BOOKS: by Michael Daniel (reviewer)News Weekly
Laurence Rees, AUSCHWITZ: The Nazis and the 'Final Solution' / THE NAZIS: A Warning from History
, July 22, 2006
AUSCHWITZ: The Nazis and the "Final Solution"
by Laurence Rees
(London: BBC Books)
Paperback: 400 pages
Rec. price: AUD$22.95THE NAZIS: A Warning from History
by Laurence Rees
(London: BBC Books)
Paperback: 352 pages
Rec. price: AUD$22.95Although world history is replete with regimes judged by humanity to be evil, the regime identified as the most evil in popular consciousness is Nazi Germany, primarily because of its murder of six million Jews.
Although other regimes before and since have massacred huge numbers of people, even to the point of committing genocide, the ruins of Auschwitz-Birkenau in modern Poland, at which took place the mechanised gassing and cremation of thousands of people daily, stands as a chilling reminder of the murderous Nazi regime.Survivors' testimony
In his two recently published works, Auschwitz
and The Nazis
- which are the books based on two BBC television series, now available on DVD - noted historian Laurence Rees analyses the phenomenon of Nazi Germany, drawing not only from documentary evidence but also from the testimony of survivors.
Much of the documentary material has come to light only since the fall of the Soviet Union and sheds new light on the regime. Similarly, many of the eyewitnesses interviewed, particularly those who assisted with the atrocities, have only been willing to discuss their role publicly in the last few years.
In analysing the horrors of the regime in both works, Rees asks not only how the Nazis rose to power, but how they were able to commit their subsequent atrocities.The Nazis
details Hitler's movement from its rise to power until its demise at the end of World War II.
Rees argues the Nazis' rise to power was in response to the German public's desperation for a solution to Germany's mass unemployment brought about by the 1930s Great Depression. During earlier prosperous economic times, Germans tended to dismiss the National Socialists and their politics as an irrelevant fringe.
Rees also challenges the hypothesis that the Germans were basically reluctant victims of an evil clique. He shows that the bulk of the Gestapo's dossiers was gathered by ordinary Germans who willingly dobbed in people they knew!
Germans did indeed suffer a loss of liberties with the consolidation of Nazi power; but Rees shows that, provided ordinary Germans (that is, members of groups that the Nazis did not target) did not criticise the regime, life in Nazi Germany was pleasant and comfortable. This was in contrast to the experience of the Soviet Union under Stalin where everyone lived in fear of being denounced.
When Germany's inevitable defeat became obvious, a serious attempt at assassinating Hitler - namely the July 20, 1944 von Stauffenberg plot, which implicated a significant number of prominent Germans - was made. Nonetheless, many other Germans refused to participate because, notwithstanding their disquiet at the regime, they felt compelled to serve Hitler because of their oath of allegiance to him.
The failure by the German people to oust the regime was to prove catastrophic. Just as the Germans had severely mistreated the Soviet populations when attacking the Soviet Union, they in turn were victims of Soviet atrocities as the Soviet Army invaded Germany.
Towards the end of The Nazis
, Rees devotes a chapter to the Nazis' mass extermination of European Jewry, exploring ideas he examines in greater detail in Auschwitz
In both works, he challenges some of the assumptions about the so-called "Final Solution". While the focus of the latter work is on Auschwitz, Rees sets it within the context of the Nazis' persecution of minority groups, particularly the Jews, and examines other centres of mass extermination such as Treblinka and Sobibor.
Rees's thesis is that, despite statements by Hitler even as late as 1939 that he intended to annihilate the Jews, the "Final Solution", decided upon in late 1941/early 1942, was the culmination of a series of measures, many of them reactions to specific problems created by the war.First gassings
For example, the deportation of German Jews in 1941, particularly to the Lodz ghetto in Poland, was done in response to the perceived need to house "Aryans" whose homes had been destroyed in Hamburg during bombing raids. This in turn led to the gassing of the first Jews, but was brought about by the need to create space in the Lodz ghetto for German Jews; hence, only those deemed unable to work were sent to places such as Chelmno.
Hitler used Germany's declaration of war, in December 1941, against the Soviet Union - a regime which Hitler wrongly believed was controlled by Jews - as the pretext for launching the Final Solution.
While extermination of many Jews was subsequently carried out at Auschwitz, this site was initially established by the Nazis as a concentration camp for Poles deemed to be a threat to the Nazi regime. The camp soon became notorious for slave labour after a number of factories were established in its vicinity due to its useful location.
Auschwitz - the most notorious Nazi extermination centre - only became the major Nazi killing site in 1944, after the other major death camps had been closed. Unlike, say, Treblinka and Sobibor, which were solely extermination camps, Auschwitz was chosen to continue operations. Some of its new inmates were selected to live temporarily as slave labourers. Its facilities were expanded to accommodate the Hungarian Jewish community which, until 1944, had remained largely unscathed.Allies criticised
In response to the frequent criticism of the Allies for not bombing Auschwitz in 1944, Rees asserts that by the time they were capable of doing so, the extermination rate there had been reduced to less than 1,000 per day; and that, even if the main crematoria had been bombed, the Nazis could have gone back to using gas-chamber facilities elsewhere in the complex that they had used in 1942 and 1943.The Nazis
can scarcely be described as "enjoyable"; nevertheless, they are both interesting, albeit macabre, books to read.
In both books are featured interviews with those who assisted with the atrocities. These raise challenging and disturbing questions about human nature - questions which we ignore or brush aside at our peril.