Mass Violence in Nazi-Occupied Europe is an edited volume of twelve essays that pushes the usual boundaries of Holocaust research by giving much-needed attention to the underdiscussed atrocities committed by Nazis in Eastern Europe. Editors Alex J. Kay and David Stahel introduce the collection with their preference for the term mass violence over other descriptors: the term mass violence, they think, “is independent of legal or political implications . . . [and] allows for the analytical inclusion of acts that extend far beyond the actual killing of a single victim group” (1). True to its aims, the book does not focus too long on any one victim group. Instead, essayists bring to light the horrors suffered by not just Jewish victims but also the Sinti and Roma, Soviet prisoners of war, and the so-called “useless eaters” (the physically and mentally disabled). The remaining portion of the book focuses on the complicity of the Wehrmacht in Nazi mass violence, Soviet memorialization of the Holocaust, and a comparison between Soviet and Nazi mass crimes.
The volume is divided into six parts. The first four parts of the book (titled “Holocaust,” “Sinti and Roma,” “Useless Eaters,” and “Wehrmacht,” respectively) are the strongest sections and contain some of the most memorable essays, while the latter two parts of the book (titled “Memorialization” and “History as Comparison”) seem out of place thematically. The volume shines when its constituent authors key in on specific case studies and present their new and original research. On the whole, Kay and Stahel’s project largely succeeds in offering scholarship that is both relevant and timely enough for the specialist, and accessible and informative enough for the interested layperson.
Dan Michman’s contribution to the collection stands out. “Were the Jews of North Africa Included in the Practical Planning for the ‘Final Solution of the Jewish Question’?” would be an excellent resource for upper-level undergraduate students in a history course. Michman’s essay challenges popular understandings of the “final solution” as a fully consolidated plan coming out of the Wannsee Conference. Even calling the meeting a conference, he claims, ascribes more importance to the gathering than it deserves. Michman suggests that many people mistakenly rely on the meeting minutes (kept by the unreliable Adolf Eichmann, who reworked them multiple times) as evidence for the existence of a carefully worked out plan for the execution of the final solution.
Furthermore, Michman writes that the absence of important terms such as extermination, shooting, or even liquidation from the minutes gives one good reason to think there was no clear-cut understanding as to how exactly the final solution might be implemented. In addition, further pause is warranted given that there is no consensus even among top Holocaust historians such as Saul Friedlander or Raul Hilberg as to whether the Jews of North Africa (and by extension, Jews in other parts of the world) would be targeted by the final solution as well. Michman ends the essay with the chilling note that there was “a high probability that the Nazi regime would have applied the policies that developed in Europe beyond its borders, had it established a solid presence outside the continent” (70).
The essays by Wolfgang Wippermann and Martin Holler, focusing on the dreadful subjugation of the Sinti and Roma, are striking reads as well. Wippermann’s essay offers a good overview of the development of the Nazi regime’s murderous attitude toward the Sinti and Roma through its laws and propaganda, and laments that there has been little restitution for Romani victims across Europe. Meanwhile, Holler’s essay focuses specifically on the fate of the East Prussian Sinti in Bialystok, Brest-Litovsk, and Auschwitz-Birkenau. Holler outlines how Nazis painted the East Prussian Sinti as begging and stealing nomads when in fact they were a largely sedentary and agricultural community. He describes the harrowing experiences of imprisoned Sinti faced with disease, forced sterilizations, and starvation. Many of the Sinti who made the “deadly odyssey” to Auschwitz did not return.
While euthanasia campaigns within Germany are well documented, what the SS did to mentally ill patients in other parts of Nazi-occupied Europe is lesser known. Ulrike Winkler and Gerrit Hohendorf chronicle the murder of psychiatric patients in Poland and Mogilev in their essay. The essayists advance appalling accounts of mass shootings, mass poisonings, gas vans, and forced starvation—all of which the “useless eaters” were subjected to exactly because they were deemed to be economically useless for the purposes of the occupying forces. The authors present haunting reports of an employee in a psychiatric ward overhearing wailing and screaming of patients being gassed in an adjoining room, in addition to briefly discussing the video footage of those doomed to die waving at a camera, friendly and clueless, before their subsequent gassing.
The final essay is the weakest contribution to the volume and feels somewhat disjointed from the rest of the collection. While comprehensive comparative work on Soviet and Nazi mass crimes is much needed and much appreciated, Hans-Heinrich Nolte’s essay feels like a rather anticlimactic and unrelated way to end the project, which is otherwise focused solely on Nazi violence. It is also the only essay in the volume written in a first-person perspective, and it alternates between the author discussing his own academic contributions to debates on Nazi and Soviet criminality and providing factually relevant ways to distinguish the crimes committed by both regimes.
Readers should pick up this book at their own discretion given the graphic nature of most of the essays. That being said, for those who can stomach the descriptions of barbaric acts, Mass Violence in Nazi Europe provides the histories of victims who have been forgotten or erased from well-known narratives and resituates the understanding of Nazi terror as being exercised mainly in Eastern Europe. It is made clear that often locals were more than happy to collaborate with the Nazi regime and participate in savage shows of power, though there were some rare instances of solidarity. Kay and Stahel should be commended for taking on such an important volume.
Sanjana Rajagopal is a PhD student in the philosophy department at Fordham University.
Date Of Review:
November 5, 2021
Alex J. Kay teaches at the University of Potsdam. He is author of Exploitation, Resettlement, Mass Murder: Political and Economic Planning for German Occupation Policy in the Soviet Union, 1940–1941.
David Stahel is Senior Lecturer at the University of New South Wales, Canberra, Australia. His publications include Operation Barbarossa and Germany’s Defeat in the East, Kiev 1941, Operation Typhoon, and The Battle for Moscow.
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