Bibi and the Holocaust

In a speech to the 37th Zionist Congress last week in Jerusalem, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, in an aside, mentioned Haj Amin al-Husseini, Grand Mufti of Jerusalem from 1922 until 1948.  The subject of Bibi’s talk was ten lies about the current crisis in Israel, and the P.M. brought up the Grand Mufti in order to make the point that the false accusation that the Jews intend to destroy the Al-Aqsa Mosque goes back nearly a century.  Al-Husseini, he explained,

was later sought for war crimes in the Nuremberg trials because he had a central role in fomenting the Final Solution.  He flew to Berlin.  Hitler didn’t want to exterminate the Jews at the time; he wanted to expel the Jews.  And Haj Amin al-Husseini went to Hitler and said, "If you expel them, they'll all come here."  "So what should I do with them?" he asked.  He said, "Burn them."

The reaction was predictable.  Hostile journalists contacted historians and got the responses they were looking for.

Meir Litvak, a professor of Middle Eastern history at Tel Aviv University specializing in Iran and Shi’as, called the statement “a lie” and “a disgrace,” “the height of the distortion of history,” while Hebrew University professor Moshe Zimmermann claimed that “with this, Netanyahu joins a long list of people we would call Holocaust deniers.”

Are these guys right?

The first thing to be said is that there is no transcript of the conversation between Hitler and al-Husseini during their meeting of November 28, 1941.  So the words Netanyahu attributes to the two are invented.

But the P.M.’s claim raises some important, and still unresolved, questions about the origins of the Holocaust.

Briefly, there are two camps in this long debate, labeled decades ago “intentionalists” and “functionalists.”

The intentionalists believe Hitler was always determined to exterminate the Jews and, when war came, seized the opportunity.  Hitler waged three wars, they argue, the war against France and Britain to overturn what was left of the Versailles settlement and establish German hegemony in Europe, the war against Russia to overthrow Bolshevism and win lebensraum for future generations of Germans, and the war against the Jews.  The last is the title of what is still probably the most widely read book on the Holocaust, by Lucy Davidowicz.  She offers one of the strongest statements of the intentionalist position, but historians are more impressed by works by Gerald Fleming, Eberhard Jäckel, and others that draw on archival sources, as Davidowicz doesn’t.

Hitler’s Willing Executioners, by political scientist Daniel Goldhagen, offered a new version of the intentionalist case:  the perpetrator of the Holocaust, Goldhagen argues, was virtually the entire German nation, steeped for centuries in “eliminationist antisemitism.”  In graphically describing the killings by reserve police officers, and by guards in work camps and on the death marches at the end of the war, Goldhagen performed a useful service.  But for good reason, almost no historian accepts his thesis about “ordinary Germans.”  A number of antisemitic parties flourished between 1890 and 1914.  None called for expelling Jews from Germany.  Their vote total was pathetic, peaking at 3.9% in 1907 and dropping to 2.9% by 1912.  Voters got a second chance after the war.  But Hitler’s National Socialists got just 3% of the vote in 1924 and only 2.6% in 1928, before the Great Depression hit.  Germans hadn’t gotten the message that they were eliminationist antisemites.

Traditional intentionalists naturally cite Mein Kampf.  One quote invariably repeated is that “if at the beginning of the war and during the war, twelve or fifteen thousand of these Hebrew corrupters of the people had been held under poison gas…the sacrifice of millions at the front would not have been in vain.”  The most widely known quotation cited by the intentionalists, though, is undoubtedly Hitler’s promise from a two-hour speech to the Reichstag in January 1939 that “if the international Jewish financiers inside and outside Europe should again succeed in plunging the nations into another world war, then the result will not be the Bolshevization of the world and thus a victory for Jewry, but the annihilation of the Jewish race in Europe.”  (The irony of both quotes is that the most strenuous effort to avert the First World War was made by two Jews, Albert Ballin, shipping magnate and friend of the Kaiser, and Ernest Cassell, banker and confidante of King Edward and King George.)

There is no doubt Hitler was obsessed with Jews and filled with a pathological hatred, but when he took office in January 1933, what he introduced, in effect, was a thoroughgoing Affirmative Action program for Germans.  However, he clearly hoped to force Jews to emigrate, and the Nuremburg Laws of 1935 and the Kristallnacht pogrom of November 1938 were milestones in this campaign.  In that year the Führer also established the Central Office for Jewish Emigration, under Adolf Eichmann, which was to speed up the process.  The problem it ran into was the unwillingness of the U.S., Britain, and other nations to grant visas.  In fact, objections to Jewish immigration by the State Department and the Foreign Office played a more important role in Hitler’s change of plans than the visit of the Grand Mufti.

When and how did the transition from emigration to annihilation come about?

There was never any written order from Hitler launching the Holocaust, and seizing on this, the most extreme “functionalist,” David Irving, made the case that it was not something Hitler even intended, but was implemented haphazardly by his underlings, more hard-line antisemites than their boss. 

Nearly as few historians accept this as do Goldhagen’s thesis, but more cautious functionalists, like Martin Brozart, while acknowledging Hitler’s virulent antisemitism, focus on the chaotic way decisions were arrived at in the Third Reich.  Hitler was a “weak” dictator, lazy, indecisive, preoccupied, who created competing agencies whose leaders, intent on defending and expanding their turf, radicalized the regime on their own initiative, believing they were carrying out the Führer’s wishes.  The Holocaust began on the initiative of local officials, says Brozart.  A case in point is the use of mobile vans to kill Jews with carbon monoxide.

“Moderate functionalists,” like Christopher Browning and Hans Mommsen, offer a more persuasive analysis.  They make several points stressing the way the Holocaust began haphazardly, in fits and starts:

1.  From October 1939, the Jews of western and central Poland were in Hitler’s hands.  They were forced into ghettos, where conditions were horrendous, and worked in deplorable conditions in factories providing war materiel.  But 30 months went by before they were massacred.  Those profiting from Jewish labor lobbied against the liquidation of the ghettos.

2.  After the defeat of France in June 1940, the favored plan was to deport German and other Western European Jews to the island of Madagascar, a French colony.  This plan was reconsidered as late as early 1942.  There were additional plans to deport Jews to the Nisko region in Poland and to an area east of the Urals. 

3.  The mass killing of the Jews of the U.S.S.R. and eastern Poland, which began with the invasion of Russia in June 1941, was authorized under the “Commissar Order.”  This warned the Wehrmacht that the eastern campaign was a war of annihilation against “Judeo-Bolshevism,” and that the Geneva Conventions were to be abrogated.  All Soviet officials, partisans, and Jews would be liquidated.  They were shot en masse by four Einsatzgruppen, SS units which followed the army east.  As many as 1.4 million Jews were eventually killed, with the assistance of Ukrainian, Romanian, Belarusan, Lithuanian, and other auxiliaries.  But the order did not affect other Jews in territory controlled by the National Socialists.

The best-known book on the Holocaust, Raul Hilberg’s monumental The Destruction of the European Jews is functionalist through and through, focusing entirely on the mechanics of the Final Solution.

Back to Bibi.

He is a “moderate intentionalist.”  It was Hitler who made the call for the Final Solution, he says, not his subordinates.  But the Führer had not determined from the beginning of the war, let alone earlier, that all European Jews were to be killed. 

Netanyahu is undoubtedly correct that for some time after 1940, emigration was still looked upon as the answer to the Jewish Question.  In the summer of that year, Himmler wrote, “I hope to see the concept of Jew completely eradicated, through a large-scale deportation of the entire Jewish population to Africa, or else to some colony.”  He rejected “the physical extermination of a race through Bolshevik methods” as “un-Germanic and impracticable.”

So when and why did the Führer change his mind?

What makes the answer difficult was Hitler’s penchant for giving verbal instructions in coded language.  (The secrecy with which shrouded the discussion about and implementation of the Final Solution is still another argument against Goldhagen’s thesis.)

Some historians, like Uwe Adam, argue that the decision was not made until fall of 1941, as late as November.  But most others think it was earlier in the year.  In May of 1941 a circular was issued by a subordinate of Reinhard Heydrich, head of the RSHA, the Reich Security Office, announcing that emigration was to be forbidden for Jews in Belgium and France, “in view of the undoubtedly imminent Final Solution of the Jewish question.”  But “Final Solution” at this point could still have meant mass deportation to Africa.  The term was used several times with this meaning, sometimes as “territorial Final Solution.”  However when Goering instructed Heydrich at the end of July to draft a plan “describing the organizational, technical, and material requirements for carrying out the Final Solution which we seek,” the term Endlösung probably had a more sinister meaning.  It’s more than likely that by early November, when Heydrich began planning what would be called the Wannsee Conference, the National Socialists had decided to murder all the Jews they could get their hands on.

So when Hitler met the Grand Mufti at the end of November, he had probably already authorized the annihilation of the Jews.

Would the Führer have permitted them to go to Palestine before his talk with al-Husseini? 

Certainly prior to the outbreak of war, the National Socialists didn’t care where German Jews wound up.  The more who went to the Middle East, the more problems for the British.  But there was never a plan to deport Jews there once Hitler invaded Poland.  The Führer hoped the Arabs would join him in attacking the British, and would certainly have done nothing to alienate them, or Muslim opinion worldwide.

So this part of Netanyahu’s thesis is also dubious.

But the two Israeli historians, if they were quoted correctly, are engaging in rhetorical overkill.  It is nonsensical to call the P.M. a Holocaust denier, and his claim is hardly “the height of the distortion of history.”

Though he discusses al-Husseini in his own 1993 book, A Place Among Nations, Netanyahu had undoubtedly read Barry Rubin and Wolfgang Schwanitz’s Nazis, Islamists, and the Making of the Middle East, published last year, or spoke with advisors who had.  It is this book that makes the connection between the November 28th meeting and the Holocaust.   The invitation to the Wannsee Conference was issued the day after Hitler met with al-Husseini, and Rubin and Schwanitz argue that the Führer was finally persuaded by the Grand Mufti to exterminate European Jewry.  But the invitation itself refers back to the written order from Goering mentioned earlier, dated 31 July 1941.  So it’s not likely the convening of the conference was an impulsive decision made by Hitler after chatting with his Arab friend.  Of course this is possible, but it remains a matter of speculation.

More important for understanding the Middle East today is the influence on Islam exercised by the Nazis, rather than the other way around.   At least four additional books discuss this, David Motadel’s Islam and Germany’s War, a sweeping survey which emphasizes the problems the Nazis encountered in mobilizing Muslims, Jeffrey Herf’s Nazi Propaganda for the Arab World and Chuck Morse’s The Nazi Connection to Islamic Terrorism, which focus, as the titles suggest, on al-Husseini and the Arabs, and Edwin Black’s Farhud, which concentrates on Iraq (where the brutal Farhud massacre took place) and British and American oil interests.  The 1941 pogrom in Bagdad kicked off a wave of persecution that drove over 900,000 Jews out of lands in the Middle East and North Africa they’d lived in for as long as 2,500 years.

The Holocaust Museum, revealingly, has nothing to say on the killings of Jews carried out by Hitler’s Muslim allies.  (The museum, said Eli Wiesel, either “will be a sanctuary, or it will be an abomination.”  For a good look at how it’s become the latter, see this recent article by Daniel Greenfield.)

Conservatives often imagine that Islamic practices and rhetoric of today were typical of Islam since its inception.  The truth is that, as degrading and expensive as dhimmi status was for Jews, for six hundred years, from 1096 to the beginning of the 18th century, they were better off in Islamic territories than in Christian Europe.  The extortions, massacres, forced conversions, and expulsions in the West have no parallel in the Muslim East, particularly the Ottoman Empire.  Some sultans paid no more attention to sharia law than President Obama does to the Constitution. 

All that changed with resentment at European territorial encroachments and economic dominance, with anti-colonialism and nationalism, but above all with the exportation of Nazi propaganda.  The heirs of Goebbels and Streicher are alive and well in the Middle East, and enjoying more popularity than the Nazi propagandists did with Germans.  Islam was never a religion of peace, but it has been poisoned by German ideology.

Netanyahu clarified his position the following day, in Germany.  “My intention was not to absolve Hitler of his responsibility, but rather to show that the forefathers of the Palestinian nation, without a country and without a so-called occupation, without land and without settlements, even then aspired to…exterminate the Jews.”

But Angela Merkel, standing at Netanyahu’s side, objected to anyone else getting the credit for the Final Solution.  “We abide by our responsibility, in Germany, for the Holocaust.” 

Lost on the Chancellor is the prospect that, in admitting 1.5 million additional Muslims steeped in Nazi-inspired propaganda, she herself is creating a Germany that could be Judenfrei in less than a generation.  Ironically, by way of atoning for the Holocaust, Merkel may have launched the final Final Solution in Germany, an ethnic cleansing carried out by the protégés of Hitler’s friend and ally, the Grand Mufti.