Revisiting Humanity's Darkest Chapter

Review: David Cesarani, 'Final Solution: The Fate of the Jews, 1933-1949'

Poland Auschwitz Birkenau Concentration Camp
Entry to the concentration camp Auschwitz-Birkenau, Poland, with snow covered railtracks leading to the camp in February/March 1945 / AP
December 4, 2016

It is one of the simplest, yet most horrifying forms of punishment one can imagine: throw a prisoner into a dark, empty cell, lock the door, provide no food or water, and leave them to die. Auschwitz's notorious Block 11–known appropriately as "the death block," and full of "starvation cells"–was meant to punish prisoners with torture. It is hard to imagine being put in the Suffocation Room, designed to make individuals suffocate from lack of air, or the standing cells, tiny areas less than a square yard in which four people would be held and sitting was impossible. They would stay like that for days, leaving the cells to work a full day of hard labor only to return at night and be forced to stand. Many would die of exhaustion in the holdings, each of which had one tiny opening to let enough air in to prevent the prisoners from suffocating.

Yet the Jewish people—among so many others who experienced the horrors of Hitler's Europe—endured. Indeed, many of the Jews who survived and left Europe for the United States or the soon-to-be state of Israel flourished—and many had been successful before the Nazis took power. Therefore, I was struck by the subtitle of David Cesarani's new history of the Holocaust, Final Solution: The Fate of the Jews, 1933-1949. The word "fate" implies something inevitable, a series of events beyond the control of human beings. It doesn't seem quite right to describe the eventual Nazi attempt to eliminate European Jewry in this manner. More to the point, the concept of fate directly contradicts one of the book's chief underlying themes: that "history is replete with examples of unintended consequences and contingency" and does not have to unfold in any particular way with a certain outcome.

Cesarani, an English historian who passed away in October 2015, presents his work as a "reappraisal" challenging the "standardized" version of the Holocaust. The conventional wisdom, according to Cesarani, is that the Holocaust stemmed from racist and anti-Semitic policies of Hitler and his Nazi Party, which systematically used the power of the state and science to murder European Jewry. This process developed in stages from discriminatory laws during Hitler's early years in power to eventual genocide.

These preconceptions, Cesarani writes, are often misleading. He argues that the Nazi Party's anti-Jewish policies were not planned or premeditated and lacked systematic cohesion until late 1938. Even then, however, there was not always consistency to the Third Reich's persecutions. Furthermore, Hitler's primary goals, according to the book, were to restore German power and make war. His anti-Semitism was central to his identity, but Hitler "also saw himself as a warrior"—a point Cesarani calls "the single most important thing that determined the fate of the Jews," even more so than the German leader's hatred of them. In other words, nationalism and conquest drove anti-Semitism, not the reverse.

Cesarani believes these two ideas—a haphazard anti-Jewish policy and a drive for national greatness—are related. The Nazis came to power not on a message of anti-Jewishness but on one of restoring German power. The book also connects German military activity in the Second World War to the Holocaust, arguing there was a link between the Nazis' performance on the battlefield and what happened with the Jews.

Cesarani does write throughout the book that Hitler and his core Nazi followers believed they were at war with "international Jewry," which they felt was to blame for Germany's defeat in World War I and the country's ongoing problems during the interwar period. He does not reject the significance of the Nazis' hatred of Jews but argues the course of the Holocaust was not dictated by a systematic plan to kill them.

Cesarani's work is a tour de force—with 800 pages of text and 100 pages of notes—that will surely teach any reader more than a thing or two about the Holocaust. The main issues with the book are regarding the arguments put forth in its early pages. Despite Cesarani's characterization of the book as an original challenge to conventional wisdom, his thesis is not that original. While a common narrative may hold that anti-Semitism was the most fundamental aspect of the Nazis' identity, more people may have an appreciation for the other aspects of their agenda than Cesarani seems to acknowledge.

Furthermore, he appears to somewhat undercut his thesis in the epilogue, when he describes Hitler's will and "political testament" produced before his death in which he charges "above all" for Germany to continue its "merciless resistance to the universal poisoner of all peoples, international Jewry." Not only did Hitler stand whole-heartedly by his anti-Semitism above all else at the very end, but he did so before taking power, too—in Mein Kampf, which Cesarani barely mentions.

Cesarani does make many strong arguments. For example, he notes that Jewish labor did not contribute nearly as much to the German war effort as some believe and only a tiny fraction of Nazi trains were used to carry Jews to concentration camps, none of which ever had priority over army transports. These points undercut the idea that Hitler put his maniacal anti-Semitism above all else by going so far as to weaken his war effort to kill Jews. Final Solution also sheds light on an under-researched aspect of the Holocaust: the rape and sexual exploitation of Jewish women. Many assume that because the Nazis viewed Jews as subhuman, they would not have sexual relations with them. But Cesarani, in one of the more harrowing parts of the book, refutes this notion by detailing the mass rape that occurred.

The book has a section absent from many works on the Holocaust in which it describes how after the war ended, the situation for Jews hardly improved even after they were liberated from concentration camps. After 1945, many Jews were forced to stay in displaced persons camps and often died from injuries, malnutrition, and related factors. Cesarani ends his book in 1949 and appropriately declares that "the Holocaust did not end when the guns fell silent."

Above all, Cesarani's book provides another tool to ensure that the memory of the Holocaust does not get lost in the pages of history, especially as the population of survivors dwindles by the day. Hitler's atrocities are especially pertinent today in light of growing anti-Semitism across Europe. A record number of Jews emigrated from Western Europe in 2015, most notably from France, where about 8,000 left for Israel. At the same time, attacks against Jews increased threefold in Germany since 2014. Some of this uptick has been triggered by the massive inflow of Muslim migrants from the Middle East and North Africa.

After all, the European continent has a 2,000-year history of deeply entrenched anti-Semitism. The last 70 years of relative peace and harmony for Jews in Europe have formed a historical aberration, one triggered by guilt for the Holocaust, which went so beyond the pale that it shocked even some avowed anti-Semites.

The unfathomable evil of the Holocaust occurred not that long ago, and human nature is flawed and effectively constant. There is no law of nature to prevent something similar from happening again. Indeed, the reality of genocide persists across the world today in places like Syria and South Sudan. Histories of the Holocaust should be appreciated in themselves—but should also serve as a warning of the terrors of which man is capable.

Published under: Book reviews