Life & Culture

The Holocaust: An Unfinished History Book review: The untold story of Europe’s Shoah shame

An important new history sheds light on the major role played by so-called neutrals in the mass extermination of Jews


The Holocaust: An
Unfinished History
By Dan Stone
Pelican, £22

On 26 November 1942, 532 Jews were rounded up in Oslo by Norwegian plainclothes policemen. They were taken in taxis to the local harbour, placed on the SS Donau, which took them to Germany, from where they were taken by “freight train” to Auschwitz. Almost all were gassed on arrival.

Dan Stone’s thought-provoking book is essentially a present-day reckoning. Why are questions about the Shoah still hanging in the air? Why is our understanding of this unimaginable period “an unfinished history”? A professor of Modern History at the University of London, Stone forensically dissects many suppositions, but above all he casts a spotlight on those “neutrals” who assisted — the Norwegian policemen who arrested the Jews and the taxi drivers who took them to their destruction.

Stone’s central point is that the Shoah was a transnational event, mired in complex motives for murdering multitudes, and not purely a German affair. It was series of interlocking genocides that Hitler’s masterplan for a judenrein Europe provided cover for and distorted perceptions of the Shoah after 1945.

In March 1942, 80 per cent of the Jewish victims were still alive. Almost a year later, 80 per cent of the six million were dead.

During that year, large numbers of non-German volunteers became identifiers of Jews, guards in labour and extermination camps and perpetrators in the killing fields. At the end of 1941 at Bogdanovka, 54,000 Jews were done to death by Romanian gendarmes, Ukrainian auxiliaries and local ethnic-German militia. They delighted in the murder of innocents.

Slovakia incarcerated 52,000 Jews even before the German occupation. Croatia ran “the only non-Nazi extermination centre active” during the Shoah. Italy, conventionally believed to be benevolent, deported 7,495 Jews between 1943 and 1945. Only 610 returned.

In Bulgaria, King Boris, mythologised as “a saviour of the Jews”, refused entreaties to stop the deportation of Jews from Bulgarian-occupied areas of Greece.

The Bulgarians oversaw the delivery of 11,343 Jews from Western Thrace and Eastern Macedonia to the Gestapo in Vienna, who then transported them to Treblinka. Romania’s Ion Antonescu was an enthusiast for racial purity and dumped tens of thousands of Jews in Transnistria to fend for themselves.

They died in huge numbers. Antonescu did this willingly and not under Nazi instruction. Unlike Poland, Romania was not occupied by Hitler’s forces. Antonescu murdered Jews because he wanted to — not at Hitler’s behest.

Stone has attempted to unravel the motivations of the collaborators. Some were local fascists.

Others were psychopaths who enjoyed butchery. Still others felt that their national interests would be best served in a German- controlled Europe.

Many in Eastern Europe feared that the Soviet Union would devour them. This was coupled with the belief that all Jews were Communists. The Finns fought with the Nazis against the Red Army but refused to take part in atrocities.

Many in the Catholic Church endorsed a devout belief in the notion of Judeo-Bolshevism (the antisemetic belief that Jews were behind the 1917 Russian Revolution) — and the vast majority of Spanish bishops supported Franco.

In France, while many leading Catholics endorsed the Vichy regime and its persecution of Jews, some did speak out against the deportations.

Archbishop Saliège’s pastoral letter was read out in many churches in Toulouse in August 1942. Was extermination of the Jews therefore a step too far for many who had prepared the way?

Stone argues that the centrality of German responsibility has allowed other nations to obscure their role in the Shoah, to paint those who fought for national independence as solely valiant patriots.

This is a book of revelations — one which compares and contrasts the collaborators amidst a plethora of motivations. It’s an important and challenging work.

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