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 or download the app available for most smartphones and tablets.

I’m joined this week by historian and BAFTA-award winning documentary filmmaker, Laurence Rees. Laurence, some of the projects you’ve written and produced include The Nazis: A Warning from History, Auschwitz: The Nazis and the Final Solution and, more recently, The Dark Charisma of Adolf Hitler. I must say that these include some of the most harrowing examinations of the perpetrators of the Holocaust that I’ve come across, and so we are very fortunate to have you on this week’s podcast to help summarise some of what our listeners will have read throughout the week on the 70 Voices app. This week began with what the text termed the ‘chief organiser’ of the Holocaust, Heinrich Himmler, who was the head of the SS. However, one of the striking things about this week’s content – and this is also a theme that’s come up in previous podcasts – is that the Holocaust was not just carried out by fanatical Nazi leaders such as Himmler. So what implications does this have for our understanding of the Holocaust?

LAURENCE REES: I think it’s extremely important that we try and understand that the Holocaust wasn’t carried out by a few tiny number of fanatics, who some people would characterise as being almost mad people: it actually was much much broader than that. I’ve met a large number of people who supported the Nazi regime, and a number within that of people who actually committed terrible, terrible atrocities and murders in support of the ideological beliefs of Hitler and Himmler, and you couldn’t characterise them as mad; in fact, the vast majority of them seemed completely rational and they believed they made rational choices to take part in this whole horrific process. That seems to me to be one of the greatest warnings of all. It’s one of the reasons I called the original series I made on this The Nazis: A Warning from History, because I think there are a number of quite profound warnings that we need to take from this history, and this is one of them, which is that it’s comforting to think that the Holocaust was perpetrated by a series of quasi-insane people, because that makes you think ‘well there’s not much we can take from it ourselves for today’. But actually, it wasn’t at all. It was, as I say, perpetrated to a large extent by people who thought, and this is the scary part as well, that they were doing the right thing.

AM: You said that you’ve met some of these people and listeners who watched The Nazis: A Warning from History might remember some of the interviews that you conducted with perpetrators. How did you do that? You would think that perpetrators at this point would just want to keep quiet.

LR: Well, it’s fascinating really. We were very very fortunate in making that series by being helped by two lucky accident,s really, that were to do with the timing of when we did it. The first was that we were approaching making this series in the mid-90s when a lot of people who had been involved in the regime had just retired, were in their 60s, still completely compos mentis, but they weren’t worried about speaking frankly and then suddenly having problems with their employers, for example. A number of them also felt that they wanted to explain what d happened for the benefit of their own grandchildren because they felt that there was something they wanted to say.

And then the other huge benefit was the destruction of the Berlin Wall and the opening up of the former Communist countries. I think there, if you look in episode 5 of that series, ‘Road to Treblinka’, there was an interview with a man called Petras Zelionka. And he talks openly in that about shooting Jewish men, women and children, and we press him very strongly on that to try and understand his motivation. And this was an individual who was not German, he was Lithuanian, and he served 20 years in a Gulag after the war, so he was punished for his crimes and sentenced to a very very long prison sentence; I think he wasn’t sentenced to death because he co-operated with the Soviet authorities in prosecuting other war criminals. But now what had happened was, with the fall of Communism, there were a number of people I met in Lithuania who believed that this man was almost a kind of a hero, and that was because they fell for the same lie that Hitler told which was that being Jewish was the same as being Communist. A common belief amongst many many people there was, well, Marx was a Jew so therefore the Jews are behind Communism. So when they saw the atrocities being committed by the Soviet occupying forces, it was one step to say ‘oh, the Jews are behind that’. It was a lie as it happened, of course, but it’s a very easy form of prejudice to take on board. And so then, someone like this man Petras Zelionka began to be seen as a hero afterwards, because he’d taken part almost in a form of fighting against Communism by doing this unspeakable thing and killing men, women and children. It’s very very hard for us to understand because it seems so totally illogical and wrong, but nonetheless that’s the mind-set. So there was almost a sense in which, by saying ‘well I took part and I did these things’, he was saying ‘hey, listen, I fought against a terrible wrong’ and that’s something that a number of people I met when I filmed that series in the Baltic States, in Lithuania, felt still today and that’s what makes it, again, profoundly worrying.

AM: You’ve touched on two important themes. First, the example that you gave from Lithuania highlights that not all perpetrators were German or Austrian, which is important and I’ll ask you to expand on that in just a moment. But also that people could have been perpetrators is different ways. You spoke of someone who took part in shootings which is a fairly obvious example but of course the ambiguity in other cases of what makes someone a perpetrator has created these situations, as you describe, for example, in Lithuania and other countries, where even today certain actions are forgiven or rationalised to suit a particular national narrative. So I’d be interested in hearing more about this, but can you start by talking about nationality? Where could perpetrators be found other than Germany or Austria?

LR: It’s absolutely wrong to think of the nature of perpetrators as being exclusively German or Austrian, absolutely wrong. In the Baltic States, the majority of killers were non-German, non-Austrian. In many of the death camps, the majority of guards were Ukrainians. So, this notion that somehow that this is unique to being German or being Austrian, in terms of the ability to kill in large numbers, simply isn’t the case. And it’s very important that we hang on to that because of this notion of some people wanting to think this is a uniquely German mind-set. What was unique was the fact that this did come from within the Nazi Party, from within the mind of Adolf Hitler and Himmler and so on, so yes to that extent, but it’s absolutely impossible for this to be accomplished solely by Germans and Austrians, it wasn’t at all.

Then I think there’s another very important point we haven’t talked about as regards to perpetrators, which is to say that when we talk of perpetrators, most people think ‘well, this is somebody who pulled the gun’. But, it doesn’t work like that. I never look on it as a black and white thing; I look on it as these shades of grey. And the reason for that is because, I met and interviewed, we interviewed, somebody who was a member of the SS who worked in Auschwitz who worked in the economic department of Auschwitz, counting money which had been stolen from the murdered Jews. Well, he’s a perpetrator but he never actually worked inside the gas chambers and personally was involved in the absolute visceral sense of murder, but nonetheless he is a perpetrator. A large number of Nazi supporters have said to me that they absolutely bought into the lies being told about the sense that ‘the Jews had gone too far in Germany’, this big motivational factor that ‘something had to be done’ about the perceived ‘ Jewish problem’. Now these people in having all these voices were to some extent perpetrators, because they were buying into these lies and this prejudice. And none of this would have been possible, I don’t believe, if there hadn’t been a groundswell of prejudicial opinion which was the earth, if you like, in which these seeds could grow. And so, I’m not saying that we should necessarily have locked up every German who supported the Nazi Party or voted for it, but we have to understand that the nature of being a perpetrator isn’t as simple as saying did you pull the trigger or not. 

AM:  I think what you have said about this shades of grey, the spectrum of different types of activities is very important from an educational standpoint. We used to have a teaching activity, a classroom activity, called Perpetrators and Bystanders that we ending up changing because we realised that this concept of perpetrators and bystanders wasn’t very educationally helpful when we were encouraging students to explore the complexity of the choices that these people made. And so we ending up giving it a new name and a new set of aims and objectives. It’s now called Dilemmas, Choices and Responses to the Holocaust, and I think that this highlights a point that you are making which filters its way into the classroom about these complex moral choices that people were faced with and the ways that they dealt with them.

Another educational challenge that teachers will be familiar with, teachers who might be listening to this, is humanising those involved in the Holocaust. We have talked a lot about humanising victims of the Holocaust, this has come up a lot throughout 70 Voices and, in fact, you know when you think about the title 70 Voices, that is really what this commemorative project is really about at its core. But, of course, if you’re going to humanise victims of the Holocaust, then it is only fair that we humanise the perpetrators as well, and that can be something of a more complex area. For example, even with Himmler, who perhaps seems to personify the stereotype of the ideologically driven Nazi, his chilling words about remaining decent while carrying out mass murder were accompanied on the 70 Voices website and app this week by a photograph of him as a loving father. And, so I just wanted to ask you, why is it important that we don’t just see the perpetrators as inhuman monsters?

 LR: For one very, very good reason, which is they are human beings. So, humanising a human being is tautological. I mean, it is vital that we see them as human beings, because if we don’t see them as human beings, then it’s another way of comfortably distancing ourselves from the activities and from the past. Once you start thinking, ‘oh well, this will be so easy to spot again because I will notice if a slavering red-faced screaming Nazi comes in dressed in SS uniform, I will spot that’, well that’s just plain silly, and that’s what happens when you start demonising in this sense. I think that for people who are interested in history, I always think that the point of history is understanding, is an attempt at understanding. And, in understanding, it doesn’t mean that you excuse, it doesn’t mean that you don’t find people guilty, it doesn’t mean that you are not appalled and so on. But the bedrock is in understanding. And the first thing to understand is that they are human beings with human responses. Take Himmler, for example. We interviewed – and didn’t use in the end in the series, but I was looking at the transcript only the other day – we interviewed one of Himmler’s secretaries, and she essentially said, ‘a nicer human being you will never meet, he was absolutely the most wonderful boss that I have ever had, he would always remember our birthdays, he would always be very, very, careful and punctilious, never ever shouted at us, very, very, kind man to work for.’

AM: And, so then, following on from that we have to ask the uncomfortable question of what then turned these ordinary human beings into killers or accomplices? What are your thoughts on that?

LR: Belief, belief. I think that the key thing to understand, and this is something that I wrote a lot about in a series I made on The Dark Charisma of Adolf Hitler and the book of the same name, but the crucial thing to understand, is that charismatic leadership, and I use charisma in the sense that Max Weber did when he invented the term charismatic leadership at the turn of the twentieth century which is, as he says, is value neutral: just because you say someone is practicing charismatic leadership isn’t – and it is important to say this – isn’t to say, in any sense, that we use it in the sense of ‘oh he, someone,  has got charisma’ that we see now as positive. As a form of leadership, it is value neutral. And, the fact is that Hitler’s charismatic leadership was unspeakable, we have to reiterate that. But, the basis of charismatic leadership is connection. You feel somebody is a charismatic leader because their values connect with yours. So, what’s happening here is that there is already a whole series of prejudices that people have that are then built on and expanded and reinforced by Nazi belief. And so what happens is that you can get a situation where Himmler is explaining to members of the SS why it is necessary to kill children and he uses this argument – and I think about this a lot because for me the moment in 1941 when they move from killing Jewish adults on the Eastern Front to killing whole families and little children is to me a extraordinarily important key moment in the motivation of perpetrators, because you can’t possibly pretend that a baby is an immediate threat to you, what, why are you killing, why are you shooting a small baby. And, Himmler explained it this way: he said ‘look, of course it is not very pleasant but the fact is if we didn’t kill these people’s children then they would grow up into a race of avengers who would come after and try and kill your own children’. So, by implication, if you love your children it is necessary that you kill these other children, so you show your love of your children by killing other children. So that’s how he [Himmler] explained it – now, of course, it is monstrous but nonetheless it is an argument that he would put forward, and it is an argument that he used, that it is almost like you’re being compassionate by murdering other children.

AM: You isolated the concept of belief as the key ingredient that turns ordinary people into perpetrators and, in fact, that is something that you explored in your work The Dark Charisma of Adolf Hitler from 2012. Educationally, many young people tend to attribute the whole of the Holocaust to one man, Adolf Hitler. Obviously, teachers need to develop and expand upon this knowledge, yet it is true that his charisma did play a key role. Can you tell us more about that?

LR: I think that the most important thing to understand first of all is what Adolf Hitler himself said during the war and he said, and I’m paraphrasing now, ‘my whole life can be summed up by my desire to persuade other people’. I think that is very very significant, because it is not what you expect from someone who is infamous as the most appalling dictator: you imagine that as a dictator you simply tell people what to do and then shoot them if they don’t do it. In fact, at one point I seem to remember that’s what Hermann Göring told to one of the Nazi rulers in Poland, Hans Frank. I can’t remember if it was Göring but certainly another Nazi, and this was a suggestion made to Hans Frank as to how he should run things towards the end of the war, which is if you have a problem shoot them and then get someone else. And he was actually, from what I can remember, he remarked that ‘how can you run anything that way? You shoot them, you may have got rid of them, but you still can’t do anything’. So, actually, if you think about it, think it through, actually simply trying to get anyone to do anything by threatening them is a very, very short term form of establishing anything. What you need to do is persuade them, and he sought to persuade people by his vision of the world and his vision of what it was to be German and within that belief system that he gave to other people was a level of profound racism. Essentially what he is saying to people is, if you are this Aryan German, you are better than these others, and what we should be doing is simply taking land and life from these people because we’re better.

AM: This issue about shooting people actually came up in one of the sources that our listeners will have seen on the 70 Voices app this week: we read the post war testimony of Werner Schwenker, a German policeman who took part in the shooting and deportation of Jews in Poland. There is still this widely believed myth that people who refused orders to kill would have been punished themselves, but his testimony shows that this wasn’t true: instead, he focuses on issues such as career advancement and fear of looking like a coward in front of his colleagues. Do you think that his explanation is representative of the motives of other perpetrators?

LR: Yes, you’ve got an enormously strong sense of belief many of the people had of what they were doing, but also the fact is that enormous numbers of people want to live and want to survive and want to have a family and want to have a relatively safe life, untroubled life, and you have to question how many people will then put themselves out for other people, especially other people who they’ve been told over and over again are dangerous people who are also inferior to them. So, you talk about not being punished for taking part in the killing process, which is absolutely right, but it is fascinating on the work we did in Auschwitz, you look at the files in Auschwitz, and the central problem they had in the management of the SS at Auschwitz was not finding people being prepared to participate in the killing process, the central problem they had was theft. The massive issue at Auschwitz was members of the SS being involved in stealing things. And so that seems again to be a very human situation, because actually they were trying to get rich. And the fact is that, as well as trying to get rich, they realised they had it relatively soft, because if you weren’t working there was the danger you would be sent to the Eastern front and killed. So, as I say, this one person who we interviewed who was at Auschwitz said something in the interview along the lines of ‘you can’t imagine the great friendships you can make working in a place like that’, which seems absolutely incredible, doesn’t it? But, once you try and understand that, actually, from that perspective, this is better than a number of other jobs that you could be sent too, I think that you get some kind of insight.

AM: Laurence Rees, thank you very much. This project has really been about trying to learn about the history of the Holocaust through unique voices, and it was a little bit controversial when we decided to include perpetrators amongst these voices but we thought, very strongly, that a 70th anniversary commemoration must include perpetrator voices if we are really to look in all honesty at the Holocaust in all its complexity. So this has been, I think, a difficult week for those who have been following along with 70 Voices, because it’s involved reading testimony and documentation of perpetrators and their motivations. But I have to say it has been a real privilege to hear you on this podcast to put those sources into historical perspective and that perspective which you’ve gained through some really groundbreaking books and television series, so thank you.

And, also thank you once again to all of our listeners for joining us on this podcast and for communicating your thoughts with us on social media. Do continue to send us your comments and feedback on Twitter – we are @HolocaustUK and you can use the #70Voices. And, of course, find us on Facebook as well. Please join us again next week for another episode of this 70 Voices podcast.


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