AUSCHWITZ: 1270 to the Present
By Deborah Dwork and Robert Jan van Pelt
Norton. 443 pp. $35

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A Place in History

By Abraham Brumberg
Sunday, August 4, 1996
The Washington Post

Recently, the publishing world was rocked by the book Hitler's Willing Executioners, which argues that the Holocaust was not primarily the work of a systematic and coldblooded Nazi machine, spreading death through its extermination squads and concentration camps. Instead, author Daniel Jonah Goldhagen writes, the Holocaust was carried out by tens of thousands of ordinary German men and women, many of them not even members of the National Socialist Party, with the gleeful consent of most of their countrymen.

Goldhagen's thesis is not altogether new: The participation of ordinary Germans in the "Final Solution" has been documented by other scholars. The view that antisemitism in Germany was particularly virulent has also been around for some time. However, what Goldhagen does do is shift the focus from the machinery of death to the behavior, thoughts and emotions of average German participants in the mass murders. He manages that shift with excruciating attention to all the blood-curdling details, so that its gruesome reality is not obscured by reams of statistics and anodyne generalizations.

The appearance of Auschwitz: 1270 to the Present may help to redirect our attention again to the Nazi machinery of death. For whatever the role of "ordinary" Germans, the key to the Holocaust lies in its uncanny combination of mechanical or "entrepreneurial" annihilation on the one hand and gruesome sadism on the other. For every mind-numbing incident of individual cruelty one can cite similar examples from other genocides -- of Armenians slaughtered by Turks in 1915 or the Ustachi massacres of hundreds and thousands of Serbs and Jews during World War II. But the camps and the entire fine-tuned machinery of death had no precedent. This, more than the brutalities of average Germans, defined the uniqueness of the Holocaust.

The authors of Auschwitz -- Deborah Dwork, a professor of Holocaust history at Clark University, and Robert Jan van Pelt, a professor of cultural history at Canada's University of Waterloo -- trace the story of how a small Polish town built in the late 13th century, falling now under the sway of the Germans, now under the rule of the Poles, with Jews constituting the bulk of its population from the mid-15th century until 1941, eventually became the largest slaughter site in the history of mankind.

They also place Auschwitz (in Polish, Oswiecim) -- and here lies the principal merit of the book -- within the context of Germany's Drang nach Osten. This "push to the east" became a powerful Nazi myth, holding that the Western territories of Poland, parts of Bohemia, Romania and Hungary, large chunks of the Baltic states, southern Ukraine, Crimea and the banks of the Volga in Russia -- indeed, wherever there were or had once been German inhabitants -- were rightfully part of the historic German State. The local inhabitants (Jews, Poles, Czechs, Ukrainians) would be deported to make room for millions of blond Aryan men and women working the lands and producing more blond Aryans for the further glory of the Reich.

The chief architect of this audacious project was Reichsfuerer-SS Heinrich Himmler. When Auschwitz became an extermination camp, Himmler would come and calmly observe the process of death, from the arrival of thousands of men, women and children at Birkenau -- the camp where the actual killing took place -- to the actual gassing. After the bodies, covered by blood and excrement, were loaded into the crematoria, he would invite his Volks-Genossen for a repast replete with Sekt and Apfel Kuchen.

Interestingly, at first Himmler did not consider turning Auschwitz into the most extravagant symbol of the "Final Solution." The camp established by the Germans shortly after they occupied Auschwitz in 1939 changed from a production site for sand and gravel, to a labor pool for constructing synthetic rubber, to a place of extermination. Throughout its transformations, the camp was for Himmler above all the centerpiece of his dream of a huge German East, teeming with more than 3.5 million German settlers and presided over by himself, with the full imprimatur of a grateful Fuehrer.

Himmler, then, only eventually espoused the slaughter of several million Jews. Furthermore, he saw it as a means to a goal -- unlike Hitler, for whom the extermination of "the Jewish race" was an all-consuming end in itself. The two of them got along splendidly.

Dwork and van Pelt document the Auschwitz nightmare thoroughly and also provide many diagrams -- rather too technical for most readers -- of the incremental construction of the camp. In their final chapter, the authors take up the efforts made by the Polish government, the Church and even, until recently, the Pope, to "appropriate" Auschwitz as a "Polish" problem, as a site of Polish martyrdom or at best as a "crime against humanity." This effort has deliberately obscured the fact that the Holocaust was directed at an entire people -- the Jews -- and that in fact over 90 percent of the victims in Auschwitz were Jews.

Polish attitudes towards Jews have changed for the better, yet to this day many Poles find it difficult to acknowledge the Jewish dimension of the Holocaust: In January 1995 Lech Walesa, at ceremonies marking the liberation of Auschwitz, chose not even to mention the extermination of the Jews. Two years earlier, a survey found that 10 percent of Poles thought there were up to 7 million Jews in the country (there are about 6,000), another percent said up to 3.8 million. The Jews, apparently, were not only spared; they multiplied (there were about 3.2 million before the war). And so the nightmare has still not disappeared.

Abraham Brumberg has written widely on Russia and Eastern Europe.

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