Thursday, January 17, 2013

Book Review of Auschwitz: A New History

Laurence Rees is a writer and documentary filmmaker that has focused on the Nazis and World War II for approximately the last twenty years. This book accompanies the documentary film titled, "Auschwitz:  Inside the Nazi State" that was produced by the BBC and KCET (a public television station in Los Angeles). As the title of the book suggests, this history offers a new perspective because it provides the reader with new interviews (conducted by Rees) of Holocaust survivors and perpetrators.  Rees believes these interviews are unique because many of the perpetrators are approaching the end of their lives and are willing to record their roles, for better or worse, in this major historical event known as the Holocaust.  Another thing that allows for new perspective in this book was the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe.  It opened the way for Rees to investigate archives and interview people that had once been out of reach. 

 Rees believes that "one of the worse crimes in history is best understood through the prism of one physical place - Auschwitz."  Rees leads his reader to the realization that the Final Solution, and the steps leading to it, was a business not of trials and errors, but of trials and improvements.  The reader learns about how Jews suffered as they were relocated into ghettos.  Their deportation to various work camps and the methods of their mass executions are examined.  Once the Final Solution became official Nazi policy, the methods of mass execution needed to be perfected to kill and dispose of the most number of bodies as quickly as possible.   Auschwitz-Birkenau was the culmination of all of the knowledge gained in this 'business' of the murder of the Jews.  This book gives its readers insight into behavior of perpetrators and victims at this one death camp.     

The author focuses on the alienation, relocation, and murder of various groups in Nazi occupied territory.  While readers are made aware of the persecution of groups like communists, gypsies, Jehovah's Witnesses and homosexuals, the story primarily focuses on the 1.1 million Jews that died in a strategic location that was chosen for its isolation and proximity to rail lines. Auschwitz was originally constructed as a prisoner of war camp but was transformed into an efficient killing factory with the use of gas chambers and crematorium (with the building of Birkenau).  Rees also examines the lives of those prisoners not immediately killed upon arrival at the camp and those Nazis charged with managing them. The stories about the psychological impact that the act of murdering had on the perpetrators, explains why a more efficient and hands-off method of murder was needed at Auschwitz than existed in other camps.  (The author also explains how the hands off approach that is developed at Auschwitz also helped make it easier for Nazis to escape prosecution when the war was over).

Rees takes his interview and intertwines them with policy development in Nazi occupied territories to give the reader both a top down and bottom up historical perspective of the Holocaust.  For example, Rees tells us about the development of the Kapo system where a person (known as the Kapo) would be put in charge of his fellow Jewish prisoners in the concentration camp.  As Heinrich Himmler (Head of the SS) explains, it was the job of the Kapo to get his men to work and if he did not he would lose his title and return to being a regular inmate. If that happened, they would "beat him to death his first night back." On the flip side, Otto Pressburger was a Jewish prison at Auschwitz and explained the violence of the Kapos toward the other Jewish workers.  He recalls how the Kapo killed twelve people "just for fun" and it all "happened the first day" he was at work in the camp. This mixing of a top down and bottom up perspective gives the reader a more in depth and intimate understanding of events.

Overall, Rees provides a balanced perspective of personal narratives and big picture historical events.  He is, at times, critical of the first hand accounts of not only perpetrators but also at least partially of survivors.  He delves into his interviews by examining questions he knows his reader will likely have. (Ex. What might be a person's motivation to lie or tell a partial truth? How does history impact memory?)  Rees also addresses issues that also seem a bit taboo such as a love story between an SS officer and female Jewish prisoner and a story of a survivor, who at the end of the war, took pride in hunting down and murdering Germans.  These lesser known stories, while shocking, help demonstrate the madness of the time period.  At times it seems Rees takes his reader off on irrelevant tangents, but he always comes full circle and ends up giving more depth to the reader's understanding of the Holocaust.

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