Many historians consider the Holocaust, the systematic murder of approximately six million Jews during 1941–1945, as one of the defining moments, if not a touchstone, of the political, ethical, and religious discourse of the 20th century. It is the only time that a state, as opposed to an insurgent entity or a group of independent actors, determined to murder every member of a particular group, irrespective of their age, gender, education, location, political or religious outlook, or national identity. Any Jew across the European continent and beyond (e.g., Libya, Crete, and Rhodes) whom the Germans could lay their hands on became a potential victim. As a result of this program, which the Germans called the Final Solution, nearly two-thirds of world Jewry was murdered. The Nazis considered killing the Jews such an urgent and necessary act that even when they were losing the war they pursued this goal. From the earliest history of the Nazi Party in the 1920s, the party cast the Jew as an existential threat to the German nation. While the Nazis made the threat posed by the Jews a cornerstone of their ideology and were intent on murdering all Jews they could find, they also targeted other groups. The first to be mass murdered were those inhabitants of the Reich—“Aryans” and Jews—whom the Nazis deemed to be physically or mentally disabled and consequently “unworthy of life.” German authorities also severely persecuted German homosexuals and murdered many eastern European (particularly Slav and Polish) intellectuals and religious leaders. They also killed two to three million Soviet prisoners of war. Millions of slave laborers, particularly from eastern Europe, served in horrendous conditions, and many died as a result. The mass killings of Jews took part in two phases. The first one started in June 1941, after the invasion of the Soviet Union. Conducted by special German units called the Einsatzgruppen and Ordnungspolizei (Order Police) with extensive aid of the Wehrmacht (German army) and non-German local militia, police, and civilians, these mass shootings resulted in the murder of over a million Jews. By the end of 1941, German authorities, concerned about the emotional toll the shooting was taking on the shooters, introduced gas buses and then gas chambers.
The vast geographic reach of the Holocaust presents a challenge to historians who want to address its broadest contours. There is an immense body of research on a myriad of aspects of the topic. This makes the need for syntheses all the more crucial. Hilberg 1985 is one of the earliest comprehensive studies of the bureaucratic structure of the Final Solution. It is highly detailed and remains a standard. More-readable volumes include Friedländer 1997 and Friedländer 2007, which take a broader perspective and focus on the victims as well as the perpetrators. Dwork and van Pelt 2002 and Bergen 2009 were written as textbooks for college use, while Longerich 2010 is more recent and includes new archival information. Berenbaum and Peck 2002 and Friedman 2011 are particularly useful in that they each contain a range of articles by leading scholars in the field. Hayes 2015 is a most useful teaching tool with long selections on most of the topics that would be included in an introductory history of the Holocaust. Hayes and Roth 2010 contains articles by leading scholars who both review a particular aspect of the Holocaust and assess the state of the current research on that aspect.
Berenbaum, Michael, and Abraham J. Peck, eds. The Holocaust and History: The Known, the Unknown, the Disputed, and the Reexamined. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2002.
This edited volume contains articles by experts in the field on many of the issues central to the history of the Holocaust, including anti-Semitism within Nazi ideology, the bureaucracy of the Nazi state, the background and motivation of the killers, the concentration camp system, Jewish leadership and resistance, rescuers, onlookers, and the survivor experience.
Bergen, Doris L. War & Genocide: A Concise History of the Holocaust. 2d ed. Critical Issues in World and International History. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2009.
A concise history of the period that also asks some of the broader and more-theoretical questions. An excellent starting point for those with little background or who want an overview of the history and the underlying theoretical issues.
Dwork, Debórah, and Robert Jan van Pelt. Holocaust: A History. London: John Murray, 2002.
This comprehensive textbook artfully weaves together historical data with memoirs and other firsthand sources. Currently, this is one of the best texts for classroom use or to introduce someone to this vast topic.
Friedländer, Saul. Nazi Germany and the Jews. Vol. 1, The Years of Persecution, 1933–1939. New York: HarperCollins, 1997.
This is a sweeping, authoritative, and exceptionally readable account of the initial years of Nazi rule. Friedländer weaves together evidence from the perpetrators as well as the victims.
Friedländer, Saul. The Years of Extermination: Nazi Germany and the Jews, 1939–1945. 1st ed. New York: HarperCollins, 2007.
Winner of the Pulitzer Prize in history, this volume elegantly melds the story of the persecution with the experience of the victims.
Friedman, Jonathan C., ed. The Routledge History of the Holocaust. Routledge Histories. New York: Routledge, 2011.
An exceptionally useful edited volume on an array of aspects of the history of the Holocaust, by leading figures in the field. Many of the authors pay particular attention to the evolution of their historical field. The volume serves, therefore, both as a historical and historiographical tool.
Hayes, Peter, ed. How Was It Possible? A Holocaust Reader. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2015.
Hayes believes the title’s question is answerable. This compendium of highly readable selections from participants, witnesses, and scholars addresses the fundamental issues that ultimately “explain” the Holocaust. It can be a text for a Holocaust history course as well as of interest to those already familiar with the topic.
Hayes, Peter, and John K. Roth, eds. The Oxford Handbook of Holocaust Studies. Oxford Handbooks. New York: Oxford University Press, 2010.
This profoundly useful book recognizes that study of Holocaust history crosses traditional boundaries of academic disciplines. The forty-seven essays in the book summarize the state of the field at the time of publication and delineate future challenges. Each essay is an excellent starting point for someone interested in exploring a particular topic in depth.
Hilberg, Raul. The Destruction of the European Jews. New York: Holmes & Meier, 1985.
Considered one of the most authoritative texts on the destruction process, this book eschews victims’ testimony and relies only on German documents. Though Hilberg addresses the destruction process, not the Jewish response, in a few places he attributes to Jews an ingrained pattern of anticipatory compliance. These observations remain quite controversial.
Longerich, Peter. Holocaust: The Nazi Persecution and Murder of the Jews. New York: Oxford University Press, 2010.
In this expanded version of his German-language Politik der Vernichtung (Munich: Piper, 1998), Longerich analyzes the ideological, political, and personal sources of the genocide. Relying on a wide range of documents, including some that were released only after the unification of Germany, Longerich argues that the Nazi policy concerning the Jews was a central, not an ancillary, aspect of their other policies.
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