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Masters of Death: The SS-Einsatzgruppen and the Invention of the Holocaust

by Richard Rhodes
338 pages,
ISBN: 0375409009

The Fall of Berlin 1945

by Antony Beevor
490 pages,
ISBN: 0670030414


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Human Wreakage
by Rondi Adamson

IN The past decade the Second World War has become a favorite with moviegoers, many of them too young to have even a grandfather who was involved. Tom Brokaw's "Greatest Generation" series and Stephen Ambrose's numerous bestsellers are unprecedented in their across-the-board popularity. And historian Daniel Goldhagen's book Hitler's Willing Executioners:Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust caused a phenomena of a reaction¨not just in the academic world, but on talk shows and in common parlance. There is even a term¨"the Goldhagen effect"¨to describe Goldhagen's influence on Holocaust scholarship.
Two books reflecting the current interest in the Second World War, and, in the case of one of them, the ripples of Goldhagen's work, are Antony Beevor's The Fall of Berlin 1945 and Richard Rhodes's Masters of Death: The SS Einsatzgruppen and the Invention of the Holocaust. Both books focus on violence, in Beevor's book the violence of revenge, in Rhodes's, the violence of racial hatred.

Antony Beevor is an astonishingly good military historian, at once a gifted writer at ease with the narrative and also knowledgeable about the finer points of an army's day to day operations, hierarchies and challenges. He has penned a fine history of the Spanish Civil War, and along with his wife, Artemis Cooper, a lively book about Paris after the liberation. But it was his 1998 book Stalingrad, which sprung him into the spotlight, into the slim ranks of well-known military writers. Stalingrad won numerous prizes, but while an excellent book, it insisted too much on the military aspects of the famous battle. Missing was a feeling for civilians, an idea of what their experience was. This is not the case in The Fall of Berlin 1945. The book's opening page tells of the most popular quip among Berliners during the 1944 Christmas season: "Be practical: give a coffin." (p1).
Most North Americans and Brits would probably date the "beginning of the end" of the Second World War from the Battle of the Bulge, just before that same Christmas. After that, while there remained brutal battles to be won and the horrors of uncovering the death camps, the worst was more or less over. But for the Soviets, who suffered unthinkable violence (and an unthinkable death count) at the hands of the Wehrmacht, the march from the east towards Berlin marked not only the beginning of the end, but a release of long simmering hatred. The Soviet Army, hungry for both food and a revenge, had little pity for civilian Germans. When researching the book, Beevor not only relied on accepted and important texts of the era, he also interviewed elderly Germans whose memories were still vivid. The rape of German women by Soviet soldiers is something Beevor goes on about at length. After one such description he writes that "mornings were safe, with Soviet soldiers either sleeping off their debauches or returned to the fighting..." (p 313).
Most Germans soldiers¨if not civilians¨knew what to expect from the Soviets, and would sooner have been captured by British, Canadian or American soldiers than our friends to the east. Even after the war, most POWs preferred to go to British or US camps than Soviet ones. To understand the level of Soviet wrath against the German invaders, keep in mind that of the 90,000 German soldiers who surrendered at Stalingrad in 1943, less than 10% made it home.
And this is the focus of Beevor's book, starting from the point in January, 1945, when, on the banks of Poland's Vistula River, millions of Red Army soldiers began their trek to Germany¨a battle-lined trek. Many of those same soldiers entered Berlin in April, and the book ends a few weeks after May 8. Soviet acts of revenge carried on for a few days after VE Day and only stopped because the Soviets needed German cooperation. Some of the richest descriptions in the book are of the vicious street fighting that went on between early April and May 8, some of it ending in hand-to-hand combat, and of the absurd fact that Hitler was hiding in a bunker underneath it all.
Beevor doesn't simply write about unleashed Soviet anger. The uncovering of Nazi atrocities is detailed, as well it should be. Particularly disturbing is the description of the Red Army's discovery of Auschwitz. "An army photographer was summoned to take pictures of...dead children with swollen bellies, bundles of human hair, open-mouthed corpses..." (p46). Also important was the Nazi leadership's creation of the "Volkssturm", a militia made up of mostly old men and young boys, who fought in the last desperate months. One perverse bit of comic relief throughout the text are the almost darkly humorous descriptions of a vain, fat and posturing Hermann Goring.
The final weeks of the war in Europe have been covered before, in, for example Cornelius Ryan's The Last Battle. But Ryan's book included American and British contributions and excluded some of what makes reading Beevor's take on things difficult. While there are incidences of Soviet courage and kindness described here, there is above all a surprising amount of compassion¨and what seems at times to be sympathy¨for the Germans written into the text. It almost makes one queasy. With the passing of time it is normal, perhaps, to soften towards one's former enemies, but it is taxing to read passages where German civilians are portrayed as innocent victims, existing in a vacuum from their leadership, and Allied soldiers as beastly and unpardonable. True, some German civilians were innocent and some Allies unpardonable. But it is Germany that started the war, and the Allies were not there as a matter of choice.

Early on in Masters of Death, Richard Rhodes launches an attack on Daniel Goldhagen's theory of German eliminationist anti-Semitism, referring to Daniel Goldhagen in the space of one paragraph as "young," "tautological" and "naive." It feels a bit like Rhodes, the Pulitzer Prize winning author of The Making of the Atomic Bomb, is protesting a bit too much. If he has such confidence in his own thesis, why attack and redirect attention to someone else's?
Rhodes new book is a study of the Einsatzgruppen¨the notorious SS murder squads, responsible for the mass killing of Eastern European Jews¨and is, in a way, overdue. For while much has been written about the concentration camps, the stories of the groups of murderers who accompanied the German Army into Eastern Europe and slaughtered Jews in their towns and cities have been underreported. Rhodes puts forth the violent-socialization theory of American criminologist Lonnie Athens as the driving force behind civilized German society's descent into depravity. In this he echoes Alice Miller's For Your Own Good, a book which examined the effects of violence in childrearing, particularly in Germany in the early part of the 20th century. The assertion, however, that Germans were brutalized into further brutality is simply that¨an assertion. It does not stand alone. Many cultures are plagued by brutality. And while some cultures capitulated to and cooperated with the Nazis, and others have always been inherently anti-Semitic, those cultures did not create the unique horror that was the Holocaust. Germany did. Without explaining the ideology behind German behaviour, Rhodes's thesis is unconvincing. One feels while reading this book that if he had incorporated some of Goldhagen's "naive" ideas into his own psychological take on Nazi violence, he would have come up with a more convincing theory.
Beyond the analysis, however, this book breaks important new territory and be warned, is definitely not for the weak-kneed. Drawing on innumerable first-person interviews and accounts¨Rhodes visited Eastern Europe where he spoke with survivors¨as well as respected historical documents, the author gives the reader goosebumps, and nightmares, with his prose and choice of quotes. An incident in the Ukraine: "...Jeckeln said: 'Today we'll stack them like sardines.' The Jews had to lie layer upon layer in an open grave and were then killed with neck shots..." (p114). And another: "...Somewhere above the corpses babies were crying...I began to crawl out from underneath the corpses...the wounded were writhing, groaning, attempting to get up and falling again..." (p190). There are many more such hellish pages and apart from the Athens theory, they make for necessary, if agonizing, reading.
The mind behind the Einsatzgruppen and their activities was Heinrich Himmler, a master of death himself, and also a master of efficiency. Rhodes offers a fascinating and detailed portrait of this "divided and cowardly man...completely subservient to Hitler" (p101). Himmler, a man who said he hoped to see "the concept of the Jews completely erased" (p99), who owned furniture made of human parts, was also a man who, when he realized the jig was up, was utterly shameless, trying to negotiate with the Jewish World Congress. He told its Swedish director that "I want to bury the hatchet between us and the Jews. If I had had my own way, many things would have been done differently" (p270).
"Killing sites await memorials all over Eastern Europe" (p282) is the last line of this powerful but flawed book. While Rhodes took the time to single out Goldhagen for criticism, he at least does not bog this book down with debates about the intentionalist and functionalist schools of thought around the Holocaust. And while many of the grisly descriptions might make readers want to turn away, it would be a shame if they did. Because in those truths lie the significance of Masters of Death. And they are worth braving, for those who didn't survive.
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