- Book Review Index
Holocaust: The Nazi Persecution and Murder of the Jews, by Peter Longerich, edited by Jeremy Noakes. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010. 625 pp. $34.95.
This wide-ranging, comprehensive analysis of the holocaust from origins to consequences promises to set a new standard for Holocaust studies. Director of a research center at the Royal Holloway College of London University, Peter Longerich also has written a pace-setting biography of Heinrich Himmler and universally recognized books on Hitler’s role in devising the final solution to the Jewish Question and a sharp analysis of German amnesia about the Holocaust (Davon haben wier nichts gewußt). Readers will also remember him as giving the decisive testimony in the David Irving v. Penguin/Lipstadt trial. The current book is a rewritten English edition of the German original work which made an immediate and strongly favorable impression on the world of Holocaust studies back in 1998 (Die Politik der Vernichtung). Bringing the scholarship up to date for the past 12 years is one of the outstanding achievements of this work, and the fine tuning and editing of Jeremy Noakes has saved the English reader from many germanisms such as prolix, convoluted sentences and ponderous arguments, although a few have slipped through the screen. The scholarship is impeccable (nearly a third of the book consists of notes) and the writing is clear and persuasive. The general reader will have no difficult passages to negotiate and will appreciate the frequent summaries at the end of sections and chapters. Captions and titles break up the text perhaps too much at times, but nonetheless encourage previews of sections and chapters, thus giving perspective and logical connections.
While scholars like Omer Bartov have called for a renewed focus on the victims of the Holocaust, using recollections and interviews like those conducted by David Boder right after the war, Peter Longerich unabashedly writes perpetrators’ history with an emphasis on the decision-making process. This does not mean that the author is dispassionate or indifferent to the suffering of those individuals who are about to die at the hands of unbelievably brutish and evil killers. Every page is suffused with the sounds of death and dying, even if surrounded by place names, police unit names, names of the leaders of killing squads, and endless statistics of the dead in small localities and larger regional areas. Running through the entire text like a red thread is the German word Judenpolitik, which is untranslatable, since it suggests both politics and policy, two quite separate ideas in English. Judenpolitik is the core of national socialism, according to Longerich. It drives the Nazi machinery of political action and bureaucratic function throughout the peacetime Reich and the War. It in turn is driven by a furious fire of racial hubris—and hence is at the center of the Holocaust and in all of its variegated manifestations. Longerich identifies three points where the antisemitic campaign, the decision-making process for the final solution to the Jewish Question, was escalated: The period from 1939 to 1941, the initial phase, was one during which the Nazi regime already contemplated genocidal murder of the European Jews, following from the racially motivated mass murder of Poles and the congenitally ill. In this new view which rejects a single decision by a single authority like Hitler, 1933 to 1939 was a preparatory period during which the political institutions and instruments were developed that were then put to use when the war began. The second consequence of taking the “final solution” to be a complex process is that Longerich and those who agree with him (Gerlach and Aly, for instance) now “take into consideration new thematic approaches to the analysis of the persecution of the Jews, [so] it becomes necessary to see Judenpolitik as systematically interlinked with the other central thematic areas, notably in domestic policy but ultimately also with German hegemony on the continent of Europe.” It also includes “inner repression,” and issues of work, food production, and the financing of the war itself (p. 7). Third, after the spring of 1942 when the decision had been made to attempt to kill all the Jews under German control, the process was affected increasingly by the behavior of the German allies, the behavior of the German local occupation administrations, and the attitude of the occupied peoples and German enemies. The Jews themselves in extremely dangerous circumstances began to resist and revolt. Finally, if the Holocaust was perpetrated by a chain of decisions, then the fate of other groups persecuted by the Nazis must also be reconsidered. In developing this scheme of interpretation the author relies wherever possible on the exploitation of primary sources, while fully recognizing in the endnotes the extensive research conducted by his fellow scholars in the field.
The structure of the book is determined by these interpretive innovations. The first of five parts deals with racial persecution in the peacetime Reich, 1933–1939, devoting individual chapters to displacement of Jews from public life, comprehensive discrimination, and the consequences for Jews of forming a so-called “peoples community.” Then come racial persecution of non-Jews and the deprivation of rights for Jews, including forced emigration and the politics of organized expulsion. This is a remarkable summation of antisemitic persecution in prewar Germany compressed within a mere 100 pages. Part Two is a more concentrated analysis of persecution in the years 1939 to 1941 and tells the story of what happened to Jews in the territory of the Reich, persecution of Jews in Poland after its conquest, which the author calls “a first variant of a territorial solution,” and the horror of deportation. Part Three deals with the mass executions of Jews in the occupied Soviet zones in the key year of 1941. It lays the foundation for “a war of racial annihilation,” delineates the separate murder of Jewish men, makes the transition from antisemitic terror to genocide and finishes with the extension of the killings to the entire Jewish population. Part Four focuses on the European-wide scale of the final solution by showing the plans for the European-wide deportation program and the beginnings of the deportations accompanied by regional mass murders and continues with a thorough discussion of the Wannsee Conference and its interruption by the American entry into the war. Part Five traces the extermination of the European Jew in the final years of 1942 to 1945. First the author devotes a chapter to beginning of the European extermination policy in 1942 and then writes a second chapter (chapter 18) explaining the turning point in the war in 1942–1943 which saw the continuation of the murders and the geographic expansion of the deportations.
It is clear, at least to this reviewer, that what Raul Hilberg’s The Destruction of the European Jews meant to scholars for his generation, Peter Longerich’s Holocaust will eventually signify for a later generation of Holocaust scholars and interested general readers. It could of course happen that Omer Bartov’s call for a refocus from the perpetrators to the victims will share in Longerich’s achievement for our time—the portrayal of radical evil in the modern world, representing the attempt to kill all the Jews of Europe under Nazi control.
Western New England College