ALEX MAWS: From the Holocaust Educational Trust, I’m Alex Maws and this is the 70 Voices podcast. 70 Voices is a digital commemorative project from the Holocaust Educational Trust, marking 70 years since the end of the Holocaust by documenting its history through 70 unique sources. Follow the project as it unfolds online at 70voices.org.uk or download the 70 Voices App, available for most smartphones and tablets. I’m joined this week once again by my colleague Martin Winstone – Education Officer at the Holocaust Educational Trust and author of The Holocaust Sites of Europe and The Dark Heart of Hitler’s Europe, available at fine bookstores near you – and our colleague from the Education team, another Education Officer here at the Holocaust Educational Trust, Tom Jackson, who works most intensely on our Lessons from Auschwitz Project, and for my money is one of the most experienced Holocaust educators in Britain, I would say. Welcome to you both, thanks for being here. Tom, I’m going to ask you the first question about this week’s content, which has addressed how the Holocaust developed following the outbreak of the Second World War. Reading the sources from this week’s 70 Voices app and the accompanying commentary that Martin, I know, you wrote, it suggests that the Holocaust was something that evolved. It was gradual, rather than following a clear plan from the start. Tom, what are your thoughts about that?
TOM JACKSON: I would agree with that, very much. It certainly used to be the case that there were some historians who argued that there was always a Nazi plan stretching back to Mein Kampf to murder the Jews of Europe, but it is not a view that is widely accepted today amongst academics. There was always, within Nazism, a genocidal potential, and maybe that could be traced back to Mein Kampf and some of the things that were said by leading Nazis throughout the 1920s and 1930s, and from the early stages of the war the Nazis were implementing and pursing policies that – not always by design, but by outcome – killed large numbers of Jews. But the Holocaust as we understand and as academics refer to it – the systematic attempt to murder all the Jews of Europe – that was something that evolved in 1941, mid-1941 onwards.
AM: Very interesting. It seems like a theme that comes up a lot in discussing the content of 70 Voices, I suppose, is debunking some of the common misconceptions about the Holocaust and I think that that one is one of the key misconceptions that maybe, at one point, historians looked at in one way, and that’s something that has evolved over time and our understanding of the Holocaust has changed. Martin, could you talk about how the evolution of Nazi policy came about?
MARTIN WINSTONE: I think Tom’s absolutely right that there is pretty much a consensus amongst most historians today about this and, alongside that, that it was 1941-42 which is the key period. What historians, pretty much all historians, would now say is that there was probably no single moment when the Nazi leadership decided they were going to carry out the Holocaust. It is more a series of turning points, beginning with the invasion of Poland in 1939, which recent historical research has tended to stress as being a very significant moment, partly because – as this week’s content has shown – it marks the crossing of a threshold, with this huge upsurge in violence which surpassed anything that had yet been seen in Germany. Actually not just violence against Jews, but also against Poles, with targeted murders of intellectuals and potential resistance leaders, and so on. But also, crucially, the invasion of Poland brought an additional two million European Jews under Nazi control. Through the 1930s, Nazi policy had been to attempt to drive as many Jews as possible out of the Reich, and here suddenly you have Europe’s largest Jewish population, or the largest proportion of it, now living under the Nazis. So that’s a key turning point. One then sees over the next few years the emergence, as Tom said, of policies which did kill large numbers of people, or in some cases that were designed to kill large numbers of people. We saw this week, one of the texts dealt with the so-called Madagascar Plan, which was developed in the summer of 1940 after the defeat of France. This was one of a series of plans considered by the Nazi leadership, where all Jews living under Nazi control would be taken somewhere. Initially in Poland, later it was Madagascar and later still they planned the Soviet Union. The idea was that this would be a place where Jews were essentially dumped, and because of the inhospitable living conditions, particularly Madagascar, very large numbers of them would die. So there was this thinking about what we consider today to be genocide at this stage, but not yet the Holocaust as Tom defined it.
It is really 1941 which is the key moment: the invasion of the Soviet Union, which, even compared to the Polish campaign, was extraordinarily brutal. Hitler saw it as a war of annihilation – annihilation of an ideology, but an ideology that the Nazis instinctively associated with Jews. They used the term Judeo-Bolshevism. So following the invasion of the Soviet Union, one starts to see, initially, mobile killing squads – so-called Einstazgruppen – murdering Jewish men, primarily. As the year develops, that was extended increasingly to entire Jewish communities, from August or September onwards. That’s clearly a huge escalation, but then there are a range of developments in the months that follow which gradually see this being extended, not just to the Soviet Union, but to Poland and Serbia, and then eventually, probably by the end of 1941, there was a clear sense that this was something that was going to effect the whole of Europe.
One other point that I would add here is the fact that within this process, most historians today would agree, that there was an interaction between the Nazi authorities in Berlin, the SS leadership and so on, but also German officials of various stripes who were serving in eastern Europe. A phrase that is often used is the interaction of the centre and the periphery. They are sort of feeding off each other. You get a sort of cumulative radicalisation in Nazi policy, which eventually by early 1942 clearly has led to a decision to murder all of Europe’s Jews. Although even then, in the early months of 1942, how that murder is going to be carried out is something that still continues to develop.
AM: Many people are familiar with the Wannsee Conference, and in the minds of many, that was this iconic turning point in history as that was then they decided on the Holocaust, but of, course, what we learn is that it was more of an administrative, procedural type of meeting and it was the culmination of, maybe not even the culmination, of this evolution that you are describing.
MW: You mentioned earlier the idea of challenging misconceptions and there is this sense often that Wannsee was the moment, but you only have to look at who attended: these were middle ranking officials for the most part. It was more about coordinating the process and also, I think a key thing in the minds of the organisers, making sure that the SS was in charge of it. That doesn’t mean it was just the SS, but they were very keen to ensure that everybody else did what they wanted them to do.
AM: Tom, let’s now talk about taking these important historical points that we’re discussing and how they filter into Holocaust education. Why is it important that we’re precise on these issues, and how do we actually go about doing that?
TJ: That’s an important question and in some respects it is very simple to answer: it is a historical event and therefore we need to be accurate about it. So, merely from the point of historical accuracy, it is important to be clear how the Holocaust developed. However, if we are taking the Holocaust as one of the, if not the, central event of the twentieth century that teaches us something or has the potential to allow us to learn things from it as well as about it, then we need to understand how the Holocaust developed. We can then understand what it is we can take from that that has contemporary relevance.
It seems to me that, whilst a lot of the emphasis on Holocaust education is about re-humanising the victims, if we are to learn important lessons from this event, then we have to re-humanise everybody involved. That includes the bystanders and, importantly, the perpetrators. Again, a commonly held view is that the reason why the Holocaust happened is because the Nazis were all evil monsters and they were all psychopaths. If that were the case, then there is not a lot we can take from it because you can’t do anything about monsters and psychopaths – you need to be a psychologist, psychiatric nurse or whatever. The sad fact is, of course, that the Holocaust was perpetrated by ordinary human beings and we can learn by looking at the development of the Holocaust how it is that people doing what today would be seen as doing an ordinary job, being involved in transport logistics for example, actually enabled the killers to carry out their functions. So we move away from this idea of the Nazis as evil monsters, to a more nuanced and accurate understanding about ordinary people making choices earlier on in their lives, earlier on in their careers, that led them into situations where they were then faced with choices that had much more of an impact on other people’s lives. Making choices to join the armed forces in Germany in the 1930s does not mean you are therefore looking to kill large numbers of people. But by 1942, if you are a member of an Einsatzgruppe, you are then faced with a choice that is much more stark and direct. And so, therefore, it leads us to a situation where we have an understanding that the Holocaust was perpetrated by individuals, by groups, but not just a small number of people, not just Nazis who were German, but by large numbers of people right across occupied Europe, most of whom were not German, and all of whom were just ordinary people who had arrived at a situation where choices were made that led to large numbers of deaths.
AM: I think that what you’re describing gets at the heart of 70 Voices as a project. We called it 70 Voices because we wanted to focus on the human element of the history, moving beyond statistics and maps and dates, which we would say are all critical parts of our understanding – we want to be precise, we want to have the background knowledge – but we also want to try to better understand this history through the personal stories. When we started compiling these – Martin, you’re the person who did this – we took a conscious decision that 70 Voices couldn’t just be 70 voices of victims or resistors, but we actually had to include, uncomfortable though it may be, voices of perpetrators as well. You can’t really understand – in so far as anyone can understand the Holocaust – this history, without looking at what were the motivations, what were the complex moral decisions that people made, because ultimately these were human beings and to gloss over that really does a disservice to our understanding. So, now that we have established that Nazis were human beings, what else can we learn from them Martin? Who were they? What sorts of people found themselves in these positions where they making these moral choices?
MW: A vast diversity of people. When we take the Holocaust as a whole, a really wide range of people, as Tom says, a very large proportion of whom were not German. I think, in part, that’s something that will recur as we go through this project. Even if we focus on the actual decision-making process, there is, in line with these myths that we’ve alluded to – that it was always planned, that it was all top down and so on – there’s often this perception that somehow it was all just Hitler and a small group of Nazi leaders who enforced their will on everybody else. But that was not the way the Nazi state worked. Hitler was not a leader who particularly liked to work hard, he didn’t like paperwork or long meetings, unless he was delivering a monologue. The Nazi state was one in which individuals, whether they were civil servants, politicians, policemen, or whatever, were encouraged to take their own initiative. They knew within that context that radical initiative would always be rewarded. Probably the most perceptive historian to have written about Hitler, Sir Ian Kershaw, developed this concept of ‘working towards the Führer’: officials would try to work out what Hitler wanted first of all and then think how did they go about achieving that? Within that system, the key period we have looked at this week, 1939-1942, involved the choices which were made by very large numbers of people. There was, to some extent, guidance from Berlin, particularly through Heinrich Himmler, the head of the SS, but a lot of the key stages in the development and then the escalation of the Holocaust are coming from the initiatives of people on the ground in eastern Europe.
Maybe just a couple of examples of this. Following the invasion of the Soviet Union, I mentioned earlier the Einsatzgruppen, these killing squads. Their commanders were given very open ended orders to secure the rear by killing suspected communists, who included Jews who were members of the Communist Party. But it was left very open ended and it was up to them ultimately to decide how they chose to interpret those orders and some were more zealous than others. We’ve seen one of the texts this week, the Jäger report in Lithuania, where the Jewish population was virtually wiped out, where one perhaps had the most zealous interpretations of those orders. This was something that was rewarded and encouraged. Similarly, I think one of the key moments in the development of the Holocaust is in the autumn of 1941 when Hitler finally went along with pressure from a number of Nazi leaders to deport the Jews of Germany – not yet to their deaths, but to ghettos in eastern Europe. And it was then the various officials who were in charge of these ghettos who then reacted in various ways. In a number of cases that led to killing the local Jewish population. For example, in Riga – and this is a case that we’ll come back to in subsequent weeks – nearly all of the Jews living in the Riga Ghetto were murdered to make way for Jews from Germany. Similarly, in the Łódź Ghetto, which was the second largest in Europe, it seems like the decision to create the first extermination camp, Chełmno, was at least partly, quite probably largely, motivated by the knowledge that large numbers of German, Austrian and Czech Jews were going to be sent to that ghetto, so it was to create space.
One further point is that the sort of people who were taking these decisions in occupied Poland and later the occupied Soviet Union were people who were always likely, for various reasons, to contribute to this escalation. Obviously many of them were ideologically Nazis. In a way what happened in eastern Europe was a great colonial enterprise, and so it was the people who tended to most strongly believe in the German right to dominate the East who were most likely to find themselves there, and obviously many of these people were antisemitic. But also, a lot of the people who ended up in the East were people whose careers had stalled in the Reich, people who in quite a fair number of cases had suffered some form of disgrace, or people who saw the opportunity to enrich themselves from exploiting eastern Europe. For all of these reasons, that tended to lead them to take more radical actions, more radical decisions. And so in that context, we tend to find that there were people in Poland, in Lithuania and in other places who were actually saying to the higher authorities in Berlin “we want you to do this”. That’s not just politicians, but we see it with people like economists who were saying the Jews in the ghettos who were not working were a drain on reserves, which could not be sustained in the middle of a brutal war, so they were calling for their elimination as well.
AM: That topic about the colonial environment and the opportunism of people who had failed elsewhere in the Reich is a theme that you touch on quite heavily in your latest book, so if people are interested in reading more about that, I think your book is probably the definitive one on that topic. The Dark Heart of Hitler’s Europe is the one to check out if you want to read more about that.
I want to finish up bringing it back to Holocaust education. Tom, chronologically, we haven’t even come to Auschwitz yet in 70 Voices, but of course you’re here on this podcast and you develop the educational content for the Lessons from Auschwitz Project, which is the Holocaust Educational Trust’s course for sixteen to eighteen year old students, that is centred around a visit to Auschwitz-Birkenau, so I think it’s fair to ask this question. Just this week the Prime Minister’s Commission that was looking into the future of Holocaust education in Britain cited Lessons from Auschwitz, which you work on, as one of the key examples of Holocaust education best practice in the UK. I know we’re blowing our own trumpet a little bit here, but it is worth saying, given that the prominence of that programme in Holocaust education in this country, how is it that you go about making sure that the students who go to a place like Auschwitz think about the issues that we’re talking about here? That they think about the role of the perpetrator in an appropriate way, and that they understand Auschwitz and its development, and how it comes about in the evolution of Nazi policy, and not just placed there as if by evil magic.
TJ: That is a fair question, because if we don’t do that then we’re not getting it right, we’re not getting Holocaust education right. There are a number of opportunities where we specifically look at the perpetrators. Once we enter Bikenau, the actual extermination camp of the Auschwitz-Birkenau complex, we have a discussion centred around the transportation of the Jews of Corfu, from the island of Corfu to their deaths at Birkenau. As part of that discussion we look at the choices made by the train drivers. Who were these people? Why did they drive a train load of people who were being deported? What choices did they have about doing that? In doing that, we’re able to dispel a number of myths, such as people would be shot if they disobeyed orders, which was simply not the case. People made choices for all sorts of other reasons. Perhaps the train driver had a family to feed, for example. These things are important. It helps students to understand the context in which people were actually making their choices.
Perhaps the most challenging moment in the whole of the visit, in some respects is when we are stood looking at the house in which the commandant of Auschwitz-Birkenau, Rudolf Hoess, lived with his family, with his wife, with his children. And that house is within two hundred yards of gas chamber and crematorium number one. The garden in which his children played is within earshot of the execution wall, where executions were carried out on a daily basis. This is the environment that Rudolf Hoess brought his children to, brought his family to. Participants find this challenging as we force them, in some respects, to confront the humanity of Rudolf Hoess – this is a man, who when appointed to a position abroad for an unspecified period of time, obviously took his family with him. Why did he do that? Because he was a loving family man, he loved his wife, he loved his children. Why would he have left them behind? This is a very challenging moment for participants and they do discuss this and talk about the impact that that has on them. They have to recognise the humanity of Rudolf Hoess, a man who is much easier to dismiss as a monster.
AM: Many of our listeners – who, I suspect, aren’t involved on a daily basis like the three of us are in Holocaust education and commemoration – probably wonder what exactly does Holocaust education look like, what does it consist of, and I think what you’ve just described, Tom, is a great example of it. And maybe if we were to condense that, we would say so much of it involves accepting and even embracing the complexity of it; accepting that for teachers a lot of Holocaust education involves raising these highly complex questions and being comfortable with not being able to provide your students with the answers. And maybe that’s a very brief description of the Lessons from Auschwitz Project. Listeners who are curious to about that project of ours can go to lfaproject.org.uk, to learn more about that.
That’s all the time that we have for this podcast and I want to thank all of you who are listening and sharing the 70 Voices daily stories and photographs online. I’ve really been overwhelmed – all of us have – with the response on Twitter. People are using the hashtag #70voices, we are @HolocaustUK, so please do share your thoughts with us. If you have any questions or comments that you think that we might want to take up on a future podcast, please tweet at us as well; we’d love to hear from you.
Read more by Martin Winstone: http://www.amazon.co.uk/Martin-Winstone/e/B003W3SI1U/ref=ntt_dp_epwbk_0
Learn more about Lessons from Auschwitz: http://www.het.org.uk/index.php/lessons-from-auschwitz-general