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Midwest Jewish Studies Association - Shofar Book Reviews

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The Holocaust: A Concise History, by Doris L. Bergen.  Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, 2009.  279 pp.  $26.95.

What is in a name? Doris Bergen’s The Holocaust is a new imprint of her War and Genocide which was published in 2003. While one might be tempted to shrug this change off as an irrelevance, it seems to me that in such a concise volume such a change of title is noteworthy. The omission of “Holocaust” in the previous title seemed significant, in that it absolutely foregrounded the context of war, and indeed the general destructiveness and genocidal violence wreaked by the Nazis. While this is still the interpretation contained within the book—it is the same book after all—somehow it is an interpretation that appears less boldly, more apologetically in just another introduction to the Holocaust. I am sure that the change of title does not in reality signal any change of interpretative direction, but it is for this reader at least, implied. Holocaust studies needs more, not fewer, reminders of the contexts in which the subject must be understood.

              Nonetheless this is still a striking introduction to the complexity of Holocaust history – precisely because despite being a very short book it does not in any way attempt to evade the complexity and context for Nazi violence against Jews. The author states very early on that she hopes her readers will engage with her book alongside other texts that allow exploration of such contexts. And the opening chapter on preconditions is an admirable attempt to gently introduce readers to the idea that we can’t just explain the history of the Holocaust through an exploration of Nazi antisemitism. Although Bergen does treat antisemitism as the first of the preconditions for the Final Solution, she also presents the reader with analyses of attitudes towards those considered handicapped, and the development of racism. The brutalizing impact of the Great War is also explored as a context for genocide, as is the European experience of imperialism and especially colonial genocide. It is clear that Bergen’s Holocaust did not come out of a clear blue sky.

              The book then proceeds through a chronological survey of the development of the Nazi regime. Developing Jewish policy is situated in that survey but not to the exclusion of other narratives. It is telling, for example, that the last detail of the chapter that deals with the final years of the 1930s is not Kristallnacht or the subsequent intensification of Nazi anti-Jewish policies but the ad-hoc development of the child euthanasia program. When Bergen then moves on to explore the war that provides the crucial context for anti-Jewish policy, that policy is only discussed after the contexts of the structure of Nazi rule in Poland and the attempts at general population restructuring have been firmly established .

              There are no easy lessons here. Throughout the narrative Bergen is at pains to avoid easy categorization of the protagonists as just perpetrators, bystanders, or victims. Analysis of the occupation of Poland makes clear that Poles were victims for example, but they could profit from Jewish property just the same. The Polish population could provide just as many examples of rescuers as it could antisemites. And indeed they could be one and the same too.

              But as I stated at the beginning of this review, for Bergen context is all. And it is war, and specifically war on the Eastern front which leads Germans across the line to annihilation. It is war that effects a “contagious” brutalization which leads not only German soliders to be killers. This is Bergen’s explanation for the alacrity with which Romanian forces took to mass murder too. It is war that ties the German population to Nazi violence, makes them accomplices in the material rape of Europe. It is the twists and turns of German military adventure, Bergen argues, that determine the fate of Jewish populations around Europe—a case most forcibly proposed with regard to the Jews of Italy.

              Bergen’s insistence on context is important, because it is so often lost within attempts to wrestle with the Holocaust on either a general or holistic level, in which the murder of Europe’s Jews can appear out of place, space, and time. And war is just one of the contexts that is insisted upon here. Such an emphasis on context is then also an unwritten insistence on complexity—a welcome lesson for any student, especially in a world where the Holocaust is increasingly popularly presented as moral certainty.

              Bergen’s insistence on a lack of certainty continues to the very end of the book. Throughout the author has introduced individual victims’ stories to act as illustrative vignettes that emphasize the personal tragedies that Nazi violence represented. This is a practice that continues in the final chapter on “the legacies of atrocity.” Here you can almost feel the author’s struggle to place stories of survival which have, from one perspective, “happy” endings. Because of course there are no happy endings in the Holocaust story, “no uplifting message of redemption.”

              This is a challenging message with which to end a challenging book. It is an impressive introduction to the Holocaust which will certainly serve its readers well. I preferred the challenging title though.

Tom Lawson

University of Winchester