The World of the Holocaust Killers

Guenter Lewy

Oxford University Press, New York, 2017, 208 pages

Book Review published on: November 10, 2017

The number of books written about the Holocaust by eyewitnesses, historians, and the persecuted is countless. Beginning shortly after the end of World War II, authors such as Primo Levi began to tell the horrific accounts of their time in such places as Auschwitz, Dachau, and too many others. Following quickly on their heels came the academics. They continually analyze the experiences of the persecuted, and attempt to understand the thoughts behind the men and women who did the persecuting. This makes for a very difficult time for the modern author, who has to work harder to create a work that will have a lasting effect.

The Holocaust ended over seventy years ago; the majority of the persecutors have long since died, and many of the persecuted and the liberators are dying every day. However, Guenter Lewy does a fine job overcoming these obstacles with Perpetrators: The World of the Holocaust Killers. The author created a work that reflects on known experiences and ties them into accounts that were never before published and those that today are not necessarily well known.

Chapter 4, which is probably the most illuminating of chapters, sheds light on the story of the perpetrators themselves. It is here we learn that members of the Schutzstaffel (known more familiarly as the SS), including Heinrich Himmler, had a difficult time conducting the executions. The strain of physically ending someone’s life led many of the SS to become alcoholics. According to Himmler, something had to be done to alleviate the strain of being too close and too personal to the killings. As a result, the genocide evolved, for lack of a better phrase, from single gunshots to mobile gas vans, and eventually to fixed-site gas chambers. This chapter sets the tone for the remainder of the book, as Lewy attempts to look at why individuals without a prior criminal record could become capable of committing such atrocities. Ultimately, the question is never fully answered by the book’s end.

In the end, it is clear despite the mountain of eyewitness accounts and the historical research that has been conducted over the past seventy years, Perpetrators does have a place in the library of anyone interested in learning more about the Holocaust. It offers new or not so well-known material, which can answer questions many other texts leave unanswered. Lewy works to tackle a question that has been around ever since the Holocaust took place: “Why did these individuals do this?” Perhaps we will never know what made these perpetrators, both men and women, do what they did.

Book Review written by: Capt. Eugene M. Harding, U.S. Army National Guard, Auburn, Indiana