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By far the most interesting articles on April 25-edition of WSJ were book reviews on Nikolaus Wachsmann’s KL: A History of the Nazi Concentration Camps and Richard Reeves’ Infamy, respectively written by Timothy Snyder and John Fabian Witt. Interestingly, both of these books deal with injustice perpetrated on groups of people due to their ethnicity/ race during the World War II. While Wachsmann’s historical research concerns the savage treatment of the internees of concentration camps operated by Nazi, which is arguably the best known human brutality recorded in human history, Reeves’ historical research concerns the now infamous treatment of Japanese-Americans after the bombings of Pearl Harbor. Since both topics have been covered/discussed by many books one may wonder if there is anything more to be discovered or said about them. The answer is apparently a resounding “Yes.”

Wachsmann’s historical research is most thought provoking in the sense that his study forces us to modify our conception of Nazi Concentration Camps, which we tended to believe (simplistically) to be places where European Jews were interned and murdered by Nazis. But, it was not the case from the beginning; it evolved to become the places of Holocaust after “a series of improvisation, political calculations and then adjustments to imperial concerns and the Holocaust.” Timothy Snyder writes: “The camps were about the consolidation of power and then about its allocation. The first victims were communists and socialist, people who might have challenged Hitler.” When “all the enemies within and without the Nazi Party” were defeated, the camps were transformed into “a tool to improve the German race.” Prof. Snyder continues: “In the late 1930s, they were holding Germans seen as unfit members of society. These were the so-called asocial – alcoholics, drug addicts, homosexuals, members of minority religions like Jehovah’s Witness and people deemed ‘work-shy,’ like prostitutes or vagrants… Jews entered the camp equation only when Germany began to destroy its neighboring states… After Kristallnacht, the nation-wide pogrom organized by Nazi authorities that November, 26,000 German Jews were sent to camps, generally for short periods. The purpose was to intimidate heads of households so that Jewish families would leave Germany… With the German invasion of Poland in September 1939, the character of the camps changed. Now the main victims were Poles, who were murdered and worked to death in appalling conditions… In the years 1940 and 1941, Poles were the largest group of inmates in the concentration-camp system as a whole.” So concentrations camps were not only used to imprison and often to murder Jews but also to imprison and murder Poles and then later Soviet prisoners of war when Germany invaded the western Soviet Union.

Prof. Snyder’s discussion of Wachsmann’s historical study makes me realize that nothing in human reality can be summed up in a single sentence and that reality is vertiginously more complicated than what we think or imagine.

Prof. Witt’s discussion of Richard Reeves’ book navigates a similar territory, though less complicated than that of Wachsmann’s study. The internment of Japanese-Americans was realized due to complex political and social milieu. As Prof. Witt says, the evacuation of “nearly every man, woman and child of Japanese ancestry in the western parts of California, Oregon and Washington to 10 ‘relocation centers’ located mostly in the intermountain West. Seventy percent of them were “American citizens, despite the fact internal government reports had concluded that first-generation American-born men and women of Japanese ancestry – the so-called Nisei – were loyal to the U.S. and posed little threat.” “{E}ven the FBI’s famously paranoid J. Edgar Hoover objected to interning Japanese-Americans, dismissing support for the idea as political hysteria. Two lions of 20th-century liberalism saw things differently. California’s attorney general, Earl Warren, warned of another Pearl Harbor. Walter Lippmann, the country’s most influential journalist, agreed, demanding that the government detain Japanese-Americans to prevent a ‘fifth column’ attack on US soil. Ultimately a toxic brew of cynical journalists and demagogic California politicians overcame the opposition of Attorney General Francis Biddle and the initial reluctance of Stimson.” As Prof. Witt writes in the final paragraph, “History’s judgment is that internment, regardless of its constitutionality, was wrong. Mr. Reeves’s excellent book gives us an opportunity to learn from past mistakes.” I hope that Prof. Witt is right.

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