Not All Holocaust Scholars Appreciate This New Reading of WWII

British historian Antony Beevor presented the controversial thesis from his new best-seller at Yad Vashem this week.

Tom Segev
Tom Segev
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Tom Segev
Tom Segev

Antony Beevor is a British historian who has specialized in the period of World War II. He writes bestsellers that are published in a great many languages, including Hebrew. It isn't easy to write military history. The experiences of battle, like home renovations and toothaches, are of interest in fact only to those who have experienced these things themselves, and a description of Force A from the north joining up with Force B in the south is for the most part useful only to insomniacs.

Beevor, a genial man of 66, was a student of Sir John Keegan, the military historian who died this year. Beevor's mother was a writer, as was his grandfather. He is married to a granddaughter of Duff Cooper, a Conservative politician who among other things served in Winston Churchill's cabinet, and was himself a writer too. Beevor served as an officer in the British army. But all this would not have afforded his books their success had he not been blessed with a huge talent for weaving the theory of strategic warfare and tactical orders of battle into gripping human stories.

He is one of those popular historians who invest in their books years of archival research, which once led the government of Russia to impose a ban on him. This happened because of his book on the fall of Berlin, in 1945. Inter alia, Beevor described the war crimes committed by the Russians against the German population, including rapes. The Russians were furious because Beevor had found a large part of the information about the rampages of the Russian soldiers in documents written by the Russians themselves.

World War II is still No. 1 on the list of the most popular historical subjects of all times, but its status can expect a big challenge two years from now when the world starts marking the centenary of the outbreak of World War I. That war is considered the breakthrough to the 20th century, including World War II. Nonetheless, the first war has already receded into history, whereas the second is still present as part of the biography of an entire living generation. Auschwitz and Hiroshima endowed it with apocalyptic dimensions, and its popularity also derives from a series of myths that have created an image of a victory of good over absolute evil. Evil has an appeal of its own.

Beevor spent this week in Jerusalem. He came to an international conference held at Yad Vashem and brought with him a thesis that to this day arouses discomfort among many Holocaust researchers. It is contained in Beevor's new bestseller, "The Second World War," which this time does not recount one battle or another, but rather tells a story of World War II in its entirety. The annihilation of the Jews is depicted as part of the story of that war, not as a separate chapter in the history of humanity or even as a separate chapter in the history of the Jewish people.

There is a generation of Israelis who learned about the Holocaust as though it had happened on "a different planet" and reflected mainly the sadistic nature of the German people. This tendency expropriated the Holocaust from history, stressed its uniqueness and exploited it for current needs, including the struggle for the establishment of the state. The term "Holocaust" was identified mainly with the death camps, which began being operated in December 1941. The truth is that the murder of Jews began with the occupation of Poland, in September 1939, and continued in Russia, beginning in June 1941.

There are those who describe the slaughter of the Jews as a burden on Germany's war effort and see it as evidence of the strength of Hitler's anti-Semitic madness. Beevor describes the slaughter of the Jews as part of the efforts the Germans made to achieve their war aims; they murdered millions of non-Jewish civilians as well and also initiated a series of military actions that seemed contrary to strategic logic.

In his lecture this week at Yad Vashem, Beevor presented the thesis that beginning in December 1941, the Germans lost the chances they had of winning the war. That's when their army was stopped on the outskirts of Moscow and the United States joined the war. The Germans' defeat was then certain, even if none of the sides engaged in the war had realized it yet. In part, because of the establishment of the death camps, 1942 was one of the worst years of the war from the Allies point of view. However, in the historian's view, 1942 is seen as the turning point on the way to the defeat of the Germans, in part because of the battle of El Alamein in Egypt, where Field Marshal Bernard Montgomery's forces blocked them.

And it wouldn't have been Antony Beevor had he not devoted several minutes of his lecture in Jerusalem to a colorful description of the panic that gripped the foreigners in Cairo, including the Jews, in face of the danger that the Germans would succeed in reaching the city. Everyone packed up their possessions and tried to reach the Land of Israel, by car and by train. The British authorities in Egypt were aware of the looming special danger to Jews and issued them preferential railway tickets. The British Mandate authorities in Palestine, however, did not allow them in.

In this context, Beevor quoted British MP Harold Nicolson. On December 9, 1942, Nicolson wrote: "I have a sense that my fellow members (of Parliament ) feel not so much 'What can we do for such people?' as 'What can we do with such people after the war.'" This was the same Nicolson who inscribed in his diary the following classic sentence: "Although I loathe anti-Semitism I dislike Jews."

The battle of El Alamein. A turning point.



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