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Alternatives to the Final Solution

LAURENCE REES: If Roosevelt had actually come along in the summer of 1941 and said 'Here are some ships, give us the Jews, we’re going to take them', why wouldn’t Hitler have agreed to that?

DAVID CESARANI: Well, Hitler probably would have agreed to the mass evacuation of the Jews up to 1941. There are so-called 'phantom' solutions that are swimming around and one shouldn’t forget the Schacht-Rublee negotiations on the eve of the Second World War which were precisely to achieve that end, the orderly evacuation of the Jews from the Third Reich as it was in the autumn of 1939. Hitler is different in that by the middle of the Second World War I think he sees the biological destruction of the Jews as the only permissible outcome. Other Nazis very close to him, and I’m thinking of Himmler particularly, were quite prepared to regress to the mass evacuation, and that is captured in the awful, ghastly negotiations in the summer of 1944 over the fate of the Jews of Hungary.

I don’t think it was just a cynical ploy when Himmler authorised Eichmann to make his infamous offer via Jewish emissaries to the Allies to exchange a million Hungarian Jews for 10,000 trucks and various war materials to be used on the Eastern Front. I think Himmler would probably have believed that the power of the Jews was broken if they were removed from the German sphere of influence. Ironically it would have proven the power of the Jews if Washington, London and Moscow had come to their aid at this moment and had evacuated the Jews, but that kind of contradiction is a feature of this peculiar paranoid way of thinking. Nevertheless, Himmler was prepared to bargain the lives of Jews in the last year of the war in a way that Hitler was not.

LAURENCE REES: But in early autumn 1941 if another solution had been available, that is to say, if the Americans - who were not yet in the war - had said we’ll take them, then - yes it’s counterfactual  - but it’s extremely likely isn’t it that Hitler would have said fine, have them?

DAVID CESARANI: Unfortunately, we can’t collapse together the hypothetical possibility of the evacuation of the Jews from Europe in, say, 1940 and the mass murder of the Jews in late 1941 onwards, and to say that if the one had happened the other would not.

Let’s not be hypothetical for a moment. Let’s look at what concretely occurred. We know that in 1940 after the fall of France significant numbers of Jews were expelled from the Reich into what became Vichy France and these Jews were interned by the Vichyites in camps like Gurs. Efforts were made by Jewish leaders to evacuate those Jews. During the period in which Vichy was neutral there was no antagonism with America. America had diplomatic relations with Vichy, until the occupation of Vichy in November ’42. America had diplomatic representatives there, relief workers in Marseilles, and Jews were being evacuated in small numbers from France.

Jewish campaigners and non-Jewish rescue activists were saying that there are Jews in concentration camps in Vichy France, places like Gurs, let’s evacuate them, let’s bring them to North Africa and we can intern them in North Africa, let’s just get them out because there is a real and immediate danger to them. And certainly after the massacres of Jews begin in the Soviet Union after Operation Barbarossa the belief that the Germans would slaughter Jews en mass is proven to be absolutely correct. Therefore the very worst fears of what the Nazis would do to the Jews has been validated. Rescue worker campaigners like Eleanor Rathbone in Britain actually went to see the American Ambassador with a plan in the autumn of 1942, just before the Germans occupy Vichy France, to evacuate Jews to North Africa. Rescue workers knew that the worst was in store for the Jews and saw a window of opportunity to evacuate Jews. Now, I don’t think the failure to evacuate Jews makes the Allies culpable or complicit in mass murder. I simply don’t believe that is true, because even though the mass murder of the Jews was already underway there were so many real obstacles in the way of evacuating the Jews.

It is tragically evident that leaders in Washington and in London, certain civil servants, were filled with compassion for the fate of the Jews and dreaded what might occur but believed themselves to be helpless. And we always have to remind ourselves of what historians like Michael Marris and others have pointed out a long time ago, that the most intensive phase of killing coincides with the weakest point in the fortunes of the Western alliance. 1942 when most Jews are murdered is the time when the war hangs in the balance and the Western Allies really are being kicked from pillar to post and there is, as yet, no decisive turning point in the war. It’s not until well into 1943 that the Western Allies can have any confidence that they’re going to win the war and turn their mind to other minor issues. For the Jews who were, sad to say, a minor issue by then, it is too late.

LAURENCE REES: But we’re talking about the key decision which occurs in early autumn 1941 after it’s known that Jews are being shot. America’s not in the war, and it’s  hypothetical, but it exposes aspects of this....

DAVID CESARANI: It’s not hypothetical, it’s not a hypothetical. Let’s look at Denmark, let’s look at the extraordinary case of Denmark in September, October 1943. Here is a case where there is a small Jewish population, seven and a half thousand in a relatively benign environment, that is to say the Danish people have good relationships with their Jewish citizens, and it has to be said that most of the Jews in Denmark are Danish citizens because the Danes did not allow mass Jewish immigration. The Danes did not allow more than a trickle of Jewish refugees into Denmark between 1933 and 1940, but nevertheless, the relations with their Jewish citizens are good. They know the Nazis have evil intentions towards the Jews; they learn that a round-up is in the offing. Whether they are tipped off or not by parts of the German occupation force we don’t need to go into.

The fact is that the Danish resistance got a tip-off that the Jewish population in Denmark was to be rounded up and deported to a place where terrible things would happen. But the other key ingredient here is that Denmark was adjacent to a neutral country which had also at that point decided to take a rather more positive attitude towards Jews fleeing Nazi persecution. Up until late 1942 the Swedes equally have not been very keen on receiving Jewish refugees. They were not pro-Jewish any way, shape or form. But once the Swedish political leadership becomes convinced that the Germans are killing Jews en masse and also once they become convinced the Germans might not win the war then their attitude shifts fundamentally.

All of these elements come into a favourable conjunction and, crucially, crucially, the Nazi leadership is content for the Jews to be evacuated. Now, there is a great controversy about whether the Nazi leadership intended for the Jews is to be simply removed to Sweden with the Danes doing the hard work, or whether this was in some way some sort of an accident, it sort of got out of control and they regretted not being able to murder them. I think if you look at the reaction of Adolf Eichmann it’s quite clear that removing the Jews physically but not destroying them physically was sufficient. Eichmann doesn’t run around tearing his hair out; it’s a bit of an embarrassment.

He goes to Denmark to find out what went wrong, he draws the conclusion that if they’re going to do something like that again it should be done rather more carefully, hence the preparations for the destruction of the Jews of Hungary; but he doesn’t really care that much that these Jews survive. They are out of the German sphere of influence, their power is broken, their ability to have a malign effect is ended, that’s enough for the moment. And I think that is a concrete example of how if the Jews could have been removed from the Nazi sphere of influence that would have sufficed for the Nazis. Not removing them doesn’t make the Allies culpable of complicity in mass murder, however, because, well, you’re basing one hypothetical on another hypothetical. If the Jews had been removed they would not have been murdered.


DAVID CESARANI: Well, they were left in place and they were murdered. So we don’t know.