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December and the 'Final Solution'

LAURENCE REES: There’s another view, which is that the key moment that you’ve described as occurring in October, actually occurs in the wake of Pearl Harbour in December 1941. How would you see December in the context of all this?

CHRISTOPHER BROWNING: The December theory in a sense is the opposite of mine. I’m talking about the euphoria of victory, and in December with a Soviet counteroffensive on December 5 and Pearl Harbour on December 7, with the American entry into the war, it’s clear from that point that there is going to be a long war - there’s no illusion of Blitzkrieg. Some people argue that it is out of the frustration of defeat and the derailment of Barbarossa and the vision of a rapid victory over the Soviet Union [that key decisions about the 'Final Solution' are made]. And in this view the fact of the Germans keeping European Jews alive as a kind of hostage for the good behaviour of the United States has gone, so now is the point at which these people can be killed. And if you can’t win the war against the Soviet Union, you can at least win the war against the Jews.

I think that there are several problems with that interpretation. First of all Hitler is encouraging the Japanese to attack the Americans at Pearl Harbour, he’s promising that if they do he will come into the war and declare war on the United States. So the notion that he’s simultaneously holding Jews hostage to keep the US out while he’s pushing the Japanese to bring them in, simply doesn’t make sense to me.

As well as this, I just don’t see the logic of interpreting Hitler as, in frustration, declaring war on the United States and killing Jews, when he’s been working to get the Japanese to bring about exactly that outcome. Furthermore, as one of my colleagues, Gerhard Weinberg says, if you’re having a ransom plan, you have to have a ransom note. At no time did the Germans say to the Americans that if you don’t stop this or if you come into the war it’s going to cost the Jews their lives. I think in that regard the notion that Hitler’s talk to the top Nazi leaders shortly after his declaration of war on the United States, in which Goebbels’ diary refers to him once again invoking the prophecy and saying the world war is now here, and we now will make a clean sweep of the Jews, [is sometimes interpretated] as being the decision point.

I do think it’s important in this regard. Up until that point the Nazis expected the Soviet Union to be defeated and so when they talk about the timetable it is either next spring or after the war. When they’re sending Jews through Lodz and telling the people there not to worry as the Jews will be sent further East next spring, or when they’re talking about the basic measures for which Spanish Jews should not be allowed to escape, these basic measures come 'after the war'. They’re referring to one and the same thing, next spring and after the war are the same time. After Pearl Harbour, next spring and the end of the war aren’t the same time. Which is it going to be? And I think what Hitler’s speech is, is the clarification. He says it is going to be next spring, and that we’re not waiting until after the war any more. That’s exactly why Hans Frank goes back to Poland and gives his famous December 16th speech, which is a parody of Hitler’s speech to his leaders. He says that we’ve been trying to get rid of these people, and Berlin says don’t bother us about them: 'kill them yourselves'. Then he says that we don’t know how to do it but there is going to be a big meeting in Berlin to settle that, and, of course, that will be the Wannsee Conference. So I think December is important in that it is the point at which Hitler will not back off the decision, just because the war has not resulted in the victory that he expected. Instead they will continue to fight the war but they’re going to launch the 'Final Solution' at the same time.