Masters of Death
is Richard Rhodes's chronological account of the Third Reich's Einsatzgruppen
(a hand-picked task force) and its death work--the executions of 1.5 million people, Jews and non-Jews--in Russia and Eastern Europe from 1941 through 1943. Rhodes sees these operations (the victims were, almost exclusively, shot) as a ghastly prelude to the subsequent (and much more written-about) horrors of the death camps. In chilling--and occasionally excessive--detail, Rhodes describes the killings and the reasons behind the Reich's cautious, rather than precipitous, escalation of the same: the military's "concern for German and world opinion"; the need to improve methodology; and finally, the need to "condition" the troops, thereby avoiding "disabling trauma." Rhodes makes good use of firsthand accounts and outlines the effects the larger war (Pearl Harbor; the failure to defeat Britain) had on Hitler's attempted obliteration of European Jewry. His chapters on the nature of evil seem hurried and not particularly fresh. --H. O'Billovich
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From Publishers Weekly
This is not for the squeamish. Rhodes, a Pulitzer winner for The Making of the Atomic Bomb, has pulled together a mountain of research on the mass murders of Jews perpetrated by the Einsatzgruppen special task forces organized by the SS commanders Himmler and Heydrich before the gruesome death camps industrialized the Final Solution. The catalogue of horrors, drawn not only from postwar memoirs and interrogations but also from the Nazi fanaticism for statistical detail, is profoundly appalling, even revolting: some of the malefic perpetrators were so sickened by the slaughter that Himmler set up mental hospitals and rest camps for the insufficiently sadistic. By January 1942, when the Wannsee Conference implicitly authorized the death camps, more than a million Jews crowded the killing pits, some of them later torched to conceal the massacres. Relatively few in the Nazi command structure would pay for their crimes. John J. McCloy, U.S. High Commissioner for Germany, Rhodes reminds us, reduced 10 of 14 death sentences in U.S. war-crimes trials, and by 1958 all surviving Einsatzgruppen defendants had been freed. German courts were also lenient. But he also suggests that genocide is new only as a word in the dictionary: "The Final Solution...was intended to be only the first phase of a vast, megalomaniacal project of privation, enslavement, mass murder and colonization modeled on the historic colonization of North and South America and on nineteenth-century imperialism but modernized with pseudoscientific theories of eugenic restoration." Thus Rhodes holds the mirror up. 16 pages of photos and six maps not seen by PW.
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