About a third of the way through Doris Bergen's book War & Genocide, I began to realize that it had the emotionally neutral tone and linear organization of a conventional textbook. My initial response was that this way of presenting material outside a classroom setting was not to the author's credit. As I neared the end of Bergen's powerfully succinct and informative history of the Holocaust, however, I realized that her stylistic approach was exactly the right one. Had the author not maintained an understated affect coupled with a matter-of-fact, linear account, I doubt that I would have finished the book. There are just too many gut-wrenching horrors on a truly massive scale, one after another, to be able to tolerate the story if it were presented in a more emotionally charged way.
According to Bergen, fifty-five million people died in World War II. Of these, a large but precisely indeterminate number were victims of the Holocaust. The Holocaust brought death to captured soldiers on the wrong side, soldiers on the right side who lost their nerve and ran, nondescript civilians in the wrong place at the wrong time, Jews, gypsies, homosexuals, Free Masons, Jehovah's Witnesses, devoted Christians suspected of placing Christ before the Fuhrer, Poles, Slavs, pregnant women, children, old men, the disabled, the mentally ill ... there is no end to the list of descriptive categories, including some, such as "asocials," contrived by the Nazis just for homicidal convenience. For the reader of War & Genocide, page after page of sometimes vicious, more often straightforward and unemotional killing of innocents may be too much to take in. Bergen's plain-spoken book, devoid of histrionics and never emphasizing obvious horrors for literary effect, still takes a toll on the attentive and empathetic reader.
The pseudo-scientific racial hierarchy that provided a rationale for mass killings with guns, gasoline fumes, diesel fumes, Zylon B pesticide, and mechanized burying of those still alive defies reasoned interpretation. Some of the specialized killing groups organized by the Nazis were motivated by what today we might call redneck hatred. Many others, however, perhaps even more grotesque and unforgivable, sought to elevate their positions, increase their incomes, and earn honorific medals from the Fuhrer. Opportunists of the worst sort.
Still others just went along, doing as they were told, perhaps buttressed by the long history of antisemitism and other old hatreds that they inherited from generations past. Until I read War and Genocide, I had no idea that soldiers and other members of specialized killing units who couldn't stomach the slaughter of innocents were routinely assigned to other duties and not punished. Claims that mass murderers had no choice are simply not true. Those who did the killing, according to Bergen, knew they had a way out.
Given Bergen's account, moreover, it's difficult to imagine that most Germans did not know about the camps and the routinized slaughter of millions. The camps, after all, just like other organizations, needed the usual office and clerical staff. Beyond that, there were medical personnel electricians, plumbers and carpenters to maintain the domiciles of administrators, many of whom had their own cooks and domestic servants. Furthermore, the camps were not the smoothly running, clean-burning places that we have been led to believe. Hitler's penchant for promoting competition among functionaries of all kinds assured that those in charge would cut corners in ways that made their activities more conspicuous than need be. As it was, many from the outside knew from first-hand experience, and the smell and smoke of burning flesh spread for miles around the numerous ovens.
I found it especially appalling that when it was clear that the war was lost, the killing of Jews and other devalued groups intensified. The Nazi philosophy of hatred of Jews and asocials was hard at work even after its perpetrators had nothing to gain but an insanely misguided vengeance.
In some ways, Hitler's Germany, even outside the camps, was quite different from the way it is usually portrayed. A telling example occurred when Hitler, immediately after the invasion of Poland, went to his balcony expecting to by met by the triumphant cheers of a large crowd loudly endorsing his military adventurism in the name of lebensraum. There were so few people awaiting his appearance, however, that he retreated in embarrassment. When Poland was quickly defeated, however, a large, cheering crowd materialized.
Bergen's book effectively gives the lie to usual versions of Hitler's charismatic hold on the German people. No doubt there was some of that, but the loyalty of most Germans was bought in the usual way, through economic prosperity and triumphalism in world affairs.
The aftermath of the Holocaust is especially troubling. Many of the survivors of the camps,including those who might have recovered, were left on their own, with little or no assistance. Nightmares beget nightmares.
War and Genocide is a very good book that is pitched at just the right frequency to make it readable and devastatingly effective. Its brevity and impact are a tribute to the author's master of Holocaust history and her gift of succinctness.