Interviews February 2004

An Insidious Evil

Christopher Browning, the author of The Origins of the Final Solution, explains how ordinary Germans came to accept as inevitable the extermination of the Jews
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The Origins of the Final Solution

The Origins of the Final Solution: September 1939-March 1942
[Click the title
to buy this book] by Christopher Browning
University of Nebraska Press
640 pages, $39.95

In 1968, when Christopher Browning was a doctoral student at the University of Wisconsin, he proposed a dissertation topic centering on the Nazi era. His advisor responded with mixed advice: "This would make a great dissertation, but you know there's no academic future in researching the Holocaust."

Less than a decade later, the Holocaust was being studied at universities around the world, and Browning found himself at the forefront of a new academic field. So respected was his work that, in the 1980s, he was approached by Israel's Holocaust museum, Yad Vashem, about working on a project. The museum had received funding to print a multivolume series about the Nazi era, each book summarizing the experiences of Jews in a different region of Europe. The project also called for three volumes that would trace the Nazis' development of the Final Solution. None of the Israeli researchers involved were eager to explore the topic from the side of the perpetrators, so the task fell to a group of non-Jewish academics, each of whom would write on a different few-year period, tracing the key decisions that gave rise to the Holocaust.

After two decades of research, Browning's volume, The Origins of the Final Solution: September 1939-March 1942, will be released in March of this year, the first in the series to be published in English. Like so many authors before him, Browning sets out to answer the question, "How could the Holocaust have happened?" The book covers much familiar ground—train deportations, mass shootings in the East, early experiments with poison gas. What makes Browning's treatment different from many others is his insistence on considering historical events as they unfolded, rather than through the lens of hindsight. Browning does not view the Final Solution as a master plan, carefully crafted by Hitler at the beginning of the Nazi era. Instead, he looks at Nazi Jewish policy as an evolving reality that unfolded over an extended period of time, beginning with a program to expel rather than exterminate Germany's Jews:

Too often, these policies and this period have been seen through a perspective influenced, indeed distorted and overwhelmed, by the catastrophe that followed. The policy of Jewish expulsion ... was for many years not taken as seriously by historians as it had been by the Nazis themselves.

As late as the spring of 1940, Nazi leaders dismissed the idea of mass murder in favor of relocating the Jews to a colony in Africa. "This method [of deportation] is still the mildest and best," wrote Gestapo Chief Heinrich Himmler in May of that year, "if one rejects the Bolshevik method of physical extermination of a people out of inner conviction as un-German and impossible." The so-called Madagascar Plan was aborted when Germany lost the Battle of Britain later in 1940.

Browning presents the "gas van," introduced in 1939 to kill the mentally ill, as the first significant step toward Nazi extermination camps. Based on the theory of eugenics, an offshoot of nineteenth-century Darwinist thought, the Nazis formulated a program in which euthanasia was used to remove those they deemed genetically weak. They developed a system wherein a van disguised with the label "Kaiser's Coffee Company" was driven through the countryside, loaded up with mental patients, pumped full of carbon monoxide, and driven to remote areas for forest burials. During the following years, gassing would be introduced for targeted and later mass killings at concentration camps.

The summer of 1941 brought, in Browning's view, a "quantum leap" toward the Holocaust. Before that time, Jews had been socially marginalized, ghettoized, relocated en masse, and singled out for waves of killings from among larger groups of those considered suspect or inferior (such as alleged Communists and mental patients). But it was not until Operation Barbarossa, when the Germans invaded the Soviet Union, that Nazi officials began killing large groups of Jewish men, women, and children. From this time onward, writes Browning:

…no further escalation in the process was conceivable. It implied the physical elimination of all Jews, irrespective of gender, age, occupation, or behavior, and led directly to the destruction of entire communities and the "de-Jewification" of vast areas. The question was no longer why the Jews should be killed, but why they should not be killed.

In leading the reader from the Nazis' early deportation of Jews to the launch of the extermination program in 1942, Browning's book does not seek a single grand theory behind the Final Solution. Instead, Browning focuses on the series of contingencies and decisions that brought the Germans increment by increment to such an extreme. The result is a vision of evil whose origins are not otherworldly but unnervingly human.

Browning currently resides in Chapel Hill, where he is the Frank Porter Graham Professor of History at the University of North Carolina. I spoke with him by telephone on February 3, 2004.


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Christopher Browning
 

One point you emphasize throughout the book is the need to look at history stage by stage, without taking into account what we know now. Why do you feel it is important to consider the deportation of Jews as a phase unto itself rather than as a stepping stone to extermination?

The initial or easy tendency in looking at history is to see it through hindsight. We know ultimately what happened, and therefore we go back and look at all the steps that led to it happening but remove all the contingencies. We're very well aware at this moment that we can't predict the future. But we go back and somehow assume that we can impose a deterministic interpretation on the past because of what we know from hindsight.

In doing that, we remove the fact that living historical actors at that time, certainly in 1939 to 1941, didn't yet know what was going to happen—neither the victims nor the perpetrators. And we cannot understand the decisions they made unless we understand how they perceived the world they were living in and the choices that they were facing. We know that Jewish leaders made certain choices because they couldn't even conceive of a program of systematic mass extermination awaiting them. Also important is that the Nazis made decisions at this point. They had various choices.

The goal of this book is to show where those different turning points were, where people came to forks in the road and went one way instead of another. This is essential to understanding not just what happened in the end but how it happened. What was the step-by-step path that led from the conquest of Poland in 1939 to the opening of the death camps in 1942?

You begin the book by reviewing the historical events that set up the conditions for the Holocaust in Germany. One of these was, as you put it, "a distorted and incomplete embrace of the Enlightenment." Can you elaborate on this?

In Germany, after the Napoleonic conquest, the values of the Enlightenment were spread in an uneven way. What I call the humanistic and individualistic side of the Enlightenment was generally associated with the French, and in order to break away from Napoleon, the Germans embraced the scientific and rational side of the Enlightenment. You have this kind of schizophrenia where Germany absorbed those aspects of the Enlightenment that gave them the power to drive the French out but shunned those parts that they considered contrary to German values.

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Jennie Rothenberg Gritz, an Atlantic senior editor, began her association with the magazine in 2002, shortly after graduating from the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. She joined the staff full time in January 2006. Before coming to The Atlantic, Jennie was senior editor at Moment, a national magazine founded by Elie Wiesel.

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