Roger Moorhouse on a striking micro-history of a Nazi slave-labour camp
Reviewed by: Roger Moorhouse
Author: Christopher R Browning
Price (RRP): £12.99
Christopher Browning is well-established as one of the foremost scholars of the Holocaust. In Remembering Survival, he eschews the grand narrative so beloved of his peers, and opts instead for a micro-history of a small complex of slave-labour camps – Wierzbnik-Starachowice – in occupied Poland.
The tale that emerges is one that will be grimly familiar to those who have read other volumes on the Holocaust. All the usual horrors are present and the reader is spared little: the massacres, the casual brutality, the ritual humiliations; the heart-wrenching deaths and the improbable survivals.
What is most striking, indeed, is that events unfold – not in Auschwitz, or Treblinka, or occupied Warsaw – but in a small provincial town that few will ever have heard of.
Browning’s is an impressive reconstruction of the story, gleaned almost exclusively from first-hand accounts of survivors. In this way, he brings a harrowing immediacy to his narrative, but he never allows his historian’s critical eye to desert him.
Throughout, he weighs the various testimonies, comparing and contrasting, seeking to reconcile contradictions.
Scrupulously fair, he is alive to all the nuances of his subject matter and the potential pitfalls of his chosen method. Despite the difficulties that he faces, his analysis and commentary are exemplary.
In many ways, Remembering Survival can be seen as a complementary volume to the book that made Browning’s name: Battalion 101. Where the former viewed the Holocaust from the perspective of a single unit of German auxiliary policemen, the latter chooses the opposite viewpoint, telling the story through the experiences of the victims of a single hitherto-unstudied labour camp.
Though Remembering Survival may lack the headline-grabbing, game-changing quality of its predecessor, it is still a hugely impressive book: a formidable feat of research interpreted by a historian possessed of tremendous clarity of thought and an admirable ease of expression.
It is to be heartily welcomed.
Roger Moorhouse is the author of Berlin at War (Bodley Head, 2010)