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.
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?
Mayer writes that: “Anti-Semitism was a cardinal postulate of the Weltanschauung which fired the rise of the Nazi movement as well as the consolidation of the Nazi regime and its drive for the mastery of Europe. But although anti-Semitism was an essential tenet of the Nazi worldview, it was neither its foundation nor its principal or sole intention. Anti-Semitism was one of several central creeds of an essentially syncretic ideology, the others being social Darwinism, the geopolitics of eastern expansionism, and anti-Marxism. While these four articles of faith were closely enmeshed and eventually crystallized into an indivisible belief system, within this system their position and importance in relation to each other varied with time, place, and circumstance.”
The author is correct in asserting that anti-Semitism was not the only Nazi creed, and he elucidates these different components with accuracy. He is also right in assuming that the importance of these creeds " . . . varied with time, place, and circumstance.”
Having said that, Mayer, in a somewhat ambiguous way, shows how anti-Semitism became ingrained in other Nazi creeds when he writes that: “Anti-Semitism permeated Hitler’s worldview and project. It was also consonant with his interpretation--and execration --of the corruption of the modern world. But while Hitler condemned the Jews as the chief disease-carrying poisoners and parasites of contemporary society, he struck out through them against the processes and forces of emancipation of modernization, which for him were the ultimate source of pollution. Indeed, if Hitler’s worldview had an epicenter, it was his deep-seated animosity toward contemporary civilization, and not his hatred for Jews, which was grafted onto it.”
In another place, Mayer says that: “The Nazi leaders stressed that there was, of course, no fighting Marxism and Bolshevism without understanding them, which meant facing up to the pivotal role of the Jews. All of Europe needed to realize that, having invented the Bolshevik madness, the Jews were masterminding it from Moscow in their bid for world domination.”
From these statements, and others, it appears that the Nazi government blamed the Jews for “Marxism,” “Bolshevism,” “Modernism,” and a host of other societal ills. Since the elimination of these ills assumed a pivotal position in Hitler’s overall program, it follows that the elimination of Jews who were defined as responsible for these ills was also a central aim of the Third Reich.
Once opportunities for destroying the Jews presented themselves, Hitler and other Nazi leaders took advantage of them. The war with Russia was one of those opportunities. Moreover, historical evidence shows that eventually the annihilation of Jews took precedence over the conduct of the war. Jews continued to be murdered en mass even though they were a potentially valuable economic commodity, and when the trains transporting them to their death were needed by the military.
These are some of the facts, but facts seldom speak for themselves. The enormity and complexity of the Final Solution demand more study and more deliberation. “Why Did the Heavens Not Darken?” meets both of these requirements and becomes a welcome addition to the existing literature.