May 17, 2011

Holocaust: A History (Best Holocaust books review)

Holocaust: A History (Best Holocaust books review)

During the past half-century Holocaust studies have perhaps become the most vital area of historical research. Yet books with the significance of this new history of the Holocaust are rare it is exhaustive as well as consistently insightful. From the opening chapters in which the authors, contradicting popular wisdom, argue that the direct eliminationist roots of the Holocaust are found not so much in the centuries-old European anti-Semitic legal regulations, but in the Inquisition's intention of social purification, the Terror of the French Revolution and the massacre of 1.5 million Armenians by the Turks in 1915 Dwork and van Pelt challenge and provoke.

Rather then viewing the Holocaust as a distinct historical phenomenon, the authors do their best to integrate it into a wide range of historical, cultural and social conditions. In discussing the German subjugation of Poland, for example, they focus on how gentile Poles saw the extermination of Jews as a precursor to their own fate; in their discussion of how Jews coped with ghetto life, the authors examine in detail the underground schooling systems that benefited both students and teachers. They also place the history of rescue efforts (usually based on personalities such as Oskar Schindler and Raoul Wallenberg) in a broader and more complicated geographic and social perspective. 

The book is also filled with fascinating details that challenge our preconceptions for instance, it is a myth, they note, that King Christian of Denmark wore a yellow star in sympathy with his country's Jews, since no Nazi order was ever given for Danish Jews to be so identified. Like their important earlier work Auschwitz (winner of a National Jewish Book Award), this is beautifully and lucidly written, presenting complex and important information in a highly accessible manner. 75 illus., 16 maps.

This book almost more a history of anti-semitism, the main focus being anti-semitism during the Holocaust. It deals more with why the Holocaust happened, what the conditions were in Europe that led to it, and what attitudes were like toward the Jews. It explores what conditions were like in occupied countries and how the non-Jews were treated by the Germans. This treatment by the Nazis would often reflect on whether or not the country helped the Nazis in their efforts against the Jews. Many countries would collaborate if the general population was being treated well, but then again many would collaborate if they were being treated harshly and blame the Jews as the cause. The book also deals with the various plans the Nazis came up with in their effort to find the "perfect" plan to dispose of the Jews. There is only one rather short chapter on concentration camps, the rest covers quite a lot of new ground that I haven't read before in books dealing with the Holocaust.

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