The best books to ponder the worst of the Nazis’ crimes

Michael S. Bryant Author Of Confronting the "Good Death": Nazi Euthanasia on Trial, 1945-1953
By Michael S. Bryant

Who am I?

I’ve had a life-long interest in genocide dating back to my teenage years, when I read Simon Wiesenthal’s book The Murderers Among Us. Wiesenthal introduced me to the idea that governments sometimes murdered innocent people and could elude justice for their crimes. The question of human evil interacted with my theological interest in the problem of evil generally. Both genocide scholars and theologians were posing similar questions: how could people or God permit the occurrence of wanton evil when it was in their power to avoid it? And what should we do about genocide after it has happened? These questions launched my research into genocide and continue to fuel my study of this topic.


I wrote...

Confronting the "Good Death": Nazi Euthanasia on Trial, 1945-1953

By Michael S. Bryant,

Book cover of Confronting the "Good Death": Nazi Euthanasia on Trial, 1945-1953

What is my book about?

Years before Hitler unleashed the "Final Solution" to annihilate European Jews, he began a lesser-known campaign to eradicate the mentally ill, which led to the killing of some 270,000 people and set a precedent for the mass murder of civilians. Confronting the "Good Death" analyzes the American and German judiciary's attempts to punish euthanasia killers after the war.

The first book to address the impact of geopolitics on the courts' representation of Nazi euthanasia, it argues that international and domestic politics played havoc with the prosecutions. Based on trial transcripts and verdicts, Confronting the “Good Death” will interest general readers and scholars of Holocaust studies, legal history, and human rights.

The books I picked & why

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Into That Darkness: An Examination of Conscience

By Gitta Sereny,

Book cover of Into That Darkness: An Examination of Conscience

Why this book?

If I were asked to recommend one book on Nazi crimes, this would be it. Gitta Sereny was an Austro-British journalist who wrote history with a flair most historians can only dream of. Into that Darkness epitomizes her method of story-telling: to locate the principal actors in a historical episode and allow them to speak in their own voice. At the center is Franz Stangl, former commandant of the Treblinka and Sobibor death camps. Sereny conducted interviews with him in his jail cell, as well as with other perpetrators, death camp survivors, and witnesses.  

Sereny is too sophisticated to take the perpetrators’ words at their face. She notes Stangl’s tendencies to evade his own responsibility by insisting he didn’t act with criminal intent and hence should not have been convicted. This and similar dodges are typical of her subjects, demonstrating the very human penchant for self-justification.  

Sereny is a subtle thinker and a graceful writer. She doesn’t accept her subjects’ self-exculpations; neither does she regard them as inhuman monsters. Nonetheless, she believes they had a choice, and had they behaved differently they might have altered the outcome, at least to some extent. 

Into That Darkness: An Examination of Conscience

By Gitta Sereny,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Into That Darkness as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Based on 70 hours of interviews with Franz Stangl, commandant of Treblinka (the largest of the five Nazi extermination camps), this book bares the soul of a man who continually found ways to rationalize his role in Hitler's final solution.


The Good Old Days: The Holocaust as Seen by Its Perpetrators and Bystanders

By Ernst Klee (editor), Willi Dressen (editor), Volker Riess (editor)

Book cover of The Good Old Days: The Holocaust as Seen by Its Perpetrators and Bystanders

Why this book?

Where Gitta Sereny talks with people involved in Nazi atrocities, Ernst Klee presents documentary evidence of these crimes. No one has published better or more important compendia of documents on Nazi crimes than Klee. I discovered his books as an exchange student in Germany (1988-89) and quickly found them to be unique. Klee’s spare method is to portray the Nazis’ descent into evil through the medium of their own texts and photographs. Regrettably, few of his books have been translated into English. The one I’m recommending here is a fine introduction to his style of historical writing.  

Klee’s evidence shows the awful arc drawn by Nazi crimes, from German incitement of pogroms against Jews in the east and Einsatzgruppen shootings of Jewish men, women, and children to the development of stationary gassing installations in death camps. Klee has a point of view, but he doesn’t want to convince you with oratory. His book is as unflinching and clinical as a forensic pathologist’s testimony on blood spatter evidence at a murder trial.

The Good Old Days: The Holocaust as Seen by Its Perpetrators and Bystanders

By Ernst Klee (editor), Willi Dressen (editor), Volker Riess (editor)

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Good Old Days as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The title "The Good Old Days" ("Schone Zeiten" in German) comes from the cover of a private photo album kept by concentration camp commandant Kurt Franz of Treblinka. This gruesomely sentimental and unmistakably authentic title introduces an disturbing collection of photographs, diaries, letters home, and confidential reports created by the executioners and sympathetic observers of the Holocaust. "The Good Old Days" reveals startling new evidence of the inhumanity of recent twentieth century history and is published now as yet another irrefutable response to the revisionist historians who claim to doubt the historic truth of the Holocaust.


Becoming Evil: How Ordinary People Commit Genocide and Mass Killing

By James E. Waller,

Book cover of Becoming Evil: How Ordinary People Commit Genocide and Mass Killing

Why this book?

James Waller’s scintillating book is for readers seeking answers to big questions. When studying the Holocaust and similar events, students invariably ask: how could human beings do such things to other people? Waller addresses this question in a tour-de-force that may be the best single book yet written on the “why” of genocide. His study is particularly compelling because he focuses not on race fanatics (Hitler, Himmler) nor ideological zealots (Pol Pot, Mao Tse Tung) but on the rank-and-file, without whom the architects of genocide could never build their charnel empires in the first place. 

The second edition of his book is especially useful because he reviews both iconic and newer psychological theories of genocide perpetration. For Waller, the dynamics underlying genocide are complex. His key finding is that the potential for extreme violence resides within each person. Eschewing aberrationist theories that portray such violence as deviant, Waller invites us to consider how ordinary psychologies can veer into mass destruction—an insight at once profoundly enlightening and deeply disturbing.

Becoming Evil: How Ordinary People Commit Genocide and Mass Killing

By James E. Waller,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Becoming Evil as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Social psychologist James Waller uncovers the internal and external factors that can lead ordinary people to commit extraordinary acts of evil. Waller offers a sophisticated and comprehensive psychological view of how anyone can potentially participate in heinous crimes against humanity. He outlines the evolutionary forces that shape human nature, the individual dispositions that are more likely to engage in acts of evil, and the context of cruelty in which these
extraordinary acts can emerge. Eyewitness accounts are presented at the end of each chapter. In this second edition, Waller has revised and updated eyewitness accounts and substantially reworked Part II…


Reckonings: Legacies of Nazi Persecution and the Quest for Justice

By Mary Fulbrook,

Book cover of Reckonings: Legacies of Nazi Persecution and the Quest for Justice

Why this book?

In 2019 I published a review of Mary Fulbrook’s Reckonings in the journal HistoryThe review may have been the most laudatory I’ve written. Fulbrook’s study of the Holocaust and its noxious aftereffects lingers with me today. I’ve come to think of Reckonings as the War and Peace of Holocaust histories. Like Tolstoy’s epic, it paints on a sprawling canvas, exhausting the writer’s palette to portray the Holocaust as a searing multi-generational phenomenon. Reckonings does not approach the Shoah as most writers of the Holocaust do, namely, as a monumental but time-limited event. Fulbrook conceives of the Holocaust as a cancer that blights the victims and their families into the second and third generations. The radioactive fallout of the Shoah continues to the present day, poisoning people’s lives so deeply that no human response is adequate to deal with it. She upholds the tragedy of the Holocaust by refusing to banish it with the usual nostrums: the triumph of the human spirit, the defeat of Hitler, the creation of Israel, etc. For Fulbrook, the Shoah represents the triumph of evil, pure and simple.

Reckonings: Legacies of Nazi Persecution and the Quest for Justice

By Mary Fulbrook,

Why should I read it?

3 authors picked Reckonings as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

A single word - Auschwitz - is often used to encapsulate the totality of persecution and suffering involved in what we call the Holocaust. Yet a focus on a single concentration camp - however horrific what happened there, however massively catastrophic its scale - leaves an incomplete story, a truncated history. It cannot fully communicate the myriad ways in which individuals became tangled up on the side of the perpetrators, and obscures the diversity of experiences
among a wide range of victims as they struggled and died, or managed, against all odds, to survive. In the process, we also miss…


Soviet Judgment at Nuremberg: A New History of the International Military Tribunal After World War II

By Francine Hirsch,

Book cover of Soviet Judgment at Nuremberg: A New History of the International Military Tribunal After World War II

Why this book?

The trials of Nazi war criminals are an important but subsidiary theme in Mary Fulbrook’s book. In Francine Hirsch’s study, the most significant trial of top-ranking German officials takes center stage, the International Military Tribunal at Nuremberg. Unlike most previous analyses of Nuremberg, which depict the Soviets as minor actors who, if anything, were impediments to the quest for justice, Hirsch insists that Soviet contributions were essential cornerstones of the trial’s success. This may seem an unlikely role for a totalitarian country already responsible for terror famines in Ukraine, the atrocious show trials of the 1930s, and the senseless murder of 20,000 Poles in the Katyn Forest in 1940. Nonetheless, as Hirsch cogently argues, without Soviet participation the trial may never have occurred. The glory of her book is its insistence on the counterintuitive and contradictory nature of reality, in which, against all expectations, an authoritarian regime led by a madman could foster the growth of human rights after the war.  

Soviet Judgment at Nuremberg: A New History of the International Military Tribunal After World War II

By Francine Hirsch,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Soviet Judgment at Nuremberg as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Organized in the immediate aftermath of World War Two by the victorious Allies, the Nuremberg Trials were intended to hold the Nazis to account for their crimes - and to restore a sense of justice to a world devastated by violence. As Francine Hirsch reveals in this immersive, gripping, and ground-breaking book, a major piece of the Nuremberg story has routinely been omitted from standard accounts: the part the Soviet Union played in making the trials happen in
the first place.

Soviet Judgment at Nuremberg offers the first complete picture of the International Military Tribunal (IMT), including the many ironies…


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