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Monday, January 30, 2012

Book Review: Architects of Annihilation

Architects of Annihilation: Auschwitz and the Logic of Destruction. By Gotz Aly and Susanne Heim (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 2002. Pp. 514).

The events that led up to the atrocities of the Holocaust have been a source of ardent debate for historians. Being able to add clarity to the fog of Holocaust historiography is no small task for any writer. In their work, Architects of Annihilation: Auschwitz and the Logic of Destruction, historians Gotz Aly and Susanne Heim have effectively provided simple but convincing evidence that adds a new perspective to this critical historical event. Instead of prescribing to the traditional view of Holocaust historiography, Aly and Heim have challenged the status quo interpretation of the causes of the Holocaust by rejecting the notion that Nazi atrocities are simply too evil to be understood from a scholarly perspective. Instead, Aly and Heim suggest that it is both logical and prudent to view the Holocaust as a well constructed and detailed plan of mass execution (Pp. 4-5).

The central component in the development of Aly and Heim’s thesis is their suggestion that the Nazi extermination of the Jewish population was not motivated purely by racial hatred, but by a desire to establish German economic hegemony over the whole of Europe. In an effort to secure their economic destiny, the Nazi regime embarked on a, “negative population policy,” which sought to achieve, “an optimum population size” (Pp. 4). In other words, the Nazi’s targeted undesirable groups of the population in an effort to purify the German economic machine. The Nazi justification for the elimination of specific groups of the population came from the belief that, ‘Europe was one vast wasteland crying out for ‘readjustment’ and ‘reconstruction,’” (Pp. 7). Aly and Heim suggest that the Jewish population made a perfect target for the Nazi’s “negative population policy,” because of their strong participation in the German and Austrian economies, which was quickly branded as a detriment to Germany’s quest for economic superiority. Instead of being branded and persecuted by racist xenophobes, Aly and Heim suggest that the Jewish population’s sufferings originate out of the Nazi doctrine of economic domination.

To help support their claims, Aly and Heim appeal to the role of Auschwitz as a micro history of sorts, which they believe is representative of the larger Nazi policy of “negative population.” Aly and Heim point out the fact that the construction of Auschwitz coincided with Germany’s plan to improve the economic situation in Poland. From the Nazi perspective, Poland was a virtual economic backwater in desperate need of modernization. According to Aly and Heim, the construction and implementation of Auschwitz as a means of population control became a medium through which Poland could be put on the path towards economic prosperity, In other words, the “undesirable” or “excess” segments of the population that were seen as a burden to the Polish economy could simply be collected and eventually eliminated in the most efficient way possible. This bold move towards “social modernization,” in which segments of the Polish population were forced into camps such as Auschwitz, gave the Nazi regime all the justification it needed to further its acts of brutality.

In addition to their analysis of Auschwitz and other parts of Eastern Europe, Aly and Heim devote a large amount of their book to the role of social and economic “technocrats,” who they believe were the principle developers of the Nazi policy of population control. In this regard, Aly and Heim are, yet again, directly challenging the traditional historiography of Holocaust research. Instead of placing the blame on the shoulders of Nazi elites, Aly and Heim suggest that it was the contributions of social scientists (sociologists, economists, demographers, etc.) that were instrumental in developing the Nazi doctrine of negative population. Aly and Heim clearly support the notion that the German policy of population control would not have come to fruition without the involvement of these social “technocrats,” who were given free rein to develop and present their Darwinian-influenced ideas of population control and economic growth to the Nazi hierarchy.

Though clearly a unique perspective into the development of German economics and population control, this book fails to address the role of racism anti-Semitism in the Nazi doctrine of “negative population.” Despite Aly and Heim’s sporadic mentioning of German racism, there is a noticeable omission of its possible influence in shaping Germany’s policy towards the “undesirable” segments of society. Instead, Aly and Heim suggest that German racism and anti-Semitism were used as a secondary influence, which helped to bring about the primary goal of German economic superiority.

Despite its controversial claims, Architects of Annihilation should be seen as an enlightening perspective into the possible motives behind the horrors of the Holocaust. Gots Aly and Susanne Heim’s interpretation of Nazi policy is likely to inspire a plethora of debate between critics and supporters on the issue. Regardless of what skeptics or believers may say, this work should remain as a unique contribution to the historiography of the Holocaust.

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