ALEX MAWS: From the Holocaust Education Trust I’m Alex Maws and this is a special Remembering Belsen podcast. Remembering Belsen is a continuation of our 70 Voices project which commemorates 70 years since the liberation of Bergen-Belsen by British armed forces. To explore all of the content from 70 Voices and Remembering Belsen that we have posted between January and April 2015, visit www.70voices.org.uk or download the app available for most smartphones and tablets.
I was delighted to be joined for this podcast by Professor Tony Kushner of the University of Southampton who is widely regarded as the leading academic authority on Britain’s relationship with the Holocaust. The liberation of Bergen-Belsen is often seen as a heroic moment but much of our content in Remembering Belsen has shown that both survivors and British troops had ambiguous reactions to the liberation. So I began by asking Professor Kushner why this was the case.
TONY KUSHNER: For the survivors, I think we like to see them as: this is the end, they’ve gone through hell and they are liberated. For them this is much more complicated. For some of them, they are too physically weak, too mentally scarred to appreciate it. And also it is not all over: the numbers of dying in the days and weeks following is still horrific. So o,n one level just a physical recovery takes some time for the survivors, but also mentally. There is a form of it being all over but it is also a moment where they are starting, for the first time, to reflect on what they have gone through and what they have lost.
For the liberators this is something that they have no preparation for and the shock, particularly for those troops and others who are going in in the very first days, it’s something that they cannot comprehend. For the rest of their lives this is something that is beyond, even for them, comprehension. It scars them: it’s something, I think, that has not been recognised sufficiently of how traumatic it was for the liberators, for the medical teams, for the chaplains, for all of those different groups of people. This something that lived with them day and night for the rest of their lives.
AM: It’s generally agreed that the liberation of Belsen had an immense impact in shaping British awareness and understanding of the Holocaust. And yet we have seen earlier on our 70 Voices commemorative platform that the British government and, to some extent the public, were aware of the mass murder of Europe’s Jews as early as 1942. So why then did Belsen have such a great impact than the earlier reports had had?
TK: It is part of a process, and perhaps a process that is still ongoing. There are detailed reports from at least the summer of 1942 onwards, and particularly for that period from July 1942 to early 1943 intense reporting , intense campaigning in Britain, so on one level you could say, well, what’s new? But what you have with the liberation of the western camps, especially Belsen in the British case, is the visual imagery which is scarring. And perhaps that then connects with the earlier reports: whereas those reports came and went, for some activists it confirmed what they knew – the scale of the catastrophe – as early as 1942, but for the general public there wasn’t anything beyond those reports which weren’t sustained for the rest of 1943 and 1944, so there’s a big gap. And what you have is the whole horror exposed in 1945 and the ending of doubt: before, this was something that was happening a long way away, and now this was imagery that could not be doubted.
Even the radio broadcast [by] Richard Dimbleby shocked people – people remembered where they were when they heard that broadcast, Dimbleby’s genius being able to communicate by words alone the scale, the horror of what he’d seen. So there was something important about the liberation of Buchenwald, Dachau, but particularly for the British, Belsen. And it goes alongside newsreels, the radio broadcasts, the newspaper reports, the exhibitions – the whole intense of month, if you like, of descriptions and visual imagery. It doesn’t necessarily mean that we understand what we would now call the Holocaust but there’s an understanding of the horror of what had happened, the scale of destruction.
AM: And following on from that, you have written extensively about Holocaust memory and consciousness in Britain and you’ve often pointed out that the centrality of Belsen in Britain’s understanding of the Holocaust has given rise to some widespread misunderstandings about the history of the Holocaust. Can you explain a little bit more about some of these misunderstandings.
TK: What I think we get with the liberation of Belsen is an assumption, very understandably, that this is the worse of Nazi atrocities, that this is beyond description – a metaphor that’s often used is of Dante’s Inferno, an unimaginable Hell. And so it’s not surprising that that is regarded as the height of Nazi atrocities. And that leads to a shortcutting of what had happened.
Belsen is a peculiar camp that has a peculiar history and what it reflects is, in some ways, the end of the Holocaust – the death marches and so on. It’s intimately connected to the eastern camps, the camps of destruction, particularly Auschwitz, but it is a camp with its own history. And that is not really understood.
There are various aspects that aren’t properly understood at that time, including the Jewishness of the victims, but also that this is a camp that did not have gas chambers. And so there is slowly an awareness of some of the mechanisms of the destruction process, particularly of the gassing of Jews, and there’s therefore an assumption that you put those two things together – that if Belsen was horrible, Belsen was a sign of Nazi atrocities against its victims, and that the gas chamber is the ultimate symbol of Nazi destruction, then there must have been gas chambers at Belsen. And you can see that, even if it is at a crude level, in the Sex Pistols in the 1970s. Their song ‘Belsen was a Gas’, however offensive, reflects that Belsen has a resonance in culture, if abused in their way, but also that false assumption. They’re trying to be deeply offensive but their history isn’t very good.
AM: You touched on something a moment ago that also Professor David Cesarani touched on in our previous episode of the podcast, about the Jewishness, and the extent to which the Jewishness of the victims and the survivors of Belsen was recognised. Professor Cesarani talked about the ways in which they weren’t separated out even possibly from Nazi perpetrators who were in Belsen. Was this an intentional thing or was this actually just a source of misunderstanding on the part of the British?
TK: I think it’s a mixture of both, that there is an intentionality. On one level, you could say if you’ve got a mound of dead bodies, of rotting bodies, these are hard to recognise as human beings, let alone as Jews, Gypsies or whoever. But on another level, there is definitely an attempt to downplay the Jewishness. We see it most blatantly now – because it’s only now really been put together properly – in Sidney Bernstein’s film of the liberation, where the Jewishness is downplayed. But also in dope sheets for newsreels where the Jewishness is crossed out: there’ll be indications of how the people are to be described, and they will be described as Jews by the cameraman and others, and that will be crossed out.
On another, very blatant level, often adding to the confusion, Richard Dimbleby did two broadcasts for the BBC. And sometimes, the one that wasn’t broadcast is used to illustrate it now. And the one that wasn’t broadcast does refer to Jews. The one that doesn’t is the one that was used by the BBC. And it’s again an indication of how we need to be very careful with using historical evidence, of not using the wrong broadcast, because they’re similar but not the same.
It’s not total. You have papers like The Manchester Guardian [today The Guardian], News Chronicle, which had been deeply sympathetic to the Jewish cause throughout the Nazi era – they do refer to the Jewishness. And it isn’t, as we see with Dimbleby, a matter of ignorance. You could understand that someone wouldn’t understand who these people are, but Dimbleby was talking to the people, he knew that had come from Auschwitz, many of them. He was aware but that was taken out. And it’s not done in a crude, horrible way, but it’s an attempt to universalise the experience. This is not, at this time, about creating sympathy for the victims; it’s about labelling the enemy as barbaric, as other. And at this stage, it’s not the Nazis; it’s the Germans who are seen as responsible. So that’s what it’s all about, and anything that might confuse that picture with victims who are seen as not 100% unproblematic, i.e. Jews, is downplayed. And it’s partly about that this is against liberal principles [to categorise people by race], but it’s also about Palestine in the background in the British case.
AM: Our listeners to this podcast who have also been following along on the Remembering Belsen and 70 Voices app will remember reading this week also about how Britain dealt with some of the perpetrators, with the Belsen Trial in the autumn of 1945. Was this typical of Britain’s approach to perpetrators of the Holocaust?
TK: I think in many ways it was. You can read the trial documents and see that there is a picture, that there are Jews who are called as witnesses, there is reference to the eastern camps – which there has to be because of some of the perpetrators coming from Auschwitz, and many of the victims coming from Auschwitz – but the tendency to downplay victim witness and to choose non-Jewish, if possible English-speaking, victims: this is part of that universalising tendency. And the confusion of eastern and western camps is typical of that genuine confusion at that moment, and I think that is understandable: grasping the whole complexity of the Final Solution instantly is asking a lot of contemporaries. One last point is the very crude defence of some of the people being prosecuted by British army officers. Obviously, he is there to do his job, but some of the comments about victims being sort of the sweepings of the ghetto reflect one tendency – not a major tendency but a tendency – in British society which I think has got a parallel today: that 95%, 99%, of the British population are horrified by what is going on in the Mediterranean, hundreds, thousands of people losing their lives in desperation but there are still one or two idiots who are referring to these people in a derogatory, racist manner.
AM: I suspect that many people would say that the Holocaust today has come to occupy a more central place in British collective memory than it did in the earlier post-war years. Why do you think this might be?
TK: I think there are various factors. It’s not that it wasn’t there after the war but it was a different shape. It was within a construct, I would argue, of Nazi atrocities; this is about atrocity stories, not disbelieved, but about horror, about the evils of Nazism. Today, it’s a more nuanced picture: it includes the victims much, much more; it also includes the bystanders. And I think this was not inevitable that the Holocaust would become so huge in today’s popular consciousness, because it’s become, if you like, the morality story of today.
One reason for that is that it’s in the past: yes, we have the last lingering trials of the perpetrators, but for the most part it is in the past. And there has been recognition of guilt, at least by the major perpetrator nation, if not by some of the other collaborator nations, if you take the example of Austria, of fully coming to terms with the past. Nevertheless, there is a sort of set pattern now; it’s not as live as contemporary issues, but it also has this neat pattern of the perpetrators, who are ‘evil’, the victims, who are ‘innocent’ and ‘pure’, and the bystanders, who are a very mixed set of people. So there’s a possibility of empathy, certainly with the victims, possibly with the bystanders. I think we have problems still in any way identifying with the perpetrators, which on one level is reassuring – none of us want to be seen as that – but nevertheless ultimately there are still perpetrators around us in everyday life and we still have that dissonance there.
There are other horrible human stories from recent times which have not reached that level. And, yes, the Holocaust has its intensity, its immensity, but it wasn’t inevitable in 1945 that it would become the moral story of the late twentieth and twentieth centuries.
AM: And I think so much of what you’re describing about the way that the Holocaust is remembered in our contemporary world is often a case of the complexities of the Holocaust being glossed over.
So much of what we’ve talked about today has highlighted that Britain’s relationship with the Holocaust was and remains much more complex than the ‘heroic’ narratives which we’re often presented with. So why is it important that we preserve and acknowledge this complexity?
TK: I think it’s because it is so central to the way we think about morality today that we don’t see it in clear-cut terms. Yes, when we’re dealing with the perpetrators, this is not some relativism where we excuse what they did, [but] we need to contextualise. Eichmann, for example, was an ordinary person, an extraordinary bureaucrat, an extraordinary figure and an antisemite, in spite of his denials, but he’s not someone that is a carpet-biting lunatic. He’s a rational, intelligent man.
More generally, I think, the nuance, particularly in terms of relevance to the British case, is that of dealing with victims and dealing with their complexity; not expecting them to be saints – I’ve spoken to many survivors who are amused and slightly disturbed by the way they’re treated. Just to give you a silly example, Trude Levi, who sadly passed away, a survivor; she came to speak at Southampton and when she was driven from the station to the university, students would drive like lunatics because they were just so in awe of her presence. They thought, ‘she’s been through all of this and I’m going to kill her on a road!’; then they would compensate and drive [carefully]. She was just an ordinary person who had a rich life beyond that of being a Holocaust survivor. To treat victims as human beings with all their complexities; being persecuted does not necessarily make you a better person.
Even bigger, I think, is being the bystander nation. Britain’s role is not as liberator and as rescuer alone. There are other sides to it. Yes, Britain had many aspects of its refugee policy which are surprising: it’s surprising how many people actually got into Britain in the 1930s compared to those in the 1920s when the refugee crisis was far bigger. So we need to recognise that there were exceptions made, loopholes created, blind eyes turned to how people were getting into the country. I think one of the most striking of these is domestic service; not the most happy route to get in as a refugee, but one which 20,000 women did, with the full knowledge of the government bodies that they weren’t going to stay in that profession very long, much to the annoyance of all the other aspects of society. So this wasn’t the nicest route, the easiest way to recover your sense of normality, but it was a way of getting to safety. So there’s restriction and there’s openness. Even within the Kindertransport, which is becoming the celebrated moment, [there was] a mixture of motives of those that brought the children in: sometimes economic exploitation, sometimes worse, alongside the love and care that was given to them. And the whole scheme itself: why the children, not the adults?
So there are all of these ambiguities. We need to get beyond the accusatory and beyond the celebratory, which I think is to do full justice to Britain, that it was a set of policies and responses that was ambivalent and there are aspects which I think we can see as remarkably positive considering the context and others where you think, well, they could have done more and it wouldn’t have harmed anyone. That I think is the nature of being a bystander and trying to move beyond the ambiguities to a less compromised position.
AM: Professor Tony Kushner, thank you very much for joining the podcast.
Read more by Tony Kushner: http://www.amazon.co.uk/Tony-Kushner/e/B001HPJI64