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As a German studying this period

LAURENCE REES: Does the fact that you are German make it easier or harder for you to study this period?
NORBERT FREI: Well I’m on the shoulders of giants when it comes to contemporary research in Germany. Actually the whole field of what we call contemporary history was a reaction of this Nazi experience. I mean it came up as a special part of writing history only after 1944-45 and it was established with strong support by the Western Allies. Actually the Americans were the ones who founded the Institute for Contemporary History in Munich, which was an important research institution for doing work on the Nazi period. And if you look how these contemporaries of the Nazi time try to work their way through these documents and try to make themselves understand what they actually experienced, you find that it’s interesting to look at this history of the last 50 or 60 years of writing on Nazi Germany as a separate part of German history.

It’s an integral part of German cultural and political identity, and at least in the Federal Republic, one could say that it was a very hard beginning with all this denial and neglect and the attempt to look away from what the Germans were responsible for in the 1950s until the 1960s and 1970s when it was decided that we had to confront this and had to research it. We have to understand what was going wrong, when they became a majority, and I would agree with your point that most of the Germans now would probably argue that it’s still important to understand this part of German history.

LAURENCE REES: Did you ever ask, writing your book, 'if I had been born 20 or 30 or 40 years ago, what would I have done'?

NORBERT FREI: Well, this is a question I guess every historian immediately asks himself and this is also a question which is very often put. But I don’t think that it’s a particularly fruitful question, because we all know, and you don’t even have to be from a certain religious or ideological belief to know that the things that which happened during the Third Reich were fundamentally unjust and fundamentally wrong. You know that you would have known at that point, even when you would have lived at that point that the Holocaust, for instance, is something one cannot defend from a moral point of view. So in that respect you would have known what you should do even though you might not have done it.

LAURENCE REES: Can you be so sure, because so many of the people involved in the planning process were very clever intellectual people and they believed it was right?

NORBERT FREI: When you are in this ideological framework, when you are in this situation, and when you are truly a part of it, you might have a lot of ideas or a lot of arguments to make yourself believe that things are right, but I still believe that deep in their hearts most of them knew it was wrong. Because, after all, they weren’t born and raised in outer space, they were born and raised within the culture of their forefathers which clearly gave them the idea that from a deep point of view something was wrong. And one could even read the Himmler speech of 1943 in this way, as an attempt to make himself believe what he is saying. Because at the very bottom of it there is this notion that what we are doing here is unbelievably wrong.

LAURENCE REES: Do you seriously think, then, that somewhere inside himself, even Hitler thought what he was doing was wrong?

NORBERT FREI: Well, I have no clue about Hitler and, as I said, we don’t know what’s gone on in his mind and actually I don’t see a point in reflecting on Hitler in that respect. But if you take Himmler and this terrible speech, one could at least try even with Himmler to find this kind of insecurity about their ideas.

LAURENCE REES: And, of course, if it was the right thing to do, why keep it so secret?

NORBERT FREI: Yes, that’s a very good point. They at least knew that most of their fellow Germans deep in their hearts would know it’s wrong, and this is part of the reason to keep it secret. It’s not the only reason for that, but it’s part of it, an important part of it.

LAURENCE REES: The lesson or the conclusion I take from your book is that is we should not feel so easy and content about the notion that progress is 'good'.

NORBERT FREI: Yes, that’s for sure, this is something that you find as a learning lesson in German political culture today. How could you understand the hesitation in German society as compared to, let’s say, the English, when it comes to questions like euthanasia or to the question of genetic research? I mean, there are these in-built lessons within today’s Germany which stem actually from this experience.

LAURENCE REES: I hadn’t thought of that, the issue of making a designer baby for example.

NORBERT FREI: Yes. I mean of course there are people in Germany now who would argue that we are three or four generations later and there are new techniques and what’s wrong with having a designer baby? But generally speaking I would say German society is much more aware about the problems, the consequences and the possibilities which are in-built here as any other society at the moment.

LAURENCE REES: Is that the greatest lesson do you think? Do you think it’s the only lesson?

NORBERT FREI: No, it’s one of the lessons.

LAURENCE REES: What are the other lessons do you think that they’ve learnt?

NORBERT FREI: Well, the idea that you should have a reasonable party system and that you should have a balance of power. If you look at the German constitution it was actually a way of first looking at what the problems were with the Weimar constitutions. What went wrong in terms of flaws here, and what do we have to make sure that the new constitution does better? So in a lot of areas you will find the consequences of reflecting on the failure of Germany in 1933.