The Clare Spark Blog

July 29, 2009

The centrality of the Holocaust to Nazi war aims

Saul Friedlander and one of his great books

Historian Saul Friedländer gave a lecture at Vanderbilt University, November 5, 2007, that aroused the objection on one of my discussion groups (the history of antisemitism, a group on Humanities Net): one member complained that too much emphasis was placed on the centrality of Jewish extermination to the conduct of the second world war as managed by the Third Reich. This essay attempts to clear up an understandable confusion.

As Europeanist historians are aware, Friedländer and the late Martin Broszat had a very public argument in the 1980s over whether or not the final solution was or was not an indirect consequence of dispersed bureaucratic decision-making as opposed to the obsessive intent of Hitler and his closest lieutenants. There was also in this argument a debate over the “uniqueness” of the Holocaust, compared with other genocides. UCLA professor Peter Baldwin reproduces their correspondence in his Reworking the Past: Hitler, the Holocaust, and the Historians’ Debate, edited with an introduction (Beacon Press, 1990). This argument is now commonly characterized as the intentionalist versus functionalist debate. Near the beginning of his talk, Friedländer breaks away from his notes to describe some of his beef with Broszat, but only mentions, fascinatingly, that Broszat, like some other historians of note, did not think that the testimony of the victims (ostensibly a Jewish myth) should be part of the writing of an “objective” history of the final solution. One of the features of Friedländer’s two volumes is the inclusion of victim diaries (and their recovery is a story in itself), and these voices from the dead not only powerfully remove the Holocaust from the realm of depersonalized abstraction, but reveal what Friedländer describes as an important internal contradiction in some of their writing: a belief that their death is imminent, combined with plans for the future; in short, a degree of denial. This denial, that things are not as bad as they appear to be, is to be part of my comments below.

So, it is my view that when Friedländer describes the centrality of the complete extermination of the Jews in the Nazi project, he is arguing against the functionalist school of interpretation. He is not ignoring other factors that all students of German history are aware of. In his recorded lecture, you will hear him explain what he characterizes as his own view and the evidence for it, for instance, the timing of the extermination (as opposed to deportation and enslavement) moves in response to the entry of the Americans after Pearl Harbor and the counter-attack against the German invasion by the Soviets in late 1941. Hitler was now surrounded by “the Jews” on two fronts, not to speak of the enemy within. He also mentions Jeffrey Herf’s recent book [The Jewish Enemy, 2006] that shows the image of the Jew becoming ever more ominous (in concert with a flood of Nazi propaganda depicting the Jews as instigators of the war and their intention to exterminate Germany). Friedländer makes a nice comment on this point: whereas Nazi propaganda depicts the Jews as a monolithic demonic force, Jews were drastically divided among themselves throughout “the years of extermination,” to the detriment of all. And scariest of all, he points out that the knowledge of the final solution as it was taking place was broadly known by elites in every field (including the churches) and yet nearly all remained publicly silent. I bring this out because we may be in a comparable position today with respect to the terrorist threat emanating from Islamists and the dissemination of such horrors as the Protocols of the Elders of Zion and Mein Kampf throughout the Arab and Muslim world. (On the understudied subject of antisemitism see

When I first started reading and writing about the role of propaganda in the second world war (in the 1970s), I was dubious about how effective it was as an explanation for the rise of Nazism and its victories. I was then a Marxist of some sort and read numerous left-wing books on fascism as the inevitable result of monopoly capital. And the fact that immediately after the war, American elites were pushing the importance of propaganda and Hitler’s craziness while ignoring the Nazi and Italian Fascist destruction of the independent working class movement in tandem with the destruction of the Soviet Union (the home of “Jewish Bolshevism,” supposedly a bogus form of socialism) tended to minimize in my own mind the toxic cultural inheritance of Germany and Europe in general. Moreover, throughout my education in major universities (whether in the 1950s or from 1983 on in graduate school), I never heard a responsible discussion on the history and power of antisemitism. My postings on the history of antisemitism list have been a record of my own growing change of mind. I have posted numerous comments about “the Jews” perceived as responsible for capitalism and the growing rule of filthy lucre. (I do not imply that this was some kind of original discovery of mine, but only my public education by other scholars plus broad and probably obsessive reading in the sources.) Moreover, as just noted, it was the argument of many Europeans that the Soviet regime was not true socialism but a trick, with finance capital pulling the strings: see the Protocols of the Elders of Zion and its predecessor, “the Rabbi’s speech” (synopsized in Norman Cohn’s book, Warrant for Genocide), but also the ongoing hatred of “finance capitalism” as essentially a Jewish invention that was dominated by Jews and the wide currency such beliefs had at the turn of the twentieth century, for instance in the writing of J. A. Hobson (author of Imperialism: A Study.) Populists bought this notion, I believe on both Left and Right. Little did I know that those publicists of 1945 and after who emphasized propaganda knew whereof they spoke, for they had been, as progressives, creating their own propaganda to maintain an American consensus in support of the New Deal, aka “socially responsible capitalism.” There was nothing in their project that would have enhanced understanding in this country of the power of antisemitism and its fundamental tenets. And none of these social psychologists/sociologists called a conference in America or Europe immediately after the war to make sure that such racist malevolence was entirely bogus, anti-intellectual, and antidemocratic. [This blog might be read along with my blog of 8-22 on sykewar emanating from Harvard , also my blog on the book and movie The Reader]


  1. […] see, but especially this one: The illustration for this blog was taken from a Suffolk England “diversity” program that […]

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  2. […] with the German people (see Saul Friedländer’s complaints on the neglect of that subject:, let alone Carl Schmitt’s legal theories, or the structural or policy similarities of the […]

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