From Weimar to Warsaw

From the seeds of destruction sown in the Weimar Republic to the tangled ties of DPs, Allies and German hausfrauen, and the strange story of the Warsaw Zoo, three books offer new insights into Nazi Germany With a clutch of new relevant texts appearing every season, Princeton University Press is rapidly becoming one of America's premier sources of Shoah scholarship. Its two latest offerings serve as something like bookends to the Nazi era, the one dealing with the preparation of the ground for Hitler, the other examining the aftermath of Germany's defeat. To be sure, Eric D. Weitz's "Weimar Germany" considers Germany between the World Wars from far more than merely the political perspective. Stressing the new liberalism and modernism that marked the Republic, Weitz, a professor of history at the University of Minnesota and the author of books on genocide and on German communism, devotes whole chapters in his new work to Weimar's astonishing flowering in architecture, cinema, photography, literature, painting, sculpture, journalism and cabaret life. One innovative chapter even walks the reader through Weimar Berlin, presenting the sort of vivid and pertinent information one rarely gets from a history text. Yet inevitably underlying all of this is our knowledge of where the great German experiment with democracy, parliamentarianism, a free press and liberal social mores was going to lead. And while Weitz argues that Germany was not destined to turn totalitarian, he does make it clear that the Republic was sown along with the seeds of its very own destruction. Those seeds are familiar to us: the widespread German refusal to accept that Germany had either actually caused or was actually defeated in World War I; the vast numbers of demobilized soldiers, many demoralized or wounded, for whom sufficient employment could not be found in a shattered economy; the onerous reparations demanded by the Versailles Treaty; the humiliating loss of territory and the occupation of Germany's industrial Ruhr heartland by French and Belgian troops; the chaotic electoral system that throughout the life of the Republic never gave any single party a majority (41 parties contested the 1928 election); the hyperinflation that at one point had some workers being paid twice a day; and the final nail in the coffin, the Great Depression, which led to such social and economic turmoil that Paul von Hindenburg declared a national emergency and allowed Chancellor Heinrich Bruning to rule by decree. But above all Weitz points to the Rightists, both the old, established conservatives (military, aristocratic, clerical, capitalist) and the younger, radical conservatives (authoritarian, militant, street-tough), who never liked the notion of a Republic and who did their best from the start to bring it down. Anti-socialist, anti-Semitic, anti-modern and anti-liberal, the Right, so Weitz argues, was the worm at the core of the apple. Its methodology included obstruction, intimidation and terror. "There were, by some counts," Weitz reports, "more than 200 paramilitary groups in Germany in the 1920s and hundreds more right-wing associations and circles." The communists certainly led insurrections and carried out assassinations. But the Rightists simply did even more of the same. "Weimar Germany" pays little attention to individual personalities, leaving the impression the period featured few if any great figures (which may be true), and Weitz doesn't seem to offer much that is new. But his book has at least three virtues: It presents a comprehensive and synthetic history, it is thoughtfully illustrated (including wonderful color plates) and it is written in a crisp, transparent prose that might serve as a model for modern historians. Reading the introduction to Atina Grossman's "Jews, Germans and Allies," I feared I was in Big Trouble. "I focus," the author writes, "particularly on gendered experiences of the body, of sexuality and reproduction." Even more alarming, she concludes: "My hope is that this 'entangled' approach can usefully complicate our understanding of gender as a historical category..." Oh dear, thought I. Not only "gendered experiences," but an attempt to "usefully complicate" them? Turns out Grossman, a professor of history at New York's Cooper Union, has indeed written a problematic book, but the problems are not those suggested in her introduction. "Jews, Germans and Allies" is well-written, exhaustively researched, amply illustrated and full of fascinating material, but it would appear, as the title suggests, she's got source material for three books here - if not more. She does pull together her three categories, but in depicting Germany in the immediate aftermath of its defeat, she easily has enough on her plate for several discrete studies. On the German side of the triangle, Grossman focuses on women, who, she maintains, suffered the most, and not least at the hands, if that's the correct anatomical reference, of the invading Red Army. As Antony Beevor pointed out in his recent "The Fall of Berlin, 1945," it was the rape of Nanking all over again, although Grossman unhelpfully estimates the number of rapes at anywhere between 20,000 and two million, which is a considerable anywhere. In any case, in 1945 women were well in the majority in Germany and especially in Berlin. Grossman credits the traditional hausfrau's passion for housekeeping for the rapid rebuilding of the country. And she documents the similar impulse to "do anything for the children" that led to considerable "fraternizing" with Allied troops and subsequently a high abortion rate. All of this dovetailed nicely with what Grossman shows was the widespread phenomenon of Germans viewing themselves as "victims" of the Nazis and of the war. As the famed photo-journalist Margaret Bourke-White put it: "The Germans act as though the Nazis were a strange race of Eskimos who came down from the North Pole and somehow invaded Germany." Jewish survivors and refugees meanwhile underwent different experiences. Among other things they evidenced a passion for marriage and reproduction, soon enough developing what at that time were the world's highest birth rate and lowest incidence of infant mortality. If they were victims, Grossman suggests, they rebounded with amazing speed. As Jews - perhaps as many as a half-million - poured out of Central Europe and the Soviet Union for occupied Germany's American Zone, Grossman says a widespread attitude became: "[I]f there really had been so many death camps, then why are there so many Jews around, and why do they look so healthy and well-dressed and have so many children?" As early as 1946, Grossman says the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA) "was already of the opinion that the Jewish Question has been a 'cause c?l?bre' long enough." Equally complicated were the attitudes and actions of the Allies and the relief and rescue agencies. The victorious armies were unprepared for the magnitude of the problem of Displaced Persons, although after some fumbling they rose to the occasion. Each for their own purposes, the Americans and the Soviets competed to rehabilitate survivors and refugees. But the attention and largesse devoted to the DPs fed resentment among the Germans, and the Americans soon enough were buying into the concept of "poor Germany," which the Yanks with equal rapidity were coming to view as their ally against their new nemesis, the Soviets. The Zionists meanwhile were busy recruiting DPs for Mandate Palestine, which affected the foreign policies of just about everyone involved. And of course the DPs themselves complicated matters with their needs and demands, their compensation claims, their black marketeering, their refusal to be repatriated to hostile homelands, sometimes their refusal to end their DP status. By 1952, Grossman points out, some 2,000 Holocaust survivors had left Israel and returned to Germany. "The JDC [Joint Distribution Committee] was left to tear its hair out," she writes, "over how to deal with the 'baffling' problem of both the DPs who refused to leave in the first place and those who, most ironically and embarrassingly, illegally slipped back in from Israel." It was not until 1957 that the last DP camp was closed. As noted, there's enough fascinating material in Atina Grossman's "Jews, Germans and Allies" for at least three books, even without the "gendered history" and the rather unprofessional inclusion of anecdotes about the author's family experiences in postwar Germany. Between the bookend histories discussed above was of course the war itself, and amid its horrors the war and the war on the Jews included no end of utterly incredible stories. To those we must now add Diane Ackerman's "The Zookeeper's Wife." This is the story, told not for the first time, of Jan and Antonina Zabinski, who directed Warsaw's vast and sophisticated zoo and who, during the German occupation, helped smuggle hundreds of Jews out of the ghetto, hid them on the zoo grounds and in their adjacent home, and helped them find permanent shelter elsewhere. It's a great story, and a great shame that Ackerman, an American naturalist and the author of some 20 books for adults and children, does not tell it greatly. Three complaints. First, "gendered history" aside, it's clear that despite the book's title the primary hero is not Antonina but Jan, a fearless member of the resistance who risked his life over and over again, smuggling food into the ghetto, smuggling Jews out, blowing up German trains and whatnot. Second, the book is padded out with wild digressions, whether on Jacques Offenbach or on prehistoric horses or, again, on whatnot. Third, Ackerman repeatedly indulges in the most embarrassing flights of purple prose. Example: "On warm spring days, the lilacs' purple cones swung like censers and a sweet narcotic amber drifted in at intervals, allowing the nose to rest awhile between fragrant reveilles... Cross over and you enter Praski Park, as many Warsawians did on warm days, when the linden trees' creamy yellow tassels drugged the air with the numbing scent of honey and the rhumba of bees." Along with her inane prose (anyone why describes the "noise" of artillery as "anvil blows" has obviously never heard artillery), Ackerman also indulges in some dubious history. "Tens of thousands of Jews managed to escape from the Ghetto"? Really? "Many Christian Poles hid Jewish friends for the whole length of the war"? Maybe - but how do we define "many"? "The Zookeeper's Wife" includes fascinating stories, such as how Berlin Zoo director Lutz Heck looted Warsaw's zoo of its finest animals, then enthusiastically joined a Nazi shooting party and liquidated the remaining caged beasts and birds. And the repeated heroic acts of both Zabinskis, who were eventually honored as Righteous Gentiles by Yad Vashem, were truly magnificent. It all makes for an astounding narrative. Too bad Diane Ackerman didn't simply trust the facts to speak for themselves. Contributing Editor Matt Nesvisky frequently writes about books.