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 ISSUE: March 2004

Atlantic Unbound | February 11, 2004


An Insidious Evil

Christopher Browning, the author of The Origins of the Final Solution, explains how ordinary Germans came to accept as inevitable the extermination of the Jews

The Origins of the Final Solution: September 1939-March 1942
by Christopher Browning
University of Nebraska Press
640 pages, $39.95


In 1968, when Christopher Browning was a doctoral student at the University of Wisconsin, he proposed a dissertation topic centering on the Nazi era. His advisor responded with mixed advice: "This would make a great dissertation, but you know there's no academic future in researching the Holocaust."

Less than a decade later, the Holocaust was being studied at universities around the world, and Browning found himself at the forefront of a new academic field. So respected was his work that, in the 1980s, he was approached by Israel's Holocaust museum, Yad Vashem, about working on a project. The museum had received funding to print a multivolume series about the Nazi era, each book summarizing the experiences of Jews in a different region of Europe. The project also called for three volumes that would trace the Nazis' development of the Final Solution. None of the Israeli researchers involved were eager to explore the topic from the side of the perpetrators, so the task fell to a group of non-Jewish academics, each of whom would write on a different few-year period, tracing the key decisions that gave rise to the Holocaust.

After two decades of research, Browning's volume, The Origins of the Final Solution: September 1939-March 1942, will be released in March of this year, the first in the series to be published in English. Like so many authors before him, Browning sets out to answer the question, "How could the Holocaust have happened?" The book covers much familiar ground—train deportations, mass shootings in the East, early experiments with poison gas. What makes Browning's treatment different from many others is his insistence on considering historical events as they unfolded, rather than through the lens of hindsight. Browning does not view the Final Solution as a master plan, carefully crafted by Hitler at the beginning of the Nazi era. Instead, he looks at Nazi Jewish policy as an evolving reality that unfolded over an extended period of time, beginning with a program to expel rather than exterminate Germany's Jews:

Too often, these policies and this period have been seen through a perspective influenced, indeed distorted and overwhelmed, by the catastrophe that followed. The policy of Jewish expulsion ... was for many years not taken as seriously by historians as it had been by the Nazis themselves.

As late as the spring of 1940, Nazi leaders dismissed the idea of mass murder in favor of relocating the Jews to a colony in Africa. "This method [of deportation] is still the mildest and best," wrote Gestapo Chief Heinrich Himmler in May of that year, "if one rejects the Bolshevik method of physical extermination of a people out of inner conviction as un-German and impossible." The so-called Madagascar Plan was aborted when Germany lost the Battle of Britain later in 1940.

Browning presents the "gas van," introduced in 1939 to kill the mentally ill, as the first significant step toward Nazi extermination camps. Based on the theory of eugenics, an offshoot of nineteenth-century Darwinist thought, the Nazis formulated a program in which euthanasia was used to remove those they deemed genetically weak. They developed a system wherein a van disguised with the label "Kaiser's Coffee Company" was driven through the countryside, loaded up with mental patients, pumped full of carbon monoxide, and driven to remote areas for forest burials. During the following years, gassing would be introduced for targeted and later mass killings at concentration camps.

The summer of 1941 brought, in Browning's view, a "quantum leap" toward the Holocaust. Before that time, Jews had been socially marginalized, ghettoized, relocated en masse, and singled out for waves of killings from among larger groups of those considered suspect or inferior (such as alleged Communists and mental patients). But it was not until Operation Barbarossa, when the Germans invaded the Soviet Union, that Nazi officials began killing large groups of Jewish men, women, and children. From this time onward, writes Browning:

…no further escalation in the process was conceivable. It implied the physical elimination of all Jews, irrespective of gender, age, occupation, or behavior, and led directly to the destruction of entire communities and the "de-Jewification" of vast areas. The question was no longer why the Jews should be killed, but why they should not be killed.

In leading the reader from the Nazis' early deportation of Jews to the launch of the extermination program in 1942, Browning's book does not seek a single grand theory behind the Final Solution. Instead, Browning focuses on the series of contingencies and decisions that brought the Germans increment by increment to such an extreme. The result is a vision of evil whose origins are not otherworldly but unnervingly human.

Browning currently resides in Chapel Hill, where he is the Frank Porter Graham Professor of History at the University of North Carolina. I spoke with him by telephone on February 3, 2004.

Jennie Rothenberg                           


One point you emphasize throughout the book is the need to look at history stage by stage, without taking into account what we know now. Why do you feel it is important to consider the deportation of Jews as a phase unto itself rather than as a stepping stone to extermination?

The initial or easy tendency in looking at history is to see it through hindsight. We know ultimately what happened, and therefore we go back and look at all the steps that led to it happening but remove all the contingencies. We're very well aware at this moment that we can't predict the future. But we go back and somehow assume that we can impose a deterministic interpretation on the past because of what we know from hindsight.

In doing that, we remove the fact that living historical actors at that time, certainly in 1939 to 1941, didn't yet know what was going to happen—neither the victims nor the perpetrators. And we cannot understand the decisions they made unless we understand how they perceived the world they were living in and the choices that they were facing. We know that Jewish leaders made certain choices because they couldn't even conceive of a program of systematic mass extermination awaiting them. Also important is that the Nazis made decisions at this point. They had various choices.

The goal of this book is to show where those different turning points were, where people came to forks in the road and went one way instead of another. This is essential to understanding not just what happened in the end but how it happened. What was the step-by-step path that led from the conquest of Poland in 1939 to the opening of the death camps in 1942?

You begin the book by reviewing the historical events that set up the conditions for the Holocaust in Germany. One of these was, as you put it, "a distorted and incomplete embrace of the Enlightenment." Can you elaborate on this?

In Germany, after the Napoleonic conquest, the values of the Enlightenment were spread in an uneven way. What I call the humanistic and individualistic side of the Enlightenment was generally associated with the French, and in order to break away from Napoleon, the Germans embraced the scientific and rational side of the Enlightenment. You have this kind of schizophrenia where Germany absorbed those aspects of the Enlightenment that gave them the power to drive the French out but shunned those parts that they considered contrary to German values.

So a certain strand of German culture rejected such aspects of the Enlightenment as individual rights and a more liberal, democratic political tradition, while embracing the notion of rational, bureaucratic management of society. That's what I mean by a kind of unequal or asymmetrical embrace of the Enlightenment, at least within one part of German culture.

At the same time as Jews were beginning to be deported from villages in the East, you explain that the Nazis were working to resettle groups of ethnic Germans. These were people of German ancestry whose families had lived in Eastern Europe for generations, and who still lived in German-speaking communities. How were those two initiatives connected?

What's key is that the Nazis had a vision that their new empire in the East would be somewhat different from many of the overseas empires that other European nations had constructed. This wasn't going to be an empire in which you would have a thin layer of Germans ruling over a foreign native population like, for instance, the British administration in India. Rather, going along with the Nazis' very basic racial concepts, if the land didn't belong to Germany—if it wasn't part of German Lebensraum, settled entirely by people of German blood—it therefore would be only an annexation of the territories of Western Poland.

This required the expulsion of all Poles, Jews, Gypsies—all the "undesired" population. The Germans then had to resettle the area. And the way to find German blood to do this was to bring back—they used the term "repatriation"—the ethnic Germans living in the areas that were being conceded to Stalin by the Non-Aggression Pact: the Baltic Germans, the Ukrainian Germans. So these people were brought over and placed in refugee camps and then settled on evacuated Polish farms.

There is something very interesting in this regard. There's a strong notion that one of the crimes against Germany that has not been given enough attention is the terrible ethnic cleansing of Germans from Eastern Europe at the end of World War II. It's true that hundreds of thousands of people died in expulsions from Sudetenland, Poland, and elsewhere. This aspect of German suffering has not been given enough attention. But neglected in all of that, I believe, is the reality that the first destruction of ethnic German communities in Eastern Europe was not done by the victorious Red Army, by the Czechs or the Poles, but by Himmler. He was the one who uprooted the ethnic Germans from the Baltic and the Ukraine.

Very clear in all this was that in Nazi ideology, individuals had no choice about where they wanted to live. They were part of a blood community, and they belonged to the German race. Hitler and Himmler would dispose of them as they chose. They could be picked up and moved around and placed wherever it suited the Nazi regime.

When we think of the Jewish ghettos set up by the Nazis in Poland, we usually envision harsh ghetto managers who tormented and starved the residents. You argue that this wasn't necessarily the case, that many ghetto managers wanted the Jews to stay healthy so they could be productive workers. What evidence did you find to suggest that?

The evidence is in the documents. As I explain in the book, there were two groups that I call the attritionists and the productionists. There certainly were some who wanted to see the disappearance of the Jewish population through deliberate starvation. But a greater number of the ghetto managers wanted to maximize the productivity of the ghettos for the sake of the German war economy. A large part of this was driven by a desire for personal gain. The German presence in the East was extremely corrupt, and these men saw financial opportunities for themselves in the ghettos. And at the same time, they saw the problem of spreading diseases and epidemics. Typhus, after all, could not be contained by ghetto walls.

So it was not in the best interests of the ghetto managers to create a sick and starving Jewish population. That ended up happening because the Jews were always given last priority, only provided for after the needs of other surrounding communities had been addressed. And there were not enough materials or provisions to go around.

When you discuss eugenics, a philosophy the Nazis used to justify their killing of the mentally ill, you briefly mention that this movement had a strong following in some American states around that same time. Do you think the U.S. might have started on a similar track if the Nazis hadn't taken the idea to its farthest extreme?

Well, the goal of the eugenics movement in the United States was not murder—"euthanasia," as the Germans called it—but sterilization. And it never had any explicit racial component as it did in Germany. There was, however, the initiative to sterilize low-income people with large families, and that ended up impacting the black population more than the white. Of course, that whole movement in America and around the world was discredited after eugenics became associated with Nazi policy.

When the Nazis began to move into the Soviet Union, they incited German officials to violence by linking Jews with the Bolshevist threat. You say that the Nazis drew on old anti-Jewish stereotypes to do this—the idea of Jewish people as a foreign, eastern race and communism as a sinister Asiatic ideology. But the Nazis also propagated the idea that Jews were money-hungry capitalists. How were they able to paint the Jew as both archetypal communist and greedy capitalist without worrying about self-contradiction?

Certainly the two Hitler accusations—the old Medieval stereotype that the Jews were the capitalist parasites, the moneysuckers, and the newer stereotype of Jews as revolutionary Bolshevik subversives—are quite contradictory. The Jew can't be both the capitalist and the communist at one and the same time. But to square that circle, one can resort to conspiracy theory. This is, of course, what the Nazis did—they said that behind these two different assaults on Germany, by the capitalist Jews on the one hand and the communist Jews on the other, was an insidious Jewish conspiracy that was coming to attack in all forms.

Conspiracy theory reconciles what would be, on the surface, two incompatible pieces of evidence. And of course, conspiracy theory is infinitely elastic. No matter what contradiction you come to, if you go one step further back and imagine something else behind that, you can reconcile almost any kind of conflicting evidence. That is what the Nazis did. They had what I call "chimeric anti-Semitism," a fantasy in their own minds. But it became acceptable to many others because it touched upon so many long-embedded anti-Semitic stereotypes that, in one way or another, were accepted by large numbers of people in Europe. For Hitler himself, all of this came together in this fantasized world conspiracy.

In some of the letters you quote, written by German officials in the East to their wives back home, there's a claim that the Bolshevist Jews were going to murder German women and children if they weren't killed first. Do you think these men genuinely believed this?

Most genocides are conceived by their perpetrators as actions of self defense: "We must do this now because, if we don't, they will do it to our women and our children later." Mass murder is then justified as a preventive measure. I think this is just part of the mentality that makes genocide possible. First you divide people between "us" and "them." Then you cast the other—"them"—as a terrible threat. In turn, you justify your doing terrible things to "them" as self defense.

You describe August 15, 1941, as "a caesura in the history of the Holocaust." What sets this date apart?

My argument is that the transition from what I would call a kind of vague, unformulated vision of homicide in the future to the Final Solution—that is, a coherent program to murder every last Jewish man, woman, and child in Europe—took place in two stages; first for the Soviet Union and then for the rest of Europe. The Nazis may have come into the Soviet Union in June and July of 1941 under the assumption that, in some way, there would be no Jews left—through some unspecified mixture of starvation, shooting, and expulsion and on some unspecified timetable. By mid-August, we have evidence that this had evolved into a very clear notion that the Jews would all be killed very quickly.

The reason I say August 15 is because we have a report from one of the killing squads, the Einsatz Commando III in Lithuania, that breaks down the actual body count day by day, with victims listed by categories of communist or Jew. And within the category of Jew, they break it down by both age and gender. We know when they were shooting men, women, and children, and in what proportions. What is clear is that up until mid-August, they were following a pattern of shooting adult male Jewish leadership and Jews associated with the Communist military danger. Then, on August 15, the proportions changed drastically, and the major victims became Jewish women and children. This was a retargeting. When they started to give priority to killing women and children, this was no longer a selective murder of potential enemy male Jews but a program to wipe out the Jewish race in its entirety.

I think this was in fact a transition that took place in different places over a longer period of time. But August 15, 1941, is the one date we can pinpoint very precisely for Einsatz Commando III.

I was interested by a statement from a Nazi official stationed in Minsk about the deportation of the Reich Jews, those from German cities like Hamburg and Berlin. In contrast with the Jews of Eastern Europe, the official described the Reich Jews as "human beings who come from our cultural sphere" and was troubled by the idea of exterminating them. In general, do you think many Nazi officials found the killing of the Reich Jews harder to stomach?

The Nazis assumed that, under the guise of this anti-Communist crusade in Russia, they could kill Soviet Jews without any real problems on the home front. But when it came to murdering German Jews, they had to be much more sensitive. I think they were worried that there might be a public-relations problem if word got out of their massacring German Jews. The letter from the Minsk official is evidence of this, and we see other cases, too.

When the first trainloads of Jews were murdered in Kovno and Riga, rumors came back to Germany and some people were upset. Himmler was certainly aware that there would be a qualitative difference in the indifference or acceptance of murdering Russian Jews as opposed to German Jews. Thus, after the first six trains of German Jews were murdered in late November and early December, that program was suspended for a while. The Jews deported in the spring of 1942 were initially sent to ghettos in Poland—in a sense "put on ice" for a while—and then sent on to death camps later. In the same way, Jews, particularly elderly ones, were sent to Theresienstadt first and then sent on to Auschwitz.

Your conclusion goes into a discussion of Hitler's role in the Final Solution. You emphasize that Hitler's enthusiasm brought together all kinds of people—eugenists who wanted to achieve racial purity, technicians who wanted to display their skills, political careerists who wanted to get ahead. But you also point out that many of the specific ideas and plans did not come from Hitler but from his subordinates, who took their cues from Hitler's vague statements. Do you think those second-level Nazi leaders like Himmler should be held as responsible as Hitler for the Holocaust?

It's true that Hitler did not have to be a micromanager in this. He was able to make exhortations, give prophetic speeches. It was embedded in the Nazi system that the duty or imperative on all loyal Nazis was, in their own terms, to "work towards the Fuehrer," to always anticipate and support him, in a sense devote your life to him. When he made a prophecy, your obligation was to make that prophecy come true. When he staked out something in terms of a vague goal, your job was to make that concrete.

This elicited all sorts of initiatives, all sorts of plans. Those were brought to Hitler. Sometimes he said, "No, you didn't read me right." Sometimes he put up a red light. Sometimes he flashed a yellow light—"not ready yet"—and sometimes he shone a green light and gave approval to go ahead. The person who read Hitler the best in this regard was Himmler. He was the one who could usually anticipate what Hitler wanted and understand what Hitler meant. This was why the SS gained in power so rapidly in this period, because as Himmler was leading them, he became increasingly indispensable to Hitler in terms of turning prophecies into realities.

For a historian, this form of decision-making is maddeningly imprecise. You can't go to a single document or a single meeting and say, "Here is where something was decided." There is a stretched out stage of Hitler giving vague signals, others reading those signals, they coming to Hitler, he affirming they had understood him well, they going back and making plans and then bringing those back. So the decision-making process can go on over months, during which time there is not one single day or document we can pinpoint and say, "This is when it happened."

Could there have been a scenario in which Hitler might have gone around making sweeping, vague proclamations but no one would have come forward to make those concrete?

Among the many different people who were "working towards the Fuehrer," there were some very committed ideologues, very committed anti-Semites. Some of them were pressing Hitler before he was ready. He was not only giving green lights but giving red lights, at times saying, "No, this is premature." The way this worked, even if a Himmler or Heydrich had not come forward with various proposals, it's almost inevitable that someone else would have. Himmler or Heydrich may have distinguished themselves by being the first there, but they certainly weren't the only ones. There were enough people vying for Hitler's favor in all of this that, even if those two had not been there, I think the process would have tended in that direction in any case. Others would have filled the void.

In terms of Hitler giving the "green light," you say this often coincided with a big Nazi victory. The more success Hitler experienced in his campaign, the more daring he became with implementing his plans.

I argue for a very stark correlation between the victory euphoria that Hitler experienced—in September 1939, May and June 1940, July 1941, and late September and early October of 1941—with what I consider the four pivotal points of radicalization of Nazi Jewish policy. I hypothesize that one of the factors influential with Hitler—one of the reasons he gave green lights—was the big boost he got from the sense that Europe was now at his feet, that previous restraints had fallen away. He felt he could be more uninhibited, that he could give greater rein to turning his fantasies into reality. Therefore, Nazi victories were an accelerating factor, a factor conducive to the intensification of racial persecution.

This book goes into the minutest details about the unfolding of the Final Solution, focusing on everything from the train schedules to the different kinds of gas tested by the Nazi technicians. What is the value of quantifying evil in this way, breaking it down into small details rather than only looking at the bigger picture?

It's always easy to identify the Holocaust with Hitler, which is certainly not wrong. He was, as I argue, the prime decision maker and instigator in this. But if we want a fuller picture of how these things came about, then we need to get at the layered, complex reality in which all sorts of people made incremental contributions. It's important to see the impulses toward the Final Solution as having come not only from Hitler from above but from many other people below.

We may, in the end, conclude that the Holocaust has very unique characteristics among genocides. But to be unique in some ways is not to be unique in all ways. The various perpetrators who became involved in the Final Solution and their decision-making processes were not unique. In fact, I would argue that many of the elements in this were a coming together of quite common factors and ordinary people. That, I think, is very important to recognize if we don't want to place the Holocaust apart as some kind of suprahistorical, mystical event that we cannot fathom and shouldn't even try to understand.

Euphoria led to the Holocaust

Christopher Browning shows how the Holocaust began as the Nazis swept across Russia rather than as a response to their defeat at Moscow in The Origins of the Final Solution

Neal Ascherson
Sunday May 23, 2004
The Observer

The Origins of the Final Solution
by Christopher Browning
Heinemann £25, pp644

Of all the books about the great crime, Christopher Browning's Ordinary Men in 1992 was uniquely horrifying. He described how a group of average German civilians formed Reserve Police Battalion 101 and proceeded in village after village, day after day, to slaughter the Jewish men, women and children they found there. After reading it, some people despaired of Germany. Others despaired of the human race.

At least Browning went some way to open up one of the two great questions left by the Holocaust: 'How could they have?' The other question is whether the Nazis always meant to kill the Jews, or whether they drifted into murder when other 'final solutions' became impossible. Now Browning has tried to answer that puzzle too.

The main argument between 'intentionalists' and 'structuralists' is pretty much over. Few historians now think Hitler, insane Jew-hater as he was, planned the gas chambers before he even came to power. But neither do they think that struggles inside the Nazi structure led to Auschwitz almost without conscious human agency. Browning shows how the decision for total extermination was crystallised by changing circumstances, but against the background of a driving impetus to radicalise racial policy which derived ultimately from Hitler. The centre almost never issued direct orders. But local commanders, whether SS officers or administrators in occupied territory, always sensed that more extreme action on the ground would find approval above them.

Some writers - The Observer's Sebastian Haffner among them - thought the decision for mass murder was the result of defeat. When the Wehrmacht was finally stopped at the gates of Moscow, in December 1941, the vague ideas of expelling European Jewry to starve in conquered Soviet Asia became impossible; the millions of deported Jews accumulating in eastern Poland would have to be disposed of in another way.

Browning shows that this is wrong. The decisive impulse was not defeat but the euphoria of victory in Russia, in the summer of 1941. It was the sense that they were invincible which persuaded the Nazis that the genocide of Soviet Jews, which they were already carrying out, could be extended to the Jews of every nation they controlled.

Up to 1939, Hitler's 'destruction of Jewry' meant driving the Reich's Jews into emigration. The conquest of Poland that September changed the picture. The atrocities there were aimed at Poles as much as at Jews, and the scene was soon dominated by Himmler's gigantic ethnic cleansings as he sought to empty western Poland and replace Poles by Germans from the Baltic and Ukraine. The Jews were simply to 'disappear', by emigration to Madagascar or by being shoved into Soviet-held territory. Himmler observed, no doubt sincerely in 1940, that 'the Bolshevik method of physical extermination... is un-German'.

Slowly a Final Solution by emigration shifted towards solutions by expulsion. By early 1941, with war against Russia being prepared, some Nazis were playing with ideas of deporting Polish and perhaps German/Austrian Jews into the Ural steppes where they would be worked and starved to extinction (the concept of 'expulsion' was always linked with 'decimation'). But the brutality of the 'Barbarossa' plan made this irrelevant. Behind the Wehrmacht, the Nazi slaughter-squads were assembled for a 'total war of destruction' against Soviet society. Millions had to die and in this programme the Jews - who in Poland had been perceived as 'vermin' - now became Satanic, central to the 'Judaeo-Bolshevik' hate image.

The deliberate killing of Jewish communities began as soon as the Nazi armies crossed the border. As Browning says, the German attack on Russia ended the era of expulsions. 'The era of mass murder was about to begin.'

The decision for the total extermination of the Soviet Jews opened the doors to the ultimate crime. Browning believes that Hitler made up his mind in July 1941, at the peak of the huge military victories in Russia. The emigration of German Jews was halted and their deportation to execution sites in the East began. The construction of death camps in eastern Poland was accompanied by experiments in the use of poison gas. By October, the evidence shows that the inner Nazi and SS group were preparing for the murder of Europe's Jewish population. The Wannsee Conference of January 1942 only made the German bureaucracy complicit in what was already being done.

Even Browning's researches have not turned up the fatal Hitler order. Probably none existed. That was not his way. Hitler preferred 'the best man, who bothers him least', henchmen who read his mind but took their own initiative. He filled the air with fearsome innuendo, but left it to junior figures to put into practice what they sensed he wanted - and what they wanted too. Afterwards, he would exult and take the credit.

This is a very dense and detailed book. It is a study of decision-making, painstakingly traced through the chaos of competing Nazi institutions. Unlike Ordinary Men, it only seldom takes the reader to the awful reality of what those decisions led to. And yet the horror accumulates. Page after page following the movements of SS and police killing units and analysing their orders alternates with cold figures. Einsatzgruppe A in Riga reports 125,000 Jews killed up to October 1941; two million Soviet prisoners of war are dead by spring 1942 out of 3.5 million captured; 1,000 Berlin Jews are shot in Riga immediately on arrival due to a misunderstanding about billeting.

Browning ends his history in early 1942, when most of Europe's Jews are still alive. But that is as it should be. In order to seek an answer to 'why', we have first to grasp 'how' and pick our silent way down the track which leads - as Gauleiter Greiser used to joke - from 'Expel to Exploit to Exterminate'. On that journey, this book is the best guide.


A Job for Rewrite

Stalin’s War

By Benjamin Schwarz

New York Times, 21 February 2004

A plucky Britain refusing to bow to the Luftwaffe’s blitz, Patton and Rommel dueling in the North African desert, the D-Day invasion and the Battle of the Bulge — these tend to dominate American’s conception of the Allied defeat of Nazi Germany. But as important as the episodes were, military historians have always known that the main scene of the Nazis’ downfall was the Eastern Front, which claimed 80 percent of all German military casualties in the war. The four-year conflict between the Wehrmacht and the Red Army remains the largest and possibly the most ferocious ever fought. The armies struggled over vast territory. The front extended 1,900 miles (greater than the distance from the northern border of Maine to the southern tip of Florida), and German troops advanced over 1,000 miles into Soviet territory (equivalent to the distance from the East Coast to Topeka, Kan.). And they clashed in a seemingly unrelenting series of military operations of unparalleled scale; the battle of Kursk alone, for instance, involved 3.5 million men. In short, the war fought on the Eastern Front is arguably the single most important chapter in modern military history — but it is a chapter that in many essential ways is only now being written. From evidence released from Soviet archives since the mid-1980’s, scholars have learned, for example, that Soviet deaths numbered nearly 50 million, two and half times the original estimate; that the Red Army raped two million German women during their occupation to wreak revenge; and that an astonishing 40 percent of Soviet wartime battles were for decades lost to history. In the last few years, academics have lamented that access to Russian archives has tightened considerably. Surprisingly, though, specialists in the field say that what may turn out to be a bigger problem is the dearth of Russian military historians in the West who can take advantage of the documentary material already available, coupled with the lack of money in the former Soviet Union to support those academics prepared to dive into the papers. So far, it’s a “missed historiographical opportunity,” said Col. David M. Glantz, now retired, the former director of the United States Army’s Foreign Military Studies Office, who has written or edited more than 60 books on the history of the Soviet military in the Second World War. The extraordinarily prolific Colonel Glantz said he would need “three lifetimes” to mine the documents that have already been released. Military historians like Williamson Murray, professor emeritus at Ohio State University and a defense consultant in Washington, hold that the Soviets probably documented their war more fully than any other of the combatant states. Yet the war on the Eastern Front is still obscure, largely because of the cold war. During that period, the U.S.S.R.’s immense archives concerning the conflict were essentially closed to Western scholars. At the same time, the decisive impact of America’s erstwhile ally was often deliberately underplayed in the West for political reasons. The Soviets also buried the history of the Eastern Front. Soviet military historians turned out accurate and detailed work, but since they could analyze only what Soviet officials permitted them to write about, they skirted, or, more significantly, ignored those facts and events the government considered embarrassing. Soviet propaganda, meanwhile, lionized the heroes of the “Great Patriotic War.” For the most part, then, scholars were forced to rely heavily on German sources, which presented an extremely distorted view of events. Only the Scottish historian John Erickson, whose two-volume history of the war in the East — “The Road to Stalingrad” (1975) and “The Road to Berlin” (1983) — remains the outstanding comprehensive study in any language, managed to get beyond such one-sided accounts. He did it by virtue of his close relationships with high-level Soviet officials and current and former military officers in order to gain access to closed records. But probably his greatest cache of Soviet material actually came from combing German records for captured Soviet documents. Since the fall of the Soviet Union, though, the flood of published Soviet military documents and the opening up of the Soviet archives have been transforming historians’ understanding of this pivotal theater of the Second World War. Indisputably, the chief scholar in this endeavor is the 62-year-old Colonel Glantz, who spent most of his years in the Army thinking of ways to defeat the Red Army. Drawing on the vast and varied newly available Soviet document collections and archives, his dozens of books are what military historians call operational histories, which minutely and meticulously examine what took place on the battlefields. They aren’t concerned with the Eastern Front’s political, social, diplomatic or economic dimensions (Colonel Glantz barely touches on the Wehrmacht’s role in the Final Solution, for example), or even with all its military ones, and to the layman they can be very heavy going, with their recitations of faceless units moving in unfamiliar places. But thanks largely to his and Mr. Erickson’s work, Westerners have radically revised their appreciation of the Red Army’s wartime skill and performance. According to the conventional view, based largely on the often-self-serving accounts of German generals, the Wehrmacht was the most operationally advanced military in the war, and Soviet tactics and performance were leaden and unimaginative in comparison; the Red Army ultimately prevailed not because it was skillful, but because it was so large. By incorporating Colonel Glantz’s findings, however, Mr. Murray of Ohio State and his co-author, Allan R. Millett, conclude in “A War to Be Won” (Harvard, 2000), their general history of the Second World War, that the Soviets’ brilliant use of encirclement and what they called “deep battle” — extremely rapid, far-reaching advances behind the enemy’s front lines — constituted the most innovative and devastating display of “operational art” in World War II. Soviet operations from the summer of 1944 to the winter of 1945, they conclude, were far superior to those of the German Army at its best. Speaking from his house in Carlisle, Pa., near the United States Army War College, Colonel Glantz marveled that close to one-half of wartime Soviet operations — including major battles involving hundreds of thousands of Red Army soldiers — are simply “missing from history,” either neglected or covered up. For example, in November and December of 1942 the celebrated Soviet Field Marshal G. K. Zhukov orchestrated a gigantic offensive (“Operation Mars”) involving seven Soviet armies with 83 divisions, 817,000 men and 2,352 tanks. The failed operation cost the Red Army nearly 350,000 dead, missing and wounded men, and 1,700 tanks, yet it was methodically concealed in Soviet historiography, in large part to preserve Zhukov’s reputation. Not all of Colonel Glantz’s findings would have proved so embarrassing to the Soviets. In one of the most contentious debates that emerged from the war, Western historians and their governments throughout the cold war accused Stalin of deliberately holding back the Red Army from aiding the Polish uprising in Warsaw in 1944, thus tacitly permitting German forces to destroy the beleaguered Polish Home Army. But Colonel Glantz concludes, after scrutinizing the documents, that the Red Army initially made every reasonable effort to come to the Poles’ assistance and later chose not to — Stalin’s political considerations aside — because such action would have required a major reorientation of military efforts and a consequent slackening of the main offensive against German forces. Using other newly available Soviet military documents, the British historian Antony Beevor focused on the final months of the conflict in his harrowing study, “The Fall of Berlin” (Viking, 2002), during which Russian soldiers victimized two million German women, 50 years before rape was recognized as a war crime. And where Colonel Glantz shies away from larger historical or cultural analysis, the historian Christopher R. Browning firmly ties what the Nazis called their “war of destruction” against the Soviet Union to the Holocaust. In Mr. Browning’s view, which he details in his forthcoming book, “The Origins of the Final Solution” (University of Nebraska), Germany’s mass murders of Jews and non-Jews alike on the Eastern Front crystallized Nazi policy regarding the eradication of European Jewry. A popular Soviet postwar slogan was, “No one is forgotten, nothing is forgotten.” It is only now, though, as more information is being mined about this immense, chaotic war, that historians are realizing all there is to be remembered.

Benjamin Schwarz is the literary editor and the national editor of The Atlantic Monthly.



What Happened in the East
The origins of the Final Solution lay in the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union.

Tuesday, March 23, 2004 12:01 a.m. EST

The terrible images associated with the Holocaust are engraved in our collective memory. From the burning of books in 1933 to the Nuremberg laws in 1935, from Kristallnacht in 1938 to the creation of the Warsaw ghetto in 1940 and the outright extermination of Soviet Jews the following year, the Holocaust appears to be an inevitable consequence of Nazi racial policies.

Each crime created the momentum for a more destructive atrocity. But Adolf Hitler, Heinrich Himmler and Reinhard Heydrich did not grasp the full logic of their hatred until military victories gave them unexpected opportunities. Between 1939 and 1941--when the Wehrmacht invaded and occupied Poland and the Balkans, then virtually all of Western Europe, while securing alliances with Romania and Hungary--Hitler was still planning to cleanse Europe by expelling the Jews to a far-off location.

The Nazis found themselves in control of nine million Jews, far more than the mere 600,000 who lived in Germany. For a time, the Nazi leadership seriously considered shipping them to Madagascar. Hitler confided this plan to Mussolini in June 1940; a month later, the Nazis even halted the building of the Warsaw ghetto because they assumed they would be sending the Jews away. As Christopher Browning explains in his superb "The Origins of the Final Solution": "The commitment to some kind of final solution to the Jewish question had been inherent in Nazi ideology from the beginning. Thus Nazi Jewish policy . . . first envisaged a judenfrei Germany through emigration and then a judenfrei Europe through expulsion."

It was not until the invasion of Soviet territory, though, in June 1941--and the almost immediate occupation of the Baltic states, Ukraine and large parts of Belorussia--that the Nazis understood that they were now embarked on "a vast racial and ideological conflict." Hitler had warned his officers that spring that the impending invasion "would be very different from the war in the West." The military soon understood that all Jews would be killed.

By the end of 1941, the numbers alone were staggering. Within six months after the German invasion, Mr. Browning estimates, nearly 800,000 Jews were murdered on Soviet territory alone, almost all of them by the Einsatzgruppen, shooting units of several thousand men who followed the Wehrmacht into Soviet territory with the single goal of killing every Jew they could find. They were joined by auxiliary German police forces and units of Lithuanian and Ukrainian collaborators who initiated their own pogroms. The Romanian army occupied Odessa, killing nearly 20,000 Jews in October 1941.

Heydrich flooded the German bureaucracy with information on the massacres. Soldiers wrote home to their families about the killings. One admitted that "when the first truckload arrived my hand was slightly trembling when shooting, but one gets used to this." There were even instances of "execution tourism," when "on or off duty" Germans would watch the open-air massacres and take pictures.

It is now believed that of the six million Jews who perished in the Holocaust, no fewer than 2 1/2 million were killed on Soviet territory, at places like Babi Yar outside of Kiev; Fort IX outside of Kaunas; Rumbuli near Riga; and Maly Trostinets near Minsk. The scale of this killing, however, remains largely unrecognized in the West. And the key role it played in the evolution of the Holocaust cries out for the kind of close historical study that Mr. Browning now provides.

The massacres in the East sealed the fate of Jews in countries that had already been occupied for two years. Expulsion was no longer realistic under wartime conditions. But shooting proved to be difficult, too. Even Nazi officers worried that such a method would turn their men into "either neurotics or savages." Different methods, "more efficient, detached, and secret," were needed, especially for Jews in Western and Central Europe, where the requirements of secrecy ruled out the kind of massacres carried out on Soviet territory.

It was then that Hitler recalled the euthanasia program. The Nazis gassed over 70,000 physically and mentally handicapped German adults and children before public protests compelled them to curtail the practice in August 1941. Mobile gas vans, then camps with stationary gas chambers, were designed and constructed in Poland--in Chelmno outside of Lodz, then Belzec near Lublin, and soon in Auschwitz, Treblinka and other notorious killing centers.

One of the greatest crimes in history was also among the most documented. Mr. Browning, with the assistance of Jürgen Matthäus, examines public speeches, the correspondence between Berlin and commanders in the field, the minutes of staff meetings and the records of private discussions. He 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."

Mr. Rubenstein is northeast regional director of Amnesty International and the author of "Stalin's Secret Pogrom."


The TLS n.º 5305    DECEMBER 3, 2004


Peter Pulzer

Christopher R. Browning


Holocaust History and postwar testimony

105 pp. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press. $ 35.

0 299 18980 5



615 pp. Heinemann. Paperback. £ 25.

0 434 01227 0

US: University of Nebraska Press $39.95

0 803 21327 1



In late July 1944, the advance of the Red Army forced the Germans to close the factory camp at Starachowice, south of Warsaw, a small and largely ignored island in what David Rousset has called “l’univers concentrationnaire”. During the preparations for the evacuation, an eighteen-year-old woman prisoner, Guta B., assaulted and wounded the guard commander, Willi Schroth. Amazingly, she survived. But how and why? Christopher R. Browning asks these questions in his George L. Mosse Lectures, published as Collected Memories: Holocaust history and postwar testimony, in order to show how difficult it is to reconstruct the histories of the camps and ghettos of Nazi occupied Europe and to evaluate the post-war testimonies of both survivors and perpetrators. Starachowice is exceptional in that 173 testimonies exist, eleven of them relating to the Guta—Schroth incident, spread over a period of forty years. On the incident itself, the accounts largely agree; on what happened later, they diverge quite widely. Few witnesses, Browning concludes, are capable of providing a precise chronological narrative. Politically and psychologically it is not easy to downgrade survivor testimonies as a reliable source for events rather than for states of mind or degrees of suffering. In his recent Der Holocaust und die westdeutschen Historiker, Nicolas Berg took West German historians to task for brushing aside literature on the camps if it came from victims, or indeed any Jewish or non-German source. On the other hand the veteran Holocaust historian Raul Hilberg caused a stir when he told an Israeli conference audience that he preferred contemporary German documents to survivor testimony as a source for the reconstruction of events. Browning is in no doubt on this issue: however great the value of survivor testimony in specific cases, “it cannot be accorded a privileged status, immune from the same careful examination of evidence to which our profession routinely subjects other sources”.

Browning implements this principle in two ways. The Origins of the Final Solution is based overwhelmingly either on German primary documents or on secondary works that use them. lo also, in the first of his three lectures, subjects some hitherto discredited evidence to renewed scrutiny, namely the testimonies of Adolf Eichmann. This voluminous material, produced over five years, consists of taped interviews, court depositions and written memoirs. Once we have dismissed everything in these accounts that is self-contradictory, manifestly untrue, or evidently self-serving, we are left with some nuggets that reveal Eichmann’s participation in trips or meetings that we should otherwise not have known about, and with statements that were contrary to his self-interest and, no doubt unconsciously, self-incriminating. The crucial period to which these nuggets refer is mid-October 1941, when there was a series of meetings between Himmler and Reinhard Heydrich, the head of the Reich Main Security Office, and between Himmler and Odilo Globocnik, head of the SS police in Lublin, as well as communications between Heydrich and Globocnik in which Eichmann acted as both scribe and courier. Significantly, the dates coincide with an order by Himmler banning all further Jewish emigration, even of citizens of a neutral country, Hitler’s reversal of his embargo on deportations from Berlin, the construction off he first gas chambers at Belzec and Chelmno and experiments with Zyklon B gas at Auschwitz-Birkenau. It was also at this time that Heydrich confided to Eichmann that Hitler had ordered “the physical destruction” of the Jews. The wider context of these comings and goings was the completion of the encirclement of Leningrad and the success of the renewed German offensive in the Ukraine, creating the high point of German military self-confidence, which in turn freed the Nazi leadership from all policy inhibitions.

For Browning, though not for all historians of the Holocaust, this is the closest we get to a decision from the top for genocide. This thesis reappears in his magnum opus, The Origins of the Final Solution, though the main purpose of that work is to trace the origins of the decision and the early stages of its implementation. Four themes dominate this narrative. They are the ideological obsession of the Nazi regime with the “Jewish Question”; the continuing interest of all the Nazi leaders, Hitler included, in monitoring progress in the various “solutions” proposed; the steady escalation of anti-Jewish measures, from collective humiliation to economic deprivation, from that to deportation, random executions and finally wholesale murder; and the extent to which these various steps depended on the progress of the war.

Browning says little about Nazi Jewish policy before 1939. For that, we have to go to other authorities, such as Saul Friedlander’s Nazi Germany and the Jews. Up to 1939 the aim had been to “cleanse” Germany of Jews, to make it judenrein. With each stage of German eastward expansion the dimensions of the “Jewish problem” multiplied themselves, though, as Browning stresses, it was a problem only because the Nazis made it unto one. How important it was to them is shown by the priority the leadership gave it from the day Poland was invaded. Between September 7 and 29, 1939, either Hitler or Heydrich chaired no fewer than five meetings with the “Jewish Question” as the agenda. Once Poland was overrun, deportation, exploitation and executions became the rule. Once France was defeated, the plan to deport all European Jews to Madagascar, “genocidal in its implications”, was hatched, only to be abandoned when Germany failed to gain command of the seas. All these measures, however, were interim, and Nazi policy at this stage was characterized more by turf wars than by coherence. Goering and the Governor of Poland, Hans Frank, wanted to delay any “final solution” until after the victory they anticipated, but in this, as in so many other matters, ideological fanaticism triumphed over pragmatism.

It was Operation Barbarossa that opened the opportunity for finality. Even though that was not its primary purpose, the Nazi leadership saw its potential many months beforehand. What is again impressive is the number of high-level meetings on the “Jewish Question” that preceded that attack on the Soviet Union. In March 1941, Heydrich submitted his first memorandum on “the solution of the Jewish Question” to Goeríng; in April, Frank received an assurance from Hitler, repeated on the eve of Barbarossa, that Poland would be the first area to be cleared of the “racially undesirable”, a category not restricted to Jews; in May, Walter Schellenberg, who was close to Himmler, was confident that a “final solution” was imminent. As the date for Barbarossa approached, the Einsatzgruppen (special execution units) were deployed along the Eastern Front and treated to a pep talk by Heydrich on June 17, five days before the attack. Once it was launched, there were repeated inspection visits by Himmler, Heydrich and other SS dignitaries.

Barbarossa changed both the means and the ends of Nazi Jewish policy. It marked, in Browning’s words, a “fatal transformation”; “murder was in the air”. Unlike even the Polish campaign, with all its rapacity and massacres, it was a war of destruction. Unlike all previous campaigns, it was ideologically driven. It was not merely a war against subhuman Slavs, but a crusade against Bolshevism and its presumed Jewish authors. In July 1941, a month into Barbarossa, Goering gave Heydrich the authority to devise a “total solution” of the Jewish Question. By mid-August, Himmler was talking of “total liquidation”, claiming the authority of Hitler for this.

Within a short time it emerged that the difference in the degree of terror, compared with that in Poland, was not quantitative but qualitative. On Russian territory all Jews were considered, by definition, to be either Bolsheviks, or black marketeers, or partisans, and as such to be shot. With mass killings of women and children, who had been spared in Poland, a further escalation set in, one that, though often initiated at a local level, had a dual effect at the centre. It showed that there was now no limit to the number of Jews that could be murdered, but also that shootings were too labour-intensive and too damaging to morale. It was at this stage, in the autumn of 1941, that the flurry of events took place that transformed selective killing into systematic, wholesale murder, and that the technology developed for “euthanasia” came into play.

Was this the moment for the fatal decision, and was the decision taken by Hitler? As we know,  the paper trail has its gaps. Browning goes no further than to claim “a convergence of evidence and probability”. He is not alone in this, though others, for example, Peter Longerich in Die Politik der Vernichtung, think the decision was not taken until the following spring, while Mark Roseman in The Villa, the Lake, the Meeting speculates that it may even have been taken earlier. During these crucial days, between October 16 and 24, Hitler had no fewer than three meetings with Himmler and Heydrich. As early as August, Hitler had complained that he was not receiving regular reports on the achievements of the Einsatzgruppen. With increasing frequency he reminded his listeners that his prophecy of January 1939,  that a war would bring about the destruction of the Jews, was being fulfilled. Even if he was only retrospectively claiming consistency in a matter where policy had notoriously zig-zagged, there can be no doubt that he knew exactly what was going on and approved of it enthusiastically. His subordinates, down to the middle ranks, claimed and assumed that they were carrying out the wishes of the Fuhrer. There is little sign here of the passive endorser of the initiatives of others, or of the “weak dictator” favoured by Hans Mommsen. “If one wants lo know what Hitler was thinking”, Browning concludes, “one should look at what Himmler was doing.”

Inevitably, given the degree to which the evidence has been combed through in the past forty years, not everything that Browning says is new. On the one hand, he confirms what is now generally accepted: that there was no single explicit order, from Hitler or anyone else, for the unlimited genocide of all Jews in the German orbit. What did emerge, sometime between the invasion of the Soviet Union and the end of 1941, was an understanding at both the centre and the periphery that this genocide flowed from the logic of Operation Barbarossa. On the other hand, Browning stresses factors that other scholars have played down, but without which the escalating process of mass murder becomes more difficult to understand and explain. From start to finish, Nazi policies towards the Jews were ideologically driven. Nazi leaders were obsessed with a “Jewish Question” they themselves had invented. It was their “self-imposed problem”. “Solving” it was not the Nazis’ only obsession, though others, such as anti-Bolshevism, overlapped with the anti-Semitism. But the establishment of a continental hegemony and the exploitation of an eastern Lebensraum required no persecution of the Jews; indeed, pursuit of those objectives would have benefited from harnessing their labour power, since many of them were skilled artisans or educated professionals. One can explain much in the Nazis’ policies by economic motivation, even greed, but not the Final Solution.

Given the Nazi leaders’ predilection for governing with hints and nudges, through retrospective authorization of front-line initiatives, and for clothing murderous decisions in euphemistic legalese, there will never be complete agreement on when the button was pressed for the most deliberate and relentless genocide in history. Browning does not draw a linear trajectory from the Nazi assumption of power to the construction of the gas chambers. But he does suggest that, once Jews had been declared to be a problem, and coexistence between Jews and Germans to be unacceptable, the logic of this apartheid led first to enforced emigration, then to deportation, and then to starvation and murder. Operation Barbarossa, he argues, with its ideological impetus that bad been a subordinate element in previous aggressions, implied genocide. From then on, there was no turning back. The more Nazi leaders talked of radical solutions, fundamental solutions, total solutions, eradication, total liquidation and final solutions, the more obvious it became what finally would consist of. Browing takes us there, step by step, false lead by false lead, with never-failing intellectual mastery. It is difficult to see this work being superseded in the foreseeable future.

Browning’s narrative ends in the spring of 1942, when the gas chambers were in place and the industrialized killings were underway. He emphasizes that the crucial decision was made in the euphoria of military victory. But what was launched when the Nazi leaders could anticipate triumph was pursued as the fortunes of war turned against them and the misuse of the resources needed for the racial purification of Europe became ever more blatant. Perhaps Christopher Browning will now give us his version of this final stage of Nazi nihilism, to supplement what Hilberg, Jan Korshaw and others have already told us, and in doing so render a double service. Underlying every careful study of the Third Reich’s Jewish policies — given their central place in the Nazis’ scheme of things — is a thesis about how that state was governed; indeed each of the rival versions of how and why the Final Solution was formulated, whether in Marlin Broszat, Philippe Burrin, Mommsen, or Longerich, derives its account from assumptions, or at least hypotheses, on the overall structure of the Nazi state. How the Holocaust was continued, once it had been launched, raises fewer fundamental questions than its origin. But the implementation stage can still tell us a great deal about the men who competed for control of the Third Reich and their views on why they were in power and for what ends.






Fri., December 17, 2004 Tevet 5, 5765

Last update - 11:40 17/12/2004

Spurring on the kingdom of evil

Christopher R. Browning's "The Origins of the Final Solution" represents a certain retreat from the author's own previous position about the decision-making process that led to the Final Solution.

By Uri Dromi

"The Origins of the Final Solution: The Evolution of Nazi Jewish Policy, September 1939-March 1942" by Christopher R. Browning, with contributions by Jurgen Matthaus. The University of Nebraska Press and Yad Vashem, 615 pages

"We have no direct evidence of the date on which the decision was made to pursue a policy of mass murder," Prof. Yehuda Bauer wrote in his book "Hashoah: heibetim historiyim" ("The Holocaust: Historical Aspects") published in 1982. In his opinion, it was Hitler who pushed his cronies toward the Final Solution when, in late 1940, he gave orders to prepare for the German attack on the Soviet Union.

Driven by his fervent anti-Semitic ideology, the Fuhrer believed that the mighty campaign against the Bolshevik foe would also vanquish the true enemy - Judaism - which he hoped to capture and destroy throughout the vast Russian territory (according to Bauer, the Germans believed that some 5 million Jews were living in Russia; in fact, they numbered 3.6 million).

"It is of no importance whether Hitler had already thought of it in 1939, 1938 or 1940," Bauer adds (after all, in his speech before the Reichstag on January 30, 1939, Hitler "prophesied" that "if international Jewish finance inside and outside Europe should succeed in plunging the nations once more into a world war, the result will not be the bolshevization of the earth and thereby the victory of Jewry, but the annihilation of the Jewish race in Europe").

What is important is that the decision to exterminate the Eastern Jews was made at the same time that orders regarding the treatment of civilians in conquered Russian areas were issued, probably in mid-March 1941. Later that year, the same policy was expanded to include all of the European Jews. The issue of timing, for Bauer, comes down to this essential policy of mass murder, adopted just before the invasion of Russia; this, he believes, was the crucial decision. Bauer also takes the opportunity to debunk the popular myth about the Wannsee Conference (January 20, 1942), which was not, as many believe, the turning point in the formulation of the Final Solution, but an administrative meeting intended to improve the coordination of the mass killings that were already taking place.

In his hefty new book, published by Yad Vashem as part of its extensive research series, Prof. Christopher Browning takes a step back and seeks to trace the roots of the Final Solution from the beginning of World War II. For Browning, a scholar of Nazism and the Holocaust at the University of North Carolina, this is not only a move backward in time, but a certain retreat from his own previous position about the decision-making process that led to the Jewish genocide. He now reexamines the degree of influence that Hitler exerted over the process, as well as the issue of the date - that is, whether one can even speak of a "Final Solution" as existing before 1941.

No `Big Bang'

Browning, like Bauer, was of the belief that Hitler played a crucial role in the push toward the Final Solution. During the 1970s and 1980s, there was a disagreement between "intentionalist" historians (who believed the mass extermination was a premeditated act that could be traced back to Hitler) and their functionalist or structuralist colleagues (who ascribed the extermination to a conjunction of numerous forces, special circumstances and a certain bureaucratic "logic"). Browning clearly belonged to the former group. Although he did not believe in anything like a "Big Bang" - a single decision that set the entire process in motion - he did see Hitler as the "spurring" factor, who allowed no one in his kingdom of evil to relinquish the pursuit of the Final Solution.

The new book does not question Hitler's importance in the process that led to the Final Solution, nor does it minimize the role of the fuehrer's perfect (and, for the Jews, catastrophic) alliance with Heinrich Himmler. While Hitler spoke of the Jewish genocide in abstract terms (as in his "prophecy" of January 1939), Himmler came up with a practical agenda. "If one wants to know what Hitler was thinking, one should look at what Himmler was doing," Browning writes. In March 13, 1940, Himmler appeared before the top Vermacht officers in Poland to explain to them what the S.S. was doing in the territory under their command. Already at this early point, he made clear that the actions in question were not the rogue initiative of junior officers, nor a case of overstepping bounds, on his part: "In this group of the highest officers of the army I can quite openly say it: I do nothing that the fuehrer does not know."

One of the officers present, General von Weichs, recalled that Himmler concluded the meeting by emphasizing that "he always followed the orders of the fuehrer, but he was prepared in some things that perhaps appeared incomprehensible to take responsibility for the fuehrer before the people and the world, because the person of the fuehrer cannot be connected with these things."

Indeed, Himmler's conduct was not unique in Hitler's court. Top Nazi officers and senior officials tried to outdo each other in guessing the fuehrer's intentions; each wanted to be the first to receive the nod from Hitler, authorizing the proposal that would turn his vague ideas into action. As early as 1934, Werner Willikens, state secretary in the Prussian agricultural ministry, explained that, "it is the duty of every single person to attempt, in the spirit of the fuehrer, to work toward him. Anyone making mistakes will come to notice it soon enough. But one who works correctly toward the fuehrer along his lines and toward his aim will in the future, as previously, have the finest reward of one day suddenly attaining legal confirmation of his work" (from "Hitler, 1889-1936: Hubris" by Ian Kershaw, Penguin Press, 1998).

Browning, then, still considers Hitler to be the chief villain. In his book, however, he takes into account the work of scholars such as Martin Broszat, Uwe Dietrich Adam and others, who argue that the focus on the fuehrer reduces the culpability of the lower-level Nazis, without whom the extermination would have been impossible. Clearly, Daniel J. Goldhagen also contributed to this change: His provocative book "Hitler's Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust" (which appeared in Hebrew translation in 1998) and the great controversy it sparked, further encouraged scholars to turn their attention to regional and local authorities, the army and the civilian administration, planning and economic officials - all these, of course, in addition to the police, the einsatzgruppen and local collaborators.

The year 1941

In his own 1992 book "Ordinary Men," Browning explored the conduct of a reserve military police battalion that took part in the murder of Polish Jews. He found that the men committing the atrocities were driven by a mixture of anti-Semitism, an extreme and brutal reality, alcohol and a powerful esprit de corps. According to Dan Michman, the chief historian of Yad Vashem, it was the interaction of "above" and "below" that allowed Hitler's vague notions of a Final Solution to take the form of a practical agenda ("Bishvil hazikaron" - "In the Path of Memory" - 2001).

The second point Browning reexamines is the significance of the year 1941 in the emergence of the Final Solution. Until now he has concurred with many other scholars in the belief that this was the crucial year, during which the Nazi top command came to its decisive resolution. Browning thought that Hitler made his decision in July of that year, when Germany was euphoric over the great success of the first phase of Operation Barbarossa.

The sudden opportunity to kill the Jews as part of the war on Bolshevism led to the escalation and rapid acceleration of the Final Solution process. A second wave of euphoria in the autumn - again caused by military triumphs on the Russian front - led to another decision in October, after which the Final Solution was systematized: In November the Belzec death camp was established, in December Jews began to be exterminated at Chelmno, and by the Wannsee Conference in January 1942, the different organizations were already busy coordinating the bureaucracy of extermination.

Still, despite his own position as a "1941 man," Browning is willing in this book to grant considerable attention to the advocates of the "continuum" theory - for example, Peter Longerich, who argues that it was actually in September 1939, when World War II broke out, that the Nazis moved from a "Jewish policy" (Judenpolitik) to an "extermination policy" (Vernichtungspolitik), and that all subsequent decisions were actually geared toward the extermination of the Jews. In this context, Browning mentions the proposal, suggested after the German invasion of Poland, to gather the Jews into a reserve near Lublin, and of course the 1940 Madagascar Plan, according to which the Jews were to be deported to the remote East African island. Magnus Brechtken has claimed that this plan was in fact a death sentence for the European Jewry, differing from Auschwitz only in its location and mode of killing. Browning does not go that far, but he does note that the zeal with which the Nazis embraced the plan as a magic solution to the Jewish problem, and their disappointment and frustration when it fell through, pushed them toward their policy of mass murder. Browning still believes that 1941 was the turning point; but whereas he once saw it as a radical leap, he is now willing to moderate his view and lend more weight to the preceding years.

The book is appearing simultaneously in both Hebrew and English. The editors of the Hebrew edition write that Browning's thesis, according to which the decision to exterminate the Jews developed gradually, as geopolitical circumstances changed and Hitler's racism grew more extreme, is likely to provoke controversy.

Browning's book, and two forthcoming volumes by other authors (dealing with 1933-1939 and 1942-1945), offer Holocaust scholars and interested readers a compelling summary of the existing research. The accomplishment of both the book and its author is that despite the plethora of detail, we never lose sight of the bigger picture. Browning's work clearly contributes to the creation of a balanced and comprehensive account of the Final Solution. Yet this reader was still left frustrated: Gaining this knowledge helps us understand how it actually happened. The question that remains unanswered is how on earth it could ever have happened.

Uri Dromi is director of international outreach at the Israel Democracy Institute.