This is one of the most surprising books I've read. Surprising in terms of altering the way I'm looking at one whole continent and its people, at the history of Europe during the 20th century, and at the origins of certain political movements of today. It isn't often that a book manages all that, but this one did - even if it, in an ironic twist, itself falls prey to the problem it points out in its introduction.
Let's start by summarizing the book: Hitler, far from inventing genocidal racism, was only carrying on in a fashion already established by German colonial practices established in south-west Africa in the first years of the 20th century. To put it bluntly - what Hitler did to Europe was just what Europe had done to the rest of the world.
Of course there are differences - the gas chambers of the Holocaust stand unique in history - but one can draw parallels between the racial hierarchy of the Nazis where the world was divided into Übermenschen (super-humans) and Untermenschen (sub-humans), and the common concept that the white man was, as his conquest of other people proved, superior to the conquered not just in terms of military force, but in biological terms a "superior being".
The book starts off by noticing that Hermann Göring, when asked to testify in the Nuremberg trials[a] and on the insistence of the judge, spent a total of four sentences describing his and his family's history up to the start of World War I. This, despite his family having been involved in the German colonization of south-west Africa - the site of the first known "death camp": A camp whose primary purpose was to kill the people put there. Göring did bring up parallels to the German desire for "lebensraum" in the colonialism practiced by the Allied powers, but if his death sentence is something to go by, this line of argument didn't gain much traction.
The book then rewinds time to the first Europeans sailing down the west coast of Africa, and the first European colonies. The book does a good job of explaining the context in which the colonization took place - specifically what caused Germany to spend a fortune to get a foodhold in Africa, and why this wasn't trivial.
I'll skip a large part of the book here and go straight for the death camps. A "death camp", as defined by the authors, is a camp where the explicit primary purpose is to kill the people put there. One can say that in a labor camp, the prisoner is a source of labor that happens to die; in a death camp, the prisoner is killed but happens to be useful as a source of labor. The difference here is crucial, as the German policy wavered between the two before finally settling into the latter and nearly wiping out the Herero and Nama people that lived on the land that the Germans wanted.
What happened is well documented. The German military officials in the colony carried out this genocide with the assistance of the German Emperor who either encouraged them or failed to do his duty as commander and stop them.
It is when considering the moral implications and the origins of this that things get interesting, however. Not even 19th century Germany, industrialized as it was, had the ability to quickly annihilate tens of thousands of people. Part of the plan therefore, consisted of simply driving the Herero tribes into the desert and denying them access to the oases; causing mass death by thirst. This, if anything, was the addition that the Germans brought: Not just driving people away, but purposefully driving them into an area that, by their controlling the oases, could not support life.
Or was it?
Driving people away from their homes and grabbing their land isn't something uniquely German - and it is here that the book stops where it should have proceeded deeper into the past. Feuds over land are staples of human history. One can read the Old Testament in the bible to find the Jews conquering and destroying other tribes. The Mongols, under Genghis Khan[b] and Timur Lenk[c] became known for pyramids of skulls and for the wholesale slaughter of cities. Closer to German south-west Africa, we find Shaka, the Zulu king, causing a ripple effect known as (the) mfecane[e] by his conquests, which left whole areas depopulated as displaced tribes fought the current owners of the land they had been displaced into. Finally, showing that nothing is new, when the two tribes - the Herero and the Nama - that were the target of German genocide first met, it was when
the Nama began displacing the Herero, leading to bitter warfare between the two groups[*]. Warfare, it should be noted, that gave the Germans a foothold in the region.
My single criticism of the book is that it only moves the "invention of genocide" from World War II back to about 1905 or so. "Nothing is new under the sun", and sadly this is applicable to genocide as well. The authors argue convincingly that the racism seen in nazism comes from colonialism. But where did colonialism come from? That's where they stop. This is sad, because by drawing the lines back from World War II to colonialism, they join the Nazis and their enemies, showing a sort-of common origin. This shows that Nazi Germany wasn't some singular evil that appeared out of nothingness in Europe. But by not going further, we are left to believe that European evil is something that appeared out of nothingness. It should be noted that a common origin doesn't excuse anything. Racism isn't something that must grow more virulent - every addition to it is a choice made by the person doing the addition.
What to make of all this, then? Just how horrible were the Germans? Here I have to go with the method used by Laurence Rees when he considered the Nazi's holocaust:
We must judge behavior by the context of the times. Should they have known better? The obvious risk is that by judging colonial Germans of 1905 as being horrible, we inadvertently create an idealized picture of "German society". The more we say that the military commanders of German south-west Africa were morally at fault when judged against German morals of the time, the more we must hold German morals of 1905 up as something not containing the virulent racism that we accuse the commanders of.
Perhaps a way is to expand the scope to include the whole "European world" - not just Europe, but the Americas as well. One can also go back in time to early Christianity to see what ideals the dominant religion have held up. In this context, one sees that even if the actual practice left a lot to be desired, the concept of "equality among all human beings" have always had a strong position. The American Civil War had come and gone, and slavery had been abolished in the United States.
When viewed against this backdrop, the racism and the actions of German South-West Africa stand out as an abomination. It was a retrograde motion in the greater flow of history, not just morally, but also a perversion of science as it clothed itself in Darwin's theories. But it didn't appear out of nothing. It was, one could say, the old, ever present, racism that was given the powers of industrialism and a target.
The following is controversial, as acknowledged by the authors, but they make a good case of it actually being deliberate and planned.
"Auschwitz - The Nazis & The 'Final Solution'", Laurence Rees, ISBN: 0563522968