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Meg's essay

Essay topic:

Read the three articles by Christopher Browning, Richard Breitman, and Henry Friedlander on the beginning of the Holocaust. Which of these three interpretations do you find more persuasive, and why?


The beginnings of the Holocaust, that is to say the point at which it was decided that a program of mass murder would be undertaken against Europe's 11 million Jews, has been a much debated topic among historians. Was it always the direction in which the Nazi leadership was headed, or was the final decision not made until 1941 when Operation Barbarosa was well under way? Christopher Browning, Richard Breitman and Henry Friedlander present differing views as to when the Final Solution was adopted, none of which are overwhelmingly convincing. However, it is Browning who pieces together the most concrete of opinions, as Breitman and Friedlander become bogged down in speculative and simplistic assumptions.

It is Friedlander, in his article "Step by Step: The Expansion of Murder, 1939-1941" 1, who offers a very simplistic answer as to when the Final Solution began. Friedlander factually describes the lead-up to the decision to start killing the handicapped in late 1938. However, his omission of dates and his simplistic account lead to conclusions which fail to consider the reasons behind certain events, and how their preceding events unfolded: "As the T4 killing centres closed, the murder of the Jews had commenced...in the East" 2. Consequently, his opinion that mass murder was decided on back in 1938 is contradicted by the stages of the Holocaust that preceded the killing ones. Ghettoisation, which occurred in 1939-1940, shows that murder was not always the option favoured by the Nazis. 3 Furthermore, Friedlander's attempts to connect the Final Solution to the handicapped program, in a bid to show that the Holocaust was a step by step process first started in 1938, are too simplistic. He uses his factual account of the Nazis' racial beliefs to unsuccessfully justify his contention that the two events, along with the killing of the Gypsies, were linked together in one large Final Solution. It is true that the Nazis modelled the industrialised Jewish genocide on the handicapped killings. However, the introduction of gassings and the high number of extermination camp staff with experience in T4 killing centres hardly shows the Jewish murders to be the next step in a Holocaust process - one that started with the handicapped killings.

If Friedlander is too simplistic, then Breitman, in his article "Plans for the Final Solution in Early 1941" 4, gets himself bogged down in events which leads him to draw speculative conclusions. Breitman argues that the Final Solution was finalised in early 1941, if not late 1940, well before the Germans had invaded the Soviet Union. He, like Friedlander, also believes that mass murder was seen as a partial solution to the Jewish question, along with the handicapped one, before the war began. However, Breitman's assertion that these early killings, combined with the ones committed by the Einsatzgruppen during Barbarosa, signified the long-term intentions of Hitler, fails to consider that the orders given to the killing squads initially didn't include the murder of all Jews. 5

From here, Breitman's argument lacks credibility, with its talk of secret plans and a reliance on speculative evidence. Breitman writes of Eichmann's announcement that Heydrich had already been entrusted with the 'final evacuation' of Jews in March 1941, saying this "may have referred to a general policy that was still secret" 6. Thus, he suggests something of which he has no proof. Moreover he does this constantly, asking whether Hitler, Himmler and Heydrich wouldn't have conspired over the Final Solution and kept the more 'lethal' plans for all Europe's Jews secret; again highly speculative inferences considering that the Holocaust progressed in stages.

Furthermore, Breitman uses the testimony of Viktor Brack, who he notes as having lied at his trial, to try and substantiate his claims that mass murder was always the preferred option. He admits that looking toward Goebbels or Hans Frank for evidence would be misleading, and the "perfect example" he uses to prove his case actually occurred in August 1941, seven months after he believes that the Final Solution was adopted.

Breitman argues that just because Eichmann and Theodor Dannecker talked of a final solution in early 1941, this meant that they were naturally talking about mass murder. He substantiates this by saying that Heydrich had submitted a proposal to Hitler before the end of January, and thus this must have been the time that the Final Solution was concretely adopted. However, this contention overlooks that in July 1941, Goring authorised Heydrich to draw up another plan for a "total solution of the Jewish question" 7. Considering this request came after the expansion of the Einsatzgruppen's orders to include the killing of all Jews 8, it is more logical to believe that the Final Solution was in fact adopted in mid-1941.

Evidence for a later starting date is central to Browning's article, "The Euphoria of Victory and the Final Solution: Summer-Fall 1941 9". Browning doesn't suggest that Hitler had never previously considered exterminating the Soviet Jews. Indeed he sees this as a reason why so many SS units were at Himmler's disposal once Hitler declared the Soviet Union to be a future German "Garden of Eden" 10. However, Browning, unlike Friedlander and Breitman, uses several separate sources to show that the order to kill all Soviet Jews was taken after Operation Barbarosa appeared to be a success. Thus, the first concrete evidence of the decision to consequently apply a Final Solution to all of Europe's Jews is Goring's request to Heydrich to devise a plan for a "total solution".

Furthermore, Browning sees Hitler as viewing the Jewish question as a "problem of the future" in the time leading up to the Barbarosa success. Browning's argument appears valid. The Holocaust, we know, went through many stages, as seen for example in the Madagascar plan 11. It would appear that a variety of plans were devised as solutions to the ever-increasing Jewish problem, before mass murder option was decided on.

However, while Browning's argument over the date of the Final Solution is the most credible, his argument is flawed by his insistence that this decision, and subsequent ones regarding the Holocaust, were based on military victories alone. While military success facilitated the implementation of the Final Solution, it didn't solely contribute to the decision to adopt and carry it out. We see for example, no significant policy shift in subsequent years when the regime was then facing military failure. The Nazis adopted the policy because they believed in it, and viewed it as the best solution to the Jewish problem - something they had been searching for since Dachau was established in 1933 12.

Overall, Browning's argument offers the most concrete explanation of the beginnings of the Holocaust and when the decision was made to implement the Final Solution. Both Breitman and Friedlander, by viewing mass murder as an option chosen in the late 1930s, contradict the historical record of the Holocaust itself - that it occurred in stages with mass killings only marking the last few. With a lack of evidence, and indeed a firm amount levelled against them, these two authors speculate and attempt to visualise connections that are unable to be proved. Browning, by way of his weaknesses, serves to emphasise the difficulties that all historians face in trying to piece together the mystery that was the Nazi regime and its Holocaust. However, he rleies on actual documented evidence and doesn't ignore facts in order to try and support his assumptions. Thus, it can be concluded that his article is the most persuasive version of when the decision was made to adopt the Final Solution: in mid-1941.

BIBLIOGRAPHY:

Secondary sources

Breitman, Richard, "Plans for the Final Solution in Early 1941", in German Studies Review, vol xvii, no 3, (oct 1994), in Copland, I., and Hancock, E. (Eds), World War II: The Crushing of the Axis, A Course Handbook. Monash University, Melbourne, 2000.

Browning, Christopher, "The Euphoria of Victory and the Final Solution:Summer-Fall 1941", in German Studies Review, vol xvii, no 3, (oct 1994), in Copland, I., and Hancock, E. (Eds), World War II: The Crushing of the Axis, A Course Handbook. Monash University, Melbourne, 2000.

Friedlander, Henry, "Step by Step: The Expansion of Murder, 1939-1941", in German Studies Review, vol xvii, no 3, (oct 1994), in Copland, I., and Hancock, E. (Eds), World War II: The Crushing of the Axis, A Course Handbook. Monash University, Melbourne, 2000.

Kitchen, M., A World In Flames, in Copland, I., and Hancock, E. (Eds), World War II: The Crushing of the Axis, A Course Handbook. Monash University, Melbourne, 2000.

Books

"Location of Concentration and Extermination Camps in Europe and Total Number of Jewish People Killed (By Country), Copland, I. and Hancock, E. (eds), World War II: The Crushing of the Axis, A Course Handbook, Monash University, Melbourne, 2000, p. 52.

Footnotes

  1. Friedlander, Henry, "Step by Step: The Expansion of Murder, 1939-1941", in German Studies Review, vol xvii, no 3, (oct 1994), in Copland, I., and Hancock, E. (Eds), World War II: The Crushing of the Axis, A Course Handbook . Monash University, Melbourne, 2000.
  2. Ibid, p. 278
  3. Copland, I., and Hancock, E. (Eds), World War II: The Crushing of the Axis, A Course Handbook. Monash University, Melbourne, 2000. p. 49.
  4. Breitman, Richard, "Plans for the Final Solution in Early 1941", in German Studies Review, vol xvii, no 3, (oct 1994), in Copland, I., and Hancock, E. (Eds), World War II: The Crushing of the Axis, A Course Handbook. Monash University, Melbourne, 2000.
  5. Kitchen, M., A World In Flames, in Copland, I., and Hancock, E. (Eds), World War II: The Crushing of the Axis, A Course Handbook. Monash University, Melbourne, 2000.
  6. Breitman, Richard, "Plans for the Final Solution in Early 1941", in German Studies Review, vol xvii, no 3, (oct 1994), in Copland, I., and Hancock, E. (Eds), World War II: The Crushing of the Axis, A Course Handbook. Monash University, Melbourne, 2000.
  7. Browning, Christopher, "The Euphoria of Victory and the Final Solution:Summer-Fall 1941", in German Studies Review, vol xvii, no 3, (oct 1994), in Copland, I., and Hancock, E. (Eds), World War II: The Crushing of the Axis, A Course Handbook . Monash University, Melbourne, 2000.
  8. Ibid, p. 266
  9. Ibid, p. 267
  10. Ibid, p. 266
  11. Kitchen, M., A World In Flames, in Copland, I., and Hancock, E. (Eds), World War II: The Crushing of the Axis, A Course Handbook. Monash University, Melbourne, 2000.
  12. "Location of Concentration and Extermination Camps in Europe and Total Number of Jewish People Killed (By Country), Copland, I. and Hancock, E. (eds), World War II: The Crushing of the Axis, A Course Handbook, Monash University, Melbourne, 2000, p. 52.
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