JP O’Malley considers to be a magisterial undertaking of research.


Book review: The Holocaust

What possessed seemingly cultured men to implement a policy of barbarism against the Jews of Europe? Laurence Rees seeks the answer in what JP O’Malley considers to be a magisterial undertaking of research.

Book review: The Holocaust

Laurence Rees

Viking €19

On April 30, 1945, Adolf Hitler committed suicide in a bunker in Berlin. The so-called ‘political testament’ the German Führer left behind expressed no remorse.

It even boasted about the Holocaust, where six million Jews were intentionally liquidated by the Nazi murder machine.

Hitler signed off his hate-fuelled testament by pleading with the German leaders left “to resist mercilessly the world poisoner of all people’s, international Jewry.”

Seven decades later, many questions regarding the Shoah (catastrophe) remain open to interpretation.

Namely: what were the fundamental reasons the Nazis decided to exterminate an entire group of people?

Why did they take millions of innocent men, women, and children, gas them, shoot them, starve them, and beat them to death?

And what possessed seemingly, sane, educated, and cultured men, to implement a policy of barbarism upon the Jews of Europe?

The Holocaust, by British historian and documentary maker, Laurence Rees, is a book that attempts to answer those difficult questions.

It starts by mapping out the destruction of the Jews of Europe in a linear fashion; then guiding the reader through a series of important historical dates, adding important commentary and analysis as the narrative progresses.

Rees argues that there was not one single event, or decision, that made the Holocaust happen. Instead, the historian believes a number of factors culminated simultaneously ensuring this depraved orgy of killing took place.

Many historians hitherto, for instance, have pointed to the Wannsee conference as the single moment where it was decided that all the Jews of Europe must systematically be liquidated.

This meeting took place in January 1942 in Berlin, and involved several mid-ranking Nazi officials devising a plot to murder Jews over a shorter timescale, and with greater efficiency.

However, Rees defiantly argues here that no final plans were actually resolved at that infamous event. And, that key figures from the Nazi hierarchy, such as Himmler, Goebbels, and even Hitler himself, were not actually present.

The moment of no return for the Holocaust, Rees maintains, was the summer of 1942: when a decision was taken by the Nazis to murder all the Jews in the General Government in Poland.

There are, however, the historian points out, a number of important milestones before that cataclysmic decision. One crucial date being September 1, 1939: when German troops invaded Poland.

From this date onwards, the Third Reich initiated a rule of terror that would see Poland become the epicentre of the Holocaust.

Particularly after Hitler announced that German-occupied Poland would be divided in two.

Firstly, there was the Reich and Germanized part of occupied Poland. And secondly, there was a section in the south-east of the country, bordering Soviet-occupied Poland: this would remain ‘Polish,’ albeit under German occupation.

It was to be called the General Government of the Occupied Polish Areas. Or what became more commonly known as the war progressed, as the ‘General Government’.

It would contain the notorious Warsaw ghetto: an area of just 1.5 square miles in the Polish capital where 400,000 Jews would be imprisoned. Almost all would be taken to the Treblinka death camp and murdered upon arrival.

The ‘General Government’ was purposely designed to become a dustbin for a race of people the Third Reich deemed inferior. And Hitler didn’t try to disguise the fact that what he labelled a racial struggle across Europe was both natural and inevitable.

In his view, the increasing population of Germany — as the Reich expanded in size — needed more room to work, reproduce, and reside.This idea of a utopian German area became known as Lebensraum, which translates into English as ‘living space’.

Poland was a central battleground in the Nazi war against the Jews. Mainly because all the infamous death camps, including Auschwitz and Treblinka, were built there.

Three million Polish Jews died in the Holocaust, almost half of the Jews murdered in the Final Solution, and a larger proportion than in any other European nation.

Many readers will be shocked to learn — I certainly was — that for the first two years of the Second World War, the Nazis still clung to the belief that in the long term, the way to solve what they called “the Jewish question” was by expulsion. Crucially, though, not by mass murder.

So how, and more importantly, why, did this change occur at such a rapid pace?

A number of factors are important, Rees insists. Hitler’s radical decision to invade the Soviet Union in June 1941 is crucial. For this was the start of an ambitious fight to create a vast German Empire in the east.

With more room needed for so called pure Germans, the Nazis believed a policy to wipe out an entire race of people would easily solve that problem.

In Hitler’s vision of the Reich, Europe thus got carved up into East and West, with each part serving its own specific function. This geographical distinction is enormously important, Rees posits, to understand the logistics of the Holocaust.

And also to appreciate the sheer scale of operation that it entailed, namely, rounding up Jews from all the occupied Western countries, and then transporting them to the East, where they were murdered in their millions, in gas chambers purposely designed for killing in a ruthless and efficient manner.

In the popular western historical imagination, we tend to view the Holocaust as one evil event that Hitler entirely masterminded by himself, and where others simply obeyed orders.

But as Rees displays here, in exceptionally well-researched detail, the story is not that simple.

Indeed, the rounding up of millions of Jews from Western Europe, who were then sent by train to death camps in Poland, could not have happened without a number of committed collaborationists from a diverse mix of nations.

Rees points out, for example, that three-quarters of Jews in the Netherlands would be killed in the Holocaust: a greater proportion than in any country in Western Europe.

In France, meanwhile, the Vichy regime deported all foreign-born Jews to Poland: even when the Nazi regime was not asking them to. Why did they do this? Well, because the regime was ideologically committed to anti-Semitism.

This contrasts starkly with Denmark, the only Nazi-dominated country, where 95% of the Jews survived. Why this course of events took place is still almost impossible to explain exactly.

And there was no singular policy from the Nazis — in any one of the European countries they occupied — regarding how Jews should be dealt with specifically.

Eastern and Central Europe, was particularly bad for the practice of collaboration. And the killings there happened at frightening speed. In Hungary, for instance, 440,000 Jews were rapidly transported to Auschwitz, between May and July 1944, where they were all almost instantly murdered.

The Baltic states, Rees stresses, were notoriously bad for collaborators. A massive 96% of the Jewish population within Lithuania— about 220,000 people — were liquidated by the end of the Nazi occupation.

Most of these murders happened from shootings at close range in mass pogroms. These were carried out by locals collaborating with German security forces.

Validated proof, Rees points out, that we shouldn’t just associate the Holocaust with the gas chambers. Hundreds of thousands of Jews were shot — and left to die — on ditches, roads, ravines, and forests, across Eastern and Central Europe.

Rees’s ability to link his own primary research with the wider historical narrative is what makes this book such a fascinating and tragic read too.

For the past 25 years, Rees has met both survivors and perpetrators of the Third Reich. And many of these interviews are included in this magisterial undertaking of scholarly research.

In our present age, ‘othering’ of various ethnic groups — mainly Muslims — has become a common theme in the West.

Rees’s book, therefore, is a stark reminder, and sobering wakeup call too, of just how bad things can spiral out of control, when racial profiling becomes normalised, and percolates into everyday political discourse.

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