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Studies of Nazis Come to No Consensus

Three new histories offer differing answers to the questions of how and why Hitler and the Holocaust happened. BOOKS

G"OERING: A BIOGRAPHY by David Irving, New York: Morrow, 573 pp., $22.95


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by Arno Mayer, New York: Pantheon, 492 pp., $27.95

UNANSWERED QUESTIONS: NAZI GERMANY AND THE GENOCIDE OF THE JEWS edited by Fran,cois Furet, New York: Schocken Books, 392 pp., $29.95

HITLER'S centenary has largely been ignored outside Germany and Austria: Why commemorate so horrendous an event? A century after his birth and 44 years after his death, the Hitler era still puzzles the general audience with frightening questions of how and why. Contradictory explanations prevail: Consensus is lacking, especially regarding the Holocaust, which stands clearly as the uniquely defining event of Hitler's regime.

The world has experienced dictators, conquerors, and massacres in plenty. But never before was there a systematically organized attempt to exterminate everyone - from the feeblest granny to the tiniest infant - in a particular racial or religious group. This Hitler visited upon us, with every imperative of ideology, bureaucracy, and perverted social engineering: The details remain confusing, even as scholars continue to dig.

Most historians reject the temptation to dismiss Hitler's reign as a decade of collective madness, of manipulation through fear, fraud, and force by a demonic Pied Piper, a ``psychopathic god,'' in W.H. Auden's phrase. European conservatives often take this line, linking it to unemployment, the defeat of 1918, the communist ``menace,'' and the rise of a so-called ``mass man,'' whom Hitler mesmerized. Leftists, by contrast, blame German big business and capitalists generally, along with their British and French counterparts, for welcoming this anticommunist savior. And there is the Cassandra explanation `a la Churchill: If only the West had called Hitler's bluff, he would have been toppled and war prevented.

THE Hitler question exploded loudly in 1977, when David Irving, a British popular writer on World War II, created an international furor with ``Hitler's War.'' This book presented a reasonable, almost benign, eminently human Hitler, out to save Europe from a barbaric, ``Asian'' Russia, but foiled by a spiteful Churchill. The Holocaust, Irving insisted, was triggered by Heinrich Himmler and Reinhard Heydrich; Hitler knew nothing, and Irving offered a monetary reward to anyone who could find a signed order to the contrary.

Irving is recycling these arguments in ``G"oering: A Biography.'' Now it is Hermann G"oering, head of the Luftwaffe and long Hitler's closest lieutenant, who is portrayed as a man of peace, an opponent of war in 1939 and of the invasion of Russia in 1941. Yes, Irving admits, G"oering was a bit of a ruffian, ruthless in ``acquiring'' art, cash, jewelry, costumes, and all manner of baubles - not to mention morphine.

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That such destructive self-indulgence reflected Nazi decadence at its worst means nothing to Irving. His primary concern is G"oering's alleged common-sense pragmatism, his opposition to war and communism. Surely he - and of course Hitler - could have saved Europe from destruction, if only Churchill had met them halfway? The price was German hegemony in Europe, but Hitler would have preserved the British Empire against those sweet-talking Americans and evil Soviets. So argued many ``reasonable'' Germans in 1938 and after; David Irving stands with them.

The result is a slippery and insidious narrative, its curt and impressionistic style hard to penetrate, with the rehabilitation of G"oering and Hitler as its key purpose. Irving is too little interested in political and strategic issues to build a coherent case: The book stumbles forward, finally collapsing under its own sheer dead weight.

Irving treats the Holocaust as a mere sideshow, about which the world fusses too much. Not so with Arno Mayer, who attempts in ``Why Did the Heavens Not Darken?'' to place the Holocaust in context, assessing its significance and its place in European history.

Was it simply another massacre, ``like all the others'' (Mayer rehashes the killings of European Jews that accompanied the First Crusade in 1095-99)? How much did it owe to traditional anti-Semitism, that of pogroms and persecution, but not extermination? Was the Holocaust inherent in Nazism - were Hitler's anti-Semitic outbursts in, say, 1920, a signal for Auschwitz - or were they triggered by wartime circumstances?

These are vital questions, and Mayer is a serious historian. But all his work is marred by a more-or-less Marxist focus on the struggle between left and right, revolution and counterrevolution (good and evil) as the vital pivot of 20th-century Europe. An ancient regime, clinging stubbornly to power against democratic pressures, and even unleashing war to defend its interests; President Wilson and Lenin, locked in ideological competition before an exhausted world; the cold war as simply the latest chapter in this international class struggle; the Soviet Union as a force for progress, despite numerous failures and transgression: Here is Mayer's formulaic vision of history.

So he presents German capitalists as flocking to Hitler's banner, and as accepting the Nazi identification of Jewry with communism, while the European right cheered for Barbarossa, the name for Hitler's invasion of Soviet Russia. Only the courageous left stood for democracy and tolerance in Nazified Europe, as fleeing Jews quickly discovered. Much of this is true, but it is also irrelevant to the key question of when and why the Final Solution began. Here Mayer stumbles badly.

The time, he insists, was Dec. 1941 to Jan. 1942, with the notorious Wannsee Conference as a key event. Realizing that the repulse before Moscow meant ultimate defeat, the Nazis turned ferociously on the Jews, as a consolation prize, salvaging what they could by exterminating ``the Judeocommunist enemy.'' Reality, however, was otherwise. Nazi preparations for the Final Solution marched with those for Barbarossa in the spring of 1941, nearly nine months before Mayer fixes a date. Large-scale massacres of the Jews, though sporadic and unsystematic, began with the invasion itself on June 22, 1941; the gas chambers came in 1942. Moreover, the failures before Moscow were seen in Berlin as setbacks, not a decisive defeat. Only in 1943, after sustained losses in Russia and North Africa, did ultimate defeat begin to seem possible.

Mayer's commitment to a highly politicalized history, his penchant for broad brush strokes, which sidestep strategic and military issues, simply blinds him to the facts. So it does with Irving as well. Both have shucked off the intellectual accountability that underlies the time-honored discipline of footnotes and sources (Irving does indeed deploy a few footnotes, but these are virtually unverifiable), with disastrous results.

For a corrective to politicalized history, and a demonstration of traditional history-writing at its best, there is editor Fran,cois Furet's ``Unanswered Questions: Nazi Germany and the Genocide of the Jews.'' Fifteen essays by leading international authorities reach from the ideological precursors of Nazi anti-Semitism to the death camps themselves, from Nazi decision-making to Jewish resistance and the ambivalent responses of Christians throughout Europe. This will stand for years as the best, clearest, most balanced book on a horrifying subject.

Certain conclusions are evident. First, anti-Semitism was absolutely central to Nazism. It grew more vicious as Hitler's lieutenants sought his favor in their competition for power. Hence Himmler and the S.S. police took over the Final Solution, turning Hitler's bloodthirsty fantasies into reality.

Second, the overstretched S.S. required for success a ``favorable'' - aggressively anti-Semitic - environment. The acquiescence of European Christians and the cooperation of local authorities was vital. These conditions existed in Germany itself and most of Eastern Europe, but far less so in Italy, Scandinavia, and conquered Western Europe. Most French and Italian Jews survived; nearly all Polish Jews perished. Bulgaria, a German satellite, demonstrated that Jews could be protected and the S.S. foiled.

Third, in a quiet, scholarly way, this book disproves the argument that the Final Solution was unstoppable. To the contrary: Its success depended on 10s of thousands of non-Nazi and non-German officials, railwaymen, and police. Only rarely did they feel sufficient solidarity with the endangered Jews to do anything whatever in their behalf.

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