by David Cesarani
The author, who died last year before his book was published, was research professor in history at Royal Holloway College and author of many studies in Jewish history. In this, his last book – almost his testament – Cesarani brings his own thoughtful and scholarly insights to a subject that has received a huge amount of attention since the war.
He challenges the generally accepted view that “Nazi anti-Jewish policy was systematic, consistent and even premeditated”, arguing that the National Socialists had no coherent or centralised policy until late 1938. Although a rabid anti-Semite, as were many in his cabinet, Hitler saw himself primarily as a war leader. The mission of the Third Reich was making war and thus to exorcise the shame of Germany’s defeat in World War I.
Supplies sent to the front were never stopped to allow for of the deportations of Jews to concentration camps. But the deportations regularly gave way to ensure that supplies reached the Front, he observes.
And it was greed, rather than anti-Semitism, which motivated many people to align themselves with the Nazis. They had profited when Jews were forced to abandon their homes and businesses; “avarice engendered prejudice – the guilty feelings that accompany ill-gotten gains.”
As late as 1938-39, the main thrust of the erratic Nazi policy against the Jews was still directed towards a mixture of voluntary emigration and the forcible removal of Jews from certain areas. The war changed all this, aided by the active or passive cooperation of the populations invaded and spurred on by the “murderous campaigns”.
This last factor, Cesarani argues, was “largely a consequence of Allied military failure”. These campaigns, planned according to the Prussian strategy of rapid and decisive battles and blitzkrieg, were unsuited to conditions in Eastern Europe.
And the longer the war dragged on, the more the fate of the Jews in Europe was sealed. The book ends on a sober, even pessimistic note: the Cold War and Britain’s Palestinian policies “ensured that the Jewish survivors did not enjoy the retribution, restitution and reparation that they had longed for”.
This page is available to subscribers. Click here to sign in or get access.