Blogs > HNN > Annette Eberly reviews Christopher R. Browning's The 0rigins of the Final Solution (Nebraska, 2004)

Oct 5, 2004 8:14 pm

Annette Eberly reviews Christopher R. Browning's The 0rigins of the Final Solution (Nebraska, 2004)

Annette Eberly is an American free-lance writer and
Lecturer currently living in Germany. She has co-authored a book on the White Rose, the student anti-Nazi resistance group at the University of Munich, calneled "Shattering the German Night," published in the US and presently in its 7th edition in German. Since the late 1990s, she has been giving seminars on American History at the University of Munich.

This is a major work of documenting and putting together in chronological
sequence the evolution of Nazi genocide between 1939 and 1942. It is not a
work of "incisive analysis" as quoted on the book jacket, but rather one of
enormous detailed description based on painstaking research into primary and
secondary sources, demonstrating great insight and knowledge of German
history. It should become a reference work for all scholars and students of
the Holocaust, and will certainly assist in providing evidence for any
future court litigation, as in the case of David Irving, the

However, it is not a book I would recommend for the average lay reader.
Although it is written in a clear and direct style, the title itself seems
Overly ambitious and tends to raise expectations it cannot fulfill. To
describe decisions that led to genocide is not an analysis of "origins."
Description is not analysis -- and analysis is what one has hoped for.

Christopher Browning, a renowned historian of the Holocaust, has been
pivotal in his previous works in penetrating the minds of "ordinary" Germans
who, as soldiers in police battalions, gradually become murderers. In this
book, he describes step-by-step how Jewish disenfranchisement,
stigmatization, expropriation, expulsion, "resettlement," mass execution by
firing squad. gas vans, and finally, gas chambers and crematoria were
decided upon within the Nazi administrative structure. The relentless March
of Evil is almost unbearable to read in its dryness and directness.
Contrary to received notions, Browning stresses that "the Final Solution"
was not a well-organized operation thought out well in advance, with German
precision and efficiency. It was rather a stumbling, improvised and chaotic
project from the beginning of the war in 1939 till the bitter end. He calls
the decision "prolonged and incremental." In view of its results, that point
does not seem quite as significant as he seems to believe.

Another point he raises, which however is not discussed in detail, is "that
the genocidal commitment was not shared by ordinary Germans." But then he
goes on to cite the historian Ian Kershaw's serious qualification of that statement: "the
road to Auschwitz was built by hatred but paved with indifference." He does
not explore in depth that hatred or that indifference.

As so often in the case of Holocaust literature, the point of view expressed
by the author represents either the standpoint of the perpetrator or the
view of the victim; rarely, if ever, does an author present both. In this
case, we absorb the positions and decisions of the murderers, and gradually,
even for us readers, the victims become the empty abstract statistics of
deportation and death that they were to the Nazis. Sometimes it seems like
one is reading a protocol of insane bureaucrats who by some mysterious
process ended up ruling a country and turning the entire continent of Europe
into a killing field. It is frightening in its step-by-step
matter-of-factness. I absorbed a terrible amount of detail on coordination
and logistics and efforts at organization of death among offices and
government structures, all of it in an atmosphere of jockeying for position
and indescribable coldness -- with the very rare moment of individual
ethical discomfort and doubt. I was deluged with information over 400
pages, but not with illumination. The origins of evil remain a mystery.
We try to understand, but it continues to elude us.

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