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Memory and History: On the Poverty of Remembering and Forgetting the Judeocide

Today is Holocaust Memorial Day, a day of commemoration dedicated to the remembrance of those who suffered in The Holocaust under Nazi persecution, and in subsequent genocides in Cambodia, Rwanda, Bosnia, Darfur and elsewhere. In this, an extract from Why Did the Heavens Not Darken?: The "Final Solution" in HistoryArno J. Mayer analyses the structure of rememberence and the task of the historian in relation to the Nazi Judeocide.

Arno J. Mayer27 January 2019

Memory and History: On the Poverty of Remembering and Forgetting the Judeocide

In his Pensees, when discussing the different ways of seeking knowl­edge, Pascal counterposes the intellectual ways of dogmatists to those of skeptics. After demonstrating that the two approaches are equally ineffectual as well as irreconcilable, Pascal urges philosophers to "lis­ten to God."

The ways of studying the recent mass murder and torment of European Jews, which I call the Judeocide, are similarly complicated by dogmatists who refuse any opening or reopening of legitimate questions about the Jewish catastrophe, and skeptics who simply deny that it ever occurred. Of course, the search for the ultimate why of the Judeocide must be left to theologians and philosophers, who ponder its providential or metahistorical nature. But in the meantime historians are charged with examining it as a profane event, without thereby diminishing its awesome enormity.

In terms of approach the rigid dogmatists and skeptics who address the Judeocide are each other's mirror image. But before discussing this latent methodological similarity, it is important to insist that their underlying values and intentions are radically different. The dogma­tists write and speak with empathy and compassion for the Jewish victims and mean to warn of the enormous dangers and atrocious costs of racial and religious intolerance. On the contrary, the skeptics, who are outright negationists, mock the Jewish victims with their one-sided sympathetic understanding for the executioners. They are ill-disguised anti-Semites and merchants of prejudice, and this mor­ally reprehensible posture disqualifies them from membership in the republic of free letters and scholarship.

However, although dogmatists and skeptics belong to fundamen­tally different political and ideological families, their ways of ap­proaching the Judeocide have much in common. Both affirm rather than closely examine and substantiate a position chat is in the nature of a given, almost an article of faith.

The categorical dogmatists assert that the Judeocide was altogether unprecedented in history and totally unique in its time, and maintain that the Jewish suffering was ideologically predetermined, with the intrinsic racial anti-Semitism of Hitler and Nazi Germany providing the demonic impetus for the adoption and implementation of a predesigned "Final Solution." Since the Nazis to some extent succeeded in covering up their worst crimes against the Jews, destroying much of the evidence, the dogmatists feel driven to press the relatively few currently available sources, including the recollections of eyewit­nesses and survivors, for corroborating evidence, and they tend to do so without evaluating their data with sufficient care. As if to compen­sate for the fragmentary nature of the record, they devote themselves to detailed examination of the physical harm and mental anguish which the SS inflicted on their victims and to making what they consider precise estimates of the number of Jewish deaths. But exact precision, which the existing data cannot sustain, is not necessary to establish the monstrous nature and equally monstrous general magni­tude of the Judeocide, for which the evidence is simply overwhelming and incontestable. And it is not to dishonor the victims to admit to a certain imprecision. As for the larger historical setting, the dogma­tists may be said to follow Hannah Arendt, who asserted that al­ though "the Jewish question and antisemitism" might appear to have been of only secondary importance as precipitants of Hitler's project, they nevertheless became "the catalytic agent first for the rise of the Nazi movement " and the formation of Hitler's regime, then "for a world war of unparalleled ferocity," and "finally for the establishment of death factories."

The hard-line skeptics fiercely deny the essential uniqueness and immense scale of the Jewish suffering during the Second World War. They assert that the Jews were victims not of a policy of deliberate and systematic extermination but of an exceptionally murderous war. Moreover, like the Nazis, the ultraskeptics charge the Jews with hav­ing been active instigators and participants rather than merely inno­cent victims of this war. Not that they dispute that Jews were deported and ghettoized in large numbers. But they do intone the Nazi self­ justification that Berlin resorted to such extreme measures for ostensi­bly normal economic and security reasons. Likewise, they affirm that the deadly epidemics in the camps and ghettos were part of the ordinary ravages of total war which racked millions of Europeans, regardless of nationality, race, or religion. Rather than prove their assertions about the nonsingularity of the Jewish torment, the negationist skeptics expose and scorn the discrepancies, contradictions, and exaggerations in the written and oral record concerning the exact places, times, and processes of killing, in particular of gassing, with a view to fomenting disbelief in the reality and monstrosity of the Judeocide. Their spurious positivism takes the form of practicing a fanatically overfastidious analysis of documents and remembrances with reckless disregard for their pertinent context of discourse and circumstance. They all but affirm that since there is no written record of an official and explicit order to mass murder and gas the Jews­ since no "smoking gun" has been found-the Judeocide could not have taken place. These all-out skeptics systematically minimize the number of Jewish victims and dispute that there was anything sui generis about the fate of the Jews.

In sum, both dogmatists and skeptics make a virtue of taking a narrowly circumscribed and pseudopositivistic approach to the Judeocide. Their outlook is essentially dualist, in that they see only absolute truth and falsehood, unqualified certainty and uncertainty. This stance is at variance with the historian's task, which is to concetualize and portray reality in its disconcerting diversity and complexity, particularly when facing extreme and incomprehensible events. With their shared rigidity, inflexible dogmatists and skeptics may be said to be complicit in perpetuating sterile and often poisonous polemics that interfere with what should be a civil and open-minded discussion of the principal issues surrounding the Jewish catastrophe. Such a discussion should have as its motto Pascal's insistence that it is as "impossible to understand the parts without understanding the whole as it is to understand the whole without understanding, in particular, the parts."

Not surprisingly, dogmatists as well as skeptics have given Why Did The Heavens Not Darken? a selective and decontextualized, and conse­ quently distorted, reading. Both are closed to an analysis that deals at one and the same time with the parts and the whole, with text and context, and with idea and circumstance. I decided to study and write on the "Final Solution" in the conviction that after nearly half a century it is both natural and inevitable that historians should begin to reexamine and historicize the Judeocide, and vital that this should be done responsibly. Today there can no longer be any doubt that the "Final Solution," perpetrated primarily by Nazi Germany, was one of those rare, unfathomable, and troubling events which, like the terror in the French and Russian revolutions, will now and forever generate intense debate. Throughout the Judea-Christian world suc­cessive generations are certain to keep wondering how and why the Judeocide happened and what it can tell them about their own uncertain times. Needless to say, historians will continue to collect more and more detailed and accurate data about the Jewish catastrophe. It is equally safe to predict that they will also keep generating major changes in conceptual and interpretive understanding, even in the face of intense resistance. Such changes are bound to come in spurts, induced by the usual unstable amalgam of new sources, concepts, and methods, as well as by fluctuating political conditions and preoccupa­tions. In short, there will never be a definitive or correct etiology and understanding of the Judeocide, except in places where an "official" version can be imposed momentaryly.

For professional historians there may be said to be two major ap­proaches to the study of the Judeocide: one is what I shall call the reductionist, the other what may be termed the extensionalist. Each approach has its own theoretical premises, its own defects, and its own political presuppositions.

Reductionists have a narrow focus. Their scope of vision is largely confined to the ideology of anti-Semitism, the person and mind-set of Adolf Hitler, and the infamy of the SS. Most reductionists posit that racial anti-Semitism was the epicenter of a preformed action­ ideology which they presume was the essential moving force of the Nazi regime and project. In their interpretive scheme the Judeocide was the necessary and inevitable consequence of the absolute causal primacy of the Nazi ideology in general and of its immanent anti­ Semitism in particular. Reductionists attach relatively little impor­tance to the ebb and flow of events and to the role of Nazi Germany's non-Nazi elites and foreign allies. Instead, they focus their analysis on how and when Hitler, his chief acolytes, and their phalanx of execu­tioners translated nazism's immutable anti-Semitic animus into more and more radical policies and actions, culminating in the "Final Solution."

Extensionalists have a broader field of view. Their purpose is to examine the links and correlations between different factors and developments in what they consider to have been a single historical process and configuration. They emphasize, in the first place, the societal and political preconditions for and causes of the establish­ment of the Nazi regime and the dynamics of its rapid consolidation and eventual radicalization. Most extensionalists-and of course only extensionalists-postulate that every turn and phase in the Nazi movement and regime was fired by modern Germany's exceptionally intractable conflicts of class, status, and power. In their scheme Hit­ler's aims and policies, including his persecution of the Jews, were rooted in and conditioned by his calculated accommodation with the old elites (of the army, bureaucracy, business, the churches, etc.), which remained his purposeful and indispensable collaborators dur­ing the entire life of the Nazi project. These extensionalists presup­pose ideology to have played a distinctly instrumental and subordinate role. In their reading, anticommunism and the call for the conquest of eastern Lebensraum were at the heart of an ideology designed to both reflect and cement the collaboration of the new and improbable Nazi elite with the old ruling classes, a collaboration which they posit to have been the ultimate rationale and bedrock of the Third Reich. Extensionalists treat anti-Semitism as a concomitant and singularly irrational strand in this ideology, and they generally consider the "Final Solution" to have been largely contingent on the cumulative failure and entropy of the Nazi regime.

Each of the two approaches has, as mentioned earlier, several short­ comings. Reductionism has one central flaw: it wrenches the Judeo­cide out of the larger historical setting apart from which it cannot be fully explained or understood, except as a fragmentary phenomenon and isolated event. But there are other difficulties as well. Above all, reductionists tend to affirm rather than problematize and explore the primacy of the Nazi ideology. The result is a methodologically ill­ founded ideological determinism which leaves little room for interac­tions between ideas and circumstances, as mediated by individual agents and collective agencies. What is more, to the extent that reductionists take into account individual agents confronting contin­gent events, they are inclined to present them as doing so with an archetypal (collective?) mentality congruent with the reigning ideolog­ical orthodoxy.

Besides postulating this absolute and mechanical ideological deter­minacy, reductionists presuppose the Nazi ideology to have been not only preformed but also frozen, with anti-Semitism at its core. It may, however, be equally valid to consider the Nazi ideology to have been an inherently unstable and kaleidoscopic syncretism in which anti-Semitism coexisted with racist social Darwinism, anticommunism, and territorial expansionism in eastern Europe. While these four indefinite and elastic idees forces presumably were closely interlocked within a unitary belief system, their relation to each other as well as to the ideological construct as a whole is difficult to establish. In any case, whatever the changes of intention and priority within this holis­tic construct, they were brought about by agents who despite their shameless cunning were intensely attentive to contingent circum­stances. Until 1938, in Germany anti-Semitism was murderous nei­ther in word nor deed, nor was it of the first priority to the Nazi project. And the evidence does not bear out the contention that Hitler and his closest associates muted their anti-Jewish intention primarily for tactical reasons and chat until 1941-42 they accentuated their other ideological precepts as a cover for anti-Semitism.

There is, of course, considerable room for disagreement about the respective weight of each of the four strands of the Nazi ideology, depending on time and circumstance. It seems highly implausible, however, that anti-Semitism should at all times have been the critical pivot of Nazi ideology, its primacy unaffected by the rush of events. The chief defect of extensionalism is that its framework is exces­sively far-stretched. As a result, it postulates connections between, on the one hand, socioeconomic, political, and military developments, and, on the other hand, the Judeocide, connections which may be difficult, if not impossible, to establish with precision. Furthermore, since they take in such a multiplicity of factors, extensionalists neces­sarily stumble over the basic but intrinsically difficult task of ranking the relative importance of different factors at any given moment and of showing their reciprocal relations. There is a third failing, in that extensionalists suppose Nazi ideology to have been basically unsys­tematic, extrinsic, and contingent. They make little, if any effort, to probe the overall consistency, internal logic, and relative autonomy of Hitler's action-ideology, in which anti-Semitism had a persistent if changeable place. Lastly, and most generally, extensionalists are in­ sufficiently on guard against the proverbial genetic fallacy. In their analysis of both ideas and actions, they privilege questions of origin and temporality over questions of process and consequence.

Clearly, then, reductionists and extensionalists view the Judeocide with radically different eyes, which have their respective strengths and weaknesses: the former are nearsighted and value close precision over contextual meaning; the latter are farsighted and emphasize the larger picture over foreground accuracy.

Ideally, historians of the Jewish tragedy should wear graduated trifocals suitable for close-up, intermediate, and distant vision. But in reality, like all other historians, they write their own prescriptions and grind their own lenses, in the process giving them a subjective tint as well. By and large, historians of conservative and right-wing persua­sion are prone to fashion or adopt an essentially reductionist perspec­tive; those of progressive and left-wing persuasion an essentially extensionalist one.

In Why Did the Heavens Not Darken? I seek to maximize the advan­tages and minimize the drawbacks of these two opposing but not irreconcilable types of vision. Not that I adopt a balanced middle perspective. As aconfigurational and left-dissident historian, I hold to the extensionalist premise that the Judeocide was an integral-not a subordinate-part of a larger historical constellation and process. Rather than view the "Final Solution" in isolation, I examine its interdependence and interaction with major concurrent events. In addition, I scan the past for historical signposts: I critically reconsider the General Crisis and Thirty Years War of the seventeenth century to help frame the vast European turbulence and warfare of the first half of the twentieth century which prepared the ground for the Judeocide; and I critically reconsider the mass murder of Jews during the First Crusade in the late eleventh century to help frame the internal dynamics of the war against the Jews during Hitler's Glaubenskrieg against the Soviet Union. These analogic probes, which are the historian's stock-in-trade, start from the assumption that general crisis, total war, and Judeocide were a seamless web, and that they need to be treated as such. But it is one thing to have a conceptual postulate and an analytic frame, and quite another to apply them with circumspect rigor. Indeed, there is a large gap between conceptual, not to say theoretical, understanding and historical explanation. And the best if not only way to bridge it is to proceed by means of narrative, with strict attention to chronology. Even if the recounting of events is no master key to historical comprehension, it is an indis­pensable tool for historical analysis and interpretation .

Few, if any, well-grounded students of the Judeocide still maintain that Hitler had a preconceived intention and masterplan to extermi­nate the Jews from the outset of the Nazi movement or regime. Indeed, by now there is a broad scholarly consensus that the ultimate steps from emigration, expulsion, ghettoization, relocation, and spo­radic killing on the one hand, to mass murder and systematic destruction on the other, were not taken until some time after the invasion of the Soviet Union on June 22, 1941. In other words, at the outset, when the Einsatzgruppen (the mobile killing squads) moved into Russia in the wake of the Wehrmacht, their mission was not to slaughter Jews indiscriminately but to kill Jews-primarily adult males-as well as non-Jews who were, or were suspected of being, cadres of the political, military, and economic apparatus of the Bol­shevik regime. During the first weeks of the eastern campaign, Jews were, in addition, subjected to largely spontaneous pogroms by gangs and militias of Baltic and east European nationalists with Nazi sympa­thies­­­­—notably Latvians, Lithuanians, White Russians, and Ukraini­ans. But even assuming that the commanders of the German killing squads either incited or organized many or most of these murderous pogroms-which remains debatable-to date there is no evidence to suggest that they were part of an exterminationist blueprint. Until late July or early August 1941 the Jewish victims of both the Nazi Einsatzgruppen and the local fascist vigilantes were primarily adult males, and the killing of Jews was essentially war-related.

There was, however, a major change in policy and practice in midsummer and early fall of 1941. During those few weeks, when the Wehrmacht's advance was being seriously slowed down, the killing of Jews spiraled to include mass executions of women, children, and the elderly. Not that there had been no such atrocities before mid-Au­ gust. But the few that did take place seem to have been wild and sporadic rather than systematic. At any rate, the atrocious massacres of Babi Yar and Odessa in the early fall of 1941 typify the rush into the indiscriminate mass slaughter of Jews, in which the regular army acted together with the SS. But even at this point these killings were still connected with military developments on the eastern front and were confined to Jews in Soviet-held territories. Indeed, it was not until January 20, 1942, at the Wannsee Conference, that the switches were set for the "Final Solution," which called for the torment and annihilation of the Jews from all over Nazi-occupied and -controlled Europe. This was nine years after Hitler had become chancellor and seven months after the invasion of Russia, even though as of October 1941 a few incidental signs, perhaps even steps, pointed in that direction.

Why this close attention to the sequence and taxonomy of the mass murder of Jews after mid-1941? The central question is whether ideol­ogy or circumstance was the prime (but not exclusive) radicalizer of the Jewish catastrophe. (Incidentally, this difficult but fundamental question of the respective weight of ideological predetermination and contingent circumstance invariably confronts students of the com­plex mainsprings and furious spiral of extreme civil violence, the terror in the French and Russian revolutions being the outstanding examples in recent European history.) With their narrow view of the Judeocide the reductionists tend to ignore that initially the instruc­tions and operations of the Einsatzgruppen were directed not only against Jews but against the full range of Nazi Germany's ideologically defined enemies. By looking almost exclusively at the Jewish dimen­sion of the orders and actions of the SS killing squads during the first few weeks of Barbarossa, they conclude that these squads began executing a preplanned Judeocide with the start of the invasion of Russia. Quite apart from the fact that the sources for the study of these orders and actions remain fragmentary and discordant, this selective reading of the data and events reinforces a linear and teleological view of the Judeocide. Especially since reductionists insist that Reinhard Heydrich's initial instructions to the Einsatzgruppen, what­ ever their inherent or perhaps calculated imprecision, were issued or approved by Hitler, whose exterminationist intention they believe to have been unfaltering, they leave little or no room for contingent events to have affected the inexorable end result of systematic destruc­tion at any point along the line. In particular, convinced of the determinant force of nazism's anti-Semitism, reductionists refuse to consider the start, slowdown, and impasse of the combined war of conquest against Soviet Russia and the "holy war" against bolshevism as essential preconditions, accelerators, or triggers for the Judeocide.

By contrast, I believe that the steps to the Judeocide were nonlinear and inseparable from the climax of what I have called the General Crisis and Thirty Years War of the twentieth century. In my view the ultimate temporality of the Jewish catastrophe was a matter less of an ideologically predetermined continuity than of an ideologically condi­tioned eruption within a no less ideologically conditioned conjunction of spiraling general violence and avenging fury. Accordingly, there was no rigid determinism and fixity of either ideas or circumstances. Instead, there was a constant interplay of ideology and contingency in which both played their respective but also partially indeterminate roles. Above all, this raging fusion of ideas and circumstances which produced the Judeocide was part of a single, larger historical conflu­ence.

The radicalization of the war against the Jews was correlated with the radicalization of the war against the Soviet Union. These two wars had a common ideological source. Operation Barbarossa was an in­ carnation of the major tenets of Hitler's action-ideology. Rooted in racist social Darwinism, the war in the east had the fourfold purpose of conquering Lebensraum from Russia, of enslaving the Slavic populations, of crushing the Soviet regime, and of liquidating the alleged nerve center of international bolshevism. For the political warriors of the Third Reich, the elites of Soviet Jewry were prominent, if not leading, members of the "common enemy" to be slain in the crusade against "Judeobolshevism."

Unlike the military campaign on the western front in the Second World War, that on the eastern front was from its inception a total war. Not that this secular crusade was genocidal from the start, nor that it would necessarily have become so after a blitzlike victory, which was planned and anticipated by Hitler and his generals. As I have indicated, the evidence suggests that the SS did not preplan the systematic killing of Soviet Jews, let alone of all European Jews. Instead of beginning instantly, the war against the Jews started to esca­late only during the second half of the summer and early fall of 1941, when it may still have been reversible.

Today there is less disagreement over the exact time of the genoci­dal eruption than there is over the circumstances in which it oc­curred. Historians with reductionist leanings hold that the Nazis decided on their escalation first into the mass murder of Soviet Jews and then into the extermination of all European Jews in a moment of extreme self-confidence and exaltation about what they supposed would be the imminent triumph of the Wehrmacht over the Red Army. According to this interpretation, the decisive military victory on the eastern front was the necessary and final enabling condition­ the hoped-for opportunity-for the implementation of the predeter­ mined Judeocide. But along with several other historians of an extensionalist bent, I take the view that the fate of the Jews is likely to have been sealed in a moment of failing rather than soaring hubris. As of the second half of July, Hitler began to be preoccupied and anxious about the course of the Russian campaign, which he knew would decide not just the outcome of the entire war but of the future of the Nazi project as a whole. His worst fear was that the Wehrmacht would become bogged down in the east, thereby plunging the Third Reich into a grueling war of endurance, with disastrous consequences for the Axis. While Hitler's worst fears started to be borne out in early fall, they were confirmed in November and early December 1941, with the defeat in front of Moscow.

As of today, it is difficult to tell for certain whether, when taking the ultimate steps to extermination, the Nazi leaders, and in particu­lar Hitler, acted out of unswerving euphoria and optimism or out of incipient frustration and wounded pride. On both sides of this debate the issue is as much one of judgment and interpretation as of incon­testable fact. But much argues for the inference that the issue cannot be resolved by focusing on Nazi Germany's Jewish policy alone, there being no way to explain the part without looking at the whole. Surely it is not without significance that the intensification of the war against the Jews coincided with the radicalization of a broad range of Nazi policies in the face of unforeseen, mounting, and infuriating military difficulties on the eastern front. The hard-fought and fatally delayed capture of Kiev was the manifest trigger for the massacre of close to 34,000 local Jews at Babi Yar which, as we saw, signaled the shift to the systematic and indiscriminate mass murder of Soviet Jews. But it must be emphasized that Babi Yar also coincided with a sharp radicalization of warfare, of the hostage system, of security operations, of the mistreatment of Soviet prisoners of war, and of the Third Reich's ideological rage.

It is no less striking that the first gassing of Jews probably took place at Chelmno, west of Warsaw, in early December 1941, which was the time of the devastating reversal at Moscow. To be sure, the connec­ tion between Moscow and Chelmno is not nearly as direct and self­ evident as that between Kiev and Babi Yar. Nevertheless, it seems most likely that the growing military impasse between September and the end of the year quickened and precipitated the turn toward the "Final Solution" which was ratified and devised at and immediately following the Wannsee Conference of January 1942, and which was irreversible. As of this moment, the demonized Jews became the quintessential scapegoat no longer for real or alleged attacks on Ger­man personnel or installations but for the breakdown of nazism's hitherto victorious presumption. But again, this quantum jump from the massacres of Jews in Soviet territories to the general extermina­tion of Jews from all over the Continent coincided with the adoption of several other desperate policies: the forced-draft mobilization of the economy for an all-out war of attrition; the impressment of mil­ lions of workers from most of German-controlled Europe for labor in the Reich; and the transformation and expansion of Nazi Ger­many's concentration camps from centers of political and social "re­habilitation" into centers of forced labor for war production and, in some cases and with time, of extermination.

The vicissitudes of the eastern campaign were a necessary but not sufficient precondition and cause for this rampant radicalization. The ideological and social rationale of the Nazi regime and the unchallenged ascendancy of Hitler not only precluded ending the failing war by negotiation but dictated turning the war in the east into a struggle for life or death, which also involved escalating its inherent pseudoreligious furor. As of late 1941, the totalization of the battle with the Red Army, of the "crusade" against bolshevism, and of the war against the Jews were fatally joined.

Auschwitz reflects this radicalization fired by the fusion of idea and circumstance. Auschwitz was started in a time of unqualified self­ confidence, following the lightning victories over Poland and France. At its creation it was a concentration camp for political and war prisoners, first Polish and then also Russian. Next, with euphoria still at its peak, and with the promise that camp inmates would be made available for (forced) labor, I. G. Farben agreed to serve Nazi Ger­many's Orang nach Osten by building a vast chemical complex near the original Auschwitz site. But it was not until late 1941 that the mission and character of Auschwitz began to be drastically redefined. Indeed, it took the exigencies of an unanticipated and failing absolute war of endurance to turn Auschwitz into the unprecedented human inferno of industrial production, hyperexploitation, death, and exter­ mination whose memory haunts the civilized world.

It is generally agreed that among the inmates at Auschwitz, the Jews were subjected to torments which were altogether unique in their horror, ferocity, and magnitude. But because the evidence is scarce and sometimes contradictory, certain relatively secondary questions cannot be answered with precision-as yet. There is still considerable uncertainty about the total number of Jewish victims at Auschwitz. There is a similar uncertainty about the percentage of these victims who died of so-called "natural" causes (sickness, disease, undernour­ishment, hyperexploitation) and those who were gassed or otherwise murdered in cold blood. Admittedly, my claim that "more Jews were killed by so-called 'natural' causes than by 'unnatural' ones" (p. 365) is open to debate. But the opposite assertion may be said to be no less so. As for the distinction between "natural" and "unnatural" death, it is heuristically worth making, since it calls attention to the lethal nature of even the "ordinary" regimen at Auschwitz, which was partly, but only partly, a function of its being a redoubt of pseudora­tional and urgent war production. However, it is no less important to insist, as I do, that this distinction should be neither "pressed too far" nor allowed "to be used to extenuate and normalize the mass murder at Auschwitz" (p. 365), the Nazis being directly and deliber­ately responsible for both the "natural" and the "unnatural" deaths. To note such uncertainties and to make such distinctions is not to negate, question, or scale down the Jewish suffering at Auschwitz, or elsewhere. Nor is it to whitewash the crimes of Nazi Germany.

I wrote my book in the hope of advancing the understanding of the Judeocide by setting it in a proper historical context. It is worth reiterating that the Jewish calamity occurred not in an era of either normalcy or of limited domestic crisis and conventional war but in an epoch of cataclysmic upheaval which claimed the lives of tens of millions of soldiers and, above all, civilians. But even though I set and treat the Judeocide in the context of the General Crisis and Thirty Years War of the twentieth century, I do not argue that this convul­sion was the one decisive cause for it—there were many others-or that the Jewish catastrophe was merely one of its many by-products. Indeed, as a student of recent European history, I finally turned to rethinking the Judeocide precisely because I was convinced that by virtue of its unequaled barbarity it was "a fundamental touchstone of the depth and extremity of the dislocation of Western civilization" (p. vii). It soon struck me as impossible, however, to grasp and characterize the singularity of the suffering of the Jews without comparing it to the enormous suffering during World War Two of Russians and Poles in particular, but of other peoples as well. Nor does it follow that by taking a wide-angled European and sociopolitical perspective I minimize the critical importance of Germany in general and the responsibility of Hitler, Himmler, and the SS in particular. But I do mean to stress that the politics and diplomacy of the European pow­ers contributed to the German crisis and to the establishment and hardening of the Nazi regime, just as inside Germany the old elites paved the way for Hitler and became his indispensable helpmates, even if unwittingly. I consider it no less important to insist that during the nineteen-thirties the calculating forbearance of England, France, and even Poland, as well as the unrelenting collaboration of the old elites in Germany, were rooted in a common anticommunism and antisovietism dating from the beginning of the Cold War in 1917-21, which also saw ominous prefigurations of the Judeocide.

Another reason for not losing sight of the historical context is the ubiquitous importance of the fact of war for the Jewish disaster, starting in 1914-18, but especially beginning with World War Two. Throughout most of the Continent the inordinate furies and miseries of the climacteric of the second Thirty Years War created an atmo­sphere of general violence which both favored the executioners and numbed the moral sensibilities of Europeans in all stations of life. But perhaps most important, each of the Third Reich's annexations and conquests brought additional Jews under the Nazi heel, as did its desperate last-minute military occupations of failing satellites, in par­ticular Italy and Hungary. In 1933 Germany had a Jewish population of only slightly over 500,000, of whom about half had emigrated by the outbreak of war in 1939. The subjugation of Poland and most of European Russia gave Nazi Germany control over nearly ten times the original number. Rumania and Hungary, Hitler's chief military allies in the war against the Soviets, counted another 1.2 million Jews between them. The course of the Second World War decided the fate of the Jews not only of eastern Europe, which was in the eye of the hurricane, but of all the other countries conquered, occupied, or dominated by Berlin. Clearly, Nazi Germany's aggressive wars, partic­ularly against Poland and Russia, were ideologically inspired and premeditated. Still, whatever their original objectives, the capture of foreign Jews for extermination does not seem to have been among them.


But the omnipresent war was not only the context of the Judeocide: it was also and above all a lethal conjunction of events that created important preconditions for it. As we have seen, the fatal escalation of the war against the Jews took place during the first seven months of the eastern campaign and more than likely was correlated with its unexpected but not ideologically innocent military miscalculations and reverses. In sum, spiraling total war was the crucible for the fusion of circumstance and ideology which fueled the cold-blooded rush into the "Final Solution."

My purpose in writing Why Did the Heavens Not Darken? was not to produce either a comprehensive survey of the Judeocide designed to weigh all points of view or a detailed monograph on any one of its major aspects or moments. Instead, my aim was to argue that without close attention to the tangled, if not inextricable interplay of ideology and circumstance it is difficult, not to say impossible, to bring the origins, dynamics, and singularities of the Jewish catastrophe into meaningful historical focus. In making this argument my goal was not to spar with uncompromising dogmatists and skeptics but to contrib­ute to the sober and urgent discussion of the mainsprings, processes, and characteristics of the Judeocide and of similar but by no means identical enormities in other times and places.

In the pursuit of this end, I made every effort to use tentative language when dealing with uncertain and controversial linkages and correlations. I also was careful not to overlook or minimize essential dissimilarities of fact and process when exploring analogies with com­parable developments in the past. And since it goes without saying that there is no objective and no one "correct" way to establish a comprehensive historical framework for the study of the Judeocide and to pinpoint the historical conjuncture in which it occurred, I made a special point of spelling out my scholarly premises and per­sonal angle of vision in the book's preface and prologue.

Why Did the Heavens Not Darken? is a reappraisal of the Judeocide that is based on a synthesis of the printed primary sources and the secondary literature listed in the bibliography. It chiefly raises not factual, but interpretive, questions. There seemed no need for foot­ notes in a work of this nature, which presents neither new sources nor new facts, and at key points draws on a limited body of data that is well known to the experts. But there were two additional reasons for dispensing with references. First, the scope of this book being rather broad, these references would have had to be endless. Second, the book is addressed to both specialists and general readers, and I felt that heavy footnoting would be superflous for the former and daunting for the latter.

Perhaps without realizing it I wrote my book in the spirit and in memory of Marc Bloch, who once suggested that it was the historian's particular task, if not burden, to engage in a permanent dialogue with the dead of the distant and recent past. I have often wondered how Bloch, one of the greatest historians of his time, would have redefined this assignment had he survived to reflect about the countless victims of the man-made furies of the General Crisis and Thirty Years War of the twentieth century, in particular about the dead of Auschwitz and Treblinka. But this much seems certain: Marc Bloch would have enjoined historians to remain faithful to their calling by probing for what was not only singular but universal in the unspeakable physical and mental torment of the Jews during Christian Europe's darkest night.


Princeton Fall 1989

[book-strip index="1" style="display"]

Why Did the Heavens Not Darken?
Was the extermination of the Jews part of the Nazi plan from the very start? Arno Mayer offers astartling and compelling answer to this question, which is much debated among historians today.In doi...
Suffering as Identity

Suffering as Identity

Reaching from biblical times to the present day, Esther Benbassa’s prize-winning exploration of Jewish identity is both epic and comprehensive. She shows how in the Jewish world, the representation...
Boy 30529
“Anyone who survived the exterminations camps must have an untypical story to tell. The typical camp story of the millions ended in death ... We, the few who survived the war and the majority wh...
Auschwitz Report

Auschwitz Report

While in a Russian-administered holding camp in Katowice, Poland, in 1945, Primo Levi was asked to provide a report on living conditions in Auschwitz. Published the following year, it was subsequen...
Revolutionary Yiddishland
Jewish radicals manned the barricades on the avenues of Petrograd and the alleys of the Warsaw ghetto; they were in the vanguard of those resisting Franco and the Nazis. They originated in Yiddishl...

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