Hulton Archive/Getty Images

German Foreign Minister Joachim von Ribbentrop and Josef Stalin standing behind Soviet Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Molotov as he signs the two countries’ nonaggression pact, Moscow, August 23, 1939

The Nazi foreign minister had lost his patience with the Poles. “You are stubborn on these maritime questions,” he told Polish diplomats in January 1939. “The Black Sea is also a sea!”1 Joachim von Ribbentrop had been trying for years to induce Poland to join Germany in a war against the Soviet Union. Germany would annex from Poland districts by the Baltic Sea; the two countries would invade the USSR; and Poland would be compensated with conquered Soviet territory on the Black Sea.

Ribbentrop’s master Adolf Hitler wanted a deal so that he could begin a war. For the Nazis, the Soviet Union was the main enemy, and its agriculture and oil the prize. But between Germany and the USSR lay Poland, and the Poles expressed no interest in being the junior partner in the adventure. Why should Poland trade Baltic territories for the chance to fight for a Black Sea coastline? Why would German troops, once they entered Poland, ever leave? The Polish foreign minister declared that Poland would concede no territory and would fight to preserve its sovereignty. France and Britain, having seen Germany annex Austria and destroy Czechoslovakia, now offered guarantees to Poland, and sought to bring the Soviet Union into an alliance.

Josef Stalin doubted that the British or the French would be much use if Germany attacked, and he knew that Poland would not permit Soviet troops to cross Polish territory to attack Germany. Stalin waited for a better offer, and got one—from Hitler. On August 23, 1939, Ribbentrop flew to Moscow, where he and his Soviet counterpart Vyacheslav Molotov concluded a nonaggression pact. The agreement included a secret protocol whereby the two powers endorsed each other’s spheres of influence in Eastern Europe, dividing between themselves the lands between the Baltic and the Black Seas.

Having failed to draw the Poles into a war against the Soviet Union, Ribbentrop succeeded in enticing the Soviets to join in an invasion of Poland. On September 1, 1939, the Wehrmacht attacked Poland from the west and south; on September 17, the Red Army entered from the east. The two armies met in the middle of Poland, marked their new common border, and organized a joint victory parade. Stalin had concluded, understandably, that it was better to fight the Germans later rather than sooner. Convinced that Hitler would wait to begin a second eastern offensive, he was surprised by the German invasion of June 22, 1941. Three years later, the Red Army drove the Germans from the Soviet Union. So the USSR began World War II as an ally of Germany, but ended it as an enemy of Germany. The Nazis, too, sacrificed ideological consistency for strategic prudence. Because Poland announced its decision to fight, Hitler decided to make an alliance with the Soviets in order to start the war in 1939. Because Poland indeed fought, Britain and France declared war on Germany. Hitler had wanted a simple death struggle with the Soviet Union. He got his war with the Soviet Union, but it was anything but simple.

Richard Evans chronicles this complex war in enviable prose. Hitler had little desire to engage the British; his Luftwaffe could not control the skies, and the idea of a marine invasion of a naval power posed problems from the start. The quick German victory over France in spring 1940, on the other hand, made Hitler look like a genius. It convinced Germans of the possibility of a Blitzsieg, or “lightning victory,” against the main enemy, the Soviet Union. The Red Army was thought to be inferior to the French armed forces; Hitler thought that defeating the Soviet Union would be child’s play. But the “lightning victory” in the Soviet Union was a will-o’-the-wisp. By December 1941 the Red Army was mounting counterattacks, and Japan had brought the United States into the war by bombing Pearl Harbor. Hitler welcomed Tokyo’s distraction, believing that the Japanese would keep the Americans penned in the Pacific. But in 1942, after a spring offensive, the Germans failed again to defeat the Soviet Union. They then found themselves facing the assembled power of Great Britain, the Soviet Union, and the United States.

Evans’s account of the German experience of war is exceptionally accessible. Rather than the conventional “Führer,” he calls Hitler the “Leader,” in one deft gesture making the German experience less alien. He places much emphasis on individual choices, particularly of those who wished to resist Hitler. He keeps in view strategic circumstances and technical achievements, with sketches, for example, of the importance of aircraft carriers and long-range fighters. His account of Nazi atrocities within Germany is overwhelming in its painful detail. There is no better summary of the “euthanasia” program, in which German doctors and nurses gassed 80,000 mentally and physically handicapped people by the summer of 1941. At one of the extermination facilities, the staff celebrated the ten-thousandth cremation, as Evans relates, by bedecking a corpse with flowers.


Evans faces controversial issues squarely and makes balanced judgments. The Allied bombing of German cities was, he concludes, both murderous and effective. It killed tens of thousands of innocent civilians. But it also reduced morale, diverted dual-use cannons from the eastern front, and slowed the development of new weapons. He provides a clear account of the rise and fall of the members of Hitler’s clique. He describes the decline of Hermann Göring, “the second man of the Reich,” who was originally charged with the creation of a vast exterminatory German colony in the conquered Soviet Union. As the war continued Heinrich Himmler took charge of the extermination, and Albert Speer made the most of the limited resources of Germany’s ever-shrinking empire. Unlike some historians of the war, Evans does not simply allow Jews to disappear from the scene to destinations with ominous names. He follows the trains to the death factories and the people to the gas chambers, preventing the reader from seeing industrial killing as somehow quick and clean.

In this, as in the previous two volumes of his imposing history of Nazi Germany, Evans deploys a sort of vertical method. Uniting his youthful training in social history with later interests in political history, he weaves together the experiences of people and the workings of the institutions of power. Heretofore the combination has served him very well. The problem with the period between 1939 and 1945, however, is that Nazi power ceased to be vertical, as German soldiers, policemen, and bureaucrats spread themselves thin over much of the European continent, and the lines of power no longer flowed downward from Berlin to German society, but began to flow outward from Germany to the empire. Even Germany itself became a highly multinational state. Annexations of Polish territory from the Baltic Sea southward added fifteen times more Poles than Germans to the Reich. Some eight million foreign laborers came to live in Germany. Evans realizes that he must concentrate his attention on the German empire in the East, where the war was lost. His attempts to do so, however, bring rather mixed results.

Germany, in Evans’s presentation, was a complex society, defined by Christian morality, in which the majority was opposed to the persecution of Jews. Poles, on the other hand, had, in Evans’s account, no educated classes (these, he thinks, were eliminated by the Germans), and can be reduced to the stereotype of nationalism. Evans writes with tedious consistency of the “Polish nationalist resistance.” The word “nationalist” appears every time the anti-Nazi Polish opposition is mentioned—a lonely exception being the page where Poles rescue Emanuel Ringelblum, the chronicler of the Warsaw Ghetto, from a camp. (Ringelblum, along with another group of Polish rescuers, was later killed.)2

The group that Evans has in mind, which took the name “Home Army,” was established by men and women of the political center and left. Its founder, Michał Tokarzewski-Karasiewicz, was a feminist theosophist from a nationally mixed family: hardly a nationalist. Some of the Home Army’s soldiers and officers were Jews, and were killed by Germans as such. Not a “nationalist organization,” the Home Army was part of the regular armed forces and was subordinate to the exile government of Poland. Having misclassified the Home Army, Evans ignores the other Polish armed forces: the army under General Władysław Anders that fought in the West, and the air force. Polish pilots made 12 percent of the kills of Luftwaffe fighters in the Battle of Britain—one wonders if Evans thinks that these men were “nationalists.”

Evans claims that the Polish government in exile never “took a clear stance” against the murder of Polish Jews. This is false; he contradicts himself later in the book, writing that on September 17, 1942, the Polish government in exile approved a “public protest against the crimes the Germans were committing against the Jews.” He goes on to say—inaccurately—that it “took no concrete action.” Polish authorities, no doubt, should have done more to publicize the plight of their three million Jewish citizens. As Evans fails to note, however, Polish leaders were in a position similar to that of the American, British, and Soviet governments: all had a war to win against Germany, but felt they could not allow their rather anti-Semitic societies to believe that they were fighting for Jews.

Hitler’s propaganda accused them of doing so, and London, Washington, and Moscow reacted much the same way as the Polish government: they emphasized the suffering of nations but not of Jews. But it was, as Evans notes, the Poles who told the British and the Americans about the Holocaust, not the other way around. The Polish army courier Jan Karski informed American and British statesmen and intellectuals about the mass killing. Evans does not mention Zegota, a department of the Polish government whose sole purpose was to rescue Jews. Thousands of Jews survived thanks to Zegota; thousands of others were sheltered by individual Poles. On the other hand, some Poles killed Jews, and some Poles served the Germans as policemen, while others turned in Jews to the Germans. Many profited from the Holocaust by taking Jewish property. The history of Polish–Jewish relations would be better served by a more sensitive account than the one Evans provides.3


Evans is naturally sympathetic to the Jews of the Warsaw Ghetto who chose to fight in April 1943 rather than to submit to the Germans. Unfortunately, according to Evans, the “Polish nationalist resistance rejected their call for help.” One might wish that Poles had done more to help the Warsaw Jews, but easy condemnations are no substitute for research. The Warsaw Ghetto Uprising was fought by two different Jewish groups, the Jewish Military Union and the Jewish Combat Organization. The Communist Polish People’s Guard helped the Jews of the Jewish Combat Organization, a coalition of mostly left-wing political parties founded in the ghetto by people without military experience.


Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Adolf Hitler saluting his troops as they march toward the San River during the occupation of Poland, near Jarosław, Poland, September 1939

The Home Army had already supplied arms to the Jewish Military Union, which was right-wing Zionist in political orientation and founded by Polish army veterans. The Warsaw district of the Home Army also gave a few guns to the Jewish Combat Organization. Following a prearranged plan, some Home Army soldiers tried to breach the walls of the ghetto during the uprising. According to German reports, Poles fought inside the ghetto alongside the Jews. The head of the Polish government in exile called upon Poles “to give help and shelter to those who are being murdered, and at the same time, before humanity, which has for too long been silent, I condemn these crimes.”4 Though Evans believes that the Home Army paid “little attention” to the courageous Jewish resistance, its press releases provided a chronicle of what it called the “Jewish-German war.”5

A little more than a year after the Germans defeated the Jewish fighters, the Home Army tried to liberate Warsaw. Evans blames the Home Army for the destruction of the Polish capital that resulted. Whatever a historian’s personal judgment about the wisdom of such a decision, his job is to clarify the perspective of the people who had to make it. For Evans, the Home Army was “a nationalist organization opposed to the communists.” It was hardly as simple as that. Warsaw for almost five years had been under murderous German occupation, whose pressures were unimaginable in London or Paris. In 1944, the Germans were taking suspect Poles by the thousands, shooting them on the site of the former ghetto, and burning their bodies on pyres. People fled underground, and wanted to act. Meanwhile, the Red Army was coming from the east. Poland had been invaded by both Germany and the Soviet Union in 1939, and now both the Red Army and the Wehrmacht were on Polish territory again.

In late July 1944, Home Army commanders took a horrible risk. They would try to liberate their capital in the interval between the German retreat and the arrival of the Soviets. In fact, the German lines held, and the Soviets did not advance. The Home Army was then defeated in two months of bitter fighting, during which the Poles observed the laws of war, the Germans did not, and Stalin prevented the Allies from helping the Poles. During the battle, the Home Army liberated Konzentrationslager Warschau, a camp for foreign Jews. Polish “nationalists” volunteered for this mission.6

Heinrich Himmler had long dreamed of removing Warsaw from the face of the earth, and the uprising gave him the occasion. Evans fails to mention Himmler’s orders to raze the city and kill every man, woman, and child within it. The order to kill, carried out by the Dirlewanger Brigade and other German SS and police units, caused many of the civilian casualties: some 40,000 civilians were shot in two days in the Wola neighborhood. Evans claims that the German commander in Warsaw, Erich von dem Bach-Zelewski, was responsible for the killing there. Bach was one of the worst German war criminals and, as commander, bears responsibility for the atrocities. Nevertheless, his role in Warsaw in August 1944 was different from what Evans suggests. Bach personally countermanded Himmler’s killing order. Evans writes that Wilm Hosenfeld, one of his good Germans, tried nobly but in vain to grant the defeated Home Army soldiers enemy combatant status. But the captured Poles were in fact treated as prisoners of war by Bach. After the uprising was suppressed, the Germans burned down Warsaw, building by building. They torched one last library the day before the Soviets finally arrived.

Or, as Evans would have it, “the Russians.” Evans insists on calling the Soviet Union “Russia” and its citizens “Russians.” Stalin, the Georgian leader of the Soviet Union, becomes a “Russian dictator,” and all Soviet institutions are “Russian.” The Soviet Union was not a nation-state, and certainly not one comprised of the Russian people. Russians were slightly more than half of the Soviet population. The institutions that held power were multinational, as was the Red Army. (The only expressly “Russian” military units were fighting on the German side. The Russian National Liberation Army, for example, raped and murdered thousands of Poles during the Warsaw Uprising.) With important exceptions such as Stalingrad and Leningrad, the war in the Soviet Union was fought not in its Russian republic but in Soviet Belarus and Ukraine. On the one matter about which Evans ought to have written about Russians, he does not. He claims that the Jews were “the largest single national group” in the Soviet secret police. In the period Evans discusses, Russians fit this description, not Jews.

The conflation of Russia with the Soviet Union distorts the history of the Holocaust. As Yitzhak Arad shows, nearly half of the 5.7 million murdered Jews died in the occupied Soviet Union, but only one percent of that total perished in its Russian republic. Nevertheless, as Arad writes, postwar Soviet propaganda submerged the question of Jewish suffering within a narrative of Soviet losses, and put emphasis on the Russians as the Soviet people who bore the brunt. In early 1953, the Soviet leadership was circulating a petition among prominent Soviet Jews, who were to apologize to Russians for claiming that Jews had suffered, and thank Russians for saving them.7

In fact, the USSR had no policy to save Jews, and Jewish soldiers were more likely than Russians to have been decorated for valor. The Stalinist version of Russian nationalism has lived a long life; a kindred ideology animates Russian President Dmitri Medvedev’s historical commission to prevent “falsifications of Russian history.” By presenting the eastern front as a confrontation between Germany and “Russia,” Evans contributes to a mystification.

Yitzhak Arad’s account begins with the violation of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact, the German invasion of the Soviet Union of June 1941, and the murder of Jews by special task forces known as Einsatzgruppen. It was in the Soviet Union that summer that Himmler urged his SS and police subordinates to murder women and children and then to exterminate entire Jewish communities. Arad is precise about the German institutions responsible: the Einsatzgruppen, the Security Police, the Order Police, and the Wehrmacht, with increasing assistance from subordinate local police forces—Ukrainians, Lithuanians, Latvians, ethnic Germans, Belarusians, Russians, Crimean Tatars, and others.

By choosing to begin his account in 1941, Arad exemplifies a shift in emphasis among historians of the Holocaust: from the year 1933, when Hitler came to power, to the year 1941, when Hitler conveyed his decision to exterminate the Jews. The annexation of Austria in 1938 had brought pogroms, and the invasion of Poland in 1939 had brought ghettos; but only Hitler’s attack on the Soviet Union meant mass murder of Jews. The killings in the Soviet Union showed what could be done. The use of gas chambers in 1942 allowed the Germans to kill the Jews of Poland with less personal contact. But the first million Jews died in 1941, in the occupied Soviet Union, by gunfire, over ditches. Another million and a half would be shot in 1942 and 1943.8

Though Arad’s book concerns the Soviet Union, most of the people he discusses were not really Soviet Jews. About 1.6 million of the 2.6 million Jews murdered there did not live in the Soviet Union when the war began. These were Jews who had found themselves under Soviet rule quite recently, as a result of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact. When the Germans arrived in June 1941, Polish Jews had been under Soviet rule for only twenty-one months, Lithuanian and Romanian Jews for scarcely twelve. These people, overrun by the Germans in ten days, died in horribly high proportions. Ironically, the largest group of survivors were Jewish refugees from western Poland who had been deported by the Soviets to Kazakhstan and Siberia in 1940 for refusing to exchange Polish for Soviet passports. Though perhaps a third of these 70,000 or so people died on the wretched Kazakh steppe, their chances for survival were far better there than under German occupation.

Bringing together German and Soviet archival sources with Jewish testimonies, Arad provides the full scholarly contours of what we are learning to call “the Holocaust by bullets.” The author of a pioneering study of Operation Reinhard, the gassing of the Jews of Poland, Arad has now chronicled the two major parts of the Holocaust.9 His work discredits two familiar postwar accounts: the Stalinist idea of the war as a Russian triumph and the Western image of the war as epitomized by Auschwitz. These powerful stories, each with its important kernel of truth, tend to obscure the mass killings of Jews in Poland, Soviet Ukraine, and Soviet Belarus. Rather awkwardly, however, Arad imposes another traditional perspective, the Zionist view. He tells the reader, incorrectly, that the “majority of the region’s Jews supported the Zionist movement” before the war. There was no Zionist movement in the Soviet Union. In pre-war Poland, the parties with the most Jewish support presumed that the proper site for Jewish society and politics was “here” ( doikayt in Yiddish), rather than “there” in Palestine.

Zionist interpretations of the Holocaust tend to understate the involvement of Jews in the German occupation apparatus and celebrate Jewish resistance. Arad is too sober a historian to romanticize the episodes of rebellion that he discusses, but he does take a rather surprising view of the Jewish police. In the occupied Soviet Union, as in occupied Poland, the Germans established Jewish councils and Jewish police forces. Arad first mentions the Jewish police in Minsk, where they aided rebellion. Only at the end of the book is the reader told that the Jewish police had been taking part in the roundups of fellow Jews all along.

What would have happened if Poland, rather than the Soviet Union, had accepted Joachim von Ribbentrop’s proposals in 1939? Would the Soviet Union have withstood an invasion of Germany allied with Poland and, perhaps, Romania and Hungary as well? That Germany and Poland did not make an alliance, and that Germany and the Soviet Union did, is perhaps the single crucial fact about the war. The Molotov-Ribbentrop pact determined not only the course of the war, but the history of a considerable part of Europe. It defined a band of territory, running north to south from the Baltic to the Black Sea, that was invaded three times: first by the Soviets, then by the Germans, then again by the Soviets.

It was here, in Molotov-Ribbentrop Europe, that the Soviets concentrated the coercive might of the NKVD during that first occupation, deporting hundreds of thousands of people and shooting tens of thousands more. It was here, as Arad shows, that more than a quarter of the Holocaust killings took place. Ukrainian partisans, trained to kill Jews by the Germans, ethnically cleansed Poles from precisely these lands. It was also here that the Soviets, after later driving out the Germans, responded to armed resistance with ethnic cleansings of their own. It was here that the Communist takeover of Eastern Europe began, as Stalin claimed from the Allies at the end of the war the lands he had been granted by Hitler at its beginning.10

When Hitler reneged on the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact in June 1941, the Germans entered this part of Europe on the way to a planned colonization of the Soviet Union, which would have entailed the killing of a large portion of the Soviet population. As this goal receded from view, Nazis gave priority to the elimination of the Jews. These two Nazi goals, victory over the Soviets and the destruction of the Jews, have guided our attempts to understand what happened between the Baltic and the Black seas during World War II. They supply the setting within which we discuss the Holocaust: as a moral collapse within a German national society at war, and as the shocking destruction of a Jewish national society under occupation.

Neither of these two books has much of interest to say about most of the population between the Baltic and the Black seas. Other atrocities committed in the region, such as the Germans’ deliberate starvation of three million Soviet prisoners of war, merit only brief mention. The anti-Semitism of Eastern European populations is presented by both authors without adequate historical explanation. For Arad it was “inherent”; for Evans it was “virulent.” The further study of the war and its victims will require a firmer grasp of the history of the peoples who lived alongside the Jews. In this important respect, the history of the Holocaust has yet to be written.

This Issue

December 3, 2009