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How Central Was Anti-Semitism to Nazism? : WHY DID THE HEAVENS NOT DARKEN?: The Final Solution in History by Arno J. Mayer (Pantheon Books: $29.95; 468 pp.; 0-397-57154-1)

February 19, 1989|Reviewed by Nechama Tec | Tec is the author of "When Light Pierced the Darkness; Christian Rescue of Jews in Nazi-Occupied Poland" ( Oxford University Press ) and other works.

Efforts at understanding the "Final Solution" the Nazi term for the annihilation of the Jews-- have given rise to two polar positions, the intentionalist and the functionalist. Briefly, the intentionalists see a direct line between Hitler's anti-Semitic proclamations and the introduction of anti-Jewish measures, including the Final Solution. In contrast, the functionalists maintain that in part the Final Solution emerged out of a series of improvisations and as a reaction to existing conditions. Partly because no written directive by Hitler was ever found ordering the systematic annihilation of Jews, the functionalists see no direct connection between the anti-Semitic proclamations by leaders of the Third Reich and the Final Solution. Specifically, too, they assume that the Final Solution emerged as a reaction to German military disappointments on the Russian front. Unlike the intentionalists, the functionalists think that, as an official policy, the Final Solution was established not before but during the Russian campaign.

Seemingly innocent, the intentionalist and functionalist arguments may have significant political overtones. The functionalists, by perceiving the Final Solution, in part, as a haphazard reaction to existing conditions, diminish its importance and dilute the responsibility for its establishment and implementation. Such a position may play into the hands of some revisionists who deny not only the significance, but also the very existence of the Final Solution.

For the Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday December 17, 1989 Home Edition Book Review Page 5 Book Review Desk 3 inches; 101 words Type of Material: Correction
Daughter's Identification--In a review by Richard Eder of "Legacy of Silence," a book by Dan Bar-On about children of prominent Nazis, one of the children was identified as the daughter of Hermann Goering. The identification was not made by the Bar-On, who had promised confidentiality to his subject, but by the reviewer. This was done on the basis of similarities between Goering and the description of the man in question--with corroboration from a person in a position to know. Prof. Bar-On has written denying that it was Goering; continuing to respect his pledge of confidentiality, he does not disclose the identification. The corroborator, checking further, confirms the denial, and apologizes. So does Eder.

It is indeed a matter of historical record that before the Nazi government began to concentrate on the persecution of Jews it was busy murdering and placing into the concentration camps thousand of Germans whom it perceived as actual or potential political opponents. Later on, the same government applied equally oppressive measures toward native populations in newly conquered territories. Such measures were introduced with special ruthlessness to Poland where the first targets of destruction were Polish elites rather than Jews. Thousands of Poles were murdered while additional thousands were incarcerated in concentration camps. In fact, at first, most of the Auschwitz inmates belonged to the Polish elites. In the end, the Nazis succeeded in decimating the Polish intelligentsia.

Such criminal governmental activities created a proper climate for the annihilation of Jews without, however, establishing causal connections between them. Direct causal links are suggested by other developments. One of them is the emergence of the Einsatzgruppen, SS units whose aim it was to kill civilians in the soon-to-be-conquered Russian territories. The training of these groups began in March and April, 1941. After the invasion of Russia on June 22, 1941, the Einsatzgruppen and their collaborators succeeded in murdering an estimated 1.5 million civilians, about 90% of whom were Jewish.

Other measures in support of the Final Solution were also being introduced. On July 31, 1941, Goering authorized Heydrich to prepare a plan for the "total" solution of the Jewish question. On Oct. 23, 1941, Himmler issued an order forbidding Jewish emigration from German-held territories. Approximately at that time work began on the first Jewish death camps at Belzec and Chelmno. On Nov. 29, 1941, invitations went out for the Wannsee conference, one of whose aims was to coordinate Jewish deportations from across Europe. Originated in the highest echelons of the Nazi regime, these moves suggest a well-orchestrated plan of action that set in motion the Final Solution.

Arno J. Mayer's "Why Did the Heavens Not Darken?" while presenting a thorough historical account of the Final Solution touches upon some of the issues contained in the intentionalist-functionalist debate. Offering a lucid description of the complex historical events that led into World War I and World War II, and relying on extensive knowledge of European history, the history of the Third Reich and the history of the Final Solution, the book deals with the intricate dynamics of these complex events rather than their structures. Describing the processes of important ideological and behavioral currents and counter currents, the author offers a fascinating account of one of the most important chapters in human history.

But how does this book fit into the intentionalist-functionalist debate?

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