Hilberg, Raul. The Destruction of the European Jews. With a new postscript by the author. New York: Harper Colophon Books, 1979.
The result of twelve years of research, this book is an important work for understanding the Nazis’ infamous “Final Solution to the Jewish Question.” But, as Hilberg makes perfectly clear in his preface, despite the title, this book is not a piece of Jewish history. Instead, readers should understand that this is a work of German history. He writes, “let it be pointed out that this is not a book about the Jews. It is a book about the people who destroyed the Jews…The focus is placed on the perpetrators” (v). As such, we learn the gradual radicalization of the Nazis’ plans to create a Jew-free Europe. Because it’s based on a wide range of Third Reich documents, this book opened up a vast source of information for English-speaking scholars to study this period of history.
Hilberg begins by situating the Nazi persecution of Jews into a larger, Western context. In fact, he places this persecution into a Christian tradition that dates back to the fourth century. Since that time, he argues, there have been three anti-Jewish policies in the Western world: “conversion, expulsion, and annihilation” (3). Ultimately, what makes the “Final Solution” unique in history is its scale: the sheer magnitude of the operation and the extreme totality of its goals. Otherwise, Hilberg states, “we discover that most of what happened in those twelve years had already happened before. The Nazi destruction process did not come out of a void” (3).
Hilberg then studies, in minute detail, the three steps of the destruction process. The first was a matter of defining exactly who should be classified as a Jew (43). Science played a crucial role in helping Nazis label Europe’s Jews. But Hilber’g book also reveals how these scientific (and legal) definitions of Jewishness could also cause problems for the bureaucracy intent on getting rid of Jews within its jurisdiction. Some Nazi officials, like Ministerialrat Bernhard Lösener were able to use the ambiguous term Mischling (mixling) to appropriate some Jews as predominantly German, thus saving their lives (272). The second step of destruction was the expropriation of Jewish land and wealth. Meticulous research reveals how the German bureaucracy maneuvered property taxes, wage regulation, and “Aryanization” of German profession campaigns. The third, and most gruesome stage was the actual destruction of the Jews themselves. Hilberg provides disturbing details about the industrialized, “conveyer belt” efficiency with which the Nazi killing centers ran (624-629).
This study can be placed in the “functionalist” camp in the debate about the ultimate aims of the Nazis regarding the Jews. Hilberg shows that as time went on, Nazi ambition changed. It was no loner feasible to continue pushing Jews eastwards since the war aims became to conquer that same land for Lebensraum. The most famous death camp, Auschwitz, was first built as a labor camp and only later equipped with gas chambers (574). Even the method of gassing went through evolutions: carbon monoxide was eventually replaced by the more efficient Zyklon B, even though it was more expensive (568, 628). Ultimately, Hilberg concludes that the focus of Nazi visions shifted from creation (of an Aryan race) to more closely focusing on destruction (of the Jews) to fulfill that vision.
Ultimately, I question his conclusions about the role of Jews in the process. They appear throughout the book as passive victims, marching to their own doom. Hilberg claims that this has been a historical tactic used by Jews to alleviate the persecution of their people (17). “In two thousand years they had deliberately unlearned the art of revolt,” he states (624). The outcome of this argument is as clear as it is questionable: “The Jewish community, unable to switch to resistance, increased its co-operation with the tempo of the German measures, thus hastening its own destruction” (17).
Hilberg’s book is an excellent source for encyclopedic knowledge. I learned several things that, even after studying this period for the past eight years, I didn’t know. And I think he pretty adequately shows that the Holocaust was the result of a process of radicalization. While it was Hitler’s vision all along to control a Jew-free Europe, Hilberg shows that this didn’t always mean killing all Jews. Only by 1941 did Nazi leadership come up with the “final solution.” However, as I mentioned before, I do find Hilber’s conclusions about the level of Jewish complicity in their own destruction troubling to say the least. But, perhaps this is a result of the fact that he chose to focus his study solely on the perpetrators.
For more books on modern German history and the history of the Holocaust, see my full list of book reviews here.