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Lessons from the Holocaust

LAURENCE REES: Are there any lessons that we can take and teach people from the Holocaust, about the nature of violence and genocide and how people should now behave?

DAVID CESARANI: I think one of the most interesting and telling moments in the history of the persecution and the mass murder of the Jews in Europe comes from the first volume of Victor Klemperer’s diaries. It’s quite early on in the period of Nazi hegemony in Germany when discriminatory laws are already in place. Klemperer and his wife go to the movies, Jews are still allowed to go to films, and he overhears a conversation between a German soldier and his girlfriend who are sitting in the row in front of them. And the woman says, I went to the sales yesterday to a department store and got a really great bargain. And the soldier says, yeah, but the department stores are all owned by the Jews, you shouldn’t go shopping in them. And the girlfriend says, yeah, but they always have the best bargains. Now, why is this significant? Because you’re never going to get to discrimination, segregation, expulsion, deportation, shooting en mass or genocide unless you begin with that conversation, someone who has a stereotype, hostile view of another human being or set of human beings.

And there’s always a tension, because there is always somebody who disagrees. How is it that the negative stereotype comes up out on top? What propaganda is needed, what indoctrination is needed to get to the point at which entire populations are willing to accept discrimination, segregation, expulsion, deportation, shootings? They’re not involved in it, they don’t see it, but they hear about it and they don’t do anything about it. They tolerate it. And then mass extermination. They’re not involved with it but they hear rumours about it. But they’re not going to get involved, they’re not going to stop it. It all starts with those conversations, with that kind of prejudice and racism.

Now, I don’t think that the end stage of the genocide against the Jews really tells us anything about the origins of genocide. It tells us something about how you can carry it out in the same way that the genocide in Rwanda tells us that if you give a hundred thousand people machetes and tell each one to kill six people of another group they can probably manage it in a relatively short time. So what? It doesn’t explain the origins, it doesn’t explain the dynamics that lead up to genocide, and I think we are stuck with Auschwitz as the source of all of the lessons and I think that we’re stuck with the wrong end of the process.  What fascinates me is how the Nazis come to power with a racist, anti-Semitic, crude and vulgar ideology. How desperate can a society be that it elects thugs, criminals, boors, horrible men and women?

How desperate do people have to be to put their cross by Hitler’s name? What brought them to that stage? What then leads them to tolerate discrimination, the withdrawal of civil rights from a group of human beings? Bit of a digression here. I just reviewed a book by Eric Kurlander on Liberals in the Third Reich, the democrats, how they got along under Hitler. What so eviscerated liberalism and democracy in Germany that Liberals, Democrats and Parliamentarians were prepared to go along with the Third Reich for most of the time?  Hjalmar Schacht who runs the Reich Bank, who was responsible for stripping Jews of their economic rights, their wealth, their property and shoving them penniless out into the world, was a member of a Liberal Democratic Party.

So I think that what happens in the Third Reich up until we get to the Second World War is the most valuable source of lessons and the most valuable warning about what can happen in societies that are destabilised, demoralised and indoctrinated. What happens during the Second World War I think, unfortunately is, apart from, as we’ve said, the singularity of the killing techniques and the coalescence of a murderous ideology with those techniques, otherwise I think what happens in the Second World War is easily explicable and it just reinforces what we know about what happens during wars. During wars people kill other people on a vast scale. The longer they go on, the more brutalised those people become, the less inhibited they become, the more ruined societies become and a vicious circle sets in. It’s sometimes called barbarisation.

And you can see that at the end of the Second War in these so-called purges. 40,000 French men and women are murdered ex-judicially in the most brutal circumstances by other Frenchmen after the liberation. 40,000 people in a few months. Now, racism is not at play here. This group has not been demonised, these are people who have become political enemies, there are scores to settle, feuds to work out after four years of occupation, brutalisation, warfare, with a lot of guns floating around, a lot of young men with testosterone coursing through their veins and not much authority to stop them or inhibitions in any way, shape or form. That is what happens in wars. And if you want a lesson, don’t have wars. As for the fate of the Jews, anti-Semitism, it’s not a good thing, racism, it’s not a good thing. Discrimination is not a good thing and the earlier you get in there and nip it in the bud the better. But you are never going to go from racism, discrimination, and persecution to genocide, I would say, unless you have the slippage into war and barbarisation.