home     authors     titles     dates     links     about

the holocaust: an unfinished history

23 june 2023

No single-volume history of the Holocaust can be an original narrative. As Dan Stone points out in an incisive preface to this newest one, writing an overview of the Holocaust involves writing about its historiography more than about retelling the events based on primary research. In many ways, The Holocaust: An unfinished history is a splendid, synthetic literature review that, using a narrative framework, acquaints its readers with new trends and new discoveries in much more specialized accounts.

As a result, I came away from The Holocaust: An unfinished history not just having crossed one book off my reading list, but adding a net five or six others. Stone's work synthesizes recent trends in thinking about the Holocaust, especially the continent-wide (and beyond to North African) nature of the genocide, the collaboration of nationalists and anti-Semites in many another country than just Germany, the much wider scope of the killings than the pared-down focus on extermination camps that we get from popular culture, and the contested situation of Holocaust memory.

Stone starts from ideology. Ideology didn't guarantee the Holocaust, he argues, but neither was it an irrelevant superstructure. Race pervaded the thought not just of Nazi ideologues, but of German culture in general, in the early 20th century. And not just German culture, of course. Every country had its seat-of-the-pants sense of racial hierarchies, and its thinkers who were convinced, and convinced others, that racial "purity" was the best way to construct a nation. Current nationalist movements in Hungary and Poland, but really across Europe and now with deep roots in the United States as well, are premised on the idea that diversity weakens a nation's fiber.

Popular culture imagines the Jews of Europe secure in their homes one moment, and then being shipped off to Auschwitz the next, there to be escorted by treachery into the gas chambers. It's not that such scenarios didn't occur, Stone notes, just that they were a small minority of the ways that victims experienced their fate. The overnight scenario reflects the experience of some of the Jews of Hungary, relatively "protected" by their government till that government began (not very reluctantly) to cede to German pressure to deport them, late in the war. Imre Kertész' great novel Fatelessness tells that story, and Kertész' vision has become metonymic for the entire Holocaust.

But the reality could be more diverse, more kinetic, more disorienting … and, inconceivable though such comparisons are, more brutal. Years of increasingly savage regulations bent on stripping humanity from Jews (especially but not exclusively in Germany) disoriented victims and kept them in motion, ill-equipped to resist. Mobile firing squads killed an enormous number of Jews in Eastern Europe. Regimes including those in Slovakia, Croatia, and Romania kicked off their own killing sprees: and not just by deporting Jews to German murderers, but by depriving them of necessities, relocating them to resource-less places, ghettoizing them, or killing them outright in pogroms.

Though one caveat should be noted, because Stone cites several cases. German allies, and even some occupied countries, retained some autonomy when it came to initiating or assisting with the deportation of Jews. Those that pitched in to abet the Germans bear great blame; but they could also show themselves susceptible to pressure from local Christian and sometimes Jewish leaders, as seemed to happen in France, Hungary, and Romania, where many Jews were deported but many others were ultimately saved. Imre Kertész, again, returned home from labor camps to find his family had weathered the end of the war intact and still at home in Budapest. Such scenarios were impossible in Germany. There was no effective domestic resistance (though there was assuredly dissident sentiment from some). Appeals from German Jews, or their very few German Christian allies, went absolutely disregarded.

Such stuff is unbearable, but historians keep writing about it, and people keep reading about it. I keep reading about it: partly from a sense of duty, to keep up with a field of knowledge I've already invested so much time in; but partly because books like Stone's fascinate me; they explore the unbearable and test the limits of how bad humans can get.

Of course there is also the "never forget" imperative, though Smith approaches this motive with caution. We must never forget, but by constantly rehearsing, we can inure ourselves to the horrors of the Holocaust. We can also inadvertently foster prurient interest, and even a sort of admiration for the perpetrators (a theme explored by Yishai Sarid in his novel The Memory Monster).

Such fears are all the more pressing in the 2020s, and form a continual theme in Stone's book. Nationalist movements, many of them now in government across Europe, are advancing on two ideological fronts: one, trying to remake their nations as ethnically pure homelands; the other, trying to repress memory of their own histories of complicity in the Holocaust. Even progressive Germans, Stone observes, are loath to implicate other nations in Holocaust guilt; it smacks of avoidance of responsibility and of casting, or at least sharing blame elsewhere. But if the Holocaust really was a continental phenomenon – in which, of course, Nazi Germany was the absolute sine qua non – shouldn't we try to confront that historical reality?

Especially if we are committed to the notion of "never again." Even now it seems unthinkable that a Holocaust-like phenomenon could rise again. (In Europe, anyway; in central Asia, far from observation or the power of the world to intervene, China seems bent on their own culturicidal and often murderous repression of Uighurs.)

Yet animus against Muslim immigrants unites European far-right parties, and though it's seemed muted of late in the U.S., prejudice against Muslims was a factor in Donald Trump's rise to power in the 2010s. One remembers the trial balloon of a "Muslim registry" that, fortunately, went nowhere; but also the "travel ban" that did go into effect. From such initial attacks on civil rights, Dan Stone reminds us, it was not that far in the 1930s to incarceration and mass murder.

Stone, Dan. The Holocaust: An unfinished history. n.p.: Pelican [Penguin Random House], 2023.