Against All Hope: Resistance in the Nazi Concentration Camps, 1938-1945
By Hermann Langbein
Paragon House, 1994, 502 pp
Burrin, a Swiss historian, gives a highly intelligent interpretation of the available evidence and opinion concerning how and when the decision to exterminate the Jews was reached. While there was complicity and local initiative, Hitler's will was definitive. Burrin rightly observes that Hitler "did not have a plan, but only an obsession." A great deal of Nazi policy was improvisation -- extrusion, not extermination, was still the goal in 1940-41 -- but Hitler's obsession (and that of others, perhaps not sufficiently emphasized) and the antecedent encouragement of organized brutality were preconditions for "the final solution." Burrin dates the decision as probably September 1941 when Hitler first perceived the danger of a protracted war on several fronts. By the fall of 1941, new methods of killing were introduced, and the fate of European Jewry seemed sealed -- in fear of defeat, the Germans would wish to kill all Jews, and the same would have happened in case of a Nazi victory.
Anatomy of the Auschwitz Death Camp contains 29 essays by writers from three continents, each dealing with some aspect of "the heart of hell." Auschwitz began as a concentration camp for Poles and gradually became a place for extermination and slave labor for Jews and non-Jews; over a million Jews were killed there. The book presents unevenly researched accounts of the number of victims, the methods of murder, the lives of the perpetrators and victims. Degradation before death and the conditions of slave laborers for well-known German enterprises (I. G. Farben, for example) located near the camp are topics discussed, as is the question of how and when the outside world learned of these horrors and how it responded or did not. A few diaries of victims were found, desperate efforts to transmit experiences to later generations. The book covers some subjects broadly, some narrowly, all in as dispassionate a manner as conceivable.
Langbein, an Austrian who fought in the Spanish Civil War and was later taken from French internment camps to Dachau and Auschwitz, depicts the conditions under which acts of defiance or lifesaving solidarity were attempted in German camps and the internal conflicts between criminals and so-called political prisoners. From his own experience and that of others (based on published sources or interviews) he relates individual acts of defiance. Scant material, but a useful complement to the accounts of inescapable victimhood. The book first appeared in Germany in 1980.
The ever-growing monographic literature on the Holocaust is becoming a field of its own; it informs, of course, but it may also induce numbness and come to overshadow the more literary evocations, none greater than the works of Primo Levi.