Lazar on Beorn, 'The Holocaust in Eastern Europe: At the Epicenter of the Final Solution'

Author: 
Waitman Wade Beorn
Reviewer: 
Max Lazar

Waitman Wade Beorn. The Holocaust in Eastern Europe: At the Epicenter of the Final Solution. Perspectives on the Holocaust Series. London: Bloomsbury Publishing, 2018. Illustrations. 360 pp. $32.95 (paper), ISBN 978-1-4742-3218-0; $102.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-4742-3219-7.

Reviewed by Max Lazar (University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill) Published on H-Judaic (November, 2019) Commissioned by Barbara Krawcowicz (Norwegian University of Science and Technology)

Printable Version: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=54578

In 1933, over seven million Jews lived in the space between the eastern border of Germany and the Ural Mountains, accounting for 75 percent of European and 46 percent of world Jewry. Waitman Wade Beorn’s survey, The Holocaust in Eastern Europe, is a welcome gateway for scholars, teachers, and students who wish to find out more about the life and fate of these Jews during the Holocaust.

One of Beorn’s main arguments is that in contrast to what happened in Western Europe, the Holocaust in Eastern Europe was a local affair. Gentiles were often acutely aware of anti-Jewish violence, there was a higher level of local collaboration, and many Jewish victims died near their home towns or villages. Beorn also goes to great lengths to place the development of the Holocaust and the Final Solution within the broader context of Nazi Germany’s other radical genocidal plans for the demographic reordering of Eastern Europe.

The book is neatly divided into eleven thematic chapters that could easily serve as assigned readings for different sessions of a survey or upper-level course on the Holocaust. The first chapter provides a brief overview of the history of Jewish life in Eastern Europe and antisemitism  before the Second World War. Although it packs in a wealth of information, it could have benefited from more fine tuning. For example, Beorn says that nation-states were the predominant force that determined the development of Jewish emancipation in Eastern Europe from the eighteenth until the early twentieth century. This paints a false picture of a region where most territory was ruled by the multiethnic Habsburg and Russian empires until the First World War.

Chapters 2 and 3 look at the rise of Nazism and the longer history of German fantasies about Eastern Europe. Beginning in the nineteenth century, German scholars engaged in the field of “eastern research” (Ostforschung), creating romantic narratives of how ethnic German migration had brought culture and civilization to Eastern Europe. The Nazis developed their own obsession of reconquering Eastern Europe because of its rich soil and their own desire to expand German Lebensraum. Beorn rightly points out that unlike colonial powers in Western Europe, the Nazis eschewed any pretext of a mission civilsatrice. Instead, they anticipated and actively planned for the displacement and death by starvation of millions of Eastern Europeans.

Moving further east, chapters 4 and 5 speak to the pivotal role that Germany and the Soviet Union’s dual invasions of Poland played in the development of the Holocaust. Chapter 4 looks at the effects of the Soviet Union’s conquest of the Baltic states and eastern Poland. Echoing the work of other scholars, Beorn shows that the harsh imposition of a new political system inflamed tensions between different ethnic groups and intensified the activities of right-wing nationalists. Although many Jews suffered under Soviet rule, the visibility of Jews in prominent positions in the Soviet government gave credence to the myth of Judeo-Bolshevism and exacerbated latent antisemitism in the region. In chapter 5, Beorn argues that the General Gouvernment and occupied Poland served as a laboratory for the Nazis’ genocidal plans for Jews in this region between 1939 and 1941. Over time, central orders from Berlin and local initiatives of certain officials influenced plans for the ghettoization, deportation, and mass murder of Eastern European Jews. While Beorn provides an excellent and succinct overview of the first two years of World War II in Eastern Europe, he says little about the history of Poland during the interwar period. A few more pages on this prehistory could have provided important information on the rising tide of antisemitism and anti-Jewish legislation that had already shaped many Poles’ attitudes toward their Jewish neighbors.

The sixth chapter looks at the German invasion of the Soviet Union, describing it as a war of annihilation against Jews and communism. In addition to talking about the “Holocaust by bullets” and the complicity of the German military, Beorn points out that Zyklon-B was first tested on Soviet prisoners of war at Auschwitz, highlighting yet another connection between the Holocaust and the Nazis’ genocidal policies toward different ethnic groups in the region.

Next, Beorn dedicates a chapter to the Nazis’ policies of ghettoization. Most ghettos evolved due to local exigencies and the initiatives of local German officials. In practice, this meant that ghettos varied wildly in size and in the degree to which they were sealed off from the non-Jewish world. Beorn paints a moving picture of daily life in the ghettos and uses case studies of Adam Czerniakow in Warsaw, Chaim Rumkowski in Lodz, and Elkhanan Elkes in Kaunas to show the “choiceless choices” that leaders of Jewish Councils made when they collaborated, accommodated, or resisted the Nazis.

Chapter 8 looks at three Eastern European nations that allied themselves with Adolf Hitler during the Second World War: Romania, Hungary, and Bulgaria. All three were led by right-wing, anticommunist governments that hoped that the war in the East would allow them to achieve revanchist territorial goals. Germany also accounted for a substantial part of their foreign trade market during the late 1930s. Although they often engaged in their own anti-Jewish initiatives and, especially in the case of Romania, acts of genocide, the leaders of the three countries could and did choose to refuse Nazi demands for the deportation of their entire Jewish populations.

After providing a good summary of the origins and implementation of the Final Solution, Beorn turns to the emotionally sensitive topic of Jewish resistance. Individual readers will have to decide if they are satisfied with his capacious definition of “resistance” as any Jewish action—ranging from engaging in violence, to staying alive, to dying with dignity—that slowed or countered Nazi efforts to physically, culturally, and spiritually eliminate Jewish life. A final chapter provides an excellent overview of the motives of non-Jewish perpetrators, collaborators, and rescuers in Eastern Europe. Here, Beorn does a particularly good job of weaving in newer works on gender and sexual violence during the Holocaust. The book closes with an all-too-brief conclusion on Jewish life in Europe immediately after the Shoah, attempts at postwar justice, and memory politics in contemporary Eastern Europe. Given the present rise of populist nationalism, one can only hope that future editions of this work will contain an expanded version of this last section. 

In short, Beorn has produced an excellent and accessible survey on the history of the Holocaust in Eastern Europe. Individual chapters could readily be used to shape or supplement primary source readings in introductory and upper-level undergraduate courses on the Holocaust. Moreover, the footnotes and “suggested reading” lists at the end of each chapter will undoubtedly provide instructors with ideas for other works that they can include on their future syllabi.

Max Lazar is a PhD candidate in the Department of History at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Citation: Max Lazar. Review of Beorn, Waitman Wade, The Holocaust in Eastern Europe: At the Epicenter of the Final Solution. H-Judaic, H-Net Reviews. November, 2019. URL: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=54578

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