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:

‘Here a single policeman fired the shots from above with a sub-machine-gun. The policeman also climbed into the trench so that he stood right behind the offenders. When he had riddled them all with bullets it was the turn of the next lot. They had to lie down on those who had already been shot ... I cannot say whether this one policeman carried out the execution alone or whether he was later relieved. The only thing I can remember is that after a little while he lit a cigarette and had a break. I actually spoke to him and asked him whether he didn’t find it hard to carry out something like this. He told me that he had two children at home but that he got used to this work, which he seemed to do with the utmost satisfaction.’

It is almost as if these workmanlike murderers had been asked, as Englishmen were during the war, to ‘Dig for victory’: here was a necessary task, perhaps not an essential assignment, but none the less a contribution to the war effort. That indeed is how Himmler presented it to the SS and SD: cold-blooded murder was every bit as heroic and decidedly more demanding than fighting at the front. If not every murderer was a volunteer, neither was any of them coerced into killing. This book should see off the myth that a severe penalty awaited anyone who would not take part. Where the murder of Jews was concerned the opposite was the case, as ample testimony in ‘Those were the days’ demonstrates: to avoid pulling the trigger did not in all instances even delay promotion. And men did avoid shooting Jews, especially Jewish women and children – probably about as many as asked to be given a rifle to join in. What is called ‘execution tourism’ in the book’s introduction is illustrated by some of the few photographs which survived Himmler’s prohibition of casual photography: not only might these pictures be shown around the family fireside, they might get out to less sympathetic viewers. Obscene pictures were also a feature of the war in Vietnam and the First World has become fairly immunised to imagery of this nature, yet these pictures of women in their underwear waiting to be shot in the head are more shocking than anything I know. Unless it is the fact that mental patients in Polish asylums were let loose in the grounds by the Einsatzgruppen and hunted down, or locked into huts which were blown up with explosives.

Two other myths are also seen off. The first is that hoary old standby: we never knew. The public spectacle provided by the early phases of the Final Solution in 1941-2 was one of the two chief reasons why gassing was resorted to. The other was that the relentless daily slaughter eventually caused too many (and too many public) nervous breakdowns among the killers; all those afflicted recovered after proper care and attention; there appears not to have been a single suicide on the part of the murderers. Two-thirds of ‘Those were the days’ is concerned with the Einsatzgruppen massacres. How many Germans and Austrians knew what was being done in the East in the name of Germany and on behalf of German Kultur can never even be estimated, but those who participated in the ‘open secret’ of the Final Solution, let alone those who were aware it was taking place ‘in the East’, surely ran into millions, not thousands. What has been estimated (by Yehoshua Buchler) is how many men were directly involved in killing Jews in the ‘shooting period’ of the Final Solution: if the auxiliary police, locally recruited, are included, the conservative estimate is 130,000. This figure excludes the unknown number of members of the Wehrmacht who killed Jews; a reading of Omer Bartov’s book suggests that the majority at one time or another, for one reason or another (or without any reason at all), did: just as there were millions of individual deaths, so there were millions of individual killers. All of them had wives, sweethearts or friends with whom they shared confidences. And we haven’t mentioned those who made these things happen: the bureaucrats and clerks. Raul Hilberg, Christopher Browning and Claude Lanzmann (among others) have laid their contribution bare: such men did not care to know what they were doing; nevertheless they knew what they had to do and did it – with a dedicated efficiency which usually resulted in promotion.

The other myth, painstakingly cultivated since 1945, is that the Wehrmacht was an honourable body of men which kept its hands clean: soldiers did not willingly murder defenceless men, women and children, Jewish or otherwise. Omer Bartov’s careful research has proven otherwise. Apart from what he calls the ‘inherent criminality’ of the war itself, epitomised in the order which forbade the giving of medical treatment to wounded POWs, the Wehrmacht was less successful in controlling its men in Russia than the Red Army was in controlling its personnel in Germany. Indeed, ‘control’ is not the word required in the context of Operation Barbarossa. Professor Bartov details all the ‘perversions of discipline’ and ‘distortions of reality’ which turned the army on the Eastern Front into a brutalised, demoralised, and collectively paranoid body of men: ‘The typical Landser was a very frightened man, scared of his commanders, terrified of the enemy; this is probably why he seems to have enjoyed so much watching others suffer. The photographs of smiling Wehrmacht troops, each with his little camera, busily taking pictures of hanged ‘partisans’, or of piles of butchered Jews, this horrific Exekutions-Tourismus, can only be understood as the ultimate perversion of the soldiers by a terroristic system of discipline, backed by a murderous ideology, which achieved its aim of preserving cohesion at the price of destroying the individual’s moral fabric and thereby making possible the extermination of countless defenceless people.’

The American genocide in Vietnam is prefigured here. Still, what Professor Bartov, an ex-soldier himself, calls ‘a feast of destruction against defenceless civilians’ did not develop, as perhaps it did in Vietnam, out of the nature of the military struggle itself: it was demanded by Hitler and the generals from the start. In search of a mythic Endsiel, an apocalyptic tidying up of the world’s population, a barbaric campaign was unleashed on Russia in June 1941: in less than nine months over two million Soviet POWS were dead – that is, had been deliberately neglected in order that they might die, a sufficient statistic of barbarism. By 1943 the Army ‘simply shot anyone who hampered it from fulfilling its tasks’, yet from the beginning there had been little attempt (even in written orders) to differentiate, save negatively: Communists and Jews were marked for death before the invasion began and the Wehrmacht enthusiastically handed them (or those who resembled their idea of them) to the SS and SD, if it did not do the killing itself. The question is: to what degree was this co-operative behaviour a consequence of 1933, to what degree of 1914? In other words, was the policy of Schrecklichkeit undertaken by the army in Belgium at the outset of the First World War an indication of what was to come in Russia in 1941?

In July 1941 a soldier, Karl Fuchs, wrote:

Russia is nothing but misery, poverty, and depravity ... When I go back I will tell you endless horror stories about Russia. Yesterday, for instance, we saw our first women soldiers ... And these pigs fired on our decent German soldiers from ambush positions.

The following month he described ‘the pitiful hordes on the other side ... They are nothing but a bunch of arseholes.’ This could simply be soldierly language – like that taught in the United States Marine Corps. Felix Landau, a policeman attached to an Einsatzcommando, used the same language of Jews, diese Arschlöcher; and recounted the following incident at Cracow in July 1941:

On our way two Jews were stopped. They said that they had fled from the Russian Army. Their story was fairly unbelievable. Six of our men got out, loaded up and the next minute both were dead. When the order to fire was given, one of the Jews, an engineer, was still shouting: ‘Long live Germany.’ Strange, I thought. What on earth had this Jew been hoping for?

What indeed, for the language used by the soldiers and policemen was precisely that of the politicians in Berlin who had sent them about this business. There is no better illustration of the reversal of values represented by the Final Solution than the language in which these Germans talked about it, unless it is (as it was for me) the sight of the tins of shoe-cleaning polish which Jews carried with them to Auschwitz: what were civilised shoe-cleaning folk expecting to find at that arsehole of the world? I was reminded of the tins of shoe polish at Auschwitz by a soldier’s account of the murder of Jews at Paneriai in Lithuania: ‘The SS man who had initially gestured to us to keep away was carrying a sub-machine gun. He made two Jews go and stand at the edge of the pit and shot both of them in the back of the head, so that they fell in. I can still remember that one of them was carrying a towel and a soapbox, which afterwards lay in the trench.’ That towel and soapbox in the trench in 1941 was not like the towels and soapboxes in the trenches of 1914; whatever the connections which need to be made with the First World War and beyond, sometimes well beyond it, somewhere after 1914 and before 1941 there is a disconnection; and it is that discontinuity, whether it is to be found at Verdun or (and?) on the Somme in 1916, in Germany in 1918 or in 1933, or elsewhere at some other time, which makes the difference between the two sets of towels and soapboxes.

At Cambridge on the afternoon of 9 November 1912 Bertrand Russell took Wittgenstein to watch a rowing race on the Cam. Later, Russell reported, Wittgenstein ‘said we might as well have looked on at a bull fight, and that all was of the devil, and so on ... At last we got on to other topics, and I thought it was all right, but he suddenly stood still and explained that the way we had spent the afternoon was so vile that we ought not to live, or at least he ought not.’ It is Wittgenstein’s failure to make any distinction, his bundling together of disparate things, one would say his lack of a sense of proportion were that not too bland a phrase, which are shocking. And his language: a rowing race vile? Murder is vile. So extraordinary an intellect, so exceptional a soul as Wittgenstein’s has to be a seismograph of this century: if he could think like this, is it any wonder that other Austrians, other Germans put everything back to front?

That thought came to me while watching (for the umpteenth time) Woody Allen’s movie Radio Days: there in Jewish New York in the Forties everything was the right way round – just as everything should have been in the Forties in Jewish Vienna, Jewish Warsaw, Jewish Lodz, Jewish Lvov, Jewish Minsk. The ‘ordinariness’ of what Radio Days depicts is an indication of what the world lost in the Final Solution, utterly immeasurable though that loss is. Lord Acton was apparently fond of citing the Duc de Broglie: ‘we must beware of too much understanding lest we end by too much forgiving.’ There is no danger that the books reflected on here will have that effect.

[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).