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Book review: The Holocaust, A New History

Former Nazi German concentration and death camp Auschwitz-Birkenau in occupied Poland. Photo/Getty Images

A new book says there was no overriding master plan for the Holocaust – just a desire to commit evil.

In this breathtaking volume, British journalist and author Laurence Rees tells us he has something new to say about the systematic Nazi murder of Europe’s Jewish population during World War II. To a large extent he succeeds, painting a picture of a nation led astray by prejudices orchestrated by one man – Adolf Hitler.

It seems apt that at a time when authoritarianism seems again on the rise, Rees’ focus is on the how-and-why of the Holocaust. In some ways, his argument is familiar. The fact Hitler leveraged German anti-Semitism is well established, but Rees presents the story of Nazi Germany’s fall from grace with significant nuance.

Elsewhere, Rees finds new angles, arguing there was no overarching master plan for a Holocaust. Hitler and the Nazis had direction, but were willing to exploit whatever path emerged – a more chaotic approach than history usually assigns them. Rees calls the turning points “moments of escalation”. And his arguments are compelling.

The result, as he puts it, was a “crime of singular horror in the history of the human race”.

For all that, there are places where his study seems a little thin. We learn a lot about how the Nazis went about their crimes, and about the victims; but less about why ordinary Germans were also party to it. After all, the death camp guards did not emerge from a vacuum.

Academics Hannah Arendt, Theodor Adorno and Robert Altemeyer have all offered explanations for why everyday Germans took part in the Holocaust – all indictments, in various ways, of human nature. There were also Stanley Milgram’s psychological tests of 1963. For all the controversy behind them, his experiments showed that test subjects will obey orders to “hurt” and “kill”.

More recent studies suggest people actively engage with such directions not through conditioning to obey, but because it makes them feel good. That point comes out in Rees’ narrative when he explores mass killings in the Baltic states – where some guards, he shows, got a kick out of killing. Elsewhere, he notes, death camp guards became sadists, often with scarcely disguised sexual undertones, taking pleasure in humiliating and abusing the victims they were sending to their deaths. But there was more he could have said about why such behaviours emerged in supposedly law-abiding people brought up with proper moral compass.

To this extent, Rees’ book is important not only for what it says, but also for what it does not say. His exposé of the darkest crime in the history of humanity is a timely reminder of the moral precipice on which humanity so often teeters. The potential to be evil, it seems, lurks relentlessly behind the facade, and the chilling implication is every nation carries the potential to morally fall as far and hard as 1930s Germany.

History never repeats in detail, but human nature never changes. We have to be wary. And that makes Rees’ remarkable book essential reading.

The Holocaust, A New History, by Laurence Rees (Viking, $40)

Matthew Wright is one of New Zealand’s most published historians and a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society at University College, London.

This article was first published in the March 25, 2017 issue of the New Zealand Listener. Follow the Listener on Twitter, Facebook and sign up to the weekly newsletter.