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Auschwitz: A New History [Paperback]

Laurence Rees
4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (4 customer reviews)
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Book Description

Jan. 10 2006
Auschwitz-Birkenau is the site of the largest mass murder in human history. Yet its story is not fully known. In Auschwitz, Laurence Rees reveals new insights from more than 100 original interviews with Auschwitz survivors and Nazi perpetrators who speak on the record for the first time. Their testimonies provide a portrait of the inner workings of the camp in unrivalled detail—from the techniques of mass murder, to the politics and gossip mill that turned between guards and prisoners, to the on-camp brothel in which the lines between those guards and prisoners became surprisingly blurred.
Rees examines the strategic decisions that led the Nazi leadership to prescribe Auschwitz as its primary site for the extinction of Europe's Jews—their "Final Solution." He concludes that many of the horrors that were perpetrated in Auschwitz were driven not just by ideological inevitability but as a "practical" response to a war in the East that had begun to go wrong for Germany. A terrible immoral pragmatism characterizes many of the decisions that determined what happened at Auschwitz. Thus the story of the camp becomes a morality tale, too, in which evil is shown to proceed in a series of deft, almost noiseless incremental steps until it produces the overwhelming horror of the industrial scale slaughter that was inflicted in the gas chambers of Auschwitz.

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From Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. This pathbreaking work reveals the "destructive dynamism" of the Nazis' most notorious death camp. Rees, creative director of history programs for the BBC, consistently offers new insights, drawn from more than 100 interviews with survivors and Nazi perpetrators. He gives a vivid portrait of the behind-the-scenes workings of the camp: for instance, of how a sympathetic guard could mean the difference between life and death for inmates, and the opening of a brothel to satisfy the "needs" of sadistic camp guards. But this is more than an anecdotal account of Nazi brutality. Rees also examines, and takes a stand on, controversial issues: he argues, for instance, that bombing the camp's train tracks wouldn't have saved many Jews. Nor does he overlook stories of individual acts of kindness or the Danes' rescue of their Jewish community. Rees (The Nazis: A Warning from History) gives a complete history of the camp—how it was turned over time from a concentration camp into a death factory where 10,000 people were killed in a single day. Indeed, his argument for incrementalism at Auschwitz mirrors his larger claim that the "Final Solution" came about in an ad hoc fashion, as top Nazi officials struggled for a way to implement their virulent anti-Semitism. Some scholars have made this argument, and others reject it, but the depth and wealth of detail Rees provides make this treatment highly compelling. 16 pages of b&w photos not seen by PW. FYI: This book is the companion to a documentary that PBS will air in three two-hour segments, on January 19, January 26 and February 2.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Booklist

*Starred Review* Many books have been written about the Auschwitz concentration camp in Poland, where the first prisoners arrived on June 14, 1940; the camp was liberated in January 1945. The camp was never conceived as a place to kill Jews, nor was it solely concerned with the Final Solution, although one million Jews were murdered there. Rees insists making a study of Auschwitz offers the chance to understand how human beings behaved in some of the most extreme conditions in history. He interviewed 100 former Nazi perpetrators and survivors from the camp and drew on hundreds of interviews conducted for his previous research on the Third Reich, many with former members of the Nazi Party. This book is the culmination of 15 years of writing books and producing television programs about the Nazis. Rees maintains that through their crimes, the Nazis brought into the world an awareness of what educated, technologically advanced human beings can do "as long as they possess a cold heart. Once allowed into the world, knowledge of what they did must not be unlearned. It lies there--ugly, inert, waiting to be rediscovered by each new generation." With a 16-page black-and-white photo insert, this is a significant contribution to our understanding of the intricacies of Nazi racial and ethnic policy that resulted in this ultimate abomination. George Cohen
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars SIMPLY BRILLIANT... Oct. 7 2009
By Lawyeraau TOP 100 REVIEWER
Format:Paperback
When one thinks of the labor and death camps instituted by the Nazis during World War II, the notorious concentration camp at Auschwitz comes immediately to mind. One cannot help but wonder what kind of mindset would devise such an infamy. How could Germany, a nation that was noted for its richness of culture, have devised a plan of genocide that was so far reaching and so inherently evil?

The author attempts to answer that question and succeeds in doing so brilliantly. This is a very well-written book that will appeal to those who are interested in the general human condition, as well as those interested in the holocaust itself. It is scholarly, yet, at the same time, immensely readable. This is because the author has put a very human face on the dreaded death camp of Auschwitz. The stories and experiences of more than a hundred people are integrated throughout the narrative, which delves into the historical backdrop of the Nazi political machinery and its leadership. Survivors of Auschwitz, as well as Nazi perpetrators, tell of their experiences in the hell that was known as Auschwitz, and they tell it from their own unique perspectives. The symbiosis that often existed between prisoner and prison guard is quite unsettling, as are the attendant moral and ethical issues.

The author attempts to help the reader understand how it was that the "final solution" came about. It is an unsentimental, intellectually objective, critical analysis of one of the most infamous episodes in modern history and warfare. The author carefully delineates how the Nazis developed their reprehensible strategy for global genocide, and how it came about being implemented.
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10 of 11 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Mind-blowing May 29 2006
Format:Paperback
This is a must-read book for anyone interested in the most important period of the 20th Century. I am personally greatly fascinated with German and World History from the 1930's and 40's, especially the great horrors that happened during those days as we all know. This morbid fascination perhaps comes from a need to understand human beings and just how far they will allow themselves to go, and Auschwitz: A New History does a very commendable job at explaining what happened there exactly. It makes no apologies to the Nazi's actions but it does help to understand the kind of mindset that went on over there during those years. And it is not pretty, though it is very absorbing to read. It also destroys a lot of popular myths and is shock full of vital information about the daily activities of the concentration camp turned death camp. It is filled with personal testimony from survivors and from members of the SS, and the entire book is written in a fluid style that is never boring. This book is placed within the best in my library and it is highly recommended!
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4.0 out of 5 stars Tough read April 21 2014
Format:Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase
this was a very well written book although sometimes the writer lets their feelings be known which made me wonder if they were able to tell the story without their opinion taking over. it was good and so sad that sometimes I had to stop because it became too much. I learned a lot though, and things I never would of learned anywhere else which is why books like this need to be read. I highly recommend this book.
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4.0 out of 5 stars well documented and written March 26 2013
By Daniel
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
this book brought the insanity of this period in history to light. I can't imagine having to put this together but Rees was able to and did a very good job. I have never given a book 5 out of 5 but I probably should have for this. This must all be a sick cocotion of some sick mind, however it's not. This unfortuanately is all to true.

Daniel
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Amazon.com: 4.7 out of 5 stars  82 reviews
53 of 55 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars SIMPLY BRILLIANT... July 15 2005
By Lawyeraau - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
When one thinks of the labor and death camps instituted by the Nazis during World War II, the notorious concentration camp at Auschwitz comes immediately to mind. One cannot help but wonder what kind of mindset would devise such an infamy. How could Germany, a nation that was noted for its richness of culture, have devised a plan of genocide that was so far reaching and so inherently evil?

The author attempts to answer that question and succeeds in doing so brilliantly. This is a very well-written book that will appeal to those who are interested in the general human condition, as well as those interested in the holocaust itself. It is scholarly, yet, at the same time, immensely readable. This is because the author has put a very human face on the dreaded death camp of Auschwitz. The stories and experiences of more than a hundred people are integrated throughout the narrative, which delves into the historical backdrop of the Nazi political machinery and its leadership. Survivors of Auschwitz, as well as Nazi perpetrators, tell of their experiences in the hell that was known as Auschwitz, and they tell it from their own unique perspectives. The symbiosis that often existed between prisoner and prison guard is quite unsettling, as are the attendant moral and ethical issues.

The author attempts to help the reader understand how it was that the "final solution" came about. It is an unsentimental, intellectually objective, critical analysis of one of the most infamous episodes in modern history and warfare. The author carefully delineates how the Nazis developed their reprehensible strategy for global genocide, and how it came about being implemented. The creation of Auschwitz was crucial to the Nazis' desire to rid itself of Europe's Jewish population but, however, that desire may not have been entirely ideologically driven. From his extensive research, the author postulates that there may have been a practical, more pragmatic component that dictated the actions of the Nazis in the final, waning days of World War II that was no less immoral than the ideological one.

This is simply a stunning and authoritative book by an author whose expertise in this area is undeniable. It is a comprehensive and insightful look at one of the most notorious death camps in the history of Nazi Germany. The author carefully explains the rise and fall of Auschwitz within the context of the Nazi mentality and ideology, as well as within the broader context of historical and military pragmatism. It is a devastating portrait, indeed, and with its sixteen pages of vintage black and white photographs, it is a book that will keep the reader riveted to its pages until the very last one is turned. Bravo!
39 of 44 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Definitve Book Unveils the Horrid Significance of Auschwitz Jan. 23 2005
By Grady Harp - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
Laurence Rees is a fine scholar and a fine writer and has the courage to present an historical summary of the one of the most horror-laden atrocities of the twentieth century - the Nazi camp called Auschwitz. Even the name conjures up loathing and nausea and near disbelief that such unimaginable mass killings, human medical experimentation, torture, and genocide could have possibly been real. But without denying any of the truths well documented since the Nuremberg Trials, Rees explores the initial beginnings of the concepts for the camp and the events that lead the Third Reich to push this Polish town site into world memory.

World War I laid the seeds for the rise of German resentment for the loss of a war they felt was turned against them. At the core, in search for a causative factor, the Jews were perceived as the evil reason for Germany's losses. Not that anti-Semitism was limited to Germany: Rees wisely shows that those feelings were fairly widespread throughout the world. Yet it took the early fanatics that included Adolph Hitler to strive to purify Germany, rid the fatherland of the useless consumers of food that robbed the Germans of their rightful needs, and repatriate lost Germans to the fatherland at any cost. Rees postulates (with excellent quotations from both Nazi perpetrators and concentration camp survivors throughout this book) that the primary goal of creating concentration camps such as Auschwitz was to provide way stations for gathering non-Germans for deportation to make room for the return of 'lebensraum' for those of pure German blood.

The progress from these initial postulates to the eventual conversion of the concentration camps as places for extermination of not only Jews but also any 'outsiders' ending with the gassing and cremation of millions of human beings is the trail Rees outlines for the reader. He also uses his hundreds of interviews with camp survivors to explore the inner workings of the camps, from the hierarchy of the Capos, the survival techniques, the trading issues with the Poles outside the camps, the brothels within the camps that serviced not only the Guards but also the inmates, and the day to day mechanisms of progressive annihilation of the inmates.

This book is not easy reading: the approach is scholarly yet fascinating and the subject matter can induce waves of nausea in even the most iron-willed reader. But the book is terribly important. If our response to the Nazi genocide camps is only one-sided horror without the information as to how such camps evolved from first idea to ultimate tragedy, then we stand to see history repeat itself. We need only to look at Abu Ghraib, Sudan, and other contemporary mini-counterparts to see how feasible this line of thought is. This is a very important book and recommended to everyone who cares about the human race. Grady Harp, January 2005
23 of 27 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The answer to "Why"? Feb. 22 2005
By T. Dassing - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
This book is not for the squeemish of today's world. Aushchwitz: A New History, is just that, New. It reveals new insights regarding the phychological reasoning as to how Auschwitz and the other death camps evolved and why. The survivor's memories conveyed in this book allows the reader understand the complete brutality of what humans can do to one another when placed in humiliating and deadly conditions. As a humanist, the brutal descriptions in the book made me ill. The fact is that only 60 years ago the Nazis set back the human condition about 2500 years. Time and time again we hear "We must never forget" about what happened during the holocaust. This book answers the reasons as to why we must never forget.
18 of 22 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Rambling, disorganized, incomplete Oct. 10 2011
By Paul - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
I can't remember being more disappointed in a history book than in this one. This book is a terribly organized, rambling, stream of consciousness mush that utterly fails in its main goal: to put Auschwitz in a context (of the war, of the Holocaust, and of the Nazis).

The author is correct that the various components of the Holocaust were to some degree the Nazis' improvised solutions to self-created problems. But he seems to have been incapable of tying this together. A decision was clearly reached at some point in 1941 to exterminate the Jews, at least wherever they fell within the Nazis' dominion. But this took shape in several highly regional actions: the Einsatzgruppen were a mobile 'death squad' that acted mainly in the occupied Soviet territories, Chelmno was meant to destroy the Jews chiefly in the Warthegau, the three Operation Reinhard Camps were meant to destroy the Jews mainly in the General Government, and ultimately Auschwitz was chosen as the site to import and destroy the Jews from the rest of Europe because of its 1) access to railways, 2) its economic value as a slave labor camp kept it operating whereas this was not true of Belzec, Treblinka, etc, and 3) it had a high capacity.

But this is barely explored in the book -- that the final solution even once decided upon in 1941 didn't ever crystallize into a 'site' until around 1943 when Auschwitz seemed like the only place it could be centralized. The author unbelievably fails to note how Hoess actually traveled to Treblinka (according to his own testimony and memoirs) and chose to operate his own extermination mechanism differently. This is critical because Treblinka, Sobibor, Belzec, and Chelmno were exclusively SS operations, self-contained, unsophisticated, etc. On the other hand, Auschwitz relied on contractors and architectural firms and chemical companies (barely discussed) to build the crematoria, supply the Zyklon B, etc -- things that might be interesting to include in a history of Auschwitz, right?

Additionally, the administrative and economic structures were vastly different between the different camp systems, a subject touched on very amorphously. The Einsatzgruppen actions, fundamentally, were a joint venture between the SS and all sorts of police units (the SD / SiPO and local police units) as well as to some degree the Wehrmacht, all overseen by the RHSA. Not so for Operation Reinhard (Treblinka, Sobibor, Belzec) -- that was 100% SS principally from the T4 euthanasia program. But Auschwitz? None of the above -- this was under the direction of the WVHA, the main economic and administrative department of the SS, which was charged with slave labor contracts, plunder, and general concentration camp administration.

My point -- that Auschwitz was intimately linked with the economy of the Nazis' slave labor system at the highest administrative level -- a critical point to understanding the evolution of the Holocaust. This is why in 1942, a year that ended in the Stalingrad fiasco, 2.7 million Jews were killed in places like Treblinka, Belzec, etc, which did not integrate with the slave labor system. Virtually no one survived these camps -- those camps were basically just human disposal units. Later in the war, and particularly 1944, the Nazi state was in an entirely different military and economic situation, and having a source of routine slave labor was needed by the Nazi state. That was Auschwitz -- and that is why thousands of people survived Auschwitz, whereas fewer than 100 people total survived Belzec, Sobibor, Treblinka, and Chelmno (which put together killed nearly twice as many people as Auschwitz). Yet this does not ever become clear in this book.

The author also refers to Majdanek in simple terms as a 'much lower capacity' camp. The fact of the matter is that Majdanek is the one camp in the history of the Nazis that was most similar to Auschwitz. It was a hybrid death camp and labor camp, just like Auschwitz, and it was also not particularly isolated from the world (whereas Sobibor, for instance, was out in the forests). It happened that most of the killing for which Majdanek did the slave / plunder work actually happened in the Operation Reinhard camps, but Auschwitz centralized all of this.

Another area of discussion that is all to superficially treated in the book is the role of Eichmann's office. Rees goes into it (at an extremely perfunctory level) when talking about the Hungarian action of 1944. But it happened that Eichmann was intimately involved in deportations from France, from Salonika, and numerous other places that actually matter -- Auschwitz, more than any other killing site, required "diplomatic" efforts to get its victims, including regional offices and infrastructure established by Eichmann. This material, again crucial to understanding the history of Auschwitz, is virtually missing.

The author treats the Lodz ghetto in a very strange way. He gives great emphasis to it early on, more when discussing the evolution of Chelmno than anything else, but only mentions in passing that the ghetto was liquidated in the late summer of 1944 with 65,000 Jews being sent from Lodz to Auschwitz. 65,000 -- that is around a third of the total population of this ghetto, I believe the second largest after Warsaw in all of Nazi-occupied Poland. This deserves more than superficial mention because it was in fact the final major exterminatory episode at Auschwitz -- and we are talking about a history of Auschwitz, right?

Moreover, Lodz and Auschwitz had something in common -- they were both run and managed as economic enterprises. On the other hand, Treblinka, Belzec, and Sobibor, along with all the General Government ghettos (i.e. Lublin, Warsaw, etc) were run purely by the SS as security enterprises. The management and thinking (including personally by Himmler) differed. Why isn't this discussed?

Finally, Hoess, Mengele, and Grabner weren't the only two people to work at Auschwitz. How about in this history of the camp we get to meet more of the other camp leaders, including Josef Kramer, including the leaders of the women's camp (i.e. Irma Grese), etc. Auschwitz was created by its participants, not just its facilities.

Now, what the author DOES give us is a seemingly endless litany of rambling anecdotes and mini biographies. Don't get me wrong, I come from a family full of survivors and victims, and I am all for survivor testimony. But this is done in a way that is utterly distracting from the 'mission' of the book. Furthermore, these stories are unpredictably interwoven with unrelated events elsewhere in Europe, and the chapters have no internal organization.

My final criticism: much is made of new sources, including interviews and documents held by the Soviet Union that are now available. This is complete hype -- there is NOTHING in this book that is presented as "new evidence" that I haven't read elsewhere, including Wikipedia in many cases. And the interviews the author conducts, particularly with perpetrators, are not especially insightful. You really need evidence of former Einsatzgruppen members who have no remorse? Go read "The Good Old Days" and you'll read this to the point of utter nausea. You want to see perpetrators who are full of fallacies, rationalizations, and psychological defense mechanisms? Read "Into that Darkness", or read Eichmann's testimony.

A greater challenge, one that the author doesn't take up despite his mission to present us with one of the most challenging places / times in human history -- is to show us a former Nazi who truly ever showed remorse, who took a step back and was horrified by what he'd done. Show us a Nazi with some insight. Can't do it. Albert Speer faked it -- he made liberal use of slave labor, yet somehow had no idea where it came from. Hoess's "regret" is utterly superficial, and in fact he complained that the problem with Auschwitz was not that he slaughtered millions of innocent people, but rather because it turned world opinion against Germany. Ya think? Hans Frank's apology is utterly superficial. Even Franz Suchomel, a Treblinka guard who hides nothing in talking about the camp, doesn't sit back and talk about how horrible it was (he is extensively interviewed in "Into that Darkness" and Lanzmann's "Shoah"). The thing is, you just can't find a truly remorseful interview or quote -- because I don't think anyone who really participated in this is psychologically capable of coming to terms with both its scale and their own responsibility at the same time.

Hopefully someone else will now set out to actually write a history of Auschwitz -- one that actually tells its story and puts it in both the context of time and humanity.
12 of 14 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Industrial Strength Killing Jan. 31 2005
By John Matlock - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
Innumerable books have talked about Auschwitz, but this is the first time that I've seen a whole book about it. The detail in this book is incredible. A surprising part of the book is the current attitude of the guards that were interviewed. They do not give the standard only following orders but still believe that the monstrous acts they performed were proper.

The book covers every aspect from the basic decisions to establish Auschwitz, to the transportation system, to the social impacts. This book has a wealth of information and is extremely well written.
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