predictably marked by bursts of reprisal shootings but more often by the seizure of property. In Ukraine, the most serious pogroms accompanied the anniversary of the death of the Nationalist Symon Petlyura who, like the young vom Rath, had been assassinated by a Jew in Paris. While much of “Holocaust” historiography has neglected the motive of ethnic revenge in favor of facile theories about an “anti-Semitic virus,” more modern research is acknowledging that the trail of ethnic dominance, targeted assassinations, and the suppression of dissent contributed substantially to wartime violence.
In another curiously understated aspect of earlier histories, those seeking revenge on Jews were often frustrated by a simple fact — there weren’t many Jews left. And the reason for this certainly wasn’t that they had been killed. German officers at the Ukrainian Front wrote to superiors in October 1941 that “it can be ascertained that in the central and eastern districts of the Ukraine, in many cases 70 per cent to 90 per cent and in some cases even 100 per cent of the Jewish population had bolted.” Cesarani remarks that just as Hitler rushed to evacuate ethnic Germans to the Reich, the Soviet Union quickly put in place measures that ensured Jews “benefited disproportionately from the policy to evacuate the staff and families of state agencies and industrial enterprises.” Subsequently, states Cesarani, well over a million Jews outran the Germans “or were pulled to safety by the Soviet state.” Those Jews who could be apprehended were likely to pay the penalty for the escape of their co-ethnics. A common “last goodbye” by these Jewish communist agents was to booby-trap major government buildings. As German forces moved in and started using them as field headquarters, the time bombs would detonate with huge loss of life. Many mass shootings can be attributed to the failure of remaining Jews to co-operate in providing information on the location of explosives in the aftermath of such detonations.
As the momentum of Operation Barbarossa ground to a halt, German problems worsened in other ways due to Jews. In those areas where German supply lines crossed Jewish villages, the men of military age had been shot or imprisoned. However, as Cesarani states, the villages remained reasonably well-populated and had become centres for typhus epidemics, thus endangering tenuous supply lines in yet another way. Further afield, Jewish propaganda had been dangerously escalated. In July 1941 an American Jew named Theodore Kaufman published a book entitled Germany Must Perish!, which “among other things, demanded the sterilization of all Germans.” Contemporary SD reports stated sombrely in reaction that the book showed “that this war is really one where the stakes are life or death.”
End of Part 4.