I haven’t blogged for weeks because my reading hasn’t been the cheeriest: I’m coming to the end of a two-volume history of the Nazis and their persecution and extermination of the Jews. I came to read it because it has had outstanding reviews, which it certainly deserves but unsurprisingly it is not the sort of material that makes for light and breezy commentary. Anyway, Saul Friedlander’s two volume opus is called Nazi Germany and the Jews, and part 1 is called Years of Persecution, 1933-1939, while volume II which came out towards the end of last year, is titled Years of Extermination, 1939-1945.
While not the sort of thing that I would rush out and push into the hands of all my friends, relatives and unsuspecting students, I would certainly recommend the books to anyone interested in the field. Friedlander synthesises the experiences of the victims while charting the thought-processes of the perpetrators of the Holocaust with ample reference to contemporary documents: letters, diaries, speeches, newspaper articles, conference papers as well as more recent historical research. He examines the reactions of the world as it watched in a semi-hypnotised state and the various churches of Germany and Europe as they effectively by and large turned their backs. He puts to rest the canard that ordinary people in Germany and Poland had no idea of what was going on. There was physical evidence aplenty (German housewives buying up the furniture and jewels of dispossessed Jews, the stench around the camps) as well as letters from soldiers on the Eastern Front describing massacres and the letters of both victims and perpetrators describing the gassing process in the extermination camps.
I still can’t get my mind round the lunacy of the Nazi high command. The irrationality of their hatred of the Jews, the depth of that hatred, these remain great mysteries to me. Hatred itself is such a weirdness. There are people who make me roll my eyes or cause me a degree of revulsion (Tom Cruise, Dubya and the man who does the Jeyes cleaning products spots on ITV1, for example). Closer to home, I have encountered one or two people I profoundly hope never to meet again because they were poisonous and malevolent. But that’s as far as I can go. I can’t imagine hating anyone so much that I want to stop them from owning a bicycle, a pet, a stamp collection or a radio, prevent them from buying meat, garlic, onions, nectarines and gingerbread, still less shove them in an airless wagon and transport them to a certain death by gassing or starvation. Yet this collective insanity consumed thousands of people.
What is also chilling is that the Nazis really virtually succeeded in achieving their aim of making Europe Judenfrei – entirely free of Jews. There is the arguable point that they expended so many resources in killing Jews and destroying communities that it was a contributory factor in losing the war. I’m not convinced – according to Friedlander, the transports of Jews used a relatively small percentage of the rolling stock that was criss-crossing Europe between 1940 and 1945 and Jews were used as slave labour in armaments factories. Worse still is the acceptance of so many people of the unacceptable – the rhetoric of hatred and fear and neurosis that was adopted unthinkingly by so many people across Europe through the thirties and early forties. Demonising a people is so easy to do. Once they are demonised and dehumanised, it is a short step to destroying them. We know that, we’ve seen it in the former Yugoslavia, Rwanda, Cambodia, and now, today, again in Darfur.
We have this Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which dates from 1948, in response to the barbarities committed in Europe and Asia during World War II, but we seem to be unable to live up to it. Yet all it asks is this:
“Recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family”
Perhaps the greatest mystery of all is why this simple act is still, after so much cruelty and suffering, so very difficult for us to accomplish.