35 of 37 people found the following review helpful
on November 29, 2004
Dr. Doris L. Bergen has been a history professor since 1991 at University of Vermont and the University of Notre Dame. Her research and written works on Nazism, the Third Reich, Christian antisemitism, and the Volksdeutschen have made her especially qualified to write this brief history of the Holocaust. There is no specific mention of any direct or familial involvement with the Second World War (Bergen 263). War & Genocide: A Concise History of the Holocaust has an extensive bibliography which covers the entire spectrum on this topic, including general and specialized secondary research, official records, and firsthand accounts in the form of diaries and journals.
While unbiased accounts are the goal in historical research, it is extraordinarily difficult to be without an anti-Nazi bias when writing on the Holocaust. Such a traumatic event in the course of human affairs is inherently and undeniably emotional. A dispassionate account of the Holocaust would not only be uninteresting, it would be inappropriate on many important levels. Bergen uses her talents of discretion to balance the work by making it accessible on an emotional level to even serious students of history while not letting her anti-Nazi bias destroy the validity of her research.
The book is intended to be a concise history of the larger events of the Nazi takeover of Europe and their extermination of "undesirables." Bergen accomplishes this by describing the major and pertinent events of the period with minimal digression. She also keeps the events of the Holocaust in context of the larger context of the war in such a way that the reader is not lost in the details. This book attempts to give a human face to the atrocities committed by human beings on their fellow men, women, and children; it attempts to give a palpable understanding of the driving forces that made ordinary men into murderers and monsters; and it attempts to make the reader pause and reflect on this nightmarish catastrophe in an attempt to keep such a Holocaust from happening again.
This book describes the origins and policies of the National Socialist German Workers Party (Nazi) and is careful to display evidence that their rise to power was far from inevitable. According to Bergen, the Nazis didn't pick new or arbitrary groups to focus their hatred on, instead they "reflected and built on prejudices that were familiar" in pre-Nazi Germany (1). The book exposes the friendly forces in the Weimar government that contributed to Hitler's ride by pushing aside the laws that could have stopped the Nazi party. These laws that "were simply not enforced" (48) allowed Adolf Hitler, an Austrian convicted of treason, to escape a serious jail sentence, become a German citizen, and run for president. Bergen claims "Without Hitler, Nazism, World War II, and the Holocaust would have taken very different forms, if they had occurred at all" (31). In the course of supporting these claims, the book follows the events that destroyed tens of millions of lives. This book uses many highly personalized accounts of victims like Anne Frank, who hid in Amsterdam for two years, and of perpetrators like Adolf Eichmann, Hitler's expert in the transportation and deportation of Jews, to keep the book's personal focus.
War & Genocide was thoroughly researched and has a wealth of factual and statistical information that is vital in understanding the enormity of the atrocities of the war. The information was used with considerable discretion to promote the flow of the narrative. Bergen doesn't spare the reader from graphic accounts of killing and violence except for the most gruesome of details. The book is suitable as an introduction to the Holocaust because of its breadth of focus and narrative flow. The author's conclusions are strongly supported and are very much her own. She lets her own research and experience guide conclusions that often differ from some traditionally accepted rationalizations. She is weak on some of her conclusions regarding personal decisions and motivations of the perpetrators, instead leaving the reader to decide whether or not the evidence available supports their actions. I did not necessarily agree with all of Bergen's conclusions, especially concerning the personal motivations of individual Nazis. While the book did not include much new information, it made me reconsider some of my previously held notions.
15 of 15 people found the following review helpful
on February 17, 2012
About a third of the way through Doris Bergen's book War & Genocide, I began to realize that it had the emotionally neutral tone and linear organization of a conventional textbook. My initial response was that this way of presenting material outside a classroom setting was not to the author's credit. As I neared the end of Bergen's powerfully succinct and informative history of the Holocaust, however, I realized that her stylistic approach was exactly the right one. Had the author not maintained an understated affect coupled with a matter-of-fact, linear account, I doubt that I would have finished the book. There are just too many gut-wrenching horrors on a truly massive scale, one after another, to be able to tolerate the story if it were presented in a more emotionally charged way.
According to Bergen, fifty-five million people died in World War II. Of these, a large but precisely indeterminate number were victims of the Holocaust. The Holocaust brought death to captured soldiers on the wrong side, soldiers on the right side who lost their nerve and ran, nondescript civilians in the wrong place at the wrong time, Jews, gypsies, homosexuals, Free Masons, Jehovah's Witnesses, devoted Christians suspected of placing Christ before the Fuhrer, Poles, Slavs, pregnant women, children, old men, the disabled, the mentally ill ... there is no end to the list of descriptive categories, including some, such as "asocials," contrived by the Nazis just for homicidal convenience. For the reader of War & Genocide, page after page of sometimes vicious, more often straightforward and unemotional killing of innocents may be too much to take in. Bergen's plain-spoken book, devoid of histrionics and never emphasizing obvious horrors for literary effect, still takes a toll on the attentive and empathetic reader.
The pseudo-scientific racial hierarchy that provided a rationale for mass killings with guns, gasoline fumes, diesel fumes, Zylon B pesticide, and mechanized burying of those still alive defies reasoned interpretation. Some of the specialized killing groups organized by the Nazis were motivated by what today we might call redneck hatred. Many others, however, perhaps even more grotesque and unforgivable, sought to elevate their positions, increase their incomes, and earn honorific medals from the Fuhrer. Opportunists of the worst sort.
Still others just went along, doing as they were told, perhaps buttressed by the long history of antisemitism and other old hatreds that they inherited from generations past. Until I read War and Genocide, I had no idea that soldiers and other members of specialized killing units who couldn't stomach the slaughter of innocents were routinely assigned to other duties and not punished. Claims that mass murderers had no choice are simply not true. Those who did the killing, according to Bergen, knew they had a way out.
Given Bergen's account, moreover, it's difficult to imagine that most Germans did not know about the camps and the routinized slaughter of millions. The camps, after all, just like other organizations, needed the usual office and clerical staff. Beyond that, there were medical personnel electricians, plumbers and carpenters to maintain the domiciles of administrators, many of whom had their own cooks and domestic servants. Furthermore, the camps were not the smoothly running, clean-burning places that we have been led to believe. Hitler's penchant for promoting competition among functionaries of all kinds assured that those in charge would cut corners in ways that made their activities more conspicuous than need be. As it was, many from the outside knew from first-hand experience, and the smell and smoke of burning flesh spread for miles around the numerous ovens.
I found it especially appalling that when it was clear that the war was lost, the killing of Jews and other devalued groups intensified. The Nazi philosophy of hatred of Jews and asocials was hard at work even after its perpetrators had nothing to gain but an insanely misguided vengeance.
In some ways, Hitler's Germany, even outside the camps, was quite different from the way it is usually portrayed. A telling example occurred when Hitler, immediately after the invasion of Poland, went to his balcony expecting to by met by the triumphant cheers of a large crowd loudly endorsing his military adventurism in the name of lebensraum. There were so few people awaiting his appearance, however, that he retreated in embarrassment. When Poland was quickly defeated, however, a large, cheering crowd materialized.
Bergen's book effectively gives the lie to usual versions of Hitler's charismatic hold on the German people. No doubt there was some of that, but the loyalty of most Germans was bought in the usual way, through economic prosperity and triumphalism in world affairs.
The aftermath of the Holocaust is especially troubling. Many of the survivors of the camps,including those who might have recovered, were left on their own, with little or no assistance. Nightmares beget nightmares.
War and Genocide is a very good book that is pitched at just the right frequency to make it readable and devastatingly effective. Its brevity and impact are a tribute to the author's master of Holocaust history and her gift of succinctness.
5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
on January 21, 2010
I bought this book because it was a requirement for my German history class at college. If I had excess funds I would probably not think twice about buying this book even if it were not a requirement for my course because it describes the Holocaust very well, Amazon provides a very reasonable price, and that it is not a very condense book as it is less than 300 pages long. This book was very interesting to read and I learned many news things about the Holocaust, some of which were that Jews were not the only ones persecuted and/or systematically murdered by the Nazis as the Gypsies along with homosexuals, Freemasons, Jehovah's Witnesses, Communists, and Soviet prisoners of war were victims as well. I highly recommend this book to anyone above the age thirteen to buy and/or read this book because you will most likely learn numerous more facts about the Holocaust than you currently know, you will not have to read many books on the subject to understand the Holocaust well, you can buy it for a fair price on Amazon, and that it is very concise.