Friedlander, Henry. The Origins of Nazi Genocide: From Euthanasia to the Final Solution. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1995.
Friedlander seeks to further our understanding of the Nazis’ systematic murder of those individuals that the regime labeled as “life unworthy of life,” by studying the origins of the infamous “Final Solution.” In doing so, he reveals that Jews were not the only group that the Nazis singled out for systematic murder and eventual extermination. The book also reveals insights into how these killing campaigns began and ultimately unfolded into large-scale death camps in the east.
Central to Friendlander’s argument is the fact that while the Nazis targeted a wide range of people, only three groups were targeted as racial enemies of the Volksgemeinschaft: the disabled, Gypsies (Roma & Sinti), and Jews. Scientific thought of the age – like eugenics – posited the threat of these three groups as biological, and thus irreversible. Despite the central role of Jews in our understanding of the Holocaust, Freidlander shows that the first group to be systematically murdered was the handicapped. Hitler authorized the T4 program (the code name for the execution of the handicapped, euphemistically called “euthanasia”) in October 1939. Perhaps the most chilling aspect of Friedlaner’s description of the program is his account of the doctors, nurses, and scientists who volunteered for these positions as murderers; it is simply horrifying. Moreover, these medical workers were not fervent Nazis. “The perpetrators were dull and uninteresting men and women,” he claims, who volunteered either out of ideological conviction to eugenic thought, or out of professional aspirations of promotion (187). The T4 program was publically ended in 1941 after protests from victims’ families, but Friedlander reveals that the murder of handicapped adults secretly resumed within months, while the killing of “unfit” children never stopped. This public opposition taught the killers a lesson: any further euthanizing would have to be kept top secret, and would best be done outside of Germany. Thus, once the Wehrmacht conquered territory in the east, death camps were constructed only outside of the German heartland.
In this way, Friedlander links the euthanasia program directly to the Final Solution. The T4 program taught scientists, doctors, administrators, and Nazi ideologues the best ways to murder people (the gas chamber was first used in the T4 program) and the best ways to hide it from the public. Through meticulous research, he reveals that many of the T4 staffers left their institutions in Germany to staff the new, larger killing centers being constructed in the east. Their knowledge was indispensible for the success of death camps (it was more efficient to bring victims to the killing centers than to have mobile killing centers go to them, for example, 286).
Friedlander is also interested in the role Hitler himself played in all of this. While we have the official order to begin the T4 program, no paper trail leading from Auschwitz to Hitler has ever been found. Friedlander supposes that this is because Hitler had learned his lesson with the public resistance to the euthanasia program. From that point on, an order of such magnitude would have only been given orally (284-5).
Lastly, Friedlander firmly demonstrates that the Final Solution was the result of structural radicalization, and not the implementation of a pre-ordained plan. While the murder of the handicapped began in 1940, the official order for Jews and Gypsies was still deportation. “But when international conditions and the progress of the war made a more radical solution possible, the killings were expanded to include Jews” and Gypsies (21). By that point, thousands of German men and women had “developed their killing technique” through the “systematic and secret execution” of Germany’s handicapped population (22). In this light, Friedlander’s greatest contribution is drawing the direct connection between eugenic thought, euthanasia programs, and the more famous death camps and firing squads of the Final Solution.
For more books on modern German history, see my full list of book reviews here.