Book review: The Fate of the Jews 1933-1949 by David Cesarani

February 18, 2016
Macmillan, £30

At the outset of his monumental study, David Cesarani laments the “yawning gulf” between popular perceptions of the Holocaust and current scholarship. “Perspectives on the catastrophe are changing,” he writes, “yet this is barely reflected in the reproduction of an agreed but ageing narrative.” Cesarani’s legacy—he died in October—is this harrowing book, which will help bridge that chasm.

Seared into the popular consciousness is the image of deportations and extermination camps, of bureaucratic efficiency and brutal scientific methods. By emphasising the inconsistencies in Nazi policy and the muddle, improvisation and primitive savagery on the ground, Cesarani gives a more nuanced account of the numerous “overlapping genocides” that raged across Europe. The Final Solution was “low-cost and low-tech,” disorganised, and experienced in countless different ways. If anything, his portrayal of the Holocaust accentuates the horror.

Unlike many books about the Holocaust, Cesarani puts military history centre stage. Nothing, he argues, determined the fate of the Jews more than the twists and turns of the conflict, not even Hitler’s anti-Semitism. By the end of 1941, with the war going badly, the Third Reich “faced a food crisis and a security crisis,” which it blamed on the Jews. Hitler also attributed the entry of the United States into the war to Jewish machinations. No longer could the “solution” be postponed. First German military failure, then a series of blunders by the Allies, proved catastrophic for the Jews. With his ability to bring coherence to the confusion of genocide and connect those narratives to geopolitical events, Cesarani makes us rethink the Holocaust.