Final Solution by David Cesarani

Final Solution by David Cesarani

Title: Final Solution

Author: David Cesarani

Review by Neil Murray

I am reminded of Bernard Levin’s review of Sir Martin Gilbert’s incredible The Holocaust, back in 1986. “How in God’s name do you review a book like this?” Much the same can be said of this: the sheer weight and number of horror stories it tells dulls the senses.

I have some self-interest here. You see, my mother worked as an administrator at the Nuremberg trials, with Airey Neave (one of the prosecutors) as her boss. Her initial job was simply to be a sort of first filter for the paperwork (she spoke fluent German) because the Germans wrote everything down. They kept records of genocide. She actually held the one surviving copy of the minutes of the Wannsee Protocol in her hand.

Unusually, for they had a completely different team for Japan, she then went to work at the Tokyo trials (although she spoke no Japanese) and when she died, she was, I think, the last person left on the planet who’d done both.

My sister once asked her what the difference was, and her reply was instant. “The Japanese were just brutal. They did nothing that they would not have done to their own people. The Germans thought about it a lot.” And she added that the key difference was that at Nuremberg, you followed the paperwork.

There would a be a signature on a transport requisition that related to a train that departed a specific place on a specific date, with a specified number of rail cars attached, containing a specified number of unfortunates, who were being taken to die at a specified human slaughterhouse. In Japan, the testimony was mainly given by survivors. That didn’t really happen with the Nazis until Adolf Eichmann went on trial in Israel. Then the survivors of the extermination camps had their say.

Written accounts

I mention this because Cesarani’s book is almost entirely based on written accounts. He has sifted through records and paperwork almost beyond counting. There is practically nothing here that is the result of his own questioning of people. This is hardly surprising, because most of the people involved in the Endlösung, whether perpetrators or victims, are now dead. On one hand, it makes this a work of scholarship, and on the other, it means we are relying on one man’s interpretation of why the Final Solution happened.

And Cesarani’s conclusion is that it was profitable. The Holocaust was good business. Everyone involved (except the victims, of course) made money out of it. This was especially true once the killing process was industrialised, when the first death camps started functioning in 1943. The victims’ valuables, such as they were, were taken from them, as was their clothing and even their hair, and after death their gold teeth. The SS paid a fee to the Reichsbahn for every soul transported, and the opportunities for corruption right down the chain were immense – as we saw recently, with the trial of the ‘Auschwitz book-keeper’, Oskar Groening.

But the loot to be earned from the Jews long pre-dates the camps of Auschwitz, Treblinka, Sobibor, Maidanek, Chelmno and Belzec (I name them because they deserve to be remembered) and the seventh, little-known, Maly Trostenets. Even Cesarani makes just one small reference to it, and it doesn’t appear in the index, because as far as is known, there was not one single survivor. Even Belzec had two.

Anyway, the Jews were systematically robbed, their business, assets, land and valuables seized, their bank accounts closed, their homes taken by others, in a drawn-out process that started with Hitler’s winning the Chancellorship in January 1933, gained legality over the years, and exploded with the Anschluss of Austria and Kristallnacht, both in 1938. And then, as the death squads of the Einsatzgruppen fanned out behind the advancing Wehrmacht into Russia in 1941 and 1942, the local populations of the occupied territories gleefully participated in, and even instigated, the massacres that followed. The Reichsbank received the gold from the teeth, but the peasant Latvians, Lithuanians and others got the victims’ nice clothing and chattels two years before that. And later on, occupied countries such as France also discovered than anti-Semitism earned big bucks.

A wildly uncertain policy

Cesarani also points out that, far from being a carefully planned process, the Final Solution was the product of wildly uncertain policy – different German ministries and directorates pulled in different directions, mostly due to Hitler’s chaotic governmental system. Hjalmar Schacht, Economics Minister in the mid-1930s (he eventually resigned) was against the pre-war pogroms, partly because the Jews tended to run their businesses very well and hence were beneficial to the shaky German economy, and partly because news of the persecution was bad for foreign trade. Incidentally, he was one of three defendants to be acquitted at Nuremberg.

Bluntly, the Germans really didn’t know what to do with the Jews. They were the Nazis’ mortal enemy, but plan after plan for them foundered. First the idea of shipping them off to Madagascar, and then the idea of dumping them somewhere in Russia failed as the war intensified. The Endlösung really was just that: the Nazis couldn’t think of anything else to do with them, so they decided to kill them, and then the process got organised.

Inevitably, the sheer horror and tragedy get to you. For me, none more so than the story of Ruth Maier, a Jewish girl who escaped Austria in January 1939 and thought she had found safety in Norway. She was wrong. In November 1943 she was rounded up and shipped to Germany and thence to Auschwitz. Of the 530 people in her transport, 186 were registered in the camp “while the rest were murdered in the gas chambers. All trace of Ruth ends there; she was twenty-two years old.”

None of this is actually new, of course. The value to the Nazis derived from Jewish loot is well known and documented. Even today, stolen works of art are being returned to the families of those who had them taken (assuming any exist). Where I disagree with Cesarani is in his conclusion that loot was a prime mover. It wasn’t. The prime mover was Hitler, and his pathological hatred of the Jews and his belief, which he successfully communicated, via Goebbels, to the German population at large, that the Jews were Germany’s inimical enemy and had to be destroyed. Sure, people enriched themselves doing it, but without Hitler genocide would not have happened, and in an oddly self-contradictory assertion, Cesarani admits this.

Errors of fact

When the Polish Home Army rose up against the Germans in Warsaw in August 1944, no help came from the Russians, who were a few miles away. Cesarani says that this was because they were at the end of their supply lines (which may be true). However, the Russians refused Allied aircraft landing rights in territory they controlled, severely crippling Allied attempts to supply the Poles by air. I prefer the conventional view here, that Stalin cynically waited until the Germans had dealt with the Home Army and destroyed what could have become the legitimate post-war government of Poland.

There are also pure errors of fact. Talking of the Battle of France, we get: “Five days later, the German tank commanders found themselves gazing on the sea at Abbeville.” They must have had damned fine eyesight, because Abbeville is 50 miles inland of Calais. He claims that the Allied offensive in Tunisia, which finally chased the Wehrmacht out of North Africa, took so long that it “negated” Allied plans for an invasion of Europe in 1943. This is utter nonsense – the Allies were nowhere near ready for D-Day in 1943 and had no intention whatsoever of launching an invasion then. It was only a year after the disastrous test landing at Dieppe. Smelting of gold teeth, he says, was done by Degussa (which still makes bullion today), “the same company that provided and supplied Zyklon-B to the SS”. No – Zyklon-B was made by Degesch. Both companies were, however, subsidiaries of the giant I G Farben.

This is an interesting book. Its scholarship is remarkable. Ultimately, though, it’s unsatisfactory: spoiled by a relatively shaky hypothesis, too many throwaway assumptions, and the irritation of factual errors, only some of which I have listed above.

Review by Neil Murray

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