by Laurence Rees
A review by Doug Brown
It is difficult to write reviews of Holocaust books, because it can be so hard to separate the book from the event. Many reviews of Holocaust books are more condemnations of the event itself than critical analyses of the particular works in question. Often reviewers treat Holocaust books with kid gloves, because criticism of a book can be easily misperceived as criticism of the event, or even outright antisemitism. So I'll take the big plunge and come right out and voice a few blasphemies. The Holocaust was not a unique event in history. The Nazis did not invent genocide. What happened at Auschwitz was not incomprehensible or unknowable in its unfathomable depths of evil. The Holocaust was people being people; sad but true. It is knowable and all too comprehensible. Unfortunately, it is also repeatable. The slogan says we should "never forget," but to me it seems more important that we "never repeat." One can easily remember a previous mistake while making it again and again, as the last fifty years have shown us.
All that said, I probably gave the impression I'm setting up to tear this book to pieces. Not so. It is a good book, well worth reading. Rees shows that Auschwitz is comprehensible within the bizarre logic of racism, and that many people have deep capacities for compassion and atrocity. However, there are a couple of elements that I felt detracted from making it exemplary, and I just wanted to get my caveats out there at the start. Auschwitz: A New History is a companion book to the BBC series that aired on PBS in January to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the liberation of the camp. As with most books that are companion volumes to public television documentaries, it is companionably written, accessible, and engaging. It is a good introduction to the Holocaust, if you haven't read much about it before. Rees interviewed several contemporary eyewitnesses including survivors, townspeople, and camp guards, to give human voices to an event usually dealt with as being inhuman.
However, Rees often feels the need many Holocaust writers have to editorialize with judgemental adjectives. As if readers might miss it when reading accounts of guards beating gaunt women, the adjective "brutal" is often used. Children are not separated from their parents, but "snatched." Joseph Mengele did not conduct research, but "heartless research." I am not arguing with any of these sentiments, but sentiments is what they are; readers should be allowed to decide for themselves the morality of events. It is like the reverse of a laugh track; instead of "Laugh now," the author is telling readers, "Feel revulsion now."
My other main criticism is much more niggling: the title of the book. This is actually a brief overview of the Holocaust, with emphasis on Auschwitz. The establishment of the camp system, and in particular the Operation Reinhard camps (which Auschwitz was not one of), gets a fair amount of coverage. The Warsaw Ghetto uprising and Sobibor escape are included. There is a whole chapter on Danish resistance to deporting Jews. Auschwitz itself is the topic of only a bit over half of the book. This in itself is not a complaint; by using this approach Rees does a commendable job of placing Auschwitz within the larger context of the Holocaust and Nazi policy. However, people coming to this book expecting a detailed history of Auschwitz will be disappointed. The subtitle A New History is also something of a conceit. It calls to mind Michael Burleigh's monumental tome The Third Reich: A New History which truly was a new history of the Reich. Auschwitz: A New History is a new history in that it is a recently published book, but there are no startling new conclusions or approaches in Rees's work. He does discuss at length the piecemeal origins of the Holocaust, making it clear that contrary to popular opinion, extermination only became policy when other policies and plans failed. However, Christopher Browning's excellent work The Origins of the Final Solution lays out this view in much more detail. Indeed, Rees mentions Browning in the acknowledgements as one of a few researchers who was "massively influential" in shaping his views on the Holocaust. The subtitle of the video series was Inside the Nazi State, a much better description of the contents.
Those petty snips and snaps aside, Rees has compiled a solid overview of one of humanity's more shameful periods. Auschwitz: A New History demonstrates most of the perpetrators of the Holocaust were not inhuman monsters but, as Christopher Browning put it in the title of his groundbreaking work on Reserve Police Battalion 101, simply ordinary men. The last chapter of Auschwitz, which describes how many Jews encountered racism even after surviving the camps and returning home, is particularly poignant. Rees quotes his interview subjects at length, rightly letting their words tell much of the story. A few judgemental adjectives aside, he largely avoids the trap of overly romanticizing the victims and demonizing the perpetrators. As a general introduction to the Holocaust and its causes, Auschwitz: A New History is a good starting point. For folks wanting to explore a little deeper, I further highly recommend both of Browning's titles mentioned above, Michael Burleigh's The Racial State: Germany 1933 - 1945, and Ernst Klee, et al.'s The Good Old Days: The Holocaust as Seen by Its Perpetrators and Bystanders.