Nearly half a century has passed since the murder of the European Jews during World War II, and it might be thought that at this late date we understand fully how and why the German state under Hitler committed its terrible crimes. Yet scholars are still producing monographs and books with new explanations of how it all came about. To be sure, every new generation of scholars revises the work of its predecessors and rewrites history according to its own lights. Today, however, a number of professional historians are propounding interpretations of the murder of the European Jews so implausible and so perverse that, even as they strain credulity, they undermine the credibility of the historical enterprise itself.
The origin of these bizarre explanations can be traced to West Germany, where, indeed, most scholarly work on the subject has been produced. In the wake of the student riots in the late 1960's, leftist historians, searching for a more sophisticated social theory than that provided by Marxism, reached out to other disciplines for theoretical concepts of “system, structure, and function.” These “structuralist” historians began to transform the writing of history from an account of the deeds and ideas of men into a record of the workings of impersonal institutions.
In studying the Nazi past, the new generation of historians concluded that the Nazi state had functioned not in accordance with its leaders' intentions and policies but largely through the near-autonomous workings of its bureaucracies. Thus, these historians became tagged as “functionalists,” in contrast to “intentionalists,” who held, and hold, that Hitler's ideas and intentions were what determined the course of Germany's history. The structuralists/functionalists furthermore believed that Hitler's Germany, far from being a dictatorship operating under the Fuehrer principle, was more like a bureaucratic jungle, in which officials scrambled to establish their own jurisdictions and to exercise authority independently of Hitler.
As against the universally held view that Hitler's will and intentions had set Germany's agenda and shaped its policies, and that the state's institutions—notably the infamous SS—had been dedicated to executing that will, the structuralists/functionalists claimed that Hitler was a weak leader. They also minimized or altogether dismissed the view that the racial anti-Semitism which obsessed Hitler (and which afflicted German society as a whole after World War I) had succeeded in penetrating into all aspects of policy-making in the German dictatorship. One leading functionalist went so far as to claim that the “Jewish question” in the Nazi state was merely a matter of tactics, not a fundamental aspect of state policy.
Actually, few functionalists were familiar with all the sources and documents relevant to the murder of the European Jews, which was not the area of their specialization. But lack of competence did not inhibit them from imposing their dogmas on the historical evidence. They focused on one particular issue, for which, as in many crucial junctures in history, the documents are not as precise and explicit as historians would like: when, if at all, and by whom, if anyone, was a decision made to murder the Jews? Much functionalist writing concentrated on the absence among the Nazi records of unambiguous written instructions to murder the Jews.
One functionalist, Uwe Dietrich Adam, claiming from the start that Germany's anti-Jewish policies had not been planned in advance and that “Hitler merely reacted to existing circumstances and did not create them himself,” went on to argue from the absence of a written order to kill the Jews that Hitler had not decided on a systematic program of murder even when the Einsatzgruppen, the SS special-duty forces, began shooting Jews en masse in the summer of 1941, in Soviet-held territory. From the fact that by November 1941 the Einsatzgruppen, operating in four specially trained armed divisions, had already murdered about a million Jews, Adam did concede that Hitler might have made such a decision late in 1941, but not before then.1
A spate of functionalist articles appearing in the wake of Adam's book spawned a series of academic conferences, and from these conferences, in turn, emerged book-length collections of papers.2 Still, notwithstanding their energy and industry, the functionalists have succeeded in persuading only a coterie of those who share their articles of faith. Their views, being profoundly at variance with the knowledge accumulated over decades, have remained outside the historical consensus and have so far failed to alter public consciousness of the Nazi period.
Yet functionalist theory still plays a role, and is sometimes used as a gambit to undermine long-established historical judgments. Thus, Arno J. Mayer, who holds an endowed chair in European history at Princeton, in his new book, Why Did the Heavens Not Darken?: The “Final Solution” in History,3 presents the thesis that Hitler was embarked on a premeditated, holy crusade to crush the Soviet Union and liquidate international Communism, but that he never intended to murder the Jews. Echoing Uwe Dietrich Adam, Mayer argues that only in the fall of 1941, when they came to believe that their anti-Bolshevik crusade was faltering, did Hitler and his generals turn against the Jews, convenient scapegoats on whom the Germans now discharged their frustration and rage at having been thwarted in their holy war against the Soviet Union.
Mayer's revisionist agenda is an ambitious one, which he presents without any inhibiting footnotes to document his questionable assertions and debatable interpretations. (In a recent interview, Mayer ridiculed footnotes as “a fetish [that] very often interferes with careful intellection and rumination.”) He undertakes to show (1) that racial anti-Semitism was never a significant factor in the Nazi party or in the governance of the Nazi state; (2) that the Nazis intended only to deport the Jews, not to murder them; (3) that the murder squads of the Einsatzgruppen had no orders to kill Jews; and (4) that at Auschwitz more Jews died of “natural causes” than in the gas chambers.
Anti-Semitism as the fueling energy of Nazi ideology gets short shrift from Mayer. “Just as anti-Semitism was not the core of Hitler's presumption,” he claims, “it did not have precedence over his other dogmas, particularly anti-Marxism and anti-Bolshevism.” Though he concedes that “inwardly anti-Semitism may have been Hitler's core idea and all-consuming passion,” in the very next sentence he also asserts that “before 1933 neither [Hitler's] public discourse nor the creed and ritual of the Nazi movement put [anti-Semitism] first, or were perceived as doing so.” So much for Mein Kampf, the thick dossiers of Hitler's anti-Semitic speeches before he came to power, and the 25-point program the fledgling Nazi party adopted in 1920, which stated that no Jew could ever belong to the German Volk and that only persons of German blood could be citizens of the German state.
Even when Mayer does acknowledge the presence of anti-Semitism in Hitler's mind and in the Nazi movement, he does not define it as an irrational hatred of the Jews or as fanatical racism, but as a screen for other resentments. Thus, he turns the Jews into “surrogate victims of [Hitler's] counterattack against polymorphous modernity, which was his ultimate target” (emphasis in the original). According to Mayer, “if Hitler's world-view had an epicenter, it was his deep-seated animosity toward contemporary civilization, and not his hatred for Jews, which was grafted onto it.”
Given this upside-down account of Hitler's anti-Semitism, it is not surprising that Mayer scants the role played by racial ideas in Nazi political thinking and in the plans for war. Only now and then does he acknowledge that the goal of Lebensraum, “living space” for the master Aryan race in its quest for empire, was the motivating idea for the war and for the invasion of Russia. Nor does he associate the murder of the Jews with the aim of racial empire, despite convincing evidence that Hitler and his associates planned the two in synchronization, with the elimination of the Jews being necessary in order to ensure the purity and supremacy of the Aryan race.
In laying the groundwork for his thesis that the Germans never intended to murder the Jews, Mayer redefines the term “Judeobolshevism,” which in Nazi jargon was an epithet for the so-called Jewish conspiracy that already controlled Russia and aspired to control the world. Mayer gives this lunatic fantasy a more rational meaning than it ever had in the Nazi lexicon, suggesting that “bolshevism” referred simply to the Soviet regime, and the modifying “Judeo” to a Jewish presence in that regime. In this way he derives warrant to conclude that when the Nazis invoked the term “Judeobolshevism” they were referring to the Soviet Union and not to the Jews. The war against Russia was therefore, according to Mayer, a crusade to extirpate Bolshevism, not to acquire Lebensraum, create an Aryan empire, or murder the Jews.
Yet Mayer also cites texts which contradict his definition of “Judeobolshevism.” One, for example, is Hitler's proclamation to his troops in October 1941, explaining that poverty in Russia was
the result of nearly twenty-five years of Jewish rule, with a Bolshevik system that is essentially similar to the capitalist system, the carriers of both systems being the same, namely Jews and only Jews.
This compelling illustration of the Nazis' irrational understanding of capitalism and Bolshevism makes not the slightest dent in Mayer's reasoning.
Mayer's next step is to dust off a long-discredited hypothesis—namely, that once they had crushed Russia, the Nazis originally intended not to kill the Jews but to deport and resettle them “in a Lublin-like reservation beyond the Volga or the Urals.” Mayer likely borrowed this idea from Adam, who holds that as late as mid-1941 “the final solution of the Jewish question” meant only resettling the Jews in Madagascar.
The notion of shipping the Jews to Madagascar originated in Germany in the early 30's. In 1939, the German Foreign Office appropriated the idea as a proposed “solution” to the “Jewish problem,” but dropped it after the invasion of the Soviet Union. An alternative plan was conceived in November 1939 to establish a reservation in the area of Lublin as a dumping ground for Jewish and non-Jewish “destructive elements.” German Jews were then being shipped to Poland, presumably to be incarcerated there. Early in 1940 the plan for a Lublin reservation was approved at the highest level, but no practical steps were ever taken to implement it. In April 1940 the plan was abandoned.
Still, the idea of resettlement, whether to Madagascar, a Lublin reservation, or beyond the Urals, remained in the repertory of Nazi propaganda, a tactic of deception to conceal the mass killings of Jews. Even Hitler, on July 22, 1941, when he knew that the Madagascar plan had already been dropped and that the Einsatzgruppen had already been given their instuctions, told Marshal Kvaternik, head of the Croatian armed forces, that it was a matter of indifference to him where the Jews were sent, whether to Siberia or to Madagascar. Soon thereafter, the SS routinely used the deceptive promise of resettlement “in the East” to lull the persecuted and terrorized Jews who were in fact being deported to killing camps. Today we are being asked once again to believe the propaganda about resettlement, this time by a university professor.
To support his scenario that the Germans never intended to murder the Jews, Mayer must somehow account for the massive operations of the four Einsatzgruppen on Soviet territory. He begins by claiming that “when they set forth on their mission, the Einsatzgruppen and the RSHA [Reich Central Security Office] were not given the extermination of Jews as their principal, let alone their only, assignment.” That statement contradicts what has been known and documented for over forty years. License for the Einsatzgruppen to kill was written into the military orders for “Barbarossa,” the code name for the invasion of Russia, issued March 13, 1941, and explicit orders were later given orally to murder Jews, Gypsies, and “commissars.” The Round-up Report of Einsatzgruppe A for the period ending October 15, 1941, unambiguously states: “. . . in accordance with the basic orders, the mopping-up work of the Security Police had as its goal the annihilation, as comprehensive as possible, of the Jews.”4
How does Mayer explain the fact that Jews began to be murdered as soon as the Einsatzgruppen entered Soviet territory? He has a ready answer: “Some of the first and for a time the worst outrages against the Jews were committed not by the new-model Einsatzgruppen, but by latter-day local pogromists in . . . Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia.” And, “[i]n the early triumphant days of Barbarossa the Jewish massacres were the product of random pogroms rather than of an official plan or warrant for systematic genocide.” In fact, however, those “random pogroms” were planned and instigated by the Einsatzgruppen. The evidence, which Mayer either does not know or chooses to ignore, is in the Roundup Report of Einsatzgruppe A quoted above:
. . . in the first hours after our entry [Kovno June 25, 1941], even under considerable hardships, native anti-Semitic elements were induced to start pogroms against Jews. In conformity with orders, the Security Police was determined to solve the Jewish question with all means and full decisiveness. It was, however, desirable that the Security Police should not be visible, at least in the beginning, since the extraordinarily harsh measures would attract attention even in German circles. It had to be demonstrated to the world that the native population itself took the first measures by way of natural reaction against decades-long suppression by the Jews and against the terror exercised by the Communists in the preceding period.
We now come to the crux of Mayer's thesis—that only after “the breakdown of Barbarossa” did the Jews become, as he puts it, “the chosen martyrs of [Germany's] fiery crusade against Bolshevism.” To prove this thesis, Mayer postdates the Einsatzgruppen killings and antedates the collapse of the German campaign in Russia. Following Adam's lead, Mayer settles on the fall of 1941 as his great divide. Until then, he insists, “the Nazi drive against the Jews remained indeterminate and erratic.”
The real sequence of events was quite different. (Even a few of Mayer's functionalist colleagues have disputed his rigged timetable.) The Germans began the actual killing of the Jews in the summer of 1941. By September, Einsatzgruppe C, operating in the Ukraine, had already slaughtered tens of thousands, including some 34,000 in Kiev, shot en masse in two days at Babi Yar. By mid-October, Einsatzgruppe A had completed the first cycle of its killings in the Baltic and White Russia and had started a second cycle. According to the report cited above, the number of “executed persons” during the period from June to October 15, 1941, in Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia, and White Russia, reached a total of 118,430 Jews and 3,387 Communists—hardly the result of an “indeterminate and erratic” drive. The disproportionate number of “executed” Jews (as against Bolsheviks) indicates well the priorities of the Einsatzgrupp en.5
Nor does the evidence support Mayer's premature date for the breakdown of Barbarossa. He claims that Hitler and his generals knew they had failed to crush Russia as early as December 6, 1941, when Zhukov's counterassault relieved the siege of Moscow. But though the German generals may have been ready to quit during that perilous winter of 1941-42, Hitler refused to let them retreat. And his strategy worked—at least for another year. Though the Russians did manage to recapture a little territory in White Russia and the Ukraine in the spring of 1942, in a powerful counteroffensive the Germans retook those areas in July and then swept through the Ukraine and the Caucasus, penetrating as far east as Stalingrad by September. This German advance catastrophically reduced Russian agricultural supplies and threatened widespread famine, relieved only by the massive United States food shipments. Leningrad, meanwhile, under siege since September 1941, remained unrelieved until January 1943.
On account of Hitler's persistence, in other words, Barbarossa did not break down in December 1941, but a year later. By that time, the Einsatzgruppen had already murdered about two-thirds of the Jews in the area of their operations. The killing of the Jews was carried out as an operation parallel with the invasion of Russia; it was not a consequence of the failure of that invasion.
In a far-fetched historical analogy, Mayer compares the operations of the Einsatzgruppen with the First Crusade of 1095-99. (The title of his book is taken from a medieval Jewish chronicle about Jewish martyrdom in the Rhineland during that crusade.) Pope Urban II launched the crusade to liberate the holy land from the Muslim infidels. Marching across Europe, the Crusaders massacred the Jews en route, even though the Pope had not intended or ordered them to do so.
The analogy is absurd on several counts. For one thing, haphazard extemporaneous pogroms committed by the soldiers of Christ and by undisciplined hordes of peasants are not in any way comparable to a bureaucratically organized mass murder carried out by tightly structured and trained battalions which, when they completed their work, had killed about two million Jews. Nor, by any stretch of the historical imagination, can the Crusades be compared to the death camps, where millions of people—mostly Jews—were gassed and their corpses burned.
But this brings us to Auschwitz. How, if he insists that the Germans had no intention to murder the Jews, does Mayer deal with it? Ingeniously, he transforms the very nature of Auschwitz from a place whose name has become a byword for unspeakable evil and horror into a place where “more Jews were killed by so-called ‘natural’ causes then by ‘unnatural ones.’ ““Indeed,” he adds, “ultimately the execrable living, sanitary, and working conditions in the concentration camps and ghettos took a greater toll of life than the willful executions and gassings in the extermination centers.” To this breathtaking assertion, no comment would be adequate.
Mayer, who is in general cavalier about documentation, turns singularly scrupulous when it comes to the sources concerning Auschwitz, about which, he writes, “there is no denying the many contradictions, ambiguities, and errors.” And further:
Sources for the study of the gas chambers are at once rare and unreliable. . . . Most of what is known is based on the depositions of Nazi officials and executioners at postwar trials and on the memory of survivors and bystanders. This testimony must be screened carefully, since it can be influenced by subjective factors of great complexity.
But the sources for the “study of the gas chambers,” consisting of official and personal documents by perpetrators and victims, are not any rarer or less reliable than for other historical events and periods. They are assuredly more numerous, more detailed, and more trustworthy than the sources for the history of the First Crusade, on which Mayer relies with total confidence. As for “subjective factors,” the first lesson every graduate student learns about historical method is that all documentary sources have to be screened carefully for such factors.
“Both radical skepticism and rigid dogmatism about the exact processes of extermination and the exact number of victims, are the bane of sound historical interpretation,” Mayer pontificates. Against whom is he taking aim in this enigmatic reference? Clues may be found both in his text and in his bibliography. Omitted, conspicuously, are two of the most authoritative eyewitness accounts of the death camps. One is the detailed report of operations at Auschwitz, complete with diagrams and statistics, compiled in the spring of 1944 by Alfred Weczler and Rudolf Vrba, two Slovakian Jews who had managed to escape and whose documented account, the first to reach the West, was published by the United States War Refugee Board late in 1944. The second is the testimony of Kurt Gerstein, an SS officer whose task was to deliver to Bełzec and Treblinka the cyanide gas known as Zyklon B. Captured by the Allies after the war, Gerstein wrote two depositions of his activities, including his witnessing of actual gassings. Before he came to trial, he was found hanged in his cell.
There are those who have tried to discredit these documents, particularly Gerstein's, along with the rest of the substantial body of evidence of mass shootings and mass killings. Such persons come from the ranks of the deniers of the Holocaust, those who claim that the Germans never murdered any Jews or gassed human beings at Auschwitz. How extraordinary to find that Mayer's bibliography, innocent of reference to Gerstein or Weczler and Vrba, includes works by two of the most rabid deniers. One is The Hoax of the Twentieth Century, by Arthur Butz, and the other is a 1979 reprint of a book originally published in 1949 by Paul Rassinier, entitled Le Mensonge d'Ulysse. Rassinier, a former French Communist interned in Buchenwald during the war, turned rabidly anti-Semitic after liberation. He died in 1967, but his book, which denies that the Germans committed any atrocities against the Jews in the camps, was reprinted in 1979 by La Vielle Taupe, a leftist French publishing house. A year earlier, Robert Faurisson, then an associate professor of literature at a French university in Lyon, also began to publish essays about the “alleged gas chambers” and the “alleged genocide.” An international scandal ensued, fueled by the efforts of some leftists connected with La Vielle Taupe, and seconded by Noam Chomsky, to defend Faurisson's rights to disseminate his ideas from the protected precincts of a university position.6
Is it possible that Mayer has these crackpots and other neo-Nazis in mind when, with Olympian detachment, he admonishes against “radical skepticism” as a bane “of sound historical interpretation”? If so, does his second bane, “rigid dogmatism,” then apply to those survivors and historians who stick to their conviction that six million is a realistic estimate of the number of Jews murdered by the Germans? This would be historical even-handedness with a vengeance.
In setting out to interpret the murder of the European Jews as the fortuitous by-product of the Nazi state's crusade against international Communism, Mayer excises the unique complex of racial ideas that fueled Hitler and his Germany, de-demonizes Hitler and normalizes his dictatorship, and substitutes rational political goals for the Nazis' fanatically racist agenda. Though he has taken a different political route to get there, Mayer ends up with much the same view of the Nazi regime as that held by right-wing German scholars like Ernst Nolte, who try to justify the Nazi regime by arguing the necessity of crushing Communist Russia.
In declaring early in his book that it is time to revise, reappraise, and historicize the European “Judeocide,” Mayer calls upon historians to “abandon the vantage point of the cold war” and discard “residual cold-war blinders.” By the cold war, however, Mayer does not mean what we commonly define as the struggle for power and influence between the Soviet Union and the Western democracies after World War II, when the Soviet Union established its hegemony over Eastern Europe. Rather, Mayer's cold war dates back to the Bolshevik Revolution and is a war “between change and resistance to change, between optimism and pessimism, dawn and dusk.” What Bolshevism represents to Mayer is clearly stated in the opening pages of his earlier book, The Persistence of the Old Regime:
Historians . . . will also keep trying to penetrate the agony and ferocity of the Bolshevik Revolution and regime, which were the main ray of hope during one of Europe's darkest nights. Russia was fatally caught up in this colossal turbulence, sacrificing more blood and patrimony than any other nation. Paradoxically, though peripheral to Western civilization, Russia was nevertheless among its greatest destabilizes and ultimate saviors. [Emphasis added]
Mayer further insists that the “Judeocide” be placed “in its pertinent historical setting.” As we have seen, however, he does not locate that setting within the framework of German history or in a matrix of German nationalism and racist anti-Semitism. Mayer has in mind a grander design, already drawn in his previous book as “the Thirty Years' War of the general crisis of the 20th century.” In his new book, too, Mayer compares the thirty-year period of 1914-45 with the religious conflicts of the Thirty Years' War of 1618-48, but now he defines the modern period as “the climacteric of the ideological struggle between fascism and Bolshevism.”
Finally, Mayer insists on “an overarching interpretative construct” to explain both “the Jewish catastrophe and the historical circumstances in which it occurred.” Stripped of its intellectual pretension, this “construct” turns out to be, once again, the ideological struggle between fascism and Bolshevism. And an integral element in that construct is what can only be called apologetics for the Stalinist regime and its treatment of the Jews.
Thus, Mayer describes the Jewish communities of interwar Europe in Marxist terms of class differentiation and occupational structure, while neglecting all the other complex social elements and institutions which those communities had created to preserve their Jewish heritage and ensure their continuity. Waxing lyrical, he tells us how the Soviet Union modernized and acculturated the Russian Jews—glossing over the Bolsheviks' utter destruction of the religious, cultural, communal, and political institutions which, for decades and centuries, had embodied the Russian Jews' commitment to tradition and their aspirations for the future.
Thus, too, Mayer repeatedly justifies the Hitler-Stalin pact, not only as “Moscow's strategy of gaining time and space for the inevitable Nazi-Soviet showdown”—this could more appropriately be said of Hitler's strategy than of Stalin's—but also for its “fortuitously redeeming features” where the Jews were concerned. How so? Because by “securing”—i.e., annexing—eastern Poland, Stalin “momentarily kept 300,000 Jews from falling under the Nazi heel.” Elsewhere, Mayer writes that the Nazi-Soviet pact was “a partial and disguised blessing” to the Jews as it kept them “temporarily” out of German hands, and that “Stalin inadvertently saved large numbers of not only Polish but also, later, Soviet Jews.” The index to this book even contains an entry—“Jews, salvation of”—referring to the material cited here.
Now, it has long been shown that the Soviet regime made no effort to evacuate endangered Jews. Moreover, by suppressing the grim truth about Nazi anti-Jewish policies, the Soviets rendered the Russian Jews even more vulnerable to the Nazi onslaught. But to bring up such facts would no doubt be to betray one's commitment to the “vantage point of the cold war,” just as to insist on the cardinal element of murderous intentionality in the Nazi war against the Jews would be to overlook or slight what to Mayer is the greater tragedy by far, the fascist war against “optimism” and “dawn.”
A contemporary German scholar recently extolled the practice of history as a means of tearing down the walls of self-deception that people erect around themselves. History, he wrote, confronts us with the truth about the past, thus saving us from the distortions of personal prejudice and political ideology. Arno Mayer has done the reverse, conscripting history into the service of ideology, reinforcing the walls of self-deception. That his book has met with a generally cordial reception is a sign of the casual, or, worse, ignorant and indulgent standards prevailing these days in the historical profession.
1 Judenpolitik im dritten Reich (1972). Adam's is the only full-length functionalist book dealing with Nazi Germany's anti-Jewish policies. For more on his thesis, see the introduction to the Tenth Anniversary Edition of my The War Against the Jews 1933-1945 (Bantam, 1986).
2 One such volume, edited by François Furet, the historian of the French Revolution, has just been published as Unanswered Questions: Nazi Germany and the Genocide of the Jews (Schocken, 392 pp., $29.95).
3 Pantheon, 492 pp., $27.95.
4 Extracts from these field reports are in my book A Holocaust Reader (1976), pp. 89-96. No document has ever been found containing the “basic orders” referred to here. According to oral testimony given at the Einsatzgruppen trial in Nuremberg in 1945-46 by Otto Ohlendorf, commander of Einsatzgruppe D, and by others in postwar trials in West Germany, those orders were issued orally at the Einsatzgruppen training centers, in preparation for the invasion of the Soviet Union.
5 For more on Mayer's falsification of Einsatzgruppen operations, see Daniel Jonah Goldhagen's informative review, “False Witness,” New Republic, April 17, 1989.
6 See my article, “Lies About the Holocaust,” COMMENTARY, December 1980.