Posts Tagged With: the holocaust

The Center of the Universe

Elie Wiesel - Sometimes

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Refugees and the Test of Morality

Gustav Schroeder, Cptt. of the St. Louis.  Photo Courtesy of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum

Gustav Schroeder, Cptt. of the St. Louis. Photo Courtesy of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum

I visited the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. this past weekend, and one part of the permanent exhibit stood out to me. It was the story of the German transatlantic liner, the St. Louis. In May 1939, it sailed from Germany to Cuba with 937 passengers, most of them Jewish refugees fleeing the escalating violence in Nazi Germany. The passengers had been granted visas to Cuba; however, when the ship arrived, only 28 people were let off. The remainder were told to go home.

The ship then sailed northwards, hoping that the United States would provide refuge. But, the President, State Department, and Congress all denied aid to the passengers of the St. Louis. They were close enough to Florida to see the city lights of Miami, but were not allowed to dock. The “Land of the Free” was dedicated to “staying out of world affairs” and many Congressional leaders worried that letting in a flood of refugees would hurt the U.S. economy.

Voyage of the St. Louis - USHMM

The St. Louis was forced to return to Europe. Several European countries agreed to take in the refugees, but within a short time, Hitler’s Blitzkrieg engulfed Europe in war and brought much of the continent under Nazi control.

Of the St. Louis’ 937 passengers, 284 were ultimately killed in the Holocaust.

As I stood and read the story of the St. Louis, I couldn’t help but think about the masses of Syrian refugees fleeing civil war and almost certain death in their home country. They have left everything they know and love behind and are asking someone to help them.

Whether or not we are doing ALL that we can to help these people is not an economic or political question, it is a MORAL question; it is a test of ethics. As the case of the St. Louis shows, it’s a test that we have failed before…Are we going to learn from our mistakes, or is someone 70 years from now going to sit and judge us for not doing more?

Remember that these refugees aren’t just numbers; they’re all human beings with worries, fears, hopes, and joys.  The majority aren’t just “seeking a better life;” they’re simply looking for a way to survive, to make sure that their children don’t die in a bomb explosion.  

Migrants stand in a field as they wait for buses, after crossing the border from Serbia, near Tovarnik, Croatia September 24, 2015. Hungary may consider opening a "corridor" for migrants to pass through from Croatia by train or bus if Austria and Germany want one and take full responsibility, Prime Minister Viktor Orban's chief of staff said on Thursday. The route of migrants journeying northwards through the Balkans from Greece shifted to Croatia and Slovenia after Hungary sealed off its border with Serbia earlier this month.  REUTERS/Marko Djurica - RTX1SBFP

Migrants stand in a field as they wait for buses, after crossing the border from Serbia, near Tovarnik, Croatia September 24, 2015. Photo: REUTERS/Marko Djurica.

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If you’re wondering how you can help the 4 million Syrian refugees in Turkey, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq and Egypt you can donate to any of these charities:

The UN Refugee Agency: Provides cash for medicine and food, stoves and fuel for heating, insulation for tents, thermal blankets and winter clothing.

Save the Children: Supplies food for Syrian kids and supports education in Syrian refugee camps.

Médecins Sans Frontières/Doctors Without Borders: MSF is operating three rescue ships in the Mediterranean Sea that can carry hundreds of people to land.

Unicef: Delivers vaccines, winter clothes and food for children in Syria and neighboring countries. The agency is working to immunize more than 22 million children in the region following a polio outbreak.

International Rescue Committee: The group’s emergency team is in Greece, where nearly 1,000 people are arriving per day.  Founded in 1933 at the request of Albert Einstein.

World Food Programme: The agency says it is struggling to meet the urgent food needs of millions of displaced Syrians.

Mercy Corps: Refugees are most in need of clean water, sanitation services, temporary shelter and food, the agency says.

Aylan Kurdi & Syria’s Child Victims of War: A new fund named after Aylan himself. Money goes to “Hand In Hand For Syria,” a U.K. based organization that works with the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.

CARE: Reaches Syrian refugees in Jordan, Lebanon, Turkey, Egypt, Yemen and those displaced inside Syria with food, hygiene items and emergency cash. It’s also helping refugees crossing into Serbia.

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Ordinary Men

Browning Ordinary Men

Browning, Christopher. Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland. New York: Harper Perennial, 1998.

With this book, Christopher Browning has written a remarkable and chilling chapter of Holocaust history. In this microhistory, he seeks to understand how ordinary men from Hamburg, most of whom were not even ardent Nazi Party supporters, became mass murderers within months of being shipped to Poland. Browning uses interviews and archival material to recreate, in vivid and bloody detail, daily life for these five hundred men, and ends his book by trying to tease out the psychological reasons that many of these men became increasingly efficient killers.

Browning uses footage from about 250 interviews that were performed as interrogations during the 1960s. In these interrogations, Reserve Police Battalion 101 members provided detailed accounts of what happened during the two years following their arrival in German-occupied Poland in June 1942. Browning is forthright about his research methods, highlighting the troubles of relying on oral histories, especially ones that were performed twenty-five years after the events in question. But, Ordinary Men also reveals the importance of oral history interviews in reconstructing stories that were (often purposefully) not written down. Browning uses the interview tapes judiciously, checking them against the available archival material to help construct a well-written narrative.

Using this evidence, Browning is able to show how the five hundred men of RPB 101 ultimately shot to death at least 38,000 Jews, including women, children, and the elderly. In addition to those individuals who were round up and shot, the RPB 101 ended up sending over 45,000 Jews to the Treblinka death camp (142). Browning constantly reminds readers that these five hundred men were not members of the SS, who were preened from an early age to carry out the so-called Final Solution to the Jewish Problem. Instead, these men were middle-aged, working class men who were either too old to enlist in the Germany army, or who volunteered in the RPB to avoid being conscripted into the army. Moreover, Browning demonstrates that the majority of the men did not join the Nazi Party until it became essentially compulsory after the Nazis had already taken power (48). This partly backs up his argument that propaganda or indoctrination can’t fully explain why these men turned into mass murderers. The violent story begins in July 1942 when Major Wilhelm Trapp informed his men that they were to shoot all inhabitants of a neighboring village. Surprisingly, Trapp gave his men the option to walk away without any punishment; only ten to fifteen percent took Trapp’s offer. The rest began a killing spree that would last eighteen months and become central to the Nazis’ final solution.

Interesting is Browning’s discussion of why more of Trapp’s men did not walk away that July morning. Browning dismisses the “bureaucratization of violence” explanation, because these men were not desk murders located in a distant office (36). Additionally, evidence shows that men were not punished by superiors for refusing to murder unarmed civilians, so the “chain of command” argument is also inadequate (170). Instead, a combination of peer pressure (not wanting to appear weak, unpatriotic, or unmanly) and, to a lesser extent, Nazi ideological bombardment led about forty percent of RPB 101’s men to continue killing unarmed Jews until the bitter end (189), while the rest either left the battalion or disappeared when it came time to go on more “Jew hunts.” Browning concludes that brutalization was not the cause but the effect of these men’s behavior” as murder became routine (161). The book leaves us with a chilling question:  “If the men of Reserve Police Battalion 101 could become killers under such circumstances, what group of men cannot?” (189)

For more books on modern German history and the history of the Holocaust, see my full list of book reviews here. 

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The Origins of Nazi Genocide

Friedlander - origins of genocide

Friedlander, Henry. The Origins of Nazi Genocide: From Euthanasia to the Final Solution. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1995.

 

Friedlander seeks to further our understanding of the Nazis’ systematic murder of those individuals that the regime labeled as “life unworthy of life,” by studying the origins of the infamous “Final Solution.” In doing so, he reveals that Jews were not the only group that the Nazis singled out for systematic murder and eventual extermination. The book also reveals insights into how these killing campaigns began and ultimately unfolded into large-scale death camps in the east.

Central to Friendlander’s argument is the fact that while the Nazis targeted a wide range of people, only three groups were targeted as racial enemies of the Volksgemeinschaft: the disabled, Gypsies (Roma & Sinti), and Jews. Scientific thought of the age – like eugenics – posited the threat of these three groups as biological, and thus irreversible. Despite the central role of Jews in our understanding of the Holocaust, Freidlander shows that the first group to be systematically murdered was the handicapped. Hitler authorized the T4 program (the code name for the execution of the handicapped, euphemistically called “euthanasia”) in October 1939. Perhaps the most chilling aspect of Friedlaner’s description of the program is his account of the doctors, nurses, and scientists who volunteered for these positions as murderers; it is simply horrifying. Moreover, these medical workers were not fervent Nazis. “The perpetrators were dull and uninteresting men and women,” he claims, who volunteered either out of ideological conviction to eugenic thought, or out of professional aspirations of promotion (187). The T4 program was publically ended in 1941 after protests from victims’ families, but Friedlander reveals that the murder of handicapped adults secretly resumed within months, while the killing of “unfit” children never stopped. This public opposition taught the killers a lesson: any further euthanizing would have to be kept top secret, and would best be done outside of Germany. Thus, once the Wehrmacht conquered territory in the east, death camps were constructed only outside of the German heartland.

In this way, Friedlander links the euthanasia program directly to the Final Solution. The T4 program taught scientists, doctors, administrators, and Nazi ideologues the best ways to murder people (the gas chamber was first used in the T4 program) and the best ways to hide it from the public. Through meticulous research, he reveals that many of the T4 staffers left their institutions in Germany to staff the new, larger killing centers being constructed in the east. Their knowledge was indispensible for the success of death camps (it was more efficient to bring victims to the killing centers than to have mobile killing centers go to them, for example, 286).

Friedlander is also interested in the role Hitler himself played in all of this. While we have the official order to begin the T4 program, no paper trail leading from Auschwitz to Hitler has ever been found. Friedlander supposes that this is because Hitler had learned his lesson with the public resistance to the euthanasia program. From that point on, an order of such magnitude would have only been given orally (284-5).

Lastly, Friedlander firmly demonstrates that the Final Solution was the result of structural radicalization, and not the implementation of a pre-ordained plan. While the murder of the handicapped began in 1940, the official order for Jews and Gypsies was still deportation. “But when international conditions and the progress of the war made a more radical solution possible, the killings were expanded to include Jews” and Gypsies (21). By that point, thousands of German men and women had “developed their killing technique” through the “systematic and secret execution” of Germany’s handicapped population (22). In this light, Friedlander’s greatest contribution is drawing the direct connection between eugenic thought, euthanasia programs, and the more famous death camps and firing squads of the Final Solution.

For more books on modern German history, see my full list of book reviews here. 

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The Destruction of the European Jews

Hilberg - Destruction of Jews

Hilberg, Raul. The Destruction of the European Jews. With a new postscript by the author. New York: Harper Colophon Books, 1979.

 

The result of twelve years of research, this book is an important work for understanding the Nazis’ infamous “Final Solution to the Jewish Question.” But, as Hilberg makes perfectly clear in his preface, despite the title, this book is not a piece of Jewish history. Instead, readers should understand that this is a work of German history. He writes, “let it be pointed out that this is not a book about the Jews. It is a book about the people who destroyed the Jews…The focus is placed on the perpetrators” (v). As such, we learn the gradual radicalization of the Nazis’ plans to create a Jew-free Europe. Because it’s based on a wide range of Third Reich documents, this book opened up a vast source of information for English-speaking scholars to study this period of history.

Hilberg begins by situating the Nazi persecution of Jews into a larger, Western context. In fact, he places this persecution into a Christian tradition that dates back to the fourth century. Since that time, he argues, there have been three anti-Jewish policies in the Western world: “conversion, expulsion, and annihilation” (3). Ultimately, what makes the “Final Solution” unique in history is its scale: the sheer magnitude of the operation and the extreme totality of its goals. Otherwise, Hilberg states, “we discover that most of what happened in those twelve years had already happened before. The Nazi destruction process did not come out of a void” (3).

Hilberg then studies, in minute detail, the three steps of the destruction process. The first was a matter of defining exactly who should be classified as a Jew (43). Science played a crucial role in helping Nazis label Europe’s Jews. But Hilber’g book also reveals how these scientific (and legal) definitions of Jewishness could also cause problems for the bureaucracy intent on getting rid of Jews within its jurisdiction. Some Nazi officials, like Ministerialrat Bernhard Lösener were able to use the ambiguous term Mischling (mixling) to appropriate some Jews as predominantly German, thus saving their lives (272). The second step of destruction was the expropriation of Jewish land and wealth. Meticulous research reveals how the German bureaucracy maneuvered property taxes, wage regulation, and “Aryanization” of German profession campaigns. The third, and most gruesome stage was the actual destruction of the Jews themselves. Hilberg provides disturbing details about the industrialized, “conveyer belt” efficiency with which the Nazi killing centers ran (624-629).

This study can be placed in the “functionalist” camp in the debate about the ultimate aims of the Nazis regarding the Jews. Hilberg shows that as time went on, Nazi ambition changed. It was no loner feasible to continue pushing Jews eastwards since the war aims became to conquer that same land for Lebensraum. The most famous death camp, Auschwitz, was first built as a labor camp and only later equipped with gas chambers (574). Even the method of gassing went through evolutions: carbon monoxide was eventually replaced by the more efficient Zyklon B, even though it was more expensive (568, 628). Ultimately, Hilberg concludes that the focus of Nazi visions shifted from creation (of an Aryan race) to more closely focusing on destruction (of the Jews) to fulfill that vision.

Ultimately, I question his conclusions about the role of Jews in the process. They appear throughout the book as passive victims, marching to their own doom. Hilberg claims that this has been a historical tactic used by Jews to alleviate the persecution of their people (17). “In two thousand years they had deliberately unlearned the art of revolt,” he states (624). The outcome of this argument is as clear as it is questionable: “The Jewish community, unable to switch to resistance, increased its co-operation with the tempo of the German measures, thus hastening its own destruction” (17).

Hilberg’s book is an excellent source for encyclopedic knowledge. I learned several things that, even after studying this period for the past eight years, I didn’t know. And I think he pretty adequately shows that the Holocaust was the result of a process of radicalization. While it was Hitler’s vision all along to control a Jew-free Europe, Hilberg shows that this didn’t always mean killing all Jews. Only by 1941 did Nazi leadership come up with the “final solution.”  However, as I mentioned before, I do find Hilber’s conclusions about the level of Jewish complicity in their own destruction troubling to say the least.  But, perhaps this is a result of the fact that he chose to focus his study solely on the perpetrators.

For more books on modern German history and the history of the Holocaust, see my full list of book reviews here. 

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The Hitler State

Broszat Hitler State

Broszat, Martin.  The Hitler State: The Foundation and Development of the Internal Structure of the Third Reich.  Trans. John W. Hiden.  London: Longman, 1981.

Originally published in 1969, Broszat’s Der Staat Hitlers was one of the first works to take a structuralist approach to the Third Reich.  In other words, he sought to uncover the deeper forces behind the regime rather than provide a more biographical overview of the key political players.  As such, Broszat’s book is not structured like a synthesis or textbook that provides a chronological account of events.  Instead, the study is an examination of how power and authority were structured and exercised in Nazi Germany.

Broszat’s main goal is to reevaluate the view of the Nazi state as one in which it exercised complete, systematic, and standardized control over its nation.  The picture of the Third Reich that Broszat paints is one full of complex and overlapping governmental and party structures that were often competing against one another.  There was often tension between Reich ministries and the Länder organizations, between German state offices and Nazi party organs, and most often between different bureaucrats themselves.  Broszat pinpoints Hitler as the reason behind this structure in which power existed not as flowing hierarchically from the top down, but as coexisting simultaneously in different spheres.  Hitler, Broszat argues, demanded full authority in his position as Führer, but was skeptical of establishing a standardized, or rationalized, system of authority below him.  Personal loyalty to him was paramount, but beyond that, Hitler allowed for personal and organizational competition among his underlings.  This helped to assure that no significant amount of power would be collected by one office or individual outside of the Führer.

Broszat’s study focuses on the period between the seizure of power in 1933 and the preparation for war in 1939, and as he demonstrates, this is a period in which there still existed an uneasy relationship between the older conservative tradition and the radical dynamism of Nazism.  In the initial months of 1933, Nazi officials instituted a number of radical policies including purges and the construction of concentration camps.  But because the more traditional conservative forces had apprehensions about such actions – and Hitler still needed their influence, particularly with forming alliances with Germany’s heavy industry for the coming rearming mission – Hitler put a stop to the violence, thus returning to more conventional modes of governing by the end of 1933.  In 1937 and 1938, the gap between old elites and Nazi leaders widened as Nazis began ousting conservatives from the government and formulating more aggressive foreign policies in what Broszat refers to as the “second revolution” of the Nazi regime (354).

This unequal distribution of power, which was largely defined by one’s personal connection to Hitler, fueled a Darwinian competition that led to the creation of personal empires within the Third Reich (like Himmler’s death camp system).  In a functionalist vein, Broszat argues that this struggle for power forced people to develop new ways of exercising power.  With the lack of rationalized chains of command, it was left up to subordinates to figure out ways to turn Hitler’s visions into realities. In addition to allowing Hitler to stand alone above – and perhaps beyond – the system, “the “polycracy” of individual office holders…ultimately led to a proliferation of arbitrary decisions and acts of violence” (xi).  Therefore, the National Socialists did not come to the table in 1933 with the blue prints for the Holocaust as a secret goal; instead, the de-centralized and revolutionary power structure of the Nazi state led to the radicalization of goals and to extremism that murdered millions of people.

For more books on modern German history, see my full list of book reviews. 

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