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The particular nature of Nazism

QUESTION: Though in your own work, over the last twenty years, you’ve dealt with lots of different areas of the war, you seem to keep returning to the Nazis. Why?

LAURENCE REES: That’s a hard question too! But, in my experience, it is much harder to understand the mentality of Nazi perpetrators than, say Soviet or Japanese perpetrators. My own conclusion – and I’m speaking in generalities here, individual stories can buck this trend – is that this is because the belief system of the Nazis tended to be more internalised. That’s to say that someone who arrested people for Stalin or committed atrocities in the Japanese Imperial Army, might eventually say – after explaining the context and what they believed at the time etc – that  ‘I was ordered to do this and knew I would be punished if I didn’t.’ But, ultimately, many former Nazis I met would say: ‘At the time, I believed that what we were doing was right.’

Significantly, in the case of the Nazis, there was no widespread punishment of those who did not feel able to commit atrocities. The unpleasant reality is that, in many cases, these perpetrators did terrible things because they felt they could defend their actions to themselves. That, in turn, makes this a particularly interesting area to study – at least for me.

Often these encounters with former Nazis were full of surprises. I remember once, for instance, visiting a former officer in an SS regiment who had fought in the Soviet Union and was a committed follower of Hitler. ‘What a tragedy!’ he said to me as I walked through the door to his house. ‘It’s a tragedy. It should never have happened!’

‘Well,’ I replied, ‘it’s refreshing to see a former SS officer so forceful in his condemnation of the Holocaust.’

‘I don’t mean that,’ he said. ‘I mean what a tragedy it was that our two countries ever ended up fighting! And at the end of it all, Germany was divided in two and Britain lost her Empire. But if we had stuck together, then together we could have ruled the world!’

I was, as you can imagine, shocked by this exchange. But it was certainly revealing of his mentality. And as I discovered, one of the most frightening things of all to learn is that many people who committed appalling crimes still believe they were the ‘good guys’ all along. Of course, Hitler felt the same. His political testament, dictated just hours before he committed suicide, is a long rant of self-justification.