Commentary Magazine

The War Against the Jews 1933-1945, by Lucy S. Dawidowicz

The War Against The Jews 1933-1945.
by Lucy S. Dawidowicz.
Holt, Rinehart & Winston. 460 pp. $15.00.

Lucy Dawidowicz’s meticulous historical study is an indispensable book for understanding both the peculiar nature of Nazism and the behavior of European Jewry under Nazi domination. On the simplest level of indispensability, this “historical narrative,” based on a vast literature of documentary and secondary materials in German, Yiddish, Hebrew, Polish, French, and English, manages to make consecutive sense out of a series of events which in their sheer horror often seem to present themselves to the imagination as dislocated images, revelations of some ultimate abyss beyond history. Mrs. Dawidowicz’s step-by-step account of the Nazi legislative isolation of the Jews, then of the various geographical and chronological stages of actual ghettoization, imprisonment, planned starvation, and mass murder, is as lucid and complete a rendering of these ghastly events in all their political and bureaucratic concatenations as we are likely to get in a single volume.

The treatment here of Jewish responses to the Nazi terror is noteworthy for its fullness and balance on issues where others have been tendentiously selective, whether from an apologetic impulse or a facilely judgmental one. Mrs. Dawidowicz particularly differs from earlier commentators—such as Raul Hilberg and Hannah Arendt—in having an intimate familiarity with the larger background of Jewish history and a minute understanding of the intricate makeup of the Jewish communities Hitler encircled to destroy. She demonstrates in concrete detail the extraordinary strength of Jewish solidarity and of the Jewish determination to survive under literally impossible circumstances, but she does not neglect the many self-serving actions of the various political and socio-economic groups within the ghettos; and, free of polemic exaggeration, she makes it perfectly clear that only in Warsaw did Jewish armed resistance achieve anything like a momentary success.

On the frequently obfuscated question of the Judenräte, the local Jewish ruling councils created by Nazi orders, Mrs. Dawidowicz provides a bracingly sane perspective. Her exposition is quite candid about the more sordid aspects of the Judenräte, the nepotism, the favoritism, the expressions of class interest, and the manifestations of autocracy or even megalomania in a few of the Jewish community heads. However, she also makes it persuasively clear that even the most dubious of the Judenrat leaders were trying desperately to use what scant means the Nazis permitted them, to save whatever Jewish lives could be saved, while they were hardly in a position to realize that the Nazis intended no Jewish lives to be saved. As Mrs. Dawidowicz pointedly observes in her final summary, there were, after all, no Jewish Quislings and Lavals, no leaders who actually adopted the goals and values of the Nazis; and whatever the Judenrat officials might have tried to do, there was no real alternative open to them, nothing they could have done actually to prevent the deportations and the mass murders. In any case, retrospective condemnations of the Judenräte seem to forget the primary fact that the councils were formed, operated, frequently reconstituted, and finally themselves “liquidated,” with German guns pointing steadily at their heads.

In regard to the Jews, Mrs. Dawidowicz fills in certain factual gaps and redresses a balance of judgment. In regard to the Germans, I think she provides a crucially important redefinition of the role of anti-Semitism in the Nazi movement. Conventional wisdom tends to imagine anti-Semitism as a necessary instrument in Hitler’s rise to power: the Jews could serve as scapegoats for Germany’s past failures and recent defeat, as sate targets for pent-up rage and frustration under Hitler’s totalitarianism, as the hated embodiment of alienness against which a new German solidarity might be forged. In contrast to such notions, Mrs. Dawidowicz argues—to my mind, with complete convincingness—that the Jew as universal Enemy was an absolutely essential element of the Nazi world-picture, so that the ideology itself, the racial utopia the Nazis envisaged, could only be realized through an Armageddon in which Aryan would confront Jew and utterly destroy him. In this view, then, the adjective of finality in “Final Solution” carries distinctly apocalyptic overtones for the Nazi mind: a glorious End of Days was to be brought about by the extirpation of the loathsome vermin/monster (paranoia sees from both ends of the telescope) that had polluted all human history. Hence the uniqueness of the Final Solution, our very necessity to coin a special term—genocide—for it:

Never before in modern history had one people made the killing of another the fulfillment of the ideology, in whose pursuit means were identical with ends. History has, to be sure, recorded terrible massacres and destruction that one people perpetrated against another, but all—however cruel and unjustifiable—were intended to achieve instrumental ends, being means to ends, not ends in themselves.

Mrs. Dawidowicz shows how the basis of this apocalyptic anti-Semitism was present in Hitler’s thinking as early as Mein Kampf, and how he and the followers he infected with his vision remained unswervingly faithful to the idea to the very end. The positive theological content of genocide for the Nazis explains why they continued to carry it out even to the manifest detriment of their own vital strategic interests. At a time when Germany was fighting a war on two fronts, when every train car and every able-bodied man was urgently needed for the military effort, the Wehrmacht often had to struggle with the SS over allocation of resources, and often it was the SS that won out. Even with the conventional war effort collapsing, the extermination machinery was driven on relentlessly. The transports of Jews from Greece to Auschwitz, for example, took precedence over all other freight movements as late as July 1944, when the Germans were already beginning to evacuate their troops from Greece. The ghettos where skilled Jewish laborers were producing materials needed by the German army were wiped out according to ideological plan because to destroy all Jews was finally deemed more essential to the real German war effort than, say, to clothe German soldiers on the Russian front.



The title of this study makes the general point with trenchant succinctness: Hitler’s whole regime was a twelve-year war against the Jews, and the expansionist war he launched against the several European nations in 1939 was virtually a cover for his war against the Jews, a means of obtaining an arena, and with it a large Jewish population, in which he could carry out mass murder free from legal or political restraint. Thus, when Hitler invaded Russia in 1941, the conventional army was accompanied by four divisions of an ideological army, the Einsatzgruppen or striking forces that swept eastward from the Baltic regions in the North to the Crimea in the South, attacking and massacring the “enemy”—the Jewish civilian population, men, women, and children, of all the cities and towns and villages they entered. It is estimated that the Einsatzgruppe killers were responsible for nearly a third of the six million Jews slaughtered by the Nazis. The remaining prisoners of this unilateral war were then driven into ghettos while modern centralized installations were prepared for their efficient annihilation.

In pointing up the connection between Hitler’s ideological war and his conventional one, Lucy Dawidowicz notes a revealing slip in the Nazi leader’s recollection of his own statement upon the German invasion of Poland. The text of his speech to the Reichstag on the morning of September 1, 1939 contains no reference to the Jews. But in the next three years, on at least four separate occasions, Hitler cited his September 1, 1939, speech as an open declaration of war-to-the-death of Aryan upon Jew. “You will recall still,” he said in November 1942, “that meeting of the Reichstag in which 1 declared: If Jewry perchance imagines that it can bring about an international world war for the annihilation of the European races, then the consequence will be not the annihilation of the European races, but on the contrary, it will be the annihilation of Jewry in Europe.” In Hitler’s mind, then, general war and the annihilation of the Jews were inextricably bound together. Practically, the former was necessary in order to carry out the latter. Conceptually, I suspect that the two were profoundly confused, so that Hitler was never altogether clear on whether he was engaged in an imperialist war for earthly Lebensraum or undertaking a crusade against a mythic enemy that, in the distorted perspective of collective paranoia, had come to seem more menacing than the real armies which the Wehrmacht confronted. The political implementation of an eschatalogical vision had never before attained such insane, cataclysmic proportions.

“The Final Solution,” Mrs. Dawidowicz concludes, “was a new phenomenon in human history.” Precisely for that reason, one can hardly judge the victims for the inadequacy of their political or psychological response to what was overtaking them. For the same reason, one can only deplore the promiscuous application today of “Holocaust” and “genocide” to a variety of contemporary situations—including those in which Jews are involved. Even when the State of Israel must persist under the constant threat of a massive attack that could destroy many thousands of its citizens, the fiercest Arab political intransigence is still not Nazi dedication to fulfilling the apocalypse—which is why the Middle East conflict, however dismal, is not permanently hopeless. Perhaps Jews from the Bible onward have been too mesmerized by patterns of recurrence in their history: and of course one dare not neglect the possibility of recurrence; but Lucy Dawidowicz has made an important contribution to lucidity by fostering a respect for the awful uniqueness of the greatest disaster the Jews have known.


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