BBC, on the Holocaust, part two

Omer Bartov, Who were the Guilty (BBC)
Final irony

The final irony of this genocide was the manner in which West German courts tried to deal with it after it was over, especially in the late 1950s and the 1960s. German law mandated that only individuals who could be shown to have personally murdered someone for what was described by the courts as ‘base motives’ such as sexual lust or sadism, could be charged with murder.

The result was that local commanders of remote SS and SD posts in eastern Europe, men who were known to have arranged the murder of tens of thousands of people, were acquitted if they could not be shown to have personally killed anyone. Only their subordinates – who were sometimes indeed sadistic types, but of no importance whatsoever in the organisation of genocide – were sent to jail.

That the judges and lawyers who debated such cases had mostly been active themselves in the Third Reich was obviously part of the irony.

That the judges and lawyers who debated such cases had mostly been active themselves in the Third Reich was obviously part of the irony. And the fact that the Jewish witnesses who testified at these trials were seen as rather suspect because their suffering must have undermined their objectivity, was perhaps the clearest indication of the main conclusion we can draw about modern genocide.

The conclusion is that those who organise genocide all too often get away with it, while those subjected to it can rarely expect to see justice done. This is a lesson that we need to take to heart as we contemplate contemporary cases of genocide, ‘ethnic cleansing’, and other crimes against humanity.

Genocide is a collective undertaking – those who order and organise it do not carry it out, those who do the killing claim ignorance of its scope, and emphasise their inability to disobey orders. In other words, unlike homicide, genocide is deeply rooted in the expectation of impunity. Everyone knows it is happening, but no one seems to be responsible, and no one is willing to intervene. This, to cite the most current example out of scores of others that have occurred since 1945, is what we can now see going on in Darfur.

Thus, when we ask, ‘Who is guilty?’ there is only one answer we can come up with, in view of our own willingness to allow such mass murder to go on. The answer is: ‘We are.’
——– bbcfour/features/laurence-rees.shtml

Thursday 17 February 2005

Laurence Rees, writer and producer of Auschwitz: The Nazis and the Final Solution, answered your questions following the programme After Auschwitz on BBC Four.

Neil Stewart, Aberdeen
I have read many articles and books about Auschwitz and the Final Solution but still found the series enlightening. How easy was it to track down former guards still alive and to persuade them to give interviews?

Laurence Rees
I’m really glad to hear that you found the series enlightening and agree with you that a crucial element in each of the programmes was provided by the interviews with former members of the SS. They were tracked down really by use of basic journalistic techniques – for example, by checking surviving records of SS units, using contacts with various veterans’ organisations, even just searching for names in the German phone book. They were thus found by basic, patient journalism. However it does take a long time and for every one person you see on screen who has agreed to give an interview there are many more who we have talked to who, in the end, we have been unable to convince to appear. I don’t think you can know exactly why someone agrees to take part but I suspect that part of it may be that they feel that they’re coming to the end of their lives and they want to put on record – warts and all – what they did during the war.

Simon Gilford, Manchester
Why were no revisionist historians invited to take part in After Auschwitz? Shouldn’t the subject be allowed to be debated by those who have differing views from the mainstream historians?

Laurence Rees
I’m not quite sure what you mean by ‘revisionist historians’? Certainly there was a breadth of historical view represented in the After Auschwitz debate – as I think was clear during the debate Professor David Cesarani and Professor Peter Novick do disagree on a number of key points. The term ‘revisionist’ is sometimes used to mean people who deny the Holocaust actually took place, and if you use the term in that sense then certainly of course no-one who denied the Holocaust took part in the debate. That’s because, certainly in my view, that would be like asking a member of the Flat Earth Society to take part in a debate about current climate change. There is no useful debate to be had with such people.

Darren Halliday, Reading
“We are influenced by the ethic around us”. Do you not think that there is an innate deeper ethic within that is universal? Why did some people take risks to save the Jews despite the ‘current ethics’?

Laurence Rees
This is a huge question and not one capable of being answered in a few brief sentences! The central challenge – of trying to understand why some human beings behaved as they did – is to a large extent unanswerable. And whilst it’s true that I certainly do believe, having met many perpetrators and survivors, that human beings draw a great deal more of their value system from the cultural ethic around them than we might like to suppose, it is also true that there are always some exceptional human beings who fight against that established culture and resist. Why those particular human beings – and it may be only as few in my judgment as one in a thousand – do actually hold out and resist seems to me a fundamental mystery. But we should certainly be glad that they did then and do today!

Mick Armstrong, Wakefield
Terrific series. Did any SS guards refuse duties or actively mutiny and if so what was their fate?

Laurence Rees
No, there is no evidence to my knowledge that any SS guards refused to take part in any of the killing at camps like Auschwitz. Indeed, from the point of view of the SS leadership, the problem at Auschwitz was not a lack of people willing to take part in mass extermination but the fact that so many wanted to profit from it themselves by pocketing the valuables stolen from the arriving transports. We can infer from this that the members of the SS believed it was thus perfectly legitimate to murder people, but thought that the German State shouldn’t keep all of the loot.

Stephen Bates, Gloucester
I have always wondered why was it that so many went to there death so compliantly. I know that there was a small uprising in the camp at Sobibor, did anything similar take place at Auschwitz? If not why not?

Laurence Rees
This is a question that I often hear asked – most commonly, interestingly enough, in Israel. Because it’s true that whilst there were eventual revolts at the death camps of both Sobibor and Treblinka, and that there was one major uprising of the Jewish Sonderkommando at Auschwitz in October 1944, as a general rule the vast majority of people selected for the gas chambers did enter them compliantly. I feel very strongly, however, that there should be no element of ‘blame’ attached to people for not resisting, in fact even to suggest that there might be I personally find unacceptable. That’s because having met a number of people who were involved in the process it’s clear to me that there was virtually no chance of any successful resistance.

It wasn’t just that when people arrived at a place like Auschwitz they were hungry, thirsty and disorientated. It was that for the most part they were in family groups of old people, women and children. I’ve met one young woman, who was selected for forced labour and therefore escaped immediate death in the gas chambers, who told me how with children crying and old people shocked and upset the idea of somehow turning on the SS and taking their guns was just simply beyond the realms of any possibility. It’s significant that the Sonderkommando, who knew the camp well and were for the most part fit young men, were all killed in their act of resistance. Auschwitz, surrounded by electrified barbed wire and with high watchtowers with machine guns, was not a place that these people could resist within and we should not in any way cast any form of moral aspersions on them for a lack of resistance – that at least is my view.

Mike Shaw, Henfield
I am concerned that a possible follow-up to the Holocaust could be generated in Europe, but it will not be the Jews who are targeted but the Muslims. There is already enough concern generated by Le Pen, the presence of loads of Turkish immigrants in Germany and the apparent general attitude of the Brits to people of Islamic/Muslim background. What do you think of the possibility of such a situation?

Laurence Rees
History can never repeat itself in the sense that exact events can occur again. But I do think we can draw the conclusion from a knowledge of the Nazis and the ‘Final Solution’ that such mentalities have not yet left the world. The desire to find scapegoats in a crisis, the feeling that somehow one group of people are ‘better’ than another, the desire to benefit one’s own nation at the expense of others, the dislike of ethnic or religious groups that somehow don’t fit in with one’s values of how human beings should behave, all of these attributes which were common to Nazis do, certainly to me, still seem to exist somewhere in the world today. I don’t believe that camps will be built like Auschwitz again, but certainly, as I say, the mentality that created them is still very much with us.

John Murray, Glasgow
Do you think it is ever possible to forgive those involved in the death camps, even if they have served time in prison and supposedly paid their debt to society? Should these people ever deserve forgiveness given the enormity of what they were involved in?

Laurence Rees
I just don’t know whether we can ever forgive people who were involved in this kind of terrible crime. A necessary precondition of such forgiveness would be, I suppose, believing they were themselves genuinely sorry for what they did. The difficulty here is that having met a large number of former Nazis only, in my judgment, perhaps five per cent of them actually express any genuine remorse at all for their crimes. What’s frightening to me about the people I’ve met who were involved in the Nazis’ ‘Final Solution’ or other acts of horror, particularly on the Eastern Front, is that the vast majority are not remotely sorry for what they did. They feel they did what was ‘right at the time’. It’s that attitude that makes this a subject that I keep returning to as a programme maker and writer in the hope that perhaps I can get to the bottom of their attitude – something which, even though I have been making programmes and writing about this for many years now, I must confess I still haven’t achieved.

Mark Elson, Chepstow, Wales
The great strength of the series was the direct testimony, particularly of the perpetrators. One important group that was not represented was those in German industry who designed and built the gas chambers. How much did they know, or, given the scale, what were their suspicions? Similar questions could be asked of those who organised railway timetables. Were these omissions – if that term is appropriate – forced on you by lack of witnesses or was it an editorial decision given the strength of other testimony?

Laurence Rees
You raise a number of very important points. Of course, the firms who made the crematoria and the railway companies who organised the trains also shared an element of complicity in the crime. And, as you say, we didn’t go into any detail about these people in the series. The reason for that was, simply, one of space. Even spreading the series out to six hours there were other subjects that I felt that we had to include. Also, actually proving beyond question that the people who built the crematoria and organised the trains knew exactly what was going to happen to the people who were sent to Auschwitz is problematical. Certainly it is my belief having looked at the material that almost all of them knew that ‘something very bad’ was going to happen to the Jews. And I suppose I felt it wasn’t worth devoting a great deal of time in the programmes to looking at the point at which the knowledge that ‘something very bad’ was going to happen to people sent to these camps actually turned into knowledge of the detail of the gas chambers.

Charlie Ruck, Nottingham
What has been done in the present day to help the prisoners reclaim what was taken from them during the war? If it is known that people’s houses were claimed and their land taken, why haven’t these illegal thefts gone unpunished or even investigated in our modern time?

Laurence Rees
Again this is a huge question that really isn’t capable of being answered properly in just a brief paragraph. There certainly have been some efforts to repair the damage done to survivors of the Holocaust. During the 1950s a Joint Distribution Committee was founded and restitution money was paid by the Federal Republic of Germany to Israel via the Luxembourg agreement. But despite this, many Jews never received their due and the struggle for proper restitution and compensation continues even to this day. With the fall of the Berlin Wall efforts have been made by a number of Eastern European countries to compensate Jews but often this is a deeply bureaucratic process and, in my experience at least, it’s rare that full restitution or compensation is ever made. Part of the problem, certainly as related to Eastern Europe, was that property was nationalised under Communist rule so the concept of private ownership as it existed before the war ceased to exist. This has caused a number of ethical and legal problems that persist to this day.

Bill Stuart, Darlington
To what extent were ordinary Germans aware of the Final Solution?

Laurence Rees
Again this is a question that people have written books trying to answer! My own view very much relates to my previous answer about the knowledge of the people who built the crematoria or ran the trains. In essence it is that it was clear to every single German that the Nazis hated the Jews, persecuted them unmercifully and then as the final act in that terrible persecution robbed them and put them on trains to the east. They also knew, because of Nazi propaganda, that by being sent east the Jews were being sent in the very direction of greatest risk. The war against the Soviet Union was portrayed by the Nazis as ‘a struggle of annihilation’, one in which no mercy was to be exercised. So what would an ‘ordinary’ German think was going to happen to people who were sent into the epicentre of that war? Certainly they must have thought ‘very bad things’ would happen to anyone sent there. Some may have believed that the Jews were going to be put to work in labour camps in the east, but that they would also most likely have known that many of them would possibly die there. So whilst it isn’t possible to say that there was general knowledge of the details of the mass extermination, there was certainly general knowledge, in my judgment, that a terrible fate awaited the Jews of some kind, certainly a much worse fate than they had already endured through years of persecution back at home.

Steve Leahy, Leeds
Did you consider bringing together survivors and ex-guards to address issues if not outright confront each other. Or did you worry this would diminish the undoubted power of the testimonies – often chilling – of each group of individuals? I would be fascinated to hear what sons and daughters of perpetrators had to say – or perhaps I am merely being an intruder into a private horror. Were, for example, Rudolf Höss’s children available for comment at all? It would be fascinating to compare their views with those of Reiner Lukyen, born later but still visibly sharing the collective German guilt.

Laurence Rees
In fact when I was Editor of Timewatch one of our best producers, Catrine Clay, made a film called Children of the Third Reich, which looked at a reconciliation programme in Israel where children of former Nazi war criminals met children of the victims of the Holocaust. It was an extraordinarily memorable programme. However, I didn’t think it was appropriate to use that device in this series for a number of reasons. Firstly I think, because it would only be effective bringing people together if they actually genuinely wished to engage with each other and I don’t believe that a number of the former members of the SS we met would actually engage at all with the people whom they had persecuted. Most likely they would simply either not agree to do it or say nothing, so little would be achieved. Another reason why I didn’t think it appropriate to use this device in this series is because it would interfere with the straightforward narrative of events that we were trying to tell and so whilst this method of programme making was appropriate for Catrine, her film was devoted entirely to the subject of reconciliation rather than being interspersed into another narrative. Rudolf Höss’s children were very young when they were at Auschwitz so I am not sure how useful their testimony would be.

Jeremy Scott, Edinburgh
From what I have read, it appears that Oskar Gröning agreed to be interviewed in order to “set the record straight” about what actually happened at Auschwitz. However, I’m still unclear about his motives, as he seemed unapologetic during his interviews. Did he at any time express regret or remorse, either on or off camera, or even acknowledge that it was wrong? If not, what do you think his motives were?

Laurence Rees
You are absolutely right that Mr Gröning’s motives seem somewhat contradictory. On the one hand he did want to be interviewed by us in order to make a stand against Holocaust deniers. On the other, as you rightly say, he does not appear to have much remorse. However, perhaps surprisingly, from his perspective this appears to be a logical position. He revolts, I think, against the fact that people try and deny that Auschwitz existed, but he also feels that the general public do not understand that members of the SS like him who worked there felt they were doing ‘the right thing’ at the time. Mr Gröning does express the view that what happened there was ‘wrong’ but he then tends to qualify that statement by saying “well, if what happened there was wrong then you have to acknowledge that a number of crimes were also committed on the Allied side” etc etc. He still – utterly wrongly in my view – considers the prosecution of some former Nazis as “victors’ justice”. One of the reasons that I find it so personally valuable to be involved in making these programmes is, incidentally, because you do meet people like Mr Gröning – who would not be capable of existing in a work of fiction because people would dismiss them as illogical characters!

BBC Four: We asked Laurence to answer the following two questions together as they represent a number of questions we received about privileging the suffering of the Jews in the camps over other groups.

Paul McClory, London
Of the 11 million people killed during the Holocaust, six million were Polish citizens (three million Polish Jews and three million Polish Christians). Heinrich Himmler said: “All Poles will disappear from the world…. It is essential that the great German people should consider it as its major task to destroy all Poles.” My question is, why do we never say that a total of 11 million died in the Holocaust? And discuss the devastating effect of Himmler’s genocidal policy on Poland? Or is this not true? I do not know!

Brian Slattery, Yateley, Hampshire
During your debate there was mentioned several times the figure of six million deaths in the camps. As I am sure that you are aware, the total figure was closer to 13.5 million deaths. Why is it that only the deaths of one religion, the Jewish faith, is repeated endlessly when there were many more PEOPLE killed in them? Surely their faith should be secondary to the fact that 13.5 million people were killed in the death camps.

Laurence Rees
Of course I feel that it’s vital that we do not minimise the suffering of the non-Jewish people who the Nazis persecuted and murdered. The statistic that is always in my mind in this regard is the number of Soviet citizens – both military and civilian – thought to have been killed during the Second World War. It’s an incredible 27 million people; only a small percentage of them Jews. Indeed it was to try and inform people about the nature of that brutal war that I was very keen to make the series War of the Century a few years ago and write the accompanying book. This current series also made clear to viewers that groups other than the Jews were targeted by the Nazis. We showed in the first episode, for example, that the first people to die at the camp were Polish political prisoners and Soviet prisoners of war rather than people killed because they were Jews. So in broad terms, yes, I certainly do agree that it’s important to remember all of those that suffered under Nazi aggression.

However I do think that it’s important that we distinguish, within the overall policies of Nazi persecution, what happened to the Jews. This is because, in my belief, there was a conceptual difference in the attitude of the Nazis to the Jews compared to almost any other group they encountered. The Jews were uniquely singled out for the worst possible persecution. Of the 1.1 million people who died at Auschwitz 1 million were Jews – thus by far the greatest proportion. In all of the camps the Jews suffered disproportionately in selections and were often singled out for the very worst tasks if they were selected for work. In particular the policy of murdering every single child was, again as a general rule, extended to every Jew in a way it wasn’t for many of the other groups the Nazis persecuted. Thus my own feeling is that whilst it is vital that we remember the suffering of the countless others that the Nazis persecuted and killed, we must always remember that at the very core of the Nazis’ hatred and at the very epicentre of their crime was their murderous attitude towards the Jews.

Selwyn St Leger, Stockport, UK
I want to touch on an issue that is tangential to the content of your informative documentary but which, nevertheless, is of intellectual interest and which promotes strong feelings; emotions which have led to legislation in some European countries. I refer to ‘Holocaust Denial’. I find this denial fascinating. Is it merely an expression by people who enjoy being contrary? Is it a political ploy by those who harbour sympathies for what the Nazi’s stood for? Does it represent a valid view of historical ambiguity? Setting aside professional historians, most people have not accessed original historical documents. We have to take on trust the interpretations of those who claim to be professionals in the field. For the most part this is not an issue as many historical events are not in dispute though there may be diverse interpretations about motivations that led them to arise. My recent reading of Mark Roseman’s account of the Wannsee Protocol has caused me disquiet. This work, written by someone I assume to be a competent historian, makes clear that little about the decision to implement and execute the “Final Solution” was documented by the Nazi authorities.

Laurence Rees
I find it very hard to understand what leads people to deny the existence of the Holocaust. It is so patently obvious that it happened that I guess that it is simple wilfulness that makes people say that it was not so. That wilfulness could perhaps be caused by anti-Semitism, by a desire to proselytise the Nazis in some way, it’s very hard for me to say.

I think it is not necessary to even refer to Holocaust deniers in any serious way, because, as I believe I referred to in one of my earlier answers, it’s like debating with the Flat Earth Society. The evidence is so overwhelming, so far beyond any reasonable doubt, that this terrible crime happened that there is no necessity to engage in debate with anyone who claims it didn’t. Certainly reading Mark Roseman’s excellent work on the Wannsee Conference didn’t cause any disquiet in me, as the lack of firm written evidence connecting someone like Hitler with the ‘Final Solution’ is entirely consistent with the way in which decisions were taken in the Nazi state – often verbally at the highest level. But a reading of Hitler’s Tabletalk – his after-dinner monologues – for the autumn of 1941 gives a clear insight into his genocidal thinking at the time, as does a study of the many comments that he was making to other people – for example his view that Leningrad as a city should ‘vanish from the surface of the Earth’. Equally we know precisely what Hans Frank, a leading Nazi in Poland, said in December 1941 when he openly talked of being told to ‘liquidate the Jews’ and so on. So certainly in my judgment, as I say, there is no ambiguity here at all, the evidence is simply overwhelming that the crime occurred and was sanctioned at the highest level.

Keith Nicholas, Walton-on-Thames
Very good series is it going to shown again or will it be released on DVD or video?

Laurence Rees
I’m very pleased to say that the DVD of the series went on sale a couple of days ago. Like you I hope very much that the series is repeated at some point as well.

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