Museum Fellowship Book Reviews


book cover used by permission of Oxford University PressInside the Vicious Heart: Americans and the Liberation of Nazi Concentration Camps
Robert H. Abzug
New York: Oxford University Press, 1985

Reviewed by:
Sheila Hansen

Spearfish Middle School
Spearfish, South Dakota


The book’s title, Inside the Vicious Heart, comes from the words of novelist and war correspondent Meyer Levin: “We had known. The world had vaguely heard. But until now no one of us had looked on this…. It was as though we had penetrated at last to the center of the black heart, to the very crawling inside of the vicious heart.”

Central to this book is the author’s premise, context, and interpretation. Dr. Abzug examines the complex psychological reactions of gruesome discovery, sifting through impressive amounts of information in order to offer interviews, media accounts, official government records, and photographs. Again and again, he successfully shows the gamut of feelings and conditions experienced by the witnesses: shock, sadness, alienation, shame, and anger; but throughout the book and in a variety of ways, he focuses on the mental state of disbelief. It’s a tricky business. To illustrate, in the first chapter, before Allies in the West uncovered the inhabited camps, some French citizens are infuriated that American officers in France don’t believe stories of ‘German inhumanity.’ Yet in the seventh chapter, an American GI, after seeing and photographing the camps, wants to bear witness, but people in France don’t believe him. Can both be true? Certainly-- if we frame our approach to emphasize that individuals will behave as such and avoid the categorization of responses. 

Chapter One examines the first camp to be uncovered in the West, Germany’s abandoned labor camp Natwiller-Struthof in November of 1944. Although one seemingly could interpret the words as objective or detached, much is made of the phrases used in the ensuing official report by two members of the 6th Army. Abzug stresses that the men’s testimony is punctuated with qualifications: “appeared to be,” allegedly used,” “intended for,” so as to illustrate that American liberators were initially of two minds when confronting physical evidence of the Holocaust. His theory that GIs “balked at full belief” when they couldn’t imagine such horrors is interesting. One wonders if Dr. Abzug could have imagined that one day Holocaust revisionists would point to that same official report to support their own agendas of ‘disbelief.’

More descriptions and eyewitness accounts follow in the next five chapters. We see the labor camp Ohrdruf, a “minor sub-camp” of Buchenwald. North of Ohrdruf was Nordhausen (Dora-Mittelbau). From there Abzug leads us to Buchenwald and then to a subcamp of Neuengamme named Woebblin. Next, Gardelegen, a well-documented site of Nazi barbarism, is described. After that Leipzig-Thekla, site of a similar atrocity, is recounted along with testimony and photos from Flossenburg, along the Czech border.

Although liberated by the British, Bergen-Belsen is next described. Following that account is examination of Dachau, the Nazi “pilot camp.” The last camps witnessed are Mauthausen and its subcamps of Gusen, Ebensee, and Gunskirchen. 

The next section of Inside the Vicious Heart deals with public responses following liberation. Abzug first writes of the extreme measures taken to ensure widespread exposure to the images of liberation in Germany and Austria. Among the points covered are forced visits, guided tours, and reports issued as the result of official visits of Congressmen and American journalists. Subsequently, there is information regarding the ensuing educational exhibits and films in America along with the varied reactions of Americans and assorted critics to such displays.

The last chapter focuses on several key issues, among them the plight of the displaced persons, especially the “non-repatriables,” the policies for dealing with DPs, and the American occupational forces’ attitudes about DPs. Also included is Earl Harrison’s incriminating and bleak report, issued after President Truman sent him to tour the DP camps in the summer of 1945. We are introduced to Major Irving Heymont, who temporarily commanded Landsberg Displaced Persons Camp, bringing about important improvements before relinquishing control to civilian authorities at the end of 1945.

Inside the Vicious Heart is engaging but brief. Perhaps too brief. Witnesses’ complex psychological responses, varied American reactions to evidence of the Holocaust, and dismal circumstances of DP camps are all covered in a mere 168 pages, with roughly 70 pages overall devoted to photographs.

Due to the brevity of Inside the Vicious Heart, a single, carefully chosen quote sometimes stands alone to support the author’s premise of disbelief. One revealing example is in the seventh chapter where mention is made of a Congressional tour of camps and the report to Congress. This is followed by a brief paragraph devoted to a Nebraska Senator’s witness experiences. Dr. Abzug asserts that Senator Wherry was under political pressure to “soft-pedal the sordid details of the camps in order not to alienate Nebraska’s German-American voters.” Wherry, according to the text, bravely crossed the state of Nebraska anyway, providing testimony to his constituents. The paragraph, just over 100 words in length, ends with a quote Dr. Abzug obtained from an Omaha newspaper: [one Nebraska audience] “listened silently. Their lips were fixed. At intervals, they moved their heads in cold disbelief.” The quote’s ambiguity is unsettling. Is its purpose to represent yet another example of American disbelief? Or, due to its placement at the end of that particular paragraph, is it more pointed: these Nebraskans, these German-Americans were unwilling to believe? What a fascinating paragraph, one that invites many questions. Thus, a copy of the original source material cited for that paragraph was obtained for this review. After reading the source material, there certainly seems to be room for a markedly different interpretation. Again it should be emphasized that context is everything and that categorization is a tricky business. What if, for example, Dr. Abzug had used a different quote from the same article: “…silent people…packed the seats and stood in the aisles of the Omaha Theater Tuesday noon….” Would that not potentially lead the reader to a different conclusion about Nebraskan audiences and their willingness to believe? A logical conclusion, therefore, is that the more context that is provided, the more complete a picture the reader gets.

Overall, Dr. Abzug’s Inside the Vicious Heart is a remarkable, ambitious text that deserves the recognition and respect it has earned. Having said that, this reviewer is reminded of Michael Marrus’ words from The Holocaust: the Known, the Unknown, the Disputed, and the Reexamined: “I resist…the notion that future studies of the Holocaust will be driven by new sources, rather than by new questions.” [Italics added for emphasis.] As a result, due to the groundbreaking work of Dr. Abzug, this reviewer has the luxury of asking new questions about the nature of liberator testimony and of American response. Additionally then the reviewer has the responsibility to continue to inquire and to seek answers wherever they may be and down whatever path they may lead. And in that regard, there is no greater compliment for a work such as Inside the Vicious Heart.


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