Robbing the Jew: The Confiscation of Jewish Property in the Holocaust, 1933-1945.
During the late 1990s, international debates over much-belated efforts to bring restitution to many Holocaust victims reached new proportions. Several class-action lawsuits in American courts led to high-profile legal settlements and compensations funds, such as the German government's and industry's 2000 "Remembrance, Responsibility and the Future" Foundation. These processes also attracted scholarly attention. German historians, including Frank Bajohr, Gotz Aly, and Stefan Mehl, have been particularly active. While revealing the massive scope of private enrichment and state robbery of Jewish property, many of their works, however, remained regional or national in focus.
Martin Dean's new book, Robbing the Jews, offers a comprehensive survey of the confiscations by the Nazi government, its allies, and "neutral" countries, combining this with the perspective of Jewish victims. Dean, an accomplished research scholar at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum aims at analyzing the institutions and mechanisms used by Nazi officials and their collaborators to confiscate this property. It also sets out to reveal the beneficiaries and role of local populations. Moreover, Dean seeks to demonstrate how this robbery was related to the genocidal killings.
This study is based on an impressive array of newly-available archival sources. Dean worked through the massive compensation archive at the Berlin State Archive and the files of the Reich Main Treasury War Booty Office. Collections on the Senior Finance Presidents in Berlin-Brandenburg allowed him to shed light on the tax offices' implementation of confiscation measures. Although Dean's work incorporates archival material for other parts of Europe, most of his examination of Germany's allies and neutral countries relies on secondary literature.
Dean organizes his study in two parts. The first deals with the confiscations in Nazi Germany between 1933 and 1941; the second investigates the Europeanwide state-organized property theft between 1939 and 1945. In his discussion of the robbery in the Reich, Dean demonstrates that the Nazis did not have a blueprint at the onset of their dictatorship. Provisions of the July 1933 Law for the Denaturalization of Emigrants served as a means to confiscate the property of selected political and Jewish exiles. While the regime gradually intensified the economic persecution of German Jewry, it was only in 1938 that the government introduced comprehensive confiscation measures, including property registrations, punitive taxes, and systematic currency restrictions.
In stressing the role of the Austrian Anschluss and the 1938 November pogroms in radicalizing the regime's anti-Jewish policies and triggering farreaching confiscation measures, Dean supports previous findings by scholars like Avraham Barkai. By contrast, his revelation that denaturalization emerged as a key strategy in the large-scale theft, represents an important new finding. Dean shows how the Tax Office Moabit-West in Berlin progressively expanded its functions from administering the confiscations that fell under the July 1933 legislation to implementing the turn toward mass denaturalization and property theft at the beginning of the war (pp. 168-69).
Another significant finding relates to the German Currency Offices' expanding practice of blocking Jewish bank accounts. Dean devotes an insightful chapter to the discussion of how this practice helped the Nazi state control Jewish assets from the mid-1930s onward. While the co-operation between the financial administration and Gestapo ensured that the state became the main beneficiary of the post-1938 confiscations, the bureaucratic process of expropriations unfolded at a strikingly slow pace: The processing of many cases was still incomplete when Soviet armies encircled Berlin in 1945.
In its comparative focus on wartime Europe, the book's second part demonstrates how Nazi authorities applied and adjusted their prewar confiscation mechanisms internationally. Blocked bank accounts, for example, played an important role in robbing Jews in Poland and the Netherlands. Drawing on conventional distinctions between Nazi occupation policies in Western and Eastern Europe, Dean also emphasizes key differences. The general pattern in the West evolved around legal decrees, bureaucratic measures, and the collaboration of non-German administrators. In the East, by contrast, the robbery often unfolded openly and in direct connection with the military advances, ghettoization, and mass murder of the Jewish population in the Nazi death camps.
The book's comparative analysis of Germany's allies stresses the readiness and "degree of choice" with which governments in Slovakia, Hungary, Bulgaria, and Romania drew on German models to steal Jewish property. The author emphasizes that most of this expropriated wealth did not eventually benefit the German war machinery, but instead furthered these countries' self-defined national interests and plans for ethnically homogeneous nation states. These governments even introduced measures to prevent German authorities from exploiting their Jewish populations.
One of Dean's main contributions is his integration of the state confiscations of Jewish property into narratives of the Holocaust. The seizure of Jewish belongings, the author argues, functioned as a "catalyst" and became an "integral part of the murder process." By allowing substantial segments of ordinary Gentile populations to benefit from property confiscations, German authorities offered "useful incentives" and "spread complicity." These practices, Dean contends, made it possible to mobilize these populations on a far greater scale than merely by anti-Semitic propaganda by itself allowed. The growing theft also undermined the ability of persecuted Jews to obtain food and weakened their physical capacity to stand up against the onslaught, ultimately accelerating the progression to genocidal killings.
In contrast to studies by scholars like Gotz Aly that overemphasize the "economy" of the Final Solution, Dean's work leaves conceptual space to incorporate official German and local non-German anti-Semitism. A more explicit investigation of the often racially inundated language that, for instance, shaped local collaborators' articulation of their material interests before plundering Jewish property could shed further light on the intersections between ideological and economic dimensions and add to our understanding of these confiscations. Moreover, the victims' perspectives still remain too marginalized. A more thorough incorporation along the lines of Saul Friedlander's call for an "integrated history" of the Holocaust also holds the promise of further insights into the significance of economic factors discussed in this work. These points of contention aside, Dean's book represents a much-needed, even-handed survey of an important component of the Holocaust; it deserves a wide readership.
Thomas Pegelow Kaplan
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|Author:||Kaplan, Thomas Pegelow|
|Publication:||Canadian Journal of History|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Sep 22, 2009|
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