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Meg's essay and what her lecturer thought

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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?


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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 comment 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 comment 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: comment"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 comment 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.

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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

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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 comment 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. comment 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.

comment 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".

comment 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 comment 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.

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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.

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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.

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[Lecturer's overall comment]

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[Assignment checklist]

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.

Good introduction

This is a good, clear introduction. It does a number of things:

  • outlines concisely the issue with which the historians are concerned - when the Holocaust can be said to have commenced.
  • introduces the different historians covered in the essay - Browning, Breitman, Friedlander.
  • signals the student's own position - that Browning's is the preferred account.

Vague

This expression - "the most concrete of opinions" is vague. Does "concrete" here mean Browning's opinion is more definite, that it is better supported, etc?

This is an example of a student providing a judgement of a historical work - this is good. But it is important to express judgements like this as clearly and precisely as you can.

A bit strong

To describe Friedlander's account as "very simplistic " is probably too strong. The student is dealing, after all, with the work of a reputable historian.

So whilst it is good to offer judgements of historical works, you also need to find the right language to express this judgement. A better phrasing here would be:

Friedlander offers an arguably rather simplistic answer as to when the Holocaust began.

Good use of counter-evidence

The student wishes to challenge Friedlander's claim that "mass murder was decided on in 1938". She does this by referring to the policy of ghettoisation - which she suggests shows that murder was not the only option pursued by the Nazis at this point in the war. (Note here also that the student provides a footnote for this information.)

This is good use of counter-evidence. In an essay, if you are critiquing a historian's claim, the onus is then on you to support your position with appropriate evidence, and with appropriate footnoting of this evidence.

Good structuring of critique

The use of "furthermore" indicates that the student is going to provide an additional criticism of Freidlander. In this case, it is that Freidlander provides insufficient evidence to show the link between the killings of handicapped civilians and the mass extermination of the Jews.

The student thus provides a clear and well sustained critique of Friedlander's account.

Good link

The student shows clearly here that she is moving from Freidlander's account to Breitman's. She also indicates here that, as with Friedlander, Breitman has problems.

In any essay, the opening sentence of each paragraph (or topic sentence) has a very important function. A good topic sentence signals clearly to your reader the connection between a new paragraph and the one preceeding. It also indicates the way your argument is running.

A bit strong, but nevertheless...

The student's judgement - that Breitman's argument 'lacks credibility' - is again a bit strong, a bit too dismissive. The tone is similar to her earlier assertion that Friedlander's account is 'very simplistic'. Better would be something a little less blunt like:

"Breitman's argument appears overstated, because..."

Nevertheless, the student is having a go at critiquing a historical interpretation, and this is good. In the rest of this paragraph (and in the next one), she justifies this criticism, focusing again on the issue of evidence. Where the problem in Friedlander was insufficient evidence, in Breitman it is a problem of unreliable evidence (his references to "a secret policy" to which historians have no access, and the testimony of a witness who is known to have lied).

Who are these people?

This problem relates to the issue of audience. The lecturer will certainly know who these people are, and how they are connected to each other. But it's better to think of a broader readership - what we might think of as 'the averagely intelligent person'. Thus the student should have provided some brief identifying information to make things clearer - and to demonstrate their own understanding:

e.g. Breitman writes of an announcement by senior SS officer Eichmann that his superior Heydrich had already been entrusted ... etc.

Good use of counter-evidence

This is good stuff. The student outlines Breitman's argument - that "the Final Solution must have been concretely adopted" at the beginning of 1941. But she then refers to a document (Goering to Heydrich) which suggests the plan was still being devised six months later in July 1941.

Again, this is good use of counter-evidence.

Good structuring

This paragraph makes it clear that the student finds Browning's account the most acceptable. We can see at this point that the essay has been structured thus:

  • Consider Account 1 - point out its problems
  • Consider Account 2 - point out its problems
  • Consider Account 3 - indicate why it is the more acceptable.

This is a very clear and logical structure.

Well-argued

In supporting Browning's argument, the student points to the quality of evidence that has been drawn on - "Goering's request to Heydrich" and "the Madagascar Plan".

You will notice how this section is organised around discussion of these two sources of evidence. The furthermore at the beginning of the second Browning paragraph indicates clearly a move from the first source to the second.

What was this?

Again, for the general reader, some explanatory information is necessary here. Any essay needs to be self contained and make sense on its own.

Solid conclusion

This conclusion provides a clear summary of the essay. It goes back to the original question, spells out exactly what the response to the question is, and also on what basis this conclusion was reached.

A good way of extending a conclusion to an essay - beyond a simple summary - is to identify some gaps in the research, that is other issues that haven't been taken up, but which need to be. An example here would be to mention the problem of the 'secret plans' from the SS bureaucracy, and to talk about how this evidence would really need to be uncovered before any definitive answers can be arrived at.

Thus, it's a good move in a conclusion to be thinking in terms of broader historiographical issues. But this of course is asking a lot at first-year level.

Why two ticks?

You can see here that whilst the student finds Browning's account the 'more persuasive', she still recognises that it isn't without its problems. Thus, she argues that Browning tends to overstate the role of military events in the shaping of the Holocaust. The however at the beginning of this paragraph signals clearly this change of tack.

This is most impressive. Sometimes in this type of exercise, students can be inclined to "go all the way" with one historian - to suggest that everything about their interpretation is fine, and that everything about the others is flawed. This student is able to recognise that even the "more persuasive account" does not necessarily constitute the last word on the issue.

Overall comment

This is an excellent analysis. The student has understood well the interpretations provided in each text - and has done a good job of evaluating these interpretations, basing her comments on the quality of the evidence used. The essay is also very clearly structured.

The only very minor reservations are:

  1. there is a slightly condescending attitude toward some of the historians, who are after all pretty eminent scholars. But, the student has "had a go", and this is to be commended.
  2. the essay is not always "self contained" - that is, not all the people mentioned are fully identified (e.g. Victor Brack, Theodor Dannecker). An essay always needs to make sense on its own. This is one of the qualities of really good writing.

Grade: A+

Assignment Checklist

Description 0 1 2 3 4 5
1. RELEVANCE Does the essay consistently address the question? correct
2. SOURCES Number, range and complexity of books and articles consulted for an essay not applicable
3. INFORMATION Is the reader given enough background information (names of people,places, dates etc.) to make proper sense of the story? correct
4. STRUCTURE How is the essay set out? Does it have a proper introduction and conclusion? Does the narrative proceed logically? Is there a smooth transition between paragraphs? correct
5. ARGUMENT How is the argument reconciled with opposing viewpoints in the secondary sources? If a synthesis of views expressed in the sources, is it presented in a way that shows independent thought and critical judgement? correct
6. ANALYSIS The concepts and skills used in developing the argument: including models, generalist theories, logic, deduction analogy, comparison, empathy, sensitivity to cause and effect. correct
7. EVIDENCE The data on which the argument rests. This will mostly consist of factual statements but might also include statistics and quotations. Is the data comprehensive? Is it conclusive? Does the essay show a proper regard for the bias of the secondary sources? correct
8. EXPRESSION Is the essay written in a clear, lucid and engaging style, with appropriate grammar and punctuation? correct
9. FORMAT Does the essay observe School requirements about footnotes, bibliography, pagination etc? See Handbook for details. correct
10.PRESENTATION The overall "look" of the essay. correct
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