Feb 2011 Journal

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Books of interest

Over recent years, the literature on the Holocaust, including the fate of the Jews of Germany and Austria, has become so vast that it is as good as impossible to keep up with it. So perhaps the best that one can do is to bring to readers’ attention a few volumes selected from the many that have appeared. If the sheer quantity of what is being written on the subject is daunting, that does not mean that there is nothing first-rate that remains to be produced. On the contrary, the quality of books published is remarkably high, and they often cover subjects as yet unresearched or offer new and challenging perspectives that go beyond the findings of existing studies.

One can hardly find a better book to begin with than Nicholas Stargardt’s Witnesses of War: Children’s Lives under the Nazis (London: Jonathan Cape, 2005). This monumental volume analyses a whole range of children’s experiences, enabling the author to portray the totality of the war as it impacted on millions of children across Europe. In this respect, Witnesses of War marks a significant advance on books like Debórah Dwork’s ¬Children with a Star: Jewish Youth in Nazi Europe, which takes as its subject the fate of Jewish children under the Nazis, of whom over a million were killed.

Stargardt shares, very broadly, Dwork’s intention to bring a child-centred approach to the history of children under Nazism. He is exceptionally skilful at conveying the voices of the children and the specific perspective of the child, so often very different from that of adults, not least in the ability of children to accept the exceptional as normal, even under the extreme conditions of prisons and camps. And that voice can often be profoundly unsettling, as in the case of the eight-year-old Jewish boy overheard by Emmanuel Ringelblum, the doomed historian of the Warsaw Ghetto, expressing the sense of impotent fury that adult Jews could not conceal from him: ‘I want to steal, I want to rob, I want to eat, I want to be a German.’

At the centre of the book is the fate of the Jewish children who fell victim to the Nazi campaign of extermination. Part II of the book, entitled ‘The Race War’, compellingly interweaves the historical background to the Nazi bid to restructure the conquered eastern territories along racial-colonial lines with testimony from individuals, drawing on both the accounts of the victims and the diaries of German soldiers who witnessed the atrocities. This is often harrowing to read. Stargardt expertly reconstructs the child’s experience of the ‘Final Solution’, for example in his analysis of the games played by children in the Vilna ghetto or the rituals of daily life developed by the children deported from Theresienstadt to the ‘family camp’ at Auschwitz-Birkenau.

One of the book’s great merits is that it gives a voice to otherwise marginalised groups, like the thousands of mentally or physically handicapped children murdered as part of the so-called ‘mercy killing’ operation, also known as ‘T-4’. In two meticulously researched chapters, ‘Disciplined Youth’ and ‘Medical Murder’, Stargardt traces the descent from the incarceration of ‘asocial’ youngsters at harsh reformatories to the mass murder of disabled children at sinister locations like Hadamar, in effect the testing grounds for the death camps.

But, as Stargardt acknowledges, the inclusion of German children, some of them victims of Allied air raids or of rampaging Red Army soldiers, but others the children of perpetrators or members of the Hitler Youth, involves the breaking of a historical taboo, that of the separation between perpetrators and victims. However, the sections on German children focus to a considerable extent on the ways in which they sought in later life to come to terms with their actions and attitudes during the Nazi period, not on their victim status. Stargardt includes children from different racial and national groups precisely because the extreme contrasts between their experiences convey the impact of Nazism and the Holocaust as a whole.

Many readers will be interested to learn of the first full history of the Jewish refugees who fled to Britain from Austria and Germany on domestic service permits: Traude Bollauf’s Dienstmädchen-Emigration: Die Flucht jüdischer Frauen aus Österreich und Deutschland nach England 1938/39 (Vienna/Berlin: Lit Verlag, 2010). Bollauf traces the history of the emigration of domestic servants from Austria and Germany to Britain back to 1918, revealing that there had been a steady and substantial emigration from Austria. As a result, by the time of the Anschluss in March 1938, there were networks in existence to facilitate the emigration of domestic servants from Austria to Britain – though these were now used by Jews fleeing racial persecution, not by non-Jews seeking employment. This explains why Austrians so greatly outnumbered Germans proportionately among the domestic service refugees.

Bollauf makes extensive use of published and archival sources to throw light on the various organisations set up to assist the domestic servants in their emigration to Britain and to support them once there. Her research gives proper credit to bodies like the Domestic Bureau, part of the complex of institutions in Bloomsbury House funded by Anglo-Jewry, and to the Germany Emergency Committee of the Quakers, not forgetting the Hausgehilfenreferat (domestics’ section) of the Emigration Department of the Israelitische Kultusgemeinde, the Jewish communal organisation in Vienna. This supplies the institutional framework to the personal memories conveyed, for example, in Lore Segal’s Other People’s Houses or in the articles of the AJR Journal’s own Edith Argy.

The core of the book consists of the stories of the domestics themselves, in particular a group of about 20 with whom the author has conducted detailed interviews. The human dimension to history comes alive as Bollauf follows them through emigration, a demeaning life in domestic service, the war - which brought with it internment, air raids and a degree of integration into British society, but also the final separation from their families - and the coming of peace. The book ends with a discussion of the domestics’ attitudes to their homeland, to which relatively few returned. For the first time, we have a comprehensive picture of the 20,000 or so refugees from Hitler who reached safety in Britain as domestic servants and of the conditions they endured.

Since 1989, when scholars gained full access to the wartime archives in the former Soviet Union, the history of the Holocaust has acquired an entire new eastern dimension, enabling it to be set in a truly Continental perspective. Indeed, Timothy Snyder’s arresting study, Bloodlands: Europe between Hitler and Stalin, focuses exclusively on the east, on the regions between eastern Poland and western Russia where the killing grounds of both Hitler and Stalin were located. New and detailed knowledge of what happened in eastern Poland and the borderlands of the Soviet Union underpins weighty tomes by German historians like Peter Longerich and Götz Aly on Nazi extermination policy and the ‘Final Solution’.

Donald Bloxham’s The Final Solution: A Genocide (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009) is a detailed overall study of the Holocaust in the east by a British historian, one that is often challenging in its approach, not least when it confronts the issue of the uniqueness of the genocide of the Jews. Bloxham’s particular expertise lies in his knowledge of the Balkans and Turkey, which enables him to take a new and illuminating approach to the development of policies of discrimination, exclusion and ultimately liquidation employed against unwanted minority groups.

Taking as his starting point the fracturing of the Ottoman Empire between 1875 and 1918, he argues that the well-known massacres of Christians in the Balkans and Turkey, notably the Armenian genocide of 1915, and the less well-known atrocities committed against Muslims by Christians in the Balkans were the forerunners of a new style of ethnic restructuring of societies and states, where minority groups could be forcibly incorporated into the majority community, deported or even killed. When the political fragmentation of eastern and south-eastern Europe was repeated in 1918 across whole swathes of the continent, it carried its potential for genocide with it.

Bloxham then switches to Germany, where he analyses the development of Nazi anti-Jewish policies and the way in which Nazi Germany embarked on and implemented the attempt to exterminate the Jews of Europe. He argues that the bulk of the killing occurred in what he calls ‘the imperial cone’, the territories that were directly under German control, stretching in the shape of a cone from Holland in the west to Poland and the occupied parts of the Soviet Union in the east.

Relying on documents like the Nazi ‘Generalplan Ost’, Bloxham maintains that the Holocaust formed part of an attempt to colonise the vast territories of the east along racial lines - an extreme variant of the measures taken by European settlers and colonists against indigenous peoples in Australia, North America or the German colonies in East and South-West Africa. The Jews were, of course, not a colonial people, but Bloxham asserts that their extermination took place within the framework of a grand colonial project.

Anthony Grenville

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