on 6 April 2013
This book is not a work of narrative history on the unfolding of the Holocaust and as such it is not really aimed at a general reader. Rather, it is a series of short chapters on significant turning points as the Nazis moved towards the Final Solution. In each chapter Hitler is located at the heart of the decision-making process, sometimes explicitly through his own deeds and speeches, more often than not indirectly in second-hand documentary evidence e.g. the diaries of Himmler and Goebbels, important speeches of senior Nazis such as Polish Gauleiter Hans Frank, and the paper trail emanating from the Reich Security Main Office.
What Longerich manages to do is to illustrate beyond any doubt that Hitler was the driving force of Nazi racial policy and that power did indeed flow downwards - despite the often fragmented nature of decision-making in the Third Reich which so-called 'structuralist' historians have done much to reveal. As such the book is a forceful rebuttal to both the Flat-Earth denialists such as David Irving and those genuine historians such as Gotz Aly who see Hitler as relatively peripheral in the formulation of Jewish policy.
As a History teacher I also find this book an excellent store of primary sources as it sticks so closely to the documentary material.
At just over 120 pages, The Unwritten Order is a short book but I must say that it was a bit of a slog to get through.
Peter Longerich is a German historian based at Royal Holloway College (part of the University of London). He was one of the expert witnesses at the libel trial between David Irving and Deborah Lipstadt/Penguin Books over comments made about Irving in Lipstadt's book "Denying the Holocaust".
There are three main sticking points for Holocaust deniers. The first is that gas chambers were never used to kill Jews in concentration camps; the second is that the numbers of dead (generally set at six million) is a hopeless overestimate by a factor of at least ten and third, there was no specific order by Adolf Hitler authorising the killing of Jews.
David Irving is known to be a great admirer of Hitler and for many years, his stance was that the killing of Jews was done without his knowledge and that he in fact did much to protect Jews.
Longerich was called upon to deal with the issue of Hitler's involvement in the Holocaust. No specific order has ever been found in which Hitler explicitly orders mass killing of Jews. In preparing for the case, Longerich found that no-one had ever tried to check this out and put those findings together in one book. This book is the result of Longerich's researches into this topic.
In a series of short chapters, Longerich traces the writings of Hitler, his speeches, the notes of various functionaries and the personal diaries of people like Goebbels and the speeches and letters of people like Himmler and Heydrich as well as many others.
The key thing that emerges is that Hitler, as an absolute dictator, had complete control over the anti-Semitic policies of the Third Reich and it is clear that main orders were given only after consultation with Hitler. Document after document is shown to state, "the Fuhrer thinks this" or "the Fuhrer says that." The other thing to realise is that the Holocaust was not a single event but a developing process.
The experience of reading and interpreting a vast range of documents is quite a mental slog and I did sometimes find it hard to follow.
This is a book describing administrative procedures rather than execution methods and in many ways was very turgid. The only thing that did give me pause was the sheer numbers involved. It is quite shocking when looked on the micro level when you learn on a single day, over a thousand people getting shot.
I think this is the kind of book you should read if you are already familiar with the history of the Holocaust; it is of quite a specialist nature. However, I think it very rewarding.