Review by Claudia Moscovici, author of Holocaust Memories: A Survey of Holocaust Memoirs, Histories, Novels and Films (Rowman & Littlefield Publishing Group, 2019)
Holocaust historian Timothy Snyder advances an interesting and plausible hypothesis about some of the motivations behind the Final Solution. Snyder also believes that the accelerated timing of the plan to annihilate European Jews arose from Himmler’s and Heydrich’s efforts to compensate for the (partial) German failure in the war against the Soviet Union. When it became clear that the plan to conquer, starve and enslave the people of the Soviet Union was not moving as quickly as Hitler anticipated and desired, Snyder argues, “Heydrich and Himmler were able to turn the unfavorable battlefield situation to their advantage, by reformulating the Final Solution so that it could be carried out during a way that was not going according to plan. They understood that the war was becoming, as Hitler began to say in August 1941, a “war against the Jews. Himmler and Heydrich saw the elimination of the Jews as their task” (Bloodlands, 188).
When he attacked the Soviet Union in June 1941, Snyder elaborates, Hitler and his henchmen had in mind a dystopic plan for the East:
1) attacking and conquering quickly the Soviet Union;
2) implementing a Hunger Plan that would blockade and starve entire areas of the Soviet Union, causing the deaths of over 30 million people;
3) a Final Solution that would eliminate all Jews after the war was won, and
4) a Generalplan Ost in which native Germans would colonize the western part of the Soviet Union and enslave its people for the German economy
Competing for Hitler’s favor (and for power) with Göring, Himmler started implementing these objectives in 1941. The Hunger Plan, however, didn’t work as effectively as the Nazis had hoped. It achieved only partial success in Leningrad, parts of Belarus and the Ukraine. Overall, the conquest of the Soviet Union was taking longer than anticipated. According to Snyder, “As these utopias waned, political futures depended upon the extraction of what was feasible from the fantasies” (Bloodlands, 187). So Himmler and Heydrich, eager to prove their “courage” and resourcefulness in the face of Germany’s partial failure on the military front, engaged in an act of ultimate cowardice: He ordered the ruthless mass murder of all the Jews in the conquered territories in the Soviet Union, and soon afterward in most of Nazified Europe.
Himmler personally travelled to the Soviet Union in June 1941 to make it clear to the Waffen SS troops and to the Order Police battalions that they needed to kill not only Jewish men—all of whom he labeled as “Communist partisans”–but also Jewish women and children. Himmler and Heydrich worked closely together, engaging in a kind of division of labor of genocide. Heydrich made arrangements for the Final Solution in Berlin, while Himmler managed the administrative details to carry it out, directing the Waffen SS, the Einsatzgruppen and the Order Police under his control to mass shootings of Jewish civilians in the occupied regions of the Soviet Union. By August 1941, Snyder estimates, the Nazis had murdered over one million Jewish civilians in the Soviet Union. “The East,” Himmler pompously declared, “belongs to the SS” (Bloodlands, 189).
While Snyder’s hypothesis that the earlier implementation of the Final Solution had a lot to do with Germany’s partial failure in their conquest, colonization and destruction of the Soviet Union is exceptionally well argued and persuasive, this argument doesn’t take away from the fact that the Final Solution was a central goal for the Nazis regardless of German success or failure in war. The annihilation of the Jews would have no doubt happened had Nazi Germany won the war. Soviet Jews—along with the Jews of conquered nations throughout Europe–were trapped in an impossible situation by Nazi ideology itself, for which anti-Semitism and the annihilation of the Jews was a central priority.
Claudia Moscovici, Literature Salon