Tuesday, 12 June 2012

The Good Old Days, Ernst Klee and others

Following on from my post on "Hitler and the banality of evil".....

Understandably enough, Holocaust literature tends to be written from the perspective of the victims - think Primo Levi and Elie Wiesel.  This book, however, tells the story of the Shoah from the point of view of the perpetrators.  It is an anthology of painstakingly collected letters, reports, diaries, interviews and photographs created by the men of the SS, military and police who carried out the genocide.  Hugh Trevor-Roper wrote the foreword: "This is a horrible book to read, and yet one that should be read".

The malefactors approached the business of killing Jewish civilians in different ways.  Some sadists took to the job with relish, but most of those involved seem to have had a more normal emotional response.  In various cases, the killing exacted a real psychological cost: impotence was reportedly one common symptom, and some men ended up in mental hospitals, or simply turned their guns on themselves.  Some seem to have experienced conflicting feelings.  A few appear to have refused outright to shoot innocent people, and there seems to be no evidence that any of them suffered any very serious consequences as a result (there were reports that Himmler himself had ordered that refusers not be mistreated - he seems to have realised that perpetrating genocide was a big ask even for Nazis).  Most men, however, obeyed their orders one way or another.

The killing began with the mass shooting of Jews by Einsatzgruppen after the invasion of the USSR in 1941.  The SS then switched from shooting to gassing, a method that was thought to be more humane (for the perpetrators, that is - the victims' interests had little to do with it).  They first used "gas vans" in which the exhaust was fed into the main body of the van, then switched to the infamous gas chambers in the death camps.  It wasn't just the Germans who were responsible for this: the conquered eastern territories had a long history of antisemitism, and the Nazis were aided and abetted by citizens of the former Soviet empire.

One is reminded of Hannah Arendt's observations on the banality of evil.  The perpetrators of the Holocaust spent much of their time attending meetings, writing memos, worrying about promotion, missing their girlfriends, and so on.  A number of them had PhDs.  In some cases, there is evidence that years of propaganda had succeeded in convincing them that the Jews were a dangerous and inferior race and that they had to do their duty to the Fuehrer.  Others claimed that their heart hadn't really been in it.  One senior Nazi (Maximilian Grabner, a senior Gestapo officer at Auschwitz) made the astounding statement: "I only took part in the murder of some three million people out of consideration for my family".  It would be bad enough if he was cynically using his family loyalty to justify participating in genocide.  It would be much worse if he actually believed it.  Some of the contemporary accounts observed that the Germans had better win the war now, because there would be hell to pay if they lost - as, indeed, there was when the Red Army rode into town.

There is some evidence that some Germans (for example, those who were in the Army rather than the SS) were more disquieted by what was going on than others.  One SS man was prosecuted and sentenced by a Nazi court for going too far in his brutal treatment of the Jews - though not out of concern for his victims, but rather as a punishment for his perceived indiscipline and weakness of character.  He was later pardoned in the last months of the war.

One reason for publishing this book was apparently to provide evidence to refute Holocaust deniers.  This is something of a fool's errand, given that Holocaust denial is ultimately based on ideology rather than evidence.  Perhaps a better reason for publishing, and reading, the book is to bring home the proximity of barbarity and the utter ordinariness of many of the individuals who fall into it.