Book Review of “An Iron Wind- Europe Under Hitler” by Peter Fritzsche

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A child with a newsboy’s cap raises his arms in surrender during a roundup of Warsaw Jewss.

In his book, “An Iron Wind,” author Peter Fritzsche attempts to capture the mindset of civilians caught in the dismal and horrific abysses dominating towns and cities surviving through the violent wake of the Nazi’s slow but sure advancement toward their goal of expanding their “living space” across much of Europe.  One would think that the non-targets of Nazi aggression would express strong concern for Jews since most of the Poles and French were far from ignorant about what was happening. But as the author discovered, the non-jews often “subordinated this terrible knowledge to their own sufferings.” (The loss of economic standing and eventual political strength that could lead to loss of liberty but not death). In the process, non-jews reaffirmed their Aryan status and distanced themselves from the Jews. Some were willing to overlook the roundups, beatings, and jailing of Jews from the ghettos (in places like Warshaw) if only they didn’t have to personally witness the beatings, starvation and inhumane handling of them: And many Poles did witness these atrocious events: “Three hundred thousand Jews were deported from the Warshaw Ghetto and murdered in Treblinka in the summer of 1942.” — “A cost of lives greater than Hiroshima and Nagasaki combined.”

Even the neutral Swiss maintained “that Swiss stay Swiss” and “a revolution does not speak to us.” In other words, this small, and mostly defenseless country took neutrality to the extreme and opted to stay out of the ugly and evil slaughter of the Jews.  And still others rationalized that the Jews went to their deaths without a struggle– they “went unquestionably to their certain deaths: with a pfiff (sic) of a whistle they left their homes and accepted the separation of their families… Everything functioned smoothly and punctually under the clubs of their own people– the [Jewish] police.”

This is an intense book, particularly when one grasps the lack of empathy as opposed to compassion by non-jews: That is if empathy is defined as substituting or assimilating into the obvious pain and misery that the Jews must have felt. For non-Jews, to only look the other way seems incomprehensible but Fritzsche writes convincingly, and it appears to be so. As to the Nazis, he quotes writer Czeslaw Milosz who opined that such evil could only be rationalized by “the plasticity of human nature” that could only try to explain how “young men in perfectly clean uniforms [who] can shoot people while gnawing on a ham sandwich. In these conditions, the beast that slumbers in every man could go on a rampage with impunity and still stroke a child’s head or light the candles on a tree on Christmas Eve.”

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