Diary

Colin Richmond

‘The impact which the newsreel films of Belsen made at the end of the war was enormous,’ Alan Borg, the Director-General of the Imperial War Museum writes in his foreword to The Relief of Belsen,[1] a collection of eye-witness accounts. ‘Many still remember exactly where and when they first saw these awful images.’ I am one of the many: I sat in about the tenth row (in an aisle seat on the left-hand side) of the circle, the Regal Cinema, High Street, Sidcup, Kent. It was either late April or early May 1945. I was not yet eight years old. Ten years later in Wuppertal, on the fringe of the Ruhr, the German boy with whose family I was staying for the summer said in response to a remark of mine about the catastrophe Hitler had been for Germany: ‘Well, at least he got rid of the Jews.’ There are undoubtedly other reasons why I am writing this piece, yet I know I have to go back to those two experiences, and particularly the first, in order to understand why from the haven of North Staffordshire in the last decade of this terrible century I study and teach the Shoah.

It is also in some sense, if not quite in every sense, an obligation on me as a historian. I am compelled, therefore, to read so terrifying a book as ‘Those were the days’,[2] a translation of ‘Schöne Zeiten’: Judenmord aus der Sicht der Täter and Gaffer, published in Germany in 1988. The title of this collection of descriptions of murder is taken from the photograph album of one of the murderers, Kurt Franz. Originally a cook, Franz became a guard at Buchenwald, worked in various killing centres during the ‘Euthanasia’ campaign of 1939-41, was sent to Poland in spring 1942 to take part in ‘Aktion Reinhard’, and ended up as deputy camp commandant at Treblinka. After the war he became a cook again until his trial and sentence of life imprisonment in 1965. The relevant page of the album is reproduced in this book: two photographs have been removed and Schöne has been erased from the phrase Schöne Zeiten. Before noticing the page’s empty spaces I had thought some observation about the survival of a residual tension between pleasure and killing on the part of the killers might have been in order; that the good times applied (only? principally?) to the excellent meals, pleasant company in the evenings, and the plentiful Jewish plunder to be had out of the Final Solution – all benefits (and excitements) mentioned here by the murderers in their diaries and journals. Those missing photos, far more than the missing word, give the game away: the good times included murder. This conclusion, however banal, needs to be drawn at the outset as too often it is not drawn at all. Because the crime was so atrocious historians search for profound (as well as intricate) causation. All well and good. Yet, from the evidence in Hitler’s Army, Omer Bartov’s important book,[3] as well as that set out in ‘Those were the days’, that judgment may not be avoided: some (many? most?) German and Austrian (particularly Austrian?) policemen and soldiers enjoyed killing Jews (and Russians? and Poles?).

It is my impression from reading the latter – although ‘reading’ is a word which has too much pleasure attached to it to describe how one has to absorb ‘Those were the days’ – that love of killing predominated over hatred of the victims. Released from responsibility, or rather answerability, the killers buckled down to their work cheerfully enough:

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[1] The Relief of Belsen, April 1945 (Imperial War Museum, 32 pp., £2.95, 12 November 1991, 0 901627 70 4).

[2] ‘Those were the days’: The Holocaust through the Eyes of the Perpetrators and Bystanders by Ernst Klec, Willi Dressen and Volker Riess, translated by Deborah Brunstone (Hamish Hamilton, 314 pp., £17.99, 31 October 1991, 0 241 12842 0).

[3] Hitler’s Army: Soldiers, Nazis and War in the Third Reich by Omer Bartov (Oxford, 238 pp., £15, 28 November 1991, 0 19 506879 3).