Hitler caused the Holocaust, that much we know (no Hitler, no Holocaust). But did he directly order it and, if so, how and when? This is one of the many interesting questions posed by Hilary Earl in her outstanding new book The Nuremberg SS-Einsatzgruppen Trial, 1945-1958: Atrocity, Law, and History (Cambridge UP, 2009). The book is about the trial of the leaders of the Einsatzgruppen, the mobile killing units that, in 1941 and 1942, spearheaded the Nazi effort to eradicate the Jewish people. The Einsatzgruppen murdered something on the order of a million people using almost nothing but firearms. In 1947, their commanders were brought to justice in what might be called the “other” (forgotten) Nuremberg Trials. The trial left an enormous body of reasonably fresh-after-the-fact testimony for historians to work with in trying to understand this episode in the Holocaust. Hilary does a masterful job of mining this material. She also points out that the roots of our own understanding of the Holocaust can in large measure be traced to these disturbing trials. The defendants were the first Nazi genocidaires to publicly describe what they had done and why they had done it. To be sure, their testimony was self-serving and is therefore suspect. But–and this is perhaps the most remarkable part–in many instances it was remarkably accurate. They (and Otto Ohlendorf in particular) “told it like it was” because they believed they had not really done anything wrong. Hitler had said that the Jews were the mortal enemies of the Reich; they believed him. Thus when Hitler ordered them to kill the Jews man, woman, and child they were not particularly conflicted–they were simply following orders, orders they believed to be in the objective interest of Germany. Just how they came to hold this completely irrational view is another, and very interesting, question. For those interested in it, I refer you to Claudia Koonz, The Nazi Conscience (Harvard UP, 2003).
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