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Anti-Semitism was felt intensely by the Nazis and their followers in the rise to power.
Wider German society – like much of Europe – had a casual anti-Semitism that was part and parcel of its nationalist outlook. By allying with the Conservatives to take state power, the Nazis became a far more potent threat. As they took power, the Nazi leadership tried to stoke anti-Semitic feeling, but Germans overall were unmoved by overt campaigns in the late 1930s, and many reacted against violent persecution.1 With the Nazis’ destruction of political opposition, though, there was no sustained protest against the reversal of Jewish emancipation.
Anti-Semitism served to explain and even order international relations. In their speeches, leading Nazis blamed Jewish financiers and leaders for Germany’s diplomatic isolation, making great play of the roles and ethnic origins of Roosevelt’s advisor Bernard Baruch, the English Minister Leslie Hore-Belisha, and the Russian Commissar Kaganovich.
Later, of his allies, Hitler demanded anti-Jewish measures parallel to Germany’s, as a test and proof of their commitment to the New Order in Europe (proof that many were all too keen to give).
Jews in Germany, Austria and the Bohemia Protectorate lost their civil rights, had their property seized, and were pushed to emigrate from the German Reich. The German Foreign Office seriously planned to deport Jews to the island of Madagascar, off the coast of Africa, in 1940, after the French Colony fell into their sphere of influence. It is tempting to read history backwards. Knowing what we do of the end point of the campaign against the Jews, it is easy to think that extermination was the plan all along. But it was not. In May 1940 Himmler wrote a memo on the expulsion of the Jews that ended ‘however cruel and tragic each case may be, this method is still the mildest and the best, if one rejects the Bolshevik method of physical extermination of a people out of inner conviction as un-German and impossible’.2 The Madagascar plan had been looked at before, by French, Polish and British officials (it was first thought up by the English anti-Semites Henry Beamish and Arnold Leese). Briefly popular with leading Nazis, the Madagascar plan was no kindness, but thought of as the most expedient way of ridding Germany of its Jewish population. The plan failed because Britain blocked the expulsion of German Jews – out of fear that they would come to Britain.3 German nationalism, like all nationalisms, has a powerfully irrational component, but with the prospect of defeat in the war, the irrational overwhelmed any thought-through pursuit of national interest. Unable to understand how Germany had failed to unite Europe behind its flag, Hitler descended into a morbid conspiracy theory to explain the alliance arraigned against him: ‘international Jewry’. Defeating this fantasy enemy was a substitute for the real problems facing Germany. Once victory over their real enemies slipped from their grasp, the Nazis, who were incapable of considering the alternative course of a negotiated peace (a peace which would have meant the end of the NSDAP) and more and more fought a fantasy war against a fantasy enemy. The German philosopher Hegel said that the Crusaders’ seizure of Jerusalem was a mistake that made the Christian ideal into a morbid reality.4 Hitler’s ideal was already depraved, but made real it was a descent into barbarism.
The war against the Jews was pitched from persecution to massacres with the invasion of Poland, and to outright extermination with the invasion of the USSR. The expansion of the Greater German Reich into the east had the unforeseen outcome that not less, but more Jews were under its rule. The policy up until that point had been to expel Jews, many of them eastwards. With the invasion of Poland, Germany began a complicated movement of peoples. Polish Jews were concentrated in ghettoes, notably in Warsaw and Lodz (which the Germans called Lemberg), and later these were also packed further with Jews from around Europe. Poles were moved east out of Prussia into the ‘General Government’ area – but later others were sent west as forced labourers in Germany. The Jews’ homes and the Poles farms were to be cleared to make way for German settlers. These forced movements were brutal in the extreme.
The massacres began at the hands of the Einsatzgruppen der Sicherheitspolizei (special task forces of the security police). These were under SS Chief Reinhard von Heydrich, and were used by the Nazi leadership to take the brutal measures that they feared the Wehrmacht would shy away from.
With the invasion of Poland Einsatzgruppen attacked Poles but also singled out the country’s sizeable Jewish population for special treatment. On October 26 1939 ‘General Government’ governor Hans Frank ordered Jews to work for the occupation forces, digging defences and so on. On 13 November Frank issued the order that Jews were to wear the Star of David.5 On 30 October 1939, Himmler ordered Jews removed from the Germanannexed west, notably Danzig and Bromberg. Jews were sent east to Lodz, where around 170,000 Jews were sealed into the ghetto in spring of 1940. That autumn the Warsaw ghetto was also closed, after 400,000 Jews were pushed together. In the Autumn of 1941, the Nazi leadership ordered the expulsion of all Jews from Greater Germany eastwards, and tens of thousands were sent from Berlin, Prague, Vienna and other cities to the General Government district of Poland, primarily to Lodz, which was massively overcrowded; some were moved further east into Riga.6 Later the Einsatzgruppen played a murderous role in the suppression of the local population in the occupied territories of the Soviet Union. The atrocities mounted up – especially when the forward movement of Operation Barbarossa faltered in late 1941. At the end of June Einsatzgruppe B massacred 2000 Jews in Bialystok. Around Mid-October the same Goup B started to massacre Belorussian Jews. Goup C, with Ukranian Auxiliaries in tow, slaughtered 3000 Jews in Zhitomir, on 19 September, Uman on 22 September, and those around Berdichev on 5 October, slaughters that took place after a gruelling struggle to take the Ukraine. The Germans took Kiev, at great cost, and were then caught in a timed bomb attack that blew up their HQ. In ‘retaliation’ Einsatzkommando 4a of Group C claimed to have killed 33,771 Jews of Kiev at Babi Yar, a ravine outside the city, where their bodies were thrown. More massacres followed at the Ukrainian cities of Dnepropretsk, Kharkhov and Rostov. In Odessa on 23 October, Einsatzgruppen D stood back while Rumanian troops took over the job of massacring Jews.7 The German rage against the Jews grew out of the task of conquering and controlling the territory. Though the Wehrmacht pushed the front line forward, the Special Forces were being used to hold the population in the rear. Where the front was, was important, but pushing east did not mean that the ground behind the line was German. With little to offer but violence, the occupation worked itself up into a storm of hatred. Jews were the target – they were the ‘bacillus’ that would have to removed. When the Einsatzgruppe leaders singled out the Jews for slaughter it had an exemplary effect on the population. Some joined in.
Reactionary bands recruited from Baltic and Slav populations exorcised their own hatred of the Jews under the German umbrella – it was one of the few things that the German occupation had to offer them.8 Others were cowed into submission, seeing the brutalisation and slaughter of the Jews. German treatment of the Jews got worse as the campaign in the USSR started to get bogged down. German victories came harder, and the job of holding territory in the face of Partisan warfare was greater. The slaughter of Jews was becoming a retreat from taking the war to the enemy – ‘they found it easier to catch unarmed Jewish civilians than bolsheviks’, suggests Arno Mayer.9 On 20 January 1942 at Wannsee, a conference of leading Nazi officials met to talk over the ‘Jewish problem’. Governor Frank was clear: the Jews were of no use. ‘We must annihilate the Jews wherever we encounter them and wherever possible, in order to maintain the overall mastery of the Reich here’.10 The only ambiguity in the policy was that the labour ministry was determined to exploit the Jews by working them before killing them.
Plainly the Nazi leadership had tipped over from a policy of dominating the east by repression into a hysterical programme of destruction. Adolf Hitler’s speeches of early 1942 claimed that ‘the war can only end with the extermination of the Aryan peoples or the disappearance of the Jews from Europe’ (30 January) and then ‘my prophecy will be fulfilled: this war will not destroy Aryan humanity, but will exterminate the Jew’ (24 February).11 In the Warsaw Ghetto Emmanuel Ringelbaum saw the link between the war and the extermination. Because the Germans ‘are being defeated’ and ‘their cities are being destroyed’ he wrote ‘they are taking their revenge on the Jews’.12 The concentration camps were first built by the Nazis to house political prisoners. Jews were held in the 1938 persecution, though many were released after then. With military takeovers the concentration camp system grew. Mauthausen was built in Austria, and Auschwitz in Poland. In 1942 the camps were also turned to fill Germany’s labour shortage, much of it met by captive Russian, Polish and Jewish prisoners. I G Farben, Krupp and Siemens built plants at Auschwitz, Siemens also built one at Ravensbruck. Walther ZellaMehlis built a factory at Buchenwald. Other big name firms took workers from the camps.
The numbers behind the wire grew from 100,000 in late 1942 to 710,000 in January 1945.
Exploitation, however, was not the main point of the camps, which were punitive, and deadly. Auschwitz and Majdanek were also labour camps, but Chelmno, Belzec, Sobibor and Treblinka served no other point than to exterminate people. On arrival at Auschwitz, prisoners were ‘selected’ for work, or for extermination, though to live on was only a stay of execution. In 1942 42,000 Jews were sent from France to Auschwitz, and in 1944 hundreds of thousands of Hungarian Jews were sent, pushing the population to 135,000 – and leading to ever greater exterminations. From Salonika, Greece, where the Wehrmacht had failed to extinguish the ELAS resistance, Jews were deported to Auschwitz between March and June 1943 – 48,974 Jews came from Northern Greece of whom 37,386 were immediately gassed.
In all Greece lost 60,000 of its 70,000 Jews to the ‘final solution’.13 Polish Jews were the first victims of the extermination camps Chelmno, Belzec, Sobibor and Treblinka. Jews were sent from all over Poland. In the first half of 1944 the Lodz ghetto was cleared and the last surviving residents sent to Chelmno and Auschwitz by July 14. In January 1943, the Warsaw ghetto inmates were rounded up and sent to the camps.
In Warsaw, Jews had been terrified and starved into submission, with the Jewish council agreeing to help the German authorities to select people for transportation. Jewish socialists, Zionists and Communists banded together as the Zydowska Organizacja Bojowa – the Jewish Resistance Organisation – or ZOB. On 18 January 1943, with the final clearance of the ghetto threatened, the ZOB attacked and killed SS men with what few arms it had gathered. One battle group was captured and taken to the carriage for deportation. All sixty refused to get on the train and were shot. The deportation was stopped. News of the Jews’ resistance inspired the Polish Home Army, and the Polish Socialist Party, who rushed what arms they could. The ZOB took charge of the ghetto. On 19 April 1943 the Germans tried to take the ghetto, and a better armed, and more determined resistance killed more than a thousand of them. ‘Poles, citizens, soldiers of freedom’, the ZOB appealed: ‘it is a fight for our freedom as well as yours; for our human dignity as well as yours’. Surrounded, they could not win, but German confidence was shattered, and the Poles inspired.14 On the 2 August 1943 prisoners at Treblinka set light to buildings and hundreds escaped, around forty survived. On 14th October 1943, prisoners the Sobibor death camp overpowered and killed guards, so that three hundred escaped to the woods, of whom 50 survived. On 7 October 1944, prisoners at Auschwitz blew up one of the crematoria used to burn the bodies of the gassed.
On March 27 1943 the Allies’ Roosevelt, Anthony Eden, Cordell Hull, Sumner Welles, Lord Halifax and William Strang of the British Foreign Office met. ‘Hull raised the question of the 60 or 70 thousand Jews that are in Bulgaria and are threatened with extermination unless we could get them out.’ For the British, Anthony Eden replied that the whole problem of the Jews in Europe is very difficult and that we should move very cautiously about offering to take all Jews out of a country like Bulgaria. If we do that then the Jews of the world will be wanting us to make similar offers in Poland and Germany. Hitler might well take us up on such an offer…15 Pointedly, the British Ministry of Information excluded atrocities against Jews from war propaganda: ‘A certain amount of horror is needed but it must deal always with treatment of indisputably innocent people.. Not with Jews.’ A white paper on German atrocities published in 1939 omitted atrocities against Jews, because of ‘a reluctance to identify in any way with the Jewish plight or somehow connect the British war effort with the Jews’.16 In the US, too, reports emerging of the Holocaust were suppressed by the State Department and even by the American Jewish Congress.17 Stopping the persecution of the Jews never was an Allied war aim – at least not until after the war.18 In March 1944, fearing that Hungary was trying to break from the Axis, Hitler confronted Admiral Horthy, and demanded proof of his loyalty by action against his country’s Jews. With the German military taking control of the country, half a million Hungarian Jews were sent to the camps - few survived.
Franz Neumann wrote in 1944 that ‘so vast a crime as the extermination of the Eastern Jews’ was an attempt to make the masses ‘perpetrators and accessories in that crime and make it therefore impossible for them to leave the Nazi boat’.19 The rage of extermination was an attempt to ‘burn bridges’. It was also a fantasy war against a spectral enemy, one that raged all the more as actual victory slipped from Germany’s grasp. In February 1945, as Soviet troops advanced Hitler admitted that he had failed to ‘lance the Bolshevik abscess’.