Why Did the Heavens Not Darken?
The tenth anniversary of Adolf Hitler’s ascent to power in Germany fell on January 30, 1943. That milestone called for Nazi celebration, but the days of the Third Reich were numbered. Although unprepared to admit that fact at such an early date, Hitler did know that the tide had turned in his war for Lebensraum (living space) in Eastern Europe and Soviet Russia.
When World War II began with the invasion of Poland on September 1, 1939, and especially as the decisive onslaught against Soviet Russia followed on June 22, 1941, Hitler exuded confidence that his Thousand-Year Reich would soon be fully established. Eighteen months of warfare on the eastern front—its violence, arguably, more atrocious and far-reaching than any known before—changed his tone. Concern for the survival of an old Europe, more than the creation of a new one, came to the fore as Hitler urged his tenth-anniversary listeners to comprehend that Germany must prevail or “bolshevism, coming from the east, will sweep over the Continent.”
Arno J. Mayer, a professor of European history at Princeton University, locates the “final solution”—the Nazi euphemism for a program to settle the so-called Jewish question—in the vicissitudes of Hitler’s war aims. Nationalistic, imperialistic, ethnocentric, and racist all at once, those aims, Mayer stresses, were part and parcel of a fanatically anti-Communist ideology. It found Jews at the heart of “bolshevism,” the most virulent threat that Hitler saw conspiring to thwart his dreams. Typically, Hitler and the Nazis spoke of “Judeo-bolshevism,” reifying communism and the Jewish people into a single entity. Although not immediately, and never without fits and starts, the Nazi regime would evolve and escalate toward making that entity the target for a twentieth century crusade. While more excessive, it would be reminiscent of the Church’s zeal to “cleanse” Europe and the Holy Land of Jewish and Muslim “infidels” nearly a millennium ago.
Mayer’s book—elegantly written but, unfortunately, lacking source notes to help those who want to track his arguments further—takes its title from that earlier crusade. An eleventh century chronicle kept by a Jewish survivor, Solomon bar Simson, describes the savagery inflicted on Jews in the German city of Mainz in May, 1096. This Church-sponsored mass homicide prompted him to lament, “Why did the heavens not darken and the stars not withhold their radiance, why did not the sun and moon turn dark?” If he got no answer, neither does Mayer put the question to rest. Rightly letting it linger, Mayer provides instead an interpretation of the “Judeocide”—his preferred name for the Holocaust or the so-called final solution—as comprehensive, provocative, and controversial as any heretofore.
Mayer himself narrowly escaped the Judeocide. A native of Luxembourg, he was a Jewish boy of fourteen when the German Blitzkrieg swept through much of Western Europe in May, 1940. Mayer and his family fled to France, then to Morocco and Portugal, before obtaining the papers that gave them safe passage to the United States in early 1941. Not every member of Mayer’s family was so lucky. His maternal grandparents, for example, were deported to Theresienstadt (also known as Terezín), a concentration camp near the Czech city of Prague. Mayer’s grandmother survived, but his grandfather perished there in December, 1943.
Personal experience, including time in the U.S. Army from 1944 to 1946, during which Mayer interrogated German prisoners, eventually combined with his scholarly expertise in European history to compel him to write this book. Similar factors have driven other historians—including Raul Hilberg and Yehuda Bauer, to cite only two of the most prominent examples—to probe the Holocaust. Even as Mayer’s work draws on previous scholarship as well as his own archival research, however, its revisions yield an account that differs substantially from all the others.
The book does so, first, because of its comprehensive scope. Mayer not only contextualizes the Judeocide by making it a function of “Nazi Germany’s dual resolve to acquire living space in the east and liquidate the Soviet regime” but also situates the European theater of World War II in a larger twentieth century framework and compares that entire configuration with other tumultuous times in Western civilization—specifically, the First Christian Crusade of 1095 to 1099 and the Thirty Years’ War that ravaged Europe from 1618 to 1648.
By means of such large-scale historical comparisons, which are an important part of Mayer’s “overarching interpretive construct” to explain the horrors of the “final solution,” the author argues that events akin to the Holocaust had already happened. The period from 1914 to 1945—from the onset of World War I to the end of World War Il—was one of general crisis that violently convulsed Europe and indeed the world. The seventeenth century had seen European Protestants and Catholics pitted against each other, their protracted strife assuming hideous proportions. A similar scenario unfolded three centuries later, reaching its climax in a fiery, latter-day “religious” crusade as Hitler and the Nazis went forth to destroy the “Judeo-bolshevik” infidel and to secure the dominion they claimed the Third Reich deserved.
If nothing exactly like the Judeocide had happened before, Mayer thinks the differences are insufficient to legitimate the claim that the enormity of Jewish plight under Hitler was “absolutely unprecedented, completely sui generis, and thus beyond historical reimagining.” Nor was the destruction of the European Jews a process essentially modern or controlled primarily by cool, bureaucratic rationality. Such elements did play a part; for example, the coordinated railroad transports that took Jews from all over Europe to concentration camps and especially to killing centers in German-occupied Poland were a vital means to the end. Mayer finds elsewhere, however, “the` underlying motor forces” that propelled Europe into the “final solution.”
The name that Mayer eventually applies to the Nazi state and its enterprises—the Behemoth—sums up in a word his interpretation of those forces and their “final solution.” A behemoth grows and becomes a beast of monstrous size and power. Less than completely self-conscious and self-controlled, not knowing in advance all that it can do, such a creature acts with a vengeance nevertheless. Crucially important, moreover,...
(The entire section is 2689 words.)