Books: The Nazis - a tyranny of improvisation
History: The Final Solution: the Fate of the Jews 1933-49, David Cesarani, Macmillan, hdbk, 800 pages, €44.99
Eamon Delaney on a powerful and moving history of the Holocaust
What can you say about the Holocaust - an operation of meaningless mass murder by what had been then thought to be one of the most civilised countries on earth, at the heart of Europe in the middle of the 20th Century? Far from receding with time, the obscenity, reach and scale of the Holocaust and its unbelievable and pointless cruelty has never seemed so near and documented. It echoes through the modern atrocities of Islamic State and the Syrian army, with their mass executions and beheadings. But these are small-scale indeed compared to the mass slaughter of the Nazis and their allies, the latter a crucial feature which David Cesarani explores in this lengthy, compelling and devastating account.
The willingness of local populations in Slovakia, Ukraine, Latvia and even "sophisticated" France, under the Vichy regime, to collaborate in this cruelty, and often gleefully, is a deep indictment of our supposedly civilised continent. Indeed, Cesarani describes how the very first Jews to arrive at Auschwitz concentration camp came from Slovakia, victims of the country's fascist Hlinka regime which was led by Father Jozef Tiso, a Catholic priest. He believed that the Jews were Christ-killers and couldn't be equal citizens in a Christian State.
In 2001, I visited Slovakia and the site of the now vanished old Jewish area of Bratislava, and it was a deeply poignant experience. But also a strange one, with a marked local (and official) unwillingness to discuss the tragedy.
The reality is that "Hitler's willing executioners" (as another book title memorably put it) went about their work with little question. Cesarani's mammoth work is a fluid documentation of all this, and the sheer logistical efforts involved, and it is a pity he is not alive to see his epic work published, as he passed way last October after a spinal operation.
However, like many (too many) historians, Cesarani feels obliged to stake his reputation on challenging the received conclusions of other historians, and too often this is over-egged, or over stated. He challenges the famous "banality of evil" description by Hannah Arendt but much of what he describes is utterly banal. This is what makes it so shocking. There is a photo in the book of a few hundred women assembled in a picturesque yard in Kishinev (now in Moldova). They are under Romanian guard (another Nazi ally) and the photo shows how the Germans liked to document their activities. The women look quizzical, impatient, as if they have work to get back to, children to feed. But they are all about to be executed by the waiting SS.
There are different ways of looking at the Holocaust. The focus on Auschwitz sometimes overshadows other concentration camps. But then the focus on the camps also overshadows the mass killings of the SS in villages and towns as they moved across eastern Europe, shooting people in pits and squares. Half a million Jews were killed in this manner, a fact often conveniently ignored by that strange species of Holocaust deniers. Or "Holocaust qualifiers", who quibble over the overall figures, even though almost all the Nazis' victims can be traced back to a rich and cultural association with their original European home. For the Nazis were special in their mechanised murder, in their desire to scrupulously make detailed records of their crimes.
The amazing fact is how little the Nazi officials were punished. The Nuremberg trial took place and many camp commandants were punished, but very many were not, and slunk back to an easy life in West Germany. Interestingly, an alleged Auschwitz guard is on trial right now.
Cesarani's central point is that the Nazis were not a fluid killing machine, but a tyranny of improvisation and muddle and that their anti-Jewish policy was not "systematic, consistent or even premeditated". Really? Many will be baffled by this strange qualification, especially from an author who didn't use official Nazi sources, and so, according to his critics, cannot have fully appreciated the pedantry and quasi-legalistic basis of German racial actions.
We had, after all, the famous Wannsee Conference of January 1942, at which the Final Solution of the Jewish Question became official Nazi policy. This was specifically requested in part by the Ministry of the Occupied Eastern Territories to establish guidelines for the categories of Jews in Ukraine and Belarus, as required by the Nazis' Nuremberg Laws of 1935. It was all very pre-meditated and prepared for, as it was in Hitler's own book, Mein Kampf. The chin-stroking Nazi officials had to work out, for example, the legality of murdering "half-Jews"and "quarter-Jews"?
Of course, we all know now that the Nazi state was much more chaotically run than it might be seen. How could it not be given that all decisions ultimately came from a peripatetic lunatic called Adolf Hitler? But Nazi Germany was a very efficient killing machine, just as despite all the chaos (and diversion of military resources for the holocaust itself) it was a very efficient military machine, which in the end was only defeated by the combined heroic efforts of the UK, France, the United States and an enraged Soviet Union, sparing no men. And even then, it was a hard won victory.
Cesarani has written a powerful and intensely moving account, drawing on the diaries and letters of those who suffered and died as well as the historical accounts and bland instructions of the remorseless killers.
The descriptions of life in the ghettoes, even before the camps got going, are almost unbearable as are the scenes of walking skeletons and stinking corpses which greeted British soldiers arriving at Bergen-Belsen. But the Nazis drew from old hatreds that existed, and sadly perhaps still exist, in Eastern Europe and we are lucky that, for all our problems, we have been spared this threat in the West of the continent. We can only be grateful for this - and vigilant.