Shades of grey

The Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial in Jerusalem.   | Photo Credit: AP

The late David Cesarini, a British historian and leading expert on Jewish studies and, in particular, the Holocaust, was also a public figure who opposed Holocaust deniers. Two weeks before his death on October 26, 2015, he was completing this book and Disraeli: The Novel Politician, both scheduled for publication in 2016. Final Solution is a timely tour de force for our times, where Holocaust memorialisation, commemoration, and denial have become increasingly charged and politicised. Furthermore, the documentation of how anti-Semitism had far-reaching global consequences serves as a warning signal for hate groups burgeoning in the world today.

In this dense and meticulously researched volume, Cesarini builds an integrated history of the period between 1933 and 1949 that debunks traditional concepts that have framed conventional Holocaust narratives. Cesarini’s “chaotic and contingent” course of that history forcefully argues that Hitler’s extermination of the Jews was neither planned nor inexorable. Indeed, it unfolded in accordance with war exigencies, though it was built on deep-rooted and virulent anti-Semitism.

Other victims

While the book is unapologetically about Jews, Cesarini underlines that there were many other victims of Nazi political repression and racial biological policies. For example, a vivid account is given of how the war created the infrastructure for expanding the introduction of voluntary euthanasia to eliminate the severely mentally and physically disabled as a cost-saving measure and to contribute to the biologically pure Volk. The Nazis built killing centres connected by transport hubs, to which selected inmates would be shipped to their deaths. In the 1940s, these facilities were equipped with gas chambers, so that the disabled no longer had to be killed by poisonous injections. Between October 1939 and 1941, over 700,000 men, women, and children, labelled as “unworthy for life” by their physicians and psychiatrists, were murdered at these sites.

Final Solution: The Fate of the Jews 1933–1949
David Cesarini

Final Solution: The Fate of the Jews 1933–1949 David Cesarini Macmillan ₹599  


These facilities to murder the disabled were the blueprint for the concentration camps and gas chambers constructed to eliminate the Jews that are most vividly associated with the Holocaust today. Thus, Cesarini argues that though Auschwitz-Birkenau represents the apex of genocidal technology, it evolved from the Nazis’ treatment of the disabled and with no clear design. He contends that the construction of concentration camps and the organisation of deportations was never the Nazis’ highest priority but evolved, as the enmity towards Jews was translated into practical policy steering the Gestapo towards the enforcement of racial doctrine and tackling the Jewish threat.

Anti-Semitism was central to Hitler’s worldview—Jews were deemed responsible for Germany’s defeat in the Great War and seen as the enemy within. Yet when he became Chancellor (1933), there was little indication that Germany’s Jews would be exterminated. Hitler’s rise to power was fueled by idealism—a desire for strong communities and his love for Germany. Judenpolitik in his first years in power was erratic and lacked consistency and central direction. It was Hitler’s preparation for war that galvanised and focused Judenpolitik in 1936-37 as the German economy struggled to meet the armament targets set by Hitler. The despoliation of the Jewish population became an income stream for the German war machine. Once at war, the position of the Jews deteriorated rapidly; each expansion of the Third Reich was characterised by ritual violence against the Jews with the mass shootings of Jews in Poland serving as a prélude to what was to unfold across Eastern Europe and Russia.

Taking control

Throughout this litany of atrocities, Cesarini shows how the Jews, far from being either naïve or passive, organised to protect their interests as best they could. The role that Jews overseas played and how these interactions both assisted and boomeranged against European Jews, and the malign role played by the West in refusing sanctuary to Jews who were fleeing the death camps of Europe are also detailed.

Cesarini does not shy away from recording the terrible depravities that also occurred, especially in the Warsaw ghetto, where some Jews stooped to cannibalism and young Jewish children tickled corpses as a game.

Rich in documenting the human condition in all its greatness and dissoluteness, he also underlines how, within weeks of their being freed, the Jews took control of their own destinies and the camps became sites for rituals through which they recovered their identities. He recounts how they reburied their dead found in mass graves and interned them according to Jewish rituals. Cesarini does not shrink from discussing the old antipathy between German Jews and the Ostjuden that existed even after the horrors of the war and that worked against a unified representation of the Jews.

Cesarini’s knowledge of the period, his unflinching integrity to present the Holocaust in all its complexities and scope, and his noting of the distinct policies and programs that occurred during these fateful years across different parts of Germany, Eastern Europe, and Russia, make the book compelling. He forces the reader to go beyond the gas chambers to acknowledge that more Jews died in Warsaw than were deported from France to the killing fields of Eastern Europe, and to comprehend that more Jews were shot within walking distance of their homes in Kiev on September 29 and 30, 1939 than those sent in box carts from transit camps in Belgium to the death camps in Poland.

Cesarini concludes noting that the end of the war did not mark an end to Jewish death and suffering. Rather it was “a liminal period” during which they had to rebuild their lives and communities, with no certainty of where they could settle. The struggle for restitution and reparation was another battle waged to achieve justice against Nazi criminals and their collaborators. The opening of archives in Eastern Europe in the 1990s enriched Cesarini’s sources for this authoritative account and brilliant work of scholarship.

Final Solution: The Fate of the Jews 1933–1949; David Cesarini, Macmillan, ₹599.

Our code of editorial values

This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor

Printable version | Dec 8, 2021 3:31:05 AM |

Next Story