- On the Threshold of the Holocaust: Anti-Jewish Riots and Pogroms in Occupied Europe. Warsaw–Paris–The Hague–Amsterdam–Antwerp–Kaunasby Tomasz Szarota
Tomasz Szarota is a member of the Institute of History of the Polish Academy of Sciences, with several books and scholarly articles on Holocaust-related subjects to his credit. This study, his first to be translated into English, is a meticulously researched and thought-provoking contribution to the field. He justifies his project at the outset by observing that the anti-Jewish riots occurring shortly before the outbreak of World War II and in its early stages have been neglected by authors of general histories of the war and the Holocaust. The rest of his book makes the case that remedying this situation has much to offer students of that era.
Studying the anti-Jewish riots and pogroms in Warsaw, Paris, the Hague, Amsterdam, Antwerp, and Kaunas is an unusually difficult research task. Large gaps in the documentary record, the reticence—at the time and afterward—of the major perpetrators, the nature of the contacts between the German authorities and native “patriots,” the great disparities in levels of destruction and numbers of deaths, the receptiveness in the general population to anti-Jewish violence—all these critical elements elude a high degree of precision. Szarota frankly concedes that at times we must rely on conjecture and circumstantial evidence “if we want to look into this phenomenon at all” (pp. 12–13). He is not giving himself an alibi to proceed with impunity; he lets the reader know when he is speculating, pointing to alternate interpretations that are supportable on the sketchy evidence, and noting the differing interpretations that exist in the literature. He is, in fact, both cautious about his conclusions and determined to get at the best possible version of the truth.
Szarota takes a comparative approach to the case studies, limiting his investigations to countries occupied by the Germans. The similarities are revealing. Germans as a rule did not participate in the street violence. In Paris and Warsaw, they transported pogromists to the sites of violence, in some cases providing them meals. The most important contribution the Germans had it in their power to make was the offer of impunity for the perpetrators of violent actions—up to and including murder. Szarota does his best to document instances of direct German encouragement of “self-cleansing actions.” He succeeds convincingly in establishing a direct German link to the destruction of several synagogues in Paris (October 2–3, 1941) and the mass murder of Jews in Kaunas (June 25–29, 1941). In Kaunas, the leader of [End Page 480]Einsatzgruppe A, Dr. Walter Stahlecker, took credit for steering the Lithuanian murder squads toward the Jews (Communists apparently were the top priority). Beyond these two blatant examples of German intervention, the polycratic nature of governance in the Third Reich makes it difficult to assign direct responsibility. Turf wars raged between the RSHA’s local branches of the SD and SIPO, the military and other authorities in all the occupied countries. The generals were surprised by pogroms in all the locales studied. Convinced of the necessity to solve the “Jewish Question” and indifferent to the rights of Jews, they were nonetheless genuinely appalled by the barbarities of mob violence. When they protested, however, it was about the connivance of the SD and SIPO with local partisans and murder bands, or, in occupied France, Otto Abetz’s machinations from the German Embassy in Paris—in other words, about encroachment on their authority. Berlin repeatedly settled the conflicts in favor of the SS agencies. Szarota argues that antisemitic violence forced the military, worried about losing its authority entirely, into a more active role.
German complicity also was made clear in a number of cases by the timely presence, at the sites of violence, of film crews from Goebbels’s propaganda ministry. The pogroms served various propaganda functions for...