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The Nazi Mentality

LAURENCE REES: If we consider the mentality of the Nazis who were involved with the planning of the 'final solution', was there a sense they felt that they should kill the Jews partly because nobody else wanted to take them? 

DAVID CESARANI: But the fact that there were elements of the Nazi political hierarchy and even elements within the security apparatus, the SS/SD, who would have been willing to just eject the Jews from the German sphere of influence, who were not as murderously inclined as other elements of the Nazi hierarchy and the SS/SD, doesn’t absolve the murderous elements or in some way qualify the core ideology. You see, pretty well all of the security apparatus, the Nazi inner circle, subscribed to a world view that was more or less lethal towards the Jews, radically destructive if not up to the point of  biological annihilation. When old Nazis would say in their memoirs in the 1950s or  60s or later on, well, yes, it got a bit out of hand and I wasn’t in favour of killing them, it would have been enough just to dump them in the Lublin Reservation or Siberia, we’re talking about a difference of degree.

And these men did not intervene to stop the mass murder because the mass murder was simply another point along the spectrum. They might not have been willing to go to that point but it was on the same spectrum. They had no love for Jews, they had no compassion for Jews, they had no feeling of obligation to Jews as human beings, and it has to be said that these people had very little feeling of obligation to human beings at all outside of the Volk, the racial community, and even in the inner core to their own people. I think that there is a wonderful moment in the film 'Downfall' when a very tough SS General complains that because of Hitler’s strategy and tactics young men are being mown down, are being sacrificed uselessly, and Hitler says, 'well, that’s what young officers are for'. And at a later stage when a tough Nazi General complains that the Nazi Home Guard, the old men, the Volkssturm are being gunned down Goebbels says, 'well, they voted for us so what did they expect?' These were men who are almost autistic: they don’t feel human compassion. And throughout the Nazi hierarchy you find men who, some of them for pathological reasons, a kind of autism, some of them for ideological reasons, simply do not feel obligated to other human beings. They have no compassion for them, they do not believe their life is valuable; they don’t believe that they should do anything to preserve those lives and it doesn’t matter if those lives are destroyed.

LAURENCE REES: In the context of this sort of autism as regards compassion - a point which I agree is absolutely crucial - what are the historical origins of this? Is it coming to a large extent from World War One?

DAVID CESARANI: The murderous core of the Nazi hierarchy was able to operate so widely, was able to have such a wide influence, was able to find people to operate its murderous policies, large numbers of people, because very significant elements of German society and, indeed, European society, had been brutalised in the short term by the events of First World War and in the longer term years of economic depression, starvation, civil war and then going back to the experience of the trenches, mass slaughter and callous disregard for human life. But there’s another thing to bear in mind. There’s a wonderful scene at the beginning of a film by the Taviani Brothers called Padre Padrone, which shows Italian peasants slaughtering a pig at the beginning of the Winter and they eviscerate the pig and they use every single bit of this pig to supply them with food and fats and materials through the long winter to come; it’s an extremely long drawn out bloody process. And one of my teachers, Richard Overy, said to me if you were a peasant in Europe in the early 20th Century you probably spent a lot of your time killing things, up to your elbows in blood, eating things that were dripping with blood, being surrounded by the detritus of life, not necessarily human life. Who were the lads that went into the armies? Peasants. If you take large numbers of people who come from the countryside, who are used to a pretty rough existence, slaughtering animals certainly. If you put them through brutal experiences when human beings are slaughtered and if you also tell them the lives of certain groups are not worth preserving it’s not difficult to get those people then to take human lives on a vast scale. And very often the killers are fairly sort of simple minded uneducated peasants, killing a pig, killing a Jew, Jews are pigs, you kill them.