Conspiracy theory reconciles what would be, on the surface, two incompatible pieces of evidence. And of course, conspiracy theory is infinitely elastic. No matter what contradiction you come to, if you go one step further back and imagine something else behind that, you can reconcile almost any kind of conflicting evidence. That is what the Nazis did. They had what I call "chimeric anti-Semitism," a fantasy in their own minds. But it became acceptable to many others because it touched upon so many long-embedded anti-Semitic stereotypes that, in one way or another, were accepted by large numbers of people in Europe. For Hitler himself, all of this came together in this fantasized world conspiracy.
In some of the letters you quote, written by German officials in the East to their wives back home, there's a claim that the Bolshevist Jews were going to murder German women and children if they weren't killed first. Do you think these men genuinely believed this?
Most genocides are conceived by their perpetrators as actions of self defense: "We must do this now because, if we don't, they will do it to our women and our children later." Mass murder is then justified as a preventive measure. I think this is just part of the mentality that makes genocide possible. First you divide people between "us" and "them." Then you cast the other—"them"—as a terrible threat. In turn, you justify your doing terrible things to "them" as self defense.
You describe August 15, 1941, as "a caesura in the history of the Holocaust." What sets this date apart?
My argument is that the transition from what I would call a kind of vague, unformulated vision of homicide in the future to the Final Solution—that is, a coherent program to murder every last Jewish man, woman, and child in Europe—took place in two stages; first for the Soviet Union and then for the rest of Europe. The Nazis may have come into the Soviet Union in June and July of 1941 under the assumption that, in some way, there would be no Jews left—through some unspecified mixture of starvation, shooting, and expulsion and on some unspecified timetable. By mid-August, we have evidence that this had evolved into a very clear notion that the Jews would all be killed very quickly.
The reason I say August 15 is because we have a report from one of the killing squads, the Einsatz Commando III in Lithuania, that breaks down the actual body count day by day, with victims listed by categories of communist or Jew. And within the category of Jew, they break it down by both age and gender. We know when they were shooting men, women, and children, and in what proportions. What is clear is that up until mid-August, they were following a pattern of shooting adult male Jewish leadership and Jews associated with the Communist military danger. Then, on August 15, the proportions changed drastically, and the major victims became Jewish women and children. This was a retargeting. When they started to give priority to killing women and children, this was no longer a selective murder of potential enemy male Jews but a program to wipe out the Jewish race in its entirety.