Europe on Tri­al: The Sto­ry of Col­lab­o­ra­tion, Resis­tance, and Ret­ri­bu­tion dur­ing World War II

István Deák; Nor­man M. Naimark, fwd.
  • Review
By – March 18, 2016

Bril­liant­ly writ­ten, live­ly, and occa­sion­al­ly sar­don­ic, Europe on Tri­al eval­u­ates the almost uni­ver­sal fail­ure dur­ing the Sec­ond World War to live up to the stan­dards of human­i­ty in the face of bru­tal­i­ty, oppor­tu­ni­ties for theft, and lack of empa­thy for oth­ers. István Deák grew up in Hun­gary in a Roman Catholic fam­i­ly with Jew­ish roots; he wit­nessed the vast suf­fer­ing and destruc­tion wrought by the Sec­ond World War on mil­lions of peo­ple through­out Europe. In this book, he exam­ines the issues of col­lab­o­ra­tion, resis­tance, and post­war ret­ri­bu­tion against the many per­pe­tra­tors from dif­fer­ent Euro­pean nations.

The behav­ior of the Nazi Ger­mans towards oth­er Euro­pean nations var­ied in response to those coun­tries’ recep­tion of them. In Aus­tria, the 1938 union with Ger­many was wel­comed by the major­i­ty of the pop­u­la­tion; in Czecho­slo­va­kia, gov­ern­ment lead­ers had a fail­ure of courage in the face of aban­don­ment by their West­ern allies; in Poland, a brave but ulti­mate­ly futile resis­tance was enact­ed. Where there was obe­di­ence and col­lab­o­ra­tion the Nazi forces behaved with rel­a­tive dis­ci­pline, but in Ukraine, Poland, and the Balka­ns, the Ger­man forces and their col­lab­o­ra­tors slaugh­tered vast num­bers of civilians.

The mixed record of the French under Ger­man occu­pa­tion rais­es ques­tions about the respon­si­bil­i­ty of indi­vid­u­als in the local police and var­i­ous gov­ern­ment agen­cies who served Ger­many eco­nom­i­cal­ly and polit­i­cal­ly — includ­ing in the roundup of tens of thou­sands of Jew­ish women, chil­dren, and men who were deport­ed to their fates in East­ern Europe. Should those who snapped up aban­doned Jew­ish prop­er­ty be count­ed as col­lab­o­ra­tors? Were women who social­ized with Ger­man sol­diers col­lab­o­ra­tors? Were the prof­itable met­al and coal indus­tries and weapons man­u­fac­tur­ers in Swe­den, Switzer­land, and the Czech lands active­ly aid­ing the Nazi war machine?

Deák is par­tic­u­lar­ly inter­est­ed in the behav­ior of Germany’s numer­ous allies, all of whom engaged in projects of eth­nic cleans­ing that usu­al­ly includ­ed deport­ing Jews to their deaths. Europe on Tri­al exam­ines most of the coun­tries of Europe and finds their rulers and peo­ple to have large­ly failed the test of human­i­ty dur­ing the Sec­ond World War. More­over, despite the impres­sive body of evi­dence com­piled at the Nurem­berg tri­als, rel­a­tive­ly few of the Nazi per­pe­tra­tors were actu­al­ly tried in Ger­many, and war crimes com­mit­ted under Sovi­et rule were passed over in silence.

Over­all, Europe on Tri­al tells the sad sto­ry of Europe’s fail­ure to pre­vent the Nazi con­quests and its con­se­quences dur­ing the occu­pa­tion and in the post­war years. America’s focus on the Cold War led it to per­mit Ger­many to min­i­mize pros­e­cu­tion of war crim­i­nals, who often rose to great suc­cess in West Ger­many and retired with gen­er­ous police or mil­i­tary pen­sions — or, like Wern­er von Braun, became major fig­ures in America’s space and intel­li­gence pro­grams. The one great Euro­pean suc­cess was the for­ma­tion of the basis for a peace­ful Euro­pean Union, with Ger­many as part of the EU’s demo­c­ra­t­ic bedrock. Europe on Tri­al is a book of rare val­ue, both as a his­tor­i­cal analy­sis and as a moral eval­u­a­tion of many cas­es of ques­tion­able and ambigu­ous behavior. 

Relat­ed Content:

Robert Moses Shapiro teach­es mod­ern Jew­ish his­to­ry, Holo­caust stud­ies, and Yid­dish lan­guage and lit­er­a­ture at Brook­lyn Col­lege of the City Uni­ver­si­ty of New York. His most recent book is The War­saw Ghet­to Oyneg Shabes-Ringel­blum Archive: Cat­a­log and Guide (Indi­ana Uni­ver­si­ty Press in asso­ci­a­tion with the U.S. Holo­caust Memo­r­i­al Library and the Jew­ish His­tor­i­cal Insti­tute in War­saw, 2009). He is cur­rent­ly engaged in trans­lat­ing Pol­ish and Yid­dish diaries from the Łódź ghet­to and the Yid­dish Son­derkom­man­do doc­u­ments found buried in the ash pits at Auschwitz-Birkenau.

Discussion Questions