[Marxism] Christopher Browning

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Thu Feb 19 13:01:19 MST 2004

Atlantic Unbound | February 11, 2004


An Insidious Evil

Christopher Browning, the author of The Origins of the Final Solution, 
explains how ordinary Germans came to accept as inevitable the 
extermination of the Jews


The Origins of the Final Solution: September 1939-March 1942

by Christopher Browning
University of Nebraska Press
640 pages, $39.95

In 1968, when Christopher Browning was a doctoral student at the 
University of Wisconsin, he proposed a dissertation topic centering on 
the Nazi era. His advisor responded with mixed advice: "This would make 
a great dissertation, but you know there's no academic future in 
researching the Holocaust."

Less than a decade later, the Holocaust was being studied at 
universities around the world, and Browning found himself at the 
forefront of a new academic field. So respected was his work that, in 
the 1980s, he was approached by Israel's Holocaust museum, Yad Vashem, 
about working on a project. The museum had received funding to print a 
multivolume series about the Nazi era, each book summarizing the 
experiences of Jews in a different region of Europe. The project also 
called for three volumes that would trace the Nazis' development of the 
Final Solution. None of the Israeli researchers involved were eager to 
explore the topic from the side of the perpetrators, so the task fell to 
a group of non-Jewish academics, each of whom would write on a different 
few-year period, tracing the key decisions that gave rise to the Holocaust.

After two decades of research, Browning's volume, The Origins of the 
Final Solution: September 1939-March 1942, will be released in March of 
this year, the first in the series to be published in English. Like so 
many authors before him, Browning sets out to answer the question, "How 
could the Holocaust have happened?" The book covers much familiar 
ground—train deportations, mass shootings in the East, early experiments 
with poison gas. What makes Browning's treatment different from many 
others is his insistence on considering historical events as they 
unfolded, rather than through the lens of hindsight. Browning does not 
view the Final Solution as a master plan, carefully crafted by Hitler at 
the beginning of the Nazi era. Instead, he looks at Nazi Jewish policy 
as an evolving reality that unfolded over an extended period of time, 
beginning with a program to expel rather than exterminate Germany's Jews:

"Too often, these policies and this period have been seen through a 
perspective influenced, indeed distorted and overwhelmed, by the 
catastrophe that followed. The policy of Jewish expulsion ... was for 
many years not taken as seriously by historians as it had been by the 
Nazis themselves."

As late as the spring of 1940, Nazi leaders dismissed the idea of mass 
murder in favor of relocating the Jews to a colony in Africa. "This 
method [of deportation] is still the mildest and best," wrote Gestapo 
Chief Heinrich Himmler in May of that year, "if one rejects the 
Bolshevik method of physical extermination of a people out of inner 
conviction as un-German and impossible." The so-called Madagascar Plan 
was aborted when Germany lost the Battle of Britain later in 1940.

Browning presents the "gas van," introduced in 1939 to kill the mentally 
ill, as the first significant step toward Nazi extermination camps. 
Based on the theory of eugenics, an offshoot of nineteenth-century 
Darwinist thought, the Nazis formulated a program in which euthanasia 
was used to remove those they deemed genetically weak. They developed a 
system wherein a van disguised with the label "Kaiser's Coffee Company" 
was driven through the countryside, loaded up with mental patients, 
pumped full of carbon monoxide, and driven to remote areas for forest 
burials. During the following years, gassing would be introduced for 
targeted and later mass killings at concentration camps.

The summer of 1941 brought, in Browning's view, a "quantum leap" toward 
the Holocaust. Before that time, Jews had been socially marginalized, 
ghettoized, relocated en masse, and singled out for waves of killings 
from among larger groups of those considered suspect or inferior (such 
as alleged Communists and mental patients). But it was not until 
Operation Barbarossa, when the Germans invaded the Soviet Union, that 
Nazi officials began killing large groups of Jewish men, women, and 
children. From this time onward, writes Browning:

"…no further escalation in the process was conceivable. It implied the 
physical elimination of all Jews, irrespective of gender, age, 
occupation, or behavior, and led directly to the destruction of entire 
communities and the 'de-Jewification' of vast areas. The question was no 
longer why the Jews should be killed, but why they should not be killed.
In leading the reader from the Nazis' early deportation of Jews to the 
launch of the extermination program in 1942, Browning's book does not 
seek a single grand theory behind the Final Solution. Instead, Browning 
focuses on the series of contingencies and decisions that brought the 
Germans increment by increment to such an extreme. The result is a 
vision of evil whose origins are not otherworldly but unnervingly human.

Browning currently resides in Chapel Hill, where he is the Frank Porter 
Graham Professor of History at the University of North Carolina. I spoke 
with him by telephone on February 3, 2004.

—Jennie Rothenberg


Q: One point you emphasize throughout the book is the need to look at 
history stage by stage, without taking into account what we know now. 
Why do you feel it is important to consider the deportation of Jews as a 
phase unto itself rather than as a stepping stone to extermination?

A: The initial or easy tendency in looking at history is to see it 
through hindsight. We know ultimately what happened, and therefore we go 
back and look at all the steps that led to it happening but remove all 
the contingencies. We're very well aware at this moment that we can't 
predict the future. But we go back and somehow assume that we can impose 
a deterministic interpretation on the past because of what we know from 

In doing that, we remove the fact that living historical actors at that 
time, certainly in 1939 to 1941, didn't yet know what was going to 
happen—neither the victims nor the perpetrators. And we cannot 
understand the decisions they made unless we understand how they 
perceived the world they were living in and the choices that they were 
facing. We know that Jewish leaders made certain choices because they 
couldn't even conceive of a program of systematic mass extermination 
awaiting them. Also important is that the Nazis made decisions at this 
point. They had various choices.

The goal of this book is to show where those different turning points 
were, where people came to forks in the road and went one way instead of 
another. This is essential to understanding not just what happened in 
the end but how it happened. What was the step-by-step path that led 
from the conquest of Poland in 1939 to the opening of the death camps in 

full: http://www.theatlantic.com/unbound/interviews/int2004-02-11.htm


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