Excerpt from interview with Professor Christopher Browning, the Pacific Lutheran University in Tacoma, Washington
March, 1997, Tacoma, Washington
Interviewer: Ephraim Kaye
In your own book, you talk about the Jew hunts and the parties that they held, celebrating the number of Jews killed, or those that killed more. How do you explain these ?
Nothing in my book was intended to say there isn't a significant core of eager killers. I used that term “eager killer” in the book long before other books came along. Nothing in my book was intended to downplay the degree of horror and gratuitous cruelty that was carried out. Certainly when my book first came out, many people's reaction was, My God, could it possibly have been that terrible? So, I think if we put ourselves back into 1992 when the book first came out, certainly the impression it created then was not one of minimizing German atrocities or not recognizing that there was a group of eager killers within this kind of unit.
The question that has emerged since then is whether this was the behavior of everyone in all the units? Is this in fact the mentality of the entire German people? And insofar as we can get into spectral breakdown within a unit, the evidence that I've been able to find recently does not indicate that at all. For instance, I'm working on a particular case now. It was an unplanned, unauthorized massacre of Jews in the village of Marcinkance in the Bialystok district. It was investigated because one of the people in the unit that was supposed to deport these people to a transit camp protested because a shootout took place, and they shot everybody on the spot. At the investigation, a very antisemitic police officer came down and interviewed six or seven of these people, so we have reports from a number of people, and, unlike postwar testimony, there was every incentive for the men to exaggerate their antisemitism and their role and contribution to killing the Jews. But out of a unit of seventeen men, there were four or five eager killers. There were six or seven people who stood by the fence and shot escaping Jews who tried to get beyond the wire, which is what they were ordered to do, i.e., standard operating procedure. There were three people, as best as I can tell, who didn't shoot. A fourth protested and a fifth committed suicide on the eve of the action rather than show up. Thus we find a spectrum that goes from the extreme of four or five people who sought the opportunity to kill, to the other end that didn't take part, and a rare documented case of a suicide right on the morning that he was supposed to report to the ghetto clearing action.
It is that spectrum of layered behavior that I'm trying to capture, because I find that much more challenging as a historian to narrate and to flush out. I also find it much more troubling in the end, because it means that regimes can harness a population to mass murder, in which the bulk of them are not fanatical eager killers, but the killing takes place anyway. This is a much more dangerous world, this is a much more pessimistic view of the human condition, I think, than to have the view that only certain cultures with a uniform eagerness to kill can carry out genocide.
Going to a different topic — the Final Solution, and the idea that the decision to kill the Jews crystallizes at a certain point in time. What are your views on this aspect of the Final Solution, when it crystallized, and who gave the order?
Two starting points. One, Hitler from the beginning was obsessed with the “Jewish Question” and wanted a solution to it one way or another — as Goering said in 1938. And the second starting point was that Hitler did interpret the world in racial terms and saw the world as a racial struggle in which unfettered violence in fact was the path to victory. So it was a regime both committed deeply to antisemitism, and a regime that celebrated violence and had absolutely no qualms about taking human life. Human life individually did not count, it was the life of the Volk that counted. Given those two things, obviously it's no accident or fluke that the Nazis arrived at mass murder programs against a number of their enemies. We know the Nazis had mass murder programs for the mentally and physically handicapped in Germany, to remove what they considered the inferior gene pool within the German race, just as they had a mass murder program against Jews, who were the most hated and most focused-upon racial group on the outside.
On the other hand I don't believe Hitler premeditated all of this in the sense that he had a clear vision of a systematic mass murder program. I think that Nazi Jewish policy evolved in a way in which he, as well as other Nazi leaders, were feeling their way, that they were responding to changing circumstances, changing opportunities, changing confidence in what they could get away with, and how they could make history in unique way. So I see Nazi Jewish policy as an evolution that is shaped by these underlying driving factors of violence and antisemitism, but one in which the Nazis themselves didn't know exactly where they were going in fact until they got there — and they got there in the summer of 1941. Their vision between 1939 and 1941 I think is a vision of what we now call “ethnic cleansing " a vast racial — engineering of Europe, chasing out, decimating certain populations and elevating others; and the whole notion of bringing back Germans to repopulate totally cleansed lands is an extraordinary vision. It's all within a racial framework, and within that racial framework, of course, Jews were at the very bottom of the racial hierarchy. But I think those policies in 1939 and 1941 were meant seriously; I don't think they were considered as alibis or as covers or camouflage, as if the Nazis were simply waiting to do what they knew they wanted to do all along, but had to pretend that they were doing something in the meantime. I think things like the Lublin Reservation or the Madagascar Plan were meant seriously, not only by the bureaucrats who were planning them, but I think by Hitler himself, and by Himmler. My own feeling is if you want to know what Hitler was thinking, you should look at what Himmler was doing, because Himmler and Hitler, in this period, were very much in synchronization. Himmler rose to such great power because he intuited what Hitler wanted. He understood Hitler, his prophecies, his exhortations, his wishes, better than others, and cast them into concrete programs. And what Himmler was doing between 1939 and 1941 was carrying out vast schemes of ethnic cleansing and racial and demographic reorganization.
The barrier, you might say, was breached most dramatically with the war of destruction against the Soviet Union, where even before the invasion Himmler talked about the 30 or 40 million people too many that were going to have to disappear. This, in a sense, opened the door to all sorts of mass murder programs. In addition to the starvation of Russian prisoners of war, they moved quickly into the systematic mass murder of Soviet Jewry within six to eight weeks of the invasion of the Soviet Union. Still, I don't think that that plan was already fixed in their minds with orders already given for it. Rather, with the great success they experienced, they moved fairly naturally into the opportunity then presented, certainly against Soviet Jewry by the summer of 1941 when they thought that resistance was virtually over and the Soviet Union was about to collapse. My own feeling is that that this was then extended to the rest of European Jewry in the fall of 1941, early October of 1941 If I were to put a date on it, it would be the first week or ten days of October 1941, that Hitler gave his approval to the plans that he had solicited earlier.
For instance, I would interpret the Goering authorization, that Heydrich drafted and brought for his signature not as an order for the Final Solution, but an authorization to carry out a feasibility study, to draw up possible plans, and these were brought back to Hitler in September, and by early October, I think, he had approved them. The whole notion of death camps and gas chambers and a mechanism of deportation from countries all over Europe was not selfevident. That had to be invented, and I think that there was an incremental decision-making process in which these things were weighed and considered. Then they were brought back to Hitler. There was some hesitation, and the evidence, I think, indicates most probably that it was in the first week of October that Hitler said yes, that's what we will do.
Source: The Multimedia CD ‘Eclipse of Humanity’, Yad-Vashem, Jerusalem 2000.