Germans knew of Holocaust horror about death camps
The mass of ordinary Germans did know about the evolving terror of Hitler's Holocaust, according to a new research study. They knew concentration camps were full of Jewish people who were stigmatised as sub-human and race-defilers. They knew that these, like other groups and minorities, were being killed out of hand.
They knew that Adolf Hitler had repeatedly forecast the extermination of every Jew on German soil. They knew these details because they had read about them. They knew because the camps and the measures which led up to them had been prominently and proudly reported step by step in thousands of officially-inspired German media articles and posters according to the study, which is due to be published simultaneously in Britain and the US early next month and which was described as ground-breaking by Oxford University Press yesterday and already hailed by other historians.
The reports, in newspapers and magazines all over the country were phases in a public process of "desensitisation" which worked all too well, culminating in the killing of 6m Jews, says Robert Gellately. His book, Backing Hitler, is based on the first systematic analysis by a historian of surviving German newspaper and magazine archives since 1933, the year Hitler became chancellor. The survey took hundreds of hours and yielded dozens of folders of photocopies, many of them from the 24 main newspapers and magazines of the period.
Its results, Professor Gellately says, destroy the claim - generally made by Germans after Berlin fell in 1945 and accepted by most historians - that they did not know about camp atrocities. He concludes by indicating that the only thing many Germans may not have known about was the use of industrial-scale gas chambers because, unusually, no media reports were allowed of this "final solution". However, by the end of the war camps were all over the country and many Germans worked in them.
Yesterday OUP said his study exposed "once and for all the substantial consent and active participation of large numbers of ordinary Germans". Its head of historical publishing, Ruth Parr, called it a landmark study of the terror. "He asks and answers some very difficult questions about how much the ordinary German people knew about the Nazi atrocities, and to what degree they supported them," she said.
A leading British-born Holocaust historian, Professor Michael Burleigh, said the book was "original and outstanding, genuinely important". Another authority on the camps, Professor Omer Bartov, of Brown University, Rhode Island, US, described Backing Hitler as "path-breaking - a crucial contribution to our understanding of the relationship between consent and coercion in modern dictatorship".
Conventional wisdom among post war historians has been that - as Lord Dahrendorf, ex-warden of St Antony's College, Oxford, says in his study Society and Democracy in Germany (1966) - "It is certainly true that most Germans 'did not know' about National Socialist crimes of violence; nothing precise, that is, because they did not ask any questions_." A common explanation among influential modern German historians, including Hans-Ulrich Thamer in his study Wooing and Violence (1986) is that the Nazis "seduced" an unwilling or passive public.
Gellately, professor in Holocaust history at Clark University, Massachusetts, offers a mass of detail to support the theme of an earlier work, Daniel Goldhagen's Hitler's Willing Executioners, which caused an international sensation in 1995. Goldhagen's theme was that "what the Nazis actually did was to unshackle and thereby activate Germans' pre-existing, pent-up anti-semitism".
Gellately began his inquiry after finding a press report -published as routine - of a woman reported to the Gestapo for "looking Jewish" and allegedly having *** with a neighbour. "For decades my generation had been told that so much of the terror had been carried out in complete secrecy," he writes.
His media trawl, with a research assistant, found that as early as 1933 local papers reported the killing of 12 prisoners by guards at Dachau, the first to be set up as a "model" concentration camp initially for communists. On May 23 the Dachauer Zeitung said the camp was Germany's most famous place and brought "new hope to the Dachau business world". By 1934 the main and widely read Nazi-owned paper Volkische Beobachter was reporting a widening of policy to other "political criminals" including Jews accused of race defilement. By 1936 communist prisoners were no longer mentioned: in a photo-essay in the SS paper Das Schwarze Korps emphasised the camps as places for "race defilers, rapists, ****** degenerates and habitual criminals".
This broadening mission, as Gellately calls it, was reflected in Volkische Beobachter photographs of "typical subhumans" including Jews with "deformed headshapes". For the first time their detention was said to be permanent. In January, 1937 Berliner Borsen Zeitung reported the SS chief Heinrich Himmler as announcing the need for "still more camps" for "those with hydrocephalus, cross-eyed, deformed half-Jews and a whole series of racially inferior types".
In November, 1938 the anti-Jewish pogrom on and after "the night of broken glass" was reported countrywide in papers as heroic. The propaganda minister, Joseph Goebbels, announced that the "final answer" to the Jewish problem would be by way of government de cree, according to Volkische Beobachter
In late 1939, the year war started, newspapers acting on government orders announced a post-8pm curfew on all Jews in case they "molest Aryan women". That November the first summary executions of "anti-socials" by police without trial were reported. Papers were told to report these clearly and forcefully. In March, 1941 the Hamburger Fremdenblatt reported the first mass auctions of posses sions of detained or killed Jews. Hamburg became the wartime clearing house and Gellately says at least 100,000 citizens bought at the auctions.
After this the focus switched. Most press reports about Jews were about those outside Germany. This was because the official but unpublicised final solution was being implemented. But enthusiastic denunciations by ordinary citizens of Jewish and other "internal enemies" continued to be copiously reported. Backing Hitler discusses 670 cases. By the end of the war Hitler was still getting 1,000 private letters a week, many of them denunciations.