This is the third collection of essays by Omer Bartov since the publication of his major work, "Hitler's Army," more than a decade ago. Much of it works around his reviews for "The New Republic" of works by Gotz Aly, Wolfgang Sofsky, and Daniel Goldhagen as well as the diaries of Victor Klemperer. The first two chapters recapitulate much of "Hitler's Army" while looking at the nature of the army and historical debates over the nature of blitzkrieg. In the next three chapters Bartov looks at Aly, Sofsky, and Goldhagen. Throughout his discussion he tries to balance an emphasis on the importance of anti-Semitic ideology while not descending to crude teleological explanations. The final three chapters look at interpretations. The first one, and the best chapter of the book, looks at the reception of Goldhagen's "Hitler's Willing Executioners." There is then a moving chapter on Klemperer and a final chapter on the "Representations of Absence" of Jews in post-war German culture.
Some criticisms are in order. Bartov has emphasized the internalization of Nazi ideology in German society, especially among German soldiers. But this does not so much answer the question of why the Holocaust happened as to lead to more questions. We still have to ask ourselves why people accepted not only anti-Semitic ideology but an ideology that was patently mad. Many cultured and civilized ruling classes in the twentieth century are rife with snobbery and smugness. How does one get from the endemic prejudices of Kaiserreich Germany to the genocidal fantasies of the Third Reich? A second problem arises from the last chapter. I find his discussions of the apparent absence of Jews overly abstract and vague. That there are relatively few portraits of Jews in post-war German literature and films is not surprising. Most writers, everywhere, write about what they know best. After all, there are very few white American portraits of African-Americans or slavery, and the exceptions, "Uncle Tom's Cabin," and "The Confessions of Nat Turner," are not encouraging. Nor is he fair to Gunter Grass who, after all, was only 12 when the second world war started and therefore not likely to know any Jews personally. And why concentrate on "The Tin Drum," when the equally important "Dog Years" has a half-Jewish protagonist? Thirdly, there is a problem with his discussion of French debate over the Holocaust, since the participants involved are actually dealing with different questions. Bartov is dealing with the nature of the Holocaust, while many of his French participants are looking at the political manipulation of genocide. Likewise it strikes me as questionable to say that Holocaust denial is "respectable" in France. Certainly none of the eccentrics had the international reputation of the disingenuous David Irving. Fourthly, I would also like to criticize a point about military discipline in the Wehrmacht. Bartov points out that few, if any, of the thousands of German soldiers executed on the Eastern Front showed any moral or ideological opposition to the war. Perhaps, but then people on trial for their life during an ideological crusade are not going to make their position worse by adding treason to their malingering.
On the other hand much of the book is valuable and informative. The discussion of Sofsky makes the invaluable point that the extermination camp was not the concentration camp writ large and that the origins of Treblinka are to be found less in Dachau than in the euthanasia campaign. Bartov astutely points out the flaws in Goldhagen's argument that the Germans murdered the Jews because they were essentially fanatical anti-Semites from the beginning. (1) Such an explanation really does not explain the pre-1933 period, nor does it explain why "eliminationist" anti-Semitism vanished after 1945; (2) Goldhagen's account uses killers who were not only not "Ordinary Germans" but were not German at all, while it ignores those Germans who occasionally tried to help Jews. Bartov also provides a moving and intelligent account of Victor Klemperer as he points out Klemperer's courage and considerable power of detail as well as his dogmatic anti-Zionism and his increasingly desperate protestations of his own "Germanness," at a time when he was abandoned and ignored by the rest of Germany. Most impressive is his discussion of holocaust consciousness in Israel, as cursed by "overexposure," and the fear that it has been manipulated to serve the interests of national identity. Bartov then goes on to discuss Stanley Milgram's famous behavioural experiment, in which subjects were told to "electrocute" people who pretended to be shocked, even to the point of death. While not rejecting the experiment altogether Bartov points out, first, Milgram's rather stunning prejudices against his poorer, female and in one spectacular case, Jewish subjects, who in general agreed to electrocute people to death. Bartov then points out that the wealthy, well educated people whom Milgram praised for not blindly following the experiment were precisely those who in Germany were more likely to support the Nazis and who staffed the key exterminationist positions. All in all, Bartov's new collection, while somewhat repetitive, is also intelligent, thoughtful and well-worth reading.