The world has marked various dates throughout 2005 to commemorate the 60th anniversary of events leading to the conclusion of World War II in August 1945. But as the year draws toward a close, one such anniversary is just coming up. The Nuremberg Trial of high-ranking Nazi officials began in November 1945 and lasted until October 1946. Of the 22 men brought to trial on a variety of charges, 18 were indicted for crimes against humanity—particularly the Jews, roughly six million of whom perished in the Holocaust—and 16 were convicted. In the follow-up Nuremberg trials over the next three years, dozens more men and women were convicted on the same or similar charges.
Three historians and a filmmaker recently discussed some of the issues arising from the years of Nazi domination. Putting the questions to Christopher Browning, Sir Ian Kershaw, Steven Ozment and Arnold Schwartzman was Vision publisher David Hulme. Part One of their conversation follows.
DH Holocaust survivor Simon Wiesenthal opens Arnold’s 1982 Academy Award–winning documentary Genocide, issuing a warning to us from a Nazi death camp. He tells us that 89 members of his and his wife’s family perished in such places and that it can happen again. Can it happen again and in the same way?
[Simon Wiesenthal died in Vienna on September 20, 2005, at the age of 96, a few days after this interview took place. He was responsible for bringing to justice more than 1,100 suspected Nazi war criminals.]
AS I got to know Simon Wiesenthal very well. He strongly believed it could happen again, and I have the same feeling. I’m not a historian as such, but a filmmaker. So in making Genocide, I relied heavily on historian Martin Gilbert, interpreting his words visually. But I did learn a considerable amount about the subject, and I believe the Holocaust could happen again. It just needs the right climate.
IK I suppose it depends on what you mean by “it.” If you mean a program for the mass killing of Jews by Germans, I would say absolutely inconceivable. Genocide under certain circumstances can, and I think will, happen again. But despite Bosnia and Kosovo, I think the chances are more likely that it would happen outside Europe than inside Europe.
AS But do you think a genocidal attack on Jews could not happen elsewhere?
IK Well, if so, then most likely in the context of the Middle East conflict, but I think it wouldn’t be anything like the genocide we understand under the term Holocaust. So I don’t think it really helps us greatly to try to see whether the Holocaust could be repeated.
CB I think we have to make a distinction between genocide and Holocaust. If we use Holocaust to describe the Nazi attempt to wipe out all the Jews of Europe, I don’t see this being replayed. But clearly genocide not only could but has occurred since then. One thinks of Rwanda, and possibly Bosnia, and certainly a sort of autogenocide under Pol Pot in Cambodia as well.
I agree with Ian in the sense that these events of a more general sort are going to happen, but I don’t see a replay of the Holocaust in a European context. In terms of the Middle East, even there I think there’s a difference in that the Jews are not a dispersed and vulnerable minority among a much wider population but a nation-state in a very different situation. There’s certainly some genocidal rhetoric issuing forth, but I think the real victims of genocide have generally been much more vulnerable peoples, and in that sense I don’t see a replay even in terms of the target group.
SO On one hand, I agree with Wiesenthal’s grim warning, but I also agree very much with what Ian has said. I think another Holocaust is out of the realm of serious possibility if we continue to heed a basic lesson of the two world wars in the last century. I don’t think we would be talking about National Socialism and the Holocaust today if a proud German nation had not suffered cascading humiliations, some of them gratuitous, after its defeat in the Great War. Those humiliations were both ceremonial and economic. They were stinging and they were unstinting: the Versailles reparations, the French occupation of the Ruhr, the partitioning of German lands; insolvency, unemployment, the living of life from hand to mouth for the better part of a decade—and this by people who just a few years before had known a good life.
If we are to secure our world from the kind of horror that National Socialism and the Holocaust represent, we might begin by finding better ways to manage memory and its resentments. Our continuing challenge is to find a way to remember without vengeance (remembering with vengeance was what brought Germany into this situation), and to forget without walking completely away—never again to humiliate and to burden gratuitously and seemingly without end, because history makes it clear how these things originate and how they develop. It will take great vigilance, as well as “remembering without vengeance,” to keep these things from happening, not only between Europeans, or Germans and Jews, but also between other ethnic groups who are in conflict around the world.
“Our continuing challenge is to find a way to remember without vengeance . . . , and to forget without walking completely away.”
AS But there has been an enormous rise of anti-Semitism, in Europe particularly.
IK Though not comparable with the period after the 1920s and ’30s, and certainly not supported by any state organization. And not in any party that looks remotely like winning political power. I don’t underestimate, of course, the growing anti-Semitism. What you have are attacks on Jews, massively deplorable, certainly not to be treated with complacency, but I don’t think comparable with the deep-seated, ingrained and proto-genocidal anti-Semitism that existed in many parts of Europe (not just Germany) in the 1920s and ’30s, before the actual genocide got under way in the context of the Second World War.
AS As a young Jewish child growing up in the U.K., I was often accused of killing Christ, and I didn’t know what it was all about. Do you think that the Catholic concept of Jews as Christ-killers had anything to do with the Holocaust, especially in Germany and Austria where there were many Catholics?
IK In a cultural sense, it was part of the background. But I wouldn’t just confine it to the Catholic church, because anti-Semitism was also prevalent in areas that were predominantly Protestant. And in the German case, of course, the mainstays of Nazism were by and large in the Protestant areas rather than the specifically Catholic parts of Germany. I think that Austria, for a number of reasons, is somewhat different.
Christian, not just Catholic, antipathy toward Jews as Christ-killers was part of a cultural background that helped prepare the ground for the attack on Jews. But it would not have led to it without two other things. One was the racist—in the German context, völkisch—anti-Semitism, which meant that, biologically, Germans and Jews were seen as polar opposites. And the second was the apocalyptic nature of the anti-Semitism that Hitler represented—that removing the Jews was the way to national salvation or national redemption. Without those two things, Christian anti-Semitism would certainly have been very unpleasant and would have led to pogroms and attacks on Jews and persecution and discrimination, but not to genocide.
CB It’s important to keep in mind that a very strong religious anti-Semitism prevailed in Europe from the heart of the Middle Ages to the 20th century without producing genocide. Clearly we have to look at what happened in addition to this deeply pervasive anti-Semitic stereotype, combining with it to produce the events of the 20th century. But religious anti-Semitism by itself is not an explanation, because for more than a thousand years Jews survived in Europe as a very vulnerable minority without being exterminated in genocide.
“Religious anti-Semitism by itself is not an explanation, because for more than a thousand years Jews survived in Europe as a very vulnerable minority without being exterminated in genocide.”
IK That really goes pretty well along the lines of what I was saying about religiously motivated discrimination against Jews, which is that it simply isn’t sufficient. You have to have the superimposition of biological racism, and then on top of that, this idea that removing the Jews is a type of cosmic answer to the problems of a nation. Without those things, I don’t think that particular form of genocide, unique in so many ways, could have taken place.
And that leads me to another remark, which again builds on what Chris was just saying. Genocide, more conventionally, is where there is a contested power and contested demands on scarce resources in a limited territorial area. As Chris was intimating, insofar as Jews in the state of Israel might be potential targets today, it is in that category: contested Middle Eastern politics. Rwanda is another situation where you have contested politics. That’s the normal case where genocide takes place. In the instance of the Jews and Nazi Germany, that was not the case. The Jews could not conceivably have been seen to pose any realistic contest for power or for resources, or anything of that sort. So the invention of the Jew as a sort of devil incarnate was the crucial underlying difference in that regard, and the alternative to that—national salvation—could only come about by removing the devil. That is a different form of anti-Semitism altogether from traditional Christian anti-Judaism, and of course, in the Jewish case too, there was no comparable territorial conflict, as such, connected to it. Jews were seen as a universal threat, not just a threat within the context of one particular nation.
So in all these ways I think the Holocaust was unique and can’t be repeated, although other genocides will take place.
AS What about the Spanish Inquisition? Is there a parallel in a religious context?
IK No, in the Spanish Inquisition, if people were prepared to convert, then they were let off. That’s normally the case with past religious discrimination against Jews. Those Jews who were prepared to convert to Christianity were by and large released from the persecution. In the case of Nazi Germany, it didn’t make the slightest difference whether you were a Christian Jew or an Orthodox Jew; it was exactly the same in the Nazi eyes. It was a racial issue.
SO When religion becomes an ethnic marker, you get the religion combined with genocide. If religion is simply seen as belief, then conversion is usually the goal. In conversion, an act of intolerance is not usually genocidal.
DH Chris, in your book Ordinary Men, about Reserve Police Battalion 101, you show how average middle-aged German men morphed into people capable of enormous cruelty toward Jewish men, women and children in Poland. What are the differences between those who do and those who don’t get engaged in such murderous brutality?
CB This, of course, is an area where you always wish you had more evidence on the individual level. What we’ve been able to do fairly well is to explain the process as a group dynamic; that is, we can understand why groups of people, units, can be organized in particular ways—harnessing deference to authority, pressures for conformity, indoctrination, and training—to turn them into killer units.
What we are very weak on is explaining who the small percentage will be that predictably won’t go along. As we know, there will be a minority that does not conform; but a capacity to know why certain individuals join that group, what makes them tick, is very, very difficult. I was reminded of this particularly when I was on the same panel with Nechama Tec, who was doing research on rescuers in Poland. She was lamenting that it was very difficult to explain why individual Poles would risk their own lives and families to help Jews. As I think Michael Marrus said, we have as much trouble explaining good as we have explaining evil. Explaining these individual decisions when we don’t have a lot of information on ordinary individuals is a very difficult thing. But if one were groping after certain characteristics, then—just like the rescuers Nechama Tec was looking at—the nonconformists in Battalion 101 were people who for some reason had a greater degree of autonomy, a greater capacity to resist conformity, to go a different route and not be overwhelmed by the taunts of their colleagues—that they’re “chickens,” or “cowards.” What it is that creates a person who has that kind of autonomy is something I don’t think we’ve gotten very far in explaining.
In terms of rescuers, Nechama Tec mentions that they already had a pattern of altruistic behavior. That is, they were charitable people who had developed certain ways of responding to those in need before the first Jew knocked on their door. So they’re not inventing this out of whole cloth.
But I don’t think we know enough about the people who were the nonshooters in 101 to say anything about their behavior patterns in prior life that had equipped them to resist peer pressure at this point. It’s an area where we just know too little.
DH British ethics professor Jonathan Glover asks in his book Humanity: A Moral History of the Twentieth Century, how can you possibly prevent these sorts of things happening? He mentions actions on a governmental level, but he also talks about personal psychology. In the end he comes down to talking about character as being the difference between those who do and those who don’t.
CB I think it would have to be character wedded to values. That is, it has to be people who are able to have the autonomy to stand on their own, but also to perceive that what’s happening is something they don’t agree with. Otherwise you can harness their character in the wrong direction. My own feeling is that, at least as a historian, I can work better with social-psychological concepts that deal with group behavior. I don’t have much hope that I’ll have the materials to allow me to get down to the individual level and a psychological analysis of the individuals. It’s simply a problem that historians have with sources. We just don’t know enough about who these people were to answer the kinds of questions we’d like to.
DH Ian has said that Hitler’s dictatorship showed “what we are capable of.” What did you mean by that?
IK If you take Germany as a very modern, highly developed, culturally top-notch country, then the fact that within a matter of eight years the country could descend into what we see in Auschwitz and the other death camps takes us to the very depths of the possibilities of human action toward other human beings. One really has to get immersed in the systematic extermination that takes place, the level of ordered cruelty, in order to believe it fully in a modern, developed society.
“If we were placed in very extreme circumstances like that, we might wish that we would all be resistance fighters and the rest of it, but probably we wouldn’t.”
If you look at Germany just before Hitler came to power, it was similar to other societies with which we are familiar. To that extent, it shows us what we are capable of as human beings, if the circumstances lend themselves to it. That fits in with what Chris was saying about “ordinary men” and group dynamics. Many of these people who did horrendous things were in quite different circumstances after the war—in a functioning democracy in West Germany, perfectly capable of again becoming bank managers or normal doctors, or teachers or university professors, or whatever. The context really makes them behave in the way they do. I think that to some extent, if we’re honest, we have to say, “There but for the grace of God go we.” If we were placed in very extreme circumstances like that, we might wish that we would all be resistance fighters and the rest of it, but probably we wouldn’t. Not to say we would be immediately complicit in horrendous crimes, but we would probably make compromises that would push us in the direction of doing fairly awful things. And to that extent I think this regime illustrates—if we don’t just think about it in terms of these people being somehow from a different planet but rather being much like ourselves, and reflect on our own possible behavior if put in very extreme circumstances—it illustrates what we ourselves are capable of; not each individual necessarily, but what we like to think of as a relatively civilized people.
If I dare mention it in this particular context, as soon as Katrina struck New Orleans and the southern states at the end of August, we saw how thin the ice of civilization is at times, and we have to be aware of these facets too—that we are capable of doing some pretty horrendous things as individuals, and particularly when we are in certain extreme situations.
AS Simon Wiesenthal told me a story about somebody who was an upstanding figure in the community where he grew up in Poland. He became a capo in the camp. Mr. Wiesenthal said, “You have to put yourself in that position. It’s very difficult to judge them.” I often think of my national service days in the army—that after 10 weeks of basic training I was a killing machine. Fortunately it never came to that. When I was sent to Korea, I didn’t have to kill anybody, but I did just obey orders. Now, whether or not I would have gone against those orders I don’t know, but the human being is a very pliable thing that can easily be manipulated to obey orders. There are a few people who will stand up against them. I hope I would be one of them, but I don’t know.
“Mr. Wiesenthal said, ‘You have to put yourself in that position. It’s very difficult to judge them.’”
SO I have the impression in many conversations with people that there is this feeling that Hitler shows us what we aren’t capable of. I think that one of the reasons so many people have great difficulty in coming to grips with the Germans or in trusting the Germans is because of the belief that what the Germans did, no one else has done, and no one else is capable of doing—that this is behavior beyond the pale of ordinary humanity. It’s the inability to look into one’s own heart of darkness.
Christopher R. Browning (Frank Porter Graham Professor of History at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill; winner of the National Jewish Book Award, 1993): Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland (1992); The Origins of the Final Solution: The Evolution of Nazi Jewish Policy, September 1939–March 1942 (2004).
Sir Ian Kershaw (Professor of Modern History at the University of Sheffield and fellow of, among others, the British Academy and the Royal Historical Society): Hitler, 1889–1936: Hubris (1998); Hitler, 1936–1945: Nemesis (2000).
Steven Ozment (McLean Professor of Ancient and Modern History at Harvard University; winner of the Schaff History Prize, 1981): A Mighty Fortress: A New History of the German People (2004).
Arnold Schwartzman (graphic designer and filmmaker; winner of the 1982 Academy Award for best feature-length documentary; appointed to the Order of the British Empire in 2002): Genocide (1981), Liberation (1994).