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Book Review 221: The War against the Jews 1933-1945

November 30, 2011 - Harry Eagar
THE WAR AGAINST THE JEWS 1933-1945, by Lucy S. Dawidowicz. 460 pages. Holt Rinehart

Jews have been assaulted throughout history, but National Socialism was something new. It took a long time for even its victims to realize how different it was.

Not until 1942 – by which time many more than a million Jews had been murdered – did the captives begin to discern that the goal of the Germans (enthusiastically seconded by the Latvians, Ukrainians, Lithuanians and others) was to do them all to death. Until then, the old motto of “hold on and hold out” had seemed likely to serve the community, if not the individuals within it, as well as it had always done through the centuries.

That was the reason why, when the Germans demanded that the communal leaders select, say, 10,000 of their people for deportation, the bias was to select the good-for-nothings and the old among the good-for-somethings. Let the young live, they will carry on the tradition, was the feeling.

Lucy Dawidowicz divides her history into two parts. First, the development of the ideology of total destruction – a policy that in recent years acquired the name of eliminationism from Daniel Goldhagen, a term not much in use when Dawidowicz wrote in 1975.

The idea was so alien that civilized people, Jews included, had a hard time accepting its reality. When couriers and escapees brought in witnessed accounts of death factories, the underground Jewish press downplayed the news, unsure how much of it to believe. Outside Europe, recognition of the monstrousness of the crime was even slower to take hold.

Probably, Dawidowicz says, many Germans did not understand that elimination was the goal. It was asserted in “Mein Kampf,” but few read that turgid book, not even Adolf Eichmann. This is not to say that Germans (and Polish Catholics and many others) had any objection to murdering Jews. It was rather that they didn't quite see the point of murdering all of them.

The Jews felt the same. Surely, they thought, the work we do for the German army (sewing uniforms, making boots and so on) in its struggle with Russia is so valuable that at least the strong and skilled will be spared.

Dawidowicz is a legal and social historian. She makes the point, although military historians have subsequently made it even more strongly, that the Germans were so devoted to destroying all the Jews that they let that task harm their war effort. When trains were desperately needed to get munitions to the front, or to organize an orderly retreat, the SS was able to commandeer as much rolling stock as it needed to keep the gas chambers filled.

She believes that Hitler, Himmler and at a somewhat later date Heydrich were commited to eliminationism. It wasn't really necessary to let others into the grand plan. As long as they were willing to perform their small tasks – and there were few who demurred – then the great killing industry could go forward without holding a plebiscite on annihilation.

The other half of the book concerns what the Jews did. Until very late, each time their little worlds were shrunk by deportations, they regrouped and tried to maintain or revive all the communal, religious, social and economic institutions that had sustained them under persecution for so long.

It was late 1943 or even 1944 before the grimmest truth emerged, and then the Jews turned, after much consultation with their rabbis and secular leaders, to forlorn hope resistance, rather than the passive resistance that had served them in the Middle Ages and, so they thought, even against the Nazis.

In the last few pages of her book, Dawidowicz makes an impassioned, and convincing, argument that collaboration is not a charge that can be laid against the Jews (with some individual exceptions) because they were never free actors. In the endnotes, she has harsh words for Raul Hilberg and Hannah Arendt, who, she says, failed to grasp the essential status of the Jews under German domination: They were condemned, and their only freedom of action was to decide whether to die before the Germans killed them, as Adam Czerniakow, the leader of the Warsaw ghetto, chose to do.

There were, and still are, people who like to pretend that Communism was worse than Nazism, because more people died under the Communists. Dawidowicz approvingly cites Karl Jaspers on the subject of Nazism. She writes:

“The German state, deciding that the Jews should not live, arrogated to itself the judgment as to whether a whole people had the right to existence, a judgment that no man and no state have the right to make. 'Anyone who on the basis of such a judgment,' said Karl Jaspers, 'plans the organized slaughter of a people and participates in it, does something that is fundamentally different from all crimes that have existed in the past.' ”

 
 

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