In December 1941, more than 50,000 Jewish people were being detained in camps by the occupying Romanian army at Bogdanovka in southwestern Ukraine. Conditions were overcrowded and unsanitary, and after some cases of typhus broke out, the Romanian authorities decided to “liquidate” the camps in collaboration with German auxiliaries and Ukrainian militias and civilans.
Thousands were burned alive in locked barns before days of shootings started. Those yet to be killed were forced to dig pits for the bodies with their bare hands. Despite a pause in the killing for Christmas, more than 50,000 Jews were murdered in just over a week. The few left alive were forced to burn the corpses in pyres.
It was the single largest massacre of the Holocaust, larger even than the Nazi massacre of the Jews of Kyiv at Babyn Yar, yet it remains mostly unknown, as well as at odds with our mental picture of a German genocide committed in “industrial” death camps. As Dan Stone writes in this powerful new history, we have “in some ways either forgotten, if not ignored altogether, what the Holocaust was and how devastating its effects were”.
The Holocaust has become “ubiquitous and conspicuous”, and books about boys in pyjamas, tattooists and “inspiring” stories of survival fill our bestseller lists. But the “saccharine treatments” of popular culture, Stone argues, mean that “the trauma of the Holocaust has been largely written out”.
So too has its success: “the genocidal logic of the Holocaust – the Nazis’ intent to destroy the Jewish people in Europe – was accomplished all too well”. Such misunderstandings mean that its “radical implications” for our own world “are passed over in silence”. Drawing on his extensive own research and a vast range of work by historians from across the last eight decades, Stone sets about showing how our mental picture of the Holocaust is dangerously wrong.
One of the world’s leading historians of concentration camps, Stone emphasises how, despite popular perceptions, the Holocaust had very little to do with the SS’s concentration camp system until the later stages of the war”. Nearly half the Jews murdered in the Holocaust died in ghettoes or massacres, and despite the “genocidal paroxysm” of death camps and death marches in 1944-1945, three-quarters of victims were already dead by the time the Germans surrendered at Stalingrad in February 1943.
Even from that time on, huge numbers of Jews were enslaved in a vast network of sub-camps before being killed later, if not worked or marched to death. Those sub-camps are now mostly forgotten, but Stone shows how vital they were to the Nazi machine. He notes how Primo Levi rightly observed that the camps were not a result of the contingencies of war but instead the blueprint for a “new order”.
“If fascism had prevailed,” Levi wrote, “the whole of Europe would have been transformed into a complex system of forced labour and extermination camps, and those cynically edifying words [’Arbeit macht frei’] would have been read on the entrance to every workshop and every worksite.”
The most infamous of those signs hangs over the gate at Auschwitz, where the Nazis murdered a million Jews, nearly half of them from Hungary. But Stone argues that even the place most intrinsically linked with the Holocaust has been “sanitised” in a way.
Auschwitz was not “a death factory in the sense of a site of clean, efficient genocide (as if such a thing could exist), but an abattoir of concentrated genocidal fantasy”. It was, survivor Helen Tichauer, remembered, “a living hell”. Fires of corpses (often in the open air because the crematoria could not handle the sheer volume of death) burned endlessly, sexual and physical violence was rampant, and humanity found unimaginable new depths of cruelty.
Just as important as truly understanding the horror of Auschwitz, Stone argues, is understanding what “an exception” it was. Millions were rounded up and shot in the most degrading and brutal circumstances, their corpses tipped into mass graves and burned. In recent decades, historians have exposed this “Holocaust by bullets”, the period of the war on the Eastern Front when Nazi “Einsatzgruppen” shot more than a million and a half Jews in autumn 1941 and spring 1942.
Autumn 1942 would see “the fastest rate of genocidal killing in history”, with 1½ million Jews murdered by the Einsatzgruppen, the new death camps in Poland and the brutal Romanian occupation of southwestern Ukraine.
That Romanian occupation, Stone writes, was “far removed from what, in the English-speaking world, we think of as the Holocaust”. After the Romanians captured Odessa in October 1941, nearly 25,000 of the city’s Jews were shot in one day. In the countryside, tens of thousands of local and deported Jews died of hunger and exposure after being forced to live in pigsties without shelter, food or clothing. Bogdanovka was only one of many massacres.
These details are hard to read, and one can see why the Holocaust often provokes what Stone calls “a generalised looking away”. His own passion for his subject and its importance is compelling, as is his willingness to confront both moral and historical questions.
How could humans do such things to other humans? Stone cautions against the idea that the perpetrators of the Holocaust were simply “monsters” who we can write off as “mad”. He quotes the French-Jewish journalist Jacqueline Mesnil-Amar who wrote in her wartime diary that “for there to have been that many monsters, there must have been something unusually propitious for the gestation and growth of monsters, something complex which exists at some level in all of us, and in which each and every one played a part”.
And indeed we did. Stone writes that “Jews were not safe anywhere in Europe during the second World War”, and that we must reckon with the full scale of transnational and societal collaboration that enabled Nazi Germany’s unimaginable “umbrella project” to commit such an extensive genocide. He argues that we need “a return to ideology” to understand the depth and importance of the Nazis’ “phantasmagorical conspiracy theory” about the Jews, and to emphasise how the genocidal fantasy of a “Jew-free Europe” lay at the heart of Nazism from the very beginning.
While fascists, nativists and nationalists outside of Germany did not generally share the Nazis’ “magical” thinking, they did share the dream of national racial purity and of a continent without Jews. Even before the war began, Romania, Italy, Hungary and others had passed anti-Semitic racial legislation similar to the Nuremberg Laws, while the decades since the Great War and the Russian Revolution had seen pogroms and ethnic cleansing on a vast scale across central and eastern Europe.
Hitler himself noted that European and American colonialism had pioneered what we now call genocide against indigenous peoples, and Stone writes that Nazi dreams of “lebensraum” in the east were partially inspired by “the spread of ‘white’ civilisation across the expanding United States”. Hitler, the Martinican poet and politician Aimé Césaire later wrote, “applied to Europe colonialist procedures”.
The breadth of Stone’s work across borders and languages shines through as he catalogues how “Europe was a continent of camps and collaboration”. Once the war began, Romania, Italy and Hungary all actively participated in mass deportations or massacres. The pro-Nazi wartime governments in Croatia, Slovakia, France and elsewhere “were not just slavishly following German demands” by deporting Jews, “but realizing long-held dreams of ethnic ‘purification’”. “We want to rid ourselves of the Jews with the help of Germans,” explained one Slovak minister, while the Croatians operated their own death camp at Jasenovac.
Nor was it just in Nazi Germany’s fascist allies where local collaboration and participation was key. Large numbers of people in occupied Ukraine, Lithuania, Latvia and elsewhere took part in or facilitated the killing. Stone writes that “the number of Poles who were involved in betraying Jews to the German occupiers, or robbing or killing them themselves, dwarfs the number of rescuers”.
That last fact has become deeply controversial in Poland, where the right-wing PiS government has prosecuted historians whose research has found widespread Polish participation in the Holocaust. This is not about Holocaust denial, which Stone sees as a “marginal phenomenon”. Instead, the danger has become endemic “Holocaust distortion”. The historical fact that “genocide is a societal endeavour” is ignored in favour of stories of heroic resistance and rescue, a cynical “beautification”.
In the West, that distracts both from how the Allies ignored evidence of Nazi genocide and from how western doors were mostly closed to Jewish refugees before, during and even after the war. In post-communist eastern Europe, a narrative of “pure victimhood”, in which Soviet oppression must always be mentioned alongside (or above) the Holocaust, abuses the history of both. In Hungary and Latvia, anti-Soviet nationalist heroes are celebrated even if they collaborated with the Nazis or took part in massacres or deportations of Jews.
These distortions are deeply political. Viktor Orbán has acknowledged Hungary’s active role in the Holocaust (in his pursuit of an alliance with Binyamin Netanyahu), but also echoes his fascist forefathers’ rhetoric of racial purification: “we do not want to become people of mixed race” he said last year, peddling the Great Replacement theory popular on the anti-immigration right. “Jews will not replace us,” chanted Donald Trump’s supporters in Charlottesville.
Nativist and ethno-nationalist narratives have driven Trump, Brexit, Putin and the far-right across Europe, as they also do Hindu supremacism in India and the genocide of totalitarian China. Contrary to the idea of “learning lessons” and glib invocations of “never again”, Stone concludes, “the Holocaust teaches us nothing”, not only because we do not understand it, but because fascism, authoritarianism and race hatred “all continue to plague the world”.
Such ideas still offer “a style, a vocabulary and a simple set of answers” to which many turn in times of crisis, and Stone is right to warn that these issues “are more pressing now than at any time since historians began to write about the Holocaust”. This vital and provocative book shows how much work we must do. The struggle, Levi warned, “is a war without end”.
Christopher Kissane is a historian and writer, and host of the Ireland’s Edge podcast
Come to This Court & Cry: How the Holocaust Ends by Linda Kinstler (Bloomsbury, 2022)
Kinstler investigates the long-running case of Herbert Cukurs, a Latvian aviation hero who played a central role in the mass murder of his country’s Jews. Cukurs was assassinated by the Mossad in Uruguay, but the quest for legal justice against him has shone a light on Latvia’s uncomfortable relationship with its Holocaust past.
In the Midst of Civilised Europe: The Pogroms of 1918-21 and the Onset of the Holocaust by Jeffrey Veidlinger (Picador, 2021)
Veidlinger explores why more than 100,000 Jews were murdered in Ukraine in the aftermath of the Russian Revolution, and how such a horrific event was effectively forgotten. In the way local populations turned on their Jewish neighbours and participated in mass killing, he finds seeds of the later Holocaust.
The Escape Artist: The Man Who Broke Out of Auschwitz to Warn the World by Jonathan Freedland (John Murray, 2022)
Freedland tells the story of Rudolf Vrba, a Jewish-Slovakian teenager who escaped from Auschwitz and co-wrote a report on the death camp with fellow Slovakian escapee Alfred Wetzler. Vrba and Wetzler’s report saved the lives of Budapest’s 200,000 Jews by shaming the Hungarian government into stopping the deportations, which had already led to the murder of half a million people.