Five “must read” Holocaust books

As the director of a Holocaust and genocide library, I’m often asked for advice on what to read. If you have an interest and don’t know where to start (or would like to know more), here are five Holocaust books I think everyone should read:

War and Genocide: A Concise History of the Holocaust by Doris Bergen.

Doris Bergen does an excellent job of distilling the history of the Holocaust into a readable, easy-to-understand text. Not only does she demonstrate the progression of the Nazi genocidal movement from the rise of the Third Reich to liberation but she manages to put everything into a broader historical context.

The Origins of the Final Solution: The Evolution of Nazi Jewish Policy September 1939-March 1942 by Christopher Browning. [1]

In my opinion, this is the definitive guide to the Nazi’s evolving policy towards the Jews of Europe. While not easily digested in a weekend, it is well written and provides a detailed account of each of the stages that lead to the “Final Solution.” If you’ve already read Origins (or a similar survey[2]) you may want to try Browning’s The Path to Genocide instead.

Survival in Auschwitz by Primo Levi.

Sadly, Levi has never attained the same level of popularity in the United States as Anne Frank or Elie Weisel. But for those who have a real interest in the Holocaust, Survival in Auschwitz is actually a far richer memoir, as Levi presents a detailed description of his time in Buna.

Perpetrators Victims Bystanders: Jewish Catastrophe 1933-1945 by Raul Hilberg.

Hilberg has long been recognized as one of the preeminent Holocaust scholars. While he’s best known for The Destruction of European Jews (a comprehensive three volume set), Perpetrators Victims Bystanders is a series of essays that provide an amazing amount of detail about each group in a fairly concise manner.

The Theory and Practice of Hell: The German Concentration Camps and the System Behind Them by Eugen Kogon.

While dozens of books examine the concentration camp system, few approach the subject from the operational focus that makes Theory and Practice an important piece of Holocaust historiography. Kogon, a political prisoner from 1939 – 1945, used his experiences and knowledge to give the reader an objective snapshot of life in Buchenwald.

[1]If you have difficulty with Browning’s Origins and would like something slightly easier, I would suggest Yehuda Bauer’s A History of the Holocaust.

[2]Friedlander’s The Years of Extermination Kershaw’s Hitler, the Germans, and the Final Solution, for example.

Hate groups on Facebook

Daniel posted a comment today which I felt should be upgraded to a full entry. It concerned a Serbian nationalist hate group who are using Facebook to advocate anti-Muslim views and genocide denial.

Reuters’ reported the story earlier this week:

The group, created on Monday under the name “Close Group Noz Zica Srebrenica,” alerted administrators about the language of hatred against Muslims on the site.

“Administrator, we ask you to close the group ‘Noz, Zica, Srebrenica’, which glorifies the acts of genocide that took place in Srebrenica, where 8,000 men and boys were murdered,” read the Bosnian group header on Facebook.

“In addition, this group propagates hatred to all Muslims,” it said. Muslims or Bosniaks account for nearly half of the population of Bosnia, which they share with Roman Catholic Croats and Orthodox Serbs.

Like many sites of its kind, Facebook does have an extensive Terms of Use policy, which states that the user must agree not to:

*upload, post, transmit, share, store or otherwise make available any content that we deem to be harmful, threatening, unlawful, defamatory, infringing, abusive, inflammatory, harassing, vulgar, obscene, fraudulent, invasive of privacy or publicity rights, hateful, or racially, ethnically or otherwise objectionable;
*intimidate or harass another;

Even though the story was published four days ago, the group remains active on Facebook. While it’s likely that none of the administrators can actually read the posts in Noz, Zica, Srebrenica, you would assume a different stance when it comes to American hate groups, particularly considering the above mentioned “Terms of Use.” Yet, after only a few minutes of searching I easily uncovered four active hate groups[1] on Facebook — American Vision, League of the South, The Knights Party (Ku Klux Klan), and multiple variations of White Pride.

We’ve known for years that the Internet gives hate groups and deniers the same exposure that non-profits and grassroots organizations have experienced. It does, however, raise questions about how they should be dealt with as well as how social networking spaces will ultimately be managed.

You can read Daniel’s full entry at his Srebrenica Genocide Blog.

[1] As defined by the Southern Poverty Law Center.

Ordinary Men : Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland

ordinary menChristopher Browning, one of the better known Holocaust scholars today, used evidence from the post-war investigations of Police Battalion 101 to create an image of the “ordinary men” who participated in the massacre of Jews in Eastern Europe. By examining testimony, documents, and diary excerpts, he pieces together a chronological history of the unit’s participation and involvement in the Nazis’ “final solution.”

Even though Browning is writing as a scholar, with the intent of persuading through academic argument, his writing is clear and uncluttered. He approaches the subject with an easy-to-follow framework, providing a balanced look at how the battalion went from routine duties in occupied territories to the violent slaughter of Jewish civilians.

Throughout Ordinary Men, Browning provides a window into the daily life of the unit and its purpose in the hierarchy and structure of the Third Reich. The often personal glimpses demonstrate the slow and methodical change in Nazi policy towards Jewish civilians, as the German leadership shifted towards the Final Solution.

It’s this tapestry of documentation that pulls together a remarkable look at how the extermination of European Jews occurred: through an evolving policy rather than a pre-determined course. Combined with the personal accounts of battalion members, it is easy to see the slow progression of anti-Jewish doctrine, as well as the frequently unmentioned nuances of its executioners, the most revealing of which — the lack of disciplinary action for those who refused to take part in the massacres and “Jew hunts” — reveals a great deal about the make-up of the actual perpetrators.

Afterword: The more recent edition of Ordinary Men has an afterword from Browning dissecting his ongoing debate with Daniel Goldhagen (author of Hitler’s Willing Executioners). Personally, I’ve been surprised at how many people bought into Goldhagen’s rather contradictory and ill-conceived thesis, and yet, because of that, Browning decided to add this clear-cut statement about his own conclusions in order to refute Willing Executioners’ assertion that Germans are anti-Semitic by their very nature.

Mapping the Holocaust

Alberto Giordano, an associate professor at Texas State University-San Marcos, and Anne Knowles, a geographer at Middlebury College in Vermont, have been awarded a $430,000 grant to use computerized models to create a geographic analysis of the Holocaust. The two-year study will be examining “the evolution of the concentration camp system, the deportation of Jews from France and Italy, life inside the Budapest ghetto and the death marches from Auschwitz.”

The survey is hoping to address a number of questions, including:

Were Jews from certain cities or backgrounds more likely to survive?
Could people living near the routes where prisoners from Auschwitz were forced to march have seen more than they have acknowledged of this harrowing experience?
Which restaurants, cinemas and bath houses in Budapest could Jews frequent, and how did the shape of the ghetto evolve?

While the use of geographic representations of the Holocaust isn’t unique, the analysis will take into account variables that have never been examined before — terrain, weather, and elevation.

That’s not to say that the geography of the Holocaust has never been examined. For instance, the historian Martin Gilbert has published an atlas of the Holocaust with 316 maps tracing the destruction of Jewish communities.

Giordano and Knowles plan to incorporate elevation records, quasi-three-dimensional modeling and cluster analysis, a method of determining patterns or groups, in their research and maps.

“By applying tools that were not imaginable even 20 years ago to massive amounts of data, we can study Holocaust history in a way we couldn’t in the past,” said Michael Haley Goldman, the director of the Holocaust museum’s Registry of Holocaust Survivors.

The Holocaust has been studied through various disciplines over the years — psychology, sociology, art, literature, music, and history — but new technologies are allowing researchers to look at events in radically new and detailed ways. The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, for instance, has been interactive maps for educational and awareness for the last several years.

Solutions for Darfur activist burnout

Activism n. : a doctrine or practice that emphasizes direct vigorous action especially in support of or opposition to one side of a controversial issue.

Darfur activism has been getting a tremendous amount of press over the last few weeks, and not all of it has been positive. For some, the Olympics and Mia Farrow’s alternative games have been the impetus for reflection on how the “movement” is doing.[1]

The real problem is no different than with other activist movements. If the people who are involved on the grassroots level — the most important level for such groups — don’t get a regular sense of accomplishment, their involvement begins to slide off, and the group will eventually become stagnant.

Volunteerism thrives on engaging activities that bring some kind of reward. Regardless of how enthusiastically you care about a cause, burnout is inevitable if the final result is always failure. As Just correctly pointed out in his The New Republic article:

Genocide really is different from other foreign policy crises, in that it will not wait. Either you stop genocide immediately or you fail to stop it.

This creates a “perfect storm” for activist burnout. Fortunately, there are a few things that may help keep your group active, encouraged, and invigorated.

Keep it as social as possible
Even though we’re fighting for a cause, it’s always a thrill to get together with like-minded people. This is why Dining For Darfur is such a great idea, as it combines the social aspect of bringing people together, with an engaging activity.[2]

Work on multiple genocide issues
While you’re working on stopping the genocide in Darfur by organizing letter writing campaigns and public forums, talk to your local coffee shops about carrying free-trade coffee from one of the cooperatives that are helping Rwandan genocide survivors regain their independence, or volunteer to work with a refugee service, helping Sudanese (or Cambodian, Bosnian, etc.) immigrants.

Attempt to partner with other groups
Find other groups that have a similar mission who may need occasional volunteers for events in return for helping organize or host one of your events. This is particularly easy with Holocaust organizations who often do modern genocide programs (including Darfur).[3]

Use Web 2.0 applications
Your group is hopefully already doing this, but if you’re not, then you should start. The reason this is a good idea is because you can push advocacy and education while giving millions of people the chance to respond to what you’re doing. In a world of YouTube, Facebook, and blogs, not having an online presence is damaging even to the smallest of groups.

The key is to keep the group evolving. Despite what might be happening with your issue, if you can push a variety of events and campaigns that appeal to different personalities, you’re far more likely to maintain a certain level of commitment.

While these suggestions are mainly focusing on Darfur activists, you could easily apply them to other groups — environmental, political, social, etc — as any type of organization that promotes change through volunteerism is likely to face the same lags in participation. If you’re working with another cause or would like to find others who might be involved in your issue, you should check out Britt’s, Have Fun Do Good or the Changebloggers Facebook page.


[1] The Truth Will Not Set You Free by Richard Just

[2] If I could find enough people, I’d love to pull together a team of Darfur activists for our co-ed flag football league.

[3] See the Association of Holocaust Organizations membership page for a full list of Holocaust institutions.

Auschwitz-Birkenau museum denies artist

The New York Times recently reported that a group of comic book legends — Neal Adams, Joe Kubert and Stan Lee – have teamed up to support Dina Gottliebova Babbitt’s claim to the artwork she painted which is currently held by the Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum. During the Holocaust, Babbitt and her mother were transported to the death camp where her skills caught the attention of Dr. Josef Mengele.

By February 1944, Mrs. Babbitt had come to the attention of Mengele, who was dissatisfied with the photographs he had taken of the Gypsy, or Romany, prisoners in his effort to prove their genetic inferiority. He asked Mrs. Babbitt to paint their portraits to capture their skin tones better. She agreed, but only after insisting that her mother be spared from death. (The story reproduces five of the portraits.)

After liberation, Babbitt moved to the United States where she worked as an animator for various film studios. Strangely, the museum released a statement seven years ago concerning the sketchy provenance of the paintings, which arrived with no offer to return them to their original owner.

Auschwitz museum officials, in a statement issued in 2001, indicated that they had bought six of Mrs. Babbitt’s watercolors in 1963 from an Auschwitz survivor and acquired a seventh in 1977. In 1973 the museum asked her to verify her work but did not offer to return the items. The museum has argued that the artwork is important evidence of the Nazi genocide and part of the cultural heritage of the world. (The museum did not respond to telephone calls and an e-mail message requesting comment.)

The museum has claimed that returning the paintings to her might encourage other survivors to ask for their property which would cause a decrease in the number of artifacts on display. Piotr Cywinski, the museum’s director, went one step further in defending their position by stating that Babbitt wasn’t the rightful owner, but rather they belonged to Mengele. Such a claim is inherently contrary to the way in which museum’s (of any type) function; provenance, ownership, and credit has become the rule-of-the-day, and when those principles are questioned, objects are returned to their rightful owners.

Even as lawyers and reconciliation groups fight to get “looted” art returned to its rightful pre-war owners (or their heirs), it seems strange that a memorial museum would wind up on the opposite end of such a fight. Furthermore, the museum’s assertions have been both ridiculous and reckless, especially considering that the purpose of such institutions is to promote education of genocide through the lens of personal history and remembrance.

The comic (pdf version): Comics for a Cause

Karadzic’s capture

Following closely on the heels of Rwandan genocidaire Callixte Mbarushimana’s arrest, and the announcement that Sudanese President al-Bashir could face an arrest warrant, is news of the capture of Radovan Karadzic. The former Bosnian Serb leader will face charges that include:

Eleven counts of genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity and other atrocities

Charged over shelling Sarajevo during the city’s siege, in which some 12,000 civilians died

Allegedly organised the massacre of up to 8,000 Bosniak men and youths in Srebrenica

Targeted Bosniak and Croat political leaders, intellectuals and professionals

Unlawfully deported and transferred civilians because of national or religious identity

Destroyed homes, businesses and sacred sites

These actions are being seen by some as the first positive signs that the international community is taking war crimes seriously. Even though it’s unlikely that al-Bashir will stand trial while in power, the arrests do provide a positive spin on what’s traditionally been a fairly murky and unsatisfying justice process.

al-Bashir’s warrant fallout?

As the International Criminal Court continues to move towards a possible warrant for Sudan’s President Omar Hassan al-Bashir, analysts are worried that this may actually increase tensions in the region. The New York Times stated:

The indictment of a sitting head of state in a war-torn country would not be unprecedented: Slobodan Milosevic of Serbia and Charles Taylor of Liberia were both charged by international war crimes courts while in office.

But the complexity and fragility of Sudan’s multiple conflicts have led many diplomats, analysts and aid workers to worry that the Sudanese government could lash out at the prosecutor’s move by expelling Western diplomats and relief workers who provide aid to millions of people displaced by the fighting, provoking a vast crisis and shutting the door to vital diplomatic efforts to bring lasting peace.

The dueling objectives have exposed a growing tension: between justice and peace, that is, between the prosecution of war criminals and the compromises of diplomacy.

This might be an acceptable argument, if the outcome in Darfur might be swayed by a show of diplomacy. As situations stand now, the negotiations for peace have been all but ineffective with the Sudanese government, and the only compromises being made are to exerting real pressure on the current administration.

“I think it is absolutely imperative to go straight to the top,” said John Prendergast, a former Clinton administration official who co-founded Enough, a group that seeks to end genocide. He argued that concerted pressure by the international community had changed Sudan’s behavior at times.

Economic sanctions have traditionally motivated Khartoum, even when western diplomats have loathed recommending them. While it’s difficult to tell if issuing a warrant against al-Bashir would inflame or dampen the current crisis in Darfur, it’s equally difficult to make an argument against the relevance of such a move when viewed through the lens of creating a precedent to actively promote genocide intervention.

Human Rights First G8 petition

HRF-G8-btn-125x125In two weeks, world leaders from G8 countries — U.S., Canada, Japan, the U.K., Germany, France, Italy, and Russia — meet for their annual Summit in Japan to debate action on issues of global concern.

If the violence in Darfur — that has left more than 300,000 people dead and caused more than 2 million to flee their homes — is not a matter of global concern, then what is?

The G8 Summit comes at a perilous time for both Darfur and the whole of Sudan. Intensified violence in Darfur has resulted in more death and displacement, and recent fighting in the Abyei region of Sudan suggests the unraveling of the fragile North/South peace agreement.

The government of Sudan and the world will be watching the G-8 Summit closely. Last week, over 40 non-governmental organizations, representing all G8 states and Sudan, sent an Open Letter to all G8 Leaders and Foreign Ministers, calling on them to demand:

    An immediate stop to violence in Darfur

    A halt to arms transfers, directly or indirectly, to Darfur in violation of the U.N. arms embargo

    Rapid deployment of the peacekeeping force in Darfur, UNAMID

    A reinvigorated peace process

    Justice and accountability for atrocities committed

Click here to join activists around the world in pressuring G-8 leaders to take a strong stand — include a promise to act — against violence in Darfur and Sudan.