A Note on the Genesis of the Final Solution

by Raul Hilberg

Christopher Browning. Fateful Months: Essays on the Emergence of the Final Solution. New York: Holmes & Meier, 1985. ix, 111 pages.

Fateful Months is an important book. A slim. volume of four chapters, three of which were essays initially published abroad, it is nevertheless a coherent statement about one of the most vexing questions of the Holocaust. Its subject is the genesis of the Final Solution and its focus is placed on the period 1941-1942 when the physical annihilation of the European Jews began.

Browning is an empiricist who seeks answers to this problem in a sequence of specific events. In Fateful Months, he concentrates on two localities, Serbia and Kulmhof (Chelmno), and on one device, the gas van. The two places are noteworthy because the killings that were launched there in 1941 constituted early components of the emerging program to engulf the Jews of Europe as a whole. The gas vans in turn are of interest because they signify a transition from one mode of killing to another. They were deployed in the wake of face-to-face open air shootings, just before the perfection of the stationary gas chambers that epitomized annihilation on an assembly line.

The first essay is Browning's exploration of questions and arguments about the origins of the Final Solution. This complex of issues, which German historians have called the Entschlussbildung, is centered on decision making, in the middle ranks as well as at the top, in the field as much as in Berlin. The problem is rooted in the absence of victims before he shipped them off to their deaths. We note the chain of actions, from the bills sent by the Serbian mayor of Belgrade to the SS for the food supplied to Jews of Semlin, to the passing of the van through the streets of Belgrade with its human cargo pounding at the door inside.

To tell this story, Browning engaged in multi-archival research for a period of years. The four chapters are buttressed with over 300 footnotes, some drawn from postwar West German trials, others from personnel records. In the center of the book there are a few pages of glossy photographs. They show generals and SS officers, the roundup of Jews in Serbia, and a gas van after its capture in Poland. With such sources and illustrations, Fateful Months is illuminating reading for all those who are interested in the history of the Holocaust. For the Holocaust specialist, the book is indispensable.

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