The Myth of the Extermination of the Jews
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1. 'Not a document remains, or perhaps ever existed.'
What strikes one most in the voluminous literature dedicated to the "extermination" of the Jews is the disparity existing between so grave an accusation and the fragility of the evidence furnished for its support.
The elaboration and realization of so gigantic an "extermination plan" would have required a very complex organization, technically, economically, and administratively, as noted by Enzo Collotti:
It is easy to understand that so horrifying a tragedy could not physically be carried out by only a few hundred, or even by a few thousand, that it could not be accomplished without a very extensive organization, benefiting from the help and collaboration of the most diverse sectors of national life, practically all branches of government, in other words, without the collusion of millions of people who knew, who saw, who accepted, or who, in any case, even if they did not agree, kept silent and, most often, worked without reacting in making their contribution to the machinery of the persecution and the extermination.
Gerald Reitlinger underscores that:
Hitler Germany was a police state of the highest degree, that has left hundreds of tons of documents and thousands of precious pieces of evidence.
So that, finally,
… there is, in truth, nothing that this adversary has not confided to papers.
At the end of the Second World War the Allies seized
… all the secret archives of the German government, including the documents of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Army and the Navy, of the National Socialist Party, and of the Secret State Police [Gestapo] of Heinrich Himmler.
Those archives were sifted by the victorious powers with a view toward the Nuremberg trials:
Hundreds of thousands of seized German documents were assembled in all haste at Nuremberg in order to be used as evidence against the principal Nazi war criminals.
One would expect, then, to be inundated by a flood of documents establishing the reality of the "extermination" of the Jews, but matters presented themselves in a very different manner, as is recognized by Léon Poliakov:
The archives torn from the bowels of the Third Reich, the depositions and accounts of its chiefs permit us to reconstruct in their least detail the birth and the development of its plans for aggression, its military campaigns, and the whole range of processes by which the Nazis intended to reshape the world to their pattern. Only the campaign to exterminate the Jews, as concerns its completion, as well as in many other essential aspects, remains steeped in fog. Psychological inferences and considerations, third- or fourth-hand accounts, allow us to reconstruct the developments with a considerable verisimilitude. Certain details, nevertheless, will remain unknown forever. As concerns the concept proper of the plan for total extermination, the three or four principal actors are dead. No document remains, and has perhaps never existed. That is the secret of the masters of the Third Reich. As boastful and cynical as they were on other occasions, they covered up their major crimes.
Since the first version of Léon Poliakov's work the situation has not changed:
Despite the great harvest of Nazi documents captured by the Allies at the end of the war, it is precisely the documents concerning the process of the formation of the idea of the final solution of the "Jewish question" that are missing, to the point that up until the present it is difficult to say how, when, and exactly by whom any order to exterminate the Jews was given.
The "plan for total extermination" still remains a mystery, even from the technical, economic, and administrative viewpoint:
The technical genius of the Germans allowed them to mount, within a few months, an efficient, rationalized death industry. Like every industry it comprised research and development, and administrative services, accounting, and records. Many aspects of these activities remain unknown to us, and remain hidden by a secret incomparably more opaque than that of the German war industries. The German rocket and torpedo technicians, the economic planners of the Reich have survived, and have given up their plans and their processes to the victors; almost all the technicians of death have disappeared, after having destroyed their records.
Extermination camps had sprung up at first with rudimentary installations, which were then perfected; who perfected them? A veritable mastery of crowd psychology was manifested, to the end of assuring the perfect docility of the men intended for death who were the promoters? There are so many questions to which, at the moment, we can find only fragmentary, and sometimes hypothetical, replies.
Fragmentary information allows us to form an imperfect notion of the part played by the technicians of euthanasia in the extermination of the Polish Jews. But many points still remain in darkness; in general the history of the Polish camps is very imperfectly known
But a systematic "extermination plan" evidently presupposes a specific order that, by force of circumstance, can be imputed only to the Führer. Now one must set down that this phantom-like Führerbefehl (command of the Führer) is submerged in the most impenetrable blackness.
Walter Laqueur acknowledges:
To the present day a written order by Hitler regarding the destruction of the European Jewish community has not been found, and, in all probability, this order was never given.
Colin Cross admits:
There does not exist then, anything like a written order signed by him for the extermination of the Jews in Europe.
Christian Zentner acknowledges:
One cannot fix the exact moment when Hitler gave the order… without doubt never drawn up in writing… to exterminate the Jews.
Saul Friedländer admits:
It is not known precisely when the idea of the physical extermination of the Jews imposed itself on Hitler's spirit.
Joachim Fest acknowledged:
To the present day the question of knowing when Hitler made the decision for the Final Solution of the Jewish question is in abeyance, and for the simple reason that not a single document on the subject exists.
The total absence of evidence permits the official historians to give free rein to the most diverse speculations.
After having insinuated that "it is Adolf Hider in person who undoubtedly signed the death sentence of the Jews of Europe," Léon Poliakov continues:
All that we can affirm with certainty is that the genocidal decision was made by Hitler at a time that may be set between the end of the campaign in the west, in June 1940, and the aggression against Russia, a year later. Contrary to the account of Dr. Kersten, it seems to us more probable to set it some months later [the autumn of 1940], that is to say, at the beginning of 1941.
Here we get into the game of psychological deductions, to which we are obliged to appeal in order to provide a response to the second and throbbing question: what could have been the factors that weighed in the Hitlerian resolution?
Poliakov affirms, consequently, "with certainty" that the "extermination" decision was made in the space of a year (June 1940 – June 1941)!
That he brings into play here largely "the game of psychological deductions is demonstrated by the fact that in another work, he moves forward imperturbably by a year and a half the fateful decision of the Führer (September 1939 instead of June 1941).
The program of the National Socialist Party called for the elimination of Jews from the German community; between 1933 and 1939 they were methodically bullied, plundered, forced to emigrate; the decision to kill them to the last man also dated from the beginning of the war.
Arthur Eisenbach declares on this subject:
It is today verified that the plans for the massive extermination of the Jewish population of Europe had been prepared by the Nazi government before the outbreak of the Second World war, and were thereupon carried out gradually, according to the European political and military situations.
According to Helmut Krausnick, Hitler gave the secret order to exterminate the Jews "at the latest in March l941."
Item 79 of the judgement in the Eichmann trial in Jerusalem, on the contrary, maintains that the extermination order "was given by Hitler himself shortly before the invasion of Russia," while the judgement of the Nuremberg trial pronounces:
The plan for the extermination of the Jews was formulated immediately after the aggression against the Soviet Union.
In a report drawn up in Bratislava on November 18, 1944, Dieter Wisliceny, former Hauptsturmführer and Eichmann's representative in Slovakia, affirmed that to his knowledge "the decision of Hitler that ordered the biological extermination of European Judaism [sic]" must be dated back to "after the beginning of the war with the United States," that is, it would have been after 11 December 1941.
This is why all that the official historians can affirm "with certainty," to use Poliakov's expression, is that the supposed "decision of the Führer and the alleged "extermination order" were given over a time lapse of nearly two years!
Just as fanciful is the fictive order of Himmler that would have put an end to the extermination of the Jews.
Olga Wormser-Migot asserts on the subject:
No more than there exists a written order in clear text for extermination by gas at Auschwitz does there exist a written order to stop it in November 1944.
She adds more precisely:
Last remark on the gas chambers: Neither at the Nuremberg trial, nor in the course of the different [occupation] zone trials, nor at the trial of Hoss at Cracow, of Eichmann in Israel, nor at the trials of the camp commanders, nor from November 1964 to August 1965 at the Frankfurt trial [Auschwitz "second echelon" accused] was there ever produced the famous order signed by Himmler 22 November 1944 ending the extermination of the Jews by gas and putting a finish to the Final Solution.
Kurt Becher, former SS Standartenführer, affirmed that Himmler gave this order "between mid-September and mid-October 1944," which contradicts the testimony of Reszö Kastner, according to whom Kurt Becher had told him that Himmler on 25 or on 26 November 1944 had ordered the crematories and the "gas chambers" to be destroyed and to suspend the "extermination" of the Jews.
Strangely, this phantom order that even the Auschwitz Kalendarium puts at 26 November 1944 is deemed to have gotten into the Auschwitz crematories on 17 November, or nine days before the order itself was delivered!
According to other testimony reported in Het doedenboek van Auschwitz, the order came from Berlin even sooner, on 2 November 1944.
At Nuremberg Wisliceny declared that Himmler's counterorder was sent in October 1944.
In conclusion there exists no document establishing the reality of the "plan to exterminate" the Jews, so that "it is difficult to say how, when, and exactly by whom the order to exterminate the Jews was given."
Such is the most recent conclusion of Exterminationist historiography.
From 29 June to 2 July 1982, the School of Higher Studies in Social Sciences and the Sorbonne organized, in Paris, an important international conference on the theme: "Nazi Germany and the Extermination of the Jews."
In the introductory report, titled "The historiographical debate on Nazi anti-Semitism and the extermination of the Jews," Saul Friedländer adduced in evidence the presence of two fundamental tendencies of the most recent historiography in regard to the genesis and development of the Extermination" of the Jews.
The first is the thesis of the continuity "that established right from the start a cause-and-effect relationship between Nazi ideology since its origins, in particular, that of Hitler and the annihilation of the Jews." The other is the idea of discontinuity that implies "a certain anarchy at the level of the decision-making centers, that restores to certain responsible subalterns of the Nazi hierarchy their importance and eliminates, in part, the idea of one supremely responsible man, Hitler, in that which concerns the Jewish policy." Not only are these two interpretations contradictory, but indeed both are without foundation.
Neither the thesis of inexorable continuity and of planning the total extermination of the Jews before the attack on the USSR, nor that of discontinuity and improvisation can be demonstrated in reality, in view of the present state of the sources; such is the conclusion reached by Krausnick and Wilhelm at the end of their monumental study of the Einsatzgruppen.
At the end of his report Saul Friedländer traces a "framework of the advances of [Exterminationist] historiography" in which, regarding the extermination of the Jews, he admits:
The question of the date on which the total physical extermination of the Jews was decided, as well as the elaboration of the plan for the "final solution" remain unresolved.
These "advances" have been fully confirmed in the presentations of two other historians.
Uwe Dietrich Adam in his account "Nazi measures regarding the Jews from the start of the Second World War up to the German attack against the USSR," declared:
However, the precise date at which this "final solution" was ordained constitutes a problem not yet resolved for German and for world history.
Insofar as no one has yet discovered a written trace of this order [to liquidate the Jews under German control] in the sources which have been exploited up to the present, and insofar as that seems unlikely, it is incumbent on the historian to date it as precisely as possible by appealing to interpretation. Since the methods and the hypotheses on this subject are very numerous, we find ourselves confronted with very diverse opinions.
In his account "The decision concerning the final solutions" Christopher R. Browning spoke of "essential divergences" among Exterminationist historians:
The decision concerning the final solution has been the object of a large number of historical interpretations. The essential divergences seem to involve two connected questions: on the one hand, the nature of the decision process and, more particularly, the role of Hitler and his ideology; on the other hand, the moment when the decision was made. As Martin Broszat rightly remarked, so great a variety of interpretations warns us that every theory on the origin of the final solution is in the domain of probability rather than of certitude.
Browning then presents a survey recapitulating these "essential divergences":
For Lucy Dawidowicz, the conception of the final solution preceded its accomplishment by twenty years; for Martin Broszat, the idea emerged from praxis – the sporadic murder of groups of Jews gave birth to the idea of killing the Jews systematically. Between these two polar extremes, one finds a large variety of interpretations. Thus Eberhard Jäckel maintains that the idea of killing the Jews formed in Hitler's mind around 1924. Stressing Hitler's threatening declarations at the end of the thirties, Karl Dietrich Bracher supposes that the intention existed from this period. Andreas Hillgruber and Klaus Hildebrand affirm the primacy of ideological factors but propose no precise date. Others, not all functionalists, place the turning point in 1941; however, several dates are proposed for that year. Léon Poliakov judges that the beginning of 1941 is the most likely date, and Robert Kempner and Helmut Krausnick maintain that Hitler made the decision in the spring, in connection with the preparations for the invasion of Russia. Raul Hilberg thinks that the decision was made during the summer, when the massacres carried out in Russia fostered the belief that this solution was possible for a victorious Germany throughout Europe. Uwe Dietrich Adam states that it was made in autumn, at the time when the military offensive faltered and a Territorial solution" for a massive expulsion to Russia proved impossible. Finally Sebastian Haffner, who is certainly not a functionalist, defends a still-later date, at the beginning of December, when first presentiment of defeat pushed Hitler to seek an irreversible victory over the Jews.
At this point, Browning asks:
How to explain such a diversity of interpretations regarding the character and the date of the decision on the final solution?
This diversity is explained, according to Browning, by a subjective cause – the different vantage points occupied by the "intentionalists" and the "functionalists" – and an objective cause which is in reality the real reason, "by the lack of documentation." Browning continues:
There are no written archives in which Hitler, Himmler, and Heydrich discuss the subject of the final solution, and none of the three survived to testify after the war. That is why the historian must himself reconstruct the decision process at the top by extrapolating from events, documents, and external testimony. Just like Plato's man in the cave, he only sees reflections and shadows, not reality. This risky process of extrapolation and reconstruction leads inevitably to a large variety of conclusions.
Browning insists many times on the nearly total absence of documents concerning the "extermination plan" for the Jews:
Nevertheless, in spite of everything known about the German invasion of Russia, there is no specific documentation on the destiny reserved for the Russian Jews. In order to obtain an answer to this question it is necessary to have recourse to postwar testimony, to indirect proofs and to scattered references in the later documents.
If the decision to kill the Jews in Russia indeed was taken before the invasion, on the other hand the circumstances and the exact moment of this decision remain obscure. It is impossible to determine if the initiative came from Hitler or from someone else, from Heydrich for example. Moreover, it is not known whether Hitler had already made his decision in March, when he announced clearly to the military that the Russian war would not be a conventional war, or if the complaisance of the military pushed them in the end to widen the circle of intended victims beyond the "Judeo-Bolshevik intelligentsia." Insufficient documentation does not permit a definite response to these questions, allowing only informed hypotheses.
It is not known, and doubtless will never be known when and how Heydrich and his immediate superior, Himmler, became aware of their new mission.
There was no written order for the final solution, and we have not a single reference to a verbal order, outside of that furnished by Himmler and Heydrich, who stated they acted in accord with the Führer.
To conclude, the "advances" of Exterminationist historiography, up to the present, are still: "Not a document remains, or perhaps ever existed."
Notes, Part I
|||Enzo Collotti, La Germania nazista (Nazi Germany), Turin, 1973, p. 146.|
|||Gerald Reitlinger, La soluzione finale: Il tentativo di sterminio degli ebrei d'Europa 1939-1945 (The Final Solution: The Attempt to Exterminate the Jews of Europe 1939-1945), Milan, 1965 p. 593.|
|||William L. Shirer, Storia del Terzo Reich, Turin, 1971, p. xiii.|
|||Idem, p. xv.|
|||Werner Maser, Nuremberg: A Nation on Trial, New York, 1979, p.305.|
|||The Trial of the Major War Criminals by the International Military Tribunal, Nuremberg 14 November 1945-1 October 1946. Published in Nuremberg, Germany 1947. (Hereafter IMT, Vol. II, p. 169.)|
|||Léon Poliakov. Bréviaire de la haine (Harvest of Hate), Paris, 1979, p. 134.|
|||See note 10.|
|||Liliano Picciotto Fargion, "La congiura del silenzio" ("The Conspiracy of Silence"), La Rassegna mensile d'lsrael, May-August 1984, p. 226.|
|||The first edition of Poliakov's book is 1951. In the 1979 edition, here is what one can read in the preface: "This complete edition of Bréviaire de la haine conforms to the original 1951-1960 edition. There is no place to introduce important changes or supplements into it. Indeed the knowledge we have of the 'racial' policy of the Third Reich, which sought to exterminate the Jews, and with the help of sometimes similar processes, to reduce the number of Slavs, has not been enriched perceptibly since 1951." p. xiii.|
|||Léon Poliakov, Bréviaire… , op. cit., p. 208.|
|||Idem, p. 218.|
|||Walter Laqueur Was niemand wissen wollte: Die Unterdrückung der Nachrichten über Hitlers Endlösung (What Nobody Wanted to Know: The Suppression of News about Hitler's "Final Solution"), Frankfurt/M-Berlin-Vienna, 1981, p. 190.|
|||Colin Cross, Adolf Hitler, Milan, 1977, p. 313.|
|||Adolf Hitler, Mein Kampf. An edition with commentary by Christian Zentner, Munich, 1974, p. 168.|
|||Saul Friedländer, Kurt Gerstein ou l'ambiguité du bien (Kurt Gerstein or the Ambiguity of Good), Casterman, 1967, p. 92.|
|||Joachim Fest, Hitler, 1974, p. 631.|
|||L. Poliakov, Bréviaire… , op. cit., p. 124.|
|||Idem, p. 126.|
|||Léon Poliakov, Auschwitz, Paris (1964), 1973, p. 12.|
|||Arthur Eisenbach, "Operation Reinhard, Mass Extermination of Jewish Population in Poland," in Polish Westem Affairs, 1962, Vol III, No. 1, p. 80.|
|||Broszat, Jacobsen, Krausnick, Anatomie des SS-Staates (Anatomy of the SS State), Munich 1962, VoL 2, p. 297.|
|||Bernd Nellessen, The Jerusalem Trial, Düsseldorf-Vienna, 1964, p.201.|
|||IMT, VoL 1, p. 280.|
|||Document XXXVIII47 of the Jewish Contemporary Documentation Center, Paris, (hereafter CDJC), cited by Poliakov & Wulf, The Third Reich and the Jews, Berlin, 1955, p. 94.|
|||Olga Wormser-Migot, Le Système concentrationnaire nazi (1933-1945), (The Nazi Concentration [Camp] System, 1933-1945), Presses Universitaires de France, 1968, p. 544.|
|||Idem, p. 13.|
|||Der Kastner-Bericht über Eichmanns Menschenhandel in Ungarn, (The Kastner Report on Eichmann's Trading in Human Beings in Hungary), Preface by Prof. Carlo Schmidt, Munich, 1961, p. 242.|
|||Hefte von Auschwitz (Auschwitz Notebooks), Wydawnnictwo Panstwowego Muzeum w Oswiecimiu, 8, 1964, p. 89, note 130.|
|||Miklos Nyiszli, Auschwitz: A Doctor's Eyewitness Account, trans. Tibere Kremer and Richard Seaver, New York, 1961, p. 139.|
|||L. Poliakov, Bréviaire… , op. cit., p. 374, p. 328.|
|||IMT, Vol. IV, p. 398.|
|||Saul Friedländer, "Il debattito storiografico sull'antisemitismo nazista e lo sterminio degli ebrei d'Europa," ("The Historiographical Debate on Nazi Anti-semitism and the Extermination of the European Jews"), in Storia Contemporanea, vol. XIV, no. 3, June 1983, p. 399-422.|
|||Idem, p. 413. This thesis is called "intentionalism."|
|||Idem, p. 417. This thesis is known as "functionalism."|
|||See on this subject Martin Broszat, "Hitler und die Genesis der 'Endlösung.' Aus Anlass der Thesen von David Irving." ("Hitler and the Genesis of the 'Final solution.' Prompted by the Theses of David Irving"), in Vierteljahreshefte für Zeitgeschichte (hereafter VfZ), 1977, p 739-775, and Christopher R. Browning, "Zur Genesis der 'Endlösung.' Eine Antwort auf Martin Broszat" ("On the Genesis of the 'Final Solution'.' A Reply to Martin Broszat"), in the same review, 1981, p. 97-109.|
|||Saul Friedländer, "Il debattito… ," art. cit., p. 419. See the last pages titled "On the role of the Einsatzgruppen in the framework of the genesis of the 'Final Solution' of the Jewish question" in Helmut Krausnick's and Hans-Heinrich Wilhelm's Die Truppe des Weltanschauungskrieges. Die Einsatzgruppen der Sicherheitspolizei und des SD, 1938-1942 (The Soldiers of the Ideological War. The Einsatzgruppen of the Security Police and of the SD-Security Service 1938-1942), Deutsche Verlagsanstalt, Stuttgart, 1981, p. 622-636.|
|||Saul Friedländer, art. cit., p. 420. The article by Saul Friedländer which appears in the proceedings of the 1982 Paris conference has been profoundly reshaped: there the author has quite simply passed over in silence "the advances of [Exterminationist] historiography" that we have cited. Colloquium of the Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences Sociales, L'Allemagne nazie et le génocide juif Gallimard, Le Seuil, 1985, pp. 13-38.|
|||L'Allemagne nazie et le génocide juif Op. cit., p. 177.|
|||Ibid., pp. 177-178.|
|||Ibid., pp. 190.|
|||Ibid, pp. 192.|
|||Ibid., pp. 192-193.|
|||Ibid., pp. 193.|
|||Ibid, pp. 196.|
|||Ibid., pp. 197.|
|||Ibid., pp. 200.|
|||Ibid, pp. 211.|
Additional information about this document
|Title:||The Myth of the Extermination of the Jews, Part I|
|Sources:||The Journal of Historical Review, vol. 8, no. 2 (summer 1988), pp. 133-172|
|First posted on CODOH:||Nov. 9, 2012, 6 p.m.|