Aug 30, 2006

Book Review: The War Against the Jews, 1933-1945

The War Against the Jews, 1933-1945Dawidowicz, Lucy S.

New York: Bantam Books, 466 pages

Dawidowicz studied history at Columbia University, but did not complete a graduate degree there. At the urging of her advisor she instead traveled to Wilno, Poland (present-day Vilna, Lithuania) work at the Yiddish Scientific Institute (YIVO). Leaving just before the 1939 Nazi invasion of Poland, Dawidowicz spent the next six years in the New York branch of YIVO. She spent most of the next four decades engaged in research related to the Holocaust. The author’s opus, The War Against the Jews, examines in a systematic, detached fashion the Holocaust, and the text remains one of the standard syntheses on the topic.

The author approached the topic from a strict intentionalist perspective, arguing that Adolf Hitler fully intended to annihilate European Jews as early as 1918. Dawidowicz elucidated this belief early in the text:
Hitler’s ideas about the Jews were at the center of his mental world. They shaped his world view and political ambitions, forming the matrix of his ideology and the ineradicable core of National Socialist doctrine. They determined the anti-Jewish policies of the German dictatorship from 1933 to 1945, and they furnished the authority for the murder of the Jews in Europe from World War II.
Dawidowicz divided the text into three components, and she began with the rise of the Third Reich and the institutional Nazi machinery necessary to carry out the Final Solution. The author first placed the Nazis in a context of modern anti-Semitism, cautioning readers against the temptation to link Hitler with early modern anti-Semitism (as perhaps best expressed in the writings of Martin Luther). Dawidowicz next traced the gradual escalation from anti-Jewish legislation through the establishment of concentration camps and ghettoes, and continuing up to the establishment of death facilities. Throughout the first section the author built a convincing case that the Nazi campaigns of expansion were equally dedicated to carrying out a world war against Jews. Hitler, argued Dawidowicz, might not have possessed a fully-formed “plan” of carrying out the Holocaust as early as 1918, but through opportunism and innovation he nearly completed the goal of exterminating world Jewry.

Liberated prisoners in 1945 at Ebensee concentration campLeft: Liberated prisoners in 1945 at Ebensee concentration camp

Dawidowicz next dissected the history of the Jewish response to the arrival of the Nazis and their increasingly violent actions toward the Jews. She noted that German Jews themselves were initially divided over the best response to the Third Reich, as some believed the Nazis would be a short-lived political phenomenon. Dawidowicz described how, as the behavior of the Nazi regime became more markedly focused on concentration and extermination, Jewish communities adapted to change and began to develop alternative communities and outright resistance; most chilling is the material that demonstrates the growing awareness that German campaigns against Jews were not merely “the destructive fallout of a fascist war against the capitalist order, but were part of a deliberate design to annihilate the Jews.”

The third section of the text is devoted to a country-by-country breakdown of the fate of Jews in Nazi-dominated Europe. Dawidowicz developed a brief historical summary of Jewish history in each nation, described life during the war, and provided statistics on the numbers of victims of the Holocaust for each state. The author provided a lengthy bibliography for further research, and the tenth edition includes a supplementary bibliography of materials released after the initial 1976 publication of The War Against the Jews, 1933-1945.

Dawidowicz for the most part avoided polemic in the narrative, and the work is perhaps more disturbing because of the author’s refusal to engage in a vitriolic attack on the Nazi regime. The prose is well written and follows a chronological approach within each section, and is appropriate for upper-level underclass settings as well as for knowledgeable general readers. Maps and tables are provided throughout the book to illustrate material that might be confusing in textual form. One might be well advised, however, to keep a German dictionary at ready reference, because the author assumed a level of either linguistic fluency or historical familiarity with many German terms. Beyond this minor consideration, The War Against the Jews is an excellent historical text for an overview of the Holocaust, and provides a concise, authoritative account of one of humanity’s most gruesome historical periods.


Elizabeth said...

I haven't read this book, although I was a European history major in college...It really is amazing to think about how so many Jews in Germany and Eastern Europe thought the whole thing would blow over and that they weren't in real danger. Of course hindsight is 20/20 but I usually take people at their word...I think if I'd been there in the late 30s I would have said "we have to get out of here."

LTLOP said...

The Jewish reaction during the early parts of the war was part of centuries of experience with Pogroms. While it was horrible during those times they eventually were replaced by happier more productive times, many times integrating into the society as a whole repeating the cycle. What is surprising is that this happened in Germany; here Jews were fully integrated into society, seen as equals as evidenced by the WWI veterans that were proud of their service to Germany. Based on prevailing attitudes at the time it was France where this type of thing would have occured. While it is easy to mourn for the German Jew one needs to remember that there were about 131,000 Jews in Germany at the time nearly 80,000 survived due to the fact that the ordinary German did not see "his" Jew as Jewish, rather, he saw him as a German first and was more willing to help.

Kathleen Marie said...

It is good to be reminded of the tragedies in history. What people also forget is that although approximately 6 million Jews died, another 5.5 million people were murdered as well, Gypsies, Christians, Bi-racial people, artists, musicians, the mentally and physically challenged, ... Somehow the other 5.5 million people are completely forgotten.

Roland Hansen said...

I am always aghast upon hearing or reading that some people claim the Holocaust is a hoax perpetuated by Jews.