Until I read the book, I would have claimed, and with considerable confidence, that my feelings about the Holocaust were rigid.
Mine, I would have asserted, was the familiar mixture of disgust and horror and a sorrow so deep that no word can convey its unfathomable essence.
But while I was reading “Auschwitz: A New History” by Laurence Rees, I came to understand that another emotion was perhaps almost as powerful as those others.
I don’t mean to suggest that I had never felt angry while reading other accounts of that inhumane episode in human history.
Of course I had.
I don’t believe anyone, save perhaps a sociopath, could learn about the Nazis’ atrocities and not succumb to at least a brief rage at the reality that such a crime could be perpetrated.
But the anger that Rees’ book provoked was a different sort, one that changed my perspective not only about the people guilty of these crimes but, sadly, about those who are utterly innocent.
Rees’ work, as the title implies, focused on the most infamous of the camps, Auschwitz in Poland, the tiny plot of land where 1.1 million people, most of them Jews, died.
I’m still not sure why I felt differently after reading his book, which was published in 2005.
Rees, an Englishman who worked for the BBC and has written four other books about World War II, didn’t reveal any new and shocking aspects of a story which has been well-plumbed by historians for decades.
The author himself neatly summarizes the basic thrust of his work, writing in the introduction that “Auschwitz, through its destructive dynamism, was both a microcosm of the Nazi state and the logical consequence of it.”
Rees’ book relies heavily on interviews with more than 100 people, including some fortunate enough to survive Auschwitz, as well as some Germans who worked there.
Among the themes in “Auschwitz” that are not revelatory is the ordinariness of some of those who contributed to the Holocaust. This concept is captured most adeptly, and famously, by Hannah Arendt, who wrote of the “banality of evil.”
Rees delved into this idea at the level of the individual — a former SS guard, for instance, who was complicit in mass murder but who, decades later, was a pleasant person for Rees to pass an afternoon with.
But Rees also examined what seems to me a much more troubling notion — that some malignant attribute of German society during Hitler’s reign made possible the circumstances which can still induce nightmares most of a century later.
This flaw — it can hardly be described otherwise — is the infectious agent that made Auschwitz, and the Holocaust, the “logical consequence” that Rees writes about.
The very idea, of course, that genocide could be “logical” is abhorrent.
I think it was Rees’ moderation — he largely eschewed the most graphic descriptions, which are so terribly available to more sensationalistic writers — that affected me as other, superficially similar books did not.
His writing, because it is dispassionate, was all the more convincing in arguing the thesis that what happened was inevitable.
What bothered me most, though, as I neared the end of Rees’ book, is the realization that the Holocaust is a malevolent force which can afflict, to some degree, even those who are repelled by it.
As I was reading the final chapter I thought about the summer of 1986, part of which I spent in what was then West Germany.
I stayed with two families. I suppose I must have met, in more than a passing sense, a few dozen Germans during the visit. Without exception they were fine people, friendly and accommodating to an immature 15-year-old whose language skills were modest.
But not until I read Rees’ book did I ever think of those Germans in the context of the Holocaust. This is an indirect connection, to be sure; few of those I met that summer were even alive during the war.
What I mean is that I wondered — and I seemed helpless to avoid the comparison, distasteful though it was — whether any of those Germans might, like their forebears, be unusually prone to participating in industrial murder.
This is terribly unfair.
And I believe the answer is no.
Yet the stain that the Holocaust left on Germany, and on Germans, is indelible, it seems to me.
This is why, of course, the country’s leaders have passed laws, including one that makes it a crime to deny the Holocaust, that would rouse free speech advocates in America to high dudgeon.
I can’t, as an American, fathom the lingering guilt in Germany.
Yet after reading Rees’ book I realized, in a way I never had before, that events so horrific that they render even superlatives useless can carry a bit of their filth forward through the decades, flotsam that fouls, however slightly, the reputations of people who don’t deserve any such association.
The story of Auschwitz must never be forgotten, of course.
And for that reason I appreciate the scholarship of historians such as Rees.
Yet it saddens me that after reading such a fine piece of work I was so incensed that I connected, in even the tiniest way, the acts of long-dead criminals to living people who happen to live in the same country.
Jayson Jacoby is editor of the Baker City Herald.