Simply about the complex: What does "A Concise History of the Holocaust" teach Ukrainian historians?

This review article discusses the recently published Ukrainian-language edition of the book A Concise History of the Holocaust by the Canadian historian Doris L. Bergen. What are the methodological advantages of this book? To what kind of readers will this book appeal? What can it teach Ukrainian historians? What are the weak aspects of the book? This article attempts to find answers to these and other questions.

It is difficult to write a good history book. It is even more difficult to write it in a manner that is interesting, accessible, and understandable to most people. It is precisely these features — scholarliness, accessibility, and appeal — which are the key markers of public history. The Ukrainian edition of Bergen's book A Concise History of the Holocaust is an eloquent example of this kind of public history work.

In easy-to-understand language, the book recounts the complex history of the Holocaust, including the preconditions and consequences that proved catastrophic for the entire European continent.

While the book is intended for a broad audience, it also contains much that is useful to Ukrainian historians. It is free of the many sins of our own academic historiography. Thus, it would be appropriate to construct this article about the book not by focusing on its chapters and their contents, but by identifying those aspects that the book does not cover.

First of all, Doris Bergen's book does not contain any complicated terms and concepts or a dry, academic language that can have a soporific effect. In easy-to-understand language, the book recounts the complex history of the Holocaust, including the preconditions and consequences that proved catastrophic for the entire European continent. Even a reader unfamiliar with these questions will be able to grasp this text. At the same time, Bergen's work considers the key trends in the development of global historiography of the Holocaust. That is why it lays claim to the status of a work of public history and a general study manual. In order to be regarded as the latter, all it lacks perhaps are methodological recommendations for teaching the history of the Holocaust to schoolchildren and university students. However, both teachers and lecturers will find an interesting selection of recommended literature and even art films for every chapter.

Second, the book is not overburdened with figures, facts, and dates, as Ukrainian historians are wont to cite. Instead, it features vibrant personal stories and, here and there, even joyful accounts, for example, the following Jewish joke that was circulated during the Nazi era: What does the ideal Aryan look like? He is tall like Goebbels, thin like Göring, handsome like Himmler, and blond like Hitler. [1] Certainly, a book about the Holocaust does not make for pleasant reading. However, an account from the perspective of social history somewhat eases the reading of such a sad narrative. Of course, the author lists the key dates and events that are important to the history of the Holocaust. Nevertheless, Bergen concludes that perhaps the best way to show the diversity of Jewish life is through the biographies of a few people who experienced Nazi aggression in their youth in various corners of Europe (p. 42).

In explaining one of the reasons why there was no serious resistance in German society to discrimination against and persecution of victims, Bergen cites the example of a Jewish lawyer, who in 1933 happened to be in the same restaurant as a group of Nazis. When the drunken Nazis began to insult the respected lawyer, no one in the restaurant protested (p. 116). And this was in 1933 when basic freedoms had not been crushed yet. Therefore, it is doubtful that such indifference was generated by fear. It is hardly likely that the majority of the restaurant patrons shared the Nazis' ideals because they did not openly express any support for this public abuse. It was, rather, the unwillingness of the people at this restaurant to expose themselves to an awkward and unpleasant situation. Something similar could easily have been taking place in society. In the years immediately following the Nazis' rise to power, a significant number of Germans remained passive, not because they embraced antisemitic stereotypes or were very afraid of repressions, but simply because of their unwillingness to become embroiled in awkward situations that could only cause an "unnecessary headache." Instead of citing an array of complicated sociological facts and data to confirm this fact, the historian limited herself to this telling account of a Jewish lawyer (readers can find data and facts in the studies on this topic recommended by the author).

Third, in the spirit of recent trends in Holocaust historiography, the author does not demonstrate excessive trust in a particular type of source — archival documents (on which Ukrainian historiography relies, here and there, so fervently). Instead, she makes use of eyewitness testimonies, memoirs, and the like. Wendy Lower's latest study, The Ravine, brilliantly demonstrates that historical documents can be as unreliable as subjective recollections of eyewitness. Analyzing a photograph depicting the shooting of Jews in the town of Myropil, in Ukraine's Zhytomyr region, the American historian uncovered a substantial number of errors in archival documents, which distorted the initial interpretation of this photograph. [2] There is no ideal type of source, and neither are there sufficient grounds that would compel historians to trust archival documents more than eyewitness testimonies.

Bergen cites a considerable number of examples of how Nazi laws did not correspond to the practice of their implementation; hence, in relying exclusively on them, historians can draw quite a few erroneous conclusions. For example, according to the Nuremberg Laws, any person with three grandfathers and grandmothers who professed Judaism was considered a Jew. However, when university lecturers were being dismissed, the Nazis discriminated not only against the category of "Jews" as defined in the legislation, but also against people who did not meet these parameters; in some places, Christian men who were married to Jewish women were also subject to dismissal (p. 104). There were even cases where people with a single Jewish grandparent were repressed and discriminated against, while others survived the Nazi period in relative peace.

No less important for similar generalizing works is the absence in the book of unequivocal partiality for a particular school of historiography of the Holocaust.

Another extraordinarily telling example of the unreliability of archival documents is Hitler's backdated "permission" for the killing of people with psychiatric illnesses, which was intended to reassure the employees of the T-4 program. [3]. Although the dictator affixed his signature to it in October, the official date indicated on the statement is 1 September (the day on which the Second World War began, since war always provides a handy excuse for manifestations of barbarism). Thus, Nazi documents are not able to reflect the essence of the Holocaust fully. Furthermore, they cannot convey the experience of suffering in the face of daily persecution. Thus, researchers have shifted their focus toward oral history and eyewitness testimonies.

No less important for similar generalizing works is the absence in the book of unequivocal partiality for a particular school of historiography of the Holocaust. This is most clearly seen when Bergen explains the discussions around the role of Hitler himself in organizing the Holocaust. She writes that these arguments about Hitler have both historical and moral meaning. Some have criticized the position of intentionalists, believing that they were too focused on Hitler, leaving the rest in the shadows. Others, Bergen explains, reproach the functionalists and Marxists for depersonalizing the past. They say that the functionalists who describe the Holocaust and other Nazi crimes distract attention from the very people who approved decisions and implemented the actions that led to the genocide. As for Hitler, Bergen says that she will stick to what may be called a modified intentionalist position. Hitler was an important factor of Nazism and the genocide that he instigated. He did not have absolute power, and such a large-scale program as the crimes of Nazism required numerous accomplices, Bergen writes (p. 70). Thus, in various contexts, both functionalists and intentionalists are partly right, as are those researchers who explain the course of the Holocaust by economic factors. The economic dimension of the Holocaust especially puzzles readers not familiar with this history. For example, a considerable number of historians claim that the Holocaust did not make economic sense, even though it was economically advantageous. There is no contradiction in this theory. On the macrolevel, there could be no rational logic to crimes like the Holocaust because, in the long-term perspective, it only harmed the country's economic development. But on the microlevel, there were quite a few people who gained from the killing of their neighbors, and they could now purchase, for next to nothing, their houses, apartments, businesses, etc. From the point of view of macroeconomic processes, the transfer of a business, for example, could do a lot of harm if the new owner lacked the necessary skills, knowledge, and resources for doing business (this often happened in practice). [4]. But from the point of view of the new owner, the short-term advantage for him personally was obvious. Thus, the main thing is not to absolutize the findings of each of the schools, transforming them into dogma.

Neither does Bergen's work propose the unduly tenuous causal relationships that historians frequently impose retroactively on past events. Such a false approach to history writing creates a sense of implacability of one event or another. Instead, the author acknowledges a significant amount of ambiguity and uncertainty in the movement of the historical process, declaring that one event's happening earlier than another does not mean that they are causally connected, she writes (p. 34).

The author argues convincingly that the Treaty of Versailles with Germany was not as onerous as described in most schoolbooks and university history textbooks in Ukraine.

Without doubt, the Holocaust was grounded on a number of prerequisites that should be taken into consideration. According to Bergen, the Nazi leaders could not simply up and invent a whole new category of enemies (for example, people between the ages of 37 and 42) and wait for the majority of the population to oppose them. Such a group would not have been understandable to the majority. The selection of people who were targeted for destruction during the Second World War was not accidental because many of these people were already the victims of prejudice (p. 46). Something similar may be concluded about other groups of victims — Roma; the disabled; asocial elements — as well as homosexuals, Jehovah's Witnesses, and others, who were traditionally perceived through the prism of many social stereotypes and prejudices. However, a significant level of prejudice and antisemitism was endemic to many European countries. It is also difficult to conclude that the level of antisemitism in prewar Germany was the highest.

Even the Versailles treaty system did not cause Germany to have some sort of predestined propensity for Nazism. The author argues convincingly that the Treaty of Versailles with Germany was not as onerous as described in most schoolbooks and university history textbooks in Ukraine. In comparison with the humiliating terms of the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk, concluded between Germany and the Bolsheviks [where the former Russian Empire lost huge swathes of territory — Ed.], according to the terms of the Treaty of Versailles, Germany lost only ten percent of its territories, which was far from a national catastrophe. Germany finished the First World War in significantly better shape than many of its neighbors. For example, in Germany, there were no large-scale swathes of destruction as could be found in neighboring France, where the main combat operations had taken place. Human losses were, of course, substantial.

As for the excessive reparations, the Germans paid a very insignificant percentage of them. During the interwar period, they were constantly being revised downwards until the early 1930s, when Germany stopped paying them altogether (p. 65). It is worth adding here that inflation, a topic frequently written about by historians, was also overcome in Germany by the late 1920s. The crisis of 1929–33 was a sharp deflationary recession (an excess of expensive currency), which even helped the Germans partially reduce their debts to the U.S. (when the U.S. was taken off the gold standard and the value of the dollar was allowed to fall, while the German mark continued to be maintained; the size of the debt was reduced thanks to the colossal difference among the various currencies), even though the German economy did indeed suffer greatly as a result of this crisis. [5]. In any case, during the interwar period, all of Europe experienced serious economic difficulties. It is challenging to judge whether Germany in this regard was some kind of special economic victim. Therefore, as Bergen asserts, the causes of German postwar indignation lay in the political sphere. She writes that, even though the Germans left the First World War in better economic shape than many of the victors, they cultivated a policy of political indignation that sparked bitter feelings of humiliation and undermined opportunities for the new German democracy that was formed in 1918 (p. 66). Yet even this did not mean that Hitler's rise to war was inevitable. Until 1933 few shared a clear belief that the Nazis would seize power.

Neither does Bergen agree with the notion that Nazi Germany's attack on the USSR was a forced step on the part of Hitler, who was very familiar with Stalin's equally aggressive intentions.

One of the reasons behind the weakness of the Weimar Republic, as cited by the author, is unconvincing. Bergen writes that in 1918 the new government had not purged either the judiciary or the ranks of state officials. Thus, the republic's judges, lawyers, and bureaucrats were the very same people who had served the German Kaiser before the First World War (p. 92). The government of the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG) was in a similar situation (Adenauer's cabinet and the bureaucracy was also partially comprised of former Nazis, and before the First World War, Adenauer, too, had "served the Kaiser'). But in no way did this stop postwar Germany from building sustainable democratic institutions. The same can be said of the bureaucracies of the majority of post-communist countries in Central–Eastern Europe following the "Velvet Revolutions" of 1989 (in most of them, lustration was too phony to determine the trajectories of their further development). [6]

Neither does Bergen agree with the notion that Nazi Germany's attack on the USSR was a forced step on the part of Hitler, who was very familiar with Stalin's equally aggressive intentions. This seems to be yet another false causal relationship, which was popular in Ukraine for an extended period of time. In response to this, the historian states that this supposition is not corroborated either by German or Soviet archival data. Hitler had clearly articulated his intentions to fight against the Soviet Union, not just in Mein Kampf, but also in another, unnamed book, as well as in his numerous discussions and speeches. The most important thing is that the German army command had formulated the details of an attack on the USSR long before June 1941. Naturally, Stalin had his own aggressive plans for Eastern and Central Europe, but his intentions do not contradict the fact of Hitler's aggression, she writes (p. 219). It would be worthwhile for those Ukrainian historians who, in taking on faith the notion that Hitler attacked the USSR because he had no choice, are wont to turn Stalin into the main culprit of all the calamities of the Second World War, to familiarize themselves with this position. He may have made his choice to wage a war against the USSR even earlier than Stalin, and this choice relied little on the communist dictator's geopolitical ambitions. The war for living space was supposed to lead to the capture of as large territories as possible in the East. Thus, in keeping with Nazi racial theory, the conflict with the USSR was part of the Nazis' plans for self-sufficiency.

Just as in regard to the causal relationships, the book does not adhere strictly to periodization and chronology. The clear-cut developmental stages of one past event or another can be established retroactively only by a historian, but they were not sensed by the people who were experiencing these events. For them, not everything was so clear. In reflecting on what triggered the Holocaust, Bergen writes that the Holocaust was not a one-off event or the consequence of some decision but, rather, a complex process that evolved gradually (p. 33). In the gradual process of implementing the crime, here and there, it is difficult to determine coherent periodization because all the period boundaries are very blurry. For example, we know that the mass killings of Jews began with Nazi Germany's attack on the USSR, but killings began earlier in the territories of occupied Poland. The killings of French soldiers of North African descent, natives of African colonies, also took place. The Nazis' large-scale program targeting the disabled began even before the invasion of the USSR. What is interesting is that it was not terminated in late August 1941 (despite its alleged curtailment by the Nazi leaders). Bergen explains that the murder of people with disabilities lasted until the end of the war and even a bit longer. The final victim of the Nazi euthanasia program was a fourteen-year-old boy who was killed in a Bavarian hospital on 29 May 1945, three weeks after Germany's unconditional surrender (p. 200). Thus, the killing system gained momentum and had a life separate from the will of the leadership. It is possible to establish clear periodization and identify the stages of organizing the crime only conditionally.

Quite a few historians in Ukraine see their key mission as mythmaking. Meanwhile, A Concise History of the Holocaust debunks many well-established myths about the Holocaust but does not create them. The book offers perhaps the most accurate debunking of the myth of Hitler's Jewish roots (such questions are often encountered at various public events in Ukraine). Bergen's simple and accurate statement, "This is a lie" (p. 72) is perhaps the best and definitely the shortest "deconstruction" of this nonsense.

Bergen's book contains a substantial amount of evidence in favor of the indirect debunking of a myth, according to which the local population in occupied Ukraine rescued Jews en masse. The author frequently emphasizes that, for the most part, the Jews who survived were those who ended up, for various reasons, deep in the interior of the USSR (pp. 224, 227). The survival rate of Jews in the occupied Ukrainian territories, like in the USSR as a whole, was low (apart from certain exceptions, as in the case of Northern Bukovyna, which was in the Romanian zone of occupation, where there was a comparatively high survival rate of local Jews living under the occupation).

According to another widespread myth, Holocaust victims did not resist and went meekly to their slaughter. Today researchers are uncovering increasingly more evidence indicating that resistance on the part of victims was substantially more widespread than previously imagined.

No less significant is the debunking of another myth, that in the occupied territories, the local population began to kill Jews en masse even before the arrival of the Nazis. In this connection, the Canadian historian writes that the Einsatzgruppen and the law-enforcement police tried to provoke pogroms in the areas that they entered. In some cases, locals themselves initiated anti-Jewish operations, but in this regard, the mobile death squads did not achieve as much success as had been anticipated by the German leadership (p. 232). However, this idea needs a minor clarification. As the German historian Kai Struve has established, the pogroms had considerably worse repercussions in cases where they were instigated by an organized force. Such a force could be the Germans or centers of local nationalistic organizations (for example, the OUN). [7] Thus, the pogroms truly inflicted significant harm on Jews. Some researchers consider these pogroms the starting point of the Holocaust of the Ukrainian Jews. Nevertheless, they definitely did not reach a scale that the Nazis desired.

The author also debunks the myth that the Germans took part here and there in the shooting of Jews because of their fear of punishment. She writes that to the present day no example has been found of a German being shot for refusing to participate in the murder of Jews or other civilians (p. 239). Why would people have been forced to take part in crimes when there were enough volunteers to begin with, she wonders.

According to another widespread myth, Holocaust victims did not resist and went meekly to their slaughter. Today researchers are uncovering increasingly more evidence indicating that resistance on the part of victims was substantially more widespread than previously imagined. The myth about the supposed lack of resistance began to be cultivated by the Nazis, who sought to underscore their greatness in comparison with the helplessness of the victims (p. 308). Bergen writes that the reprisal policy was the main instrument of deterrence. This may explain why uprisings in Jewish ghettos frequently arose once the rebels were certain that they and their loved ones were equally destined to die. Discord between communities was another impediment to resistance. What were the prospects? What was the best tactic? After many years of war and occupation, few had the strength to resist. Exhausted by what was going on, isolated, sapped of energy, and hungry, they could not expect success in stopping Nazi Germany. In view of these conditions, we should perhaps be surprised, not by the small number of examples of resistance during the Nazi occupation, but by the high number, Bergen writes (p. 316). After all, no resistance movement had sufficient potential to change the course of the war (only a single resistance movement can claim that it expelled the occupiers from their lands: the Yugoslav resistance headed by Josip Broz Tito). Ultimately, the Holocaust was stopped by an outside force — the Allied troops.

It is also very important to be aware that liberation from occupation did not spell the end of the ordeal for all groups of victims. For example, the majority of countries saw the continuation of the practice of discrimination against the Roma people and homosexuals (p. 348). They obtained the status of victims of Nazism only decades after the end of the Second World War. The author's arguments may be bolstered by the fact that during the postwar period, the discriminatory laws introduced by the Nazis continued to be applied here and there against these groups of victims. For example, until the mid-1960s, approximately 44,000 people were prosecuted in the Federal Republic of Germany for their sexual orientation (meanwhile, in the entire history of the Weimar Republic, barely 10,000 gays were subjected to harassment by the judicial system). [8] They were tried according to the harsh homophobic norms that had been introduced by the Nazis.

In an interview with Ukraina Moderna, the historian Dieter Pohl commented: "Holocaust Studies in the U.S. and, to a certain extent, in Israel, are much more isolated. This is my personal impression. Students there are focused exclusively on the events of the Holocaust and its various aspects. If, for example, you ask them how the war was unfolding in 1942, they might not know anything about this." [9] It should be noted that A Concise History of the Holocaust is devoid of this shortcoming. In it, the history of the Holocaust is portrayed against the backdrop of the military and political context of the Second World War as it unfolded. Thus, readers can learn not only about the persecution of various groups of victims but also about key events in the history of Europe, starting with the Nazis' rise to power all the way to their collapse.

Of course, given the attempt to provide a comprehensive survey of a significant period in the history of the European continent, the book is overburdened here and there with generalizations. Commenting on the relations between Nazi Germany and representatives of other nations, Bergen notes that some Slavs were allies of Nazi Germany, like the Slovaks, Croatians, and Bulgarians, while some were considered enemies: the Czechs, Serbs, Poles, and Russians. Still, others, particularly Ukrainians, were in various categories at different times (p. 62). Nevertheless, in practice, not everything was so simple. Not all Poles were enemies (recall the Polish Blue Police), just like not all Slovaks or Croatians were friends. It is likely that many representatives of these nations managed to be in various categories and test out various roles for themselves.

In conclusion, it is worth noting that one of the better general books about the history of the Holocaust of European Jewry has finally been published in Ukraine. Next in line is "A Concise History of the Holocaust in Ukraine" or "A Concise History of the Holodomor."

The author's generalization about the political and economic weakness of interwar Czechoslovakia is also not convincing. Bergen writes that there was a similar situation with the German minority living in the new state of Czechoslovakia, which was created after the First World War. Politically and economically weak, it could not compare to its powerful German neighbor (p. 63). The idea of Czechoslovakia's economic weakness does not correspond to reality because this was probably the only country in Central–Eastern Europe that enjoyed a stable and burgeoning market economy during the interwar period, and in certain spheres — possibly better than that of the French, Italian, or German. In this connection, Tony Judt writes: "With its standard of living, industrial qualifications, productivity, and share of foreign markets, Czechoslovakia before 1938 was similar to Belgium and significantly outstripped Austria and Italy." [10] Neither are there any doubts about the stability of Czechoslovak democratic institutions, which functioned quite well during the interwar period.

In conclusion, it is worth noting that one of the better general books about the history of the Holocaust of European Jewry has finally been published in Ukraine. Next in line is "A Concise History of the Holocaust in Ukraine" or "A Concise History of the Holodomor." However, will such a book appear in the next few years? Will it be written on the same high methodological level? If it is, then who will be its author, a Ukrainian or a foreign historian? The publication of such a work written by a Ukrainian historian would be an indicator of the important progress of Ukrainian studies on the genocide.

This review was written especially for the Ukraina Moderna website. Permission to reproduce the text (in full or partly) must be sought from the author and the editorial offices of the Ukraina Moderna website. ©Petro Dolhanov.

Petro Dolhanov is a historian, Candidate of Historical Sciences, lecturer in Political Science, and the editor of the column "Overcoming the Past," featured on the website of the journal Ukraina Moderna. His interests include the theory and practice of nationalism, the politics of memory, and the history of the Holocaust. In 2010 he defended his dissertation on "Ukrainian Economic Nationalism in the Western Ukrainian Lands, 1919–1939." He is the author of the monograph Your Own to Your Own for Your Own: The Socioeconomic Dimension of the Nation-Building Strategies of Ukrainians in Interwar Poland, and the co-author of the monograph City of Memory — City of Oblivion: Palimpsests of Rivne's Memorial Landscape. He has organized training sessions, summer schools, roundtables, press conferences, and academic conferences on historical and political topics. He is the author of scholarly and non-scholarly texts on history and the politics of memory.

[1] Doris L. Bergen, Viina ta henotsyd: Korotka istoriia Holokostu, trans. Kateryna Dysa (Kyiv: DUKH I LITERA, 2021), p. 78. Goebbels was short, Göring could not be considered thin, Himmler was considered ugly, and Hitler was not a blond.
[2] Wendy Lower, The Ravine: A Family, a Photograph, a Holocaust Massacre Revealed (Boston; New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2021), pp. 34–45.
[3] The name of this program was derived from the address of its main coordinating office in Berlin: Tiergartenstrasse, 4 (Bergen, Viina ta henotsyd, p. 196).
[4] For a detailed discussion of the significant losses inflicted on the economies of Austria and Germany as a result of "Aryanization," see Martin Dean, Robbing the Jews: The Confiscation of Jewish Property in the Holocaust, 1933–1945 (New York: Cambridge University Press; United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, 2008), pp. 99, 320. For the significant macroeconomic damages resulting from the implementation of the Holocaust in the Czechoslovak lands, see Eduard Niznansky, (2004). Expropriation and Deportation of Jews in Slovakia: Facing the Nazi Genocide; Non-Jews and Jews in Europe, ed. Beate Kosmala and Feliks Tych (Berlin: Metropol, 2004), pp. 205–30.
[5] Adam Tooze, The Wages of Destruction: The Making and Breaking of the Nazi Economy (New York: Penguin Books, 2008), pp. 21–27.
[6] Toni Dzhadt [Tony Judt], Pislia viiny: Istoriia Ievropy vid 1945 roku, 2nd ed. (Kyiv: Nash Format, 2021), pp. 751–53.
[7] Kai Struve, "Anti-Jewish Violence in the Summer of 1941 in Eastern Galicia and Beyond," in Romania and the Holocaust: Events—Contexts—Aftermath (Stuttgart: Ibidem-Verlag, 2006), p. 103.
[8] Mary Fulbrook, Reckonings: Legacies of Nazi Persecution and the Quest for Justice (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018), pp. 341–42.
[9] Dieter Pohl: "As of today, there are no complex studies of the history of the Holocaust in the lands of Ukraine. Official website of the International journal Ukraina Moderna. For the URL, click here.
[10] Dzhadt, Pislia viiny, p. 198.

Originally appeared in Ukrainian @Ukraina Moderna

This article was published as part of a project supported by the Canadian non-profit charitable organization Ukrainian Jewish Encounter.

Translated from the Ukrainian by Marta D. Olynyk.
Edited by Peter Bejger.

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