A German Historian Examines the Genocide
By Wolfgang Benz
Translated from the German by Jane Sydenham-Kwiet
Columbia. 186 pp. $22
On first encountering this book, it is hard not to be skeptical about it. What depth or new insights could be contained in a 156-page essay titled "The Holocaust: A German Historian Examines the Genocide"? The topic is so complex that an attempt to analyze it in so limited a space initially strikes one as futile or of limited value. And yet a reading of this book by Wolfgang Benz, professor of antisemitism research at the Technical University of Berlin, will disprove the skeptics.
In this important essay, written by one of the "younger" generation of German scholars in this field, Benz analyzes many of the major issues and events that paved the road to Auschwitz. These include the organization of ghettos and their administration by Jewish councils, the Wannsee Conference in January 1942, the creation of an "efficient" system of killing the Jews, the persecution of the Gypsies and the wholesale looting of Jewish possessions and property.
Benz delineates the progression from persecution to murder. He does not focus on the roots of antisemitism or on Adolf Hitler's role in the killing process because his primary interest seems to be genocide as an administrative matter. In this respect his work is reminiscent of the approach of the seminal Holocaust scholar Raul Hilberg. Both these scholars recognize that the most chilling aspects of this governmental program of genocide lie in its seemingly mundane bureaucratic details.
Benz writes with understated passion. In January 1942 Reinhard Heydrich, who until his assassination was responsible for overseeing the plans for genocide, convened the Wannsee Conference to familiarize various bureaucrats and civil servants with the process for making Europe Judenfrei, free of Jews. Benz observes that while many ministries were represented, the army was not. It did not have to be. For, as many contemporary Germans have only recently acknowledged, the army was already fully cooperating in the killing process. At this meeting euphemisms prevailed: Aussiedlung (resettlement), Endloesung (final solution), Sonderbehandlung (special treatment) and Evakuierung (evacuation).
Regarding the reliance on code language, Benz observes in his characteristically laconic fashion that "of course they didn't need to use words like 'killing,' 'gassing,' or 'shooting to death.' . . . After all, they were educated and well bred people or, at least, men of a certain standing, who had been brought together to conduct state business." That state business was, of course, murder. After the meeting the group had breakfast. Heydrich and Adolf Eichmann lingered a bit longer to drink cognac. Years later, on being interrogated by the Israeli police, Eichmann still marveled at how smoothly this gathering had run.
Benz's economy of style results in a powerful essay, once again demonstrating that as regards this horrible event the facts can be allowed to speak for themselves; less can often be, and generally is, more. Concerning the switch from mass executions to gas chambers, Benz observes that "because the mass executions were so labor-intensive and costly, and took their toll on the nerves of the marksmen, those responsible were soon looking for alternative, more tolerable methods of murder. More tolerable, that is to say, for the murderers."
Benz joins the continuing scholarly debate over how and when the decision to murder the Jewish people became official state policy.
Most scholars have treated German deliberations about resettling Jews in Madagascar as proof that as late as the summer of 1940 the Nazi hierarchy had not yet decided to annihilate the Jews but was still seriously considering emigration as a solution to the "Jewish problem." Benz contends that discussions of Madagascar, which came to naught because of German setbacks in the Battle of Britain, were indicative of a movement toward annihilation. Implicit in this notion of resettling the Jews in districts "at the end of the earth," where the topography, climate and means of support were totally inappropriate and insufficient for the survival of a large European population, were "fantasies of extermination." (The same fantasies were implicit when the frozen climes of Alaska came under discussion.)
This will be an essay of choice for anyone wishing a sophisticated description of the major aspects of the genocide of the Jews.
Apparently to pique the book-buying public's interest, the publisher has used the subtitle to call attention to the fact that the author is German. The publisher may have assumed that, given the current debate over Holocaust commemorations in Germany, a German voice would attract readers' attention.
While this may intrigue some readers, ultimately it is immaterial. Stressing Benz's national origins diminishes the importance of what he has to say. His insights are of value and his observations provocative because he is an excellent scholar. His country of origin, religious identity and ethnic associations are beside the point. And that is how it should be.
Deborah E. Lipstadt, Dorot professor of modern Jewish and Holocaust studies at Emory University, and author of "Denying the Holocaust: The Growing Assault on Truth and Memory"