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Auschwitz: A New History by Laurence Rees

By Siege | Books | January 12, 2011 |

By Siege | Books | January 12, 2011 |

I’ve been interested in the literature of the Holocaust since I was young. I read everything I could get my hands on about it, trying to understand how such a massive travesty could occur, and how the people involved could possibly rationalize it to themselves, how anyone could have the ability to move on from such a horrific experience. It’s been about fifteen years since I read my first book on the subject, and I am probably no closer to understanding than I was then.

Laurence Rees’s book, Auschwitz, is focused on that particular camp. He begins by discussing the Nazis’ original plans for the “Final Solution” (based on his research, Rees believes their original plan was much different than the one most of us were taught). He continues to explain how Auschwitz was planned, built, and operated, first as a concentration/work camp. He then shows how-due to changes in circumstances both political and logistical-Auschwitz was transformed into the notorious death camp we know it as today.

Rees has done a great deal of detailed research, utilizing old Nazi documents as well as the testimony of a variety of survivors. He has interviews from Jewish prisoners who were brought to the camp from all around Europe, political prisoners from Poland, POWs from the Soviet Union, as well as with camp guards and citizens who observed what happened. He includes excerpts from the memoirs of the man who ran the camp through most of its life, and notes from some of the most well-known Nazi war criminals. Rees tries to explain how average citizens could become part of the machinery of death that killed millions of innocent people without feeling the slightest twinge of conscience.

It’s interesting to see how something as horrible as Auschwitz could rise out of political wrangling and bureaucratic complications. The Nazis are often thought of as being a well-oiled machine, stressing organization, planning, and conformity. In Rees’s book, he shows how many of their decisions were merely reactions to previous poorly-thought out decisions. They were not so much well-organized as they were masters of bureaucracy…their decisions may have been haphazard, but they were always neatly documented. In the end, the death camps resulted less from an original plan to exterminate Europe’s Jews and simply as a way to deal with a population that had been removed from their homes without any idea where they should go.

The book is obviously very dark, and also very dry—Rees does not hesitate to list any facts and figures he may find relevant. It’s clearly not for the delicate, as there are descriptions of unimaginably horrible events. However, I’d recommend this book to anyone trying to understand how something of this magnitude could happen and perhaps ways to recognize the signs should it ever start to happen again.

You can read more of Siege’s reviews on her blog, Siege Reads.

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