In 1939, the Nazi regime’s plans for redrawing the demographic map of Eastern Europe entailed the expulsion of millions of Jews. By the fall of 1941, these plans had shifted from expulsion to systematic and total mass murder of all Jews within the Nazi grasp. The Origins of the Final Solution is the most detailed and comprehensive analysis ever written of what took place during this crucial period—of how, precisely, the Nazis’ racial policies evolved from persecution and “ethnic cleansing” to the Final Solution of the Holocaust.
Focusing on the months between the German conquest of Poland in September 1939–which brought nearly two million additional Jews under Nazi control—and the beginning of the deportation of Jews to the death camps in the spring of 1942, Christopher R. Browning describes how Poland became a laboratory for experiments in racial policies, from expulsion and decimation to ghettoization and exploitation under local occupation authorities. He reveals how the subsequent attack on the Soviet Union opened the door for an immense radicalization of Nazi Jewish policy—and marked the beginning of the Final Solution. Meticulously documenting the process that led to this fatal development, Browning shows that Adolf Hitler was the key decision-maker throughout, approving major escalations in Nazi persecution of the Jews at victory-induced moments of euphoria. Thoroughly researched and lucidly written, this groundbreaking work provides an essential chapter in the history of the Holocaust.
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The Origins of the Final SolutionThe Evolution of Nazi Jewish Policy, September 1939-March 1942
By Christopher R. Browning
Univ. of Nebraska PressCopyright © 2004 Univ. of Nebraska Press
All right reserved.
In a brief two years between the autumn of 1939 and the autumn of 1941, Nazi Jewish policy escalated rapidly from the prewar policy of forced emigration to the Final Solution as it is now understood-the systematic attempt to murder every last Jew within the German grasp. The mass murder of Soviet Jewry had already begun in the late summer of 1941, and only one-half year later the Nazi regime was ready to begin implementing this policy throughout the rest of its European empire and sphere of influence. The study of these 30 months-from September 1939 through March 1942-is crucial for understanding the genesis of the Final Solution and constitutes the core of this book. At this time the Nazi regime stood on the brink of a true watershed event in history. But why, after two millennia of Christian-Jewish antagonism and one millennium of a singular European anti-Semitism, did this watershed event occur in Germany in the middle of the 20th century?
Christians and Jews had lived in an adversarial relationship since the first century of the common era, when the early followers of Jesus failed to persuade significant numbers of their fellow Jews that he was the Messiah. They then gradually solidified their identity as a new religion rather than a reforming Jewish sect. First, Pauline Christianity took the step of seeking converts not just among Jews but also among the pagan populations of the Roman Empire. Second, the Gospel writers-some 40 to 60 years after the death of Jesus-sought to placate the Roman authorities and at the same time to stigmatize their rivals by increasingly portraying the Jews rather than the Roman authorities in Palestine as responsible for the crucifixion-the scriptural origin of the fateful "Christ-killer" libel. Finally, the Jewish rebellion in Palestine and the destruction of the Second Temple motivated early Christians not only to disassociate themselves completely from the Jews but to see the Jewish catastrophe as a deserved punishment for the stubborn refusal to accept Jesus as the Messiah and as a divine vindication of their own beliefs. Christians and Jews, two small sects that had much more in common with one another by virtue of their monotheism and scriptures than either had with the rest of the tolerant, syncretic, polytheistic pagan Roman world, developed an implacable hostility to one another.
This hostility became historically significant in the course of the fourth century when, following the conversion of the Emperor Constantine, Christianity became first the favored and then the official religion of the Roman Empire. The religious quarrel between two small and relatively powerless sects, both at odds with the pagan world in which they lived, was suddenly transformed into an unequal relationship between a triumphant state religion and a beleaguered religious minority. Even so, the Jews fared better than the pagans. Triumphant Christians destroyed paganism and tore down its temples; but the synagogues were left standing, and Judaism remained as the sole legally permitted religion outside Christianity. Without this double standard of intolerance-paganism destroyed and Judaism despised but permitted-there would have been no further history of Christian-Jewish relations.
Seemingly triumphant Christianity soon faced its own centuries-long string of disasters. As demographic and economic decline eroded the strength of the Christianized Roman Empire from within, the western provinces fragmented and collapsed under the impact of the numerically rather small Germanic invasions from the north. The later invasion of the Huns from the east dissipated, but not so the subsequent Muslim invasion, which stormed out of the Arabian Peninsula and conquered half the old Roman world by the end of the seventh century. In the area destined to become western Europe, cities-along with urban culture and a money economy-disappeared almost entirely. A vastly shrunken population-illiterate, impoverished, and huddled in isolated villages scraping out a precarious living from a primitive, subsistence agriculture-reeled under the impact of yet further devastating invasions of Vikings from Scandinavia and Magyars from central Asia in the ninth and tenth centuries. Neither the Christian majority nor the Jewish minority of western Europe could find much solace in these centuries of affliction and decline.
The great recovery-demographic, economic, cultural, and political-began shortly before the millennium. Population exploded, cities grew up, wealth multiplied, centralizing monarchies began to triumph over feudal anarchy, universities were invented, cultural treasures of the classical world were recovered, and the borders of western Christendom began to expand.
But the great transformation did not bring equal benefits to all. Europe's first great "modernization crisis," like any such profound transformation, had its "social losers." A surplus of disgruntled mounted warriors-Europe's feudal elite-faced constricted opportunities and outlets. A new money economy and urban society eroded traditional manorial relationships. Expanding literacy and university education, coupled with an intoxicating discovery of Aristotelian rationalism, posed a potential and unsettling threat to traditional Christian faith. Growth, prosperity, and religious enthusiasm were accompanied by bewilderment, frustration, and doubt.
For all that was new and unsettling, incomprehensible and threatening, in this modernization crisis, the Jewish minority provided an apt symbol. The anti-Judaism (and "teaching of contempt") of Christian theologians that characterized the first millennium of Christian-Jewish antagonism was rapidly superseded by what Gavin Langmuir has termed "xenophobic" anti-Semitism-a widely held negative stereotype made up of various assertions that did not describe the real Jewish minority but rather symbolized various threats and menaces that the Christian majority could not and did not want to understand. A cluster of anti-Jewish incidents at the end of the first decade of the 11th century signaled a change that became more fully apparent with the murderous pogroms perpetrated by roving gangs of knights on their way to the First Crusade. In the words of Langmuir, "These groups seem to have been made up of people whose sense of identity had been seriously undermined by rapidly changing social conditions that they could not control or understand and to which they could not adapt successfully."
Urban, commercial, nonmilitary, and above all nonbelievers, the Jews were subjected both to the immediate threat of Europe's first pogroms and to the long-term threat of an intensifying negative stereotype. Barred from the honorable professions of fighting and landowning, often also barred from the prestigious economic activities controlled through guilds by the Christian majority, the Jewish minority was branded not only as unbelievers but now also as cowards, parasites, and usurers. Religiously driven anti-Semitism took on economic, social, and political dimensions.
In the following centuries the negative stereotype of xenophobic anti-Semitism was intensified and overlaid by fantastical and demented accusations, such as the alleged practices of ritual murder and torturing the Host. Such accusations seem to have originated in the actions of disturbed individuals finding ways to cope with their own psychological problems in socially acceptable ways. In the fertile soil of xenophobic anti-Semitism, such chimeras multiplied and spread, and were ultimately embraced and legitimized by the authorities. As the Jews were increasingly dehumanized and demonized, the anti-Semitism of the medieval period culminated in the expulsions and the widespread massacres that accompanied the Black Death.
Anti-Semitism in western Europe was now so deeply and pervasively embedded in Christian culture that the absence of real Jews had no effect on society's widespread hostility toward them. In Spain, the land of the last and greatest expulsion of Jews, even conversion was increasingly felt to be inadequate to overcome what was now deemed to be innate Jewish evil. The Marranos were subjected to ongoing persecution and expulsion, and notions of pure-blooded Christians-eerily foreshadowing developments 500 years later-were articulated.
Europe's Jews survived this escalating torrent of persecution because the Church, while sanctioning it, also set limits to it. And permeable boundaries allowed expelled Jews to escape and settle elsewhere. (The 20th century, in contrast, would not feature such permeable boundaries and effective religious limits.) The eventual slow decline in the virulence of anti-Semitism was due not so much to the relative absence of Jews in many parts of western Europe but rather to the gradual secularization of early modern European society-Renaissance humanism, the fracturing of religious unity in the Reformation, the scientific discoveries of Galileo and Newton in the 17th century, and the Enlightenment. Western Europe was no longer a Christian commonwealth with religion at the core of its culture and identity.
During this relative respite, Jews filtered back into some areas of western Europe from which they had previously been expelled. However, the demographic center of European Jewry was now clearly anchored in the east. Jews had begun settling in eastern Europe in the medieval period, often welcomed by local rulers for the complementary economic functions they performed, and by the 18th century there had been a veritable Jewish population explosion. All Europeans-Jews and non-Jews-were profoundly affected by the "Dual Revolution" of the late 18th and early 19th centuries. The French Revolution signaled the emergence of liberalism and nationalism; the Industrial Revolution set in motion a profound economic and social transformation.
Initially the Dual Revolution seemed a great boon to Europe's Jews. With liberalism came "Jewish emancipation." In a few brief decades, the centuries-long accumulation of discriminatory, anti-Jewish measures gave way to the liberal doctrines of equality before the law and freedom of conscience-not just in England and France but even in the autocratic German and Austro-Hungarian empires. And the Industrial Revolution opened up unprecedented economic opportunities for a mobile, educated, adaptable minority with few ties to and little nostalgia for a declining traditional economy and society in which they had been so restricted and marginalized.
But ultimately Europe's second great "modernization crisis" was fraught with even greater danger for the Jews than the first, nearly a millennium earlier. Once again the "social losers" of the modernization crisis-traditional elites and small-scale producers in particular-could find in the Jews a convenient symbol for their anguish. If the Jews were benefiting from the changes that were destroying Europe's traditional way of life, in the minds of many it seemed plausible that they had to be the cause of these changes. But in the far more secular and scientific world of the 19th century, religious beliefs provided less explanatory power. For many, Jewish behavior was to be understood instead as caused by allegedly immutable characteristics of the Jewish race. The implications of racial anti-Semitism posed a different kind of threat. If previously the Christian majority pressured Jews to convert and more recently to assimilate, racial anti-Semitism provided no behavioral escape. Jews as a race could not change their ancestors. They could only disappear.
If race rather than religion now provided the rationale for anti-Semitism, the various elements of the negative anti-Semitic stereotype that had accumulated during the second half of the Middle Ages were taken over almost in their entirety and needed little updating. The only significant addition was the accusation that Jews were responsible for the threat of Marxist revolution. With little regard for logical consistency, the old negative image of Jews as parasitical usurers (updated as rapacious capitalists) was supplemented with a new image of Jews as subversive revolutionaries out to destroy private property and capitalism and overturn the social order. After 1917 the notion of menacing "Judeo-Bolshevism" became as entrenched among Europe's conservatives as the notion of Jews as "Christ-killers" had been among Europe's Christians.
These developments in the history of anti-Semitism transcended national boundaries and were pan-European. Why then did the Germans, among the peoples of Europe, come to play such a fateful role in the murderous climax that was reached in the middle of the 20th century? Scholars have offered a number of interpretations of Germany's "special path" or Sonderweg, with England and France usually being the standard or norm against which German difference is measured. One approach emphasizes Germany's cultural/ideological development. Resentment and reaction against conquest and change imposed by revolutionary and Napoleonic France heightened Germany's distorted and incomplete embrace of the Enlightenment and "western" liberal and democratic ideals. The antiwesternism of many German intellectuals and their despair for an increasingly endangered and dissolving traditional world led to a continuing rejection of liberal-democratic values on the one hand and a selective reconciliation with aspects of modernity (such as modern technology and ends-means rationality) on the other, producing what Jeffrey Herf terms a peculiarly German "reactionary modernism."
According to another, social/structural approach, Germany's prolonged political disunity and fragmentation-in contrast to England and France-provided an environment less conducive to economic development and the rise of a healthy middle class. The failed liberal-national revolution of 1848 put an end to Germany's attempt to develop along the lines of, much less catch up with, France and England in concurrent political and economic modernization. Thereafter, the precapitalist German elites maintained their privileges in an autocratic political system, while the unnerved middle class was both gratified by national unification through Prussian military might, something they had been unable to achieve through their own revolutionary efforts, and bought off by the ensuing prosperity of rapid economic modernization that this unification unleashed. Fearful of rising socialism and manipulated by an escalating "social imperialism," the German middle class never became the mainstay of a strong liberal-democratic center as it did in the political culture of England and France. Germany became a "schizophrenic" nation-an increasingly modern society and economy ruled by an autocratic monarchy and traditional elites-incapable of gradual democratic reform.
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What People are Saying About This
"Browning has sifted the available documentation…with a punctilliousness that reflects a deep knowledge of the German language and a commitment to ferreting out the complete truth about a complex historical event."—Arnold Ages, Jewish Press
“Extraordinary. . . . Browning has 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 unusually incisive writing style he places events, decisions, and debates in a precise historical context. . . . 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.”—Benjamin Schwarz, Atlantic Monthly
“Faced with difficult problems of interpretation, good scholars examine the relevant documentation carefully, consider the alternatives, and set forth clearly why they have reached their views. Browning and Matthäus have both done this and more in this splendid volume.”—Richard Breitman, Central European History
"Superb. . . .[Browning] has created an eloquent, painstaking narrative of how the Final Solution evolved until it 'could evolve no further in concept. It remained only to be implemented through action.'"—Joshua Rubenstein, Wall Street Journal
"This work is by far the most incisive analysis of the decisions that gave rise to the annihilation of the Jews in Nazi Europe."—Raul Hilberg, Appointee to the President's Commission on the Holocaust and to the United States Holocaust Memorial Council, and author of The Destruction of the European Jews
"Effective and powerful. . . . Not a cheerful book but one of the most profound meditations, however indirect, on the character of human wickedness in the 20th century. Read it and weep."—Charles T. Mathewes, Virginia Quarterly Review
"This magisterial work does offer us something new—an unrivaled account of how the Nazi leadership ended up with a policy of industrialized mass murder of Jews as it fought a war of territorial expansion against the threats supposedly posed by Polish nationalism and Soviet Bolshevism. Probably no one is better qualified for this task than Christopher R. Browning. . . . In this summation of more than 20 years of research, he explains how the grand design emerged. . . and points the way to a reintegration of the whole subject in a much broader history of nationalist conflict, forced population movements and colonial settlement."—Mark Mazower, New York Times Book Review