Written into History

Richard J. Evans

  • A World without Jews: The Nazi Imagination from Persecution to Genocide by Alon Confino
    Yale, 284 pp, £20.00, June 2014, ISBN 978 0 300 18854 7
  • How Could This Happen: Explaining the Holocaust by Dan McMillan
    Basic, 276 pp, £15.00, April 2014, ISBN 978 0 465 08024 3

The 20th century was the age of genocide. Many periods in history have seen acts of murderous violence committed on racial grounds, but none has witnessed so many, on such a large scale, or so concentrated in time, as the era framed by the German massacre of the Herero tribe in Namibia in 1904-07 and the Hutu genocide of the Tutsis in Rwanda in 1994. The intervening years were marked by many other acts of racially motivated mass killing, notably the Turkish elimination of more than a million Armenians during the First World War. Three million or more Ukrainians were deliberately starved during the man-made famine that accompanied Stalin’s forced collectivisation of agriculture in the early 1930s. The expulsion of 12 million ethnic Germans from East-Central Europe at the end of the Second World War caused an unknown number of deaths, certainly hundreds of thousands, and the Balkan Wars of the 1990s introduced the term ‘ethnic cleansing’ into the vocabulary of atrocity. Even before the 20th century, countless millions of supposedly inferior indigenous peoples had perished in the course of the colonisation of their living space by Europeans, in a process that is still going on in some parts of the world.

The genocide of between five and six million Jews committed by Nazi Germany and its allies during the Second World War falls, in some respects, into a different category. Unlike the objects of other genocides, the Jews were regarded by their Nazi murderers as the ‘world-enemy’, to be actively sought out wherever they lived, and killed without any exceptions, in a comprehensive process of extermination that was intended to continue until there were no Jews left anywhere in the world. In 1942, the minutes of the Wannsee Conference, at which senior German officials met to co-ordinate the extermination programme, listed the Jewish inhabitants of countries yet to be conquered, such as Sweden or Ireland, and Nazi propaganda portrayed Germany’s enemies – Churchill, Roosevelt and Stalin – as puppets of a global conspiracy of Jews whose complete elimination was a prime war aim. The Nazi extermination of Jews was bounded by neither space nor time. And it was linked to an even larger programme of racial reordering, outlined in the official General Plan for the East, in which up to 45 million ‘Slavs’ who lived in Eastern Europe were to be killed by starvation and disease, like the three and a half million Soviet prisoners of war who had been left to perish on the steppe by their German captors following the invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941.

Even here, there was a difference: for the Nazis, ‘Slavs’ were a regional obstacle to be cleared out of the way to make room for German settlers, while the Jews were supposedly threatening to destroy German or ‘Aryan’ civilisation from within as well as without. Correspondingly, the Nazis treated Jews with a sadistic ferocity seldom vented on the other victims of their violence: Jewish men encountered on the Eastern Front by German forces were deliberately humiliated, their beards set alight, or were forced to perform gymnastic exercises until they dropped from exhaustion; Jewish girls were made to clean toilets with their blouses; Jews were savagely beaten to death on the streets – these acts give the lie to the claim that the Nazi extermination programme was somehow impersonal or ‘industrialised’ just because part of it was carried out by mass poisoning in specially designed gas chambers, another unique feature of the Final Solution of the Jewish Question in Europe.

A seldom reported example of this violence is highlighted by Alon Confino in his new book: the public burning of the Hebrew Bible in the course of the nationwide pogrom carried out on Hitler’s orders on 9-10 November 1938 and known ironically as the Reichskristallnacht, or ‘Night of Broken Glass’, because the remains of the smashed shop windows of Jewish-owned premises littered the streets the morning after. As they torched synagogues in virtually every German and Austrian town, the Nazi stormtroopers carried the sacred scrolls of the Torah outside, kicked them around, forced Jews to trample on them, and finally destroyed them along with other sacred objects they’d looted. In the village of Kippenheim in Baden, youths threw the scrolls into the brook; in Aachen Nazi brownshirts tore up the scrolls in front of the synagogue; in Frankfurt they forced the Jews to commit this act of desecration themselves; in Vienna stormtroopers dropped the scrolls off a bridge into the Danube; in Düsseldorf they dressed up in the robes of the rabbis and cantors and danced around a bonfire as the scrolls were thrown onto it; in the town of Wittlich, in western Germany, a stormtrooper climbed onto the synagogue roof, waving the scrolls, and started throwing them onto the street, shouting: ‘Wipe your arses with it, Jews!’

These symbolic acts of ‘Bibliocide’, as Confino calls it, continued during the war wherever the invading Germans encountered centres of Jewish faith and learning. When they got to Lublin, one of the participants noted,

we threw the huge Talmudic library out of the building and carried the books to the marketplace, where we set them on fire. The fire lasted for twenty hours. The Lublin Jews assembled around and wept bitterly, almost silencing us with their cries. We summoned the military band, and with joyful shouts the soldiers drowned out the sounds of the Jewish cries.

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