A few weeks ago a remarkable Polish woman died at the grand age of ninety-eight. Irena Sendlerowa rescued around 2,500 Jewish children from the Warsaw Ghetto, hiding them with Polish families and saving them from certain death. Eventually she was caught and tortured by the Gestapo, who dumped her, unconscious and with both arms and legs broken, in a nearby wood, still alive only because friends bribed German officers not to shoot her.
In this awful story is captured a great deal of the bleakly inhuman spirit that animated the terrible six-year empire constructed as German armies swept across Europe. The story is by now familiar, but capable of endless permutations as new details emerge about the limits to which human terror can be pushed in the right circumstances. It is this history that Mark Mazower has chosen to retell and he does so with exceptional skill and literary flair. So much has now been written about the German New Order that it is possible, as Mazower does, to pick and choose the apposite stories and ideal quotations to sum up an otherwise almost unmanageably long and complex narrative. A specialist on Greece under the Germans, Mazower moves seamlessly between the many sites of occupation and the many aspects of its unsavoury, brief but deadly passage. This is a first-class account.