Auschwitz (Amazon US, UK, DE [english], DE [german]) is probably my favorite of the history-related books I’ve read so far in 2009. Young Stalin (Amazon US, UK, CA, DE [english], DE [german]) comes in a close second, but it’s off-topic in this blog!
I first discovered Auschwitz because one of its authors, Robert Jan Van Pelt, testified on behalf of Deborah Lipstadt in the libel suit brought against her by David Irving. I read Lipstadt’s History on Trial (Amazon US, UK, CA, DE [english]), in which she mentions Van Pelt on several occasions. I found the description of his testimony concerning architectural evidence at Auschwitz to be very interesting and thought I’d follow up by reading the book he co-authored with Dwork.
The book begins by sketching Auschwitz as an “ordinary town with an ordinary 700-year-old history.” The town was established as German (“Auschwitz”) but had long periods of being Polish (“Oswiecim”). Even at its German founding it was in the close vicinity of several Polish towns. It was, in other words, a border town, a fact which played a very important role in its future. After the total polonification of the area, Germany made several turns towards the East (1700s, 1800s); though Germans tended to see these movements as returns towards an East that was naturally theirs.
I’m close to embarking on an overly-detailed look at the book, but I’ll stop now (well, soon) and simply say “read it” if you are at all interested in that part of history. As a non-professional, I’m not in any position to critique or formally review the book, so I can only tell you what I particularly liked about it: the inclusion of some early history of Auschwitz/Oswiecim; the portions of its National Socialist history that pre-dated its use as a concentration camp (we immediately — and rightly — think “concentration camp” and “gas” when hearing Auschwitz mentioned, so it was interesting to read about the pre-concentration camp days it spent under the National Socialists), the fascinating detail of the architectural record and the evidence it provides as to how Auschwitz was actually used.
Highly recommended (of course, since it’s a Book of the Week!)