BOOK REVIEW / Heroes who chose the electric fence: AGAINST ALL HOPE - H ermann Langbein; Constable, £19.95

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The Independent Online
Why did you not try to escape? How could you go like lambs to the slaughter? Survivors of Nazi concentration camps are often asked these questions. Escape as a moral duty, however, is the fantasy of POW adventure movies (Steve McQueen in The Great Escape) or comic-strip fictions such as The Count of Monte Cristo. Auschwitz was not Alcatraz; the mass extermination of European Jewry did not allow for escape.

A schoolchild once asked the Italian writer Primo Levi, who had survived Auschwitz, to draw a sketch of the prison camp. Watched by the rest of the class, Levi did his best to chalk the watch-towers and electrically charged barbed-wire fences on to the blackboard. The pupil then offered Levi his own plan for escape: "Here, at night, cut the throat of the sentinel; then, put on his clothes; immediately after this, run over there to the power station and cut off the electricity ... after that, I could leavewithout any trouble." It sounds as easy as pie; like something out of The Colditz Story.

Levi's anecdote illustrates the gap which grows ever wider between the reality of the Final Solution - how a civilised nation could commit such a crime as the extermination of all Jews within its power - and the way the historical events have been distorted through myth and film.

The Night Porter, for instance, presented a sado-masochistic love affair between an SS camp commandant and his former prisoner. Hermann Langbein deplores this master-slave stereotype (the evil Nazi versus the poor Jewish victim). Auschwitz was not the work of demons, but of ordinary menschen - human-beings. The murderers had the same blood and minds as us, the same grey faces.

Langbein's classic study, Menschen in Auschwitz (1972), was a book which Primo Levi wished he had written himself. "It has not been published to accuse anyone ... but to help us understand," said Levi.

Born in Vienna in 1912, Langbein went to Spain in 1938 with the International Brigades. He was interned in France and then deported to Auschwitz where he was appointed secretary to an SS physician. From this privileged position, Langbein was able to gather a mass of vital information about the camp and to play a key role in the international resistance there.

Against All Hope is a meticulously researched history of rebellion in Nazi concentration camps from 9 November, 1938 - the date of the infamous pogrom in Germany known as Kristallnacht, the "Night of the Broken Glass" - to 6 May 1945, when the last National Socialist camp was liberated.

Langbein insists that these camps were an isolated instance of human infamy. No doubt he has little sympathy for those German revisionist historians, such as Ernst Nolte, who claim a causal link between the Nazi mass murder of Jews and the earlier Stalinist extermination of kulaks. The Nazi camps created "a world all its own from which the natural laws of any human community were banished".

Langbein punctures the stereotype that all prisoners went to their deaths submissively. Rebellions occurred at Treblinka, Sobibor and Birkenau. Not that they had much numerical weight (fewer than 700 inmates escaped from Auschwitz); but, like the Warsaw Ghetto uprising, they were examples of outstanding moral courage.

The Nazi concentration camps were not a suitable soil for martyrs (hunger strikes were inconceivable). Prisoners were both debilitated and demoralised; their striped uniforms were instantly recognisable and their wooden clogs made stealthy and rapid walking impossible. Yet in the deadly inversion of all human values that was Auschwitz, crematoriums were blown up there.

With painstaking attention to detail and extreme objectivity, Langbein gives us the first comprehensive account of this extraordinary chapter of 20th-century history. Against All Hope took seven years to write; it is a great labour of devotion and scholarship.