That Never-Ending War

By Benjamin Schwarz

March 2004 ATLANTIC

Overwhelmingly they seize the commanding heights of night tables (at least on the husband’s side of the bed). Books on the Second World War. Of course, most of them are abysmal. But the war is, as John Keegan has written, “the largest single event in human history.” It started with cavalry charges on the plains of Poland and ended with the atomic bomb. It ranged from the Arctic to Burma. It embraced nearly every conceivable dimension of organized human activity, at the most sophisticated and the most depraved levels. It consumed more than 60 million lives. There is no richer subject. In the past few years we’ve praised the best current titles about the war (Peter Schrijvers’s The GI War Against Japan and Robert Gildea’s Marianne in Chains, for example), revisited a few of the most lasting works (Evelyn Waugh’s Sword of Honour trilogy, among others), and even excoriated some of the more sentimentalized books (see “The Real War,” June 2001 Atlantic). This spring brings a new crop of titles—some notable, and this one, The Origins of the Final Solution:  The Evolution of Nazi Jewish Policy, September 1939-March 1942, by Christopher Browning (Nebraska), which is extraordinary. Browning’s is the first volume of Nebraska’s authoritative and monumental Comprehensive History of the Holocaust, a series of at least fifteen volumes to be published over the next decade (this and two other volumes will examine Nazi policy; most of the remaining ones will assess the impact of that policy on each of the national Jewish communities in Europe). This book, which opens with the German conquest of Poland, in September of 1939, and ends with the first deportations of Jews to the death camps, in the spring of 1942, will almost certainly be the most important. Browning—one of the world’s greatest scholars of the Holocaust, and the author of the meticulous, nuanced, and disturbing Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland—has taken on the most contentious and knotty aspect of the Final Solution: how and why Nazi policy evolved, in the brief period between the autumn of 1939 and the autumn of 1941, from the persecution and planned expulsion of Jews to the detailed strategy of systematically murdering all Jews within Germany’s grasp. (Debate on this topic has engendered a highly publicized, sometimes contrived, and increasingly arcane argument between historians in the “intentionalist” camp, who hold that from the 1920s onward Hitler intended to kill the Jews, and those in the “functionalist” camp, who argue that the Holocaust evolved piecemeal, as one set of opportunities and policies led to another.) This is a maddeningly convoluted question—the scholar must distinguish ideological pronouncements from the implementation of policy; the acts of, say, frontline SS units from the plans and intentions of the Nazi leadership; the roots and manifestations of murderous anti-Bolshevism from those of murderous anti-Semitism (to give but a few examples). This historical thicket is rendered all but impenetrable by the facts that, as Browning lucidly and vividly demonstrates, German anti-Semitism was hardly a fixed concept but, rather, evolved and mutated with the ever shifting circumstances; that the Nazi regime and its chains of command and decision were highly decentralized—which meant that at any given moment the interpretations and conceptions of, say, Goebbels and Rosenberg concerning the timing and realization of the Final Solution could vary significantly from those of Himmler and Heydrich; and, most important, that the documentary evidence is both vast and frustratingly incomplete. Scholars sometimes seem loath to acknowledge this last point, for fear that Holocaust deniers will use such recognition to support their contentions. But in trying to reconstruct and impose some narrative order on a tortuous set of political, military, bureaucratic, and administrative processes, the historian confronts gap after gap, because the relevant files of Himmler and Heydrich, the main architects of the Final Solution, were destroyed; we’re left, Browning explains, “with copies of a few key papers … that Himmler and Heydrich sent to others, but not with the vital internal working papers at the coordinating center.” This means that much of the story this book sets out to tell must, perforce, be a matter of informed speculation. Here is where Browning triumphs. He’s obviously mastered every pertinent document available—from archives in Germany, the United States, the former Soviet Union, and Israel—and assimilated them all into his sometimes day-by-day account of the development of Nazi policy. In sifting the evidence he makes clear what’s known and what’s not, what’s probable, what’s possible, and what’s unlikely; with rigor and an unusually incisive writing style he places events, decisions, and debates in a precise historical context, paying heed both to strict chronology and to more amorphous considerations, such as the relationship between Germany’s military fortunes in the East and shifts in the German public’s and the Nazi hierarchy’s mood and outlook. And above all, with exactitude he lays bare his own suppositions as he transparently builds his arguments and his narrative. A masterpiece of the historian’s art, Browning’s work should also force those scholars still contending with the rival concepts of functionalism and intentionalism to pursue more-fruitful arguments. He convincingly demonstrates that Hitler’s abiding obsession with solving “the Jewish question” spurred the regime to ever more radical and comprehensive measures (and that the Führer participated in and approved of all major changes in policy toward the Jews). But he shows equally clearly that those changes in policy were often highly contingent and improvised. Perhaps most important, Browning sets what the Nazis called their “war of destruction” against the Soviet Union at the very center of his story. For all the executions and vicious abuse of Jews in Poland, for all of Hitler’s nebulous exhortations and prophecies, it was the unprecedented scale, scope, and ferocity of Germany’s race war on the Eastern Front—the mass murder there of millions of non-Jews and Jews alike—that truly radicalized Nazi policy and crystallized the vision of exterminating European Jewry. Browning inextricably links the history of the Holocaust to the history of the war itself (obvious as this approach may seem, the scholarly field of “Holocaust studies” has often drifted far from examination of the Second World War). His work serves as another reminder that if the war is the hinge of modern history, the hinge of the war was the epic clash in the East—the main scene of the Nazis’ defeat and the largest and most terrible conflict mankind has yet fought.

Report From a Parisian Paradise, by Joseph Roth (Norton). Most renowned today as the author of the novel The Radetzky March, Roth—who was born in Austria-Hungary and launched his literary career in Berlin—was one of Europe’s great newspapermen in the years between the wars. This book collects his lyrical, often rhapsodizing, journalistic sketches of France, a country that for him represented everything Germany was not, even before the Nazis rose to power. Taken together, these pieces mix nostalgia for a civilized, tolerant, and (Roth knew) doomed Europe with contempt for the Germans—a people, he wrote (prophetically, long before the orchestras at Auschwitz), who “have always had the gift of killing to music.”

Dresden, by Frederick Taylor (HarperCollins). Displaying a chronic obtuseness, along with an unlovely tendency toward self-pity and self-righteousness, more and more Germans have recently taken to seeing themselves as victims of atrocities inflicted by the Allied air campaign against them during the Second World War. In the German, the British, and the American popular mind, the greatest crime of that campaign was the RAF’s February 1945 firebombing of Dresden, an exquisite Baroque city dubbed “Florence on the Elbe.” The Nazis’ own propaganda machine largely manufactured the raid’s infamy: immediately after the attack Goebbels wildly exaggerated the number of dead and falsely claimed that the city was of no military significance. The truth, though, is horrifying enough. In a single night British planes dropped more than 2,600 tons of explosives that incinerated, blew apart, or suffocated more than 25,000 people—overwhelmingly civilians, mostly women, children, and the elderly, many of whom were refugees from the Soviets’ dreadful onslaught immediately to the east. This story has been told before: the notorious David Irving wrote the best previous history in English, in which he characteristically mixed brilliant scholarship with tendentious assertions. Although flabby, Taylor’s chronicle nevertheless makes for compelling reading, owing both to his chilling depiction of that surreal and horrible night and to the obvious moral seriousness he uses to grapple with the ambiguities at the heart of his account. His publishers seem intent on marketing the book as a revisionist work; and indeed, in his careful way Taylor undercuts the simplistic view of the Dresden attack specifically, and of the Allies’ air war generally, that too many Germans (and readers of Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five) embrace. Although little in his book will surprise experts, Taylor points out that Dresdeners were particularly keen supporters of the Nazis and that their city, a key transportation and communications hub, housed a number of important and technologically sophisticated war industries (which employed Jewish slave labor). He concomitantly argues that the raid primarily aimed not to terrorize but to disrupt the movement of troops and materiel to the Eastern Front. He also reminds readers that the Luftwaffe killed more than 40,000 British civilians overall, and that in just four days 40,000 Russians died in the German air raid on Stalingrad in August 1942 (before the siege of the city). Nevertheless, Taylor is hardly an apologist for the firebombing; rather, he puts the assault in its proper context to reveal the inherent moral tangle of total war. He allows that the Allies’ bombing war killed half a million Germans (the Luftwaffe’s bombing killed about the same number of Russians), but, drawing on the sophisticated assessments of a generation of scholars, he details how it also indisputably vitiated Germany’s ability to wage war. Moreover, the raid on Dresden, in its tactics and targeting, was typical of both other Allied and German raids; it was unusually awful only because of a confluence of factors, including the local authorities’ neglect of air-raid precautions and, most important, the rare, near perfect weather over the city (it was “the raid which went horribly right”). Its timing, too, accounts for its singular notoriety. The 1943 firestorm ignited by the RAF’s bombers in Hamburg (the subject of Martin Middlebrook’s unsurpassed account of the terror of the bombing war, The Battle of Hamburg) blasted and burned far more people (at least 40,000), but at that time the Nazis were trying to obscure, not publicize, the consequences of Allied bombs. Dresden was neither an innocent burg devoted solely to culture and the arts, as many in Germany today would have it, nor a “mass of munitions works,” as the head of the RAF’s Bomber Command, Arthur Harris, protested rather too defensively after the raid. It was merely—and to the Allies, most threateningly—a “normally functioning city,” as Taylor nicely puts it. Which meant that given the terrible terms on which the war was fought by both sides, and that cloudless sky on that February night, its fate was sealed.

Burying Caesar, by Graham Stewart (Overlook). Stewart, a young and remarkably talented British historian, has taken those tirelessly examined subjects, “appeasement” and the impact of Hitler on British politics in the 1930s, and actually written a bold and invigorating book, which has recently come out in paperback after being all but ignored (on this side of the Atlantic) in hardcover. In focusing on the rivalry between Neville Chamberlain and Churchill (his volume supplants Robert Rhodes James’s Churchill: A Study in Failure as the smartest account of Churchill’s political career in the 1930s), he was obviously inspired by the often dazzling revisionist (read, to put it crudely, anti-Churchill and pro-appeasement) analyses of such historians as John Charmley and Maurice Cowling. But in fact his subtle and deeply researched examination tilts quite strongly to the Churchillian side, even as he fully grasps the terrible dilemmas confronting the Baldwin and Chamberlain governments as they sought to protect Britain’s far-flung global interests (threatened by three powerful aggressors in three different theaters) with extremely limited financial and military means—and even as he shows why in the 1930s Churchill’s party and country quite justifiably regarded him as a self-promoting and untrustworthy bungler, whose bravado could easily lead to catastrophe.

Inside Hitler’s Bunker, by Joachim Fest (Farrar Straus & Giroux). As British and American bombers and Red Army artillery pulverized his capital and its inhabitants above him, and as his hated enemy, the Russians, closed in for their most terrible revenge, Hitler, deep in his troglodytic warren beneath the Reich Chancellery, ordered nonexistent armies into battle, operatically railed against old foes (Churchill, the Jews, the Bolsheviks) and new ones (those members of his court who were scurrying to safety or to cut their own deals), and prepared to die. It’s a stupendous story, and Fest, one of Germany’s renowned historians of the Nazis, tells it well. But it’s been told better before. Or, rather, both stories have, because Fest focuses equally on Hitler’s end in his bunker and on the apocalypse in Berlin above. For the former, read instead Hugh Trevor-Roper’s The Last Days of Hitler, still unrivaled in its elegance and insight (Fest fills in a few minor gaps in Trevor-Roper’s account); for the latter, Antony Beevor’s The Fall of Berlin, 1945, among the most terrifying works of history ever penned.

London: Life in the Post-War Years, by Douglas Whitworth (Trafalgar Square/ Tempus). London emerged from the war less triumphant than depleted and sad. This poignant collection of photographs reveals the conflict’s most conspicuous ravages—the bombed-out blocks, the gutted Wren churches, the lone spires that survived the Blitz. But it’s most telling when it captures the drab exhaustion and wistful pride of the period, with its worn clothes and gray complexions, its shabby efforts to deck things out, its Coldstream Guards in khaki, denuded of their resplendent tunics. Only David Lean’s movie Brief Encounter has more strikingly—and heartbreakingly—captured postwar Britain’s dingy austerity.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s