From Emigration and Expulsion to Extermination


Götz Aly: “Endlösung” Völkerverschiebung und der Mord an den europäischen Juden (English title: Final Solution: Nazi Population Policy and the Murder of the European Jews) ISBN 978-3-596-29756-6 ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ As you may have observed, my interest in Judaism and more specifically in the genesis of the Holocaust and its meaning for the Jews and us today has been growing. The more I read, the more I see how many facets the subject has and how much I still do not know. The German historian Götz Aly has published already in 1995 a much applauded study with a very special focus: How the Nazis’ idea to regroup all European citizen of German origin inside the Reich lead to the expulsion of the Jews of their homes and ultimately to their death.

Before World War II, people of German descent lived in Poland and Russia, in the Balkans, in Italy, in the Baltic Republics and on the Black Sea coast. Heinrich Himmler’s idea was to move all these people into Germany. They would live in the houses of the expelled Jews and in the homes of those Poles who would be expelled from the Polish territories annexed by Germany and incorporated into the Reich. The new German settlers would inherit the Jews belongings, the Jews’ confiscated money would serve as their starting capital. An ambitious plan. The trouble was that there never were enough suitable homes or transport capacities to transfer millions of people from their original home to somewhere else, inside or outside the enlarged Reich.

Aly has consulted many original documents as far as they are still available. He also had to interpret many of these documents as the Nazis progressively started to use neutral terms to hide what would become known as the “final solution”: the extermination of all Jews in Europe. Initially, the plan was to group the Jews temporarily in ghettos and later in a huge, closed community in Eastern Europe, somewhere in the conquered territories of Poland and the Soviet Union. These plans came to nothing as the Germans did not achieve a decisive victory over the Soviet Union. The conquered areas were not big enough or not suited for settlements and chaos ensued. The Germans from outside the Reich were already on the move, but the Jews and the Poles had not yet left.

Intermediate solutions had to be found. Mental asylums and hospitals for disabled persons became available as the Nazis proceeded to kill this group of people. It was a temporary solution only, but it gave the SS a first occasion to test efficient killing methods like the use of carbon monoxide and later the insecticide “Zyklon B”. Another plan to resettle the Jews in Madagascar faltered when it became evident that the Germans would not be able to win decisively over the British-French alliance and thus control the sea lanes and France’s colonies in Africa. More chaos ensued. It was not helped by the fact that Nazi bureaucracy was at times paralysed by conflicting priorities (like the Wehrmacht needing trains to move tanks), by infighting, sheer incompetence and clashes between top brass like Himmler and Hans Frank, the ruler of occupied Poland, the “Generalgouvernement”.

This book is a fascinating read, but it is a tough one too. To approach the logic of killing millions of humans from the bureaucratic or administrative angle, is a challenge both for the author and for the reader. Unfortunately Aly loses himself sometimes in minute details which doesn’t help the purpose of explaining “how” the Nazis gradually began to see in the killing of millions of Jews the only way to deliver on their promises to the German people. Voluntary emigration had not fully worked, displacement and concentration shifted the “problem” east, but since the East lacked the space to accommodate millions of Jews, the Nazis – and with them the Jews – were caught in a trap.

“The internal logic of the Nazi state evolved in a tense climate caused by huge transformation and expansion plans, unstable temporary solutions and limited resources”, Aly writes. “This lead to practical constraints, high expectations and the need for action on the background of rassist values well-anchored in the German population.” And he states that the ideas the Nazis developed were absolutely rational and not really far-fetched. Which means that such an event as the Holocaust could repeat itself under similar circumstances. A horrifying idea.

Despite the very matter-of-fact tone of the book, reading it was an emotional endeavour. Actually Aly’s rational approach made the madness of the Holocaust more palpable than any personal account, with all the emotions such a narrative would transport. The desperation, the loneliness, the lack of options of the Nazis’ victims made me think of the bleak perspective Franz Schubert’s song cycle “Winter Journey” sketches:

Wandering to the Point of No Return

“Their life is short, their numbers are infinite.”

Primo Levi: Ist das ein Mensch? (Translation by Heinz Riedt, English title: If This Is a Man) ISBN 978-3-424-12395-2 ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ How can you think the unthinkable? How can you speak about the unspeakable? Primo Levi did both. Between 1945 and 1947 he wrote down what he saw, heard, smelled, tasted, felt and thought in Auschwitz. He had been deported from his Italian homeland in 1944, and the Nazis had planned to kill him slowly by having him work himself to death. They almost succeeded to destroy both his body and his soul. Luck and his will to live made it possible for him to survive until the German janitors fled from the advancing Soviet army.

“To succumb is the easiest way out”, Levi writes. “All you need to do, is to execute all orders, to eat no more than the ration [attributed to you] and to obey the discipline at your workplace and in the camp. Experience has demonstrated that one will survive only exceptionally beyond the time span of three months.” Those who succumb “have all the same story, or rather they have no story at all […] Their life is short, their numbers are infinite.”

Levi’s memories of his time in a Nazi concentration camp are to date the most impressive testimony of the Holocaust that I have read. Levi’s narrative style is resolutely non-dramatic. This sobriety is a result of his profound reflection about humanity: What defines man? How could humans do this to others? Levi tries to understand what cannot really be understood: the Germans’ mass killing of Jews, political opponents, mentally deranged people, disabled people, Roma and Sinti.

The many Levi saw die, “populate my memories having a presence but no face; and if I could sum up in one picture all the misery of our time, I would pick one that is familiar to me: a defeated man, his forehead lowered, his shoulders hunched, and with a face and eyes that show not the hint of a thought.” A living dead on the way to fade away without leaving a trace.

Levi isn’t angry. “I never hated the German people, and if I had, I would be cured by now. I cannot understand or accept that man is being judged for what group he belongs to instead of being judged for what he is”, he quotes from a letter to his German translator. That would mean repeating the Nazi logic. Levi’s wish is to testify, and specifically the translation of his book into German was meant to trigger a feedback, which would allow Levi to understand the Germans. At least that was Levi’s hope.

Levi witnessed how thousands of human beings were stripped of all that defined them as humans: their name, their honour, their religion, their belongings, their physical force and finally their life. And this is the key issue: the easiness with which the Holocaust seemed to have happened, with thousands of willing Germans and non-Germans – the Kapos – playing their little part in a huge machine. Can something similar happen again? In my opinion yes, if circumstances are right. There are easy victims and easy perpetrators. Add populism, hate-speech and a functioning burocracy… Dehumanization doesn’t take much.

In 1961, the Soviet poet Yevgeni Yevtushenko published a poem with the title “Babi Yar” remembering the victims of one of the largest war crimes committed by the Germans during World War II. It inspired Dmitry Shostakovich to write his Symphony No. 13:

Mass Murder and a Lesson in Morality

Meeting the Master of Metamorphosis

Thomas Mann: Lotte in Weimar ISBN 978-3-596-90402-0 ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ A curious thing happened to me lately. I was half-way through this book and I felt reluctant to share it with you. Bizarre. That’s not me. The book had cast a very special spell upon me, its language, the absence of any action, the long descriptions, the multi-layered message – I felt like keeping it all to myself. I had the feeling that me diving into this book was something too intimate to be shared. Very bizarre.

My reluctance however vaporized later, so here we are for another review of one more novel by the German writer and Nobel prize laureate Thomas Mann. I love Franz Kafka for some reasons and I love Thomas Mann for very different reasons. And of course I love Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, that goes without saying. The nmain idea of the novel is to portray Goethe i his many facets and his many apparent contradictions.

Different witnesses testify about the aged writer in intimate conversations with Lotte, Goethe’s first love, the woman who inspired his novel “The Sorrows of Young Werther”. Lotte, almost as old as Goethe, has come to Weimar to see the man who immortalized her, and her visit causes a sensation in the little town. The inhabitants venerate the master of German literature, and everybody wants to see the woman who inspired Goethe’s fictional Lotte. Each of those who gain access to Lotte sees the writer through a different lens, and their testimony gives the real Lotte a way to gauge her visitors and prepare for the meeting with Goethe, a meeting that she has been looking for, a meeting she is apprehensive of at the same time.

In these conversations, Thomas Mann picks up a couple of subjects he has written about in other works. One is the German-French antagonism in politics and aesthetics, that soured the relations between the two countries during the 19th century. It reflected among others a presumed difference in national characters and in types of morality, the subject that permeates Mann’s essay “Reflections of a Nonpolitical Man“. Mann, through the words and thoughts of Goethe himself, also attacks the Romantic Zeitgeist of the first half of the 19th century in Germany, a time when writers, painters and musicians were rebelling against the ideals of the Weimar Classic era and against Goethe’s generation.

Mann portrays Goethe through several levels of conflicts: personal, social, artistic and political. What I find remarkable is Mann’s talent in creating the illusion of reporting from the 19th century in the language of Goethe’s time. It may appear a little cumbersome, but it gives the novel a singular authenticity. It is no longer Mann telling the story, the characters themselves seem to be reporting live from the Weimar of 1816 and push the story forward. As I said, there is hardly any real action, but Mann was a clever story-teller creating tension, stretching the patience of the reader to the limit and beginning a new chapter with a new angle on Goethe just at the right time. Wonderful!

Goethe appears as a tyrant in personal affairs and as a political man: He doesn’t think too much about the freedom of the press, he appears as a law-and-order proponent, and his admiration for Napoleon even after the latter’s fall knows no bounds. He is open to flattery by the rulers, seems to look down on women, he is easily seduced by the comfort a public office provides and strictly opposed to any revolutionary ideas of the youth. In Mann’s portray, Goethe is shown as a politically conservative and anti-democratic person while asking at the same time for a high degree of tolerance for his own liberal lifestyle and the freedom of his own literary and scientific ambitions.

In his own introspection, Goethe justifies his desire to live, to enjoy, to create as the only way to transcend death – physical, moral and spiritual death. This end seems to justify any means, the exhibition of other people’s intimacies in literary works included. The great master also touches a highly sensitive subject: Germany’s identity. Goethe’s distance to Germany mirrors Mann’s distance to his home country. They both do not really trust their contemporaries. Goethe was wary of the young Romantic revolutionaries, while Mann abhorred the Nazis who had taken over the country and forced him to flee. The big question in 1816 and in 1939, when “Lotte on Weimar” was published, was: Who can legitimately claim to represent Germany? And who may legitimately claim to represent Germany today? The embattled chancellor Angela Merkel? The populistic nationalists from the AfD-party? Mann’s novel proves to be unexpected food for thought!

There are a few more surprises in this novel, which I will not reveal as I do not want to spoil your reading pleasure. Goethe and Lotte first meet in a stiff and semi-public context, seen through the eyes of Lotte, and a second time in a more intimate context. Mann demonstrates his excellence as narrator here. The emotional showdown between the two characters is sublime, a witty conclusion, thrilling to read, revealing Mann’s deep affection for the fate of two imagined human beings with their contradictions, their faults, fears and sacrifices. “Emotions are everything that is”, Goethe at some point confesses, and their metamorphosis is his own personal obsession.

Both Thomas Mann and the Romantic composer Robert Schumann were big fans of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe and Schumann composed an overture inspired by Goethe’s epic poem “Hermann and Dorothea”:

Schumann, Heroism and the Fate of Refugees

Traveling back in time for a cup of tea with Goethe

Bruno Preisendörfer: Als Deutschland noch nicht Deutschland war. Reise in die Goethezeit. ISBN 978-3-86971-110-2 ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ Would like to know how Johann Wolfgang von Goethe spent his day? Or in what kind of bed he slept? Perhaps you would be fascinated by the myriads of problems a traveler trying to cross Germany at the end of the 18th and the beginning of the 19th century had to face? Passport issues, the fear of being robbed, whom to bribe, how to avoid the lost or the damage of your luggage… And would you have thought of the necessity to take a pillow with you on the coach? You probably have not the faintest idea about the link between serf-bondage and the technique of ploughing a field. Nor would you know about the different schooling system, the peasants’ resistance to modern agricultural methods or and how the philosopher Immanuel Kant from Königsberg found a highly original way to quench his thirst at night without leaving his bed.

Bruno Preisendörfer has written a curious and highly interesting book in which he presents all the facets of life in Germany during the “Weimarer Klassik” (1786-2832), an era named after the intellectual aura emanating from Goethe’s residence town. The many curiosities, painstakingly researched, make this book worthwhile reading and highly entertaining. Middle-class families in Dresden for example would rather spend money on fashionable clothes than on nutritious food. Goethe’s friend Friedrich Schiller spent a sixth of his annual budget on tobacco, wine, beer, coffee and tea. And would you have guessed that magnetism had the reputation of healing all kind of ailments if only you had unconditional faith in the healer and a generous hand?

Needless to say that I laughed a lot about such anecdotes, while the plain facts and figures about extreme poverty, high child mortality rates and the working conditions in the early industrial age make our current day labour conflicts look like a walk in the park. Torture during judicial proceedings, public hangings and wide-spread censorship show a less familiar side of Germany during the Enlightenment. Traveling back in time with Goethe and Preisendörfer was a fine reading experience and a useful reminder for me not to complain too much about whatever. I live a privileged life, even compared to Goethe or King Frederic II of Prussia.

This book is about traveling and Franz Schubert, a contemporary of Goethe, wrote a wonderful song cycle about a “Winter Journey”:

Wandering to the Point of No Return

A Wise Man Fighting For a Better Society

Stephen Tree: Moses Mendelssohn. ISBN 978-3-499-50671-0 ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️ Moses Mendelssohn, one of the most influental thinkers of the Enlightenment, is exercising a growing fascination upon me. Stephen Tree’s book is a short and concise account of Mendelssohn’s life and his difficult position in Germany. As a philosopher he had many admirers and patrons, but as a Jew he had few rights as a citizen. Intellectually he certainly was superior to most of his contemporaries, but as a Jew he was an easy target for base Anti-semitic attacks.

However, two centuries after Mendelssohn’s birth not even the Nazis succeeded in erasing the memory of one of the greatest German Jews. Mendelssohn’s defence of the immortality of the soul, his ideas about the relation between religion and politics, expressed in his work “Jerusalem”, his effort to modernize Judaism and to reconcile it with rationalism and his lifelong fight for a peaceful co-existence of Jews and Christians rank among his most important contributions to the intellectual life in Europe during the 18th century. When I come to think of it, we could do with a few Mendelssohns to clear out the fog in some politicians’ minds and prevent them from compromising our social and economic future. And it will not be the last time you will hear of Moses here on this blog.

When he was a young man, Moses Mendelssohn took harpsichord lessons and frustrated his teacher with his inability to keep time. Here is a piece performed with utmost precision, written by a contemporary of Mendelssohn: Carl Philipp Emmanuel Bach’s Keyboard Concerto in E Major:

Time to Compose, Time to Rejoice