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The Ethnic Conflict Research Digest

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National Socialist Extermination Policies: Contemporary German Perspectives and Controversies
Ulrich Herbert (ed.)

New York, Oxford, Berghahn Books, 2000
336pp, HB 47 ISBN 1-57181-750-6, PB 13.95 ISBN 1-57181-751-4



This volume on the extermination policies of the Nazi regime provides a new perspective even if it does not give a clear-cut explanation for what took place. These essays avoid the straightforward options of explaining genocide in terms of either: the fulfilment of a grand racist project (Goldhagen?s argument in Hitler?s Willing Executioner?s) or as the inevitable structural outcome of Modernity. Instead a more complicated and awkward story emerges. The result is a multi faceted picture of the extermination programme(s). A world of overlapping and shifting rationales is described. Anti Semitism and Utilitarianism combine to drive first ethnic cleansing, and then genocide.

The book begins with a review of the approaches German historians have taken to the extermination programme(s). The volume?s theme is then developed through a series of regional studies of mass murder in action. They cover: Poland (the General Government, Silesia and Galicia), France, Serbia, Belarus and Lithuania. Chapters on the policy towards gypsies, and a focus on the career trajectories of the concentration/death camp officer corps supplement this geographical approach.

Several main themes emerge from this kaleidoscopic account. First is the extent to which the extermination programme(s) were an integral part of the overall war and occupation policy. Aly Gotz?s chapter highlights how the deportation of Jews was interlocked with a wider mass movement and resettlement of peoples. The extermination programme also emerges as an integral part of securing newly conquered territory, whether through hostage taking (France) or the elimination of threats to the regime. For example in Lithuania this meant communists, which in practice became all Jewish men. Second, the colonial nature of Nazi regimes and the extermination programme(s) emerges. Individuals of relatively modest origin were suddenly responsible for sizeable territories. Then, like colonial viceroys, they were given considerable leeway as to the detail of their occupation/extermination policies. Finally, this volume challenges the modern Industrial image of the Holocaust. The savage primitive nature of what went on is made clear, summed up by the statistic that forty percent of those killed were shot. In doing this, the authors reconnect the Holocaust to recent events in Bosnia and Rwanda.

This collection of essays does not try to cover all of the territories under German influence evenly. There is little on the involvement of the German army in Russia proper. Though this is the focus of a companion volume: War of Extermination: The German Military in World War Two 1941-1944. However, more attention could have been given to the Balkans. The book?s most irritating drawback is its comprehensive glossary of terms. Much of this has not been translated into English. This is unfortunate for a book specifically translated from the German to reach English-speaking academia. The answers given in this collection may not satisfy those after a single overarching explanation for genocide. However, this volume provides much food for thought. The complex multi-layered approach taken by the authors here could well provide new insights if applied to the ethnic atrocities of the 1990s.


Christopher Macallister, PhD candidate and teaching assistant, Department of Politics and International Relations, University of Kent at Canterbury



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