Monday, June 20, 2016

Ian Kershaw - This brilliant book sheds new light on Nazi Germany

Nikolaus WachsmannKL: A History of the Nazi Concentration Camps
Reviewed by Ian Kershaw, author of Hitler, a biography

Wachsmann shows how integral the concentration camps were to Nazi rule from the very beginning, how intrinsic terror was to the regime.

Is it possible to say anything new about Nazi Germany? This is, after all, probably the most thoroughly researched period in modern history. Of course, niche areas, specific limited topics or local studies can invariably be found in any field of research. But can a major work that alters our perceptions and influences our interpretation still be written?

The brilliant study by Nikolaus Wachsmann, KL: A History of the Nazi Concentration Camps, which was this week awarded the highly prestigious Wolfson Prize for History, is the clearest demonstration that it is indeed still possible, and necessary. Wachsmann teaches at Birkbeck College, London. He was born in Bavaria, but has lived for many years in England. He writes fluently and stylishly in English: even on the harrowing subject of concentration camps, his work is eminently readable.

At first sight, the need for a new history of concentration camps – “KL” was the Nazi regime’s abbreviation for “Konzentrationslager” – seems improbable. Since the end of the war, concentration camps have been synonymous with Nazi inhumanity. Nearly two and a half million men, women and children passed through these camps. More than 1.7 million died in them (nearly a million of them in Auschwitz). Around 60,000 men and women served in the camps as guards and other personnel.

The first general and widely read history of the camps, by a former prisoner, Eugen Kogon, appeared in 1946. The first memoirs of those who had suffered in the camps were published soon afterwards. By now, more than 80 years after the end of the Third Reich, tens of thousands of studies of aspects of the camps, including a vast array of testimony of the victims, are available.

So what is new about Wachsmann’s book, and why is it so important? Odd as it might seem, his is the first comprehensive study of the camps, based on mastery of a huge literature and stupendous research in many parts of the world. Its value lies in no small measure in the way it weaves together the history both of the perpetrators and of the victims.

Wachsmann tells the terrible story through the eyes of those who inhabited the camps. He writes of the camps as places where people lived. Prisoners become individuals, not just objects of terror. The behaviour of guards is shown to be more complex than mere sadism and brutality.

A great virtue of the book is the way in which Wachsmann differentiates the camps. He shows the differences in organisation and structure as the vast camp network develops. For many readers, these differences will be new. The best-known camps are Dachau and Auschwitz. Both were places of horror, but with different purposes.

Dachau, near Munich, was the prototype SS camp, meant to be widely known as a deterrent to opponents of the regime, especially at first communists. It served to hold prisoners who were subjected to arbitrary terror and forced to labour until the point of exhaustion, without any judicial protection, until (at least in theory) they were fit to rejoin society as compliant citizens. Auschwitz, in a part of Poland annexed by Germany in 1939, had all this too, aimed primarily at recalcitrant Poles, but was unique within the system because it was an extermination camp as well as a concentration camp.

The death camps further east in German-occupied Poland (Belzec, Sobibor and Treblinka), on the other hand, operated outside the concentration camp system. They did not imprison people and force them to work. Their sole purpose was to kill the Jews – close on two million, nearly all from Poland – as quickly as possible. But within the KL system itself, Jews were a minority among the prisoners. The Holocaust, as Wachsmann emphasises, mainly took place outside the concentration camps.

The value of the book transcends its own topic, centrally important though that is. It offers, in fact, a corrective to recent trends of interpretation of the Third Reich. Over the past 20 years or so, general interpretations of Nazi Germany have tended to swing away from the earlier emphasis on a population repressed into acquiescence towards an image of widespread consensus with Hitler’s regime. What consensus means, when those who disapprove are incarcerated in concentration camps, is a moot point. Much of whatever consensus existed was in any case manufactured. It rested on the terroristic repression of those who did not consent.

Wachsmann shows how integral the concentration camps were to Nazi rule from the very beginning, how intrinsic terror was to the regime. It is not the least important conclusion to be drawn from this remarkable book.

Ian Kershaw has written extensively on the Second World War and Germany. His latest book, To Hell and Back: Europe, 1914-1949 

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