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Murder in Our Midst: The Holocaust, Industrial Killing, and Representation.

Midway through this fascinating set of essays, Omer Bartov concedes that "teaching a course on the Holocaust brought me once more face to face with the familiar, yet still jarring realization that neither teachers nor students, nor for that matter anyone who had either experienced it or studied it from some geographical or chronological distance could quite grasp the essence of the Holocaust or make it understandable to others." (p. 115) Perhaps it is this insight that explains why Bartov, the author of two pathbreaking studies of the Nazis' racist war against the Soviet Union, "until recently has avoided writing directly on the Holocaust." (p. 116) We can all be grateful that he has decided to move beyond this silence.

The essays, some of which have been published previously in other forms, often in journals that are not in every college library, suggest that Bartov has chosen to confront the enormous difficulties of representing the Holocaust by approaching his subject from a range of different perspectives. In Murder in our Midst, he moves with impressive ease and dizzying erudition from Homer to Hitler and Hillgruber, from reflections on the changing nature of warfare over the last two thousand years to explorations of how the Holocaust has been represented and has shaped national identity in Germany, Israel and the United States. In this book, the review essay becomes a starting point for a set of reflections about the moral and political responsibilities of the historian; a movie critique is the basis for a probing examination of the relationship between history and popular memory; reflections on a visit to the Historial de la Grande Guerre in Peronne, France and Yad Vashem lead to careful consideration of how the historian can describe her or his relationship to the subject matter she or he has chosen to study. Thus, these essays tell us much not only about the Holocaust but also about a range of ways to write and think about history.

The thread that ties the essays together is Bartov's thesis that the Holocaust is linked to the present because it embodied the practice of "industrial killing"; the "mechanized, rational, impersonal, and sustained mass destruction of human beings, organized and administered by states, legitimized and set into motion by scientists and jurists, sanctioned and popularized by academics and intellectuals, has become a staple of our civilization, the last, perilous, and often repressed heritage of the millennium." (pp. 3-4) For Bartov, the first instance of "industrial killing" was the First World War, a radical break with the practice of European warfare which preceded it; "rather than being the 'war to end all wars,' [it] became only the originator of the phenomenon of industrial killing that has come to characterize the twentieth century." (p. 26) In addition, the "imagery of hell" that was generated by World War I provides the categories - "the barbed wire, the machine guns, the charred bodies, the gas" - that describe the Holocaust, "with the great advantage that [the Holocaust] was totally lethal for the inmates and totally safe for the guards." (p. 49) Bartov does not want to deny the singularity of the Holocaust, but he does want to locate it firmly within modern societies, stressing its similarities with national wars and its connections to the social orders in which we live today.

This is not disengaged scholarship, and Bartov's essays are informed throughout by his conviction that "if historians, as intellectuals, concede their moral neutrality, then they will finally concede their intellectual, political, and moral irrelevance"; he has only harsh words for "proponents of relativism and indeterminacy" who lack "a commitment to truth and morality." (p. 134) His critique of modernity is thus from a decidedly un-postmodern theoretical perspective. However, if Bartov warns against the potential dangers of taking the linguistic turn, he remains extremely sensitive to the importance of language. In one of the most intriguing essays in the book, he reflects on the categories used to describe the Holocaust in Israel and Germany, and in another, he offers an insightful analysis of the ways in which Nazi categories to describe the war against the Soviet Union are pervasive in Andreas Hillgruber's analysis of the collapse of the eastern front in 1944-45. Thus, for Bartov, Hillgruber becomes an exponent not of "history from below" nor "history from above," but rather of "history from within (myself)" locked in his "own experiences, memories, and prejudices." (p. 80)

No less thought-provoking are Bartov's explorations of movies that have represented war and the Holocaust. In the book's closing essay, he moves from All Quiet on the Western Front to Apocalypse Now, from The Grand Illusion to Schindler's List, and in another essay, he takes a close look at Alexander Kluge's 1979 film, Die Patriotin. This critical examination of a major moment in the "new German cinema" suggests how Germans, whether on the left or the right, emphasize their status as victims of Hitler's war and create "an implicit parallel between the German victims and the victims of Germans." (p. 142)

Bartov's sympathies clearly lie with some of those who despaired the most about the impossibility of explaining the Holocaust and by implication, the fear that it could be repeated. His extended discussion of Primo Levi emphasizes his agreement that "the Holocaust 'happened, therefore it can happen again.'" For Levi, this is the "core of what I have to say," (p. 113) and it is also the core what Bartov wants to communicate in these essays. Murder is not in their midst, it is in ours. The response that Bartov offers is, however, not despair but an engaged, committed, politically aware scholarship of which these essays are an impressive model.

Robert G. Moeller University of California, Irvine
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Author:Moeller, Robert G.
Publication:Journal of Social History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Dec 22, 1997
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