The Holocaust: A Concise History, by Doris L. Bergen
This book is a concise history, and those who have read a great deal about the Shoah and its immense destructiveness to European Jewry as well as various other groups of people will likely find elements of this book that they wish were covered in greater detail or at all. For example, the author only writes a bit about Jewish resistance and the problem of semi-collaboration (although this is a big issue for postwar Judaism) and does not discuss (perhaps suprisingly) Schindler at all, perhaps because of the popularity his efforts have at present. Nevertheless, such matters are an inevitable matter of having written a concise history of such a sprawling and massive tragedy. The author sets out to briefly set out the scope of her work and does a good job at sticking to that, reminding readers that the efforts of theodicy in the face of the horrors of genocide are far beyond the scope of a small book like this one. Whether or not readers accept that or not is up to them, but as a reader of this book I was pleased at the level of depth this book was able to reach despite being very slim in its length.
This particular book contains eight chapters and runs close to 250 pages, making it brief but not too brief. The preface of the book discusses Hitler’s goals with war and genocide in purifying the German “race” and in providing Germans more “space,” and she sticks with that approach throughout. After introducing her thesis, the author moves on discuss the preconditions of antisemitism, racism, and prejudice in Europe in the time before Hitler (1) as well as the importance of leadership and will in Hitler, the Nazi party, and Nazi ideology (2). After this the author discusses the way that Hitler’s revolutionary ideology became routinized in prewar Germany (3) and in the open aggression of Hitler in his ultimately successful search for war (4). After that the final four essays examine the course of genocide during the Second World War, beginning with the experiments in brutality in the war against Poland and the euthenasia program (5), moving on to expansion and systematization in the next phase of the war (6), examining the peak years of the slaughter in 1942 and 1943 in the various concentration and death camps (7), and finally the death throes of Nazi Germany and the killing frenzies that took place at the end of the war (8). The author then discusses the legacies of atrocity that remain after the Holocaust.
The author, in writing this book, appears to be viewing the Holocaust as a case study in how routine prejudice and hatred towards various groups can, in certain circumstances, lead to acts of genocidal violence. Admittedly, when one tends to think of genocidal violence, there are usually issues of identity where there are longstanding prejudices and rivalries between different groups of people. Additionally, there is generally some sort of fierce competition over land and other scarce resources that leads these groups to come into conflict with each other when they would otherwise simply be content to be prejudiced but leave others well enough alone (which is my general default option when it comes to dealing with “others”). But what is fateful is when there is leadership that turns latent hostility and existing conflict and turns it into something more sinister and destructive where it is thought that the world would be better off without such people as one is hostile towards. Once that happens, it is but a short step to the sort of violence that this book writes so movingly and so concisely about, something that we would wish never would happen again but which is not as far away as we might tell ourselves.