Yaron Pasher. Holocaust versus Wehrmacht: How Hitler's "Final Solution" Undermined the German War Effort. Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2014. xiii + 364 pp. $34.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-7006-2006-7.
Reviewed by Edward Westermann (Texas A&M University, San Antonio)
Published on H-War (November, 2015)
Commissioned by Margaret Sankey (Air War College)
Gerhard Weinberg, the dean of German diplomatic historians, has long argued that the German military campaigns of World War II and the events of the Holocaust cannot be separated and must be considered together as an integral whole. Indeed, over the last two decades historians of the Holocaust and the German military have increasingly identified the linkages between military operations and Nazi plans for the racial restructuring of Europe, including the destruction of the European Jews. Yaron Pasher’s Holocaust versus Wehrmacht provides an important addition to this literature in a study aimed at exposing “the impact the resources invested in annihilating European Jewry had on the Wehrmacht and its operational abilities” (p. 281). In this regard, Pasher’s work is a natural but innovative extension of previous studies that demonstrated the tension between ideology and economics within the Third Reich as SS planning for the implementation of the “Final Solution of the Jewish question” resulted in severe economic consequences for the overall German war effort. This earlier historiography revealed that Heinrich Himmler, Reich leader of the SS and chief of the German police, focused his SS and police empire on the annihilation of the European Jews even in the face of pragmatic (not moral) protests from the Wehrmacht and Nazi officials in the occupied East concerning the detrimental impact of these policies on wartime production. Pasher reframes this issue by examining the tension between ideology and military effectiveness. In his view, the political imperative driving the annihilation of the European Jews not only outweighed economic considerations, but even military and operational requirements at critical junctures in the war. He argues, “Hitler recognized an opportunity [for the annihilation of the Jews], and he was not about to let it slip away. This insight made him try and adjust his future foreign policy and military strategy to fit these ideological opportunities” (p. 282).
In approaching this topic, Pasher focuses on the organization, policies, and capabilities associated with the German military and civilian logistics infrastructure, specifically the Reichsbahn, or German Railway Service. He asserts, “Train allocation for transporting German Jews to the East had to be balanced with trains carrying ammunition, fuel, food, and other requisites. This is the key to understanding the symbiotic relationship between the Final Solution and the war effort” (p. 41). He perceptively argues that these transports, although a small percentage of the overall daily German rail traffic, should not be judged in absolute numbers, but relative to the time and place of their movements. In his analysis, Pasher examines four major events in the European war that serve as case studies for evaluating the logistical consequences of the Nazi anti-Semitic mania on the successful prosecution of military operations, including (1) Operation Typhoon (i.e., the battle for Moscow) and German Jewish deportations to the East in 1941; (2) Operation Reinhard and the battle for Stalingrad in 1942-43; (3) the Battle of Kursk, the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising, the Allied invasion of Sicily, and killing operations at the death camps in 1943; and (4) the extermination of the Hungarian Jews and the Allied invasion of Normandy in 1944. Pasher evaluates these events by looking at the opportunity costs incurred to military operations by the use of the Reichsbahn to transport Jews to their deaths instead of using this rail capacity to move supplies, equipment, and personnel to the combat fronts.
The answers to be found in this line of inquiry have the potential to provide significant and original insights into debates surrounding Adolf Hitler’s role in the Final Solution, the acquiescence (if not participation) of the Wehrmacht in the process of annihilation, as well as the central role played by logistics in the ultimate defeat of Nazi Germany. The primary sources used in approaching this intriguing analysis are impressive and demonstrate wide research in German, British, Israeli, and American archives. In contrast, the omission of several recent and important secondary sources that have direct impact on Pasher’s conclusions weakens the work and raises questions about specific elements of the argument. For example, since the focus of Pasher’s argument involves logistics and the resupply of German forces, the absence of references to either Christian Gerlach’s or Alexander Kay’s work on the so-called Hunger Plan is perplexing. This plan proposed by German bureaucrats prior to the invasion of Russia demanded the ruthless confiscation of Soviet food resources in order to supply the Wehrmacht, with the explicit understanding that this would lead to the deaths of tens of millions of Soviet civilians due to starvation. While Pasher does refer to the policy of the “main office of the Reich for food supply ... forcing the troops to survive on what they could find within the Soviet Union, mainly by looting the local population,” the absence of a specific and detailed discussion of the process and details of the Hunger Plan is an important omission, especially since this plan materially affected the entire logistical plan for German forces in the East. Similarly, the absence of any reference to Adam Tooze’s monumental work on the German war economy is puzzling. In fact, Tooze provides comprehensive information on key elements of the German economy, including the abysmal condition of the Reichsbahn prior to the war, as well as a strategic context for evaluating the state of Nazi economic power during the war. In the case of the former, Tooze’s argument about the serious shortage of German rolling stock and the “disastrous rail crisis of the winter of 1939-40” could have been used to support Pasher’s argument. In contrast, Tooze’s analysis of the strategic context of German and Soviet wartime production and his contention that “by July 1943 the war was obviously lost” offers a critical rejoinder to an assumption that lies at the heart of Pasher’s overall argument.
One of the key assumptions undergirding Pasher’s entire argument relates to the belief that even as late as the summer of 1944, Hitler and the Nazi government still had a reasonable chance of either winning the war or gaining a negotiated peace. This assumption has several important implications for the specific case studies chosen in the work, from Operation Typhoon and the battle for Moscow in late 1941 to the invasion of Normandy and the breakout from the beaches in the summer of 1944. In the case of the first, Pasher cites David Stahel’s pathbreaking work, Operation Barbarossa and Germany’s Defeat in the East (2009), on two occasions, but he does not engage with Stahel’s thesis that the failure of the Wehrmacht to conquer the Soviet Union by the end of August 1941 essentially doomed their campaign in the East to failure, a thesis also found in three of Stahel’s subsequent works on the war in the East. Certainly, Pasher can choose to agree or disagree with the findings of Tooze or Stahel in his own research, but it is the failure to engage with these seminal works that constitutes, in the mind of this reviewer, a critical oversight. To be sure, Pasher has a number of excellent secondary sources but the omission of those discussed above and others, including Raul Hilberg’s foundational work on the “Special Trains” to Auschwitz, detracts from his argument and at some points creates the appearance of an argument that has been stretched or overdrawn.
From a theoretical point of view, Pasher’s repeated assertions that “just one more division” might have turned the tide in a specific battle or campaign is certainly plausible. However, this assumes that this “extra” infantry or panzer division would have arrived with the necessary supplies and equipment at the right place, at the right time, with sufficient time to detrain at the rail head and move to battle positions. It also makes the assumption of ceteris paribus, that all other things remain the same, and that the adversary would have been unable to react by shifting his own forces or reserves or by changing his own operational plan. From a practical point of view, such reasoning is somewhat problematic since one could also point to factors that might prevent the effective employment of these “extra” German forces, including the Soviet advantage of interior lines for shifting reserves or the benefit enjoyed by Russian defenders in prepared positions as Wehrmacht forces exhausted themselves upon the layered defenses outside of Moscow in late 1941. Similarly, Allied air superiority over the beaches and coast of France during the cross-channel invasion in 1944 provides another example; a superiority that not only allowed Allied tactical aircraft to roam freely and inflict debilitating losses on German forces, but a superiority that prevented German tactical airpower from doing the same to Allied forces. Likewise, Pasher’s contention that the German army in western Europe in 1944 “was still stronger and more powerful than the army that invaded France in May 1940” may well be true, but such an assertion must also include a comparison of “relative strengths” that admits the exponential improvement of Allied air, sea, and ground forces in the same period (p. 283). Similarly, the claim concerning an increase in the size of the Luftwaffe’s “quota” of airplanes in January 1944 and the peaking of synthetic fuel production in April 1944 does not take into account the debilitating shortage of fully trained and combat-ready pilots or the disastrous curtailments to pilot training caused by fuel shortages at individual airfields that substantially affected the ability of the Luftwaffe to contest control of the skies over Europe, much less over France and the Low Countries (p. 230). Certainly, Pasher is correct in arguing that military history is replete with examples of the “thin margin” between victory and defeat, but such an argument has a high threshold of proof if it is to move beyond the realm of cautious speculation.
In addition to these criticisms, there are several places within the manuscript that would have benefited from additional sourcing. For example, the discussion of the key role allegedly played by the US gangster Charles “Lucky” Luciano in facilitating the successful invasion of Sicily in 1943 (pp. 189-190) is supported by one footnote of very questionable validity—Otto Skorzeny’s My Commando Operations (see footnote 16, p. 314). Similarly, the contention that “the Omaha beach landing was almost a failure, largely as a result of the unwillingness of General Omar Bradley, commander in chief of the American ground forces [i.e., 12th US Army Group], to address the essential tactical problems confronted by an amphibious assault on prepared defenses ...” certainly deserves a supporting citation (p. 237). Additionally, the uncited contention that Himmler “had the power to control the number of combat SS forces [i.e., Waffen-SS] wherever and whenever he wished” is somewhat misleading since Wehrmacht commanders assumed operational control over these forces at the combat front and Himmler could not unilaterally decide to withdraw them during combat operations (p. 190). Finally, although I normally do not remark on editing issues, it is apparent that there are some avoidable errors of fact and syntax throughout the work, including the presence of “Theodore” Roosevelt (vice Franklin Delano Roosevelt) at the Tehran conference (p. 236), the identification of Friedrich Krieger (vice Friedrich Wilhelm Krüger) as the higher SS and police leader in the General Government (p. 120), and an unfortunate sentence construction that reads, “Until June 7, an average of seven or eight trains transported approximately 290,000 people to Auschwitz daily” (p. 251, emphasis added).
In spite of these criticisms, I still find that Yaron Pasher offers an important, if in some respects flawed, addition to the literature on the Holocaust and World War II. Admittedly, some of my criticisms relate to historical evaluations about the war that are still open to debate, including the relative danger of Soviet collapse in late 1941 or the actual vulnerability of Allied bridgeheads in Normandy in the early summer of 1944 In this regard, Pasher makes a critical point, albeit on the penultimate page of the manuscript, with his assertion that “What is important is not whether Germany really had a chance of winning the campaigns dealt with here, but the abilities Hitler believed the Wehrmacht possessed before he took a strategic decision and issued an operational directive” (p. 289). In the opinion of this reviewer, this is in fact the central issue and potentially the most important contribution of this work because it not only exposes Hitler’s obsession with the genocide of the Jews, but also demonstrates that the Führer’s political objective of annihilating the Jews ultimately outweighed the military consequences and costs associated with this effort and even led to his willingness to risk defeat on the battlefield to accomplish this goal.
. For a work that merges these threads see Gerhard Weinberg, A World at Arms: A Global History of World War II (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994).
. For examples see Omer Bartov, Hitler’s Army: Soldiers, Nazis, and the War in the Third Reich (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1992); Doris Bergen, War and Genocide: A Concise History of the Holocaust (New York: Rowman and Littlefield, 2009); Johannes Hürter, Hitlers Heerführer: Die deutschen Oberbefehlshaber im Krieg gegen die Sowjetunion 1941/42 (Munich: Oldenbourg, 2006); Dieter Pohl, Die Herrschaft der Wehrmacht: Deutsche Militärbesatzung und einheimische Bevölkerung in der Sowjetunion 1941-1944 (Frankfurt/Main: Fischer Taschenbuch, 2008); and Alexander Rossino, Hitler Strikes Poland: Blitzkrieg, Ideology, and Atrocity (Lawrence: University Press of Kansas, 2003).
. For a detailed discussion of the Hunger Plan see Alexander J. Kay, Exploitation, Resettlement, Mass Murder: Political and Economic Planning for German Occupation Policy in the Soviet Union, 1940-1941 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006).
. Adam Tooze, The Wages of Destruction: The Making and Breaking of the Nazi War Economy (New York: Viking, 2006), 343-344, 413, 671.
. See David Stahel, Kiev, 1941: Hitler’s Battle for Supremacy in the East (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012); David Stahel, Operation Typhoon: Hitler’s March on Moscow, October 1941 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013), and The Battle for Moscow: Hitler’s Battle for Supremacy in the East (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015). Clearly, Pasher would not have had access to the last of these works in the preparation of his own work.
. Raul Hilberg, Sonderzüge nach Auschwitz (Mainz: Dumjahn, 1981). To be fair, Pasher does include an earlier article by Hilberg, “The Reichsbahn and Its Part in the Extermination of the Jews” [in Hebrew], Yalkut Moreshet 24 (1977): 27-50.
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Edward Westermann. Review of Pasher, Yaron, Holocaust versus Wehrmacht: How Hitler's "Final Solution" Undermined the German War Effort.
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