We have detected that you are using an older version of Internet Explorer and to have access to all the features on this site, you will need to update your browser to Internet Explorer 8. Alternatively, download Mozilla Firefox or Chrome.

Attitude to the deportations.

LAURENCE REES: The fact that this whole operation of the 'Final Solution' was a matter of great secrecy in the Third Reich is significant. Is one reading of this that some of the perpetrators themselves were to a certain extent aware of the wrongness of their actions?

MARY FULBROOK: I think there’s probably some element of truth in that, I think it’s probably more complicated and you have to look at who and in what circumstances and how they were doing it. I’ve been doing a lot of work on this area of Będzin and looking at the local commissaries who were involved from the autumn of 1939 onwards in excluding Jews from normal life, moving them out of the houses, moving them into special areas, concentrating them, eventually ghettoisation, and in the end more Jews are deported from Będzin Sosnowiec to Auschwitz and murdered, than were deported from the whole of France. We’re talking about 85,000 people from that little area being deported and gassed in Auschwitz, and if you look at the very detailed material at that time from the local people below the level of mayor, the kind of village commissaries and so on, there are some who are kind of just trying to do their best and get all the Jews rounded up and into one street and don’t want to know what happens to them afterwards, and there are some who are in there and are reported back as saying quite viciously anti-Semitic things, and nothing could be too bad for the Jews. And so you get different levels of vehemence in anti-Semitism in all the preconditions for deportation. When you get to the deportations themselves I think you get evidence of huge ambivalence on the part of the local functionaries who are involved in the sheer day to day practice of making sure that 23,000 Jews on one day in one sports ground  are to be selected and 4,300 are sent down the road to Auschwitz.

You get evidence of ambivalence, you get evidence of discomfort.  I’ve been looking particularly at a casestudy of one person who wrote extensively in his memoirs, he was investigated for war crimes later, but for whom I also have of a lot of evidence from the time, and it’s clear that he felt deeply ambivalent about what was going on and had something of a nervous breakdown between May and August of ’42, between the first deportations on May the 10th, 12th 1942 and the major deportations of August ’42. He went away, his nerves were terrible and he clearly didn’t like what was going on, and afterwards the only way he could live with this was to say that he never knew anything about Auschwitz, about that function of Auschwitz, and he brought evil down to the moment of the gas chambers, and anything outside that, even being an SS guard at Auschwitz shooting people trying to escape, was in his view not actually really evil, because that was legitimate, so it’s only the gas chamber. So he could live with his past by excluding it from his field of activity as an administrator. And I think it’s only when you start to explore in that kind of level of detail that you can understand how people functioned knowing but not wanting to know and therefore saying they didn’t know.

LAURENCE REES: And once the gas chambers of Auschwitz start functioning it helps make the psychological problems of the shootings disappear.

MARY FULBROOK: So it’s sort of distancing the Germans from doing the actual act of murder, and then you can in your head think you’re not a criminal because you’re not actually involved. And even in the 1960s war crimes trials you’re not a criminal if you haven’t committed a bestial physical act of some sort and haven’t done something with particular motivation. So it is a very curious distancing from the preconditions to the outcomes with somebody else in the way, who’s actually doing it.

LAURENCE REES: And there’s a myth that’s grown up that actually what gas chambers were about was killing lots of people, but that wasn’t necessarily how we should look at them was it really?

MARY FULBROOK: Well, it was only one fifth of the total number killed in the 'Final Solution' who were killed in that kind of way. I think it was about a practice of killing that was easier for the perpetrators and they did have to improvise it, which is why I think this hang up about when was the turning point is a difficult one.

LAURENCE REES: Yes, because people see the turning point as the gas chambers.

MARY FULBROOK: Yes. And can I just come back to Będzin for a moment. If you look at ghettoisation and you look at the reduction of rations, you can actually calculate the number of deaths by starvation, if you didn’t operate on the black market. You can clock up the number of deaths by hanging for being found dealing on the black market in order to try to survive and not die of starvation, but those deaths are never held up as murders caused by a racist regime, and therefore you can have a clean conscience, because although reduction of rations causes starvation, disease and death, it’s not the same as killing in the gas chamber. And so there’s this kind of mental division between the two as though one is bad and one is not bad, which I think is really fundamentally wrong.

LAURENCE REES: So how dangerous is it then to take the Holocaust out of this whole overall idea of the ideology that’s going on at the time?

MARY FULBROOK: I think now is the time for historians to actually reinsert it in a big way. I think in the fifty years or so of post-war Germany it was a crucial precondition for an awful lot of Germans to be able to live with their past to pretend, because so many of them were part of that racist project right from the very start, right from ’33. And for them to be able to live with themselves and their past and to become part of the European Union and all the rest of it was probably a kind of precondition to bracket it out and say, okay, murder by gassing or shooting is uniquely evil, but being racist is okay, we’ll accept you back. This is morally, I think, utterly reprehensible. I think there’s no doubt about that. But, on the other hand, politically for post-war Germany it was actually quite important to provide that cover, that amnesty for people.

LAURENCE REES: But there’s a conceptual difference, isn’t there, between sealing a city and saying we need people to die, we need to reduce the population, and what they’re doing with the Jews?

MARY FULBROOK: I think this is a difficult one because when you’re looking at the Wehrmacht you’re looking at, what, 15 or 17 million young men, many of whom were conscripted, many of whom hated what they were doing, many of whom had absolutely no choice in their lives about where they were sent and what they were doing and what they were involved in. I think the really crucial problem there is the people who did have a choice, who did have a say, who did have power and influence and didn’t say or do the right things at the right time, and I think you have very different reactions. What shocks me in the primary sources on people’s reactions: diaries, letters home, that kind of stuff, is the extent to which young people who had been exposed to Nazi ideology in the 1930s but didn’t fully believe it, suddenly, naively, came to see Jews in ghettos: Eastern Jews, Jews who are in rags and starving and clearly carrying disease. These young people suddenly believe that the propaganda was true without recognising that it had been put into effect and made true by the Nazi treatment of these populations, and they then became more anti-Semitic as a result of exposure to this.

And I think what was shocking in some of the photos put on in the Wehrmacht Exhibition in 1995 when it came out, was not merely the fact that ordinary soldiers were involved in shootings or hangings or other atrocities, but that they were actually laughing, smiling and jeering when they saw Jews having their beards cut off or being made to lie on the street and do unspeakable things in the mud. And that is problematic, but I don’t think we should label the whole of the German Army or German soldiers as buying into that particular thing. You can get evidence of different reactions as well. It’s again a question of variation, of differentiation and how we describe it.

LAURENCE REES: And there were one or two Jews I've talked to, who, forced to live in the squalor of the Ghetto, almost came close to believing in aspects of the Nazi propaganda themselves, since they had been so appallingly treated. It was a sort of psychological patterning.

MARY FULBROOK: Yes. I think it depends on how old you were. I mean, I do think it makes a difference when you grow up, how you grow up, how it affects you and the extent to which you’ve got sort of prior resources or beliefs or experience to draw on, or the extent to which you’re very vulnerable to that kind of shift.

LAURENCE REES: So can we say that the vast majority of that army going East believed in their own racial superiority and that they maintained they were fighting an inferior people and that it was possible that consequences would stem from that?

MARY FULBROOK: I think it’s very difficult to say the vast majority. At the moment I don’t think the work has been done to give it a statistical, quantifiable element.

I think what we can say, correctly, is that the prevailing, predominant discourse was that, and therefore people who felt uneasy with that discourse committed it only to their diary or to their letters to their wife. You can get evidence in letters of people feeling very uneasy, the dominant discourse undoubtedly was as you’ve described it, and so peer group pressure would make people when they’re drunk, buy into that and say the same things and do the same things, yes.

LAURENCE REES: Why wasn’t there some kind of public outcry in Germany, or some kind of mass public protest, at the deportation of the Jews?

MARY FULBROOK: I think you have to look at this stagewise again, when the deportation takes place and in terms of what’s come before that. What I find most shocking and really extraordinary, and I never really thought of it in these terms before I started reading through documents and letters, memoirs, essays and diaries, is the extent to which Germans already in 1933 started to try to learn the racist script and exclude Jews from German society. And we’re talking about within the old Reich here, we’re not talking about the Polish Jews. People enacted racism in everyday life, even when they didn’t have to from the very beginning in 1933. The number of stories I’ve come across where people say, well, I used to be very close friends with so and so but then suddenly in April 1933 he came to me and said, I’m sorry, I can’t be your friend any more.

There was this kind of exclusion of Jews when it wasn’t necessary, even from schools in the spring of 1933. There’s one case I’ve been looking at where the director of the school refused to raise the Swastika when Hitler became chancellor and she was booted out and a new Nazi director came in. They closed the school over Easter for two extra weeks and then loads of kids with Jewish surnames and teachers who were socialist, communists and so on did not come back after the Easter Holiday. But the kids were excluded, you can  understand the law for the restitution of professional civil service clear out, at the staff level, but the exclusion of kids at that very early stage, and people who just know that it’s not good for their careers any more, or people who think on the bus I’m not going to stand up to give my seat to a woman with very dark hair who is pregnant because she might be Jewish so…. you know, this enactment in everyday life is horrifying very early on.

I think by the time we get to deportations there’s already been quite considerable processing for the previous several years of stigmatization, identification of who’s out, degradation of them and exclusion of them from your social universe. You already get in the course of the 1930s, in the peacetime years, this kind of formation of two worlds, those who are part of the state and those who are excluded, and those excluded are increasingly narrowed down to their own little circles discussing: should we emigrate, can we survive, how are we going to deal with the next thing to hit us and so on? So when it comes to deportations I think there’s this curious feature about German public opinion, if you can call it that, which is a dislike of moments of violence, like a sense of shame on so-called Kristallnacht, the pogrom of 1938. There is a dislike of visible acts of violence but then not wanting to worry about what they can’t see, and looking away from the consequences of that.

And I think when you get to the deportations from Germany there’s this looking away. It’s slightly distasteful, you wish you didn’t have to witness it but you don’t want to know what’s going on, you don’t want to think about it. I think worse is when you look at deportations in the newly occupied areas, as I mentioned to you, in Będzin in the Eastern Upper Silesia, where you’re witnessing extraordinarily violent deportations, you’re witnessing mass shootings, you’re witnessing dead bodies all around on the streets and people are still looking away and not wanting to know and they’re accepting the goal is to make our city Jew free and that’s what we want to achieve and it’s a shame about a little bit of violence on the side; pity I have to witness it, I wish I could be away somewhere else. There’s an exclusion of Jews from the community of human beings. A sort of mental exclusion, so its almost like saying I wish I didn’t have to walk past the slaughter house before eating my lunch, but, you know, shame for the cows but that’s the way it is.

LAURENCE REES: And I’ve met some people coming in from the Baltic states who get the restaurants that the Jews are running, and it’s a straightforward economic benefit.

MARY FULBROOK: There’s an awful lot of that, there’s no doubt about the economic benefits coming from taking over houses from which Jews have been ousted, taking over industries and businesses at knock down prices and so on, there’s no doubt about the economic incentives. It is just extraordinary though, the extent of compliance. When you mention resistance though, that’s a quite different question, those who would never comply and why they were not effectively able to resist.