The Holocaust author Laurence Rees examines five warnings that history has to offer us today.
The Holocaust author Laurence Rees examines five warnings that history has to offer us today.
I’m sometimes asked what ‘lessons’ you can learn from history. And, when I am, I reply that history can’t contain any ‘lessons’ because events can never precisely repeat themselves. People evolve in constantly changing circumstances. There can never be, for instance, ‘another Hitler’ because the Hitler of history was created by a unique mix of genetics and historical circumstance. There simply aren’t a series of ‘lessons’ – in the sense of direct laws – that we can find in the past to apply in some kind of rigid way to the present.
But I do believe that history – relatively recent history especially - can offer a warning. That’s why I called the television series I made on the Third Reich back in the 1990s, The Nazis: a Warning from History. A warning, of course, is very different from a lesson. A warning is not a fixed law. A warning means that there are aspects of this history that can serve as a cautionary example.
Against that background, I certainly feel that my study of the Nazis and the Holocaust – and in particular the opportunity over the last twenty five years to meet hundreds of people who lived through this period – has given me the chance to draw some insights from this terrible history that I hope are of value to us today. And here I want to share five of those insights.
The first insight can be deduced from two statistics. In 1928, after Adolf Hitler had been leader of the Nazis for seven years, the Nazis received just 2.6% of the vote in the German General Election. Many people dismissed the Nazis as a political force – they thought they were a collection of fanatics on the fringe of German politics, almost a joke. But just four years later, at the General Election of 1932, the Nazis were the biggest single political party in Germany with 37% of the vote, and in January 1933 Hitler became Chancellor.
The economic turmoil in Germany in the wake of the Wall Street crash of 1929 played an important part in the Nazis’ sudden rise to power. It looked to millions of Germans as if conventional politicians had failed, and so almost overnight they turned to one of the most unconventional politicians around – Adolf Hitler.
The insight I take from this is, therefore, simple. Don’t ever dismiss fringe parties.
My second insight comes from a study of Hitler’s speeches in the early 1920s and a reading of Mein Kampf – or My Struggle – the book he wrote in prison in 1924. What we learn from all this material is that, from his very first days as a politician, Hitler displayed a near pathological hatred of Jews. ‘Solving the Jewish question is the central question for National Socialists,’ he said in 1921. ‘We can only solve it by using brute force.’ And in Mein Kampf he wrote that the Jew "is and remains the typical parasite, a sponger who like a noxious bacillus keeps spreading as soon as a favourable medium invites him".
While Hitler did not possess a blueprint for the Holocaust at this time, his feelings about the Jews were obvious. It was clear that, were he ever to gain power, the Jews were going to suffer in one way or another. But there was a tendency in some quarters to play down the radical nature of Hitler’s views. Here, for instance, is what the German banker, Johannes Zahn, told us about his own attitude in the 1930s: "If you take Christianity, for example, the demands of the Bible, the demands of the catechisms, do you know anybody who fulfills the demands of Christianity 100 per cent, or even pretends to fulfill them 100 per cent? And one thought the same way about Mein Kampf - these are demands, these are ideas, but nobody thought that they were to be taken literally."
Such views, spoken after the war, might appear self-serving. And we must remember that a number of Germans – not just committed Nazis - were anti-Semitic at the time. In addition, since more than 99 per cent of the population was not Jewish, it was easy for many Germans to think that Hitler’s obsession with the Jews was not of direct concern to them. But, nonetheless, contemporary evidence supports the contention that Hitler’s views, as expressed in Mein Kampf, were not always taken seriously.
Thus the insight I take from these events is this: Politicians with extreme views can genuinely mean everything they say.
My third insight comes from meeting Germans who lived under Nazi rule before the war, and who enjoyed the fact that the Nazis preached that ‘Aryan’ Germans were better than anyone else. Maria Mauth, a schoolgirl in Germany in the 1930s, told us that she was taught in school that "only Germans were valuable human beings – there was a little booklet called German Inventors, German Poets, German Musicians – nothing else existed. And we devoured it. We were absolutely convinced that we were the greatest."
Erna Krantz, another German who was a schoolgirl in Munich around the same time, remembered that "it was somewhat contagious. You used to say that if you tell a young person every day, ‘You are something special,’ then in the end they will believe you."
But, of course, these Germans couldn’t believe they were better than others without also thinking that others were less than they were – the Jews in particular. "I must say that the Jews were not very much liked in Austria," said Susi Seitz, an Austrian who supported the Nazi take over of her country in 1938. "We never had the feeling that they were the same as us; they were different, completely different."
The insight to take from this – my third – is that hatred of minorities can be an extremely popular policy.
My fourth insight relates to the way in which the Holocaust developed. I think there is something in most human beings that wants to believe that a terrible crime like this must come from one monumental moment of decision. Maybe it’s because we are used to watching ‘heist’ movies in which the leader of a gang assembles a team and develops a detailed plan of action before the crime is committed.
Whatever the reason, there is a desire amongst many people, I believe, to think that there must have been a detailed blueprint for the Holocaust. The reality, however, was very different. While Hitler expressed hatred for the Jews and wanted to do something about what he saw as the ‘Jewish problem’ from the moment he became a politician, his ideas about just what form that ‘something’ would take changed over time. During the war, in 1940, there was even a plan to send the Jews to the island of Madagascar. While that plan would ultimately have been genocidal, it would not have led to the Holocaust as we know it. The fact is that the journey Hitler and the Nazis took to the death camps was a gradual one, full of twists and turns.
So my fourth insight is this: Terrible crimes need not be pre-planned with one big decision. They can evolve over time via many smaller decisions.
My final insight relates to a fundamental belief that large numbers of people hold about themselves.
Over the years many people have told me that they are certain that they know how they would have behaved had they been forced to endure Nazi persecution. They believe their characters are fixed, unlikely to change according to circumstances. When people say such things to me, I think of the interview I conducted with Toivi Blatt, a Polish Jew who, in 1943, was forced by the Nazis to work in the Sonderkommando at the death camp of Sobibor. Members of the Sonderkommando had to help the Nazis in the camp by performing tasks like cleaning out the gas chambers and sorting the belongings of the murdered Jews. Their work was the stuff of nightmares. And if the Sonderkommandos didn’t do their job to the satisfaction of the Nazis then they were immediately murdered.
"People asked me, ‘what did you learn?’’ Toivi Blatt said to me, "and I think I’m only sure of one thing. Nobody knows themselves.... All of us could be good people or bad people in these [different] situations. Sometimes, when somebody is really nice to me, I find myself thinking, ‘How would he be in Sobibor?’"
What Toivi Blatt discovered was that it was impossible to predict how any individual would react to the dreadful conditions in Sobibor. It was often the case that someone he felt would be strong turned out to be weak. Someone he thought would fall apart somehow managed to cope.
So my final insight is this. You cannot be certain how you will react to terrible adversity. Maybe appalling circumstances will bring out the best in you – or maybe they will reveal the worst. You can’t know for sure until the moment you are tested.
Frightening, isn’t it?
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