Saturday, September 18, 2021

Drunk on Genocide: Alcohol and Mass Murder in Nazi Germany by Edward B. Westermann

Those who are interested in the Second World War and/or the Holocaust will undoubtedly have run across accounts that detail many of the mass executions that occurred on the Eastern Front or the treatment of Jews and other 'untermensch' in ghettos and concentration/labor/death camps. Something that regularly comes up in these accounts is drinking and the prevalence of alcohol. Often even Red Army memoirs will discuss their impressions of their German counterparts and comment on their 'drunken' advances (something the Germans will just as quickly mention about Soviet forces). In "Drunk on Genocide,"  Edward Westermann takes on the difficult topic of Germany's actions during the Holocaust and attempts to contextualize where alcohol and drinking fit in when it came to mass murder. 

The first chapters of the book might not be the most interesting or enlightening for the average reader as they are steeped in scholarly discussions about hypermasculinity as well as ritual and celebration. But these discussions are necessary to understand the context these men, and sometimes women, were operating in when it came to the Holocaust. Although not every chapter has alcohol and drinking at its  center, the events being described often enough featured drinking and celebration as part of the larger narrative of the Holocaust by bullets and the lived experience of those who found themselves in ghettos, concentration, and death camps. This is not a book that is easy to read, human depravity seems to have no limits and the more these men and women were exposed to torture, violence, and death that they themselves inflicted the less inhibited they became, but not because of alcohol. That was something I kept looking to find - specifically, mention of how many of these killers and torturers needed to turn to alcohol to make sense of what they were doing or to simply get through the day. But, as Westermann points out, alcohol was part and parcel of the killing process but it was an additional benefit not a way to lubricate someone's inhibitions or do away with their resistance. Only in postwar accounts did there begin to appear an attempt to explain the actions of these killers in part by the fact that they needed to be drunk to do their 'job.' Undoubtedly postwar memories of the many killing episodes became intertwined with alcoholic binge drinking and celebrations that occurred before, during, and after many of these mass murders - so why not believe that one directly influenced the other? But in this case, it was the killing that influenced a need to drink in order to celebrate not to cope, at least that was the case for the majority. As other historians and researchers have pointed out, if opposition existed to the killing process it certainly resulted in no discernible slowdown of the mass killing throughout Central and Eastern Europe as mass executions were evident until the final months and weeks of the war. While initially I was somewhat skeptical of what this volume could contribute to our understanding of the Holocaust, by the time I finished reading it I was very much impressed with the author's knowledge, research, arguments, and conclusions.

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