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  • Germany's War and the Holocaust: Disputed Histories
  • Ronald Webster
Germany's War and the Holocaust: Disputed Histories, by Omer Bartov. Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 2003. 248 pp. $18.95.

Arranging his study into three main parts, Omer Bartov begins Part One of his cogent and compelling analysis by striking a blow against the conventional wisdom that the Wehrmacht served as a haven for "decent Germans" and a center of opposition to Hitler's genocidal policies in the East. In fact, he writes categorically that the German military found time to participate in genocidal actions in occupied Russia while simultaneously engaging in a full-scale war. Censuring German historians, especially Ernst Nolte, for their attempts to exculpate the Wehrmacht, Bartov claims these actions made it the only modern military body to accept genocide as official policy. He argues, moreover, that the Wehrmacht leadership pursued a two-faced policy of encouraging soldiers to perpetrate violence against the Soviets and Jews while punishing them for breaches of military conduct in the Western European campaigns.

Bartov considers Hitler's Blitzkrieg atrocity reportage to be pacemaking, since, by editing out the victim and focusing on the heroic, it left the population feeling unaffected, just as CNN war coverage has done today. This process he terms the "perfect manifestation of modernity, since it presupposed normality as a simultaneous and essential component of atrocity." Metaphorically speaking, he also turns his sights on the latter-day German military historian who tends to focus often uncritically on the technical and strategic sides of warfare at the expense of its psychological and propaganda effects. He is especially critical of Germany's highly regarded Militärgeschichtliches Forschungsamt because its publications provide a false aura of objectivity through a faulted methodology of uncritically evaluating official documents, of an almost total disregard for social and cultural history, of avoiding the Holocaust because of its alleged irrelevance to military historical themes.

Part Two engages a number of highly contentious and perennial issues, such as the Holocaust debate between the intentionalists and the functionalists. Highly intentionalist, Bartov sees the extermination of the Jews as Adolf Hitler's unrelenting intention; to [End Page 142] claim, as the functionalists do, that the Holocaust was chiefly the product of the inner logic of a bureaucratic apparatus is to deny reality. He is also adamant about the need to comprehend that only the Jews were singled out for destruction, other victims being pursued and eliminated only if they failed to "live up" to their regime-dictated helot role. Therefore, he evaluates critically important studies treating Nazi genocidal motives (Götz Aly) and the concentration camps (Wolfgang Sofsky). Of Aly Bartov writes that his book was "predicated on the notion that anti-Semitism was marginal to the entire undertaking." Respecting Sofsky, Bartov aptly indicates that, for all of the scholarly value and originality of his work on the concentration camps, these were not intended to achieve the Jewish genocide, as the brutalities perpetrated there were meted out to every inmate regardless of ethnicity. Only the Einsatz squads, the "death factories," and the ghettos were exclusively eliminationist.

Bartov closes this second part with a critique of mono-causal Holocaust explanation, especially from the pen of Daniel Jonah Goldhagen. While not entirely dismissive, Bartov ultimately joins the large chorus of Goldhagen critics by deploring his attempt to explain the Holocaust as essentially the product of German cultural antisemitic norms. Bartov offers, conversely, a cluster of preconditions for Nazi brutality he sees rooted in ideological and existential aspects of reality and its distortions. He states unequivocally that Goldhagen's thesis is "useless" and quite unhistorical. For Bartov the only singular aspect of Nazi genocide was that for the first time in recorded history millions of people were eliminated under factory-like conditions.

Part III is chiefly preoccupied with the reception of Hitler's Willing Executioners in the United States, Germany, France, and Israel. Beginning by stating dramatically that Goldhagen's book has become the first Holocaust bestseller, Bartov believes that, in the United States, its very wide reception has much to do with the tendency of non-Jewish minorities to identify with the Holocaust victims. On the other...


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