The Holo­caust: His­to­ry and Memory

Jere­my M. Black

  • Review
By – June 30, 2016

His­to­ri­an Jere­my Black argues that there is a need for anoth­er sin­gle vol­ume his­to­ry of the Holo­caust because there are con­tin­u­ing and inten­si­fy­ing efforts to deny its his­toric­i­ty and scope. This is a ques­tion­able asser­tion giv­en the steady stream of excel­lent schol­ar­ly books that con­tin­ue to be pub­lished by not­ed schol­ars like Tim­o­thy Sny­der, Doris Bergen, Gotz Aly, Alan Con­fi­no and count­less others.

Nev­er­the­less, there are some impor­tant con­tri­bu­tions to our under­stand­ing of the Holo­caust that make this a wor­thy if not excep­tion­al book. How­ev­er deranged and evil Hitler’s deter­mi­na­tion to rid Europe of Jews, Jew­ish ideas and val­ues, it was cen­tral to his ulti­mate goal of estab­lish­ing a new begin­ning, a rad­i­cal break with the past. The Nazi quest to exter­mi­nate the Jews was dri­ven by the desire to con­trol mem­o­ry and his­to­ry. Racist ide­ol­o­gy was cer­tain­ly a part of it, but so was the need to extir­pate the mem­o­ry of the Jew as the pos­ses­sor of ori­gins, as the sym­bol of moder­ni­ty and ulti­mate­ly as the sym­bol of West­ern values.

The major­i­ty of Ger­man peo­ple may not have will­ing­ly sup­port­ed the Nazi par­ty and its aims, but once the depor­ta­tions to the east began, and prob­a­bly ear­li­er, the Ger­man peo­ple cer­tain­ly knew what was occur­ring, were essen­tial­ly active­ly indif­fer­ent or worse, and were aware of the geno­cide around them.

Tak­ing issue with a gen­er­a­tion of schol­ars who essen­tial­ly want­ed to sep­a­rate the pro­fes­sion­al army, the Wehrma­cht, from the killing oper­a­tions, Black demon­strates that the army, as well as the police and judi­cia­ry, were much more active­ly involved in atroc­i­ties than most schol­ars and the Ger­man post­war pub­lic were will­ing to acknowl­edge. After Ger­many invad­ed the Sovi­et Union in June 1941, the exter­mi­na­tion of the Jews became a major war aim: prob­a­bly two mil­lion were killed by shoot­ing car­ried out with the help of the Wehrma­cht and col­lab­o­ra­tors long before the exter­mi­na­tion camps were built. Black, like Patrick Des­bois, empha­sizes the cen­tral­i­ty of the Holo­caust by bullets.”

The Shoah, com­pared to oth­er twen­ti­eth-cen­tu­ry geno­cides, was unique in its glob­al scope and ambi­tions. In the final chap­ter, Black describes and ana­lyzes the var­i­ous ways the Holo­caust has been remem­bered and memo­ri­al­ized (or not remem­bered), in Ger­many, the Unit­ed King­dom, the Unit­ed States, and East­ern Europe. This is an impres­sive and impor­tant treat­ment as he shows how the con­test­ed mem­o­ries of the Holo­caust are not incon­se­quen­tial and con­tin­ue to have an impact on defin­ing West­ern culture.

These are among the more impor­tant con­tri­bu­tions of this use­ful one-vol­ume his­to­ry of the Shoah and its rep­re­sen­ta­tion and memo­ri­al­iza­tion. It is pos­si­ble to argue with some of his asser­tions, but Black has pro­duced a bal­anced and pre­cise work that is true to the schol­ar­ship, com­pre­hen­sive yet not over­whelm­ing, clear­ly writ­ten and ben­e­fi­cial for the expert and informed pub­lic alike.

Michael N. Dobkows­ki is a pro­fes­sor of reli­gious stud­ies at Hobart and William Smith Col­leges. He is co-edi­tor of Geno­cide and the Mod­ern Age and On the Edge of Scarci­ty (Syra­cuse Uni­ver­si­ty Press); author of The Tar­nished Dream: The Basis of Amer­i­can Anti-Semi­tism; and co-author of The Nuclear Predicament.

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