The History of the Great Crime
Brévaire de la Haine: Le Iiie Reich et les Juifs (“Breviary of Hate: The Third Reich and the Jews”).
by Léon Poliakov.
Calmann-Lévy, Paris. 385 pp. 780 francs.


Léon Poliakov’s excellent book on the Third Reich and the Jews is the first to describe the last phases of the Nazi regime on the basis, strictly, of primary source material. This consists chiefly of documents presented at the Nuremberg Trials and published in several volumes by the American government under the title Nazi Conspiracy and Aggression, These volumes contain, in addition to captured Nazi archives, a considerable number of sworn reports and affidavits by former Nazi officials. Mr. Poliakov, with a reasoned obstinacy, tells the story as the documents themselves unfold it, thus avoiding the prejudices and preconceived judgments that mar almost all the other published accounts. He has an eye for the relevant, and possesses complete and intimate knowledge of Nazi Germany’s complicated administrative machinery, of the fluctuating relations between the different services, as well as the ups and downs of the different cliques around Hitler.

The excellence of this book can be measured by the abundance of errors, misunderstandings, and misjudgments it corrects in every chapter. There are also many minor revisions. Nazis like Alfred Rosenberg, whose power has been generally exaggerated, are cut down to size; such little known facts as the preponderant role in the organization of extermination played by Austrians are given their due importance. And without this resolute clearing away of the whole thicket of error and rash generalization, the story could not have been properly told.

One of Mr. Poliakov’s signal achievements is the reconstruction of the chronology of the extermination process. Though there may still be some room for speculation as to the exact time when the gas chambers were decided upon, we now know with certainty that Hitler—perhaps after discussion with Bormann and Goebbels—issued the order for organized mass murder either in the fall of 1940, when it had become evident that the war could not be ended shortly, or early in 1941, during the preparation of the attack on Russia. By this decision, he automatically discarded several more moderate “solutions.” Among them was the Madagascar project, originally conceived by Himmler and adopted officially by the German Foreign Office before the outbreak of the war. Also proposed—it was a pet idea of Himmler’s—was the mass sterilization by X-ray of all male Jews (along with the intellectual elite of other non-Germanic peoples); they would be told simply to line up before windows and fill out fake questionnaires, being kept in ignorance of what was to happen to them. It would have been more practicable, however, to exterminate the Jews by starvation in the ghettos—a course favored by such “moderate” Nazis as Poland’s Governor General Hans Frank—or by working them to death, as Goebbels and Heydrich suggested. Hitler, as usual, dared to seize upon the most radical solution, and—again as usual—was right, for his own purposes, insofar as the gas chamber promised the surest results.

The Madagascar project had been a compromise between the Nazi brand of anti-Semitism and the older forms dear to German nationalism, which saw a “solution” of the Jewish question in Zionism; with the outbreak of the war, however, such compromises had been “outdated by events”—as Hitler liked to put it. Mass sterilization had proved to be impracticable; the machinery simply did not work effectively. Starvation was a slow process, full of unpredictable hazards, and likely to spread epidemics and cause needless and prolonged discussion among Germans themselves, as well as among subject peoples; all that could be stopped by drastic and irrevocable measures.

There was the intention, finally, of extracting the maximum of work from the Jews, who being doomed in any case, could be exploited without mercy; a course that appealed to the Nazis as much as it did to the Wehrmacht, whose manpower requirements were increasing constantly. But this plan suffered from an inherent contradiction: if a man is to work, he must have the necessities for a more or less normal process of life, otherwise he will die.



The first mass executions carried out by special troops, the so-called Einsatzgruppen, took place immediately after the invasion of Russia. In the fall of 1941, blueprints for gas chambers were ordered and soon afterwards approved by Hitler himself. The first mobile gas trucks were ready by the spring of 1942, and the huge death factories at Auschwitz and Belzec by the fall of 1942. From then until the fall of 1944—that is, throughout the crucial years of the war—the trains carrying Jews from every corner of Europe to Poland had priority over all other rail traffic except troop movements. Contrary to present notions, it was Hitler whose orders set the systematic extermination process in motion, whereas Himmler seems to have obeyed rather reluctantly. And it was the latter who ordered the horror to be halted, in the fall of 1944, and the death factories dismantled and razed. Hitler himself never learned—apparently because nobody had the nerve to tell him—that what he considered one of his greatest “achievements” had been prematurely terminated.

The surviving Jews and other inmates of Auschwitz and the remaining death camps were herded westward before the Russian armies, dying on their way by the thousands, and put into “ordinary” concentration camps in Germany, where tens of thousands more starved to death before the Allied troops finally arrived. What met the liberating armies in these camps horrified them more than anything they had seen on the field of battle, and actually did more to arouse public opinion than anything that had leaked out about the death factories in Poland—which had by then disappeared without leaving much visible trace. Ironically, however, the corpses and survivors that the British and American soldiers saw at Buchenwald and elsewhere were the victims largely of the sole unpremeditated crime committed by the Nazis—unpremeditated insofar as it was the result of the chaos during the last months of the war rather than of deliberate design.



This chronicle, though correct, tells only part of the story, the Jewish part. Mr. Poliakov is the first to understand and stress the close connection between the mass murder of Jews and an earlier experiment of the Nazis, the “mercy” killings during the first year of the war of 70,000 deranged and feeble-minded people in Germany. Not only did this precede the mass murder of other peoples; Hitler’s order of September 1, 1939 (significantly enough, on the very first day of hostilities) to liquidate all “incurably sick persons” in the Third Reich set the stage for everything that followed. It was certainly no accident that this decree was not carried out literally and that none but mental cases were killed; it is also possible that what caused the killings to be suspended after a year and a half was, as Poliakov and others maintain, the protests of the victims’ families and of other Germans. Nor is it likely that the fact that the beginning of the mass murder of Jews practically coincided with the termination of the “mercy” killings was due to accident either.

It looks as though Hitler, bent on realizing his race program by organized mass murder, followed at any given moment whatever line of least resistance promised the most immediate results. That he never abandoned his original intention of liquidating all “racially unfit” persons, regardless of nationality, can be seen from his plan to introduce a “national health bill” in Germany after the war, according to which the blood relatives of “sick persons, particularly those with lung and heart diseases,” would “no longer be able to remain among the public and no longer be allowed to produce children. What [would] happen to these families [was to] be the subject of further orders.”

By showing that the first day of the war was also the first day of organized mass murder, Mr. Poliakov throws new light on certain aspects of totalitarianism in general, and of Nazism in particular. Only Germany’s warenforced isolation from the Western world—which meant also from fascist fellow-travelers in non-totalitarian countries—made possible the full development of the totalitarian tendencies inherent in the Nazi regime. Hitler more than once expressed his thankfulness that the war, regardless of all doubt and fear as to its outcome, had given him the opportunity to realize certain “ideas” that would have had to remain in abeyance otherwise.

The war in all probability conferred still another “blessing” upon Hitler. Pacifism, under the impact of the new experience of machine made warfare, became after 1918 the first ideological movement to insist on equating war with sheer slaughter. The Nazi party during the 1920’s developed side by side with German pacifism and through conflict with it. In distinction, however, from all purely nationalist propagandists for militarism, the Nazis never questioned the correctness of the pacifist equation; rather, they frankly approved of all forms of murder, and of war as one among them. In their opinion all notions of military honor or chivalry, with their implied respect for certain universal laws of humanity, were so much hypocrisy, and included in that hypocrisy was any conception of war that envisaged the defeat of the enemy without his utter destruction. For the Nazis, as for the pacifists, war was slaughter.

This seems to be why they waited until the actual outbreak of war before embarking on their “mercy-killing” program; reasoning that with so many healthy young men being slaughtered at the front, Germans would not pay much attention now to the slaughtering of “worthless” people at home, and there would be no serious resistance to the execution of the program. For what difference was there between one kind of killing and any other? But subsequent experience taught the Nazis that the families of mentally sick persons are not prone to listen to “logic” when the life of one of their own is at stake; this may be the reason—or one of the reasons—why in his above-quoted draft of a “national health bill,” which was probably outlined in 1943, two years after the suspension of the “mercy killings,” Hitler proposed to murder the relatives of sick people too.

Whatever the true case was, the connection between mass extermination and “mercy killing” in Germany is one of Poliakov’s most important insights, and he traces this in all its ramifications. The physicians, engineers, and others who perfected the techniques of euthanasia during the first year of the war for application to German mental cases were the same ones later put in charge of the installations at Auschwitz and Belzec. Even more conclusive as to the reality of this connection was the fact, inexplicable otherwise, that the same effort was made in Poland, as previously in the smaller death factories in Germany, to perfect the machinery of death and “attain the goal without torture and without agony.” Cruelty and brutality, still prevalent among the soldiers and policemen selected at random for concentration-camp duties, were conspicuously absent among the death factory technicians. For them, as Himmler once put it, anti-Semitism was like “de-lousing,” race problems were a question of “cleanliness,” and the “solution of the problem of blood by action” meant elimination of “contaminating elements.”



Another of Mr. Poliakov’s major contributions is his deflation of the myth that the German officers’ corps and the old pre-Hitler civil servants, particularly those in the Foreign Office and the diplomatic corps, either did not know what was going on or, when they did, protested. General Jodl himself had carefully weighed the pros and cons of extermination policy in terms of German morale and had concluded that its obvious liabilities were outweighed by one great psychological factor—the ordinary German soldier would fight better once he knew he had burnt all bridges behind him, and was involved in indissoluble complicity with the perpetrators of an enormous crime. Wehrmacht units, not SS troops, initiated the so-called Heuaktion in which some forty to fifty thousand children were kidnapped from Eastern Europe and brought to Germany. And it was Undersecretary of State Luther who, together with the German military authorities, was responsible for the extermination of the Serbian Jews.

Some Germans, of course, did protest, both Nazi and non-Nazi. Mr. Poliakov quotes from a few of the protests that were set down in writing. Not quite fairly, perhaps, he is amazed at the arguments used, which stress military and economic disadvantages, the nervous strain on the executioners, and deplore the bad effect on the morale of the German troops and the conquered populations. It is unlikely that these protests could have been voiced at all had they invoked moral considerations. What is more remarkable is that few of them came from the German military and civil hierarchy, and that more were made, probably, by old Nazi party members and even SS leaders.

Up to now it has not been sufficiently recognized that the only country on the Nazi side of the lines that resolutely and effectively shielded the Jews was Germany’s one important European ally, Italy. (The one other center of refuge for Jews appears to have been in the areas of Croatia where Tito’s partisans were firmly established.) Mr. Poliakov discusses the Italian episode at length in connection with Vichy France’s attitude towards Jews, of which he gives a complete and accurate account. Vichy’s willingness to cooperate precisely on the score of anti-Semitism was such that one can well believe that Adolf Eichmann, the organizer of the deportations of Jews from all parts of Europe, did not miscalculate the psychology of the Vichy French when, at a particularly critical moment, he actually threatened them with the possibility of “excluding France as one of the countries of [Jewish] evacuation.”



Nowhere does Mr. Poliakov’s integrity and objectivity show to better advantage than in his account of the ghettos and the role of their Judenräte, or Jewish councils. He neither accuses nor excuses, but reports fully and faithfully what the sources tell him—the growing apathy of the victims as well as their occasional heroism, the terrible dilemma of the Judenräte, their despair as well as their confusion, their complicity and their sometimes pathetically ludicrous ambitions. In the famous and very influential Reichsvertretung of German Jews, which functioned smoothly until the last German Jew had been deported, he sees the forerunner of the Judenräte of the Polish ghettos; he makes it clear that the German Jews, in this respect too, served the Nazis as guinea pigs in their investigation of the problem of how to get people to help carry out their own death sentences, the last turn of the screw in the totalitarian scheme of total domination.

These are but a few samples taken from the extraordinary abundance of new factual material in this book. Anyone who wants to know “what really happened” and “how it really happened”—the “what” and the “how” being not only the most terrible experience of our generation, but probably the most significant too—cannot afford to overlook this study, and would perhaps do best to begin with it. (Unhappily, it has not yet interested any American publisher.) The close documentation of the book and its almost complete refusal to indulge in guesswork will serve as a solitary contrast to an alarming type of “neo-German” literature that has begun to appear lately in that country. For, under the pretext of giving the “what” and “how” of what really happened under Hitler, we are presented with a disgusting spectacle in which vanity, complacency, and ambition are displayed at their worst: the civil and military hierarchy, though denying their all too obvious complicity in Hitler’s crimes, nevertheless try eagerly to show the world what very important and distinguished roles they once played under him—and, consequently, are capable of playing again in the future. (See Peter de Mendelssohn’s “Germany’s Generals Stage a Comeback,” in COMMENTARY of October 1951.) The doubtful value of these memoirs and autobiographies as source material has been pointed out again and again by competent authorities, but this has not diminished their popular appeal in Germany. Part of this is due to the German public’s justified desire to get at the basic truth about a series of events whose horror was such that the real facts—it is assumed—were kept highly secret, and therefore can be told correctly only by actual participants. From this point of view, it seems natural that the more prominent a man was in the Nazi regime the more valuable his “confessions” ought to be.

The truth is, as I think Mr. Poliakov’s book helps make clear, that the secrets of the Nazi regime were not so well kept by the Nazis themselves. They behaved according to a basic tenet of our time, which may be remembered in the future as the “Age of Paper.” Today no man in an official position can take the slightest action without immediately starting a stream of files, memos, reports, and publicity releases. The Nazis left behind them mountains of records that make it unnecessary to confide the slaking of our thirst for knowledge to the memories of people who were in the main untrustworthy to begin with. Nor could it have been otherwise. Hitler’s great ambition was to found a millennial empire and his great fear, in case of defeat, was lest he and his fellows go unremembered in centuries to come. Red tape was not simply a necessity forced on the Nazis by the organizational methods of our time; it was also something they enthusiastically welcomed and multiplied, and so they left to history, and for history, typewritten records of each and every one of their crimes in at least ten copies.



There is a mystery about the Nazi regime, but it has nothing to do with secrets. It resides solely in a response, humanly unavoidable, that makes us go on asking, “Why—but why?” long after all the facts are reported, all stages of the process known, all conceivable motives considered. Apart from a few not too relevant remarks on the German national character, Mr. Poliakov’s book neither poses nor attempts to answer this question. Yet it does not suppress it either; the author is too scrupulous and has too much intellectual integrity to content himself with those glib sociological and psychological rationalizations that have become modern man’s standard refuge from reality. It is this point, precisely—this determination to refuse easy explanations—that, in my opinion, should be made the decisive criterion by which to judge any and all attempts to describe and explain these recent and unprecedented events.

Only if the reader continues, after everything about the exterminations has been made tangible and plausible, to feel his first reaction of outraged disbelief, only then will he be in the position to begin to understand that totalitarianism, unlike all other known modes of tyranny and oppression, has brought into the world a radical evil characterized by its divorce from all humanly comprehensible motives of wickedness.

It would be the greatest error to assume that these horrors are a thing of the past. Concentration and extermination camps are the most novel and most significant devices of all totalitarian forms of domination. Reports on the Soviet Russian system, whose “forced labor camps” are extermination camps in disguise, are numerous enough and trustworthy enough to permit comparison with the Nazi system. The differences between the two are real, but not radical; both systems result in the destruction of people selected as “superfluous.” The development of this notion of “superfluity” is one of the central calamities of our century, and has produced its most horrible “solution.” Research into Nazism, therefore, so frequently minimized today as “mere” history, is indispensable for our understanding of the problems of the present and the immediate future.



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