19 Mar 2017

The Holocaust: the voices of victims and killers

From Sunday Morning, 10:10 am on 19 March 2017

TV producer and historian Laurence Rees has spent 25 years researching the Holocaust and collecting the personal testimonies of both survivors and perpetrators.

In his latest book The Holocaust, Rees tries to understand the inner workings of the Third Reich.

He tells Wallace Chapman he wanted to understand for himself the decision-making process of the Nazis and help others understand how this obscenity was perpetrated.

He also takes on some myths, such as the notion there was no protest against the Nazi regime.

Laurence Rees

Laurence Rees Photo: supplied

Rees says it’s important to remember Germany only came together as unified country in the 19th century (relatively late compared to other European countries like Britain and France)

In the 1928 German election, the Nazi Party (which had then been led by Adolf Hitler for 7 years) only received 2.6 percent of the vote.

“If you were a Jew living in Germany – even at that stage – you would have thought of the Nazis, I'm imagining, as a kind of lunatic fringe party, like we have lunatic fringe parties today preaching racial hatred. They do exist, people like that do exist. And you would have thought 'They're way on the fringe. It's not necessarily a threat to us.”

Rees says that even through the early 1930s it was still possible for German Jews to believe the situation would settle down.

“There's a sense when we see the newsreel propaganda that the Nazis made of all these people with their hands outstretched and so on, there's a sense there was an enormous unity of support in Germany for Nazism. It may very well be the case that by the late 1930s the majority of Germans in some way supported Nazism – but that certainly wasn't the case when Hitler came to power in 1933. the majority of Germans were still voting for other parties, not the Nazi party.”

The distinction between concentration camps and extermination camps in the German language is often unclear in English, he says.

Dachau was the first concentration camp to open, in 1933.

“They start up these concentration camps and they do it – essentially - as a place of political control, to control the population, to ensure the population doesn’t get out of line.”

In 1941 the Nazis started building extermination camps, which were running by the summer of 1942.

“These are places that are deeply secret. These are places where Nazis take Jews to be killed within a matter of a couple of hours … It's very unlikely that an ordinary German would know that that place, as such, existed.”

Auschwitz is a unique case - it started out as a concentration camp (modelled on Dachau) and then became a hybrid concentration and extermination camp.

Many of the people he met who did horrible things in the Nazi era are not overcome with guilt for their actions, Rees says.

“They actually felt, I believe, many of them, that what they were doing at the time was right. And that's one of the many reasons it's such a terrifying history and so important to study I think.”

Rees says he doesn’t know enough about American politics to draw a comparison between Donald Trump to Hitler.

“The major thing that I take from it is less the central character of Hitler as the immense total fragility of everything around us. So many people said to me 'We thought we were living a perfectly normal, decent life and then all hell broke loose'.

“We think that all of the democratic institutions around us, the courts, are set and it's safe. Just think, the Nazis in 1928 got 2.6 percent of the vote and less than five years later Hitler is Chancellor of Germany.”