BOOKS: Holistic view of the Holocaust
Like a documentary film, this shows the big picture, then zooms in to individuals
There are no new metaphors, perhaps no words not already written, to describe the horrors of the Holocaust.
But Laurence Rees conveys the terrible times using a distinctive technique. As the former head of BBC-TV history programmes, he spent 25 years interviewing and recording the accounts of survivors, witnesses and perpetrators, and The Holocaust — A New History mirrors the style of a documentary film.
The narration pans out to give historical context and the grotesque, big picture. The insanity of the Nazi intent is almost unfathomable, numbing. Rees then zooms in, to harrowing individual testimonies and short stories which personalise the terror. The impression is effective, devastating. We grasp the zeitgeist, then gasp as we read the reality of its implementation: children wrenched from mothers; the hunger of the ghettos; spectacles being crushed – preludes to immeasurably worse as the chronology moves beyond the early 1940s.
As the last Holocaust survivors pass on, we need books such as this, which add clarity and explanation
Rees’s approach, and his skill, unravels the Holocaust into an eminently coherent story of apocalypse, one which – disturbingly, paradoxically – compels despite its catastrophic content.
The book’s awful accessibility and its dreadful power does not mean there are easy answers, and the intellectual backdrop is pivotal to a deeper understanding of its subtitled claim as a new history. Earlier "intentionalist" historians, encapsulated by Lucy Dawidowicz, believed genocide was Hitler’s plan all along, explicated from late 1918. The antithetical interpretation, first posited by Raul Hilberg in his seminal 1961 work The Destruction of the European Jews, showed this to be simplistic. Rather, the devil lay in the day-to-day detail. Hilberg let the minutiae of evil tell their own story, and in summing up their machinations he distilled what has come to be termed the "functionalist" theory: "Finally, there were no orders at all. Everybody knew what to do."
Recent Holocaust scholarship synthesises these alternative roads to hell. Hitler’s desire to subjugate and destroy underpinned everything, but systematic, mass annihilation mutated from multiple factors. Otto Dov Kulka believed most Germans were deeply anti-Semitic, hence pliable in their "passive complicity" as the state radicalised. The world reacted meekly, exhibited by the ineffectual 1938 Évian conference on refugees, signalling to the Nazis that the West was unconcerned with the Jews. The torch-paper of early pogroms, like Kristallnacht and Lviv, emboldened the subsequent Einsatzgruppen death squads.
In turn, other historians such as David Cesarani linked the Jews’ fate to German military actions — successes as well as setbacks. Ironically, too, the declaration of war with the US was a springboard for accelerated atrocities, because it removed the last vestige of restraint upon Hitler: dementedly, he saw America as a nation controlled by Jews, and so Jewry had to pay in blood on the European theatre.
Rees concurs with this complexity, and offers his own nuanced perspectives, such as weighing the historical importance of the Wannsee conference. Usually considered a clear inflection point — the moment when extermination became the definitive goal — Rees instead believes it to have been nothing more than a "staging post along a journey", significant only in illustrating how intelligent, highly educated men could "enthusiastically endorse a policy to remove 11m people from this world. If human beings can do this, what else can they do?"
He also unveils some lesser known but profoundly evil midlevel officials, such as Dr Irmfried Eberl, commandant of Treblinka at its deadliest peak. The infamy of Auschwitz is broader perceived, but in apocalyptic horror it was superseded by Treblinka, a "specialised death camp" where 900,000 people were murdered in just over a year – 313,000 in August 1942 alone. Belzec, too, was a site of industrialised killing: 550,000 people perished in nine months between March and the end of 1942. There were fewer than 70 survivors of Treblinka; just two people survived to testify to the barbarity of Belzec.
We mustn’t admit that these numbers are incomprehensible. Rather, we should make the effort, not just to acknowledge this scar on the face of humanity, but to go beyond the inadequacy of incomprehension. As the last Holocaust survivors pass on, we need books such as this, which add clarity and explanation. The unimaginable reality still makes no sense, yet in reading, absorbing — skirting the abyss — we call out to the souls lost therein, and recognise the memory of those mercilessly massacred. Comparisons, and semantics around whether the work should be hyped as "new", are entirely irrelevant.
• The Holocaust: A New History - by Laurence Rees Viking