The Holocaust

May 1, 2008

As one of the defining episodes in contemporary history, the Holocaust attracts droves of researchers and passionate controversies. In a field of study this contested and this complex there will always be a demand for new and succinct histories summarising the state of the field as it advances. Jeremy Black's The Holocaust presents a fairly reasonable attempt to do this.

Black is keen to broaden perspectives and to avoid an excessive focus on Auschwitz and the gas chambers. He emphasises the importance of the killings carried out "in the field" in 1941-42 by the Einsatzgruppen and local militia; the involvement of the German army in genocidal killing, particularly in Serbia; and the role of Allied countries, particularly Romania, in the genocide.

This attempt to paint a broader picture seeks not to de-emphasise the importance of the gas chambers and "industrial" methods of killing, but rather to qualify the argument that the Holocaust was a paradigmatically modern event. Indeed, for Black the determinant feature was a rampant anti-Semitism that, even if it at times drew on modern means of execution, was far too irrational and maniacal to qualify as fully modern.

Black also broadens perspectives by devoting a substantial portion of his book to the postwar memorialisation of the genocide and its place in contemporary cultural and political life.

This is an admirable goal, but in practice it is a real struggle to accommodate an adequate discussion of these topics within a short book that already has to deal with the complexities of the events and causes of the Holocaust itself.

There is wide variability in the space devoted to topics of equal importance, with, for example, almost two pages on memorialisation of the Holocaust in Belgium and just one short paragraph on the Netherlands.

Puzzlingly, given the author's statement that the book was written "in part in response to the continuation of Holocaust denial" there is barely any treatment of Holocaust denial itself.

Black spends more time critiquing the "diminishment" and "relativization" of the Holocaust but his discussion is too rushed to really do the issue justice. The potential value of comparing the Holocaust with other genocides is largely ignored in favour of the dismissal of invalid comparisons. The considerable strides that have been made in recent years in comparative genocide studies surely merit more serious consideration.

Similarly, the critiques by scholars such as Peter Novick of the way the Holocaust has been used in political discourse deserve to be engaged with in any serious discussion of the Holocaust in contemporary life.

The book could also have benefited from better copy editing. Black is inconsistent in the assumptions he makes about readers' prior knowledge, for instance mentioning Daniel Goldhagen without adequately explaining his arguments and referring to the Babi Yar massacre without explaining what it was.

At times, The Holocaust appears to betray an excessive swiftness in writing, with sentences briefly referring to one issue or event in the midst of a paragraph on something else. It is also frankly shoddy for a book of this kind to have no index, particularly given the richness of the footnotes.

Furthermore, one might question how far the publishers - right-of-centre think-tank the Social Affairs Unit - will be able to disseminate the book to those such as A-level students and junior undergraduates, who arguably could make the greatest use of it.

I therefore put The Holocaust down with the nagging feeling that it could have been so much better.

The Holocaust

By Jeremy Black
Social Affairs Unit
ISBN 97819048634
Published 14 January 2008

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