Within the extended scope of European history, coauthors of the acclaimed Auschwitz (2000) deliver a rigorously documented positioning of the persecution and murder of Jews prior to and during WWII.
Dwork (Holocaust History/Clark Univ.) and van Pelt (Cultural History/Univ. of Waterloo, Ontario) make judicious use of personal anecdotes plus numerous maps and photos to animate the retelling of events about which much has already been put on record. So contextually enhanced, detailed, and logically sequenced is this version, though, that even readers who have previously delved into the Holocaust may be shocked at how much remains to be dealt with. The ultimate Nazi brutalities, of course, cannot be enlarged upon, but a crucial role in their execution was played by hypocritical governments wedged between inflamed European nationalism and the specter of a new German war machine as Hitler rose to power after WWI. Among bureaucrats in countries threatened or occupied by the Nazis, the authors recount, phrases like “We did it to avoid worse” regularly justified anti-Semitic legislation and measures that would be later explained away as expedients never intended to be fully enacted. This “shield philosophy” thrived during WWII, they contend, “and always with bloody results.” Possibly more controversial will be the study’s historical groundings. The authors find a Holocaust harbinger in the Catholic Inquisition’s systematic, ruthless, and century’s-long hounding of such discrete “heretic” groups as “Hussites, Huguenots in France, Calvinists elsewhere.” They make an even more direct link to the Reign of Terror, during which French revolutionaries pronounced anyone of noble blood to be an obstacle to social and political change: “The line from regicide to Judeocide is direct indeed . . . foreshadowing Hitler’s murder of the Jews, whom he perceived as a barrier to racial utopia.”
A monumental, sobering attempt to make sense of collective insanity.