Listening to Nazis
Laurence Rees is the author of the award-winning Auschwitz: The Nazis and the 'Final Solution' - the world's bestselling book on the history of the camp. A former Head of BBC TV History programmes, he has written six books on the Nazis and the Second World War, as well as writing and producing the accompanying documentary TV series. His many awards include a British Book Award, a BAFTA, a George Foster Peabody award, a Broadcasting Press Guild award, a Grierson award, a Broadcast award, two International Documentary awards and two Emmys.
His new book The Holocaust: a New History, now available in paperback, answers two of the most fundamental questions in history - how, and why, did the Holocaust happen? Laurence Rees combines the eyewitness testimony of perpetrators of the Holocaust and survivors - a large amount of which has never been published before - with the latest academic research to create a compelling new account of the Holocaust.
Below, exclusively for Foyles, he describes his experience of meeting former Nazis and trying to understand how citizens of a cultured nation at the heart of Europe could have supported a regime that orchestrated the mass murder of millions of innocent men, women and children.
Author photo © Martin Patmore
I first met a former member of the SS twenty-six years ago, when I was making a film about the actions of the British Army in Austria at the end of WW2. I had expected him to be an obnoxious individual – after all, the ideology of the SS is utterly repellent – but instead he was charming and intelligent. Yet he showed no sign of being ashamed of his military service. He still believed that during the war he had done the right thing.
I was astonished by this encounter. How was it possible that a sophisticated man like this had served a regime of such unprecedented horror? In a way, it’s a question I am still asking today, all these years later, and it’s one I explore in my latest book, ‘the Holocaust: A New History’.
I keep returning to the subject of the Nazis in the books I write and the films I make because this key question of motivation still intrigues me – why did citizens of a cultured nation at the heart of Europe support a regime that orchestrated the mass murder of millions of innocent men, women and children?
In the more than a quarter of a century since I met that SS officer, of course, I’ve gained some clues as to the answer. I’ve met a number of people - as I made series like Nazis: A Warning from History – who offered insights into the reasons why they served the regime. For instance, I remember listening, appalled, as a former member of a killing squad describe how he murdered Jewish civilians. He had participated in the murders for a whole variety of reasons. He hated Jews, he loathed Communists – and believed the Nazi fantasy that the Jews were behind Communism – and he was jealous of the wealth that the Jews allegedly owned and wanted some of it for himself. Incredibly, even after 20 years in a Soviet prison for his crimes, he still appeared to have trouble accepting that he was ‘guilty’ of any offence.
This ‘internalisation’ of belief – the idea that it had been ‘right’ to kill the Jews – was common in many of the former Nazis we filmed for the programmes I wrote and produced. Unlike, for example, the former Soviet NKVD officer I met in the course of making a series about the Hitler/Stalin war, who said quite simply that he had participated in the deportation of entire ethnic groups because if he hadn’t he feared he ‘would be shot’, the majority of Nazis we encountered told us that at the time they felt the crimes they had committed had been justifiable.
The basis of their belief that they had done the ‘right thing’ all those years ago rested on the fact that the Third Reich was one of the most racist states that has ever existed. Hitler preached that ‘Aryan’ Germans were superior to others. Children were taught in school that they were better than other ‘races’. One German woman told us how in the 1930s her teachers had said that ‘only Germans were valuable human beings – there was a little booklet called German Inventors, German Poets, German Musicians – nothing else existed. And we devoured it. We were absolutely convinced that we were the greatest.’ Another German who had been at school in Munich at the same time told us: ‘I have to say it was somewhat contagious, you used to say that if you tell a young person every day, “You are something special,” then in the end they will believe you. Well, I mean they tried to breed the so-called German race. Again and again they were saying, we want this, and that, we want healthy people, we want strong, working people, fit people. Above all the Germanness came through, which had been drilled, strengthened, in those years, the Germanness.’
But there was always a dark side to the positive message that ‘you are something special’. That’s because you can’t believe you are better than others without also thinking that these ‘others’ are beneath you. Moreover, this sense of superiority was not something that you had earned through your own merit. It was inherent – so the Nazis believed – in your blood. ‘Aryan’ Germans were better than others purely by virtue of their birth. It didn’t matter what you did, it only mattered who you were. This warped logic led the Nazis to the inescapable conclusion that those who were considered dangerous – most notably the Jews – could do nothing to stop themselves being a threat to the nation state. In previous times it was possible for some Jews to convert to Christianity in order to escape persecution. No such way out was possible now. Hitler made his views on this clear as far back as the early 1920s. ‘It is beside the point whether the individual Jew is decent or not,’ he said. ‘In himself he carries those characteristics which Nature has given him, and he cannot ever rid himself of those characteristics. And to us he is harmful.’ It was this kind of corrupt belief that led the Nazis ultimately to the terrible conclusion that the mere fact of your birth was enough to condemn you to death.
What struck me over the years, as I listened to a number of Germans who had lived through this time talk about how ‘positive’ they felt life under Nazi rule had been (up until the point the Nazis started losing the war, of course) was how attractive they had found the idea of absolute racism, especially when combined with another message that Hitler conveyed. These Germans felt great not just because they believed they were ‘better’ than other people, but because they were taught that the problems they faced were not their fault. Since his earliest days as a fledgling politician, Hitler had said that the Jews were behind virtually all the difficulties Germans faced. Germany, for example, had lost the First World War not because the German military leadership had pursued a flawed military strategy – which was the truth - but because the Jews behind the front line had stabbed German soldiers in the back.
I’m not suggesting for a moment that these two ideas - being told you are inherently better than others and that you are not to blame for the problems you face – were on their own enough to cause the horror of the Holocaust. As my book reveals, there were a whole host of contributory factors. But what I do believe is that the intensity of the racial beliefs inherent in the Nazi state were a necessary pre-condition of what was to come. Racism, lets remind ourselves, is a cancer within any society.