Friday 23 September 2016

How much did ordinary Germans really know about the Holocaust? by Leslie Wilson

'I know no one ever believes us nowadays – everyone thinks we knew everything. We knew nothing, it was all kept well secret.' Thus Brunhilde Pomsel, one of Goebbels's typists, recently quoted in The Guardian, talking about the Holocaust.

And I found myself, as so often, thinking: 'Yes, you can say that, but how can I believe you?' It was the eternal question for people of my generation, fuelled, often, by our parents' and grandparents's total silence or the repeated 'We didn't know anything about it.' It felt like banging your head against a brick wall.

'You didn't know what it was like!' my mother told me, furiously. She was right, and I've spent years trying to find out, and to imaginatively reconstruct what it might have been like for her, who was eight when Hitler came to power. She was wrong, though, when she told me it was nothing to do with me and I shouldn't try and form my own opinions about it. 'What one generation can't deal with,' a rabbi once told me about the Holocaust, 'they pass on to the next generation who must then wrestle with it.' It has been a long but necessary journey for many, both Jews and Germans and people of part-German descent, like me.

What my mother did once tell me was that she heard things, but she thought they were atrocity stories, such as were told about German soldiers during World War 1, and so people didn't believe them. I thought  then that she was talking about the gas chambers. She's dead now, and so it's too late to ask her for clarification on this, but the Holocaust had two stages, and this is a crucial factor to bear in mind.

 When the German Army went into Russia in June, 1941, they went with an agenda to wipe out huge amounts of people, Russians, but particularly Russian Jews. Police units, SS units, and ordinary soldiers in some cases, became what was called 'Einsatz' units, which I suppose you could translate as 'Action Units.' It was a euphemism, of course, for murder units. The involvement of ordinary servicemen was brought back into public consciousness in the '90s, when an exhibition called 'Crimes of the Wehrmacht' toured Germany to  demonstrations of support and howls of protest, but there is convincing evidence that these horrible massacres 'leaked' out to the general public. Soldiers came home and they talked, or, in some cases, boasted, as I made the Nazi lad next door boast to my heroine and her brother in 'Saving Rafael.'

They wrote home about it, like this man: 'About 2,007 of the 8,000 odd Jews of our (sic) little town have been shot at the command of the area commissar.. among them many women and children.' Another wrote this description of brutal reprisals after the Army had found captured German soldiers dead and mutilated in the cellar of the municipal law courts: 'Yesterday we and the SS were merciful, for every Jew we found was shot at once. Today it's different, since we found another 60 mutilated comrades. So now we made the Jews carry the dead up out of the cellar, lie them down nicely and then we showed them the disgusting crimes. After they had looked at the victims they were beaten to death with clubs and spades. We've already sent about 1,000 Jews into the other world.'
These letters passed the censor, so clearly, at this stage, nobody minded allowing the information to leak out.
monument to deported Jews, Berlin Grunewald station.

So it does seem inevitable that a fair proportion of Germans all over the country were aware of this phase of the Holocaust. Also Jews, including German Jews, were being murdered in the same way in Poland. Maybe this was what my mother meant when she spoke of 'atrocity stories'.

How much, though, were these stories at the forefront of ordinary Germans' minds at the time? From early 1942 onwards (the time when 'deportations' of German Jews really got going), the British began to target civilians in German cities. The effects (which went far beyond the war years) on urban populations of trauma, lack of sleep, and loss of their homes, can be imagined. There would also be a feeling of powerlessness. Yes, your Jewish neighbours, your doctor, and so on, might well have disappeared, but what could anyone do about it? And this was largely true, with a few exceptions. Powerlessness brings apathy in its train. Many people must have got on with their lives, focussing on their own survival and that of their families. 'Why should I care about the Jews?' one woman said. 'I've got enough to worry about, with my husband and brother at the Front.' If this sounds unpalatable or shocking, I can remember, on the day of the Chernobyl accident, going to collect my kids from school, shaken by what had happened, to hear the other mothers talking about new washing machines, and similar concerns. Humans have a staggering ability to ignore the bigger picture, which is why some British children were allowed to play in radioactive rain that day.

The second phase of the Holocaust was thought up following the secret Wannsee Conference, and in this context, it's worth considering a speech that Heinrich Himmler, head of the SS, made to SS leaders in October 1943. 

'I also want to talk to you quite frankly about a very grave matter. We can talk about it among ourselves yet we will never speak of it publicly.. I am referring to the Jewish evacuation programme, the extermination of the Jewish people.. Most of you will know what it means when a hundred corpses are lying side by side, or five hundred or a thousand are lying there. To have stuck it out and - apart from a few exceptions due to human weakness - to have remained decent, that is what has made us tough. This is a glorious page in our history and one that has never been written and can never be written..'

This speech is horribly fascinating for a variety of reasons; first, because he is referring to open-air massacres, which were widely known, and so he is persuading himself, and the SS (how successfully I have no idea) that nobody did know about them. Then, of course, one wonders what he means by 'remaining decent.' Perhaps retaining their allegiance to Nazism? It also demonstrates that even the SS found the murders repugnant - maybe just from squeamishness, or did they really have a vestige of conscience?There's that episode in 'Schindler's List' where the Jewish violinist, brought in to entertain the SS, deliberately plays a piece that he knows gets to one SS man's nerve. Eventually the man goes out and shoots himself. This would doubtless be one of the 'exceptions due to human weakness.'

Anyway, the methods of mass murder were overhauled. Firstly, because in fact increasing numbers of perpetrators did suffer PTSD. Secondly, because the corpses didn't stay in the mass graves.I won't go into details about that, but suffice it to say that normal decomposition didn't take place. You can read about it elsewhere if you want to. It's horrible.

And so the death camps were built, at Belzec, Sobibor, Treblinka, Birkenau, Majdankek,Chelmno; and new methods of murder dreamed up, along with huge ovens to get rid of the evidence. There was a lot of experimentation before prussic acid became the murder instrument of choice; putting people in vans and asphyxiating them with exhaust fumes was an early practice, which had already been tried out as part of the 'euthanasia' murders of disabled Germans. But from then on, the methods became more and more 'refined', and great efforts were made to keep the people unaware that they were about to be murdered.

It's vital to remember that the death camps were not the same as the concentration camps in Germany/Austria, terrible though such places were. There is a gas chamber at Dachau, but it was never used. The concentration camps, in Germany, Buchenwald, Oranienburg, Ravensbrück, Dachau etc, incarcerated criminals, gay people, some political prisoners, and some Jews, who were worked to death, also prisoners of war, particularly from the East. I have read people who should have informed themselves better saying: 'Oh, but didn't they realise about the gassings when they saw the smoke coming out of the chimneys; the people who lived near the camps must have known.' Well, the locals did realise what was going on, we're talking about Poland here. Auschwitz was the only camp which was a labour camp as well as a factory of death (that was the satellite Birkenau, carefully hidden behind trees). I think the confusion arises because, as is well known, large amounts of Jews from Auschwitz,  who were evacuated to the West, fetched up in these camps, Belsen being the horor everyone knows about. However, the horror of Belsen at the end of the war was different from the horrors of the extermination camps; except that its living skeletons and piles of corpses provided a potent image of the Nazi ideology of murder and death.

Secrecy was maintained about the operations of the death camps. The intention was to raze them after they'd done their work, so that nobody would ever know what had happened there. There were leaks of information: people listened to the BBC, who did talk about the destruction of the Jews, though as far as I know even they didn't give the full picture. If anyone knows better, please tell me. I have sat in the BBC written archive reading through the text of broadcasts to Germany. I remember reading about the attack on the Warsaw ghetto; and in the dazzling memoir of a Jewish German, the actor Michael Degen, who with his mother spent the war years in hiding in Berlin (Nicht alle waren Mörder; They Weren't All Murderers, alas not available in translation), he describes hearing the BBC talking about the exhaust gas murders, which was bad enough for a young lad to hear. He also describes another leakage of information, from a train driver who had driven many transports east, who'd witnessed the corpses falling out of the cattle trucks when the doors were opened, and whose son told Michael: 'Hitler has your people taken to Poland, by day and by night, and there they're gassed like cockroaches. They've built up a whole industry there.' To which the young Michael answered: 'You're crazy!'
The rails at Grunewald station, from which so many Berlin Jews went to their deaths.

I do remember reading somewhere - but I've forgotten the reference- that Jews managed to escape from transports and returned to Berlin, to beg the Jews still there to go underground and not to let themselves be taken east - but the Berlin Jews refused to believe them. This was also the case when the Polish diplomat Jan Karski came to the Allies during the war, to alert them to what was going on in Poland and ask for their support. As Clare Mulley told readers of this blog in  'Jan Karski, messenger from the past,' nobody wanted to do anything, but most tellingly: 'Supreme Court Justice Felix Frankfurter, possibly the most influential Jewish man in the USA, simply said he could not believe Karski’s report. When asked if he was suggesting that Karski was lying, Frankfurter replied only that not being able to believe was not the same as doubting the reliability of the source.' In other words, what he was expected to believe was so abominable that he simply couldn't take it in.

In the early 1980s, we were threatened with 'limited nuclear war' being waged in Europe.' A staggering amount of people simply blocked this out, and I can remember standing at a CND stall in the centre of Reading asking shoppers if they knew of any nuclear weapons establishments nearby. About 60% of those who'd agreed to be surveyed said they didn't, in spite of the presence in the neighbourhood of Greenham Common, Aldermaston, and Burghfield, to and from which nuclear bomb convoys still carry deadly payloads of weapons-grade plutonium. Many householders who lived close to the runway at Greenham loathed the Greenham women because they said they were affecting the value of their houses. The fact that they were living opposite to weapons that might (and nearly did on one occasion) bring about a nuclear holocaust and death to us all, didn't seem to bother them half as much as their house prices. But perhaps the reality was too ghastly for them to contemplate, too frighteningly alien, even. Humankind,as TS Eliot famously wrote, 'cannot bear very much reality.'

When I wrote both 'Saving Rafael' and 'Last Train from Kummersdorf', I made the knowledge of the mass shootings general, but the stories of the gas chambers something dreadful that my protagonists hoped wasn't true, and suffered when they discovered that it was. I think it's likely that many Germans, hearing, or hearing about, the BBC bulletins (and a phenomenal amount of Germans did listen to the BBC towards the end of the war, because it was the only reliable source of information about how things were going), simply blocked these stories out of their minds because they were too monstrous.

And perhaps they forgot that they'd blocked them out.

I was talking to a friend who grew up in Communist Czechoslovakia, and she told me that if you live in an atmosphere of lies, you become inclined to lie yourself (frequently as a matter of personal survival), and you end by believing the lies you tell.  Memory is not a recording device, which you can play back at will. Memories decay, are corrupted in storage, and false memories can be easily implanted (like the man who, in a famous experiment, was told that he was once lost in a supermarket as a child,  and ended up believing it and constructing his own story about it, though it never happened.

So the question of 'did they know', is a complicated one to answer. It could be better stated as 'was evidence available to them?' and 'did they choose not to know, and block it out?' or: 'Did they forget that they ever knew?'

In her memoir, written in the '80s, my mother wrote: 'In the face of incontrovertible evidence, my mind still refused to believe that any human being, least of all members of my own people, could be capable of such bestiality… In the end, and this is undoubtedly cowardice on my part, I closed my mind to anything that reminded me of what had happened in these camps because the thought of it filled me with such horror and revulsion that I became physically ill, unable to sleep or eat.'

And what does all this mean for us today? If we say 'Never again' about the Holocaust, we must consider what appalling things are going on nowadays, and be well aware of the blocking mechanisms that make us accept them. 'We need a strong economy' is one mantra deemed to be sufficient when we sell arms to regimes, such as the Saudi government, who are dropping British bombs on civilians and hospitals in Yemen. Every time I see an appeal for refugees, from reputable charities on Facebook, I see a rash of posts from people who say nobody should give money to refugees, even in camps thousands of miles away from Britain, because it is 'only encouraging them.' Such people have chosen to view all refugees as economic migrants, looking for a better life; it's easier, perhaps, than to face up to the enormous problem we're faced with, and the problems that the refugees themselves, more than anyone else, are faced with. And Trump, wanting to build a wall to keep Mexicans out of the US, never mentions that the skewed economic systems that exploit the developing world are precisely what makes their citizens want to come to the countries who profit from their own countries' resources. Then there is climate change, a growing and lethal threat to all of us, and yet most of us do 'get on with their lives.' 'I have to drive my car,' we say, or: 'I must have a new smart-phone.' Yet someone, or some part of our world, too often pays a terrible price for our impulse-purchase or bargain clothing, and one day we too will pay.
Monument to a transport of Jews, Grunewald station

The mechanisms of denial are a survival mechanism, as Eliot pointed out, but they have enormous destructive power as well. Yes, we must be able to give ourselves comfort zones, for the sake of our humanity. Yet what we need also is to regularly emerge from these, as we emerge from our homes, see what is going on in the world outside, and take what action we can.

All photographs by David Wilson


Susan Price said...

A stunning post, Leslie.

Leslie Wilson said...

It's a very difficult and complex subject. When I was a kid, people used to say: 'How could the Germans behave like that?' and also suggest that there must be something fundamentally evil about all Germans - which I knew wasn't the case, since my mother was one. But I have since discovered that even then people were saying that the Holocaust shed a dreadful light on all of humankind.

Anonymous said...

Excellent, thoughtful post to exercise the mind. Thank you.

Sue Bursztynski said...

A woman who worked for Goebbels claimed she didn't know and expects ANYONE to believe her? A woman who would have typed up his correspondence?

There is denial about a lot, even these days - denial about refugees, denial about climate change - and right now, in the 21st century, Catholic schools are still teaching children that "the Jews killed Christ." Really. Two of my Year 8 students were taught that in primary school. And then there are beloved grandfathers who tell the young ones, " Yes, I remember. They had it coming to them!"

When a woman won an Australian literary award for a book that basically said this, saying she was from a Ukrainian family and the novel was based on true family stories, a lot of Australians were only too happy to believe her and defended her, right up till the moment they found out she had been lying about her background - she was an Anglo - and the story was completely fictional. Actually, some went right on defending her until large chunks of it turned out to be plagiarism on top of the rest! People will believe what they want to believe.

Sue Purkiss said...

It's such a difficult question, isn't it - how much ordinary people knew. Really good post, Leslie.

Mark Thornton said...

This is a very thoughtful, sensitive but nevertheless honest piece about a very charged topic, and it speaks volumes about you as both a writer and person. Thanks for writing this - you might also be interested in a book entitled 'Ordinary Men' by Christopher Browning (if you can bear it - you may already have read it) which describes the psychological transformation of a group of 'ordinary' men into an efficient 'Einsatz' unit.

I guess humans are, fundamentally, social animals, and our success in evolutionary terms has been because of our ability to rub along together and combine our efforts to achieve things we can't do alone - even do things against our nature for the 'greater good'. Unfortunately this has given us a blind spot: when desperate or extreme situations allow evil people to exploit those tendencies, and change the definition of what the 'greater good' is, and the ethical framework in which we operate. You can see that happening today with the refugee crisis: re-frame them as economic migrants (or in some way responsible for their migration, or worse, using it as a cover for infiltration) and the payoff is obvious: we have a way to avoid any guilt or pain of seeing obvious suffering and injustice - which the media present to us hourly.

The Japanese have two words: Tatemae and Honne. 'Honne' is reality as you understand it, and the best translation of 'Tatemae' is 'reality as filtered through what society expects'. And it's that 'expectation of society' that can powerfully deform your ethical framework. A trite example might be reading a manuscript of a good friend, knowing its awful, but finding good things to say about it. The vast majority of people would too, and those that would take the 'honne' route would be held up as awkward, unfeeling and rude (and possibly end of without many friends - a huge social cost).

The climate change denial reference makes me think of a somewhat depressing quote by author Nell Zink: "You don't want to ask me if we can save nature. The answer is yes we can, and no we won't". You can see a certain echo in what some ordinary Germans thought in the face of rumours of The Holocaust.

Thanks again for the article.

Clare Mulley said...

Thank you Leslie, what people knew, what they could and did believe, is such a fascinating, important, and difficult question. As you know, I touch on this a little in my next book. What is so important here is your touching on what we choose to know or believe even today. It is easy to condemn across time, or across thousand of miles, as if we have no choices today - we do of course.

Leslie Wilson said...

Ordinary Men should be required reading for everyone, I think. The two words for truth is deeply interesting, and I didn't know about them. We should have them in every language.

Leslie Wilson said...

Yes, people do. And Daniel Goldhagen, writing the deeply flawed 'Hitler's Willing Executioners ' insisted that all Germans were willing participants but any non-Germans who helped murder Jews were forced into it. That's another way of seeing only what you want to. Of course many Ukrainians and Latvians and some Poles were deeply, murderously anti-Semitic: there were plenty of pogroms in the past. Vichy France joined in with enthusiasm.
As far as Goebbels's secretary goes, she maybe didn't get material about the Holocaust to type up, because of the secrecy surrounding the operations of the death camps. All the same, she can't have thought the Jews were going to be well treated, given the propaganda against them. No. But if you had to go through de-Nazification after the war, you'd have to have your story pretty pat, in her situation, and maybe that became her false memory?

Leslie Wilson said...

If you've got the non-mobile version of this, my last comment was a reply to Sue. Put it in that way on my mobile and it didn't come up like that on the web site..

Leslie Wilson said...

Christopher Browning, in the preface to 'Ordinary Men' drew a line between understanding and excusing. To understand is not to excuse - but it is vital that we should understand, if we are to have any hope of helping ourselves to insight and self-knowledge.What was done was appalling, a terrible crime, and to turn one's back on it was not a good thing, though it's something humans do. It is as the people who carried out the Milgram experiment said: we do need to obey authority - or traffic would be a nightmare, for one thing, and we also need to cooperate with our fellow human beings. We need to hear and understand other people's views, but let us beware of thinking what the majority believes is always right. Some things have to be non-negotiable. In an age of populism, this is just as important to remember as it was in Nazi Germany. To understand, for example, why some people are hostile to immigration is not to say it's a good thing, far less to say it's OK to murder Poles, or just keep asking them when they're going home.

Catherine Hokin said...

An excellently written piece, thank you.