Best known for Becoming Eichmann, wherein he countered Hannah Arendt’s “banality of evil” argument about Adolph Eichmann a “desk murder,” David Cesarani was in the process of completing Final Solution: The Fate of the Jews 1933 – 1949, his most ambitious book about the Holocaust, before he passed away last year at the age of 58.
Holocaust historiography is mostly characterized by two schools of interpretation about the genesis of the Holocaust. One school, the “intentionalists,” argue that the Holocaust was driven by Hitler’s obsession described in Mein Kampf as his intention to annihilate the Jews of Europe. Hitler’ objective in World War II was therefore not only to acquire land in the east of Europe, which necessitated the military defeat of the Soviet Union, but also the destruction of “Judeo-Bolshevism.” According to some intentionalists, Hitler’s “war against the Jews” required the extermination of every Jewish man, woman, and child because he equated Jews with Bolshevism, the enemy of the Aryan race.
The “functionalists” argued that the origins of the Holocaust arose out of wartime circumstances; the association of Jews with anti-Nazi partisans and most importantly, Germany’s disastrous war against the Soviet Union, which they blamed on the Jews. It is this latter line of thinking which Cesarani’s book follows.
Cesarani’s approach is controversial in that he contests the traditional way historians and the public understand the Holocaust, reassessing the “ widely accepted preconceptions[…] that Hitler and the core of Nazi true believers were convinced that the Jews were the enemy within,” and consequently were at war with ‘international Jewry.’” This conviction, Cesarani holds, “did not express itself clearly or directly in practice.” Nazi policy until late 1941 was marked by plans to remove Jews from Nazi held territory — the Lublin Plan, Madagascar Plan — and, once they conquered the Soviet Union, relocating Europe’s Jews to Siberia. But the conquest of the Soviet Union did not occur and that when it became apparent that defeat was a strong possibility, they turned on the “enemy within.” Cesarani fails to note, however, that these resettlement plans, also would have resulted in the genocide of the Jews, albeit more slowly than mass shootings and poison gas. Nevertheless, Cesarani concludes that the Holocaust was the result “of chance occurrence[…] It may seem offensive the think about Jewish fate in this way, but the alternative is to assume that events could not have had any other outcome[…] It also runs against the grain of what historians have revealed about the central mission of Hitler and the Third Reich: making war.” For Hitler, claims Cesarani, war would not only lead to acquiring land in the East, but also the means of solving the “Jewish Question.”
Cesarani’s thesis , therefore, is that Nazi Judenpolitik measures were not the fulfillment of goals long held by antisemites or even the expression of hatred towards the Jews. Although Nazis like Julius Streicher promoted radical Jewish antisemitism, for others it was instrumental to a point where personal feelings hardly mattered. Cesarani notes that Nazi laws, which excluded Jews from the Reich, defined Aryan identity: “All policy was to examine in light of race and framed with the Jews in mind.” Cesarani challenges the view that the Nazis sought to create “a world without Jews,” as the reason for their genocide. Rather, Cesarani argues, with the entrance of the United States in the war and Nazi Germany’s failing campaign in the Soviet Union, Hitler and his cohorts concluded that the Jews were responsible for these developments, and that the Jews within their grasp would have to answer for them. Cesarani shows that Nazi policies towards the Jews, both before World War II and on the eve of the invasion of the Soviet Union, were intended to remove Jews from Aryan soil. Had the Soviet Union been defeated, claims Cesarani, Europe’s Jews would have been deported to Siberia, and it was the German defeat in Russia that caused the dysfunctional Nazi regime to turn against its Jewish population — blamed for the defeat as well as the Allied bombings of German cities — and mass murder.