In the world of alternative history, there seems to be one topic above all topics sure to raise the blood pressure. I do not mean the world where a revisionist interpretation is raised in a mainstream venue – say something regarding the criminality of Lincoln or FDR, and prepare for incoming. No, I mean when the revisionists are gathered together; you know, just amongst us girls.
There are two main themes of controversy of this topic:
1) The Jews did it: everything bad that has happened in the history of the world is one big Jewish plot. Of course I exaggerate the alternative narrative, but not very much.
2) The Jews didn’t have it done to them: the holocaust never happened. On this, I don’t exaggerate the alternative narrative; well, maybe a smidge.
This post is a review of the section from Snyder’s book regarding the treatment of Jews in Europe during the Second World War. Therefore, it presents a version of history on the topic of the second point above. It is a long post; I want to deal with this can of worms only once – at least for this go-round.
I cannot begin this review without first addressing this issue: is the generally accepted narrative of the holocaust accurate – six million Jews purposely murdered by the Nazis specifically because they were Jews, many in gas chambers?
My short answer? I don’t know. I have never studied this question in detail. On my list of topics to study, this has not yet risen to the top; it might someday, but not today – I am here today only because of my interest in the horrendous time and place that was Central and Eastern Europe during the intersection of two tyrants: i.e. Snyder’s book. You want a can of worms? Take a look at this. Or this, with an examination of many of the revisionist / denialist claims. Where to start?
My long answer? Bear with me.
I am quite confident in stating that millions of Jews died in Europe during the war years. There was something like 9 – 10 million Jews living in Europe, and most of these in the regions most devastated by war. Unless Jews were miraculously spared bullets, bombs, starvation, rape, forced marches, forced labor, etc., I suspect Jews died – and died in the millions.
Beyond this, were Jews specifically targeted because they were Jews? Not a situation of Jews targeted because they were bankers, or Bolsheviks, or partisans, or Poles, or Belarusians. But Jews targeted because they were Jews. There seems to be sufficient evidence of this – statements by Hitler and many in the Nazi hierarchy offer not only intent, but results; they certainly had the means and opportunity. In my limited reading, there appears to be sufficient witness testimony.
I am open to being educated on this, but given what I have read, it seems to me that Jews were killed because they were Jews.
Were they gassed? Were they shot? Were they starved? Does it matter? Not to me.
After this, all that is left is a debate about numbers. One murder is criminal enough; once you get to numbers that could populate a small city, it is horrific and, if aimed at a particular ethnic group, genocidal. That the mainstream narrative suggests the numbers are significantly higher doesn’t change the nature of the crime. In my limited reading, I am comfortable with the notion that the number purposely targeted and murdered was sufficient to be meaningful.
This summarizes my practical-logical analysis of the topic. What of the history? For this, I will offer my earlier reply to being questioned on this topic:
The only meaningful comment I can make is based on the following two cites. First, from “1939 – The War That Had Many Fathers,” by Gerd Schultze-Rhonhof:
“In the Transition Treaty (Überleitungsvertrag) of 1954, Article 7 (1), it is bindingly laid down that “all judgments (Urteile) from the Nuremberg Trials “remain valid and effective in every regard according to German law and are to be treated accordingly by German courts and authorities.” Included, as an integral part, in the text of the judgments of the main Nuremberg Trial of 1946 is an exactly 200 pages long account of the German war and pre-war history from the perspective of the Soviets, the Americans, the British and the French….this account of “German history” from the victors’ perspective was recognized by the (German) Federal Government as “in all respects valid and effective” (rechtswirksam und rechtskräftig) and thus binding for German courts and authorities.”
When the telling of history is dictated by law, it is certain to be a false history. Truth does not need law to protect it.
Second, from “Advance to Barbarism,” by FJP Veale:
The subject is the Nuremberg Trials – the source of German-history-dictated-by-law. I cannot offer a simple summary – if you are interested, read the piece. To make a long story short, the trials were set up for political expediency, with no intent to reach justice, only the intent to minimize friction amongst Stalin (who would have preferred to simply put bullets in the heads of 50,000 German officers, with no more formality than that done during the Great Terror) and Churchill (who felt the British people would never stand for Stalin’s barbaric solution).
I put these two together and conclude: it is safe to hold as a starting point that every “fact” we have been taught about this history is false. This might not be always a good assumption, but I am learning it is right more than not.
But just how false a history is protected by law (or political correctness, a more significant restraint on many)? My conclusion, putting together my practical-logical view and my understanding of the history: Jews were killed for being Jews; this likely happened in large, even meaningful numbers. Beyond this, the details – the methods, the numbers – are up for grabs in this mosquito brain.
My personal caution: I will be quite certain before coming to a conclusion that denies this history; treading on this memory without certainty is a step I will never take.
Therefore, I present the story as Snyder presents it. There may be debate about the numbers; there may be debate about the methods. However, unless I find something definitive and convincing to the contrary, it seems to me to be certain that large numbers of Jews were killed by the Nazis because they were Jews.
Now that I have alienated both the believers and the deniers, let’s move forward…
…is there anyone left? OK, then…
As mentioned, this post is about the treatment of the Jews during this time, but not solely regarding the Jews. In the areas and regions where Jews lived and died, they held no monopoly on being victims. They certainly received special attention, but non-Jews were also victims in this time and place.
Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin, by Timothy Snyder
By late 1941 the Nazi leadership had already considered, and been forced to abandon, four distinct versions of the Final Solution. (P. 185)
· The Lublin Plan considered a reservation for Jews in Eastern Poland. There was not enough room; it was too close, and in the end too complicated.
· A consensual Soviet plan – to send the Jews to the far reaches of the Soviet Union with Stalin’s cooperation; Stalin was not interested.
· The Madagascar plan – to ship Jews to this far-off island was not possible with Britain undefeated.
· A coercive Soviet plan – not possible given that lightning victory over the Soviet Union was not yet, and was no longer likely to be, achieved.
By now, after the divide implemented between Stalin and Hitler, about 5 million Jews lived under German rule. (P. 185)
Snyder examines the hows and whens of the development of the Final Solution. He concludes that by December 1941 associates of Hitler understood the Final Solution to mean the mass murder of the Jews. (P. 484) It is an important conclusion – I cannot say accurate (I have no idea), merely important – as Snyder also points out the shootings of Jews east of the Molotov-Ribbentrop line began in August 1941, and by the end of the year resulted in about one million murdered Jews in this region. (P. 189)
This implies that murders of Jews were happening on a massive scale before all associates of Hitler understood that this was, in fact, the policy. There is debate even within the professional community on this point, as others believe the policy was well-known and widely accepted even in the summer.
According to Snyder, this “final” Final Solution presented itself not solely from the top down (“Hitler to Himmler, Himmler to Bach”), nor solely from the bottom up (“Einsatzgruppe A to Himmler, Himmler to Hitler”). The Final Solution was developed from a combination of these signals. The main technique was shooting. (P. 484)
As in every aspect of this history, there is controversy on this point. From a speech by Christopher Browning, given in Paris in 1982:
In recent years the interpretations of National Socialism have polarized more and more into two groups that Tim Mason has aptly called Intentionalists and Functionalists. The former explain the development of Nazi Germany as a result of Hitler's intentions, which came out of a coherent and logical ideology and were realized due to an all-powerful totalitarian dictatorship. The Functionalists point out the anarchistic character of the Nazi state, its internal rivalries and the chaotic process of decision-making, which constantly led to improvisation and radicalization...
Snyder seems to split this down the middle; yet any argument toward a bottom-up influence, as Snyder offers, suggests something other than a pure Intentionist interpretation. Talk about a controversial interpretation.
Browning himself is controversial – at least to the “willing executioners” camp; from a review of his book, Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland, regarding the book as…
…a crucial source of original research used for the bestseller Hitler's Willing Executioners--gives evidence to suggest the opposite conclusion: that the sad-sack German draftees who perpetrated much of the Holocaust were not expressing some uniquely Germanic evil, but that they were average men comparable to the run of humanity, twisted by historical forces into inhuman shapes.
I have often considered this possibility of a “uniquely German evil.” Up to and including the several years before and during the Second World War, where was evidence of this national characteristic – other than Anglo propaganda used to incite the required democratic support for both previous and current wars?
Music, arts, economics, philosophy, science, theology, literature, architecture; for centuries, major works in each of these disciplines came out of the Germanic cultures of Europe. A beautiful and rich legacy.
So I wonder: which period was the anomaly?
But I digress, and return to Snyder. He offers numerous statements from several high-ranking Nazis regarding the Final Solution, the deliberate killing of the Jews of Europe, made during the summer and fall of 1941. Himmler considers, for example, that calories should be kept from Jews.
The Einsatzgruppen, no longer needed for the mopping up behind the rapidly advancing Wehrmacht – as there was no longer a rapid advancement – could therefore be used to kill Jews. Their numbers were not sufficient; they would find local (Polish, Russian and other) help. The Order Police (Ordnungspolizei or Orpo) would supplement this effort. (P. 188) By August, there was a force of twenty thousand east of the Molotov-Ribbentrop line available to effect this murder campaign. Further tens of thousands from the local police population were recruited – Ukrainians, Belarusians, Russians and Tatars. Local ethnic Germans were “most desired.” (P. 199) All resources reported to Himmler.
Snyder offers further details – murders of over 100,000 Jews by December 1 1941 in Lithuania, with plenty of help from the locals (P.192) He offers a similar narrative regarding Lithuania. (P. 193) As to Estonia, there were very few Jews living in the country. About 5,000 non-Jewish Estonians were killed, for collaboration with the Soviets. (P. 194) Himmler, travelling through the western Soviet Union, gave instruction regarding the shooting of Jewish women and children. (P. 197) (All of this, again, before the end of 1941 – a critical date given Snyder’s interpretation of events.)
The killing of non-Jews raises an interesting point: as he does here, several times Snyder points out the treatment of non-Jews in the region – similar to the treatment received by Jews. So, to what extent were the Jews killed because they were Jews, or were instead killed because they – like others – lived in the bloodlands? This is the question, isn’t it?
Snyder reminds that many of the people of these regions came under Soviet control recently – a result of Hitler’s agreement with Stalin. He describes the deportations and shootings during the Soviet occupation – not as massive a killing program as that attributed to the Germans, but numbers in the hundreds-of-thousands nonetheless. (P. 194)
The Germans attributed this Soviet aggression to the Jews:
With or without German agitation, many people in interwar Europe associated the Jews with communism. Interwar communist parties had in fact been heavily Jewish, especially in their leaderships, a fact upon which much of the press throughout Europe had commented for twenty years. (P. 194)
Yes, but which Jews? All Jews? Of course not; but simple and hateful minds do not trouble themselves with making distinctions:
Right-wing parties confused the issue by arguing that since many communists were Jews therefore many Jews were communists. These are very different propositions; the latter one was never true anywhere. (P. 194)
This worked well for Nazi propaganda with the locals: it was no shame to lose to Soviet communists as they were backed by a global Jewish conspiracy; therefore it is right to kill all Jews now. (P. 195) This propaganda was additionally acceptable and easily accepted as it helped relieve many non-Jewish Soviet collaborators from being targeted by the Nazis. (P. 196)
Snyder offers details: day after day, city after city, region after region. Kiev, September 1941, is noted: “the first attempt to murder all of the native Jews present in a large city.” The retreating Soviets, via the NKVD, planted explosives in the city – timed to go off after German occupation. This was blamed on the Jews of the city. (P. 201)
Throughout the German advance, Soviet presence never fully left the region; in August, Stalin ordered over 400,000 Soviet Germans to be deported to Kazakhstan – done within a few weeks. “In its speed, competence, and territorial range, this one act of Stalin made a mockery of the confused and contradictory deportation actions that the Germans had carried out in the previous two years.” (P. 207)
In the same month, Hitler took the decision to send German Jews to the east – to Minsk, Riga and other cities. Before this, German Jews had lost rights and property, but only rarely their lives. With this decision, Hitler deliberately sent Jews to regions where Germans were killing Jews. (P. 207)
Toward the end of the year, gas vans were being used, and gassing facilities were being constructed in occupied Poland. (P. 209-210)
It was in December when Hitler spoke openly: “the annihilation of Jewry must be the necessary consequence” of this world war – a world war attributable to an international Jewish conspiracy. Who but the Jews could bring together the British, Soviets, and Americans? (P. 214) Propaganda against Slavs would cease; propaganda against Jews would increase. (P. 215)
Himmler noted Hitler’s desire that the Jews of Europe, as of December 1941, were to be destroyed as “partisans,” as agents of Germany’s foes behind the lines. (P. 216)
This was the fifth – and final – version of the Final Solution: mass death. Snyder does not…
…believe that food (or any other economic consideration) can explain the timing or the precise content of Hitler’s policy as conveyed in December 1941. It was an ideological expression and political resolution of pressing problems arising from a failed colonial war. It was also a choice. (P.487)
By this time, Himmler and his men had already killed about 1 million Jews in the occupied Soviet Union. (P. 218)
Over the course of the year 1942, the Germans killed most of the remaining Jews who were under their occupation. West of the Molotov-Ribbentrop line, mass murder would be carried out at gassing facilities. East of the Molotov-Ribbentrop line, the Germans continued the mass shootings. (P. 219)
With the help of tens of thousands of local collaborators, the Germans had the necessary manpower. (P. 220)
Of the 2.6 million or so Jews killed on the terrains of the Soviet Union, some 1.6 million had been under Soviet jurisdiction for less than two years. Their civilization had been seriously weakened by Soviet rule during 1939 – 1941; it would not survive the German Reich. (P. 222)
Snyder again cites examples of the murder – names, places, and numbers. He offers a detailed description of the hell that was Belarus – a hell for Jew and Gentile:
Belarus was the center of the confrontation between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. After the German invasion of June 1941, its inhabitants observed, if they survived, the escalation of both German and Soviet violence. Their homeland was a German zone of occupation and a once and future Soviet republic. Its cities were battlefields of armies in advance and retreat, its towns centers of Jewish settlement destroyed by the Holocaust. Its fields became German prisoner-of-war camps, where Soviet soldiers starved in the tens and hundreds of thousands. (P. 225)
Minsk was bombed into submission on 24 June. The Wehrmacht had to wait for the fires to die down before entering the city. By the end of July, thousands of the educated were shot and the Jews were confined to the northwest of the city. (P. 226)
Snyder points to November 7 – the anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution – as a day when “the Germans organized something more dramatic than mass shootings.” They rounded up thousands of Jews, had them dress for the Soviet holiday, gave them flags and had them sing revolutionary songs. Cameras filmed the scene. Then 6,624 Jews were trucked off to a former NKVD warehouse, never to be seen again. Jews marching with Soviet flags and singing revolutionary songs were supposed proof of the Nazi claim that “communists were Jews and Jews were communists.” (P. 226)
Belarus was also well-suited for partisan warfare – the forests and swamps nearby to Minsk offered a good place to hide. Conversely, partisans offered to the Germans an excuse to kill civilians, by striking “such terror into the population that it loses all will to resist.”
Hitler had already relieved his soldiers of legal responsibility for actions taken against civilians. Now he wanted soldiers and police to kill anyone who “even looks at us askance.” (P. 234)
As it was believed that where there were partisans there were Jews and where there were Jews there were partisans, destroying all of the Jews of the local village was appropriate action in retribution for a nearby act of partisan sabotage – ensuring the destruction of the (assumed) perpetrators and those (assumed) behind them. (P. 234)
More dates, places, numbers – Snyder identifies further actions of murder against the Jews in Belarus. Depending on the situation of the war, sometimes there was a preference to save some Jews for labor and at other times there was no such desire. (P. 235)
Of course, many of the partisans were Jews; also, many were not. By August 1942, Hitler ordered that all partisan in Belarus be “exterminated by the end of the year. Snyder offers a particularly disturbed individual in this effort, one Oskar Dirlewanger, with whom “few could compare in cruelty….” (P.241)
Dirlewanger had a track record well before his introduction to Belarus in February 1942; prior to this he was assigned to the General Government. He was too much even for some of the Germans:
In January 1942, however, the local Higher SS and Police Leader, SS-Obergruppenführer Friedrich-Wilhelm Krüger threatened: "[Unless] this bunch of criminals disappears from the General Government within a week, I will go myself and lock them up."
Dirlewanger’s unit was one of many units assigned to what was known as “Large Operations,” designed to kill Belarusian civilians – Jews and Gentiles. In the second half of 1942 and early 1943, ghettos and entire villages were liquidated. (P. 242)
The situation became more extreme with the news of German defeat at Stalingrad, this news reaching Belarus in February 1943. Thousands of policemen and militiamen left the service of the Germans and joined the Soviet partisans. Both sides – German and Soviet – were concerned about recruits, members, loyalties. Tests were devised – the expected killing of family members who were caught fighting for the other side, etc. Life continued to sink deeper into hell: “Belarus was a society divided against itself by others.” (P. 243-244)
In the meantime, the Germans required more fighters for the front. Farmers and workers were taken from Germany; these had to be replaced. By the end of the war, some eight million foreigners from the east were working in Germany:
It was a rather perverse result, even by the standards of Nazi racism: German men went abroad and killed millions of “subhumans,” only to import millions of other “subhumans” to do the work in Germany that the German men would have been doing themselves – had they not been abroad killing “subhumans.” (P. 245)
Germany became more of a Slavic land than at any time in its history!
Operation Cottbus – killing all partisans from an area north of Minsk in May 1943, destroying one village at a time, burning residents in barns; Operation Hermann, named after that Hermann – July and August, kill all inhabitants of a village except males selected for labor after which women, children and the aged – Belarusian and Polish – were shot. (P. 246)
Cleared areas were to be considered “dead zones.” In other words, anyone found alive in these zones after the operation was to be made dead. (P. 247)
The Germans held no monopoly of death and destruction during this time. The Polish Home Army was representing the government in exile in London and therefore technically allies of the Soviets. Officers from this army were invited by the Soviets to a negotiation in the summer of 1943, and then were murdered on the way to the rendezvous point. (P. 247)
Yet overall, it was the Germans that the local population loathed. Mass terror was no longer working – it seems once the population was taught that death is the answer to every question, it was difficult to rally the people to support German rule; to what end, for what hope? They wished for a return of the Soviets: “A German propaganda specialist sent to Belarus reported that there was nothing that he could possibly tell the population.” (P. 248)
Both Soviet self-colonization and German racial colonization involved purposeful economic exploitation. But because the Germans were more murderous, and because German murderers were fresher in the minds of the locals, Soviet power came to seem like the lesser evil, or even like liberation. (P. 249)
It strikes me that the “fresher in the minds” might have somewhat clouded the view about “more murderous.” In any case, it isn’t difficult to imagine that any change would be longed for as some hope for relief.
German actions to clear the land of partisans resulted in the deaths of countless unarmed civilians – Snyder offers examples of thousands shot, with only dozens of guns confiscated; thousands killed, with only a handful of casualties on the German side. Ratios not indicative of a battle-ready enemy.
Belarus was a multi-year hell – right in the center of the storm, the center of the bloodlands. Out of nine million who lived in the territory of Belarus in 1941, perhaps 1.6 million were killed in non-battlefield action: 700,000 prisoners of war, 500,000 Jews, and 320,000 counted as partisans (many of whom, as noted, were unarmed). Hundreds of thousands of others from this territory were killed as soldiers of the Red Army. (P. 250-251)
More than a million other people fled the Germans, and another two million were deported as forced labor or removed from their original residence for another reason. (P. 251)
The Soviets also deported hundreds of thousands to Poland in 1944, and a few thousand to the Gulag.
By the end of the war, half the population of Belarus had either been killed or moved. This cannot be said of any other European country. (P. 251)
Jews and Gentiles. Yet, for the Jews, the Nazis were more to be feared than the Soviets:
In Belarus, more than anywhere else, the Nazi and Soviet systems overlapped and interacted…It was home to one of Europe’s densest populations of Jews, doomed to destruction, but also unusually capable of resistance. It seems likely that more Jews resisted Hitler in Minsk and Belarus than anywhere else – although, with rare exception, they could not resist Nazi rule without aiding Soviet power. (P. 249)
And for the Nazis, this was more evidence of the international Jewish conspiracy.
Next, Snyder covers perhaps the most controversial issue within the revisionist-denialist historical view, the gassing of Jews:
The mass murder of Polish Jews in the General Government and in Polish lands annexed to Germany was initiated after more than two years of German occupation, and more than a year after Jews had been consigned to ghettos. These Polish Jews were gassed at six major facilities, four in the General Government and two in lands annexed to the Reich, functioning in one combination or another from December 1941 through November 1944: Chelmno, Bełżec, Sobibór, Treblinka, Majdanek, Auschwitz. (P. 253)
The bulk of this effort, Operation Reinhard, resulted in the gassing of 1.3 million Polish Jews at Bełżec, Sobibór, and Treblinka. Thereafter, about one million Jews (including many from outside of Poland) were gassed at Auschwitz in 1943 / 1944. (P. 254)
While led by Germans, the bulk of the manpower necessary to operate the facilities was not German. There were Trawniki men – captured Red Army soldiers – were taken from POW camps; these were largely Soviet Ukrainian, but consisted also of persons from other Soviet republics. (P. 256) The bulk of the labor was provided by Jewish men, selected for work crews. (P. 268)
In March 1942, the deportations from Lublin to Bełżec began, after a brief visit by Himmler. Village by village, the Jews were cleared. Jewish police assisted in the round-ups – sometimes threatened to deliver a quota of Jews. Something over 400,000 Jews were killed at Bełżec. (P. 259-260)
Treblinka began operation July 1942, a destination for Jews from Warsaw and environs. (P. 263) Many died in transit, packed in train cars with about 100 per car, up to 60 cars per train. (P. 266) Some Jews would escape, leading to the leaking of information about the operation. The initial operation was quite disorganized, resulting in the change of commander in August. (P. 268) Organization substantially improved – the entire process from disembarkation from the trains to the disposal of the bodies was two hours. By the spring, fires burned day and night, thus disposing of the bodies. (P. 271)
Due to an uprising in August 1943, a few hundred Jews escaped and a few dozen of these survived the war. Memoirs were written, including that of Chil Rajchman. (P. 272)
In 1980, he was contacted [in Uruguay] by the American embassy and on March 12, 1980 interviewed by the Office of Special Investigations. He went to the United States to testify against John Demjanjuk who was later extradited to Jerusalem for a war trial in 1987–88. Rajchman misidentified Demjanjuk who apparently never served at Treblinka as the so-called Ivan the Terrible (Treblinka guard).
It was not until 2009, that Rajchman's Treblinka memoir written in Yiddish while in Warsaw in 1944–45, was first published in France by Les Arènes under the title Je suis le dernier Juif. It was then translated into German as Ich bin der letzte Jude. Treblinka 1942/43. The original manuscript was edited and proofread already in 1946 by the poet in Yiddish, Nachum Bomze (Bumse) – according to Rajchman's own testimony during Demjanjuk's trial in Israel – but appeared in print for the very first time only five years after his death.
The facility was closed shortly after the uprising, after about 15 months in operation. The Germans then dismantled the facility, with a couple of the Trawniki men agreeing to stay on as farmers. (P. 272-273)
Auschwitz followed as the focal point – first an execution camp for Soviet and Polish prisoners of war as well as a concentration camp and labor facility. In October 1941, Himmler secured over 55,000 Jews from Slovakia for transport to this facility. New gas chambers were built in February 1943. The primary victims were Jews from outside of Poland. In 1943, about 220,000 Jews were gassed; in 1944 about six hundred thousand. More than 100,000 of the victims were not Jews. (P. 273-276)
So what do I make of all of this: Jews targeted as Jews, millions killed (whether the number is six million or just a couple million…or a couple-hundred thousand), mass shootings, mass gassing? Did it happen this way? My reply is simple, and not much different than where I started: there is much evidence and reason to believe something along the lines of the accepted narrative occurred. However, perhaps the biggest cloud for me is that laws are required to protect this narrative.
With all of this said…as earlier mentioned, it seems to me that one should be quite certain before coming to a conclusion that denies this history; treading on this memory if wrong is a step I will never take. I come nowhere close to such a standard of certainty in my mind.
This ends Snyder’s description of the actions against Jews, along with certain related atrocities. Next, he looks at the resistance.