Beyond the Auschwitz Syndrome: Dan Stone Looks at How Historians' Understanding of the Holocaust Has Changed since the End of the Cold War with the Opening of Archives That Reveal the Full Horror of the 'Wild East'

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Lev Rozhetsky was a schoolboy when the Romanian army, the Wehrmacht's largest ally, occupied south-western Ukraine in 1941. His memoir, published in an important collection called The Unknown Black Book (Indiana University Press, 2008), is full of terrible stories: girls being tossed into latrines; Jews being tormented, tortured and shot; dogs growing 'fat as rams' on the bodies. The perpetrators in this region, usually led by a thin layer of German commanders, included Romanian gendarmerie and local Volksdeutsche (ethnic Germans). What Rozhetsky also observed was the involvement of locals, not always in the murder process itself, but in the looting that accompanied it: 'Having caught the scent of booty, all sorts of dirty scoundrels came running from every direction,' as he put it. Another survivor, Sara Gleykh, a student from Mariupol in Ukraine, wrote that 'the neighbours waited like vultures for us to leave the apartment'. The same neighbours then 'quarrelled over things before my eyes, snatching things out of each others' hands and dragging off pillows, pots and pans, quilts.'

As historian Joshua Rubenstein notes, in the Baltic region and western Ukraine especially, but throughout Eastern Europe in general, 'it was as if the population understood, without much prodding by the Germans, that there were no limits on what they could do to their Jewish neighbours'. From Horyngrad-Krypa in Volhynia, where Ukrainians armed with axes, knives and boards spiked with nails murdered 30 local Jews, to Kaunas in Lithuania, where the famous 'death dealer' of the city was photographed clubbing Jews to death with an iron bar, there is no shortage of evidence to support Rubenstein's claim.

In Western Europe our image of the Holocaust centres on Auschwitz-Birkenau, the death camp that has become an icon of evil. This notoriety is quite justified: after all, Auschwitz was, as one historian puts it, the 'capital of the Holocaust', where Jews and Romanies from all over Europe were sent to be killed. Auschwitz, with its numerous auxiliary camps spread around the area of Upper Silesia, was also a major centre for the industries based on slave labour (which, economically speaking, achieved little but caused unfathomable misery and pain to tens of thousands of inmates). Yet it is not synonymous with the Holocaust per se, which was a Europe-wide phenomenon. An 'Auschwitz syndrome' (a term aptly coined by the historians Ray Brandon and Wendy Lower) has kept us fascinated by the apparent paradox of modern technology employed in the service of mass murder. It has stopped us from seeing other aspects of the Holocaust.

If one really wants to look into the heart of darkness, then the relatively unknown Operation Reinhard camps (named after Reinhard Heydrich, Gestapo chief and, from 1941, Deputy Reich Protector of Bohemia and Moldavia until his murder by Czech partisans in 1942) come quickly into view. In the short period of their operation--all were dismantled by the end of 1943--the small Reinhard camps of Belzec, Sobibor and Treblinka, along with Chelmno (where Jews were first murdered using gas vans), were responsible for the deaths of more than 1.5 million Jews. These were 'pure' death camps, serving no purpose other than murder. The process was unpleasant beyond belief. For too long we have shielded the reality from ourselves with talk of 'industrial genocide', as if it were a clean, smooth, technical matter. In fact, the motor engines that produced the carbon monoxide (Zyklon B was used only at Auschwitz and Majdanek) often broke down, causing an excruciatingly slow death. Besides, these sites were brutal and violent; situated in the 'Wild East; the guards--again, a handful of German officers and mostly Ukrainians (former Soviet POWs)--were often drunk and a debauched atmosphere prevailed, as the wealth that accumulated from the transports attracted prostitutes and booty hunters.

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But fewer than half of the victims of the Holocaust were killed in camps and of those that were some 1. …