When hens and Hitler do not mix

Understanding the Holocaust

February 25, 2000

This book would more appropriately be titled "Misunderstanding the Holocaust". It fails the basic requirements of a textbook to be reasonably up to date, clear and accurate.

The bibliography contains few works published since 1990. Dan Cohn-Sherbok totally ignores the work of Christopher Browning and Daniel Jonah Goldhagen. His picture of Hitler deploys every myth that historians have debunked over the past decade. There is no discussion of the "twisted road to Auschwitz". The Madagascar Plan appears in the context of the killing operations in 1941, only to be dismissed as "not a realistic option". His account of the Einsatzgruppen is confused; he suggests that they began with orders to kill "all Jews", then rescinds this a page later and hints that they themselves radicalised their mission. There is no discussion of the historiographical debate surrounding this point.

Cohn-Sherbok makes the Wannsee Conference a "turning point" in Nazi policy, a notion most historians dropped years ago. His account of the gas chambers is baffling. On a generous interpretation he seems to have accidentally conflated Auschwitz with Treblinka; but for a book with a chapter on Holocaust denial, this sort of sloppiness is reprehensible.

Howlers mar nearly every chapter. Walther Rathenau is made a member of the Social Democratic Party, a movement he actually opposed. Cohn-Sherbok has Goering issuing orders to Heydrich for the "general solution" of the "Jewish Question" in 1939, when the authorisation was made in July 1941. In the section on the Nuremberg tribunal he convicts and acquits Hjalmar Schacht, whereas Schacht was totally acquitted.

Finally, Cohn-Sherbok delivers some highly controversial personal opinions. He likens the use of amniocentesis for detecting Down's syndrome babies to Nazi eugenic policy. He proclaims that the Nazis treated the Jews just as humans treat farm animals: to him battery farming can apparently be equated with Nazi atrocities. This book cannot be recommended to students.

David Cesarani is professor of modern Jewish history, University of Southampton.

Understanding the Holocaust: An Introduction. First Edition

Author - Dan Cohn-Sherbok
ISBN - 0 304 70442 3 and 70443 1
Publisher - Cassell
Price - £45.00 and £17.95
Pages - 288

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