Archive/File: holocaust/reviews mayer.001 Last-Modified: 1994/11/05 Copyright 1989 The New York Times Company The New York Times February 19, 1989, Sunday, Late City Final Edition SECTION: Section 7; Page 1, Column 1; Book Review Desk LENGTH: 3083 words HEADLINE: THE TWISTED ROAD TO AUSCHWITZ BYLINE: By V. R. BERGHAHN; V. R. Berghahn teaches history at Brown University. The author of several books, he has written widely on modern German history. BODY: WHY DID THE HEAVENS NOT DARKEN? The ''Final Solution'' in History. By Arno J. Mayer. 492 pp. New York: Pantheon Books. $27.95. Given the enormity of the crimes perpetrated by Nazi Germany during World War II, the title of Arno Mayer's new book raises a question that many people will have asked themselves as they remember, and try to comprehend, the Holocaust. Our task would be less difficult and agonizing, if the heavens had actually darkened. Since they did not, we must search for the roots of the ''final solution'' in man-made history. The task is to understand the structures and the dynamics of a now extinct regime which resorted to genocide; the task is also to investigate what murderous drives motivated the executioners and their accomplices. It is hard to imagine a more taxing research assignment, not least because reading those sickening files compiled by meticulous bureaucrats is emotionally so exhausting. Notwithstanding these obstacles, scholars from many countries and academic backgrounds have greatly advanced our knowledge of the subject during the past 20 years or so. Most of them have done so from a deeply held conviction that the victims of Nazi crimes must never be forgotten and that there are profound lessons to be learned from their murder. Yet, however strong the sense of a common purpose, there have also been disagreements over the meaning of the evidence. Perhaps the most significant development was the collapse of the early postwar consensus that, with anti-Semitism forming the hard core of Nazism, there was a straight line of continuity between Hitler's verbal threats in the 1920's and 1930's and the gas chambers of the early 1940's. While not denying the importance of Nazi racism and Judeophobia, by the 1970's many scholars had become skeptical of this ''intentionalist'' interpretation of the Holocaust. Their investigations had found that, far from being a monolithic Fuhrer state, the Nazi dictatorship had been racked by constant feuding among different governmental and party agencies. Behind the goose-stepping columns and the facade of order there reigned administrative chaos and anarchy. Instead of being a determined leader, Hitler was found to be vacillating, often merely reacting to changing situations, many of which were not of his own making. The implications of this ''functionalist'' view of the Third Reich's power structure should be clear: the factories of death were not envisaged from the start. Although Hitler had designated the Jews as Germany's greatest enemies, the regime's anti-Jewish policies remained disputed and incoherent even beyond 1939. The ''final solution'' grew out of wartime developments in the course of which preferred alternative routes had become blocked, thus finally leaving the field to the exterminationists. Arno J. Mayer, the Dayton-Stockton Professor of European History at Princeton and author of several books, does not explicitly locate his weighty and uncompromising study within this debate. Though scholarly and drawing extensively on published sources and the secondary literature, ''Why Did the Heavens Not Darken'' has no footnotes and is addressed to a wider readership. But these readers may wish to have a few signposts in order to know where Mr. Mayer follows earlier interpretations and where he develops his own perspectives. At a most general level, it might be said that this important book synthesizes recent research without being a conventional synthesis. Rather, it offers something much more thought-provoking and, at least to some, also upsetting. In fact, Mr. Mayer would probably feel misunderstood if the gauntlets he is throwing in different directions were simply overlooked by readers turning directly to the gruesome story he has to tell. To begin with, he challenges those ''avant-garde professional historians [who] continue to make a virtue of the fragmentation of their discipline and all but eliminate politics from it.'' For him, ''the mass murder of the Jews, more than any other single event, points up the importance of returning to the contextual study of short-term events. In the wake of Treblinka and Auschwitz it is difficult not to scorn Fernand Braudel's characterization of short-term events as mere 'dust.' Braudel went so far as to imply that short-term events were not worth studying since, unlike long- and medium-range events, they 'traverse history as flashes of light' destined instantly to 'turn to darkness, often to oblivion.' Pace Braudel and his epigones, I have tried not only to contemplate the circumstances in which millions of Jews - along with millions of non-Jews - were reduced to 'dust' in seconds of historical time, but also to recapture the evanescent 'light' of their torment to illuminate the historical landscape in which it occurred.'' The author is gentler with those who argue that ''only survivors who actually passed through the fiery ordeal of the killing sites, ghettos, and camps are in a position to speak to it.'' He openly admits that their reminiscences ''remain an essential source of information and insight for anyone pondering'' the Jewish catastrophe and that ''they also help to preserve and pass on its memory for later generations.'' But wherever ''the reflective and transparent remembrances of survivors'' have been woven ''in a collective prescriptive 'memory' unconducive to critical and contextual thinking about the Jewish calamity,'' Mr. Mayer wishes to reassert the primacy of the ''Muse of history'' who ''is sworn to certain ideas and rules for recording and interpreting'' the past: ''Since the Enlightenment, historians have shared certain commonsense notions of causality and accuracy. They have also presumed the past to be accessible by virtue of being profane, not providential. In addition, rather than give free rein to their subjectivity, they are supposed to master it. . . . Historians must also develop a lateral and wide-angled vision, for they are enjoined to probe for linkages between events that were unclear or unknown to contemporaries.'' What is more, to Mr. Mayer ''historical praxis and interpretation are neither static nor consensual. . . . Whereas the voice of memory is univocal and uncontested, that of history is polyphonic and open to debate. Memory tends to rigidify over time, while history calls for revision.'' Thirdly, he invites his readers to discard ''the residual Cold War blinders which continue to constrict our view of the Jewish disaster'' because they have caused us to see the Soviet Union as an aggressive power, and to forget how much the Nazi ideology and regime were directed aggressively and fanatically against Communism. Without reconstructing pre-1945 history this way, ''it is impossible to trace the nature and dynamics of the interconnection of anticommunism and anti-Semitism in the Nazi ideology and project.'' In other words, Mr. Mayer believes that three steps should be taken. He wants us ''to abandon the vantage point of the Cold War; to place the Judeocide in its pertinent historical setting; and to use an overarching interpretative construct to explain the horrors both of the Jewish catastrophe and the historical circumstances in which it occurred.'' The larger historical setting, which this book never loses sight of and without which the escalation to mass murder on a unique scale cannot be understood, is what Mr. Mayer calls ''the second Thirty Years War,'' following the first one of 1618-48. The period starting with the First World War was marked by huge and violent socio-economic convulsions and ideological deformations, particularly in central and east central Europe. What, in the author's view, propelled and progressively radicalized this European crisis was the frantic rollback policies the terrified upper and middle classes adopted against Bolshevism and Lenin's successful revolution in Russia. In their hostility toward the left, the centrist leaders were at one with politicians of the extreme right, like Hitler, who were more effective at mobilizing popular support in an increasingly brutal European civil war. Hitler's seizure of power in 1933 is therefore seen as resulting from a compromise between Germany's traditional elites and the radical Nazis. It was an alliance to defeat Marxism both at home and abroad - an objective that proved potent enough to keep the two sides together until 1944-45. Within this broader context, Mr. Mayer continues, there also occurred a fusion of the religious and social anti-Semitism rampant among the traditional elites and the biological anti-Semitism of the Hitler movement, culminating in the hare-brained notion that the Soviet Union was a Jewish creation and Moscow the citadel of ''Judeobolshevism.'' Mr. Mayer consequently lays much stress on the proliferation of an irrational ideology-driven fundamentalism of the right, of which anti-Semitism was the most vicious expression, and thus far his analysis follows the ''intentionalists.'' Where he finds himself in disagreement with them is in their tendency to center on a few individuals and to see the ''final solution'' as the predetermined end product of an obsessive hatred of the Jews. For him the era of the ''second Thirty Years War'' was also characterized by a peculiar bureaucratic rationality. It was embodied by the technicians of power, many of them with noble titles or doctorates, with whose help Hitler ''forged a project in which technological and bureaucratic modernity was interwoven with a regressive purpose.'' The interplay between the ideological fanaticism and the bureaucratic ''rationality'' in Nazi Germany shaped anti-Jewish policies prior to 1939. The early aim was not liquidation, but forced emigration, and to this extent the author would side with the ''functionalists'' who would argue against a predetermined policy of extermination. He finds himself at odds with these functionalists, though, about the anarchic character of the Third Reich. In Mr. Mayer's study, Hitler's role is not completely diminished and whatever bureaucratic conflicts there may have been are deemed to have been overridden by the collaborative effort between the Nazi elite and the technocrats in the armed forces, in industry and the civil service. Their collaboration secured the destruction of the left at home and Germany's preparations for war; it facilitated Hitler's conquest of ''living space'' in the East, his crusade against Bolshevism and, finally, the mass murder of innocent civilians. It is against this background that Mr. Mayer proceeds to a detailed examination of the genesis of the ''final solution.'' The controversial point here is that he dates the crucial decisions as late as winter 1941-42, in the context of the infamous Wannsee conference, where the ''final solution'' was bureaucratically coordinated. No less important, he firmly puts these decisions into the framework of the faltering campaign against Russia and a deteriorating situation in the ghettos and camps in Poland; these, he believes, had been established in the previous two years as centers of highly exploitative war industries and assembly points for an eventual resettlement of their inmates on the island of Madagascar or beyond the Urals once the war had been won. However, this book is everything but an apology for the Nazis who slithered down the ''twisted road to Auschwitz'' and who, finding their resettlement plans blocked by the turn of the military tide, opted for Zyklon B in an act of raging revenge. Mr. Mayer's judgments are clear and unambiguous, and it would be a grave error to link him to the revisionism of the West German historian Ernst Nolte, who in 1986 created a major international uproar that is still rumbling on. Certainly Mr. Mayer has no truck with the untenable hypotheses of Mr. Nolte, who has argued that the origins of the Nazi genocide are to be found in a defensive response by Hitler to a perceived threat of extermination by Stalin, and who weighs Auschwitz against the Gulag Archipelago. If Mr. Mayer proposes to reappraise and historicize, he insists on doing so with a sense of moral and professional responsibility. If he makes comparisons, it is not in order to relativize the ''final solution,'' but rather to highlight its qualitative difference. Nor should we allow ourselves to be confused by the fact that Mr. Nolte operates with the notion of a ''European Civil War'' spanning the same period as Mr. Mayer's ''second Thirty Years War'' and that he too is interested in the interaction of Bolshevism and fascism. For in contrast to Mr. Nolte's schema, in Mr. Mayer's analysis the Third Reich and not the Soviet Union appears as the highly dynamic and aggressive party, ultimately confronting Stalin with the need to repel an outright military invasion propelled by a crusading ideology. Nor are the sources of Nazi aggressiveness viewed as originating from outside the Third Reich, but as an outgrowth of intense internal disorders that had made Germany ''the most critical flashpoint of Europe's seething general crisis.'' It is the failure to see this particular pattern that, in Mr. Mayer's view, leads more generally to what he calls the cold-war vision of 20th-century history. Putting that vision right side up again is supposed to enable us also to place the ''final solution'' in its proper historical framework. This means, with reference to the course of the Second World War, that the larger setting of German collective aggressiveness continues to be all-important to him. His aim is to show how the military, administrative and economic elites first helped to conquer the operational space and later knowingly provided the shield behind which the murder of millions could be carried out. He demonstrates how, in applying their openly terroristic concept of warfare, the officer corps, and not just the SS, promoted mentalities and practices that prepared the ground for the mass liquidations. Yet this is precisely where the problems emerge in Mr. Mayer's argument: true, the incredible brutalities in the rear areas or in the factories relying on concentration-camp labor were not yet the ''final solution'' in the strict sense; but they surely amounted to an extermination program in the wider sense that was well in place before those nightmarish death camps were built. Whatever other debates this book may unleash, it appears that its sharply argued case is most vulnerable at this point; for when we try to deal with the intentions and decision-making processes of the year 1941, we continue to move in murky waters. As far as the larger interpretive framework is concerned, there may be a lot of mileage in the author's concept of a ''Thirty Years War,'' which furthermore holds out some comfort for all of us. It was - wasn't it? - an extraordinary period of crisis, which, before it ended in 1945, produced a unique policy of genocide. But there is a hitch: his analysis of the Nazi invasion of Russia (code-named ''Barbarossa,'' after the medieval German emperor) leads Mr. Mayer into an elaborate comparison with the crusades of the Middle Ages, which were also accompanied by anti-Jewish outrages. And suddenly his image of man seems more immutable and hence more disturbing. Are the fanatical crusaders not always, and therefore still, around? And might they not form, in another period of major upheaval, their unholy alliance with what C. Wright Mills called the ''technological crackpots'' who sit in their offices drafting tidy ''solutions''? This relentless study represents a major effort to make the violent course of the first half of our century, with its staggering 70 million victims, more comprehensible and to give us a few yardsticks for identifying future dangers. But tucked away at the end of his acknowledgments there is a short sentence that would appear to undermine this laudable objective. ''At bottom,'' the author - himself a refugee from Nazi anti-Semitism - writes, ''The Judeocide remains as incomprehensible to me today as five years ago, when I set out to study and rethink it.'' Who does not share this feeling and the sense of despair it engenders? For the heavens did not even cry. ASKING A BIBLICAL QUESTION As a professor of European history, Arno J. Mayer believes in taking the long view of a subject. So his book about the Holocaust begins not in the time of Hitler's ascent to power but on the eve of the First Crusade, nearly 900 years ago. On the way to Jerusalem, the vanguard of Christian zealots first massacred thousands of Jews in Germany. The author said that he derives his title from a chronicle written in 1096 by Solomon bar Simson, who noted that ''no one was found to stand in the breach'' and lamented: ''Why did the heavens not darken and the stars not withhold their radiance, why did not the sun and moon turn dark?'' Speaking from his apartment in Paris, where he is on a sabbatical from Princeton University, Mr. Mayer pointed out that his subtitle - ''The 'Final Solution' in History'' - was important to his theme. After pondering his ability to grasp the significance of the subject - ''I still find it difficult to visit Germany'' - he finally decided to write the book for personal and historical reasons. In 1940, when he was 14, his family left Luxembourg just as the Nazis invaded the Low Countries and France. His grandfather perished in Theresienstadt; his grandmother survived and lived to tell him tales of life and death in the concentration camp. On campus, he found his students incredulous about the Holocaust. He said that some believed the views of revisionist historians in France and Germany who denied the very existence of concentration camps; others held that the Holocaust was merely a part of the campaign to defend Europe against Bolshevism. ''As the Holocaust recedes in memory, we must take another look,'' he said. ''My aim was to fit Judeocide within the context of history. ''I am asking a biblical question in my title to show the commonality of the Holocaust. That is why I reach back into historical events to reveal that the 'final solution' was not something providential but profane. I call the reactionary historians - who excuse the Holocaust as a part of the cold war - retro-revisionists. ''What I've tried to do in this book is to provide the background and reasoning to how the Holocaust went from expulsion of the Jews to extermination. HERBERT MITGANG
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