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The beginning of the Holocaust

LAURENCE REES: Just to return to the Holocaust. I’ve always thought that an absolutely key moment is when the Nazis decide in July 1941 that they’re going to move from killing adult male Jews in the Soviet Union to killing women and children as well. But I remember from our previous lengthy discussions about this that you wouldn’t necessarily point to that as being a key moment in the decision making process?

DAVID CESARANI: No, I wouldn’t, because the shooting of men, women and children in the Soviet Union was carried out by relatively small and dedicated killing units, and there is obviously a qualitative difference between executing a man or a woman of military age, someone who could be conceived of as a threat or culpable of some kind of crime, and a perfectly innocent child or an old person who is completely ineffectual and harmless, there’s obviously a difference between that. But, deporting people on orders from above, entire communities of men, women, and children, hundreds of miles to fixed killing sites and gassing them, killing them with poisoned gas, that is qualitatively different. That industrialised, globalised, genocide is qualitatively different.

What happens in the Soviet Union between August and the summer of 1942 is arguably a limited and local genocide. It is ethnic cleansing of the kind that the Nazis have been practicing elsewhere on a more lethal scale, but it also fits in with their plans for the destruction of much of the population of the Soviet Union. So what is the difference between engineering the starving to death of 900,000 people in Leningrad and shooting to death 900,000 Jews? I would say that the techniques are different but they are part of the same plan, which is to depopulate the Soviet Union of undesirable populations, populations unworthy of life. Useless mouths.

LAURENCE REES: So you would focus on the nature of the fixed killing installations as making this qualitative difference? 

DAVID CESARANI: What makes our comprehension of Nazi policy so difficult is that there are different policies running concurrently, and it’s very difficult to find any moment at which they all flow together, coalesce, into a 'final solution'. Even at the height of the 'final solution', the genocide against the Jews, the Jews are being preserved for labour. There are always inconsistencies and contradictions. The autumn of 1941 is one of the strangest and most difficult periods to get a hold of, and I’m not sure that I understand it. I think it’s best put in this way. In the Soviet Union you have got the most radical conceivable kind of ethnic cleansing which is the mass shooting of populations, particularly the Jewish population. You have the crystallisation of an idea in Berlin that during the war itself the Jews are going to be removed from the sphere influence of the Third Reich, which I think at that point means after the defeat of the Soviet Union, which is imminent, dumping them in Siberia, not actually killing them. So you’ve got two strange things already. One, tens of thousands of Jews are being massacred, but people are thinking of sending Jews alive to somewhere else where they may die but they may not, but they’re not going to be killed there.

And then, two, you have got smallish groups of Jews who are deported from the Reich to the East who get caught up in the slaughter process and are murdered for what seems to be rather random reasons, to put it horribly, accidental reasons. And I don’t think those shootings signify that much. I mean they were horrendous but I don’t think they tell us that much except that there is not yet a 'final solution', because the inconsistency in the way in which the deported German Jews are treated shows that there’s not yet a final global decision. When the whole thing comes together, as much as it ever does, and it’s decided to round up all of the Jews of Europe wherever they can be got hold of and to deport them to fixed killing sites, a genocide, a total and biological annihilation of the Jewish people, then I think we’ve made a qualitative, conceptual and technological leap and we are in that area of singularity that makes the genocide against the Jews so distinctive. What is frustrating to many people coming to this subject is that this point of coalescence occurs quite late in the day. It comes in the spring of 1942, after hundreds of thousands of Jews have already been killed or have perished in the ghettos in Poland, and it has evolved in a haphazard way.

LAURENCE REES: When is the decision taken that then allows these fixed killing institutions to be in operation by the spring of 1942?

DAVID CESARANI: I don’t think that we can date the decision by the building or the decision to initiate the fixed killing sites. And here I disagree with Chris Browning, it’s a superficially minor point but it’s actually a profound point. The fixed killing sites in Poland that are initially designed - Belzec, Sobibor and Treblinka - are simply too small to handle a European scale genocide. They are built to murder the Jews of Poland who have to be got rid of for local reasons. I think the initial decision to more or less wipe out the Jewish populations of the ghettos, preserving just small labour forces, is to do with the dynamic of policy within German occupied Poland. Initially it has no bearing on the fate of the Jews in the rest of Europe.

LAURENCE REES: So when is the decision taken that all the Jews in Europe will die, and does Hitler make that decision?

DAVID CESARANI: The decision is taken - it has to be, from everything we know about the decision making process concerning all major issues in the Third Reich - with Hitler’s knowledge and approval. When does it happen?

LAURENCE REES: Well, 'with Hitler’s knowledge and approval' is different from him making the decision. Can we know for certain that Hitler made the decision?

DAVID CESARANI: Oh, I think you’ve just answered the question. And I don’t think it’s that important to be absolutely sure. Did Hitler himself decide and then discuss it with Himmler? Or did Himmler suggest it to Hitler and Hitler agrees? Frankly, I don’t think that is absolutely crucial, but what is crucial is that at the very top of the Nazi hierarchy decisions were reached, approval was given, and the process was set in motion. I think what we know about the development of the Wannsee Conference is absolutely crucial here because there’s a difference between the initial conception of the Wannsee Conference, the order that’s sent out in November 1941, and the conference as it takes place in January 1942. Something occurs between the issuing of the orders and the convening of the conference.

I don’t know whether Christian Gerlach is right to say it is on a particular day in December, and we know from a note in Himmler’s diary that he has a meeting with Hitler on that date. We do know that there’s a flurry of meetings and Himmler is very active. Himmler is a crucial figure here because he is the executor of the Fuehrer’s will or the Fuehrer’s approval. There’s a flurry of meetings which lead up to Wannsee, and then Wannsee is followed by another flurry of meetings and activities and setting up of a mechanism. It is a cruel irony and it is the most ghastly joke that once the decision has been taken to annihilate the Jews of Europe the murderers discover that the apparatus that they had created is actually not up to the job because it had been designed for a different purpose. They probably thought rather lazily, well, we’re going to have these gas chambers in Poland, so if we go from just wiping out the Jews of Poland to wiping out the Jews of Europe we can use them. And then they discover the gas chambers are too small. The rail tracks won’t bear the weight of all the trucks. Auschwitz is completely unprepared because there isn’t a budget for genocide in the running costs of Auschwitz. So you convert peasant bunkers and they’re too small and there’s nowhere to dispose of the bodies. I think this bizarre, macabre, darkly comical series of episodes illustrates the gap between decisions that are being made, conceptual leaps being taken, and their concretisation.

I think that the concrete processes actually don’t help us with the timing of the decision. The escalation of killings in Russia, the decision to build the gas chambers, the inefficiencies within the Nazi system of getting anything done, the time lags between decisions and eventuations and all the snags that occur between, mean that we can search for a decision, signs of a decision, but it’s always going to be elusive and the concrete effectuations don’t necessarily help us identify when or how the decision was taken. And that’s why I think the exact timing is always going to be rather elusive.

LAURENCE REES: Surely, it must be around December 1941 when we know Hitler’s having these meetings..


LAURENCE REES: And his rhetoric at that point is demonstrably exterminational rhetoric.

DAVID CESARANI: Yes. But why is it then that it’s not until May/ June 1942 that Eichmannn travels to the West of Europe, gathers together his men, the bureaucrats of office 4B4, and says to them: we’re going to have the yellow star, we’re going to have round-ups and we’re going to work with the local officials to deport the Jews. That’s a four, five months time lag?

LAURENCE REES: Yes, but they’re also deporting the Jews in Slovakia by March 1942 and then there 3 million Jews in Poland…

DAVID CESARANI: Yes, but it’s a puzzle to which I have no answer. You would have thought that if a decision, a hard and fast decision, was taken some time in the second half of December to annihilate the Jews of Europe; to set the apparatus going, there would have been a bit of a distraction with the crisis in the Eastern Front and America’s entry into the war, but, nevertheless, Heydrich gets certain of the key executors together on 20th of January, sorts that out, says afterwards to Eichmann, okay, we’ve got the agreement of all the state secretaries and elements of the apparatus that we need to have in line, now let’s press the start button. Why doesn’t the following day Eichmann fly to Paris and say the Jews of France are going to be annihilated? Biological annihilation. Instead, the whole thing kind of limps on for several months.

It’s partly because of the question that they couldn’t decide what to do with Jews of mixed race, as they conceived it. And Eichmann has to have a number of meetings in the spring of 1942, endless arguments about how do you define the Jews who are going to be deported, because, of course, you can’t deport a target group unless you have designated them and classified them in a certain way. And the Nazis could never decide who was a Jew.

LAURENCE REES: And it’s one thing to sit in a room and listen to Hitler saying 'exterminate' this group of people, and it’s quite another to go off and try and make it happen when you’re dealing with diplomatic, transport, technological issues, and it would takes months to organise.

DAVID CESARANI: So, I don’t think you can find the decision for the genocide against all the Jews of Europe in the summer or even the early autumn of 1941.

I lean much more towards the view of those who see it as coming in the autumn. I think Gerlach and Peter Witte are right on that, and I think ultimately Peter Longerich has the best of all solutions that it is seen in stages, an incremental process. Not just of radicalisation - that’s a rather sort of cheap explanation. It’s very confusing to discern because you have overlapping and sometimes contradictory policies going on at the same time and you have time lags, etcetera.