The incomprehensibility of the Holocaust is no less true for being a truism. And it extends beyond the obvious historiographical no man's land: How to explain genocidal anti-Semitism in Germany? For everywhere we turn in Essays on Hitler's Europe we find imponderables. Why did Bulgaria refuse to deport Jews from within its own borders, yet give up practically all the Jews who lived in the territories it occupied? Why did Romania, one of only two Nazi satellites that carried out mass exterminations on its own initiative, stop persecuting Jews well before it turned against Germany? Why did Pope Pius XII hide Italian Jews after having done nothing to warn them about their imminent fate? How can we compare the behavior of French and Polish "bystanders," when the punishment for assisting Jews in France varied, and Poles caught doing so were executed, along with their families? In the countries allied with Germany–Romania, Finland, Hungary, Bulgaria and Italy–proportionately, more Jews survived the Second World War than in anti-Nazi Poland and the democratic Netherlands: Why?
These are just some of the questions István Deák raises in his new book. Hitler's Europe consists of review essays that Deák wrote over the past eighteen years, mostly for The New York Review of Books and The New Republic. In its first three parts it addresses, among other topics, Hitler's popularity among everyday Germans, the debates over Daniel Goldhagen's Hitler's Willing Executioners, Victor Klemperer's diaries, German Jews who collaborated with the Nazis and the ambiguities of Italian Fascism. Much of this is familiar ground. By uncovering complexities that other scholars have passed over, Deák does us the great service of making that ground less familiar. For example, when I Will Bear Witness, the diaries Klemperer wrote during the Third Reich, appeared in English several years ago, many critics and scholars hailed them as a triumphant deed and their author as an inspired humanist. A German Jew whose marriage to an "Aryan" kept him out of the camps, Klemperer took it upon himself to "bear precise witness," creating a unique record of life in Nazi Germany. Deák shares the general enthusiasm for the book's richness as a historical source. And he, too, admires Klemperer's courage: Had his journals been found Klemperer probably would have been put to death. However, without any revisionist bravado Deák also directs our attention to Klemperer's misanthropy. This includes the cruelty with which Klemperer treated the people who risked their lives to help him, his gratuitous recklessness with their safety (Klemperer names these resisters in his journals, thereby endangering them), his Schadenfreude toward fellow victims.
But Deák is even more effective in a less well-trodden area. For various reasons, such as the new availability of sources, it might be the most dynamic in Holocaust studies: the Holocaust in Eastern Europe. This is Deák's field. It is also where his roots are, a fact that he laconically adverts to as he discusses certain fateful Eastern European resentments. "As a former Hungarian, I would like to add that the grumblings of the East Central Europeans about a callous, uncaring, and ungrateful West are, in fact, not wholly unwarranted." Deák also tells us that he experienced the "fascist rule" of the Hungarian Arrow Cross, although he does not say just how he experienced it. A longtime professor at Columbia University, Deák has produced a number of influential works on Hungarian history. And while all of the carefully argued, elegantly written essays in Hitler's Europe will inform and impress, Deák is at his most redoubtably erudite when he reviews books that deal with Hungary, Poland, Romania and Lithuania during the Third Reich.