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Laurence Rees Penguin Viking, 26 January 2017
Not an easy book to read, and, I would assume, not an easy book to write. But the author, Laurence Rees, is very well qualified to write it, having already penned several other histories of the atrocities of WW2. This is obviously a subject that has been extensively described, in both populist and academic tomes, over the decades, so some of Penguin’s claims for the originality of this volume, are a little over the top.
However Rees covers the subject with a calm authority that leaves the reader in no doubt of his mastery of the subject. The introduction and early chapters usefully set out the antecedents of the Nazis’ horrific strategy to eradicate the Jews from Europe. Even before WW1 anti-Semitism was rife across the Continent (and one includes Great Britain in that definition). Rees makes it plain that anti-Semitism would have been unlikely to gain such common currency without the economic trials that preceded and followed the Great War around Europe. That Jews became the scapegoats of fears of both capitalism and Bolshevism is one of the key idiocies that Rees proffers to his readers. In 1919 the German Workers’ Party concluded that “German soldiers had lost the war because they had been ‘stabbed in the back’ by Jewish profiteers working behind the lines…”.
The first third of the book gives a lengthy exposition of the evolution of the Nazi’s creed – probably necessary to set the Holocaust in context. Arguably it is less relevant to explain how Hitler grabbed the levers of power. But the conjuncture of the Weimar Republic weighed down by overly-onerous war reparations, and the Wall Street Crash of 1929, provided ample fertilizer for nascent Nazism.
Rees explains how the Nazis struggled to come up with a scientific definition of Jewishness. Meanwhile the Brownshirts and later the SS cast their fists and truncheons broadly – the stores and staff of FW Woolworth were attacked in Germany under the misapprehension it was a Jewish business – its founder was, in fact, a Methodist. Throughout this diligent book Rees intersperses the personal with the national: individual testimonies mount up to layer the evil (and disprove the naysayers). So it is that the reader is left in no doubt that the average German, should he/she exist, became more tolerant of the repression of Jews through the Thirties, and indeed many were keen to profit from the sequestration of their property. But with his sense of proportion undimmed, Rees describes how there was also ardent anti-Semitism in Poland and France in particular, the latter country never having lived down the Dreyfuss affair. Petain is portrayed as an enthusiastic persecutor of Jews. Later Lithuania, with an unpleasant history of persecution of Jews, again found them useful scapegoats.
Rees reminds us that the Western world was made aware of the Nazis’ concentration camps as early as 1934, although in those days their focus was on containing and dissuading political opposition. Hitler did preside in a most extreme re-orientation of the German economy: Rees points out that between 1933 and 1935 defence spending rose from 1% to an extraordinary almost 10% of German GDP.
North American governments are not spared Rees’ rod: Roosevelt was deaf to the entreaties of his Asst. Sec. of State, the ironically named George Strausser Messersmith (underlining the USA’s racial connections with Germany), who asked the President to accede to more Jewish refugees. The Canadian PM, one Mackenzie King, was even more heartless, in contrast to that nation’s current stance. Rees points out that after Kristallnacht, only the United Kingdom raised its immigrant quotas (the famous Kindertransports).
Once the extermination strategy began to be enacted, it is deeply upsetting to see how easy it was for Hitler to find doctors to foreswear their Hippocratic oath and move to central roles in finding the most efficient way to kill fellow humans. One of the underlying threads in Holocaust is the role of religion in all this. Whilst Hitler came from a relatively ardent Catholic nation, (Austria lest it be forgotten), he turned on men of any religious order who dared stand in his way. It is a matter of regret that the then Pope did not.
Once part of the Axis, Romania was another country eager to join Hitler in his most extreme anti-Semitism with “casual brutality”. As Rees ponders how European countries under the Nazi cosh fed such varying proportions of their Jewish population to the death camps, only Denmark emerges with distinction.
Rees sets out with fearsome precision the increasing industrialization of the extermination strategy, again with plentiful testimonies of both victims and perpetrators. The lunacy of the campaign on the Eastern Front is outlined, as is Hitler being cut adrift by allies when they perceived he was losing the war. Himmler’s attempts at exculpation are at once both grandiose and derisory.
Few stones are left unturned in this frequently harrowing book. If I have one criticism, it is that academics in particular will be increasingly frustrated by Rees’ copious references, too many of which are simply described as “previously unpublished testimony”.
Lest anyone believes the subject receives too much coverage: politicians still evolve into dictators, clutching absolute power to themselves by bigging up supposed internal or external threats to their nation’s security, and muzzle their media and opposition…..