Reviewed by Jennifer L. Rodgers (Department of History, University of Pennsylvania)
Published on H-German (November, 2009)
Commissioned by Susan R. Boettcher
A Big Picture
The shape of Holocaust studies has changed significantly since Raul Hilberg's seminal work, The Destruction of the European Jews (1961). While early examinations of the Holocaust focused on the Shoah within its broader context, in recent years, microhistorical studies have complicated scholars' understanding of the persecution and extermination of the Jews and other minority groups by Nazi Germany and its allies. In a departure from this trend, David Crowe's new book returns to the grand narrative and traces the Holocaust from its genesis to its consequences. Based solely upon secondary literature, The Holocaust: Roots, History, and Aftermath offers a venturesome exegesis that details the complex history of the Holocaust for a non-academic public interested in a comprehensive exploration of the subject.
Crowe's monograph provides a transnational narrative of the history of the Holocaust that begins with the birth of Judaism and ends in the present. Like Hilberg, he traces the roots of Jewish persecution from antiquity through the Middle Ages until emancipation in the nineteenth century, a time span that corresponds to the chronological shift from religious anti-Judaism to racial antisemitism. Crowe argues that from the outset of the Third Reich, the Nazis attempted marginalize Jews and other groups, such as "gypsies" and homosexuals, from the German Volk. He maintains that by ignoring the increasing exclusion of Jews and other groups, the international community emboldened Hitler's pursuit of his racial policies. Under the guise of war, however, the Nazis--initially through the T-4 program--honed their extermination methods, which resulted in the mechanized murder of millions. Crowe, like Henry Friedlander, deftly traces the "origins of Nazi genocide" in the Nazi euthanasia programs. Then, he takes the reader on a geographical exploration of the European Jewish communities and the impact of the war on them from ghettoization to extermination. He focuses predominantly on eastern European communities, especially those in Poland and the Soviet Union. Crowe, like other scholars such as Christopher Browning, contends that the Wehrmacht's invasion of the Soviet Union represented a radical shift in Nazi policy toward the Jews and other groups. The "Final Solution," the murderous culmination of the Nazi regime's racial policies of the early 1930s, intensified across Europe as the German military situation worsened. These policies continued even as the Allied armies advanced across Germany and its occupied territories, and took the form of death marches from concentration and extermination camps. Crowe concludes his narrative with an exploration of the role of neutral nations in the Holocaust and addresses postwar topics including displaced persons, the Jewish diaspora, war crimes trials, and economic issues such as the deposit of looted gold in Switzerland.
Crowe's ambitious and admirable narrative will appeal to some of his intended audience (undergraduate, graduate, and law students) and the general public. He navigates the political, social, economic, and cultural labyrinth of a broad time span and geographic area. For example, he traces mass killings of Jews in the late Roman and medieval periods through the "Final Solution" and postwar pogroms in Poland, and compares concurrent developments during these eras in Germany, France, and Russia. In his treatment of "gypsies," homosexuals, and Soviet prisoners of war, he weaves in the often neglected historiographies of non-Jewish victim groups.
At the same time, the broad chronological and spatial scopes and the incorporation of multiple victim groups into this narrative create problems for the author. Scholars must accept that such a comprehensive history may treat some issues superficially or unevenly. The unavoidable problems generated by his broad narrative scope, however, are enhanced by the decision to rely almost exclusively on secondary sources in English. Although he references some seminal studies in English on the Holocaust, Crowe never clearly situates his narrative within any historiographical debates. Consulting the well-developed non-English-language literature could have led him to more nuanced conclusions. The narrative also neglects certain topics. While Crowe provides a comprehensive overview of the Holocaust in eastern Europe, I found myself asking for information about the fates of German and Austrian Jews and the well-developed camp system in France. Despite his initial statements regarding the attempt "to balance the centrality of the Jewish tragedy" (p. xv), Crowe's comparatively superficial treatment of non-Jewish victim groups achieves just the opposite--it reinforces the centrality of the Jewish question for Nazi Germany. The final section of the book, which deals with issues such as restitution, displaced persons, and postwar justice, is much weaker in contrast to the previous sections of the book and would benefit from a closer vetting of facts.
This book reflects the growing transnational trend in history writing, and constitutes a return to the grand narrative. However, it is also a model for historians who seek to appeal to the general public. Crowe eschews analytical jargon for simple prose, mostly without rendering his history too colloquial or platitudinous. In so doing, he imparts a complicated account of significant themes in Holocaust history to his target audiences.
. Henry Friedlander, The Origins of Nazi Genocide: From Euthanasia to the Final Solution (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1995).
. Christopher Browning, The Origins of the Final Solution: The Evolution of Nazi Jewish Policy, September 1939-March 1942 (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2004).
If there is additional discussion of this review, you may access it through the network, at: https://networks.h-net.org/h-german.
Jennifer L. Rodgers. Review of Crowe, David, The Holocaust: Roots, History, and Aftermath.
H-German, H-Net Reviews.
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