Mass murder by muddle: a new history of the Holocaust

An immense posthumous work from the historian David Cesarani shows that Nazi policies were often “confused, contradictory, half-baked”.

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Last October, the historian David Cesarani died of a heart attack just weeks after an ­operation to remove a tumour on his spine. Right until the end of his life, he worked on his last projects: a forthcoming study on Disraeli and the book he surely hoped would be his magnum opus, Final Solution, a thousand-page history of Nazism and its attempt to exterminate the Jews of Europe.

Final Solution has all the characteristic virtues of Cesarani’s work. It is clear and accessible and displays his huge appetite for ideas and enormous stamina as a historian. There are 98 pages of footnotes and a bibliography of almost 900 entries, many of which were published in the past 15 years. Cesarani covers vast ground, including detailed accounts of the main death camps and ghettos and the fate of Jews throughout Europe. The book has a broad sweep but is also full of fascinating details. More than half of the Jews still in Germany in 1939 were aged over 45 and most were women. Those who got out were often the young, the fit, the well off and male. In the Warsaw Ghetto, by contrast, three-quarters of those still alive by 1943 were aged between 20 and 50. There were almost no children and few old people. Whether in pre-war Berlin, the Warsaw Ghetto or the camps, young males had the best chance of surviving.

Cesarani is especially good on the importance of food. For much of the war, the Third Reich faced a European-wide food crisis. For example, the invasion of Ukraine so disrupted the harvest that “only a fraction of what the Germans [had] anticipated was actually brought in”. The breadbasket of Europe failed to feed the German army or civilians at home, with terrible consequences for Soviet prisoners of war and Jews.

Throughout the book, Cesarani makes significant connections between the war and the Holocaust. German military failure was crucial, especially after 1941. As the German military position deteriorated, the situation of the Jews became ever more alarming. The war, he writes, was “the single most important thing that determined the fate of the Jews”.

Cesarani’s greatest gift as a journalist and broadcaster was his polemical energy, his willingness to challenge conventional wisdom. The best parts of Final Solution are the conclusions that he draws from his wealth of reading. Historians and educationalists, he claims, have relied too uncritically on survivors’ testimonies. Their experiences were often atypical: “They could only have experienced the Nazi years as children, teenagers or young adults.”

Commemorative events, he argues, avoid sensitive subjects. They “steer around phenomena like the corruption of life in the ghettos and the moral degradation of camp inmates” and are silent about the darker picture: “instances of voluntary infanticide, sexual exploitation amongst the Jews, rape and even cannibalism”. The Holocaust, he continues, was not “a unitary event”. New research points to the “nuances between different countries, regions, districts and even adjacent villages”. Some historians argue that: “A number of overlapping genocides raged within the Holocaust.”

Cesarani challenges the established view of the Holocaust, from Raul Hilberg’s to Zygmunt Bauman’s, as bureaucratic, industrial and technological – all those railways and factories of death. Think of the recurrent images of trains in the film-maker Claude Lanzmann’s Shoah. Often, however, the violence was brutal and primitive. There was nothing industrial about dying of typhus or being clubbed to death. Cesarani gives due emphasis to the Shoah by bullets as well as the Shoah by gas but he also writes about those who died of disease, hunger and cold.

The Holocaust was far from carefully planned. It was about “improvisation and muddle”. Nazi policies were often “confused, contradictory, half-baked”. In the 1930s, anti-Semitic policy in Germany “was laced with . . . many contradictions”. Cesarani writes that, on the eve of the invasion of Poland in 1939, “The Nazi leadership and its minions did not have a clue about how the huge Jewish population should be treated as a whole.” Even after the invasion of the Soviet Union, “Specific planning for the Jewish population was left late and remained vague.”

Cesarani pays considerable attention to Jewish self-defence and he is particularly interesting on the history of Jewish refugees. He also follows Götz Aly (Hitler’s Beneficiaries) and Jan Tomasz Gross (Golden Harvest) in showing how important the confiscation of Jewish wealth and property was, not only for funding the German war economy but for winning the hearts of Germans and local populations: “Greed, not anti-Semitism, motivated many people to align themselves with the German occupiers.”

Perhaps the most controversial part of the book is the light it throws on “the rape of Jewish women and the sexual exploitation of Jews in ghettos and camps”. Most disturbing of all: “Sometimes Jews preyed upon Jews.” Cesarani paints a landscape of brutal violence, hunger and sexual abuse.

Final Solution has many strengths, yet there are issues that might well have been resolved had he lived longer. The subtitle, The Fate of the Jews 1933-49, is questionable. There were also millions of non-Jewish victims of the Nazis – gypsies, homosexuals, Soviet prisoners of war, the mentally and physically ill and, above all, Poles and the peoples of the “Bloodlands”. These victims get little attention. Cesarani quotes many British and American diplomats and journalists on 1930s Germany but comparatively few Polish or Soviet sources. There is little about the Soviet Union before 1941. The Nazi-Soviet Pact and the Soviet occupation of east Poland barely feature. Most worryingly, he is unsympathetic to the plight of Poles, Ukrainians and others in occupied countries. They are largely depicted as perpetrators or collaborators, rarely as victims.

Finally, at more than 1,000 pages, the book is too long. The central section on the Final Solution reads more as a list of atrocities and statistics than an analysis. It is easy to miss the new insights, lost in this immense chronological narrative. However, had it not been for the terrible circumstances that affected the completion of this book, Final Solution would have been a magnificent tribute to its author, one of the leading Jewish historians and public intellectuals of his generation.

Final Solution: the Fate of the Jews 1933-49 by David Cesarani is published by Macmillan (1,016pp, £30)

David Herman is a writer specialising in Jewish cultural history