What we don’t know about the Holocaust

Two histories of the Holocaust reveal the myths and monstrosities of the camps.

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Moritz Choinowski was a survivor. Before the Third Reich, he was a middle-aged man in robust health. His tailoring business was flourishing; his political affiliation with the Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands was fulfilling. On 28 September 1939, however, the Gestapo dragged him from his home and deposited him in the Buchenwald concentration camp. He was stripped naked, given a convict uniform with a red-and-yellow triangle (signalling that he was both a political prisoner and a Jew) and forced to work as a slave in a quarry. He was routinely beaten. Three times he was subjected to the sadistic punishment known as “25 blows”. On 19 October 1942 he was thrown into a freight car and taken to Auschwitz, where he barely avoided being selected for the gas chambers. Just over two years later he was moved again, this time to Dachau. When this camp was liberated on 29 April 1945, Choinowski was starving and suffering from typhus. Many of the inmates were so emaciated that they could barely acknowledge the American soldiers who came to free them. A teenage survivor recalled how he “watched the people sing and dance with joy, and they seemed to me as if they’d lost their minds. I looked at myself and couldn’t recognise who I was.” Choin­owski was one of those celebrating. He had endured more than 2,000 days in concentration camps. As he cried with relief, he asked a fellow inmate: “Is this possible?”

His question referred to the fact of liberation: could Choinowski’s suffering indeed be over? Was he truly free? How could he have survived when so many others had died? It also relates to the Holocaust itself. Totalitarianism, total war and the Holocaust were the results of decisions made by millions of rational, educated men and women. What made it possible for Buchenwald, Auschwitz and Dachau to be built? How could millions of human beings set about deliberately to enslave, torture and slaughter millions of other human beings? These questions continue to haunt us in the 21st century. Perhaps there are no answers. In If This Is a Man (1947), Primo Levi echoed Choinowski. Reflecting on his own torment in Auschwitz, Levi confessed: “Today, at this very moment as I sit writing at a table, I myself am not convinced that these things really happened.”

But “these things” did happen – and in the heart of enlightened Europe. Some of the best historical minds (notably, Richard Evans, Mark Mazower, Ian Kershaw, Saul Friedländer and Christopher R Browning) have devoted their lives to explaining those terrible years. These scholars are now joined by Nikolaus Wachsmann and Timothy Snyder in two new books. Wachsmann’s KL: a History of the Nazi Concentration Camps and Snyder’s Black Earth: the Holocaust As History and Warning attempt to give us at least partial answers to the monstrous conundrum of the Holocaust.

Both books are ambitious. In very different ways, the two authors have made significant contributions to our understanding of early-20th-century history. They are not only intellectuals of the highest calibre, but also consummate storytellers.

It is difficult to do justice to the brilliance of Wachsmann’s comprehensive history of the KL – the Konzentrationslager. Although often conflated and confused, the Nazi concentration camps were different from death or extermination camps such as Treblinka, Chelmno, Sobibor and Belzec. They pre-date the war by six years. They were established all over Europe, in Austria, Poland, France, Czechoslovakia, the Netherlands, Belgium, Lithuania, Estonia, Latvia, Alderney (in the British Channel Islands) and beyond. In total, 1,127 concentration camps operated during the Third Reich; 1.7 million men, women and children died in them. Although a million of the victims died at Auschwitz, Wachsmann reminds us time and again not to ignore the people incarcerated elsewhere. He also insists that concentration camps were fully integrated into their wider society. Although they were run by the Nazi Party’s elite paramilitary force, the SS (the Schutzstaffel, or “protection squadron”), the camps were no secret. They were lawless places, but deliberately established and administered nonetheless. Part of their horror lies in the detailed planning that enabled them to survive, as well as the incremental improvisations that allowed them to flourish.

Wachsmann employs a very effective stylistic technique throughout the book. He begins by telling readers what we think we know, and then, in a series of steps, he complicates the picture immeasurably. Precision is an obsession with him: he is a stickler for dates and times. For instance, in the opening pages of KL, he notes how in the early afternoon of 2 April 1945, US troops enter Dachau. They are shocked to see thousands of corpses piled in the grounds and 32,000 more prisoners, all scarcely alive. He then asks readers to conjure up a picture of Dachau six years earlier. On 31 August 1939, the day before war was declared, the barracks were clean, beds neatly made. Forced labour and abuse were routine, but the violence was highly regulated. Relatively few of the inmates died.

What about Dachau six years earlier still? Wachsmann tells us that the camp was in fact set up in a disused munitions factory on 22 March 1933, less than two months ­after Hitler became chancellor. Although the Nazi concentration camps are largely associated with the killing of Jews, in 1933 Dachau housed political (mainly communist) prisoners. They wore their own clothes; they were reasonably well fed. Their guards were not the formidable SS thugs, but fairly amiable policemen.

Wachsmann repeatedly takes readers from the familiar (who has not seen the horrifying images from Dachau on liberation in 1945?) to the unfamiliar (prisoners dining on bread and sausages while chatting to their policeman-captors). In fact, he insists on complicating everything. The only way to understand the Holocaust, he argues, is through an “integrated history” – that is, a historical approach that takes in the perspectives of all participants, environments and contexts. Each phase of the Holocaust has to be examined in its totality. Only then can we hope to answer Choinowski’s question: “Is this possible?”

Wachsmann is impatient with historians who seek to generalise. He insists that there is no such thing as a “typical” prisoner, or Kapo (prisoner-supervisor), or even guard. He emphasises the specificities of time and place. Depending on the year, he writes, between only 10 and 30 per cent of the inmates of concentration camps were Jewish. This still indicates that Jews were over-represented in the camps, given that they were a mere 1 per cent of the German population in 1933. Perhaps more importantly, most of the six million Jews who died were killed in ditches, fields, mobile vans or death camps. Although important, the concentration camps were peripheral to the Nazis’ anti-Jewish policy.

He also has interesting things to say about the myth of passivity, most famously expounded by the psychologist Bruno Bettelheim (who was imprisoned in both Dachau and Buchenwald before the war). This myth contends that the Jews went meekly to their deaths, “like lemmings”.

What Bettelheim’s description fails to appreciate is what prisoners actually faced in the camps. The SS and Sonderkommando (Special Squad) guards went to great lengths to reassure victims that the gas chambers were nothing more than shower-rooms and that they would be given coffee and food once deloused and cleaned. Prisoners who suspected their fate had few ways to resist. They were starving and disorientated. Direct challenges to the SS were suicidal; even indirect defiance was lunacy. Escape was virtually impossible, as well as being morally problematic: for every individual who managed to slip away, the SS would kill many more as a form of collective punishment. Resistance is rare in all totalitarian regimes and, as Wachsmann points out, the KL “provided the most barren grounds for its growth”. Some prisoners did of course attempt to defy their tormentors: knowing that they were condemned, they seized the moment to shout political slogans or snatch a rifle from the guards and fight back. But this was the resistance of the damned.

Wachsmann’s history of the camps is engrossing as well as illuminating. Timothy Snyder’s book is equally revealing but in a different way. Black Earth is more of a morality tale. Snyder’s scholarship is rigorous; he, too, puts human agency at the heart of the Holocaust catastrophe. But most importantly, he wants his book to serve as a warning to readers in the 21st century. This makes it an uneasy read, and some readers will be unconvinced.

Snyder excels in repositioning the Holocaust in a global context. The crises that enabled Hitler to come to power were global in nature. Hitler responded in ecological terms. He drew inspiration from America, and particularly the conquest of the New World. It is wrong, Snyder contends, to attempt to understand the Holocaust by focusing on the history of Germany. Half the killers under the Nazi system were not German; German Jews made up about 3 per cent of the victims. Crucially, the Holocaust was made possible by the destruction of ­political and legal institutions, coupled with the increase of statelessness.

Like Wachsmann, Snyder contends that it is crucial to pay attention to time and place. After all, the same member of the Nazi Party who, early in the war, rescued a family and then falsified paperwork to imply that they’d been sent to a concentration camp, could be heard a few years later ordering the slaughter of hundreds of Jewish prisoners and be seen helping to herd children into gas vans.

More than Wachsmann, however, Snyder devotes considerable attention to understanding the motivation of people who tried to help victims of the Nazis. In order to survive, Jews needed the help of non-Jews. The problem for people not at risk of persecution was that it was “irrational” economically and practically to shelter persecuted peoples, particularly in the “stateless zones of eastern Europe” such as occupied Poland and the Soviet Union. Rescuers risked torture and death; if found out, their families and communities could expect reprisals. Snyder argues that the only thing they had in common was self-knowledge, which is why he asks his readers to “consider how we, who know ourselves so poorly . . . will respond to the challenges to come”. He is pessimistic. If we were in a collapsed state with corrupt local institutions and were faced with significant incentives to act cruelly, “few of us would behave well”, he concludes.

This apocalyptic tone grows ever louder in the latter part of his book. Hitler responded to a crisis of globalisation by unleashing what came to be known as the Holocaust. In the 21st century, Snyder claims, we face a second global crisis: climate change. Might the ecological crises created by climate change (food shortages and drought, for instance) lead to the scapegoating of categories of people deemed responsible? Ecological crises in African nations, China and Russia could spark global chaos and genocidal violence. He warns against becoming complacent about the rise of the far right in Europe, with its potential to destabilise the continent’s politics and economies.

Although Snyder does not mention them, the financial and political crises in Greece are also reasons to be concerned. He does, however, consider the danger of the widespread assumption in the United States that the Holocaust was caused by unbounded state authority. Snyder reminds readers that it was the Nazis’ destruction of the state that severed relationships between people and enabled the genocide to take place. It is “a common American error”, he writes, “to believe that freedom is the absence of state authority”. He issues a plea that we learn from the Holocaust, adopt scientific solutions to the problems caused by climate change, and seek to shore up institutions that facilitate human interaction. Even if readers agree with his polemic, we get only a sketchy idea of the practical ways to achieve these laudable aims.

Both Wachsmann and Snyder insist that the Holocaust did not end in 1945. Even Choinowski, who was liberated from Dachau in 1945, struggled with his injuries until his death in 1967. After a period in a camp for displaced persons, he eventually settled in Munich and then Toledo. His health had been destroyed; he was in constant pain from the scars caused by SS beatings; and he was often unable to work. If the first question he asked was, “Is this possible?” perhaps the second should be: “Was there any meaning to all that suffering?” In one of his final letters to his daughter, he declared: “Humanity has learned nothing from the wars, on the contrary, almost all nations are arming once more for warfare and that will probably be the end for humanity.” Wachsmann and Snyder urge us to listen.

Joanna Bourke is a professor of history at Birkbeck, University of London, and is the author of The Story of Pain: From Prayer to Painkillers (Oxford University Press)

KL: A History of the Nazi Concentration Camps by Nikolaus Wachsmann is published by Little, Brown (880pp, £25)

Black Earth: The Holocaust as History and Warning by Timothy Snyder is published by The Bodley Head (462pp, £25)

This article appears in the 17 September 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn's Civil War