Plavnieks on Montague, 'Chelmno and the Holocaust: A History of Hitler's First Death Camp'

Patrick Montague
Richards O. Plavnieks

Patrick Montague. Chelmno and the Holocaust: A History of Hitler's First Death Camp. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2011. 416 pp. $75.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8078-3527-2.

Reviewed by Richards O. Plavnieks (Stetson University) Published on H-German (September, 2014) Commissioned by Chad Ross

An In-depth Inquiry into Hitler’s First Death Camp: Chelmno

Twenty years in the making, Patrick Montague's chronicle, Chelmno and the Holocaust, does not disappoint. The book's first chapter, titled "Prologue," is not the book's prologue, but in fact explains the "prologue" to Chelmno—and in turn, situates Chelmno as an opening chapter of the Holocaust. It is in this regard that the book makes its finest contribution to scholarship: a detailed history of Adolf Hitler's least-known death camp. Moreover, the illumination of the camp's key role as a pioneer of the Nazi death camp model suggests a place for Montague's work in the library of indispensable scholarship on the Holocaust.

Like its predecessors, the T4 "euthanasia" program, Operation 14f13 targeting concentration camp inmates, and the flying gas van unit of Sonderkommando Lange, Chelmno represents an improvisational Nazi step toward the Final Solution. The book superbly connects the center with one of the most crucial sites on the periphery: Warthegau, led by the rapacious Gauleiter (a regional Nazi Party leader) Arthur Greiser. Montague methodically and painstakingly weaves together the technological evolution of the Holocaust's earliest methods with the specific Nazi personnel who developed them, as well as the Nazi leadership's growing willingness to employ evermore radical methods to target ever-expanding categories of people. In this, Montague says, Chelmno was a "bureaucratic catalyst and operational prototype ... [that] broke a psychological barrier by actually establishing an extermination camp and provided a structural template on which the other camps could build" (p. 1).

Among the book's major strengths is the unusually extensive but justified deployment of long block quotations throughout. These allow the reader to better comprehend the real human dimension behind the events. This is especially the case with the full reproduction of the wartime account of one of Chelmno's few survivors, Szlama Winer, who was eventually recaptured and presumed killed at Belzec. His gripping statement on what he witnessed at Chelmno as a gravedigger in the so-called Forest Kommando could stand as a fundamental text for the teaching of the Holocaust in the future.

Montague's strategy of "allowing the participants in these horrible events to speak directly" is highly successful in several other dimensions (p. 4). He arrays incredible detail before the reader through this mechanism. His account comes as close as it is possible to a comprehensive description of Nazi Germany's first "human slaughterhouse" (p. 84)—a term, incidentally, that Montague discovered on a note written by a group of the camp's few long-term Jewish prisoners, who, when the camp first ceased operations in 1943, knew that they had only hours to live. The book stands as an exemplary reminder of the individual human reality behind the numbers—in Chelmno's case, at least 152,000 victims—that have become so seemingly familiar to historians of the Holocaust.

The strategy also resulted in an unremitting focus on some of the most appalling personages involved: such perpetrators as Herbert Lange, the SS pioneer of the mobile gassing of medical patients deemed "useless eaters" and whose experience would fully metastasize in the form of Chelmno's everyday operations; and Hans Bothmann, the hard-drinking director of Sonderkommando Kulmhof during both of the camp's successive periods of operation. Their cold-blooded, deliberately crafted, and ever-improving methods of deceiving their Jewish victims is notable here, as is the occasional glimpse of their perspectives and the contortionism of their evolving internal moral-psychological justifications for their actions. While making for deeply disquieting reading, Montague finds insight in what these men say when "allowed to speak for themselves" (p. 4).

There are two minor comments I would make by way of criticism. They touch on two currently expanding areas of the study of the Holocaust: Eastern European collaborators in the Holocaust and the legal aftermath of the Holocaust. While neither topic is the focus of Montague's vivid study, they do intersect with it and even appear in the book. Therefore, I believe mention of them here is germane. The subject of eastern European collaboration is among the weightiest in the field today. Montague's occasional attention to the Polish labor Kommando that was on permanent assignment in the camp is very welcome. This group of only eight men (later reduced to seven because one was accidentally gassed while trying to coax Jews into one of the vans) was composed of Polish prisoners of war, who basically expected to die. Instead, they were employed as laborers, first digging mass graves for subsistence rations and later for lighter duty. "Photographs taken by these prisoners of themselves while on walks around the village—with a camera confiscated from the camp's victims—document their transition from prisoner to collaborator" (p. 59).

Unfortunately, while two such photographs are presented (happy-looking and well-dressed male civilians smiling and drinking beer with men in German police uniforms), the actual progression is not described, mostly just asserted. The rapport that they gradually built with their German masters is not illustrated, although it is precisely upon that fulcrum that the greatest mysteries and ambiguities of collaborationism balance. For example, a key moment that is left unexplained came when the camp was first being dismantled in 1943. The Polish Kommando members felt apprehensive that they would be killed and erased along with the rest of the camp, the presumable German calculation being that their secrets would die with them. The Poles even considered stealing a car and fleeing but ultimately stayed because they feared reprisals against their families. In the event, they remained in confinement, some even sent to Auschwitz, and only a few survived the war. This is precisely the kind of dark grey frontier that merges victim and perpetrator that is attracting, absorbing, and confounding much scholarship today; here it remains largely unexplored.

By the same token, the attitude of the surrounding Polish population toward the Jews is engaged only episodically, mainly in the section of the book describing the incredible feats of Chelmno's few Jewish escapees. Some Poles appear helpful, others treacherous; comments as to their motivations remain superficial. The fraught question of Polish-Jewish relations seems almost side-stepped, and the attitude of the author on the subject appears somewhat ambivalent. It is possible, of course, that Montague's sources simply do not permit such an analysis. And, after all, such was not the stated focus of his study.

The second minor criticism of the book originates with the epilogue, which also serves as something of an epistemological essay on the subject of the Chelmno death camp. As the author notes, a great deal of his source material came from postwar investigations and trials. This, again, is a major current avenue of inquiry in Holocaust scholarship. After noting that the fates of those perpetrators who faced justice were wildly discrepant depending on whether they were tried under Communist or liberal-democratic systems, Montague asks: "Has justice been served in the case of those individuals who worked in the Chelmno death camp? Are the scales of justice, truth, and fairness, balanced?" He then says: "These questions each person must answer for him or herself" (p. 195). Montague's formulation here struck this reader as somewhat flat and unsatisfying. Montague regrettably does not elaborate on his own position on the issue, although he is excellently situated to form a meaningful judgment.

In spite of these two very small quibbles, Montague's work deserves all of the acclaim it has earned. Chelmno and the Holocaust represents a tremendous act of historical investigation and preservation. It is a fantastic study of history's least-known death camp and illuminates an often-overlooked boot-print on the road to Auschwitz while never losing sight of the people who took that step, nor those crushed underneath it. 

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