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For immediate use

Feb. 17, 2004 -- No. 83

Historian details origins of Nazis’
‘final solution’ to Jewish problem

UNC News Services

CHAPEL HILL -- Among all the horrors of human history, almost nothing rivals the "Final Solution," Nazi Germany’s attempt to rid Europe of Jews first by expelling them and then, when that didn’t work fast enough, by murdering them -- men, women and children of all ages.

How human beings could do such a thing to others staggers the imagination and will be discussed and agonized over forever, not only by Jews but also by anyone with a heart and conscience.

Although much is known about the Holocaust from eyewitness accounts, research, books, movies and the news media, much remains to be explored. A renowned University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill scholar is making the latest major contribution to Holocaust studies with his new book, "The Origins of the Final Solution," subtitled "The Evolution of Nazi Jewish Policy, September 1939-March, 1942."

On March 1, the University of Nebraska Press will publish the book, which is the most detailed account of what happened to turn injustice into pure evil during a relatively short span of World War II. Dr. Christopher R. Browning, Frank Porter Graham professor of history at UNC, is the author.

Browning has made a career of studying modern German history and Nazism in particular. He says he undertook the book 20 years ago as a cornerstone of a more than 20-volume comprehensive history of the Holocaust, a project sponsored by Yad Vashemm, the Israeli Holocaust memorial, museum and research center. Most other participating authors are Israeli scholars working on national Jewish communities throughout Europe.

"When we started, no one knew, of course, that the communist regimes of Eastern Europe were about to collapse and that all sorts of closed archives suddenly would come open to us," Browning said. "Although I basically finished my work in 1989, I had to rewrite it extensively because of the great windfall of documents. There were all sorts of new things to investigate."

Commentators already are describing the book as having an "unusually incisive writing style" and as being "extraordinary" and "a masterpiece of the historian’s art." Paul Royster, director of the University of Nebraska Press, called it "the most important book on European history being published anywhere in the world this year."

In a recently published Atlantic Monthly review, Benjamin Schwartz wrote, "Browning has obviously mastered every pertinent document available -- from archives in Germany, the United States, the former Soviet Union and Israel -- and assimilated them all into his sometimes day-by-day account of the development of Nazi policy."

The UNC historian said he tried to present a detailed picture of how Nazi policy evolved during the victory euphoria of the first 30 months of the war. During that period, the idea that the regime could solve "the Jewish question" by ethnic "cleansing," or expulsion, degenerated further into one in which the perpetrators "harnessed the entire apparatus of a modern nation-state to solve their self-imposed racial problem" through mass murder.

"That seemed to me a very key question in the history of the Holocaust -- how they made those last steps, and so that is the focus of the book," he said. "I argue that the Nazis were fantasizing -- basically planning to redesign the demographic map of Eastern Europe by moving all sorts of populations from here to there and eliminating those they thought superfluous -- Slav, Jew and gypsy.

"But it really was out of what I call the corruption of racial imperialism that they developed the capacity to imagine genocide and the personnel geared and eager to do it and thus could unleash the ‘final solution’ beginning in the summer and fall of 1941."

How the Nazis’ nightmarish designs were carried out was far more complicated than just following Hitler’s orders, which often were intentionally vague, Browning said.

"What you had was a very complex interaction between local authorities on the one hand and the central government and Hitler on the other," he said. "Certainly Hitler’s obsession with the Jewish question created a situation in which all who wanted to please Hitler, who believed in and were devoted to him and wanted to be rewarded with more power, were anxious to be seen as solving it."

In the beginning, no one appeared to know what that was going to mean, he said, and such "solutions" as shipping all European Jews to Madagascar were seriously considered. After 1941, it meant murdering every last Jew -- man, woman and child -- the Nazis could lay their hands on.

"In all of this, Hitler represented what I call an ideological imperative -- he legitimized the necessity for finding a solution, but he did very little in terms of hands-on policy-making," Browning said. "Various people came to him with various proposals, and he gave them the red light or the yellow light or the green light, but it certainly wasn’t a matter of orders from above and coercion. People vied with one another very competitively to get credit for being the ones offering the most radical solutions to solving the Jewish question. Hitler was in a sense at the switch, deciding which proposals to approve and who to give more power to and who to reward for what they had done before."

After Hitler, the two biggest villains in shaping Nazi Germany’s Jewish policy were, of course, Heinrich Himmler, head of the SS, and his deputy Reinhard Heydrich, head of the German secret police, he said. But they and their underlings received cooperation from all segments of German society, including the civil service and industry.

"One should be wary of the post-war alibi that the SS did all of this behind everyone’s back and did all of it quite secretively," Browning said. "During the war, it was clear that many people were anxious and willing to cooperate with them."

Probably few Germans knew specifically of the actual mechanics of the death camps -- factories created to murder people on an assembly-line basis in gas chambers, he said. But they certainly knew of the persecution -- that Jews were being deprived of their rights and that the synagogues were all destroyed because they were being burnt down in the middle of every German city.

"They certainly knew that Jews were being rounded up for deportation, because they were being marched through the streets of every major city," the historian said. "They certainly heard rumors of terrible massacres in the east, because virtually every German family had soldiers or occupation officials who were coming back on leave. Certainly when the Jews left Germany, nobody ever expected to see those people again, and they lined up to get their apartments. So when people after the war said ‘We didn’t know,’ what they meant was, ‘We didn’t know the details of how they were being killed in gas chambers.’"

From an earlier study of the German occupation of Belorussia by Christian Gerlach, Browning quoted a low-level police secretary writing home to his wife in Vienna following the mass murder in Mogilev. The couple had two children of their own, and the man, Walter Mattner, wanted to convince himself that he was somehow protecting them. In a letter, he described his actions: "When the first truckload (of victims) arrived my hand was slightly trembling when shooting, but one gets used to this. When the tenth load arrived I was already aiming more calmly and shot securely at the many women, children and infants."

Infrequent examples exist of non-Jews who refused to cooperate with the Nazis, Browning said. No one was in a position individually to overthrow the Nazis, but many could have said, "You have to do that without me, and I’m not going to take part." Such citizens were not punished unless they tried to persuade others not to participate.

"One lesson for the future is that the best line of defense against this kind of thing is to prevent dictatorial regimes from coming to power in the first place," he said. "Once a regime like the Nazis’ gets in, they mobilize and harness most people to do what they want them to do. Once they’ve destroyed alternative political movements, then resistance in the modern era is very difficult."

When the government controls the press, the police and the flow of information and can basically make people disappear without due process of law, then resistance becomes increasingly hard, Browning said.

"The lesson is that you’ve got to prevent those people from getting into power in the first place. You’ve got to defend civil rights and human rights at the first line of defense, and you can’t engage in wishful thinking that there are some things people will never do, and it can’t get that bad. Of course we now know it can get that bad."

Initially, only about a third of Germans voted for the Nazis, but economic collapse, political gridlock and foreign policy humiliations combined to discredit the foundering German democracy, Browning said. As a result, popular support for an authoritarian alternative grew.

"Once those people got into power, they were then free to follow their own agenda," he said. "Most people who voted for Hitler didn’t do so because they wanted to kill Jews, but they certainly wanted a regime that would do away with the discredited Weimar Republic. Once they had made that wager, then they were stuck."

Browning now is studying Jewish factory slave labor camps in Starachowice in central Poland for another book. His previous works include "Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland," "Collected Memories:Holocaust History and Postwar Testimony," "The Path to Genocide," "Nazi Policy, Jewish Labor, German Killers," "Fateful Months: Essays on the Emergence of the Final Solution" and "The Final Solution and the German Foreign Office."

Dr. Jurgen Matthaus, a historian at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, contributed a key chapter to Browning’s new book. Vad Vashem in Jerusalem is co-publishing "The Origins of the Final Solution."



Note: Browning can be reached at (919) 962- 2371.

University of Nebraska Press Contact: Erika Kuebler Rippeteau, (402) 472-5938

UNC Contact: David Williamson, (919) 962-8596