Auschwitz: A New History by Laurence Rees

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I am having difficulty writing a review of this book without getting sucked down into a spiral of sputtering despair. So I will try to keep it short. There is plenty of information about Auschwitz available on the market; so what makes this book “new”? The simple answer are the interviews. Rees has personally spoken to both survivors and perpetrators, and weaves their individual stories into a larger narrative of the camp. In this way, the book becomes almost as much a psychological study as it is a history.

Judged purely as a history, this book is good but not superlative. Rees does an admirable job of covering the broad sweep of the camp’s history, including many unexpected (and usually quite disturbing) details. However, the book’s brevity precludes any detailed examination, and I was often left wanting to learn more about certain aspects of the camp. Curiously, Rees also includes many stories that are outside the purported purview of the book—such as the story of how the citizens of Britain’s Channel Islands reacted to the Nazi’s persecution of the Jews—stories that are usually quite compelling, but which seem difficult to justify including in a book of this size.

It is as an examination of inmates and perpetrators that the book is most valuable. One conclusion is that the common Nazi excuse—that they were merely acting under orders—does not hold water. Indeed, Rees shows that the National Socialist organization did not have to rely on violent coercion in order to motivate its members; the majority of men in leadership positions were genuine believers in the ideology. This certainly describes Rudolf Höss, the camp commandant. Another conclusion, even more unsettling, is that people can change—not just superficially, but fundamentally—when put under extreme conditions. As one survivor put it:

People asked me, ‘What did you learn?’ and I think I’m only sure of one thing—nobody knows themselves. The nice person on the street, you ask him, ‘Where is North Street?’ and he goes with you half a block and shows you, and is nice and kind. That same person in a different situation could be the worst sadist. Nobody knows themselves.

Yet, for me, the book’s defining character is Oskar Groening. He was a low-level SS officer whose job at the camp was to count the money of incoming (and usually executed) prisoners. He is memorable precisely because he is so ordinary: he worked at a bank before the war and at a glass factory afterwards, leading a quiet life. Indeed, he disliked the violence and bloodshed of the camp—not on moral grounds, but because it sickened him. Nevertheless, he worked diligently at Auschwitz for years, counting up foreign currencies with hardly a spot on his conscience. Hannah Arendt was undoubtedly wrong in applying the term, ‘the banality of evil,’ to Adolf Eichmann; but it fits Groening like a glove. For him, Auschwitz was just a job—and a rather cushy one at that.

Indeed, if there is one general takeaway from this history, it is that only the most strong-willed of individuals can rise above their moral climate. Most people (and I am thinking of perpetrators, not victims here) simply go along with prevailing attitudes. There were plenty of ideologically committed Nazis, such as Höss; and there were probably many Groenings, who just wanted a stable job. But there is no record of a single SS officer deserting or refusing to serve at Auschwitz on moral grounds. Indeed, the most disturbing thing of all is that, without exception, none of the former perpetrators interviewed by Rees feel much, if any, remorse. Groening was finally motivated to speak about his experiences, in his old age, not because of lingering guilt, but because he encountered some Holocaust deniers (he wanted to assure them that it was real).

Though it may seem off topic, Rees includes a lengthy section on the Danish resistance to Nazi persecution, which forms a sharp contrast to the many stories of shameful cooperation (for example, by the French, the Hungarians, the Channel Islanders). But he does so to make an important point: in all of these cases, individual behavior seems to be largely a consequence of cultural and social influences. Just as there is no evidence that every Nazi was a true sociopath, so is there no reason to believe everyone in Copenhagen was a born angel. Indeed, as Rees emphasizes again and again, we are talking about people who, in other circumstances, would have been quite ordinary. Yet this is very disturbing, since it seems to exonerate evil doers while depriving the virtuous of their dues. This is a paradox of human behavior: only individuals can be held morally accountable, and yet individuals so often go along with their group. So if the Danes are ordinary as individuals, what explains their extraordinarily praiseworthy actions in this circumstance?

I don’t have the answer. All I can say that few books will make you feel less optimistic about our species than this one. Yet it is important to learn about Auschwitz for that very reason.

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