August 26th 2017

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Articles from this issue:

CANBERRA OBSERVED Crikey, is nobody a true dinks Aussie these days?

SAME-SEX MARRIAGE Hundreds of doctors call on AMA to withdraw defective statement on same-sex marriage

EUTHANASIA What disability advocates say about assisted suicide by Daniel Giles

RIGHTS Triggs' contribution to human rights and the role of international human rights bodies

ENERGY High prices 'destroying the economy': Glencore

ENERGY Renewable energy barely even a fair weather friend

ECONOMICS The world it is a-changin': globalisation in crisis

SAME-SEX MARRIAGE Gay Liberals' push out of step with LGBTI realities

INTERNATIONAL AFFAIRS South Africa is losing its rainbow nation credentials

MUSIC A moral scale: Does 'good' music make us better?

CINEMA War for the Planet of the Apes: Best-laid plans of apes and men

BOOK REVIEW Risk nothing; gain nothing

BOOK REVIEW The most infamous crime in history

MARRIAGE The issue, Bill, is transgender marriage




SAME-SEX MARRIAGE The media, champions for free speech and rights (for the media), demonstrate predictable inability to contain bias on postal vote

Books promotion page

The most infamous crime in history

News Weekly, August 26, 2017


by Laurence Rees


Viking/Penguin, London
Hardcover: 512 pages
Price: AUD$55

Reviewed by Bill James


The Holocaust, the murder by Nazi Germany of six million Jews between 1933 and 1945, is history’s most intensively studied event. Rees describes it as “the most infamous crime in the history of the world”.

But for all its notoriety, there are still misconceptions and controversies surrounding it – hence the need for a clarificatory “new history”.

For a start, was the Holocaust unique, or just another example of the all too many attempted genocides that have taken place over the centuries?

Rees quotes the late professor David Cesarani: “Never before in history, I think, has a leader decided that within a conceivable time frame an ethnic religious group would be physically destroyed, and that equipment would be devised and created to achieve that. That was unprecedented.”

Speaking of uniqueness, was there a distinctive strain of anti-Semitism in the German people that Hitler had only to catalyse?

Fewer than 1 per cent of Germans were Jewish, but there was a long German tradition of anti-Semitism, based on three things: religion (the Jews as “Christ-killers”); exclusivist volkisch nationalism; and pseudo-scientific racial theories.

Nonetheless, attempts by the extreme right to blame all of Germany’s post-World War I woes on the Jews achieved little traction until the 1929 Depression. Even after Hitler’s accession to power in 1933, an attitude of mixed fear and loyalty toward the authorities saw the population generally turning a blind eye to persecution, rather than enthusiastically co-operating with it.

This attitude was accompanied by a worrying presentiment after 1943–44 that something horrific had occurred to the Jews, for which they might have to pay after Germany’s defeat.

Perhaps the worst manifestation of anti-Semitism by ordinary Germans was the assistance given by the army to the Einsatzgruppen (murder squads that followed the army) in perpetrating atrocities in Eastern Europe.

What about Hitler’s anti-Semitism?

There is no documentary evidence for it prior to 1919, the year he turned 30.

It was fed by Hitler’s belief in the myth of racial purity, and his bitterness over Germany’s defeat in World War I, for which he needed a scapegoat. In Mein Kampf (1924), he also cynically exploited existing religious prejudice against Jews, despite his own contempt for Christianity.

Rees does not come up with any convincing explanation for the depth and resilience of Hitler’s all-consuming hatred, and probably no one ever will.

It was an absence, an intellectual and moral vacuum, at the centre of his being. He was always careful not to sign anything authorising the Holocaust, and he never publicly claimed credit for it, but there is no doubt that he promoted it, knew every detail of it, and approved it.

As Professor Sir Ian Kershaw, Hitler’s biographer quoted by Rees, states flatly: “No Hitler, no Holocaust”.

Some have wondered why the Third Reich was still devoting transport, personnel and other scarce facilities to the Holocaust right to the end, when Germany’s military situation was desperate and her survival at stake.

Rees points out that Hitler and the other leading Nazis “did not see this as a contradiction at all. They believed that the Jews behind the front line were just as much an enemy as the Red Army”.

Hitler’s last testament before his suicide was a rant against “the world poisoner of all peoples, international Jewry”.

Were Jews the primary target of the Nazi dictatorship?

The primary target, but not the only one.

In the six years (1933–39) between Hitler’s accession and the outbreak of World War II came a number of anti-Semitic regulations (for example, the 1935 Nuremberg laws) and terrorist activities (for example, Kristallnacht, 1938), along with the first concentration camps.

These camps were built to incarcerate all who opposed the regime, or were disliked by it, such as communists, Social Democrats, Gypsies, pacifists, homosexuals, vagrants, and religious groups such the Jehovah’s Witnesses. Many were killed, but not systematically until after 1939.

Jewish inmates attracted special attention: “Stormtroopers and the SS treated Jews in sadistic ways in concentration camps long before the extermination centres of the Holocaust.”

The outbreak of war was followed by the commencement of a “euthanasia” program in Germany, which used injections and carbon monoxide to get kill off the mentally and physically disabled – “life unworthy of life” – both Jewish and otherwise.

The advent of war also saw, particularly after Hitler’s invasion of the USSR in 1941, the gradual emergence of the Holocaust proper, parallel with the widespread liquidation of Slavs. For example, three million Polish Jews died in World War II, but so did three million Polish Gentiles.

That being said, it must also be emphasised that while the Nazi leadership contemplated with equanimity the possibility of starving tens of millions of Russians and other Slavs to death, there was never any intention to eradicate all of Europe’s Slavs as there was, eventually, to eradicate all of Europe’s Jews.

So, was there a clear point at which the general hatred and mistreatment of Jews changed into a clear decision to perpetrate the Holocaust?

Hitler and the Nazis did not start out from the beginning with a plan to kill all Jews, but they were determined to solve “the Jewish problem”, whatever it took.

Before the war, the emphasis was on forcing Jews to leave Germany for other countries; which was not helped by other countries’ disinclination to receive them. Then there was talk of ghettoisation, mass sterilisation, and a bizarre scheme for packing them off to Madagascar.

Still later, it was planned to dump them in Nazi-occupied Poland (a “dustbin”), and later in Russia. Relocation policies overlapped with rival policies of mass killings and murderous slave labour.

Many see the Wannsee Conference of January 1942 (at which eight of the 15 delegates held doctorates!) as the date when the Final Solution of genocide was clearsightedly adopted.

But Rees does not agree, perceiving a more evolutionary reality: “Wannsee was no more than a staging point along a journey … the Nazis only gradually over the next six months create the killing capacity necessary to murder large numbers of Jews.”

What is certain, is that with this 1942 commencement of full-scale operation of extermination camps, as opposed to concentration camps, the die was cast.

Rees concedes that Hitler’s speech to leading Nazis, after declaring war on the United States in December 1941, shortly before Wannsee, was a “pivotal moment”, because there, according to Goebbels, the Fuhrer declared that “the destruction of the Jews was inevitable”.

Generally, however, he is dismissive of theories that Hitler had “a blueprint for what was to come”, or that there was “one, single, monumental moment of decision”, instead believing that “the journey to the Holocaust was a gradual one, full of twists and turns, until it found final expression in the Nazi killing factories”.

What did these “killing factories” consist of?

Rees’s most important point is that “concentration camps” such as Dachau and Belsen, lethal as they were, “should not be confused with the later extermination camps … whose only function was to kill”. The latter, which operated 1942–45, consisted of Chelmno, Belzec, Sobibor, Majdanek and Treblinka, and accounted for most of the Holocausts’ victims.

More Jews were murdered at Auschwitz-Birkenau than at any other single camp, but it was not exclusively a “killing factory”, and included functions of detention and forced labour – as well as bestial “medical” experiments.

Most murders were perpetrated by the use of Zyklon B in gas chambers disguised as shower facilities, but this method owed as much to consideration for the Nazi executioners as to efficiency.

As many or more men, women and children could be killed by shooting as by gassing; the 18,000 who perished in the largest mass murder committed by a death camp in a single day, at Majdanek in 1943, were shot.

But the gas chambers distanced the SS camp staff from having to watch them die, and the use of prisoners (Sonderkommandos) to gather and burn the bodies, meant that they didn’t have to deal hands on with the aftermath of their deaths, either.

“What gas chambers offered was … a method of making the killing easier – for the killers.”

This all sounds very organised and efficient, which raises another question.

How standardised and monolithic was the Holocaust?

First of all, the proportion of a nation’s Jews which was murdered varied greatly from country to country. There was a relatively weak tradition of anti-Semitism in liberal Holland and liberal Denmark, for example, but almost all Danish Jews were saved, while 75 per cent of Dutch Jews perished.

In contrast to Holland, France, with a record of anti-Semitism as recent as the Dreyfus Case at the beginning of the century, and with the collaborationist Vichy regime ruling much of its territory, lost “only” 25 per cent of its Jews.

In Italy, despite its being ruled by the Fascists until 1943 and then by the Nazis, 80 per cent of Jews survived; whereas in Greece, which contained just as little enthusiasm for anti-Semitism, 80 per cent died. The most important reason for these differences was the degree of determination of the Nazi administration in each individual case.

The decency and courage of subjugated populations counted for little in the face of implacable Nazi fanaticism, and in some Eastern European countries – the Baltic states, Ukraine, Poland, Russia, Croatia – there was, on the contrary, sometimes a great deal of support for anti-Jewish atrocities.

In still other countries, such as Romania, Bulgaria and Hungary, an initial readiness on the part of their leaderships to co-operate with their ally Germany gave way to cynical prudence as Germany’s defeat became obvious, and the probable retribution for having cooperated with the Holocaust loomed larger.

There was confusion among and within Nazi agencies in the process of carrying out genocide, but also an overarching drive to fulfil Hitler’s wishes.

Rees deals with a number of other important issues surrounding the Holocaust, such as the debate over whether the Allies should have bombed the death camps, and the vexed question of the roles of the Roman Catholic Church in general, and Pope Pius XII in particular.

In fact, this is possibly the most difficult review I have ever written, because there was a temptation to refer to everything the book contains, including its eye-witness accounts from survivors.

Does it contain a lesson?

Many, no doubt. But one implicit and highly relevant warning, is that we need to resist the undergraduate temptation to draw facile and trivial comparisons between the cosmic obscenity of Hitler, Nazism and the Holocaust, and the events of current Western liberal democratic politics.

Unconditionally recommended.

Purchase this book at the bookshop:


All you need to know about
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TRANSGENDER: one shade of grey, 353pp, $39.99

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