WE ALL think we know what the Holocaust was. The late David Cesarani disagreed.
Cesarani believed that popular ideas about the Holocaust have become separated from historical knowledge about the mass persecution and murder of European Jewry under the Nazis.
His massive book, posthumously published, tries to bridge the gap between what we know and the detail that historians have uncovered about the Nazi effort to destroy Europe’s Jews.
Cesarani thought that popular beliefs about the Holocaust have oversimplified the reasons that the Nazis embarked on mass murder and oversimplified how that murder took place.
Part of the problem is that much of our knowledge of the Holocaust comes from popular culture rather than from reading big history books.
Popular culture draws a straight line between Nazi evil, anti-Semitism and mass murder.
Camp commandant Amon Göth in Schindler’s List or Josef Mengele in The Boys from Brazil were as venal, vicious, murderous, and psychopathic in real life as they are on page and screen.
But trying to understand the development of Nazi policy towards the Jews through these characters doesn’t help us understand history.
Cesarani argues that Nazi policy developed toward mass murder through many stages and policy was often contradictory and confused.
Hitler was evil and anti-Semitism was ‘essential to his self-identity’ as Cesarani puts it, but other things shaped the development from mass persecution to mass murder alongside the Nazis’ inane obsession with a fictional Jewish ‘enemy’.
The move from persecution and the coerced emigration of Jews from the Reich was shaped by power struggles between Nazi leaders and by the way that the war unfolded.
There was a lot of improvisation and as a result a lot of variation in how persecution and murder were carried out.
Popular culture also oversimplifies because it concentrates on the most obvious and well known aspects of the Holocaust.
Auschwitz is at the centre of most depictions of the Holocaust. It is the place that Oskar Schindler works to save his Jewish workers from in Schindler’s List. Sophie makes her impossible choice at the gates of the camp in Sophie’s Choice.
We know that we are at Auschwitz in The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas even though its young German protagonist does not know the proper name of the camp where his father works and calls it ‘Out-With’.
But Nazi persecution of the Jews cannot be reduced to the camp experience, even when that experience was as obscene as it was at Auschwitz.
In fact, the death camps were only one of the horrors of the Holocaust and concentrating on them means that the fate of other victims often gets overlooked, and that attention is diverted from some of the guilty.
More Jews were murdered by shooting in Russia, Belarus, and Ukraine than died in Auschwitz.
These murders were carried out not just by the SS. The German army and local auxiliaries had a hand in them too. The arrival of German forces often unleashed local anti-Semites to prey on their Jewish neighbours.
And often locals did not need much encouragement. Romanian forces and fascists committed atrocities against Jews before and after they joined in the invasion of the USSR as a German ally.
Nazi propaganda and the difficulties of surviving in war time made aiding Jews difficult and encouraged people under German occupation to join in their persecution.
In Poland and Ukraine, where the Nazi occupation was particularly brutal and harsh, ‘Jews were not perceived as humans in dire need of assistance, but as commodities to be traded or a source of enrichment’.
Local anti-Semitism combined with Nazi economic exploitation in the East to make it ‘socially acceptable’ to rob and exploit Jews. This culture probably fed the anti-Semitic violence that took place in Eastern Europe
after Germany’s defeat.
Concentrating on the Germans and the camps also diverts attention from what Jews did during the Holocaust.
Jews were not passive victims.
Jewish responses to the terror that was visited upon them covered the full range of human behaviour. Some negotiated to ease their suffering, some tried to escape.
People argued in their communities about what to do, they sacrificed themselves to save their loved ones, they revolted, they bore witness, and sometimes they collaborated with their persecutors to prolong their lives or the existence of their communities.
Finally, the focus on the Germans and the big camps means that we don’t pay enough attention to how the outside world dealt with pre-war Nazi persecution of the Jews and the Holocaust.
The story of what the outside world did to help is generally pitiable. Refuge for Jews trying to flee Nazi persecution before the war was given grudgingly and to inadequate numbers.
The Allied response to the persecution of the Jews was even worse when the mass killings began.
Time and again, Cesarani notes how the transportation of Jews to the killing fields in the East was reported to Allied governments, even broadcast on the BBC, but little to nothing was done about it. Railway lines to the death camps could have been bombed to interrupt deportations but were not.
In the US, Treasury Secretary Henry Morgenthau was so angered by the State Department blocking efforts to bring relief to Europe’s Jews that he had one of his staff draw up a report titled ‘Report to the Secretary on the Acquiescence of this Government in the Murder of the Jews’.
Morgenthau’s anger helped create the War Relief Board in 1944. The Board was instrumental in saving some Jews, but its effort came too late for most, and its work was not supported by the USA’s main ally in the West, Britain.
Cesarani has a point when he argues that most of us do not know the complexity of the Holocaust.
His argument that the evolution of Nazi policy was haphazard and often improvised is probably true too, although we should not forget that the Nazis never shied away from murder even before the creation of the camps.
Moreover, mass murder was consistent with the Nazis’ style of government in which Nazi leaders competed for Hitler’s favour and patronage by offering up ‘radical’ solutions to prove their devotion to fulfilling Hitler’s vicious, but broad and poorly defined, goals.
What cannot be doubted is the completeness of the Nazis’ engagement with murder once the decision was made to embark on the ‘Final Solution’ to the ‘Jewish problem’.
There was improvisation as camp commandants and the SS bureaucracy worked out the logistics of mass murder, but the single-mindedness of the Nazis’ dedication to murder, and the brutality that accompanied it, was extraordinary and a product of their twisted world-view.
No matter how familiar you are with Nazi atrocities there is plenty that is new and shocking in Cesarani’s account. Cesarani’s crisp prose heightens the reader’s revulsion.
This is not a sensationalist book. Cesarani is matter of fact at all times even when dealing with the uttermost depths of human depravity. This makes the book all the more powerful. Your imagination automatically fills in the gaps and renews your horror at the obscenity of the Holocaust.