THE DEATH MARCHES: THE FINAL PHASE OF NAZIGENOCIDE
Wall Street Journal, January 8, 2011
In spring 1945, as battle-hardened American and British soldiers entered Germany, they came upon shocking evidence of mass murder. The sight of the living skeletons and mounds of bodies at Buchenwald and Bergen-Belsen fills the soldiers’ letters home as they tried to record and understand what they were seeing. On April 15, in Gardelegen, in middle Germany, GIs found the remains of more than a thousand concentration-camp prisoners. They had been burned alive in a barn. Some of the corpses were still smoking.
The newspapers and the newsreels made such sights the singular image of Nazi horror. In the decades since, as we have begun to understand the special character of the Holocaust, these appalling images of abuse and slaughter have come to stand for the mass killing of the Jews of Europe. But as Daniel Blatman points out in “The Death Marches,” his admirable new book, this is not quite right. The concentration camps still functioning in Germany were not killing facilities. In the last months of the war, they [became]…overwhelmed with prisoners evacuated from other sites further to the east. These evacuations were death marches in which some 250,000 people were killed, either during their woeful journey or after they reached their destinations.… And so it was in the camps liberated by U.S. troops.
As Mr. Blatman, a professor of history at Hebrew University, notes, “The history of the concentration camps does not necessarily coincide with the Final Solution.” Horrible though this is to contemplate, for Jews a concentration camp could be a step away rather than toward certain death. The Holocaust generally took place in killing fields and death factories, not at concentration camps. It began in the occupied Soviet Union in 1941, where most of the victims were shot. It spread to occupied Poland, where Polish and European Jews were gassed at Chelmno, Belzec, Sobibór, Treblinka, Majdanek and Auschwitz-Birkenau. But in 1942, as the policy of extermination was spreading from the occupied Soviet Union to occupied Poland, the Nazis found themselves short of labor. Thus some Jews were “selected” to be slave laborers in camps rather than immediately killed.
Over the death pits and in the extermination camps, Jews died among other Jews. In the concentration camps, Jews joined people sentenced for many reasons: Soviet prisoners of war, Poles, French Resistance fighters, Yugoslav communists, German Jehovah’s Witnesses. Jews, like the others, were killed here when they were no longer useful as slave labor. But, Mr. Blatman notes, the “extermination of prisoners was not the main objective of the concentration camps.” The main objective was to support German industry, especially the arms industry.
Mr. Blatman’s subject is the fate of these prisoners as various camps were dissolved near the end of the war. Because the laborers were regarded as units of economic utility, those who could be moved were transported west to work in the Reich as the Red Army approached. (Those who could not be moved were mostly shot.) Because the evacuated prisoners had no significance in the Nazi view beyond the economic, they were killed when the evacuation became senseless. For guards, escorted prisoners were a ticket away from combat duty. By this logic, prisoners who slowed the march were a hindrance and killed. Prisoners marching through Germany and Austria were also now among civilians who didn’t scruple to kill them. As bombs fell and enemy armies approached, the haggard prisoners were seen by the locals as a security threat. They represented the populations that, according to Nazi propaganda, should be cleansed from Europe.
Mr. Blatman is scrupulous and fair-minded. He writes of instances when “Polish, Czech, and German citizens handed out food and water” and records the cases of Polish and Lithuanian Catholics who sheltered Jews who had slipped away from death marches. The fate of the prisoners, Jewish or non-Jewish, was in his account essentially the same. Yet in some respects the death marches should perhaps still be seen as part of the history of the Holocaust. Unlike most of the others on the death marches, Jews knew that their families were already dead. In a number of the murders here chronicled, it is clear that it was easier for the German and Austrian murderers to pull the trigger when they saw their victims as Jews. Mr. Blatman convincingly demonstrates that the spirit of genocide that Germans had brought with them to Eastern Europe had returned, by the end of the war, to the German heartland itself.…
Mr. Blatman chronicles, authoritatively, an important chapter in the history of Nazi Germany. But because the death marches and associated massacres do not fit our presumptions about genocide, his important book opens again the crucial question of the 20th century: why we kill.
(Mr. Snyder is professor of history at Yale University.
His most recent book is “Blood Lands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin”.)
THE BERLIN-BAGHDAD EXPRESS
Jerusalem Post, February 1, 2011
More than a century ago, the German diplomat Max von Oppenheim made a startlingly accurate prediction. In a consular dispatch from Cairo to Berlin in 1906, he wrote: “[T]he demographic strength of Islamic lands will one day have a great significance for European states.” He added knowingly: “We must not forget that everything taking place in a Mohammedan country sends waves across the entire world of Islam.”
Kaiser Wilhelm II’s point man in the Middle East was no idle observer of that trend. He was actively seeking to rekindle Islamic fervor against European colonial powers—not so much out of sympathy for real or imagined Arab grievances as out of cold opportunism.
Oppenheim hoped to dislodge Britain from its empire in Asia by grafting German expansionism onto incipient pan-Islamism in order to lay the ideological foundations for Germany’s domination of the region. The Catholic scion of a prominent Jewish banking family (on his father’s side), he cultivated fire-breathing Islamists, penned vitriolic screeds against Britain in Cairo newspapers, and did his best to raise the green banner of jihad. From the summer of 1914 onwards…Oppenheim’s intrepid German jihad agents were fanning out across the Middle East and Central Asia. They were on a mission for Wilhelm, a vain, impetuous, impressionable megalomaniac given to larger-than-life posturing.
In his grandiose Weltpolitik, the Kaiser sought to unite Europe and Asia under the stewardship of Imperial Germany. His ambitions were to culminate in a feat of engineering to provide a gateway for Germany into the heart of continental Asia: a railway link between Berlin and Baghdad. Ground for the grand project, which would be financed and engineered entirely by Germany, was broken at Istanbul’s Haydarpasha Station in mid-1906. From there, the line would have to traverse 2,000 miles of marshes, deserts, forbidding mountain ranges and the lands of marauding nomads, all the way to Baghdad (then a sleepy backwater) and on to the Persian Gulf.
The story of the Ottoman Empire’s demise and the accompanying shenanigans by European powers that permanently reshaped the Middle East’s political landscape has often been told. Where Sean McMeekin breaks new ground in his informative “The Berlin-Baghdad Express” is demonstrating in minute detail the extent of German efforts to further the cause of newly resurgent radical Islamism in a misguided attempt to enlist it as an ally. He disagrees with historians like David Fromkin, author of the seminal “A Peace to End All Peace,” who have portrayed German attempts to stoke the fire of jihad as peripheral to the country’s strategic plans in the Great War. McMeekin, who teaches at Yale and has plumbed formerly unexplored Turkish documents, insists that “Germany’s leaders saw in Islam the secret weapon which would decide the world war.”
At the heart of that policy stood the German emperor, the heir to chancellor Otto von Bismarck’s unified and increasingly belligerent Germany. In McMeekin’s account, Wilhelm comes across as a bumbling (no surprise there) yet ultimately sinister figure whose impulsive politicking would have lasting consequences for the Middle East. A grandstanding romantic and an avid orientalist, Wilhelm strove to reshape a region coming undone at the seams after centuries of Ottoman rule.… “Whereas Hitler [would be] willing to concede the British their global, sea-based empire in recognition of his own domination of the Eurasian landmass,” McMeekin writes, “Wilhelm wanted the British empire too, including its crown jewels of Egypt and India.…”
Wilhelm found his intrepid envoy to the Arab world in Oppenheim, whose fortune from his family’s banking dynasty allowed him, McMeekin writes, to “moonlight alternately as explorer, writer, diplomat, archaeologist and prospector.” An unscrupulous operator, Oppenheim came into his own first as a German consular representative in Cairo, then as head of Germany’s Intelligence Bureau for the East in Berlin—“the jihad bureau,” as McMeekin calls it—during the war. A self-styled “Baron” who was “almost preternaturally favorable to all things Arab,” Oppenheim began planning a global jihad “with Germans and Muslims fighting together, shoulder to shoulder,” in his own words. Accordingly, his agents began bribing Muslim jurists, from Mecca to Kabul, into issuing specially designed fatwa rulings. The German-sponsored holy war was to be launched selectively: “against all Europeans, with the exceptions of Austrians, Hungarians, and Germans” (i.e. Central Powers nationalities). By war’s end Germany was to have spent a colossal 3 billion marks in all on its jihad effort.…
The rapid unraveling of the Ottoman Empire in the early 20th century became a rallying cry for Muslims worldwide.… Oppenheim’s jihad bureau was busy concocting stories of Britain’s anti-Muslim perfidy. Throughout much of the Ottoman Empire, German-sponsored jihadist pamphlets—in Arabic, Farsi and Urdu—were stirring up age-old ethnic and religious resentments, triggering flare-ups of violence against local Christians. “The blood of the infidels in the Islamic lands may be shed with impunity,” Oppenheim demanded bombastically, citing the scriptural authority of the Koran to “slay [the unbelievers] wherever ye find them.” “The Kaiser’s desire,” in the laconic words of a German official, was “to let loose 300 million Mohammedans in a gigantic St. Bartholomew’s massacre of Christians.”
German propaganda helped pioneer the modern phenomenon of harnessing the time-honored doctrine of jihad to the cause of indiscriminate bloodshed. In a chilling precursor to al-Qaeda, Oppenheim called for a “jihad by bands,” whereby pious Muslims formed localized terror cells in India, Central Asia, and Egypt to assassinate nationals of the Entente Powers (the British, French and Russian alliance which stood against the German-led Central Powers).… “The German jihad was up and running,” McMeekin notes wryly.…
Germany’s earnest if half-baked efforts during World War I have left an indelible mark on the region. For one thing, German engineers laid down what still forms “the backbone of the railway systems of modern Turkey, Syria, Jordan, northern Arabia and even a good deal of Israel and Palestine,” McMeekin points out. Less happily, the Kaiser’s dogged agitation for jihad helped sow the seeds of the enduring religious fanaticism that continues to blight the world today.
Needless to say, neither the Kaiser nor Oppenheim had any regrets in hindsight. Wilhelm, the erstwhile Zionist sympathizer, began blaming Germany’s defeat in the war on—who else?—the Jews. Presaging Hitler, in a letter dated December 2, 1919, Wilhelm extolled his compatriots not to “rest until these parasites have been wiped out from German soil and exterminated.” As for Oppenheim, the progeny of Jews gladly embraced the status of “honorary Aryan” the Nazi regime bestowed on him, along with the decoration for his services in fomenting jihad against the fatherland’s enemies.
In July 1940, Oppenheim, zealous as ever, produced a new “Memorandum on the Revolutionizing of the Middle East.” He had by then become a close friend of the rabidly anti-Semitic grand mufti of Jerusalem, Mohammed Amin al-Husseini, who had distinguished himself by orchestrating lynch mobs against Palestinian Jews. McMeekin posits that the mufti had drawn inspiration from Oppenheim’s one-time jihad fatwas for his own against Jews and Brits, including his notorious ruling in 1948, which sanctified the murder of Israelis as a Muslim duty in perpetuity.…
And so Oppenheim’s political legacy lives on—not only in the homicidal religious militancy he worked so hard to unleash but also in a prevalent form of benighted cultural relativism that blinds itself to the implacable hostility of Islamism to Western civilization. It was quite a life’s work for a wealthy dilettante in the service of a narcissistic fool.
THE CONSCIENCE OF A JEWISH CONSERVATIVE
Ruth R. Wisse
Jerusalem Post, January 23, 2011
A Jewish thinker is normally someone devoted to the study and interpretation of Jewish texts, Jewish history, Jewish issues, Jewish ideas. The late Irving Kristol (1920-2009) was, for the most part, something else: a consummate American intellectual. Founding editor of The Public Interest, contributing editor of The Wall Street Journal, a senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, he is best known as the “godfather” of neoconservatism, a movement of ideas that spurred a major realignment in American politics.
Yet as we are reminded by The Neoconservative Persuasion, a sparkling collection of his essays edited by his widow, the historian Gertrude Himmelfarb, Kristol was also an important Jewish thinker—and especially important for American Jews.…
When he got a job at Commentary magazine in 1947, Kristol was assigned the area of religion as the only editor then interested in theology. Along with literature and politics, he read Martin Buber and Franz Rosenzweig, Christian theologians and the writings of American rabbis who complained that Commentary did not pay them sufficient attention. One of these rabbis was Milton Steinberg, whose book, Basic Judaism, occasioned Kristol’s first attempt, in 1948, to set down his thoughts about Judaism in a review included in this volume.
On the whole, he appreciated Steinberg’s view of Judaism as a system of living religiously rather than a system of religious thought. But he was troubled by something shallow in Steinberg’s “religion of the good deed and the good community,” which struck him as fatally blind to the serious torment of a Jewish heretic like Franz Kafka and in general to the problem of evil. Why didn’t American rabbis like Steinberg address the gulf between God’s imperatives and man’s cruelties?
Kristol was disturbed by “the transformation of [traditional Jewish] messianism into a shallow, if sincere, humanitarianism,” by the retirement of “Jewish thinking” into sociological platitudes. His critique of the thinness of American Jewish theology is even more striking today than it was at the time.
If it was odd for a secular Jewish intellectual to be rousing rabbis to their spiritual duties, it was no less odd for Kristol to oppose the liberal drift of American Jewry, not to mention the leftward tendencies of most of his fellow intellectuals. But he had learned something from personal experience. As an infantryman in Europe during World War II, Kristol had seen American fighting strength put to the service of rescuing civilization from its enemies.…
As far as the Jews were concerned, Kristol thought that the encounter between the worst of European weakness and the best of American power ought to have wised them up politically, making them vigilant against declared enemies; he was disappointed to find how keen they remained to ignore history’s teachings. In later decades, those same teachings were what prompted Kristol’s definition of a neoconservative as “a liberal who has been mugged by reality”: that is, someone essentially hopeful of human progress who—however reluctantly—musters the ability to confront the forces that would thwart it.
The phrase spoke for those who in the late 1960s and early ‘70s were sobered up by aggressions against the American democratic order, and against Israel and the Jews, and by the failure of so many to stand up to them: from without, Soviet expansionism, Arab revanchism and other cold-war dangers; from within, New Left violence and the anti-American excesses of the accurately-named counterculture.
Kristol marveled that the liberalism of Jews, who ought to have been the first to rally in defense of the goodness of American society and its values, remained “especially rich in illusions.” How could Jews, of all people, fail to appreciate the justice of Israel or the force of the enmity against it; how could they blithely continue to support socialist, quasi-socialist or left-liberal positions that demonstrably threatened the social and economic health of the United States?
Kristol’s 1988 analysis of Jewish liberalism ends with the expressed conviction that his coreligionists’ “cognitive dissonance” could not continue for much longer. A final, darker essay on the subject, “On the Political Stupidity of the Jews” (1999), suggests no such hope, though one suspects that so congenitally even-tempered an observer still longed for evidence to the contrary.
Norman Podhoretz, the longtime editor of Commentary and, with Kristol, the most powerful voice of neoconservatism, has held up his late friend and colleague as “a great warrior on the battlefield of ideas and a great general in the political and cultural wars of our time.” The military metaphor is apt—there was, and there continues to be, a great battle of ideas over the essential worth of our civilization, and great battles require great leaders.
In the struggle for the minds of American Jews in particular, Kristol’s leadership was of a special kind. To him, the reflexes of American Jews had atrophied; over-habituated by too many centuries of accommodation to power, they had become unable or unwilling to recognize where their true friends lay, and who were now their true enemies. He encouraged them to consider afresh what it meant, and what it would take, to persevere as a minority in a primarily Christian country—without obsolete fears of religious persecution.
In a climate of cultural conformism—the elites being, as Kristol reminded us, much more conformist than the average American—this Jewish intellectual, as independent-minded as they come, gave American Jews the best guidelines for becoming at once fully mature citizens of their country and fully mature representatives of their people.
(The writer is professor of Yiddish and comparative literature at Harvard.)