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Understanding the Jewish Catastrophe
Auschwitz Survivor Stanislaw Szpunar passes the main camp gate as he returns to Auschwitz for the 71th anniversary of the Camp liberation in 2016. Photo via @praszkiewicz on Shutterstock.

Understanding the Jewish Catastrophe

Dan Stone's new book shows how important aspects of the Holocaust have been neglected in popular consciousness.

· 12 min read

A Review of The Holocaust: An Unfinished History by Dan Stone, 464 pages, Penguin Press (April 2024).  

There are many excellent books about the Holocaust. They range from classics like Raul Hilberg’s mammoth 1961 study, The Destruction of European Jews to the recently departed Arno Meyer’s 2012 book, Why Did the Heavens Not Darken? The “Final Solution” in History, and Saul Friedlander's two-volume Nazi Germany and the Jews (1988). There have been several interesting additions to this canon in recent years, including Nikolaus Wachsmann’s comprehensive KL: A History of the Nazi Concentration Camps (2015) and Laurence Rees’s The Holocaust: A New History (2017).  

So it might seem that we do not need yet another history of the Holocaust. And yet—as Dan Stone’s title declares—the history of that event is still unfinished. History is always an ongoing process. It is written and rewritten over the course of generations, from different social and cultural standpoints, which allows it to be continually reinterpreted in ways that may not have been possible before.  

An immense world-historical catastrophe like the Holocaust continues to leave such an imprint on our culture that literature about it will inevitably continue to fill libraries for years to come. And, as Stone emphasises, there are important aspects of the Holocaust that have been neglected in the popular consciousness up until now.   

For one thing, the orthodox understanding of the Holocaust as an effortlessly efficient, impersonal, industrialised genocide—of which Auschwitz is the paradigmatic event—while not totally wrong, is partial and incomplete. Away from the death camps, around 1.5 million Jews were also mercilessly slaughtered by Einsatzgruppen murder squads in face-to-face mass shootings in the months following Operation Barbarossa. Whole families across the Western Soviet Union were shot in front of the graves they themselves had been forced to dig.

Jews forced to dig their own graves in Zboriv, Ukraine, 5 July 1941. Wikimedia Commons

Many more Jews died of starvation and disease in the ghettos into which they were crammed. Stone writes especially powerfully of the savage conditions facing the Jews of Transnistria in present-day Moldova in the winter of 1941–42, when tens of thousands were abandoned to either freeze to death or die from the diseases that infested the horse stables and pigsties into which they crowded for shelter. Such scenes, he writes, are “far removed from what, in the English-speaking world, we think of as the Holocaust.”   

In addition, while Nazi Germany was its prime mover, the Endlösung was a pan-European project, which wouldn’t have been possible without “almost ubiquitous collaboration across Europe and beyond.” Jews everywhere from the Channel Islands to Salonika in Greece were caught up in the net. In almost every country the Nazis occupied, they found an ample supply of collaborators and accomplices among the local population. That the Holocaust took place isn’t just an indictment of Germany; it is an indictment of European civilisation. Antisemitism was already rife across Europe—both in its traditional form, as a legacy of Christian mythology, and its modern racial and political manifestations. This Jew-hatred long preceded Hitler. The forms that Nazi collaboration took varied according to local circumstances. Some people collaborated for ideological reasons, others out of avarice or in a bid for self-preservation. But collaboration itself was widespread—a fact that has become increasingly clear, despite all attempts to deny it. Such attempts include the “double genocide” theory dredged up by Eastern European nationalists, which claims that Jews were killed for collaborating with the Communists, not for being Jewish: a theory with clear echoes of the sinister idea of “Judeo-Bolshevism.” Likewise, the Romanian Orthodox church still denies its active involvement in the Holocaust, and some French commentators continue to downplay the guilt of the Vichy regime.  

Ultra-nationalists across Europe took advantage of the Nazi occupation to “solve” their own respective “Jewish questions” and realise long-held fantasies of creating ethnically uniform nation-states. The Romanian Iron Guard enthusiastically carried out their own Final Solution independent of the Nazis. Croatia, under the reign of the fascist Ustaša Catholic regime, ran the only non-Nazi Jewish death camp, at Jasenovac. The Holocaust even reached as far as North Africa. While largely spared the mass deportations, the Jews of Tunisia and Algeria in particular suffered disenfranchisement and enslavement. Their property was confiscated, and they were forced to wear the humiliating yellow star. A few were sent to the extermination camps. Had Rommel’s army not been defeated at El-Alamein in autumn 1942, the Holocaust would probably have been extended to the Jews of Egypt and the Yishuv of Palestine. An Einsatzgruppe Ägypten had already been established for the former purpose.  

Stone also contends that much Holocaust historiography underestimates the power and depth of what he calls “the Nazi imaginary.” Historians influenced by the functionalist school tend to emphasize “the reactive nature of German decision making, driven primarily by military circumstance” and neglect the vital role of ideology. Stone does not subscribe to the view that the Holocaust inevitably followed from the Nazi Party programme of 1920, or the ideas outlined in Mein Kampf, published in 1924. There were many further twists and turns and historical contingencies that made the Holocaust possible. Before the war, the Nazi solution to the “Jewish question” was disenfranchisement and mass expulsion. It was only with the invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941 that the Holocaust as we know it—the mass killings of Jews—began. When the Nazis were defeated in Moscow in December 1941, it foreclosed any previous plans to dump the Jews into Siberian death colonies. Instead, Operation Reinhard was put into effect and the extermination camps were swiftly created. The extreme conditions created by the war of annihilation on the Eastern Front, waged against “Judeo-Bolshevism,” made the Holocaust possible. Nevertheless, as Stone notes, interpretations that stress the contingency and disorganised nature of Nazi decision-making “fail to explain why it was the Jews who were being targeted in the first place.”  

The Nazis had a lot of people in their crosshairs. They regarded Slavs as Untermenschen. Hitler referred to Ukrainians and Russians as “redskins.” The Nazi plan for post-victory Eastern Europe, laid out in the Generalplan Ost, was to starve, dispossess, murder, and enslave millions of Slavs to enable German settler-colonisation. Romani people were also subject to ethnic cleansing and genocide. But, nevertheless, antisemitism was the central organising principle of Nazism. Antisemitism wasn’t a mere prejudice for the Nazis: it was a worldview. In the Nazi imagination, the Jews were not only the cause of Germany’s ills, but of those of the world. The “international Jew,” who was seen as the “moving hand” behind finance capitalism and Judeo-Bolshevism, was viewed as the embodiment of a malevolent force that could not be compromised with or accommodated in any way. Most antisemitic nationalists believed that Jews did not and could not belong in their nations. Nazism took this logic one step further. To the Nazis, Jews did not belong in Europe, America, or Palestine. Jews did not belong anywhere on Earth, and thus had to be annihilated for the sake of the world’s salvation.   

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For many survivors of the Holocaust, liberation proved to be anti-climactic. Most survivors were homeless, dispossessed, without families, friends, or a country. As Stone notes, “most testified not just to feeling joy at having unexpectedly outlived the Nazi regime but to an ‘infinite loneliness within ourselves’ that left them isolated and enervated.” Polish Jews who returned home were quickly subjected to pogroms. Dutch Jews faced indifference to their stories and were even spied upon by the Dutch secret service until the 1980s as a “danger to democracy.” Many survivors were left to languish in displaced persons’ camps in Germany and Austria. All this created a pervasive feeling that there was no future for Jews in Europe anymore and “further manifested itself in a knee jerk Zionism.”    

Those of us who have read many accounts of the Holocaust can become rather inured to the horror. But in his clear and vivid prose, Stone brings the full horror home to us afresh. For example, when writing of the particular “savagery” of the Nazis in Belarus, in an account partly based on survivor and witness testimony, Stone emphasises that, 

Very far from exemplifying what people think of as the Holocaust—mass murder in gas chambers—the local killing in Belarus exemplifies better the Nazis’ utter disdain for what they regarded as a backward and primitive region, akin perhaps to how the Belgian colonial regime thought of the Congo. Another of Alexievich’s interviewees discusses the Minsk ghetto and what the war meant for Jews directly. Miraculously surviving the shooting of the Jews of the ghetto—the Germans “tossed all the little kids into one of the pits” and “looked down into the pit and laughed”—and being allowed to run off by the man who found him, the unnamed interviewee describes the brutality of the partisans with whom he found sanctuary and then hiding from the Germans in the forest. “One night,” he says, “three of us were left behind as the rear guard. We cut open the belly of a dead horse, tossed everything out of it, and climbed in.” After two days, they “climbed out, covered in blood, guts, and shit … half-insane.” After the war, at the age of fifteen, he was unable to talk about what had happened as he faced prejudice that was impossible to complain about openly in the Soviet Union when those who had stolen his family’s apartment had “gotten used to the idea that us Jews were gone for good.”  

Moreover, Stone adroitly weaves up-to-date scholarship—of which he clearly has an authoritative grasp—with emotive first-hand survivor testimony, in an approach inspired by Saul Friedländer’s idea of “integrated history,” which connects “the policies of the perpetrators, the attitudes of surrounding society, and the world of the victims” in order to create a full picture of events.  

However, Stone’s book is more than just a straightforward, solid history of the Holocaust. In its most interesting section, he interrogates the “ubiquitous and conspicuous” memory culture surrounding the Holocaust. Enzo Traverso has described how the Holocaust functions as part of the “civic religion” of the contemporary West. The problem with this sanctification of the Holocaust is that it drags it out of the realm of history and into that of metaphysics. It isn’t treated as a real event, whose legacy must be grappled with very seriously, but as a totem that must be unthinkingly deferred to.  

While as Stone stresses, “in principle there is nothing wrong with Holocaust education or Holocaust commemoration,” one untoward effect of the current memory culture has been to transform the horrors of the Holocaust into a cliché. The annual duty to mark the day has become one of those “empty, complacent rituals that serve only to pacify the past.” We can trace the effects of this in the decline in the quality of Holocaust literature over time. Compare the great existential and fundamentally humanistic works by Primo Levi, Viktor Frankl, Paul Celan, and Vasily Grossman to the plethora of generic, cravenly commercial, mawkish, and utterly mediocre titles that pollute the current literary market. It’s not that literature and cinema can’t adequately portray the Holocaust. They certainly can. Son of Saul is leagues above Schindler’s List. But in the cultural moment we inhabit, so much Holocaust literature and film portrays a deodorised, tokenistic representation of that event that expunges what was truly catastrophic about it, as if to make it fit for mass consumption. As Stanley Kubrick reportedly said to Frederic Raphael: “The Holocaust is about 6 million people who get killed. Schindler’s List is about 600 who don’t.” 

Inevitably, any inquiry into the Holocaust’s legacy will run up against tortuous arguments over its uniqueness or singularity. The irony of the claim that the Holocaust is so singular that it can’t be compared to any other historical atrocity—and that it is offensive to even try—is that one can only arrive at such a judgement by comparing the Holocaust with other monumental historical crimes. The Holocaust took place during the almost thirty-year crisis in Europe in the aftermath of the First World War that destroyed the post-Napoleonic European order. To mystify the Holocaust and to decontextualise it from that historical moment is to impoverish one’s understanding of it.  

One unfortunate effect of the so-called “singularity thesis” is what Stone has dubbed the “suffering Olympics.” On the one hand, you have sectarian ideologues, who insist on the Holocaust’s uniqueness for ethnocentric purposes. On the other hand, some radical activists protest that the only reason why the Holocaust is sacralised in the way it is in contemporary Western culture is because of Eurocentrism—because, that is, this colossal crime took place on the precious soil of “civilised” Europe and its victims were white, unlike the thousands of black and brown people who suffered under European colonial empires. Whoopi Goldberg was raked over the coals for saying that the Holocaust wasn’t about race because it was “white on white” violence, explaining “I think of race as being about something I can see.” But this view is rooted in a very narrow understanding of racism almost exclusively based on skin colour and ignores the fact that Ashkenazi Jews were not regarded as “white” by contemporary European societies.  

Popular Third Worldism tends to view racism through an exclusively colonial lens and does not take internal European racism against other, ostensibly “white” Europeans seriously. It severely underestimates how much of a cauldron Europe was for Jews and the depth and scope of their persecution. Jews were regarded by antisemites as incapable of ever becoming fully integrated into European societies because their racially “semitic” essence did not—and could not—harmonise with the racial topography of Europe. 

Still, there is a kernel of truth to Aimé Césaire’s view that Nazism was, in some sense, imperialism boomeranged back into Europe. Nazism, after all, did not arise in a vacuum. Its core ideas were all extreme iterations of a hodgepodge of views that were already rather mainstream, especially among intellectuals: a toxic cocktail of antisemitism, social Darwinism, scientific racism, eugenics, ethnonationalism, settler-colonialism, and belief in an imperial order premised on white European racial superiority. The Holocaust, then, was the culmination of many political, cultural, and sociological trends in Western civilisation from the late 19th century onwards.  

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There can be no doubt that the Holocaust was a world-historical catastrophe. As Vasily Grossman noted while reporting on Treblinka, where he saw the sites of slaughterhouses, it was a horror “the like of which the human race has not known from the age of primitive barbarism to these cruel days of ours.” It was a tragedy not simply for humanity or for civilisation, but, above all, for its victims: the Jews of Europe. As Moishe Postone starkly puts it: “The Nazis lost the war against the Soviet Union, America, and Britain. They won their war, their ‘revolution,’ against the European Jews.” In the end, Hitler, Himmler, and Heydrich got what they wanted. They 

not only succeeded in murdering six million Jewish children, women, and men. They succeeded in destroying a culture—a very old culture—that of European Jewry. It was a culture characterized by a tradition incorporating a complicated tension of particularity and universality. This internal tension was duplicated as an external one, characterizing the relation of the Jews with their Christian surroundings. The Jews were never fully a part of the larger societies in which they lived nor were they ever fully apart from those societies. The results were frequently disastrous for the Jews. Sometimes they were very fruitful. That field of tension became sedimented in most individual Jews following the emancipation. The ultimate resolution of this tension between the particular and the universal is, in the Jewish tradition, a function of time, of history—the coming of the Messiah. Perhaps, however, in the face of secularization and assimilation, European Jewry would have given up that tension. Perhaps that culture would have gradually disappeared as a living tradition, before the resolution of the particular and the universal had been realized. This question will never be answered. 

 The Nazis predicated their so-called “Final Solution to the Jewish Question in Europe” on a simple fact. They believed that isolationism, atomisation, and the rule of every-man-for-himself were the laws that governed modern society. In such a society, the Jews could be annihilated with impunity. No one would come to rescue them. They would have no way of escaping their fate. The Nazis knew this, and they acted upon it. They achieved a terrifying level of success—what Vasily Grossman called Nazism’s “sweet memories of the ease with which it is possible to slaughter millions of defenseless people.” The Jewish civilisation that once flourished in Europe is gone—and it is never coming back.  

The Holocaust is a warning. It demonstrates that catastrophe is always possible because barbarism remains latent within civilisation itself. It shows us that a story isn’t always destined to have a good ending. Sometimes evil prevails. Western civilisation has still not yet fully recovered from the Holocaust. Perhaps it never will.  

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