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Book Review: ‘The Holocaust: An Unfinished History’ by Dan Stone

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By: Meir Y. Soloveichik

Dan Stone’s The Holocaust: An Unfinished History is a book that is difficult to describe; indeed one might say that it is two books in one, a joining of scholarship and screed. One of these books, which comprises most of the pages of the volume, is an eloquent, invaluable, and heartbreaking history of the Holocaust that emphasizes often overlooked aspects of this utterly evil event. The second is Stone’s application of his own research to the political world of the present, to those he sees as the heirs of the anti-Semites of yesteryear, and here his writing becomes suddenly one-sided.

For Stone, parallels to the purveyors of the hate that brought the Holocaust about are to be found today entirely on the political European and American right; he seems to evince little concern for the anti-Jewish sentiment found among the progressive left or in the modern Middle East. Nor is anti-Israel sentiment a source of tremendous concern to Stone; in fact, one target of Stone’s ire in his book is contemporary Germany—which, in Stone’s estimation, is too strongly pro-Israel in its identification of anti-Zionism with anti-Semitism.

All this makes reading Stone’s book a particularly painful experience. The Holocaust: An Unfinished History was clearly written before October 7, 2023; and since then, at least to this author, the anti-Semitism festering in progressive circles, especially in parts of the academy, has become manifestly clear. To read Stone’s piercing descriptions of Germany’s descent into evil, and the embrace of Jew-hate by much of Europe in the 1940s, is to be reminded of the purchase that Jew-hate has had on our world. Yet at the same time, Stone’s descriptions of anti-Semitism of the past sound eerily similar to anti-Semitism manifest today in spheres regarding which the author seems unconcerned. To put it another way, Stone’s analysis of the past has much to teach us about the present—but the lessons to be learned are not necessarily all the same as those derived by Dan Stone.

Why, for Stone, is the history of the Holocaust “unfinished”? The answer, at least in part, lies in the fact that there is much of this terrible tale that has yet to be fully understood. Stone describes how anti-Semitism was not, for the early years of the Nazi regime, merely an effective method of PR; but rather lay at the heart of its ideology and at the center of its policies from the very moment it seized power. Yet another terrible legacy of Nazi Germany is that its victims suffered long after it was defeated. As Stone further tells us, the suffering of Jews continued long after the Holocaust was over, as “survivors quickly found out, with rare exceptions, that their families and communities had been decimated; they were alone in the world.”

But the book’s most important finding is that when the Nazis unleashed its genocide of the Jews, they found willing accomplices across Europe. One incredibly engrossing chapter—and one that should be included in a college course on the Holocaust—is titled “A Continent-Wide Crime,” which documents how European regimes, from Vichy France in the West to Romania in the East—were willing to facilitate the extermination of the Jews when it served their purposes. In one of the most significant passages in the chapter, Stone describes the horrors that unfolded in Bogdanovka, in Transnistria, then part of Ukraine on the Romanian border. The perpetrators there were an international alliance of murderers, committing “the single largest massacre of the Holocaust,” in which “as many as 48,000 mostly Soviet Ukrainian Jews” were “massacred, burned alive and shot by Romanian gendarmes, Ukrainian auxiliaries and local ethnic German militia.”

What, then, are we to learn from the pervasiveness of anti-Jewish evil from the 1940s? One might suggest, to utilize a metaphor of Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, that Jew-hate is a virus that mutates and makes itself manifest in region after region and age after age, and from which no society should assume itself immune. But that is not the lesson that Stone himself seems to draw; the danger today, for him, seems to lie particularly in the province of the political right.

It is of course true that anti-Semitism has haunted the history of the European right; and that, sadly, libelous commentary about Jews can be found today in certain spheres of the American right as well, as revealed by the recent ravings of Candace Owens and Tucker Carlson. But little mention is made in the book of anti-Semitism on the left; indeed, for Stone it is critics of the extremes of the woke progressivism that are part of the problem. As his book draws to a close, Stone singles out several ideological descendants of the Nazis. Here is part of the paragraph, which contains one of the very few references to the political left in the book:

It suffices only to think of the levels of European collaboration seen above, however, from Croatia to Romania, France to Norway, Ukraine to Latvia, to see that Europe as a whole was susceptible to the “collective intoxication” of Nazism. It remains so, as we see when radical right protestors give Hitler salutes on marches purportedly called to “defend” statues of the likes of Churchill, who, whatever his faults, was no Nazi sympathizer. We see it in the incel culture of the manosphere, in which gender-based complexes merge into fantasies of sexual and racial annihilation. We see it in the “anti-woke” response to attempts to do away with structural forms of racism. (Emphasis added.)

Thus are critics of woke progressivism unfairly tarred not only as racists, but as the heirs to the Nazis themselves. That woke-ism may itself be a hotbed of anti-Semitism is never discussed.

Similarly, while Stone writes movingly about the anti-Semitic “collective intoxication” that occurred in the past, he says little about such intoxication when it comes to any part of the Middle East, despite the region being one in which Holocaust denial is rampant. He tells us: “Even though Holocaust denial has been promoted in countries where it has traditionally been a marginal concern—notably Iran, where President Ahmadinejad sponsored a well-publicized conference on the topic—Holocaust denial per se is less of a concern than the bundle of far-right narratives which it usually comes wrapped up in.” This dismissing of the dangers of Iranian Holocaust denial seems to be joined with the author’s insistence, at the conclusion of the book, that anti-Zionism should not be identified with anti-Semitism. Stone is therefore irked at the fact that in 2019 the German parliament passed a resolution against the movement to “boycott, divest, and sanction” the Jewish state:

Thanks to the Bundestag’s May 2019 decision to pass a resolution branding the BDS campaign as antisemitic, the German attempt to, in [Jürgen] Habermas’s words, create a country in which Jews can breathe has the consequence of shutting down debate about Israel. A well-intentioned ethical position which seeks moral repair with Jews ends by equating Jews as such with Israel, in the fetishized manner of both hardline Zionist and anti-Zionist thought a particularly unfortunate result when one is trying to create an atmosphere for making Jews feel at home.

In truth, however, condemning BDS does not assert that all Jews are Israelis; rather, it asserts, correctly, that Israel, a democracy, is a target of discrimination to which truly tyrannical regimes have never been subjected, leading to the inevitable conclusion that it is the Jewishness of Israelis that is the source of this profoundly dishonest double standard. This is why understanding BDS as a moral monstrosity is not the province only of “hardline” Zionists but of Zionists in general, as a brief Google search would reveal. Stone’s suggestion that German support for Israel should make Jews feel less comfortable in Germany is very strange—and his description of Jewish critics of BDS as “fetishized” is, to put it mildly, entirely inappropriate.

The truth is that the Bundestag’s anti-BDS proclamation is one of the greatest moments in the history of postwar Germany, one of which every German should be proud. And if the proposition was passed because Germany remains haunted by the Holocaust—and if that very same haunting has inspired both Germany and Austria to maintain largely pro-Israel postures in a post October 7 world—then that is a fact for which anyone concerned about anti-Semitism ought to be grateful. For if anything, the terrible events following October 7 have vindicated the German anti-BDS position, revealing before the eyes of the world how profoundly anti-Zionism and anti-Semitism are intertwined.

In the past months, we have come to comprehend the evil wrought by an Iran-funded regime that, like the Nazis, placed Jew-hate at the heart of its education and propaganda. We have seen that if there is an heir to the anti-Semitic Nazi regime, it can be found in Hamas, whose society in Gaza produced the ultimate “collective intoxication” of Jew-hate. It was this regime that produced a massacre in which the most Jews since the Holocaust were, to echo Stone’s description of Bogdanovka, “massacred, burned alive, and shot.” If there is one brief recording from October 7 that should be played in Holocaust history courses, one which indicates the way in which anti-Semitism can be made manifest not just in Europe but around the world, it is of a Hamas terrorist calling his parents to crow that he had killed “10 Jews”—not “10 Zionists”—with his bare hands. Recent months have also revealed the willingness of all too many on the progressive left to deny, or even defend, the most unspeakable of acts as long as its victims are Jews. What has also become clear is the festering anti-Semitism within woke circles and the intertwining of anti-Semitism with hatred of the Jewish state.

As I finished writing this review, my internet feed was filled with videos of Jews being told to “go back to Poland,” a phrase which takes on renewed horror thanks to my reading of Dan Stone’s book. The videos were taken at Columbia University, which, we might remember, welcomed the Holocaust-denying Ahmadinejad into its midst, revealing the intellectual rot that had laid hold of part of the academy many years before.

The news from Columbia reminds one of the Washington Free Beacon’s report from Stanford, where, already months ago, Jews were told by an instructor to stand in a corner of the classroom as a form of public shaming. I had already been reminded of this article when I read, in The Holocaust, of the first manifestation of Jew-hate in 1930s Germany, in which Jews were “shamed or humiliated on the street, in a tram or at school.” Meanwhile, as I typed this sentence, I paused to ponder another photo of an anti-Israel demonstration at George Washington University, not a bastion today of the American right. It features a man holding a sign featuring both an Israeli and Palestinian flag, a sign emblazoned with two words: “Final Solution.”

This book has helped me appreciate the dangers facing our society. It is my hope that in a post-October 7 world, Dan Stone can see these dangers too.

            (FreeBeacon.com)

The Holocaust: An Unfinished History

By: Dan Stone

Mariner Books, 464 pp., $32.50

Meir Y. Soloveichik is the rabbi of Congregation Shearith Israel in New York City and the director of the Straus Center for Torah and Western Thought at Yeshiva University.

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