- Nazi Ghettos and Concentration Camps: The Benefits and Pitfalls of an Encyclopedic Approach
Almost twenty years ago—seven years before Jimmy Wales and Larry Sanger launched Wikipedia—Umberto Eco foretold at a conference on the future of the book that “new technologies will render obsolete many kinds of books, like encyclopedias and manuals.” He noted that encyclopedias occupied many meters of shelves in his own personal library, but that if a couple of CD-ROMs could do the same job, “there will be no reason to lament their disappearance.”1 In the spring of 2012 the publisher of the Encyclopedia Britannica, the oldest and most famous encyclopedia still in print, announced that it would cease to publish its print edition. Most commentators felt that this was an unavoidable development and that the age of the printed encyclopedia had clearly passed. At the same time, Indiana University Press and the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM) announced the publication of the twotome, 2,000-page second volume of The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum Encyclopedia of Camps and Ghettos. This vast enterprise first saw the light of day in 2009 with the publication of the 1,700-page first volume, which focused mainly on Nazi concentration camps. Produced by the Center for Advanced Holocaust Studies at the USHMM, which has an immense library of Holocaust-related material, including extensive microfilm copies of archival material from all over Europe, the encyclopedia is scheduled for completion in 2025, when it will encompass seven volumes, bound in thirteen tomes containing 12,000 pages. Each of these seven volumes will stand [End Page 149] alone as a separate handbook on a given topic. Volume Two (under review here) covers the 1,150 ghettos of German-occupied Eastern Europe.
The entire encyclopedia aims to describe, as General Editor Geoffrey P. Megargee wrote in the introduction to Volume One, what was “perhaps the most pervasive collection of detention sites that any society ever created” (xxxiii). Megargee did not try in 2009 to estimate the total number of places to be included. But when he and Martin Dean, the editor of Volume Two, suggested a number surpassing 42,500 at an academic forum held in early 2013 at the German Historical Institute in Washington, that revelation suddenly became news. “The Holocaust Just Got More Shocking,” the New York Times duly reported on March 3:
When the research began in 2000, Dr. Megargee said he expected to find perhaps 7,000 Nazi camps and ghettos, based on postwar estimates. But the numbers kept climbing—first to 11,500, then 20,000, then 30,000, and now 42,500.
The numbers astound: 30,000 slave labor camps; 1,150 Jewish ghettos; 980 concentration camps; 1,000 prisoner-of-war camps; 500 brothels filled with sex slaves; and thousands of other camps used for euthanizing the elderly and infirm, performing forced abortions, “Germanizing” prisoners, or transporting victims to killing centers.
In Berlin alone, researchers have documented some 3,000 camps and so-called Jew houses, while Hamburg held 1,300 sites.2
German newspapers immediately picked up the story, which contained all the elements of a sensational headline: new, more, larger—and, of course, Nazis. They asked German historians for their comments. Die Zeit approached Wolfgang Benz, the recently retired head of the Zentrum für Antisemitismusforschung (ZfA) at the Technische Universität Berlin and the editor (with Barbara Distel) of the nine-volume, more than 5,300-page long Der Ort des...