Montesclaros on Kay and Stahel, 'Mass Violence in Nazi-Occupied Europe'

Alex J. Kay, David Stahel, eds.
Mark Montesclaros

Alex J. Kay, David Stahel, eds. Mass Violence in Nazi-Occupied Europe. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2018. 392 pp. $85.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-253-03680-3; $40.00 (paper), ISBN 978-0-253-03681-0.

Reviewed by Mark Montesclaros (US Army Command and General Staff College, Fort Gordon Satellite Campus) Published on H-War (August, 2019) Commissioned by Margaret Sankey (Air University)

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The Holocaust is and will no doubt continue to be of significant interest to generations of academicians as well as to the general public. If anything, there seems to be a greater sense of urgency in recording Holocaust-related history, as its victims, perpetrators, and witnesses are quickly disappearing; indeed, it has been seventy-four years since the liberation of most of the concentration camps by Allied forces in World War II’s European theater. While interest in the Holocaust continues unabated, a new collection of articles by Alex Kay and David Stahel suggests that there are many related subjects, occupying the same time frame as the Holocaust, that are underexplored and worthy of further research and potential scholarship. Some of these may fall short in comparison to the genocidal intent of the Third Reich’s “Final Solution,” but are nonetheless acts of violence that merit further scrutiny in order to obtain a more comprehensive view of Nazi criminality during the Third Reich’s short-lived reign.

Mass Violence in Nazi-Occupied Europe serves several worthwhile purposes. As the authors note, the book attempts to expand our knowledge of the complete range of Nazi crimes—including the Final Solution but also others acts of violence, for example those perpetrated against non-Jews—in an attempt to get a complete picture of Nazi mass violence. While Kay and Stahel state that the book does not constitute a comprehensive study of Nazi criminality in and of itself, the academic community has yet to undertake one. The authors do offer a number of additional topics for potential inclusion in such a study, as evidenced by the book's eclectic mix of articles. Additionally, the authors purposely incorporate the term “mass violence” in their title, as opposed to perhaps more traditional characterizations such as “genocide” or “war crimes” in order to remove the political element and to enable study of other acts of violence perpetrated against the Reich’s multiple victims.  Indeed, Kay and Stahel argue that while some criminal acts of the Nazis—sexual assaults, plunder, and “execution tourism” to name a few—somewhat pale when compared to the genocide against European Jews, they are crimes nonetheless and merit further exploration.             

The book consists of twelve chapters of uniform length, each by a different author. They appear thematically in six parts, preceded by an excellent introduction by the editors that provides the contextual setting while arguing for a more comprehensive exploration of Nazi violence, especially directed against non-Jewish victims. The first four parts cover the Holocaust in general, the plight of the European Sinti and Roma populations, violence against Soviet POWs and civilian psychiatric patients, and the Wehrmacht’s sexual violence on the eastern front. The fifth section, entitled “Memorialization,” describes the nuances of the Holocaust narrative in contemporary eastern Europe, with chapters on Russia as well as the Baltic States. The sixth and final part by Hans-Heinrich Nolte is a retrospective comparing Soviet and Nazi mass violence, reminiscent of Timothy Snyder’s excellent Bloodlands: Europe between Hitler and Stalin (2010). Collectively, the chapters in this edited volume demonstrate the breadth of topics associated with the Holocaust and represent multiple points of view from international scholars. They also show that there is endless fertile ground for additional research and scholarship in this worthy field of study.       

While it is beyond the scope of this review to comment on each chapter’s specifics, some general observations are appropriate. Overall, the volume and its articles place greater emphasis on eastern Europe, especially on acts of violence in the Baltic States, Ukraine, and Belorussia.  Multiple authors point out that much of the death toll of the Holocaust came from this region, where shooting and starving victims became the norm, in contrast to the large-scale gassing and cremation associated with the concentration and death camps further to the west. Additionally, the book argues for greater coverage of violent acts against non-Jewish victims, including the Romani people, Soviet prisoners of war, and the mentally incompetent—“useless eaters”—according to Reich's racial ideology. Thus, several chapters increase our understanding of the Porajmos—the Nazi decimation of Europe’s Roma and Sinti peoples—and urge greater research into this area, apart from the Holocaust. Similarly, there are specific chapters devoted to Soviet POWs transferred to the notorious SS (Schutzstaffel) camps, as well as to the Nazi murder of the mentally incompetent in Poland and Russia. Of course, the Third Reich set the precedent for these latter heinous acts by killing its own psychiatric patients in Germany proper as part of the “T4” program before the war. Mass Violence thus provides depth in a number of perhaps less-explored areas and makes a compelling argument for a single work describing the totality of Nazi criminality, beyond the genocide of European Jews.

The book also adds additional perspectives to the existing scholarship in several key areas. For example, the section on the Wehrmacht argues that the German armed forces’ complicity in war crimes is much higher than previously conceived, especially if one considers acts that fall below the execution threshold. In chapter 8, editors Alex Kay and David Stahel point out that vast numbers of the Wehrmacht were guilty of secondary crimes—rape, looting, seizing property, photographing executions, et cetera—and conclude that “a substantial majority of the 10 million Wehrmacht soldiers deployed at one time or another in the German-Soviet War were involved or complicit in criminal conduct” (p. 182). Dan Michman’s chapter on the Jews of North Africa questions several aspects of the Wannsee Conference, not only the significance of the meeting itself, but also its accounting of the Jews of Europe. While the author concludes that North Africans Jews were not included in the final tally of French Jews targeted for elimination, his greater point is that scholars place too much emphasis on Wannsee as a “smoking gun” of the Holocaust. Finally, the section on memorialization shows the variety of Holocaust narratives in today’s Europe. Il’ya Al’tman, for example, argues in chapter 10 that in Russia the Holocaust is not considered exceptional, especially when compared with the overall national death toll in World War II—27 million victims. The author points out that there is still no national-level Holocaust Remembrance Day observed in Russia to this day. The Baltic States, while not denying the Holocaust, seek to “obfuscate” it, according to Dovid Katz in chapter 11. Nationalist governments tend to equate German crimes with Russian crimes in Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania, claiming victimization of a “double Holocaust.” Consequently, they downplay the significant involvement their national heroes may have had in cooperating with the Nazis in the destruction of their Jewish populations. Katz reminds us of one devastating statistic—95 percent of Jews in the Baltic States were eliminated in the Holocaust—the highest proportion in Europe.          

Mass Violence has its noteworthy aspects, first among them breadth. It incorporates a number of scholarly perspectives, including those from Germany, Russia, and Israel as well as the United States, the United Kingdom, and Australia. Thus, several articles are available to English-speaking readers for the first time. This is important because, as Kay and Stahel note, primary sources dealing with this period are still being uncovered today and translated into English. Additionally, the book’s eclectic nature makes for fascinating reading across an expanse of topics, introducing audiences to perhaps new or nuanced material. As such, Mass Violence will no doubt spark intellectual curiosity and generate additional scholarship—which is exactly what the authors intended.                

The book could benefit from some minor improvements. Even though the articles are broadly uniform in style, in a few instances authors use bulletized or numbered paragraphs with increased indents, as opposed to standard prose. Some readers may find this distracting. Additionally, there are some minor grammar mistakes; in some cases, this could be a result of translation from the author’s native language into English. These minor points notwithstanding, Mass Violence is an effective, well-compiled volume.             

Overall, Mass Violence in Nazi-Occupied Europe is an excellent work that makes a compelling argument for a more comprehensive study of Third Reich criminality, encompassing more than the Final Solution. It provides a very effective synopsis of the state of play of Holocaust-related research and the important work being done by international scholars in a number of less-explored fields. As such, the book will appeal to the specialist as well as to the general reader. The book would serve as an excellent core text for graduate or undergraduate studies in the fields of Holocaust studies, World War II, or modern European history. Alex Kay and David Stahel have contributed a valuable update to this worthy field of study.          


Citation: Mark Montesclaros. Review of Kay, Alex J.; Stahel, David, eds., Mass Violence in Nazi-Occupied Europe. H-War, H-Net Reviews. August, 2019. URL:

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