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Jewish Journal

The Bigger Picture

A look at the Holocaust through a range of historical, cultural and social conditions.

by Michael Berenbaum

November 7, 2002 | 7:00 pm

"The Holocaust: A History" Debórah Dwork and Robert Jan van Pelt (New York: W.W. Norton and Company, $27.95).

There is great modesty -- appropriate to the subject and to the stage of our knowledge -- in the title of this work: "The Holocaust: A History." Deborah Dwork and Robert Jan Van Pelt recognize that with a subject so complex there are many ways of writing the history of the Holocaust -- they have chosen but one way -- but their choice is certainly defensible and comprehensive. Their history of the Holocaust is not only worthy of note; it is worthy of the subject.

Debórah Dwork is the Rose Professor of Holocaust History and director of the Strassler Family Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies at Clark University, the first doctoral program in the United States specifically devoted to this field. She is the author of "Children With a Star: Jewish Youth in the Nazi Era" (Yale University Press, 1991). Her colleague, Robert Jan Van Pelt, an architectural historian by training is a professor of cultural history at the University of Waterloo in Canada and has most recently published a most important work "The Case for Auschwitz: The Evidence from the Irving Trial" (Indiana University Press, 2002). His contribution was essential to the defeat of David Irving. Together with Richard Evans and Christopher Browning, he demolished the scholarly veneer of Irving's racism and anti-Semitism to the satisfaction of an extremely able British judge. Van Pelt's book, as his court testimony, is a clear, detailed and lucid presentation of what we know about gassing at Auschwitz -- and how we know it. It withstood blistering cross-examination because it is scholarly, informed, rooted in the sources and anchored in history.

Dwork and Van Pelt have collaborated before in an important book "Auschwitz: 1270 to the Present" (W.W. Norton & Company, 1997), which won the National Jewish Book award and provided important insight into the creation, construction and design of the death camp. It has become essential reading for anyone who wants to understand Auschwitz and its place in the "Final Solution" and in German plans for Poland.

The virtues of this work are many. Unlike the works of Raul Hilberg and Lucy Dawidowicz, "The Holocaust: A History" comfortably interweaves German and Jewish sources. The authors have relied upon original sources and not just standard secondary works. Van Pelt spent considerable time in the Moscow archives and his report of his findings at the opening of the Research Institute of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum almost a decade ago electrified even the most eminent of three generations of scholars who were gathered. Dwork has a keen sense of how testimony should be read and how it should be used not only to enhance our knowledge but also to incarnate history and give emotional weight and intellectual depth that so many standard recitations of historical events omit.

Unlike Daniel Jonah Goldhagen whose work, "Hitler's Willing Executioners" (Vintage Books, 1997), won public acclaim and stirred up a storm among Holocaust scholars, this work considers German anti-Semitism within the context of European anti-Semitism and European history. Its treatment of anti-Semitism goes way beyond Hitler -- the first chapter of Lucy Dawidowicz' "The War Against the Jews" (Bantam Doubleday Dell, 1991) was "The Jews in Hitler's Mental World" -- and considers the entire context of the Jewish presence in Christian Europe. It is broad, detailed, authoritative and responsible and serves as an introduction to the Holocaust and as anticipation of what Dwork and Van Pelt do throughout the work. It is multidisciplinary, at home in the categories of religion and sociology, psychology and history. They are interested in France and not just Germany and see a direct line from regicide to Judeocide -- and not just from deicide to genocide. They not only describe Hitler's Fascism but present an insightful and brief discussion of the history of Fascism in Italy, not only in Germany and thus set the stage for the complex and mutually disappointing relationship between Hitler and Mussolini, Germany and Italy.

Alone among the standard histories of the Holocaust, this history deals in great detail with World War I. The chapter on the "Great War and Its Terrible Outcome" considers the impact of the War on Germany and Russia, France and England as well as many of the smaller states. It places the Treaty of Versailles in context and follows the Battle of Verdun as a transformation in the history of warfare. I have only found a similar emphasis on Verdun as a precursor of the Holocaust in the work of Richard L. Rubenstein. Students of the Holocaust -- and even many of their teachers -- know little of the Great War. Reading this work, they will know much more and understand how deeply it shaped the event that followed. It also considers the genocide against the Jews within the context of the Armenian genocide and the German T-4 program, the gassing of those Germans deemed mentally ill, emotionally distraught and physically handicapped, an embarrassment to the Nazi image of the Master Race. The scope of this book is significant, so too, its detail.

Even more remarkable and more praiseworthy is the trouble that the Dwork and Van Pelt take to place the Holocaust in its larger context. A chapter of "The Holocaust: A History" is devoted to World War II. Throughout "The Holocaust: A History," the reader understands the relationship between the World War II and the unfolding of German policies toward the Jews and other victims. The reader also understands the impact of the evolving war on German alliances and hence on the participation of such countries as Romania, Bulgaria, Hungary, France and Italy, among others in the "Final Solution," the murder of European Jews we now term the Holocaust. They consider in detail the fate of other victims; thus, the evolution of German policy from Euthanasia to Genocide and incorporate the work of such scholars as Henry Friedlander and Robert Proctor. Their work is inclusive of all the Nazis' victims without losing sight of the centrality of their annihilation of the Jews, a balance that should remain normative in this field. They combine the best of contemporary scholarship with their own original understanding.

They presentation of the fate of the Jews within Germany is integrated with their understanding of the Third Reich, its aspirations and achievements and its relationship with its own domestic agenda and political behavior. Students of the Holocaust will be familiar with such an emphasis in the works Saul Friedlander, Ian Kershaw, Michael Burleigh and David Bankier but seldom has it been incorporated into a general history of the Holocaust with such skill and erudition. The evolution of German anti-Jewish policy in Poland is considered within the context of German plans for Poland and the Poles and the murder of the Jews in the occupied-Soviet Union likewise is considered in context. Dwork and Van Pelt give much evidence of real learning and have the ability to present things whole, neither sacrificing details nor so narrowing their focus as to lose sight of the larger picture.

The murderous activities of the Einsatzgruppen are detailed accurately and movingly. But the authors also depict the interrelationship between the German army and the SS. They write: "only the army could have restrained Himmler's killing and the army stepped aside. The generals had other problems ... they had underestimated Soviet resilience and efficiency, the sheer size and the difficulties caused by the poor roads.... Tacit permission ... over time matured into active and systematic collaboration." Their prose is restrained; their points are hard hitting.

One can expect of any work that Van Pelt co-authored a full understanding of the evolution of gassing and the creation of the death camps replete with their gas chamber and crematoria and "The Holocaust: A History" does not disappoint. It adds add to our understanding of Auschwitz, important treatments the Aktion Reinhard Camps of Treblinka, Belzec and Sobibor. It details the different modes of gassing and the "virtues of Zyklon B." Scholars have still not done the type of work that need be done on Majdanek and Chelmno, but with the proliferation of research in the Holocaust, such work will surely be forthcoming.

Their treatment of the Axis countries is authoritative. They traverse Italy and Bulgaria, Hungary and Romania with insight not only into their treatment of the Jews but their participation in the war and the tensions within their alliances. Three chapters are devoted to the outside world: "Refugees," "From Whence Will Help Come?," and "Rescue" and their treatment of the bystanders is balanced rather than moralistic. They properly present the rescuer without mystifying them. They view rescue as a natural act of decency and integrity undertaken by men and women of character, who with but a few exceptions were not on a quest of piety and righteousness. Their grasp of the subject is firm. Their depictions are accurate and insightful.

One can quibble with some interpretations and even with some information. There may be too little on Jewish resistance. Jan Karski was not in Belzec. Hilberg challenged the accuracy of the identification of the site Karski visited -- not the accuracy of his story -- and E. Thomas Wood and Stanislaw M. Jankowski Karski's biographers now identify the site Izbica Lubelska, a town midway between Lublin and Belzec, which was a sorting point and not the killing center. And one can express disappointment that the conclusion to so important a book was left hanging, as if at the end of so significant a work, there was so little left to say. But "The Holocaust: A History "is superb, just not perfect.

"The Holocaust: A History" offers us compelling evidence that the new generation of Holocaust scholars is up to the daunting task of researching, writing and teaching and it offers a tool to train yet another generation.

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