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.