BOOK REVIEW / Understanding by numbers: 'The Final Solution: Origins and Implementation' - ed David Ceserani: Routledge, 35 pounds

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BOOKS by a collectivity of authors are always supposed to be a publishing disaster. It is to be hoped that this one, the work of some of the best scholars in the field, proves an exception.

The 'final solution' is, of course, a translation of Nazi 'newspeak' for the attempt to destroy the Jewish population of Europe, on the grounds of their 'racial' identity. The work began as 'ethnic cleansing', progressed to focus on the Jewish minorities in the Soviet Union, and by 1942 was extended to cover the Jewish populations of all the German satellites and German-occupied territories. The work of ethnic purification had begun with the Nazis' euthanasia of the mentally impaired; it was also aimed at the European gypsy population. The attack on the Soviet Union included the mass execution of any supporters of the Soviet state, starting with 'Jewish-Bolshevist commissars' and extending to whole villages and towns where civilian resistance was encountered.

Local non-Russian groups, especially in the Baltic and Croatia, were encouraged to take the lead. In those two instances, they did so with an enthusiasm which dismayed even the SS, in part because it involved too much hatred and emotion to be efficient. In Lithuania, 96 per cent of the Jewish population perished. The Croats preferred to massacre Serbs, killing 16 times as many Serbs as Jews and gypsies. The German action, as Jonathan Steinberg reminds us, was unique in 'its coldness, its lack of frenzy, its detached, correct, bureaucratic efficiency, its record-keeping and its references, its memoranda and liaison officers, its timetables', its 'language of accountants, civil servants and public health workers'.

There is still an occasional tendency here to try to convict abstract entities such as 'the German army' or the 'generals' where one can now name and identify individuals. The wealth of documentation is so enormous that there is no need for this kind of shoddy shorthand. And the book does largely avoid it. It begins with the antecedents, precedents and legitimation of the Holocaust, goes on to cover the link between the German attack on the Soviet Union and the transition in Nazi anti- Semitic operations from partial persecution, deportation and exile to systematic killing, and the implementation of this policy in German-controlled Europe. It ends by discussing the new evidence from previously closed Soviet-controlled archives. It is an indispensable guide to the present state of knowledge and understanding of the Holocaust.

It is also a reminder that much less is understood or known about the other great killings of this century: the purging of the kulaks, of so many non- Russians, and the millions killed in the Stalinist purges; the Armenian massacres in the First World War; the massacres in Cambodia; the three million killed in India during partition; the massacres in Ruanda-Burundi. The preaching of class prejudice has been much less systematically studied than that of anti-Semitism. Little has been written of the history of eugenics, the pseudo-science from which so much of the killing stemmed.

Knowledge of the Holocaust has tamed the more overt expressions of anti-Semitism, but little else in the vocabulary of group-think, group-blame, group-hate has been controlled in the same way. The proper study of the Holocaust reminds us that what was used to unite Germans behind Hitler can be used by other groups against other targets, for similar purposes and with similar outcomes.