Review of David Cesarani’s “Final Solution: The Fate of the Jews, 1933–49” — Part Five of Five

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“I took a bit of revenge on the Germans…I also did some things with the German children.”
Jurek Kestenberg, 1946. 

“Aba Kovner, the leader of the Jewish partisan group that formed in Vilnius in early 1942, dedicated himself to mounting a major revenge operation. With other members of his unit he set about obtaining enough toxin to kill thousands by contaminating the water system of a German metropolis.”
David Cesarani, Final Solution.

Blood Feud, 1941? 

The “hot” war that occurred between 1939 and 1945 only overlapped with what had been a much older European inter-ethnic “cold war.” This “cold war” was built on centuries of suppressed “high pressure” that finally found its release in what descended into a carnival of death for all sides. As the war became waged more desperately, the means by which this conflict was fought were made more horrifying. As the Jewish book Germany Must Perish! suggested, the war was increasingly being framed not in terms of geo-political terms, but in terms of racial annihilation.

As 1942 approached, the Third Reich faced a “European-wide food crisis,” forcing it to tighten the rationing system in order to favor its own people. The rations of Poles, Jews and POWs would all be decreased. When the United States entered the war, the imbalance of German resources was made all the more obvious. In this context, a meeting was held at Wannsee to discuss the “Jewish Problem.” Although this meeting has been mythologized and seared into popular memory as the point at which a “Final Solution” involving murder by gassing was concocted, the most recent scholarship has raised some significant doubts. As Cesarani points out, while gas vans had indeed been very briefly experimented with during the German euthanasia program, they were quickly abandoned for a host of social and practical reasons. More pertinently, however, this supposedly meticulous, conclusive and “final” meeting to discuss the question of Jews in Europe didn’t even refer to the particulars of the euthanasia project, and did not connect any of their plans with this operation — “not even by cautious euphemisms.” Most modern scholars now conclude that for a “war against the Jews,” the German effort was “ill-planned, under-funded and carried through haphazardly at best.”

Meanwhile, the ghettos seethed with hundreds of thousands of Jews craving violence against Germans. One ghetto dweller wrote that news of the carpet bombing of German cities “makes the pulse beat faster,” while another wrote that an RAF raid on Cologne “slaked our thirst for revenge somewhat.” The ghettos also seethed with food, as Jews continued to manipulate the black market from within the walls by using networks of smugglers. As rations became tighter across Europe, one resident of the Warsaw ghetto wrote that “flour, potatoes, milk, butter, meat and other produce are brought into the ghetto.” On Simchat Torah, one inhabitant of the Warsaw ghetto recalled attending a service “at which a meal was served complete with schnapps, cognac, cholent, peas, potatoes, meat and honeycakes.” Cesarani notes that “in November the Germans permitted the delivery of 5 million cigarettes.” Another feature of the ghettos was the formation of activist units designed to form resistance movements inside and outside the ghetto as the Red Army advanced. Many of these efforts were only thwarted by extensive intelligence gathering by German forces. In Warsaw “on April 17–18 1942, the Gestapo struck, killing fifty-two political activists. Raids in other ghettos led to the arrest or death of several leaders and couriers.”

As investigations expanded the ring of guilty culprits, efforts were made to separate them from the main ghetto population, to sites like Treblinka. However, despite its sinister reputation, there is now a scholarly consensus that Treblinka was anything but an efficient apparatus for alleged mass killing. Contemporary German reports reveal that the “unloading process was so chaotic and the security so lax that dozens of Jews managed to escape before they even reached the camp.” Cesarani states that many of the escapees from this “death camp” took the rather subdued next step of boarding “trains returning to Warsaw.” Theresienstadt was no more gruesome. One resident, Norbert Troller, recalled that the camp “pulsated with life. There was work and leisure, concerns with sanitation, housing, health care, child care, record keeping, construction, theatre, concerts, lectures, all functioning as well as possible under the circumstances.” Helga Weiss, another resident of Theresienstadt recalled attending class at a children’s home at the camp where she “studied Czech, geography, history and maths.” She also fondly remembers that the children also staged plays in the attic. When the International Red Cross visited the camp in June 1944, a period when the war was at its most savage, they found “well-stocked shops, a playing field where young boys kicked a football, a school choir … and benches where old people basked in the sun.”

Allied advances in 1943 further pressed on German concerns about Jews and security. Cesarani writes that “every Jewish community in [zones along the shrinking Front] became a potential resistance nest, a bridgehead for the Allies.” The response was fear. Goebbels warned the German public that “a Bolshevization of the Reich would mean the liquidation of our entire intelligentsia and leadership, and the descent of our workers into Bolshevist-Jewish slavery. … Behind the oncoming Soviet divisions we see the Jewish liquidation commandos, and behind them terror, the spectre of mass starvation and complete anarchy.” Cesarani writes that the tens of thousands of Jews in the ghettos of Byelorussia had by 1943 become “infested with partisans.” William Kube, the German Generalkommisar for the region, attempted warning the hierarchy about the danger of swelling Jewish rebel groups, but was too late. On September 1943 he was killed by a bomb planted in his bedroom by a partisan. The Polish General Government tried to respond by rounding up Jews still living freely in many towns and villages, but as the Polish Canadian historian Jan Grabowski has discovered (and Cesarani concedes), around a quarter of a million Jews managed to evade capture and were able to link up with more than a million of their compatriots already safely evacuated into the Soviet zone. The dramatic exodus led to the end of Jewish settlement in hundreds of towns, though the death of many of these Jewish colonies has been incorrectly attributed to the mass execution of their inhabitants by biased historiography ever since.

As the Front continued to contract towards Germany, the Germans had the option of leaving ghettos full of known Soviet collaborators, thus reinforcing the forces arrayed against them, or bringing the Jews closer to Germany. They chose the latter. However, as disease-infected populations were shifted on top of one another, there was a domino effect on the spread of typhus. Faced with a severe shortage of medical supplies, the only means of control available to camp or ghetto authorities was the shooting of the contagious and terminally ill, and the incineration of their bodies. Bergen-Belsen, one of the last stops in the concentration of evacuated eastern holding centres, became a typhus-infested hell from which not even the guards were immune. Meanwhile the Red Army had entered German territory.

In November 1944 the East Prussian village of Nemmersdorf was the scene of rape, torture and mass slaughter, prefiguring a fate that would befall much of Germany over the next year. Camps and ghettos resounded with the uprising of vengeful Jews. At the I.G. Farben-linked work camp, Auschwitz, there was a brief uprising before the SS responded desperately with shooting reprisals to restore order. But the Front was weak and the danger of Red Army confrontation too close. One by one the ghettos and camps were emptied, their inhabitants marched back to the Reich rather than being left to reinforce the oncoming hordes. Individual survival was now key. Cesarani notes that “if news came that Red Army units were in the vicinity, jumpy guards were prone to kill single prisoners they thought were slowing the march.”

Most Jews, however, had already escaped German detention. For them, states Cesarani, “the war acquired a new dimension.” When the SS left a small camp near Salzwedel on April 14 1944, the Jewish inmates “broke out and sacked the nearby town,” committing rape and murder with impunity. Cesarani cites one participant as recalling that this “was the happiest moment of my life.”

After Germany”s military defeat, incidents like this were of course ongoing. The other war, however, remained “hot” for a little while. In Poland Nationalists killed around 200 Jewish communists in the summer of 1945. When large numbers of Jewish families returned from the safety of the Soviet Union to reclaim property in the Polish town of Rzeszow in June 1945, local agitation ensured that a return to the pre-1939 days would not be on the cards. In broken Germany, returning Jews “treated the German population as legitimate targets for casual abuse (especially women), theft, and exploitation though the black market.”

None of it was enough. Cesarani closes his book by stating that Jews “did not enjoy the retribution, restitution and reparation that they had longed for. There would be much unfinished business.”

*   *   *   *

David Cesarani rather pointedly ends his final book with the ominous admission that Jews sense that there was, and remains, “unfinished business.” This unfinished business doesn”t apply so much to the military conflict of the years 1939–45 as it does the other, older conflict that both preceded it and continued after it; the conflict between Judaism and the West. The international Jewish populations resented the National Socialist government for perfectly logical reasons. The National Socialists had refused to see Jews as anything other than Jews, and as a result were able to appraise Jewish interests, and conflicts of interest, very clearly indeed. The key to this ability was, ironically, the National Socialist emulation of Judaism, in the sense that it developed a highly ethnocentric society. Despite the reasoned and relatively mild efforts of the National Socialist government to curb Jewish interests while maintaining law and order, the very existence of a Judenpolitik was sufficient to send international Jewry into a frenzy. The result was an unprecedented media campaign demonizing the German government, and a series of high-profile propaganda stunts and targeted assassinations. Jewish influence over representations of these events has been so effective that it has taken more than seven decades since these events took place for an historiography to develop that brings them into more balanced focus. However, it will presumably be several more decades before it truly enters the scholarly mainstream, and several more before it becomes part of the common public consciousness.

One of the more promising developments in “Holocaust” historiography is the growing rejection of the term ‘Holocaust’ itself, along with wholesale rejections of the standard narrative attached to the cultural trope it labels. Conceptions of unblemished Jewish innocence, in which Jews existed before, during, and after the clash of arms merely as passive victims, are slowly dying. They are being gradually replaced with an understanding that the violence and other measures employed in fits and starts against Jews between 1939 and 1945 were rooted in collisions of ethnic interests that had their foundations in much earlier times. Along with sober critiques of Jewish atrocity propaganda, this is most welcome.

For all the moralizing and eulogizing about this period of history, it remains that no lessons have been taken from it. Indeed, as Cesarani”s “unfinished business” makes clear, the war never really ended. Judaism as a group evolutionary strategy was reinforced rather than weakened. Europeans, on the other hand, have been severely chastened with the example of the National Socialists, and their level of ethnocentrism has been heavily damaged since 1945. One may assume, however, that based on historical precedent a further build-up of “high pressure” will once more force Europeans to “Judaize” their culture and adopt a more ethnocentric and adversarial position. On this note, I can think of no better way to conclude this review than with some words from the close of Kevin MacDonald”s Culture of Critique:

What is certain is that the ancient dialectic between Judaism and the West will continue in the foreseeable future. It will be ironic that, whatever anti-Semitic rhetoric may be adopted by the leaders of these defensive movements, they will be constrained to emulate key elements of Judaism as a group evolutionary strategy. Such strategic mimicry will, once again, lead to a “Judaization” of Western societies not only in the sense that their social organization will become more group-orientated but also in the sense that they will be more aware of themselves as a positively evaluated ingroup and more aware of other human groups as competing, negatively evaluated outgroups. In this sense, whether the decline of the European peoples continues unabated or is arrested, it will constitute a profound impact of Judaism as a group evolutionary strategy on the development of Western societies

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