Lord Merlyn-Rees Memorial Lecture, given by Sir Antony Beevor at Portcullis House, Westminster, Tuesday January 21, 2020
The Holocaust Educational Trust’s annual Lord Merlyn-Rees Memorial Event has, over recent years, given leading historians of the Holocaust an opportunity to lecture on the subject of the Holocaust, and as the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz approached, bestselling military historian Sir Antony Beevor gave a detailed talk on a key step-change in Nazi policy towards Europe’s Jews. Beevor used the opportunity to argue that the events of mid-to-late 1941, during which time Germany’s invasion of the USSR stalled and the United States’s entry into World War 2 made it a truly global conflict, were directly responsible for the development of the Final Solution, the shift in the Nazi genocide against the Jews which saw the construction of death camps in occupied Polish territory and the murder of millions within their gas chambers. In the audience were around twenty Holocaust survivors, HET staff and supporters, and the Trust’s Ambassadors, students who have participated in the organisation’s flagship Lessons From Auschwitz programme and committed to continue the work of informing their peers about the subject’s importance and complexity. Beevor himself rose to fame in 1998 with his hugely successful book Stalingrad; although his subsequent books have covered key battles in WW2, he has tackled the Holocaust more directly within his epic book The Second World War.
The development of the policies that drove the Holocaust have never been ideally clear, said Beevor at the beginning of his lecture, in large part because of the loss of so many documents relating the subject. In the final months of the war, documents were destroyed by German combatants and officials, to avoid their capture by advancing Allied forces. For a long time, the way in which the Holocaust unfolded was debated by historians. “Intentionalists” argued that the Final Solution had been planned from the beginning, while “functionalists” said that it was an improvised policy, the product the chaotic way in which decisions were made by disparate groups and individuals within the Third Reich. In recent years, a more nuanced view has emerged, but Beevor was clear that development of the Holocaust had to be seen within the broader context of the Second World War. The notion, which he ascribed to some in America, that the Holocaust was an exceptional event somehow removed from history, distracted from this.
1942 was a pivotal year in the war, though the events which led there belonged to 1941. So it was, too, with the Holocaust. Before the invasion of the USSR in June 1941, and indeed before the invasion of Poland in September 1939, the intention to answer the Jewish “question” with widespread genocide did not exist in the discussions of leading Nazis, who looked instead for geographical solutions. They at first hoped to force the emigration of German Jews, but this proved impossible once Germany was at war with its neighbors. The invasion of Poland brought 1.7 million additional Jews under the jurisdiction of the Reich, and thoughts in Berlin turned to forced resettlement to Palestine, or to Africa or Madagascar, but this proved impracticable due to British naval dominance in the Mediterranean.
Remarkably, Himmler and other Nazis initially considered organised mass murder to be unconscionable and associated it with the hated Bolsheviks. Rather, mass sterilisation of Jews was mooted, and mass deportation to “reserves” in Eastern Europe and Russia was considered a logical solution, once the Red Army had been pushed back to the Urals. The plan, though, hinged on the success of the coming invasion of the USSR. This was fundamentally compromised by Hitler’s failure to learn the lessons of Japan’s was in China, which had demonstrated that brutality did not break the will of occupied peoples but, rather, strengthened it.
The situation on the eve of 1942 had a great effect on the thinking of key Nazis. But although historians have identified this as a pivotal moment, it didn’t necessarily look that way to those involved. Hitler was becoming aware of the precariousness of his position and of the dangers that faced his forces. On the Allied side, success was not at all guaranteed in the volatile theatres of the Atlantic, North Africa, or Eastern Front. In Hitler’s mind, the fate of the European Jews was closely bound up with German success in the war.
Operation Barbarossa, the invasion of the Soviet Union, marked the tipping point of Nazi policy into systematic mass murder. But the way the policy unfolded demonstrated its ad hoc nature, and the way in which actions were normalised and then perpetuated. The great Soviet war correspondent Vasily Grossman called this phase of the Holocaust the “Shoah by bullets”. Behind the German front lines, military units known as Einsatzgruppen followed, rounding up Jewish men of military age, shooting them, and burying them in mass pits. They were in turn followed by battalions of Ordnungspolizei (Order Police), who continued the action. The resentments of east European communities against their Jewish neighbors were stoked, and “self-cleansing efforts” saw local people round up and shoot Jews too. At the same time, the German armed forces justified their actions by presenting them as revenge for the treatment of German prisoners of war at the hands of the Red Army.
The process became self-escalatory, as the pool of victims spread to encompass men of all ages, and then women and children. Local groups made this move first and it was then adopted by German units. The process was widely recorded in writing and images by those involved, and this evidence reveals the variations in the manner of its execution. Germany military prisoners captured by the Allies were later secretly recorded discussing their involvement and arguing about the efficacy of the mass killings.
The shootings continued but concerns were raised within the SS and military about the effect they were having on the men carrying out the murders. During mid-to-late 1941, discussions were had amongst the Nazi leadership about finding what Himmler referred to as “humane” alternatives. The precise moment or moments which led to the evolution of genocidal policy are impossible to pin down precisely because of the gaps in the surviving documentation, but one event in particular seems to have been key. In August 1941, Himmler observed a mass shooting, though a relatively small-scale one, and the experience seems to have shocked him greatly. Experiments were conducted to find an alternative method, such as the use of explosives or vehicle exhaust fumes. Later that year, Zyklon B was used for the first time on Soviet POWs at Auschwitz.
The Soviet counter-attack near Moscow in December 1941 seems to have been a particular catalyst for the development of the Final Solution. At around the same time, Himmler discussed with Hitler the progress of the policy, but Hitler was oddly squeamish about hearing specific details of mass murders. The precise moment at which the Final Solution was decided upon is still unclear, though Beevor himself pointed to late 1941 and the order to commence construction on the Belzec death camp as a likely date. This predates the Wannsee Conference, held near Berlin in January 1942 and chaired by Reinhard Heydrich, which was mainly intended as a discussion of practicalities with prominent Nazi officials from occupied eastern Europe.
It was clear by this point that any geographical solution was out of the question; the failure to deliver a decisive defeat of the USSR by the end of 1941 put paid to that. And now that this new and more organised policy was to be enacted, there seems to have been a deliberate spreading of the guilt amongst German officials and corporations, all involved in a huge network of manufacture, logistics and deportation which implicated Nazi accomplices across Europe.
Beevor concluded his lecture with two contrasting quotations. Heinrich Himmler was quoted telling an audience of SS men that “this is a page of glory in our history which has never been written and is never to be written”. From a very different perspective, Vasily Grossman, who was a vital early witness to the aftermath of the Final Solution, said “It is the writer’s duty to tell the terrible truth, and it is a reader’s civic duty to learn this truth.”
A Q&A followed. One audience member asked whether the actions of the Turkish against Armenians during the First World War and the subsequent lack of consequence had emboldened the Nazis to pursue genocide. Beevor thought this wasn’t a particular influence, since the Kaisier had been willing to consider the use of starvation against enemy populations during WW1, though Beevor said he rejected the thesis put forward by Daniel Goldhagen in his book Hitler’s Willing Executioners that the Germans were culturally conditioned to pursue genocidal anti-Semitism.
Another audience member asked how feasible a disruptive Allied airstrike on Auschwitz could have been, and Beevor responded that for most of the war the site lay so deep into enemy territory that it was beyond the reach of any aircraft except for British heavy bombers which, given their intended strategic role in the area-bombing campaign over Germany, would not have been suitable for the kind of precision raid necessary to achieve any useful damage to Auschwitz’s killing capacity. Beevor added that, in any case, striking railway lines would be minimally disruptive to the camp’s operation, since spare rails were kept at 1km intervals across the network and bombed track could be replaced within 12 hours. He did point put though that the Buna-Werke chemical plant adjacent to the Auschwitz III camp had been hit by bombers.
I asked what the Soviet reaction to Grossman’s reporting on Treblinka had been, and Beevor responded that the Soviet authorities were totally unresponsive to evidence of the Nazis’ particular crimes against Europe’s Jews, since they refused to “divide the dead”. In addition, Nazi anti-Semitic policy had never been recognised by the Soviet authorities as a significant part of the Nazi ideology. Grossman was responsible for the first estimate of the death toll of Treblinka, and though it was quite wildly different from later estimates, Beevor said he deserved our admiration for his pioneering work. In short, though, his reports were ignored by the Soviet government.
Photograph of Sir Antony Beevor by Justin Grainge, Grainge Photography, graingephotography.com