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From the JFR Library – April 2024

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From the JFR Library

The Holocaust: An Unfinished History

by Dan Stone

Reviewed by Jennifer Szalai in the New York Times on January 31, 2024

“The Holocaust teaches us nothing”: It’s a surprising declaration to encounter in the early pages of “The Holocaust: An Unfinished History,” not least because its author, Dan Stone, also happens to be the director of the Holocaust Research Institute at the University of London. But Stone is doing what a conscientious historian does, countering platitudes with demystification.

One reason the Holocaust teaches us nothing is that we have a warped understanding of what actually happened. Pop-cultural depictions in books and films have often elided discomfiting complexity in favor of what one sociologist has called “trauma drama.” The result is a paradox: “An increased awareness of the Holocaust has led to it being banalized and exploited,” Stone writes.

His argument happens to be especially timely. Prominent historians have decried the misuse of “Holocaust memory” by politicians to justify Israel’s bombing of Gaza after Hamas’s Oct. 7 attacks. But Stone’s book was first published in Britain in January of last year — too early to include events from the last few months. And aside from a concluding chapter about the present, it is primarily about the past.

Stone wants to rescue the hard facts of historical research from the blur of common clichés. He challenges the preoccupation with “industrial genocide,” which has become a central part of the “prevailing narrative.” The information he presents won’t be new to historians, or even to readers well versed in the literature; Stone’s book is presumably intended for those whose knowledge of the Holocaust is derived mainly from movies like “The Boy in the Striped Pajamas” or “Schindler’s List.” Or perhaps it’s for the 20 percent of Americans under 30 who, according to a poll by The Economist, believe that the Holocaust is a “myth.”

To that end, he offers a concise and accessible history that extends beyond the death camps. Nearly half of the Holocaust’s six million victims died of starvation in the ghettos or in “face-to-face” shootings in the east. Before Kristallnacht, in November 1938, Jews had not yet been subjected to large-scale physical violence in Germany. Stone notes that Nazi directives for the pogrom showed a “curious adherence to petit bourgeois morality,” with one high-ranking official primly decreeing that “places of business and apartments belonging to Jews may be destroyed but not looted.”

Such bureaucratic pettiness is another part of the story Stone tells. Having been stripped of German citizenship in 1935, the country’s Jews were constrained by a profusion of demeaning legislation. They were forbidden to keep typewriters, musical instruments, bicycles and even pets. The sheer variety of persecution was bewildering. It was also chillingly deceptive, persuading some law-abiding Jews that survival was a matter of falling into line. Stone quotes the wrenching letter of a woman reassuring her loved one that getting transported to Theresienstadt, in German-occupied Czechoslovakia, might be better than living in Germany. “My future place of residence represents a sort of ghetto,” she explained. “It has the advantage that, if one obeys all the rules, one lives in some ways without the restrictions one has here.”

The historian Saul Friedländer described Nazism as “the use of bureaucratic measures to enforce magical beliefs.” Just how those beliefs connected to a body of thought is an area that has been “understudied,” Stone says — a neglect that is understandable given the fatuousness of Nazi “ideas.” The “pompous and un-self-conscious verbiage” in Hitler’s “Mein Kampf” was the “rambling, incoherent product of a second-rate mind.” But stupidity can be powerful. Even though the Nazis also adopted the jargon of science, they kept resorting to “race mysticism” and a facile revulsion against the intellect. As the Dutch novelist Harry Mulisch remarked of Hitler: “He did not need to write or think. He knew.”

Stone allows that the Wannsee Conference of Jan. 20, 1942, where Nazi officials mapped out their plans for “a final solution of the Jewish question in Europe,” marked a turning point from “ad hoc” murders to their “systematization.” In March 1942, “75 to 80 percent of the Holocaust’s victims were still alive.” Eleven months later, “80 percent of the Holocaust’s victims were dead.” (The historian Christopher Browning began “Ordinary Men,” his 1992 study of Germany’s Order Police in Poland, with the same startling statistics.) Stone doesn’t downplay Germany’s responsibility, but he argues that by fixating on the Germans we lose sight of a bigger picture. He calls the Holocaust a “continentwide crime” that involved “a series of interlocking local genocides carried out under the auspices of a grand project.”

This broader lens shows that one didn’t have to adopt Germany’s strain of messianic and mystical antisemitism to take part in the Holocaust — the ordinary vices of “venality” and “opportunism” and a desire to fit in would often do. One of the largest massacres took place at Bogdanovka, in the Romanian-administered territory of Transnistria; in less than a month, as many as 48,000 Jews were murdered.

But paying more heed to the role played by non-Germans in the Holocaust has generated a backlash in some European countries, where far-right movements reject even the suggestion of responsibility. In Poland, this form of nationalist denial has been enshrined into law. Stone reports that two historians of the Holocaust were sued for running afoul of 2018 legislation making it a crime to suggest Poles were complicit in the murder of Jews.

“Selective Holocaust memory is being put at the service of criminalizing scholarship,” Stone writes. That line refers specifically to Poland, though he also discusses how “selective Holocaust memory” has been pressed into service by a range of disparate agendas. In Germany, regulations on how the Holocaust is remembered are so restrictive that criticism of Israel gets branded as antisemitic (a conflation that occurs elsewhere, including here in the United States). Stone deplores the effects of Germany’s position. In addition to shutting down debate about Israeli treatment of Palestinians, it has the perverse result of equating Jews with Israel “in the fetishized manner of both hard-line Zionist and anti-Zionist thought.”

Stone resists thinking in terms of lessons, though he believes that the history of the Holocaust offers a warning. It has little to do with anything so nebulous and ubiquitous as “intolerance,” or even “hatred,” he says, and more to do with politics and the state. After all, the Nazis were ushered into German government by conservative elites cynically intent on clinging to power. Today, Stone writes, eyeing the insurgent rise of the radical right in Europe and elsewhere, “fascism is not yet in power. But it is knocking on the door.”

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