The courtroom was “the kind made famous by a host of British dramas,” Deborah Lipstadt wrote in 1993 in her book Denying the Holocaust. The American professor of Holocaust studies had written about British historian-turned-denier David Irving, who manipulated documents and misrepresented data, “to reach historically untenable conclusions.”
Irving sued in the United Kingdom and under British law the burden of proof – and by extension the veracity of the Holocaust – fell upon Lipstadt and her publishing team to defend.
I recently watched the 2016 film Denial based upon Lipstadt’s legal ordeal and it was an eye-opening experience. Lipstadt is dumbfounded by Irving’s comments that Hitler was “probably the biggest friend the Jews had in the Third Reich” while faulty chemical tests taken around Auschwitz convinced him the Holocaust was a myth. Irving also asserted that Hitler never directly ordered the killing of Jews.
I did not know how to respond to Irving’s comments. Did Hitler never give a direct order? Did these chemical tests disprove the existence of gas chambers? What evidence do we rely upon to preserve the legacy of the Holocaust? These questions prodded me as I grappled with my ignorance, and my inability, to articulate a thoughtful response.
The courtroom exchange and the nagging questions it left were all beautifully dispelled in David Cesarani’s new book Final Solution: The Fate of Jews 1933-1949. Totalling more than a thousand pages, Cesarani’s book exhaustively chronicles Hitler’s chancellorship, the evolution of the Nazi’s Final Solution, and reflects upon the postwar conditions of displaced persons.
Cesarani begins with the status of German Jews in the 1930s. Charting the development of Judenpolitik – the institutionalization of anti-Semitism such as the Nuremberg Laws – Cesarani shows how German Jewry responded tepidly to Hitler’s ascent. German anti-Semitism, which long predated Hitler, left many feeling confused. “What seemed obvious a few months or years later,” Cesarani writes, “was not at all self-evident at the time.”
A crucial theme Cesarani highlights throughout Final Solution is how the fate of European Jews was intertwined with broader developments on the battlefield. “One way or another, war would determine the fate of the Jews,” Cesarani writes, “Judenpolitik and the politics of war commingled.” This is most evident through the use of Jews as slaves to further Hitler’s military ambitions. “When the shortage of labour in the Reich became acute, the Jews were perceived as a valuable resource. The Germans occupied Hungary in March 1944 partly to get their hands on Jewish labour; military exigencies drove anti-Jewish policy, not the other way round,” Cesarani argues.
More important to the discussion of historical memory, however, is Final Solution’s reason for being. Cesarani wrote the book as a corrective for “a yawning gulf between popular understanding of this history and current scholarship on the subject.” Cesarani’s gripes include well-intentioned misrepresentations of the Holocaust which “skirt awkward questions”such as sexual exploitation amongst Jews, voluntary infanticide, or even Jewish collaboration with German authorities.
“To dwell on the terrible things that Jews did to Jews would be tantamount to ‘blaming the victim’,” Cesarani writes. “Ironically, these are the very areas currently being explored by responsible, conscientious researchers.”
Cesarani is critical of the public’s perception of the Holocaust as merely a simplified narrative which overlooks these newer histories For instance, recent scholarship contending that “overlapping genocides raged within The Holocaust,” such as that which befell the Red Army following Germany’s invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941 is a case in point.
An important argument Cesarani presents is that the Holocaust was not preordained following Hitler’s rise. Alongside other prominent academics such as Christopher Browning and Ian Kershaw, Cesarani criticizes the view that the Nazis and Germany moved seamlessly to genocide. “Of course it was an anti-Semitic party, but it had few concrete ideas about what to do with German Jews if it took office. During its first year in government, Judenpolitik – anti-Jewish policy and measures – was marked by improvisation and muddle.”
Rather, Cesarani looks to economic exploitation, battlefield defeats, as well as anti-Semitism, in sketching a more complex evolution of the Nazis’ path to genocide.
Unfortunately, Cesarani died before the publication of his book. If some lessons are to be gained from Final Solution, perhaps the most important – in Cesarani’s estimation – is a willingness to question and challenge. Equally relevant to our times are troubling trends on college campuses and in popular culture which we have yet to fully appreciate. As well, the resurgence of far-right elements across North America and Europe openly questioning the Holocaust (the “Holohoax” in their words) require the next generation of Jewish leaders to revisit and relearn our communal tragedy.
For those comforted by the idea that denial will remain a fringe activity, history suggests that is wishful thinking. The afterglow of such historical traumas as the Holocaust blind us to the possibilities of historical revisionism and outright denial. The departure of survivors as living embodiments of the genocide will diminish the Holocaust’s presence in the coming decades and reopen once unquestionable subjects which many Jewish communities, and students – like myself – are woefully unprepared for.