elb's hovel of thoughts

Friday, August 11, 2006

Book Review: Auschwitz

My latest foray into the genre of history books is that of the not-too-distant past. I picked a copy of Auschwitz: The Nazis & The 'Final Solution' (Laurence Rees; BBC Books) from Borders a couple of months back (with a painting of Himmler looking and gesturing at a cane-walking Hitler along a snowy hillside as the cover).

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Picture taken from Westminster Bookshop.

I neglected it initially because I was busy with two other non-fiction books at the same time: Bill Bryson's excellent and very highly recommended popular science book, 'A Short History of Nearly Everything '; as well as Jared Diamond's brilliant and disturbing 'Collapse', which talks about the need of sustainability if the human race is to avoid getting wiped out within the next few decades.

Anyway. Back to Auschwitz. This book should put down to rest conspiration theories about how the Catholics installed Hitler as their agent to massacre the Jews (the then Pope's amazing silence in face of the genocide until it was late into the war), etc. Interestingly enough, the book presents a conspiration theory: that of Hitler's, who believed that the international Jewry conspired against Germany at the end of World War I and wanted to get back at them.

The book starts by introducing the commander of the Auschwitz camp, Rudolf Hoess as one of the central figures to the whole story. It does not jump straight into Auschwitz though: it introduces the concentration camp of Dachau (which I had the priviledge to visit in the suburbs of Munich, and was a very disturbing and depressing place) and explains how the camps initially only were meant as a detention facility and nothing more.

The book also clears up a common misconception: that the Jews were murdered from day one. In fact, the book highlights that Hitler initially wanted them deported to make way for the return of Germans from other parts of Europe. It was, in short, a supply chain disaster, as Germany expanded and decided to shift the Jews from one part of the German empire to the other.

And as moving the Jews became liabilities, the Nazis slowly went down the path to selection killing and eventually genocide. The book also highlights how the Nazis eventually, and independently of Hitler, ended up using Zyklon-B to mass-murder the Jews (because it minimized the trauma faced by firing squads), showing that the 'Final Solution' was the result of a collective decision by the Nazis.

Another interesting fact: Auschwitz was not only a death camp; it was also an industrial complex and a few lucky Jews were even allowed access to a 'swimming pool'!

Ultimately, the book showcases the capacity of harmless-looking individuals to turn into ruthless monsters (Himmler was said by a survivor to have looked like a school teacher!), how human morality and behaviour can perverse itself by the fight for survival, and how man's capacity of inhumanity to fellow man is indeed manifestable on a scale as large as the largest extermination facility in the history of the world.

Rating: 9/10. Highly recommended and a must read for just about everyone.

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