Friday, March 8, 2024

Books: The Holocaust: An Unfinished History, By Dan Stone


The Holocaust: An Unfinished History

By Dan Stone

Mariner Books; hardcover, 464 pages; $32.50

Dan Stone is Professor of Modern History and Director of the Holocaust Research Institute at Royal Holloway, University of London. He is the author of editor of books, including Histories of the Holocaust (Oxford University Press); The Liberation of the Camps: The End of the Holocaust and its Aftermath (Yale University Press); and Concentration Camps: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford University Press).

Stone has done decades of research to produce this sweeping account that spans the history of the Holocaust, which was released to acclaim in the UK in January 2023. One aim of the book is to uncover  major parts of the history of the Holocaust that have been overlooked, especially at present with the rise of antisemitism, authoritarianism, and the "great-replacement" theory in the wake of the October 7 attack on Israel.

One big theory on the Holocaust that Stone contests is the idea of "industrial murder" is incomplete. Almost half of all the victims of the Holocaust died outside of the camps, of starvation in ghettos or in face-to-face shootings during killing actions. Many were killed where they lived in the most brutal means possible. 

Stone emphasizes the depth of collaboration across Europe, from Norway to Romania to North Africa, as he makes a persuasive argument that we need to stop thinking of the Holocaust as an exclusively German project. The single largest massacre of the Holocaust took place in what today's Ukraine, in Bogdanovka concentration camp, where 54,000 Jews were murdered between December 1941 and January 1942. This far outnumbers any massacre that took place in Western or Central Europe.

There also consideration of the nature of the trauma that the Holocaust engendered, and why the suffering of the Jewish people has not been fully reckoned with. This has to happen as the radical right is occurring, and challenges a trend in books and movies to "beautify the Holocaust," which narrowly focuses on positive stories of resistance and rescuers that serve to blunt and distort our understanding of the true horror.

Stone makes clear that the way to understand Nazi thinking and action is genocidal ideology, providing a deep analysis of its origins. He draws on Nazi documents, but also on diaries, post-war testimonies, and even fiction, urging that it is vital we understand the true history of the Holocaust.

In this excerpt, Stone writes of the brutality unleashed on Jewish people, and its aims: "The Holocaust turned the victims' world upside down, not just destroying their homes and families, leaving most of the small minority of survivors unable to return to the lands of their birth, but in terms of values. Both during and after the war years, the Nazi assault on the Jews left them, in many cases, unable to lead lives guided by morality or established norms, as the above examples show. Those trapped in Nazi ghettos and camps found themselves not on 'another planet' but certainly in the anus mundi, in which literal and metaphorical filth governed existence. These were places made by human beings in which human beings were destroyed. As Hannah Arendt said, perhaps the Holocaust was an attempt to eradicate the very concept of the human being.

Arendt's radical claim reminds us that we have in some ways either forgotten, or ignored altogether, what the Holocaust was and how devastating its effects were. The depth of the trauma caused by the Holocaust means we must move beyond a mechanistic interpretation of 'industrial genocide.' The ubiquity of collaboration across Europe, driven by a coincidence of wants between the Nazis' ideologically driven aspiration to rid the world of Jews and the desires of many nation-states' leaders to create ethnically homogeneous populations, means we needs to stop thinking of the Holocaust as solely a German project. It was, however, driven and largely perpetrated by Germans (including Austrians), thus we must focus on ideology, understood as a kind of phantasmagorical conspiracy theory, as the kernel of Nazi thinking and action. And finally we need to understand the ways in which the after-effects of the Holocaust shaped the postwar years and continue to be felt today.

The trauma of the Holocaust has been largely written out of the historiography and decidedly excluded from commemorative ceremonies and the discussion of the Holocaust in the public sphere. It is not the case that people are not moved or informed or that they do not find the events terrible; but the real depths of suffering the Holocaust caused beyond the level of the individual or family and its deep implications for the nature of the modern state and the modern world in general are just too unpleasant and uncomfortable for people to deal with - or so it seems...

"The Holocaust was a truly transnational affair. By this, I mean that policies implemented by the Nazis were replicated by their allies but also vice-versa; often collaborating states forced the hand of the Nazis by taking the initiative where persecution of Jews was concerned.  The Vichy government, for example, pre-empted the Nazis by introducing its first Statut des Juifs without the Nazis' encouragement. Persecution in one place emboldened others elsewhere, and the sharing of fascist ideology across Europe made this interconnectedness possible, facilitating a continent-wide crime that the Germans on their own would have found much harder to implement.

The same is true from the victims’ perspective. Historians are only just investigating in detail the experiences of Jews not directly caught in the Nazi net. The deportation and murder of the Jews of France, the Netherlands, Belgium, Slovakia, Poland, Hungary, Greece and elsewhere has been described many times. Nevertheless, revelations continue to come, especially concerning the roles played by local, non-German actors and the extent to which the Holocaust was experienced as a constant movement. Many Eastern European Jews were killed where they lived in the summer and autumn of 1941; many others were rounded up and deported to their deaths; but the process of arrest, assembly, detention, deportation, travelling and arrival is often neglected. And for many Holocaust victims, the story was far more complicated, as they were dragged from one incarceration site to another. As we will see, some victims endured five, six or more concentration camps, especially in the later stages of the war, when Jews were used as slave labourers in small camps linked to specific firms which hired the ‘work Jews’ (Arbeitsjuden) from the SS.”

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