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The conflict with Soviet Union

LAURENCE REES: To what extent can we see the invasion of the Soviet Union as marking an important escalation in the barbaric policies of the Third Reich?

NORBERT FREI: Well, we must not forget how barbaric the battle against Poland was, and that there were Einzatsgruppen behind the Front shooting and killing in Poland. But you are quite right it gets onto another dimension when it comes to the war against the Soviet Union, and it’s the annihilation of people as an integral part of this war right from the beginning. Now for the first time there are millions of Jews who are in the reach of the Germans because of the start of this war. There were already masses of Jews in Poland, but some of them or millions of them could flee to the Soviet Union and now there’s the Judenfrage on a much larger scale than it ever was before for the Germans.

LAURENCE REES: Reading your book I was reminded of the danger of taking the persecution and extermination of the Jews out of the general context of the war, because we have to see the Nazis’ attitude to the Jews as they go into the Soviet Union as part of a broader policy.

NORBERT FREI: Yes, it’s part of a broader policy but it’s also the single most ideological aspect of this policy. There was certainly a broad attempt to get rid of all these ‘worthless’ people, races that are not at the top of the hierarchy, and to gain slave workers and all of these ideas, but there’s a particular point in going after the Jews. This is also the reason why despite all these millions of other Soviet people who were killed by the Germans during this war, despite the starvation of these millions of Russian and Soviet prisoners of war, the fight against the Jews was still something different.

LAURENCE REES: And so why is this action against the Jews different?

NORBERT FREI: Because it was done with rigour and intensity and with an attempt to achieve perfection, if you think of the mass extermination camps, which wasn’t the case for other ‘problems’.

LAURENCE REES: And how would you answer - for someone who doesn’t know much about this history - the simple question: why are they doing this to the Jews?

NORBERT FREI: Well, here you have to take into account the anti-Semitic ideology. I mean, without taking into account ideological reasons you just cannot explain it. I mean, of course, this ideology was not important for all the perpetrators, for all these soldiers or Einsatzgruppen. People who were fighting, some of them just did their murderous work without much anti-Semitic ideology. But to go on and on in this direction there must be a driving force and this is certainly Hitler or those around him who rely on his will and who are arguing that they are just executing the will of the Fuehrer. And here you have the true centre-piece of Nazi ideology. If you take Hitler’s testament at the end, what he considers his biggest achievement is the annihilation of the Jew.

LAURENCE REES: How can we understand the intensity of the motivation behind Hitler's appalling 'vision' in this respect?  

NORBERT FREI: I actually don’t know whether it makes too much sense to try to understand what’s going on in Hitler’s brain. I mean, we just don’t know and we’ll never know. But what we know and what we can learn from this example is that the will of one individual person in a political situation which was created in a modern society like Germany can end up to define politics and to define this genocide. For the undertaking of genocide you certainly need a lot of conditions and a lot of circumstances, but you also need the will of somebody to do this or of a group of people to do this.

LAURENCE REES: And Hitler’s will was central to this?

NORBERT FREI: Hitler’s will was central to this. I would say that without Hitler there wouldn’t have been a Holocaust. There would have certainly been persecution of the Jews - there was this rather thriving anti-Semitism- but I think it’s safe to say that there wouldn’t be a Holocaust without Hitler.

LAURENCE REES: Let's move on to a related policy of destruction. What does the term 'race hygiene' mean with regards to what’s going on in the East in 1942?

NORBERT FREI: Well, there has been this idea of racial hygiene around for a couple of decades already and these professors of biology, of medicine or whatever, were developing this idea. There were even statistics about what would happen to people if the necessary steps in terms of racial hygiene are not taken, how these people would deteriorate within 50 or a 100 years. I mean, they were true believers and they believed in their theories, and now comes in this politician who gives them the opportunity to go along with their theories.

LAURENCE REES: And their theories involved, did they not, the destruction of millions of people?

NORBERT FREI: Well, they would have thought that at the end it is for the sake of the people, the sake of humanity. I mean, they were thinking and reflecting about themselves as great humanists because they were creating a racially pure people, and this is therefore what was scientifically necessary to do.  This is hard for us to understand today but I don’t think they had moral feelings about it.

LAURENCE REES: However, they did feel that they were absolutely morally right to be involved in the killing.

NORBERT FREI: Yes. This is certainly true in many cases.