In a sweeping historical reappraisal, Cesarani (Disraeli, 2016, etc.), who died in 2015, asserts that the Nazi extermination of Jews was not inevitable but rather a consequence of Germany’s military losses.
What the Nazis wanted was to rid Europe of Jews through “a combination of forced emigration and expulsion” to a conquered territory: Poland, French-controlled Madagascar, or Siberia. Only when Germany suffered military failures did rampant, virulent anti-Semitism result in a plan to kill Jews. That plan was abetted by “local populations” eager to lay their hands on Jewish property and possessions in economically “straitened, uncertain” times. “Greed not anti-Semitism motivated many people to align themselves with the German occupiers,” writes Cesarani, who claims that Hitler was not made chancellor due to anti-Semitism, although “it was essential to the core activists of the Nazi party.” The author follows Nazi policy before and during the war to reveal confusion, within Germany and among the international community, about Hitler’s “domestic policy, the economy, and international relations.” Before the full-blown war, Nazi degradation and intimidation of Jews, including pogroms, made the front pages of American and British newspapers, but those nations held back from offering visas for Jews, which would have afforded refuge. Cesarani insists many pogroms were spontaneous, “ill thought out and counterproductive,” resulting “in a backlash at home and abroad.” When civil rights activist W.E.B. Du Bois visited Germany in 1935, he wrote publicly that Nazi racism against Jews “surpasses in vindictive cruelty and public insult anything I have ever seen; and I have seen much.” In 1939, Hitler predicted that a world war would result in “the annihilation of the Jewish race in Europe,” but Cesarani insists this rhetoric did not result in a plan for death camps until much later. When mass killings became government policy, they were crude and haphazard, countering the myth of “genocidal technology.” Cesarani’s overwhelming evidence of brutality makes this book unbearably painful to read and makes his analysis hard to accept. Even before an official plan, Hitler’s anti-Semitic rants inspired his army and his nation.
A highly learned but problematic examination of Nazi decision-making.