The Holocaust: A German Historian Examines the Genocide – BENZ (CSS)

BENZ, Wolfgang. The Holocaust: A German Historian Examines the Genocide. New York: Columbia University Press, 1999. 186.p. Translator Jane Sydenham-Kwiet. Resenha de: TOTTEN, Samuel. Canadian Social Studies, v.35, n.3, 2001.

In his foreword, Arthur Hertzberg asserts that Benz’s book is the first written by a German scholar of the younger generation to this story with exactness and absolute candor (p. ix). I cannot attest to the accuracy of that statement, but I do agree that the book pulls no punches, is well written, and is thorough in its presentation.

The book is comprised of twelve relatively short chapters that address a host of critical issues including: The Wannsee Conference; Jewish Emigration, 1933-1941; Massacre in the East (Einsatzgruppen and Other Killing Units in the Occupied Territories, 1941-1942; and, The Other Genocide (The Persecution of the Sinti and Roma).

Throughout the volume Benz drives home a number of points that both curriculum developers and teachers need to understand and convey to students, if the latter are to gain a clear and accurate understanding of the Holocaust. For example, speaking of the Wannsee Conference, Benz correctly states that The total annihilation of the Jews throughout Europe, then, was pronounced as a matter that had long been decided upon, and at least half of those taking part in the discussion had a very clear idea of how the mass murders were being carried out or how they were yet to be executed (pp. 6-7). Far too many curricula used at the secondary level either imply or overtly state that the purpose of the Wannsee Conference was to decide the fate of the Jews; rather, it was used to announce what had already been decided.

As for Kristallnacht, which some secondary school curricula describe as a spontaneous outburst against the Jews in November 1938, Benz correctly reports that

The November pogrom of 1938 was far from a spontaneous outburst: itwas staged by state bodies at the highest level. Via regional (Gau) propaganda offices and from them to the district and local party headquarters or the SA staff throughout the Reich, [action] was called for by telephone, which was in the form of an order. A short time later the first synagogues were burning; everywhere Jewish people were being humiliated, derided, mistreated, plundered (pp. 29-31).

Students frequently ask why the Jews simply did not leave Nazi Germany and the other areas controlled by the Reich when they had a chance, but, as Benz notes, it was not as simple as that:

The Nazi state both pushed for and restricted the emigration of the German Jews at the same time. On the one hand, exclusion from economic life gave impulse to the will to emigrate, on the other hand, the confiscation of assets and the crippling fees limited the possibilities for emigration. No country accepting immigrants is interested in impoverished newcomers (p. 34). [Furthermore,] what awaited the Jews who had fled Germany was an arduous daily existence beset with considerable problems of adjustment, communication barriers, professional decline, financial distress, and feeling of having been uprooted (p. 38).

On a different note, Benz also does a good job of delineating the evolution of the killing process – from the gassing of the mentally and physically handicapped in the late 1930’s, to the actions of the Einsatzgruppen in Poland and the Soviet Union, to the experimentation with the operation of the gas vans beginning in late 1941, and, ultimately, to the gas chambers in the death camps in the 1940’s.

As interesting as the book is, there are numerous places where Benz makes a point but neglects to provide adequate explanatory information. For example, Benz states that In autumn 1943 there were once again, as in the time of the Einsatzgruppen, massacres in which the victims were murdered in shooting operations (p. 140). By that time, of course, the Nazis were killing millions of people in the gas chambers of the death camps, thus the reader naturally wishes to know why the Nazis reverted, at least in certain cases, to shooting operations, again.

Another major drawback of this book is that it does not include footnotes, thus one is not sure where Benz has obtained certain of his facts or whether his assertions are corroborated by the latest research. This is not a little disconcerting for one who wishes to be absolutely certain that a particular point is totally accurate. For example, speaking of Kristallnacht, Benz asserts that more recent research reveals that far more the 1000 synagogues and houses of worship fell victim to the pogrom (p. ?) but he never states who conducted the research, where it was published or when.

It is not a little disconcerting that a book published by Columbia University Press includes so many typographical and spelling errors, including: the use of loose for lose (p. 55); oversees for overseas (p. 71); propoganda for propaganda (p. 72); pires for pyres (p. 99); and tatoo for tattoo (p. 148). Finally, this reviewer came across the following major error: the killing of the disabled had been halted in 1941 (p. 143). In fact, while the Nazis publicly stated that the murder of the disabled was halted, the killing of such individuals continued in secret. As Berenbaum (1993) notes: On August 24, 1941, almost two years after the euthanasia program was initiated, it appeared to cease. In fact, it had gone underground (p. 65). And, as is stated in the United States Holocaust Museum’s (n.d.) pamphlet entitled Handicapped, the ‘euthanasia’ killings continued under a different, decentralized form . In all, between 200,000 and 250,000 mentally and physically handicapped persons were murdered from 1939 to 1945 under the T-4 and other ‘euthanasia’ programs (n.p.).

While I recommend this book to educators (particularly at the secondary and university levels), for it is informative and raises a number of critical issues worthy of serious consideration, I do not recommend it for use with secondary level students. A much more appropriate and useful book for use with secondary students is Michael Berenbaum’s The World Must Know. Not only does the latter provide a much more thorough telling of the Holocaust story, it is even more highly readable than Benz’ book. Additionally, Berenbaum includes a host of photographs, documents, and first-person accounts that contribute to making it an extremely engaging work for young students.


Berenbaum, Michael. (1993). The World Must Know: The History of the Holocaust as Told in the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. Boston, MA: Little, Brown.

United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. (n.d.) Handicapped. Washington, D.C.: United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.

Samuel Totten – University of Arkansas, Fayetteville.

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