April 17, 2015
The Third Reich in History and Memory
By Richard J. Evans
Oxford University Press, 496 pages, $29.95
However deranged his deeds, Adolf Hitler was not certifiably mad.
The German people did not voluntarily embrace the dictator, but acquiesced in his rule only after a campaign of terror that silenced or sidelined the political opposition.
And the Holocaust, compared to other 20th-century genocides, was unique in its global scope and ambition.
These are among the views that Richard J. Evans, the formidable Cambridge University historian, espouses in his lucid and informative essay collection, “The Third Reich in History and Memory.” Evans, best known for his three-volume study of the Nazi regime, originally wrote most of these pieces as book reviews; others appeared as journal articles. Apart from some repetition, the essays have aged well and provide a succinct overview of recent scholarly trends.
In his preface, Evans outlines these shifts in perspective: an attempt to situate Germany’s imperial aspirations and exclusionary ideology in a global context, a renewed emphasis on the extent of popular support for Hitler’s government, an examination of continuities between the Third Reich and Germany’s postwar democratic regime, and an interest in the relationship between history and memory.
The issue of domestic support for Nazism remains highly contested. It bears on both the thorny notion of collective guilt and on specific legal culpability for Germany’s crimes. And it helps explain the country’s generational lag in confronting the Holocaust.
Following World War II, Evans notes, the historical consensus was that the Third Reich was a police state with Hitler firmly in charge. Many Germans portrayed themselves as victims of the Nazis (not to mention Allied bombs and the brutal Soviet invasion). Later research complicated the picture. It uncovered the complexities of the Nazi bureaucracy, with its internecine rivalries, and suggested that there was space to resist the regime. Why then was resistance so minimal, at once so short-lived and so slow (as the war effort faltered) to re-materialize?
Some historians credit Hitler’s popularity. They believe, as Evans puts it, that the regime “rested not on police terror and coercion but on popular approval and consent.” The German historian Götz Aly, for example, has famously argued that social mobility and economic benefits — derived from the plunder of Jewish property and conquered countries — helped bolster Hitler’s support.
Evans is skeptical. “Nazi Germany actually was a dictatorship in which civil rights and freedoms were suppressed and opponents of the regime were not tolerated,” he writes. In “Berlin in the Twenties,” a dismissive review of Thomas Friedrich’s book “Hitler’s Berlin,” Evans writes that “mass violence underpinned the Nazi seizure of power at every level.”
In “Coercion and Consent,” he reminds us that the Nazis initially targeted not just Communists but also Social Democrats — the chief representatives of Germany’s working classes and, together, a powerful electoral force. “These people were hardly members of a despised minority of social outcasts,” he writes.
He notes, too, that the Gestapo and the concentration camps were only part of the apparatus of repression. The regular courts and state prisons played a role, along with job loss, eviction and harassment, as well as widespread indoctrination, effective particularly with younger Germans.
Though Evans makes a credible case, he doesn’t entirely demolish his opponents’ arguments. While the results of plebiscites were clearly unreliable, it seems incontestable that many Germans, by the mid-1930s, supported Hitler and his belligerent expansionism and (at the least) tolerated his violent persecution of the Jews and other groups. Even Evans admits that “the number of people who were willing to some degree or other to play a role in the coercive apparatus of the regime must have run into several millions.”
On the perhaps equally vexed question of Hitler’s personality, sanity and overall health, Evans coolly parses the evidence. In “Was Hitler Ill?,” a review of a 2013 book by Hans-Joachim Neumann and Henrik Eberle, he seconds the authors’ conclusion “that… he was no more ill than most other people are at some time or other during their lifetime.” He agrees, too, that Hitler “certainly was not mentally ill, not at least in any sense known to medicine or psychiatry.” He fails to tackle the question of whether Hitler was a sociopath or suffered from some other severe personality disorder, emphasizing instead that “he was sane according to any reasonable definition of the term, and fully responsible for his actions.”
In the same vein, his essay on Heike Görtemaker’s 2011 biography “Eva Braun: Life with Hitler,” argues, in concert with the author, that the relationship between Eva Braun and Hitler was “a normal expression of heterosexuality on both sides.” It took two failed suicide attempts for Braun to consolidate her hold on her man — tactical successes, Evans says. (Evidence of emotional instability, one might argue instead.)
Over time, Evans writes, Braun became increasingly assertive in the relationship, subverting the Nazi ideal of passive womanhood. Görtemaker’s biography’s depiction of the romance is “deeply troubling,” he suggests, because of its very normalcy. “For if a man like Hitler was capable of ordinary human love for another person,” he asks rhetorically, “then what power does love possess?”
On the (even more) emotional subject of genocide, Evans asserts the historian’s right to introduce analytic distinctions. He reviews the murderous invasions of Poland by both Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union, the anti-Semitic actions of Croatia and Romania, the Nazi killing of Gypsies and the handicapped and mentally ill, the early 20th-century extermination by Germans of the Herero tribe in southwest Africa, the 1930s Ukrainian famine, and the Armenian and Rwandan genocides — a depressing catalogue of human iniquity. But he finds that an “obsessiveness” and “desire to be comprehensive and make no exceptions, anywhere, is a major factor distinguishing the Nazis’ racial war from all other racial wars in history.” He adds: “Unlike all the others it was bounded neither by space nor by time.”
It is possible to argue with Evans’s conclusions. But as he threads his way through historiographical battles, assessing the merits of warring schools of thought, Evans emerges as a fair-minded and precise interpreter — a useful guide if not necessarily a final arbiter.
Julia M. Klein is a cultural reporter and critic in Philadelphia and a contributing editor at Columbia Journalism Review.
Sunday, January 24, 2010
Book review: 'Remembering Survival' by Christopher Browning
By Jonathan Yardley
Inside a Nazi Slave-Labor Camp
By Christopher R. Browning
Norton. 375 pp. $27.95
The literature of the Holocaust and Nazi Germany is so vast as to defy comprehension, yet there remain aspects of the subject that are insufficiently covered or not covered at all. Christopher Browning's fine, harrowing "Remembering Survival" points us in yet another little-charted direction. It is the history of a Nazi slave-labor camp at Starachowice, in central Poland, where between 1942 and 1944 thousands of Jews were forced to work -- without compensation in any form and often under brutal conditions -- to produce munitions for the Nazi war machine.
Browning, a prominent Holocaust historian who teaches at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, first heard of Starachowice when he read about the trial in Hamburg in 1972 of Walther Becker, 75 years old, "for his role in the liquidation of the Jewish ghetto in Wierzbnik on October 27, 1942 -- an action in which close to 4,000 Jews were sent to their deaths in the gas chambers of Treblinka, some sixty to eighty Jews were murdered on the spot, and about 1,600 Jews were sent to three slave-labor camps in nearby Starachowice." Despite overwhelming evidence against him, Becker was acquitted by a judge who dismissed the testimony of Jewish witnesses on entirely specious grounds. Browning writes:
"I have worked in the German court records of trials of accused Nazi criminals for more than thirty-five years. They are an invaluable source to the historian, and the numerous survivor testimonies collected by conscientious investigators for the Starachowice trials are no exception. I must say that in those thirty-five years I have read scores of trial verdicts, and many I found disheartening. But never have I studied a case in detail and encountered a verdict that represented such a miscarriage of justice and disgrace to the German judicial system as that in the trial of Walther Becker."
Wierzbnik had a Jewish population of about 5,400 and "was remembered quite simply as 'a nice Jewish life' " by most of those who survived the war. It was a close-knit community, "more provincial and conservative than larger, more cosmopolitan Jewish urban communities," though Polish anti-Semitism was widespread and at times virulent: "As one survivor stated emphatically and bitterly: 'We had a beautiful life . . . except for having Poles around, which was very unpleasant.' " By 1941 the Jews of Wierzbnik had been subjected to "ghettoization," though "the ghetto there was 'open,' demarcated by signs but not physically sealed off by a wall or fence."
Few had any illusions about what this meant, though, as violence by Nazis and their Ukrainian hired guards was frequent, brutal and often random. One survivor reported seeing "a young girl walking to the well where German soldiers were washing themselves. One took a gun from his holster, aimed carefully and deliberately, and shot her dead." People were rounded up, crammed into trains and taken to the gas chambers. It became obvious that the only way to survive was to work for the Nazis, for whom the munitions produced at Starachowice were essential, all the more so as events began to turn against Germany: "Most Wierzbnikers made the same calculation as those who were flocking to the Starachowice factories from elsewhere -- namely, that the best chance for survival lay in obtaining employment crucial to the German war industry." Browning writes:
"As one Starachowice survivor noted, the Jews there did not die from how little the Germans fed them but they could not live from it either. A Jewish strategy of survival through labor, therefore, was burdened with terrible ironies. It depended not only on Jews buying their own enslavement through the purchase of work permits and providing labor indispensable to the war effort, thereby prolonging German rule, but also to no small extent on supplementing the inadequate German food supply through their own ingenuity and efforts."
As the survivors remembered it, life at Starachowice depended on "the most visible and notorious German [officers]. . . . The prisoners referred to them as 'commandants,' though that was not their official German title," which could be "commander of factory security" or "head of the Jewish camp police or Lagerpolizei." Walther Becker was not involved with the slave-labor camps but was "the highest-ranked SS officer" in Wierzbnik, so though his role in the brutal liquidation of the city's ghetto in October 1942 was beyond dispute -- "the Germans sent approximately 1,600 Jews . . . to work camps and deported nearly 4,000 Jews to the gas chambers of Treblinka" -- other men played the dominant roles at Starachowice.
By far the worst of these was a monster named Ralf Alois "Willi" Althoff, who "was indelibly imprinted on the memories of survivors who subsequently experienced Auschwitz-Birkenau, many notorious camps in Germany, and the death marches." Althoff was near-universally described as "the worst of all." He may well have been insane. "In his early thirties, Althoff was a good-looking young man, obviously concerned about his appearance. Shunning anything as commonplace as a regular uniform, he wore a three-quarter-length leather jacket lined and trimmed in white fur, tall leather boots, and white leather gloves. When he came to camp for major killing actions, however, he wore rubber coat, boots, and gloves to keep his fine clothing from being spattered with the blood of his victims." And:
"Althoff's murderous predilections were evident very soon. Just a few days after the prisoners arrived in the camps, Althoff reportedly lined up three or four Jews against a wall and shot them for no discernible reason other than that he disliked them. He also began to prowl the camp kitchens on a fairly regular basis, looking for unauthorized people to shoot and even killing some who had been assigned to work there. And . . . after several prisoners escaped, he staged a theatrical 'deterrent' killing. Althoff descended upon the camp in the middle of the night and selected ten prisoners, who were blindfolded and placed against a wall illuminated by truck headlights. Althoff then carried out target practice until they were all dead."
In March 1943 Althoff "disappeared," and German policy toward the camp softened somewhat. For a while there was a period of stability, but that was a relative term. Nothing at Starachowice was ever easy or, for that matter, stable. The prisoners were always at the mercy of their captors, who may have been only occasionally (and unpredictably) violent but were consistently venal, demanding bribes for better treatment or, in more than a few cases, for sparing lives. Prisoners who had somehow held on to wherewithal in one form or another had obvious advantages over prisoners who did not, contributing to "pervasive inequality within the prisoner community." Though by and large the Jews of Starachowice hung together and helped each other as much as circumstances permitted, there were tensions and rivalries among them that only intensified the nightmare.
At war's end Wierzbnik's Jewish community had been reduced to "perhaps 600 to 700," which is appallingly low yet, considering the conditions, not unremarkable. Browning attributes their survival to several factors, among them the judicious use of bribery and the strength of family ties. Among the survivors, 292 gave "testimonies, some multiple," to various courts and investigators. Browning is keenly sensitive to the unreliability of memory, especially memory of distant events, so as he stitches together the story of Starachowice he is especially careful to distinguish between reliable and unreliable evidence. There can be no doubt, however, of the essential truth of this story, a small one when viewed against everything else that happened in that dreadful time, but an important and revealing one, exceptionally well told in "Remembering Survival."
May 8, 2010
REMEMBERING SURVIVAL: Inside a Nazi Slave-Labor Camp By Christopher R. Browning
Norton, 375 pp., illustrated, $27.95
In February 1972, Walther Becker, a retired German regional police chief, was acquitted in a German court of charges stemming from his role in the liquidation of the Jewish ghetto in the Polish town of Wierzbnik in October 1942.
In announcing the verdict, the presiding judge dismissed the testimony of dozens of witnesses, men and women from Wierzbnik who had survived as workers in the nearby slave-labor camp of Starachowice.
Eyewitness testimony, the judge declared, was “the most unreliable form of evidence,’’ and thus absent any “reliable’’ evidence Becker was set free.
The verdict caught the attention of Christopher R. Browning, a leading Holocaust scholar at the University of North Carolina.
“I felt,’’ writes Browning, that if Becker had escaped German justice, “he at least could be given his appropriate place in historians’ hell.’’
So Browning set to work on “Remembering Survival,’’ which draws heavily on the rich eyewitness accounts of Becker’s “dominant and terrifying presence’’ at Wierzbnik. But along the way the project’s focus broadened beyond the indictment of a single suspected war criminal.
Browning notes that as his “initial indignation’’ lessened he became “increasingly fascinated’’ with the challenge of exploring and presenting the “understudied phenomenon’’ of the factory slave-labor camp. Much had been written about the concentration camps but less about those facilities where Jews were forced to produce goods that supported the German war machine. The resulting work is an important contribution to Holocaust studies, a story of survival in the face of death.
The systematic liquidation of the Polish ghettos began in March 1942 and moved inexorably towards Wierzbnik, where there was an estimated Jewish population of 5,400. Eventually some 4,000 would be sent to the death camp at Treblinka.
There were rumors about what had happened to the Jews of other ghettos who had been transported to Treblinka. “We knew it wasn’t good,’’ one survivor told Browning, “but not how much it was not good.’’
And there was denial. “We thought it wouldn’t happen to us,’’ said one man, because of the factories which relied on Jewish workers.
The factories were a key factor in the balance between death and survival. Those in the district in which Starachowice was located were producing one-third of the ammunition for the German army. There was, writes Browning, a constant tension between the ideological “Final Solution’’ and the pragmatic needs of the war effort.
Browning writes that one factory manager “realized that by negotiating with and extorting [from] rather than killing his Jewish workers, he could increase factory production as well as line his own pockets.’’
Browning also explores such subjects as the survival of children in the camp, resulting from a combination of laxity on the part of German guards and the ingenuity of the children’s parents and the children themselves.
The stability of life in the camp had disappeared by the summer of 1944 and led to attempts to escape, rarely successful, and to attacks on camp guards by the prisoners. Reconstructing one such incident, Browning describes it as “a singular act of resistance’’ by one young woman, but also “an act of solidarity’’ by other prisoners who pooled their hidden resources to save the woman by bribing the guards.
Browning suggests that “in order to survive, Starachowice Jews plotted to remain at the camp, produced for the German war effort, and enriched their oppressors. In doing so, some of them thereby thwarted the intention of the Nazi regime that none of them should survive.’’ In fact, 600 to 700 lived to see the defeat of the Germans.
This, he writes, reflects neither a course of passivity or of resistance, but the triumph of “ingenuity, resourcefulness, adaptability, perseverance, and endurance.’’
Michael Kenney is a Cambridge-based freelance writer.
TLS n.º 5607, September 17, 2010
Christopher R. Browning
Inside a Nazi slave-labor camp
375pp. Norton. $27.95; distributed in the UK by Wiley. £18.99.
Nikolaus Wachsmann and Jane Caplan, editors
CONCENTRATION CAMPS IN NAZI GERMANY
The new histories
244pp. Routledge. Paperback, £19.99.
ASHES IN THE WIND
The destruction of Dutch Jewry
556pp. Souvenir Press. Paperback, £15.
Paul Betts and Christian Weise, editors
YEARS OF PERSECUTION, YEARS OF EXTERMINATION
Saul Friedländer and the future of Holocaust Studies
280pp. Continuum. £60 (paperback, £22.99); US $120 (paperback, $39.95).
Gordon G. Horwitz
Łódź and the making of a Nazi city
416pp. Harvard University Press.
Paperback, £14.95 (US $18.95).
Barbara Engelking and Jacek Leociak
THE WARSAW GHETTO
A guide to the Perished City
936pp. Yale University Press. £40 (US $75).
The Nazi persecution and murder of the Jews
645pp. Oxford University Press. £18 (US $34.95).
THE HOLOCAUST IN THE SOVIET UNION
704pp. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press. $45;
distributed in the UK by Combined Academic Publishers. £28.99.
97808032 2059 1
AN UNCOMPROMISING GENERATION
Nazi leadership of the Reich Security Main Office
Translated by Tom Lampert
592pp. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press. Paperback, $36.95
distributed in the UK by Eurospan. £33.95.
PURIFYING THE NATION
Population exchange and ethnic cleansing in Nazi-Allied Romania
451pp. Woodrow Wilson Center Press. $65;
distributed in the UK by Wiley. £34.
The Transylvanian Question and the European Idea during World War II
376pp. Stanford University Press. $60;
distributed in the UK by Eurospan. £54.95.
THE FINAL SOLUTION
A genocide .
410 pp. Oxford University Press. Paperback, £16.99 (US $29.95).
GENOCIDE BEFORE THE HOLOCAUST
244pp. Yale University Press. £25 (US $45).
“This is beautiful. Please wrap it for me.” Thus an elegant German officer standing in a Jewish home in Poland in the early days of the war as recalled by a watching child in old age. In Christopher R. Browning’s new study, Remembering Survival, we are far from the kind of Holocaust history pioneered by earlier generations of specialists. It is not just the variety of Germans we encounter in his story — few if any of them desk killers à la Eichmann — that accounts for this difference, nor his commitment to post-war sources — trial testimonies and interviews — that older historians shunned. It is the story itself, which fits no standard typology of the unfolding tragedy, and which constantly reminds the reader of the manifold uncertainties built into the entire process. In Browning’s account there is no obvious telos, not even Auschwitz. The small Strelnica camp made even Birkenau seem clean, and yet not far away, the Tartak lumberyard had no fences or guards because life outside was far more dangerous than it was within. There are sadistic Germans but also corruptible ones who help for a price. There are weak Jews and strong ones, those with influence and others at their mercy. When their train pulls into Auschwitz, among the corpses are members of the Jewish elite, trampled to death by vengeful fellow passengers.
This is a grim, instructive reconstruction of the plight of Jewish slave labourers in one small Polish town. Browning makes a strong case for the sensitive use of post-war recollections, and he comes up with some noteworthy conclusions. In particular, the Jewish strategy of seeking to survive through labour was not, he emphasizes, entirely illusory; in certain circumstances, it preserved lives even amid the murder. No one has contributed more than Browning to our understanding of the Holocaust, and this book is a worthy addition to a deeply impressive oeuvre. In its turn to micro- history through memory, its move away from the analysis of high policy to the mud and blood and corruption of daily life, it marks a significant change in his own historical practice and also stands as testimony to some deeper shifts in historical fashion where the holocaust is concerned.
For if there is one thing that characterizes almost all the books under review, it is that they eschew overarching abstractions and stress complexity and the exceptional. There is no longer a typical perpetrator — nor, for that matter, a typical victim. These scholars invest less in searching — as an earlier generation did - for the single decision on which the whole process supposedly hinged, nor regard Auschwitz (or anywhere else) as the emblematic place of horror. Instead, a focus on the local and the regional has produced a kind of disaggregation of the entire genocide. Even the camp system is now scarcely a system of any kind, but rather, as the volume edited by Nikolaus Wachsmann and Jane Caplan shows, a vast agglomeration of places of incarceration. The Nazi genocide itself does not stand alone, but runs in parallel with others carried out autonomously by East European satellites. Reflecting this, a new frame of reference has begun to emerge out of genocide studies — one that contextualizes the Final Solution in time, as an integral part of the larger war — and in space, as the nadir of modern Europe’s embrace of the politics of purity.
Half a century ago, the seminal work of Raul Hilberg drew on his mentor, the political scientist Franz Neumann, in spotlighting the bureaucratic machinery of destruction. This was the Holocaust as the remorseless unfolding of a single process, driven not by ideology but by the inhuman power of modern institutions. The victims hardly appeared, and there was little or no sense of historical contingency. Hilberg’ s immense labours in the captured German archives made it easy to miss his mistrust of other kinds of sources.
Not that his positivism was the only approach available even then, as a glance at Jacob Presser’s newly reissued study of the fate of Dutch Jewry, Ashes in the Wind, demonstrates. Commissioned by the Dutch government to write this account, Presser ranged widely over sources that Hilberg repudiated — letters, interviews, even his own memories and anecdotes. His book (which was first published in 1969) may have been overtaken by more recent research — especially in its evaluation of German policy and Dutch collaboration — but it remains moving and worth reading.
Indeed, in his sensitivity to ideology and to the voices of the victims, Presser may be regarded as a precursor of Saul Friedländer, whose recent two-volume Holocaust history has been widely praised as the best synthesis currently available. In his telling of the story, Friedländer aimed to integrate bystanders and the victims and their voices together with the perpetrators; and instead of focusing on the evils of Nazi bureaucracy, as Hilberg did, he argued that an ideology of “redemptive anti- Semitism” galvanized German society as a whole. Paul Betts and Christian Weise’s edited volume of essays on Friedländer’s work, Years of Persecution, Years of Extermination, does a fine job of allowing us to appreciate the merits and drawbacks of this approach. In particular, it probes the limits of the integrated narrative on which Friedlander has laid such stress, and shows why many have questioned the very idea of redemptive anti-Semitism. In one of the volume’s most important contributions, Nicholas Stargardt situates Friedländer’s perspective in an older tradition, and notes that already during the war, German and Jewish views of what was at stake had diverged: “For the Jews, the Holocaust shaped their understanding of the war; for Germans, the war framed their understanding and response to the murder of the Jews……At a profound emotional level, they were not talking about the same events”. If this wartime cleavage continues, can the stories of perpetrators and victims ever hope to be reconciled in a single interpretation?
Ghettostadt, Gordon G. Horwitz’s study of wartime Łódź underscores this very point. As Littzmannstadt, Łódź was marked out for Germanization, and articles from the German-language local paper, much used here, give a sense of the excitement journalists and party officials felt. But of course urban improvement involved not just bread and circuses, modernization and roadworks, but the eradication of the town’s large Jewish community. Ghetto walls soon rose to confine the Jews, before their planned forced removal. However, the collapse of an emigration policy in 1940 prolonged the ghetto’s life beyond the few months originally envisaged, and as the war dragged on, the ghetto leadership under Chaim Rumkowski gambled on the German need for labour. Those unable to work were killed in nearby Chelmno, but Rumkowski — together with his immediate Nazi superiors — remained committed to his productivist strategy to the bitter end.
Horwitz’s two stories, of the new Nazi Littzmannstadt and the dying Jewish ghetto of Łódź develop side by side. There is little that links them — the pathos lies in the contrast — for the Jews were isolated and the Germans on the whole did not want to know what was happening to them. The author’s ground-up approach has the merit of vividness, and brings home the daily horrors of ghetto life and the impossible ethical choices that faced the inhabitants. But, deliberately perhaps, he intensifies the sense of uncertainty by saying little about policy, and we get only an intermittent sense of how high-level German decision-making affected the city, how plans for it developed, and even who comprised its new elite. And even more strikingly — in yet another illustration of Stargardt’s point about how the wartime nationalization of meaning continues to inflect the historiography — this is a city devoid of Poles, even though interwar Łódź had been primarily Polish.
Unlike Horwitz’s very readable account, Barbara Engelking and Jacek Leociak’s monumental guide to the largest ghetto of them all — in Warsaw — is for dipping into, not consuming whole. Encyclopedism is common in Holocaust studies, as if in the face of extreme suffering, everything is equally worth recording. The result is too often a sacrifice of analytic depth on the altar of detail. Yet it seems unfair to criticize the authors of such a passionate tribute for this, especially when the details themselves are so overwhelming. There are maps and chronologies and lists: portraits of booksellers, poets, actors and even the remarkable ghetto jester, Abraham Rubinstajn, who ran in rags through the streets shouting hoarsely: “everyone is equal — rich and poor”. Most moving of all are the mystical sermons of Rabbi Kalonymos Shapiro, who preached that if God had failed to respond to the suffering of his people, it was because he too was suffering, and so greatly that he had to weep alone and unseen. Jewish suffering in the ghetto was a way of alleviating his pain, and saving the world from even greater catastrophe if it should glimpse his grief. This is an extraordinary theology, a nationalization of wartime meaning of a kind that historians have largely forgotten or neglected.
No such neglect, but rather vigorous debate, attends the grimmer and far shallower hermeneutics of the perpetrators. In Peter Longerich’s important study, newly translated from the German, we are back with the policymakers. Repudiating the idea that a single moment can be found when the fundamental decision for the genocide was taken, Longerich argues for a series of decisions, not just one. Judenpolitik, he claims, emerged after 1933 in distinct phases, of which the shift to the Continental was the last. But if this seems uncontentious, less so are his assertions that anti-Jewish policy was central both to the Nazi system of power within the Reich, and also to the Reich’s wartime alliance system.
The first — not that far removed from Friedländer’s postulate of a redemptive anti-Semitism that unified German society — has been questioned by Germanists, as we have seen. As for the second — more an afterthought in Longerich’ s book than anything else — the record again suggests a contrary view. Where wartime diplomacy was possible — because state still talked with state — as in the case of German relations with Croatia, Slovakia, Hungary, France, Finland and Romania, for instance — the Jewish question often bedevilled German efforts to win broader support. It did so chiefly because it raised broader doubts, even among fellow anti-Semites, about the Reich’s willingness to respect the sovereignty of small nations. Where, on the other hand, the state had already collapsed and with it the possibility of diplomacy — as in much of former Poland, the Baltics and the USSR — the Final Solution proceeded rapidly and relatively smoothly, as Yitzhak Arad’s study, The Holocaust in the Soviet Union, recounts in compendious detail. In other words, the story of the Final Solution needs to be set in a broader context of wartime geopolitical tensions, legal constraints and forms of occupation.
A vital work for understanding all this from Berlin’s perspective is Michael Wildt’s newly translated collective prosopography, An Uncompromising Generation. We must hope that Ulrich Herbert’s extraordinary biography of Werner Best, a sort of pendant volume to Wildt’s, will be made available in English by some enterprising publisher as well. Quite unlike Hilberg’s passionless functionaries, ideologically driven young Sicherheitsdienst (Security Service) officials believed in a new conception of state power — the elite “fighting administration” — and defined themselves equally against the inert German bureaucrats of the ministries and the moronic Party “old fighters”. The key point for these men, trained in the humanities, law and social science, was to win the state for a new kind of revolutionary institution, one they had been preparing for since their days as student radicals. The war, above all in the East, provided their opportunity.
Heydrich s Reich Security Main Office (RSHA), their home, had the mission of “solving” Europe’s Jewish question as one — but only one — of its responsibilities. It prided itself on taking a Continental perspective on the political and security implications of the war for National Socialism generally. Who else could do this to Hitler’s liking? The army was politically too weak, Goering increasingly marginalized, the Party domestically oriented, the Foreign Ministry too inclined to old-style diplomacy. Never mind that the RSHA’s own forays into foreign affairs ranged from the disastrous to the incompetent. Heydrich had the Führer’s ear and the blessing of his immediate boss, Himmler, and dreamed of unifying the policing of the Continent. The Wannsee Conference was thus a bid by an ascendant Heydrich for the RSHA not merely to be recognized by the other ministries as the lead agency on the Jewish question, but through that to gain a dominant voice over the chaotic variety of occupation administrations established between 1939 and 1941. Killing Jews was a means as well as an end.
In Eastern Europe, this bureaucratic struggle went their way. The legal limbo of the former Poland, and still more in the occupied territories of the former USSR, facilitated the murderous new policy of racial-political policing. Heydrich’s men were unconstrained by the legal objections and bureaucratic obstacles placed in their way by the Interior Ministry inside the old Reich and by the Army in some military occupation zones. Wildt thus shows how wrong Hilberg was when he suggested that the agencies primarily responsible for the Final Solution were just like other parts of the German bureaucracy. Rivals to the SS did exist in the General Government and the Occupied Eastern Territories — Party bosses, Goering, Rosenberg’s Eastern Ministry, and the army. Yet the figures — accessible in Arad’s own encyclopedic study of the killings in the former USSR — tell their own story as these other agencies fell into line. What we call the Final Solution was primarily a series of operations spearheaded by the SS against Polish and Russian Jews.
If Wildt’s work throws into relief what was really at stake in the internal arguments over Judenpolitik, further works challenge the idea that the Jewish question served to reinforce German power over allies and satellites. Vladimir Solonari’s book on Romania’s own campaign of ethnic cleansing, Purifying the Nation, and Holly Case’s study of the dispute between two Axis allies — Romania and Hungary — over Transylvania, Between the States, make perhaps the freshest impression of all the volumes reviewed here. It is precisely in the new role they assign to Nazi Germany — less perpetrator than facilitator, arbitrator, onlooker and ultimately frustrated regional hegemon — that we can discern the outline of a new approach to the whole subject of the Final Solution. Once again, Eastern Europe is centre stage, but this time not as a zone of legal indeterminacy, but of older claims to statehood precariously defended, of visions of national purity that owed nothing to German inspiration.
Solonari shows how in the southern border zone with Bulgaria and in Bessarabia, Bukovina and above all in occupied southern Ukraine, the Romanian leadership shunted people around and massacred them with an energy that left even the Germans astonished. And it was not because the government had suddenly repented of its virulent anti- Semitism that it suddenly put the brakes on the killing policy in the summer of 1942, at just the point Berlin hoped it would accelerate. Rather, it was because there was nothing left in it for Romania and much to lose if, as suddenly seemed possible, Berlin lost the war and the Allies won. Romanian national interest trumped anti-Semitic solidarity, and the Germans could do nothing but fume.
Case’s smartly argued and deeply counter-intuitive study of the linked example of Transylvania goes further still. After 1939, she argues, Nazi Germany had to count among its priorities the management of its satellites, and Judenpolitik was not the most effective means of bending them to its will. Indeed, in 1940, Hitler replaced League of Nations officials as brokers of the peace between Hungary and Romania in their argument over Transylvania; his division of the region was an effort to satisfy both partners during the critical run-up to the invasion of the Soviet Union. As part of the settlement, Case shows, German and Italian officials agreed to monitor the two states’ treatment of minority populations — in effect continuing old League policies under Fascist patronage.
Both Case and Solonari put German efforts to Europeanize the Jewish question in a new light. Small states mattered, as Case puts it. Genocide could stop — as it did in Romania in the summer of 1942 — or start, as in Hungary in the spring and summer of 1944— as a result of the changing wartime balance of power. But in truth, Nazi Germany had little control over its satellites’ treatment of their Jews, especially after Stalingrad, and its demands that they hand them over raised troubling issues of sovereignty which the satellites were less and less inclined to heed. Hungary succumbed only because it was invaded; Italy too.
Donald Bloxham, in his thought-provoking study, The Final Solution, asks a good question: what would our picture of the Holocaust look like, if the Hungarian deportations in 1944 had not gone ahead? Auschwitz would figure much less prominently, for one thing, the massacres in the East much more. And the genocide might look less like the unfolding of a single master-plan than the overlapping of several differently organized operations — one in the former USSR, another in the Reinhard camps in the General Government, and the third and patchiest, the effort to round up the Jewish communities from other European countries. Far from a story of intensifying expertise and destructive success, this might look more like a story about a sequence of massacres that climaxed in the systematic killings of 1942, followed by the slow demise of the RSHA after Heydrich’s assassination in Prague.
Drawing on the work of comparative historians of genocide — and himself the author of an excellent book on the geopolitical context of the Armenian genocide of 1915—16 — Bloxham suggests we should see the Holocaust as one chapter in a longer history of mass killing prompted by the rise of nationalism and the collapse of older empires. Bloxham shows how this kind of argument, which needs careful handling, can be genuinely illuminating. Cathie Carmichael’s Genocide before the Holocaust makes a similar argument, but is a far less successful book because it implies much too close and ahistorical a connection between the forced deportations, population exchanges and massacres of the early twentieth century and the Holocaust itself. She also refers, repeatedly, to the Ottoman and Tsarist empires as apartheid states, among other anachronisms. Bloxham notes the crescendo of ethnic violence in much of Eastern Europe in the late nineteenth century, but shows that concepts of genocide and nationalism alone cannot explain the scale or character of what happened after 1939. Rather, one needs to yoke these to a more fine-grained analysis of German beliefs, plans and institutions and to the impact of the rapidly changing wartime conjuncture. In this way, he points ahead to a European history of the Final Solution that does not simply duplicate in scholarship the nationalization of the war’s meaning, nor see the Holocaust in isolation, but rather views what happened to the Jews in the light of the politics of nationality more generally. This, or some version of it, would seem to provide a fruitful way of rescuing the Holocaust from encyclopedism, on the one hand, and localism on the other. After all, the Final Solution was not a patchwork of disconnected events, and the crimes carried out against the Jews did not take place in a world populated by victims and perpetrators, Jews and Germans, alone.
September 19, 2015
I can’t remember the exact moment when I realized there was a lot more to my Bubbe’s story than a grandmother who baked amazing chocolate chip cookies and spent her winters in Florida. Her past wasn’t really discussed openly, and it wasn’t until after my bat mitzvah that I started to really understand what she had been through. A young girl at the time Hitler rose to power, Esther Sal spent her teen years in a ghetto before escaping and hiding with her family in the forest, among other places. They narrowly missed death numerous times.
Now, as a mother to an 8-year-old, I struggle with how to share my Bubbe’s story before it’s too late. With my grandfather — a concentration camp survivor — having passed a few years ago, my son deserved to hear my Bubbe’s story straight from her. But could he handle it? While he’s learned a little bit about the Holocaust in school, he has been shielded from many of the more intense details. I wasn’t sure how he would react to hearing about some of them, especially from his great-grandmother.
We traveled down to Florida a few months ago so I could record her story for posterity. We talked about what Bubbe might share, and he said he wanted to be there to listen. And so, together, two days after we arrived in Boynton Beach, we gathered in the lanai and listened to her story.
Esther was born in Złoty Potok, Poland in 1929. The second oldest of five children, she lived with her family in a nice neighborhood, and due to her father’s successful store, they were comfortably middle-class. Like all of their Jewish neighbors, they were religious. There was nothing else but being Jewish, so there was no identifying by sect, really. And in the end, being Jewish was all that mattered.
“My life before the war was wonderful. I went to public school, and to a good Hebrew school. I could read and write in Hebrew. It was a private school, which was expensive and something not everyone could afford. When the war started I was 12 years old. They announced that no Jewish children could go to school. It was upsetting. Why could everyone else go to school but not us?”
When the Germans took over my Bubbe’s village, they also took away her father’s store and everything that was in it. The Germans created a group of Jews called the Judenrat, and forced them to go and collect valuables from their neighbors. They took everything from furs to jewelry, even wedding rings.
“We still lived in our house though. We had a very nice house that my father built two years before the war. It was brick, a beautiful home. I shared a bedroom with my sister upstairs. Then, it started getting really bad, and we were scared. The Germans chased us out of our home to the city of Buchach. All the Jews had to leave. They let us take a suitcase and that was it. You couldn’t take your furniture. When they chased us out of our house, our grandfather came with us. He was 72 years old.
“They used to surprise us during the night with trucks — the SS. You didn’t know they were coming. My father was always looking for hiding spaces for us. So on the third floor, where the attic was, he divided a wall and the door was hidden so you couldn’t tell. When we heard the shooting outside, we went up and hid. We were 13 people between my family, some friends, and the couple that took us in. The Germans would go from house to house. Whoever they found, they took them out and threw them in trucks and took them to a forest. They made the Jews dig their own graves and then they shot them. Hundreds and hundreds of people were killed there.”
My Bubbe shares this as if talking about the plot of a book, but there is a weariness to her as well. Pulling up these memories can’t be easy. I look to my son, who has been quiet this whole time. I wonder if it’s too much for him, but he seems okay, absorbing it all.
“Once, the Germans came to the attic. They were looking for us, yelling “Jude! Jude!” We were very scared, but they finally left. While we hid in the attic, we heard all the shots that came from the forest, Feder Hill, all day and all night. They killed a lot of Jews that time. After two days of shooting, things quieted down. We started coming out of our hiding place. Downstairs there were some other people that lived there. The SS took the parents; the grandmother and a little boy, only 2 years old, were shot. The little boy wore a white coat and the blood ran all over the coat and the boy. I will never forget that. And when we came out, on the street, there were a lot of dead people, their brains splashed all over. I was only 12 years old.”
Twelve. Four years older than my son. I can’t imagine. I don’t want to imagine. But the picture she’s painting is so vivid and so painful. My Bubbe explains how her family was then forced into a ghetto, surrounded by wire. They weren’t allowed to leave and the conditions were horrible. Once again, her father went into the attic of the house they were in and made a hiding space. The Germans continued to “surprise” them, and they managed to survive every shooting that happened. Her father realized that staying in the ghetto didn’t necessarily mean survival. He felt that if they “were going to die anyway” they should at least try to escape. In the middle of the night he packed up the whole family and they walked 18 miles back to their village of Złoty Potok where they were able to stay in the barn of a woman they knew. It was then that most of the family fell ill with typhoid fever.
“My brother, he was two years older than me, didn’t get sick. So my father put him in another place, with a non-Jewish family, very good people. They took my brother in and kept him, not long. Maybe a week or two. And my grandfather, he was in a barn somewhere else. Somebody saw, and squealed on my brother, telling the Germans and they came in and took him out. My brother was 17 years old. They also found my grandfather. They took them to the Jewish cemetery, made them undress, and then they shot them both. My father knew about this, but didn’t tell us. He told us they took them to a camp.”
She explains that they all eventually survived the typhoid. Her father realized that they couldn’t stay in the woman’s barn for too much longer. My Bubbe emphasizes how brave this woman was, because if the Germans had caught them there, she would have been killed as well. A glimpse of all the kind hearted people within all of this madness.
“When we finally felt better we went into the forest, and again, my father protected us. He built a bunker very deep in the forest. We cooked outside. We stayed there for a while until it was too dangerous. So we went elsewhere in the forest and started again. My father built another bunker, under the ground. Then another one, and a third one underneath that one.
“I remember, there was a woman there with her husband and she was pregnant. And that wasn’t a good thing. She had the baby and… he didn’t survive. The baby was screaming, and there were other people in the bunker and they didn’t want that. Don’t ask, it was a whole different kind of thing.”
At this, my son’s eyes grow wide with understanding but he remains silent, wanting my Bubbe to go on. He has fallen into her story and, like me, needs to hear it through until the end.
“Well, the soldiers came and we ran into the bunker. My father made a cover from a tree stump, with moss around it. You couldn’t tell it was a cover and that there was anything underneath. Somehow, they found the bunker. They opened the cover and started shooting. They were afraid to go in. They threw in a hand grenade. But we went into the third one, down below and we were safe.”
I start to imagine what the two years in the woods must have been like for her. She explains how they foraged for food like mushrooms in the summer, and in the winter they got whatever food they could from a Polish doctor who was a friend of theirs. She describes the one dress she wore the entire time in the forest. More than 60 years later she can still describe it with such clarity: dark orange, almost red, with pinstripes. I wonder what happened to that dress.
“There were always surprises. Once, we didn’t have time to hide in the bunker. We ran and ran and ran, down to the stream where we washed up. We could see the German’s boots and rifles. Until today, I still have nightmares that I’m running and running, but they didn’t get me. My heart, racing. We had so many close calls, but they never got us.
“Winter was really bad. We were starving and had no food. My mother decided that we had to get out of the forest. She had a brother and a sister, and they were staying with a Baptist couple, who had kept 12 Jews underneath their barn in a bunker. My mother said, ‘We’re going to die either way, so we might as well try. Maybe they’ll take us in.’”
She tells me that they did take them in, despite the fact that there were already too many people hiding in their bunker. They were allowed to stay there for four weeks.
“We had to stay in the dark bunker with no windows. You couldn’t see anything and I did not like that. Until today, I still hate the dark.
“We walked through the night back to our hometown Złoty Potok and we went into a neighbor’s barn. We were frozen and hungry. She had two cows in there, we sat around them and it was nice and warm. There was food left for the cows, so we ate it. Then we figured our neighbor would come in during the morning, see us, and then run to the police and that would be the end.
“When she did come in, she knew us. She used to come to our house on Shabbat. She felt sorry for us. She started crying. She kept us there. She used to bring food for the cows and for us. She had a very sick husband — he was very mean. If he had known we were there, forget it, we would have been gone. But he was paralyzed, so he had no idea we were in the barn. Everyone thought she was a crazy woman. Well, she wasn’t so crazy.
“My father made a room from the straw and manure in the barn, so if anyone came in to look for us, we would hide. And we stayed there for three, maybe 4 more months until we were liberated by the Russians.”
It’s been almost an hour. My son — who is the definition of “ shpilkes in the tukhis ” — has sat, engrossed this entire time. I know we’ll have many follow up conversations about much of what he has heard, but I am so grateful for this moment. For him to hear my Bubbe’s story from her lips. Perhaps he will one day share this story, when all we have left are recordings and written words. He’ll be able to say, my great-grandmother was a part of this awful and historic event. This is her story.
Avital Norman Nathman is a former teacher turned freelance writer.
When Michael Hochberg met the woman who helped saved his life during the Holocaust, he embraced her and whispered in Polish, “What a great surprise,”
and then called her a pretty flower. He handed her a bouquet of tangerine roses.
She replied back in the same language: “I didn’t expect it would happen.”
Hochberg, who is now 77, and Krystyna Jakubowska, who is 86, met inside the Port Authority pressroom at John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York while half a dozen news cameras captured the moment on December 2.
Jakubowska entered through a side door opposite him and the two walked towards each other and embraced. They looked at each other fondly and chatted in Polish for several minutes. Cameras around them clicked. A woman from the Jewish Foundation for the Righteous, which facilitated the reunion, ushered them into two chairs situated side-by-side so they could answer questions about their time together in Poland. Jakubowska smiled and animatedly flailed her hands as she told their story. As she talked, she petted Hochberg’s arm. He sat quietly beside her and later clasped her hand in his.
The Jakubowska family took in Hochberg when he was four years old; the Hochbergs were family friends. His parents stayed behind in the ghetto. For two years, Hochberg stayed inside their apartment. He was only allowed to leave at night when he briefly stood on the balcony for fresh air. Eventually neighbors became suspicious and began asking questions. But Jakubowska’s mother pretended Hochberg, who did not have the family’s fair skin and blonde hair, was her grandchild.
In 1944, the Germans forced Warsaw residents out of the city to a camp, and Hochberg went with the Jakubowska family. When the parents died shortly after, Krystyna assumed responsibility for Hochberg. She was a teenager at the time.
The pair separated after the Soviets liberated the area and Hochberg barely had time to say goodbye. He was sent to a Jewish orphanage in a village outside the city. Both his parents had been killed in the ghetto. He finished his studies and at age 18, moved to Israel.
The two lost contact until Hochberg traveled to Poland and tracked down Jakubowska. They have met several times since their first reunion in 2006, including visiting the family’s apartment in Warsaw. But each meeting only lasted several hours and now, both seemed excited to have the opportunity to spend a whole week together, touring New York City and catching up.
After about 30 minutes of answering questions, mostly by Jakubowska, the cameramen packed up and several rushed off to cover other breaking news stories. As the room emptied, Jakubowska and Hochberg continued to sit on stage, talking to one another in Polish. He gazed off past her as he listened and her hands waved in front of her face as she chatted. The bouquet of flowers lay on the coffee table in front of them.
They eventually disappeared backstage together - taking the roses, but leaving their family members to mill about and chat.
Apr 17, 2017
The Wedding Ring That Got Auschwitz’s Commander Hanged
Rudolf Höss was executed exactly 70 years ago. Little did he know his wedding ring would do him in − thanks to the ingenuity of Berlin-born Jew Hanns Alexander
A few days before he was executed on April 16, 1947, Auschwitz commander Rudolf Franz Höss penned a final letter to his wife. He wrote that he had been “a cogwheel in the monstrous German machinery of destruction,” an “automaton who blindly obeyed every order.” He had “followed a very wrong path, and thereby brought destruction on [him]self.” He called himself “the greatest of all destroyers of human beings.”
Höss attached his wedding ring to the letter and asked his wife to revert to using her maiden name. “It will be best for my name to die with me,” he wrote.
That wedding ring played a big role in his arrest a year earlier.
Höss’ arrest was made possible by a Berlin-born Jew named Hanns Alexander, who had served in the British army. Alexander led 25 British soldiers who found Höss hiding on an isolated farm in Germany.
Höss handed Alexander forged identity papers bearing the name Franz Lang. Höss looked haggard, but Alexander knew that was his man. He waved a photograph in Höss’ face, but the German denied that it was him, again pointing to his papers. Alexander looked for a way to prove the man’s identity. He found the solution in the wedding ring.
Give it to me, Alexander demanded. I can’t, it’s been stuck on my finger for years, Höss replied. No problem, I’ll cut it off, Alexander said.
Only after a kitchen knife was produced did Höss take off the ring. Alexander took a close look and saw the names Rudolf and Hedwig – Höss’ wife – carved on the ring’s inner side.
After being beaten by Alexander’s soldiers, Höss was put on a truck. On the way, after being asked repeatedly, Höss broke down and confessed that he had ruled Auschwitz. Alexander and the soldiers, before delivering Höss to prison, stopped at an inn to celebrate the occasion. Höss remained under guard in the truck.
Höss was the direct founder, organizer and commander of Auschwitz, which he prepared for the mass extermination of human beings starting in the summer of 1941. More than 1 million people were killed there, most of them Jews.
Höss gave testimony at the Nuremberg trials. In the summer of 1941 – he couldn’t recall the exact date – he was called to Berlin to meet the head of the SS. Heinrich Himmler declared, unusually without the presence of his adjutant, that the Führer had ordered a “Final Solution to the Jewish problem.”
Himmler said he was designating the camp in Auschwitz for this task because the area was remote and could easily be camouflaged. It would be an onerous task requiring complete dedication. Himmler told Höss that he would have to keep this order absolutely secret, even from his superiors.
Höss was executed exactly 70 years ago at that precise remote location.
His wife Hedwig died in her sleep in 1989 in the United States, where she was visiting her daughter Brigitte, who still lives there. She still finds it hard to believe that 6 million Jews were murdered in the Holocaust.
Alexander died in 2006. His nephew Thomas Harding told his story in the 2013 book “Hanns and Rudolf: The True Story of the German Jew Who Tracked Down and Caught the Kommandant of Auschwitz.”
April 16, 2007
Uncovering The Secret Tunnel That Helped Jews of Vilna Escape the Nazis
“Holocaust Escape Tunnel,” the latest episode in the PBS science series “Nova” follows a group of scholars and engineers as they use the latest ground radar techniques to re-discover an important piece of Jewish history in Vilna.
Napoleon called Vilna (now officially Vilnius) the “Jerusalem of the North.” It was home to Elijah ben Solomon Zalman, better known as the Vilna Gaon, the Talmudic scholar and Kabbalist who encouraged his students to study science. Jews made up 40% of a city that boasted 100 synagogues, six newspapers and the largest Jewish library in the world. But then came the Nazis.
Dr. Richard Freund, professor of Jewish history at the University of Hartford, led the group that went to Vilna. Three years ago, he said in a telephone interview with The Forward that he was approached by Dr. Jon Seligman, a noted archeologist with the Antiquities Authority of Israel, who wanted to discover if any remnants of the Great Synagogue of Vilna might be found.
An architectural masterpiece built almost 400 years ago, the synagogue was destroyed by the Nazis and, after the war, the Soviets built a school on the site.
Freund was a logical choice for this assignment. His team had already completed about 30 similar projects around the world — in Israel, Greece and Spain and elsewhere — using new non-invasive technology for subsurface mapping originally developed for the oil and gas industry.
In 2015, Freund raised enough cash to do a preliminary survey, which revealed that part of the synagogue remained at a subterranean level. After additional fund raising, the project went ahead last spring.
Along the way, it took on two additional missions as well. The first was to see if the scientists could discover additional gravesites in the Ponar Woods outside the capital, where an estimated 100,000 people — 70,000 Jews — were systematically lined up and shot.
Freund and his team also wanted to locate a hidden tunnel through which a dozen Jews escaped slaughter in the last days of Nazi occupation. An earlier unrelated team had found the tunnel entrance in 2004 but inexplicably left it unmarked.
With the help of Lithuanian collaborators, the Nazis marched people into the woods, and shot them at close range. The significance of these killings went beyond sheer numbers. Historians agree that Vilna was ground zero for the final solution; the place where the Nazis learned how easy it was to eradicate a people.
Freund discovered the largest pit yet, one said to have held as many as 10,000 corpses.
The group was equally successful with the synagogue. That new sections were found was ironically attributable to church regulations. “At the time, ecclesiastical rule was that you could not build a synagogue at a height higher than the highest church steeple,” Freund said.
“So instead of building up, they built down. When you came into the Great Synagogue, you went down two flights of stair and that is what basically saved it.”
Eventually the team was able to dig down the two levels, where it discovered what they believe was a mikveh as well as numerous tiles, coins and other artifacts.
But it was finding the escape tunnel that most fascinated the world scientific community when it was announced last June. With the Soviet army approaching, the Nazis assigned a group of 80 Jews —- 76 men and four woman — to cut trees for firewood, exhume Jewish bodies and burn them to eliminate evidence of the atrocities.
Realizing that ultimately, they would also be killed, the group, which became known as the Burning Brigade, started to build a tunnel at night. Using only their hands, spoons and improvised tools, they created a 100-foot-long engineering marvel in some ways equal to the Great Synagogue itself.
On April 15, 1944, the last night of Passover, they broke out. Of the original 80, 12 made it and 11 survived the war. Freund argues that the discovery was well timed. With survivors dying and now even their children following them, in 20 years “how would we know if the testimonies of the people who survived were true or not. That’s one of the things science does. It allows us to give new life to testimonies of the Holocaust.”
Did The Nazis Really Have A System of Medical Ethics?
At the conclusion of World War II, the first defendants to testify at the Nuremberg trials were Nazi physicians and public health officials who were interrogated about how and why they conducted horrific experiments on human beings, and mass murder in the name of science and medicine. It’s been convenient to believe that these perpetrators were incompetent, mad or just following orders, but according to medical ethicist Arthur Caplan, “Most of those who participated did so because they believed it was the right thing to do.”
Not only the right thing to do. Now we know it was what many of them were taught to do.
Researchers from Germany and Israel have discovered that the Nazis systematically taught their own version of medical ethics to students throughout Germany, intended not only to justify the regime’s horrors but also to shape future generations of physicians. These findings, published in the Annals of Internal Medicine in April, demonstrate how politics and a society’s prevailing zeitgeist can influence and pervert medical ethics — something we are not immune to, even today.
“The paper was a breakthrough,” Caplan, a professor of bioethics at New York University who reviewed it before publication, told me. “Until this, we didn’t know what the Nazis were teaching in schools.”
Given the medical crimes and immoral conduct of Hitler’s regime, I had assumed that the Nazis weren’t teaching anything at all. How could there possibly be ethical justifications for mass murder, lethal experimentation and racist behavior?
But Florian Bruns of Berlin’s Charite University Medical Center and Tessa Chelouche of the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology, in Haifa, dug through course catalogs and archival sources to discover that the Nazis had devised a code of ethics and turned it into a medical curriculum with textbooks, mandatory classes and approved lecturers.
This curriculum was implemented in 1939 and included lectures on racial hygiene, the science of heredity, population policy and more — subjects suitable for promoting Nazi ideology to medical students. But they went further and created another set of required lectures called Medical Law and Professional Studies, which “focused for the first time on physicians’ moral and legal obligations to their patients as well as to their profession and the state,” Bruns and Chelouche wrote. By the winter semester of 1943–1944, 25 of the 28 faculties teaching medicine in the “Greater German Reich” held obligatory lectures in MLPS.
MLPS was intended to create a new kind of physician, one who would focus less on individual patient care and more on the general welfare of society. Rudolf Ramm, a physician who published a textbook on MLPS in 1942, “blatantly defined the Nazi physician’s ethical obligation as being responsible for ridding society of certain groups: Jewish people, disabled people and any others who were deemed unable to contribute to society,” Bruns and Chelouche wrote.
Ramm advocated the “mercy killing” of the disabled, writing: “These creatures merely vegetate and constitute a serious burden on the national community. They not only reduce the standard of living of the rest of their family members because of the expenses for their care, but also need a healthy person to take care of them throughout their lives.”
You can see through those chilling words how Nazi health officials reinterpreted the Hippocratic Oath to legitimate their genocidal ideology. Exterminating Jews and the disabled, and people with hereditary diseases, and anyone considered a burden was morally acceptable in order to heal the German people.
What do we learn from this? As Caplan has written, the Holocaust differed from other instances of genocide in that it involved the active participation of medicine and science. We knew about the scientific workings of the gas chambers and Josef Mengele’s horrific concentration camp experiments, but now we know that the Nazis intended to inculcate future generations of physicians and health workers with a corrupt version of “ethical” teachings.
“The Nazis played off the rights of the individual against the supposed interests of society on a large scale,” Bruns and Chelouche wrote. “We should remain aware that violating individual rights always damages a society.”
Of course, this was not the first time that the medical profession had drawn up a pretext to violate the rights of a persecuted minority; the notorious Tuskegee Syphilis Study on poor African-American men began in 1932 and lasted for 40 years. But it is stunning that the Nazis went through such monumental attempts to pass along their perverted teachings to what they hoped would be future generations of medical professionals.
As Caplan told me, “The lesson here is to stay alert to what forces might be impinging on our ethics today.”