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February 24, 2009

Re-affirming the uniqueness of the Holocaust: Hitler, the Germans, and the Final Solution - Ian Kershaw

Posted by Jeremy Black

Hitler, the Germans, and the Final Solution
by Ian Kershaw
Yale University Press, 2008
Hardback, £19.99

At a time when Holocaust denial or minimalisation is increasingly prominent, it is very useful to have this collection of essays reprinted and brought together.

In part this is because several of the pieces appeared in formats that are not readily accessible to most readers. Thus, the "Everyday" and the "Exceptional": The Shaping of Popular Opinion, 1933-1939, is a piece that was originally published in German, while German Popular Opinion during the "Final Solution": Information, Comprehension, Reactions, originally appeared in Ascher Cohen (ed.), Comprehending the Holocaust, a book published in Frankfurt in 1989, and German Popular Opinion and the "Jewish Question", 1939-1943, was originally published in Die Juden im Nationalsozialistischen Deutschland, 1933-1943, a book published in Tübingen in 1986. This is not therefore a volume that, otherwise, could be readily assembled from accessible sources.

Secondly, in what is a major and pertinent historiographical introduction, Kershaw discusses his own intellectual development. This is done in a searching fashion that is linked to the publications reprinted, and Kershaw is particularly to be congratulated for his willingness to note the nuances of his own work.

Kershaw also notes continuing gaps in the literature. For example, he suggests that it is necessary to understand in more detailed fashion than earlier the penetration of parts of German society by lethal anti-Semitism even before Hitler began his rise to power.

Kershaw also considers the distinctive character of Nazi anti-Semitism. He argues that the embodiment in Hitler of a dynamic, revolutionary pseudo-religious strain in German political culture, unachievable without war and a gamble for world power, and demanding national salvation through racial "purification", distinguishes the Third Reich from every other known dictatorship, however terrible the specific forms of gross inhumanity in each of these was. Furthermore, Kershaw argues that the biological exclusion of Jews was more lethally uncompromising than the often brutally arbitrary socially deterministic exclusivism of Stalinism or Pol Pot.

This case for exceptionalism is very well made given the bizarre attempts to argue equivalence to the Holocaust for the slave trade, the intentionality of which was preserving life for labour. Similarly, the claims that the attack on Hamas in Gaza in some way equated with the fate of the Warsaw Ghetto is ridiculous. It is precisely because such claims are made that it is instructive to read high-class scholarship, such as that of Kershaw, and then to consider comparisons.

The most instructive at present is with some of the extreme anti-Semitic rhetoric circulating in parts of the Islamic world. Indeed, there was a direct strand linking the Third Reich with anti-British Arab nationalism, although much of the current rhetoric draws on deeper current. Kershaw's articles offer much food for thought about the patterns of anti-Semitic thought and action. That they also contribute to the demonstration of the enormity of the Holocaust should hardly need saying.

Jeremy Black is Professor of History, University of Exeter. He is the author - amongst much else - of The Holocaust

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