Laurence Rees photographed at his London home. “Some of the most extraordinary people I’ve met are former sonderkommandos: people forced on pain of death to assist the Germans in running the extermination machinery,”
he says. (Photography by Fran Monks)
Q: How come it was Germany that instigated the Holocaust?
A: That’s a huge question. What’s important to remember is that if you looked, for example, at what was happening in Russia prior to the First World War, there were far more instances of violent attacks on Jews than there ever were in Germany. So if you were around in the early years of the 20th century and had been asked to predict where something like this would happen, it’s very unlikely you would have said Germany.
Why, then, did it happen there? I think a number of things came together. The most important was the loss in the First World War, which created an environment where people were looking for someone to blame. There was a huge amount of scapegoating and a feeling that “we’d been stabbed in the back” by the Jews. It was nonsense, of course, but there was a real sense of wanting to believe it was someone else’s fault. Then at the same time you had the rise of communism in Russia and that spilled over into several uprisings in Germany in the years after the war. There were a number of Jews involved in that, so there was this conflation that Judaism equals Bolshevism.
So there was a combination of fear of communism, humiliation after the war and a sense that something had gone wrong with the nature of Germany. Several nationalistic groups emerged who wanted to put the ‘German’ people first – meaning an exclusion of Jews. And the person who was espousing this need in the most vitriolic way from the very beginning was Adolf Hitler.
Q: Did the Nazis have a long-term plan to exterminate the Jews?
A: If you study the evidence, I don’t believe you can possibly say that Hitler in the early 1920s had a blueprint to follow that was going to become the death camps in the east. But certainly, if you read Mein Kampf, which he wrote in 1924, it does exude a level of virtually psychopathic hatred about Jews. This is a man who’s worked out in his mind that something needs to be done about these people.
At this point the policy of the Nazi party was removing citizenship from Jews and probably, eventually, expulsion. In terms of what actually happened, that was due to a whole series of circumstances, Hitler’s reaction to those circumstances and a variety of different influences. At the core of it, though, was always Hitler and his desire to do something about what he called the Jewish problem.
Q: Auschwitz dominates popular visions of the Holocaust. Do you think that can be a problem, because large numbers of Jews also died elsewhere?
Absolutely, and when I did my original TV series The Nazis: A Warning from History, we called the episode we made about the extermination programme ‘Road to Treblinka’, not Auschwitz. Auschwitz was an extremely complicated enterprise for lots of different reasons. Even though it ended up being the site of the largest mass murder in the history of the world, that was only one of the functions it provided for the Nazi state. Whereas Treblinka was solely created for one purpose – mass murder.
Up to 900,000 people died at Treblinka, (which is nearly of the same level as Auschwitz at 1.1 million), and yet hardly anyone visits this location compared to Auschwitz. But if you did go, what you would see is very interesting: there is nothing there from the Nazi period. That’s because the Nazis destroyed Treblinka, which had done its job by 1943. The camp was tiny compared to Auschwitz, and that for me encapsulates the horror in almost a more visceral way than a visit to Auschwitz-Birkenau, because you realise that if all you are going to do is murder people you need virtually no space.
Q: Could other countries have done more to rescue Jews?
Certainly, more could have been done.
In 1938 there was the international Evian Conference, where delegates discussed the question of what could be done to give refuge to Jews being persecuted in Germany and Austria. I don’t think there is any doubt that if the west had offered to take these Jews, Hitler would have said: “Great, have them.” But it is complex because what most people don’t realise is that at the time there was also a desire in some other eastern European countries to try and persuade many of their Jews to emigrate. So if you’re a British official in 1938, you would be worried that if you take German and Austrian Jews then another country might say: “Take another million or so.” Where would it end?
Where I do make a judgment is that the British, who were running a mandate in Palestine then, refused to consider the place in the 1930s as a home for all the persecuted Jews. There were many reasons for this, but nonetheless if there had been a move to open the gates to Palestine, that would have been an extraordinarily valuable thing to do. It is tragic in retrospect that something wasn’t done along these lines.
Q: You have met a number of perpetrators of the Holocaust in your career. How was it that they could commit such terrible acts, even murdering babies and children?
A good example of this for me was [former SS member] Oskar Groening who we interviewed for our Auschwitz series. We asked him how the Nazis could murder children and he said that the enemy wasn’t the children but the blood in the children that would grow up to be a Jew. The reason they felt justified in their acts – and Himmler explicitly said this in a speech in 1943 – was that if you just killed the adults, the children would grow up to be avengers and they would come after your own children. So if you really loved your children then you should kill their children. If you were brave enough, you would have solved the problem for all time. That was the kind of stuff that was going on in their heads, I think.
The granite monument at the site of the Nazi death camp, Treblinka, in Poland, where as many as 900,000 people were murdered. The Nazis dismantled the camp at the end of 1943. (Getty Images)
Q: So even after the Holocaust was over, some of those involved still felt they could justify it morally?
Yes, and this is one of the reasons I’ve carried on with this subject for 25 years. You dig and dig and dig and you can’t get to the bottom of it, because often you don’t expect the responses you get. If you talk, for example, to former members of the NKVD (Stalin’s secret police), who were involved in the horrendous deportations of Kalmyks or Chechens or Crimean Tatars, in the most part what they’ll say is: “If I didn’t do it I would have been shot.” And it’s very hard to go somewhere in an interview after that. But what was extraordinary about all these former Nazis is that I don’t think we ever heard that answer in all the years we were doing this. What we tended to hear was at the time they felt it was the right thing to do.
Q: Does this not make Holocaust denial even more ridiculous, when the perpetrators themselves don’t deny it?
It does. One of the amazing things about Oskar Groening is the reason that he gave us an interview on camera. He was really upset at his stamp-collecting club when he came across a Holocaust denier and it almost felt to him like an attempt to deny his own experience. He said: “Don’t tell me it didn’t happen – I was there.” He spoke out because he was against Holocaust denial!
Q: You’ve also spoken to a number of Jewish people who became part of the apparatus of the Holocaust. How did they deal with the moral complexities of their situation?
Some of the most extraordinary people I’ve met in my life are former sonderkommandos: people who were forced on pain of their own immediate death to assist the Germans in the running of the extermination machinery. They could be involved in disentangling bodies in the gas chambers after people had been murdered, sorting the belongings of Jews, burying bodies – doing the stuff of absolute nightmares. Of all the moral dilemmas you are ever going to face, this is one of the absolute toughest and I would never judge anyone in that situation because what are they going to do?
I will always remember a man, now dead, called Toivi Blatt, who was a sonderkommando at Sobibor death camp. I asked him what he had learned from this experience and he said – and I paraphrase him – “I’ve learned that nobody knows themselves, because it’s not until you are placed in a situation like this that you know who you are and what you are capable of.” He went on to add: “Sometimes I see people walking down the street and they’ll ask me for directions or I will ask them and I always look at them and think, ‘You seem like a nice guy, but what would you have been like in Sobibor?’”
It’s actually similar to something a former member of the SS said to me: that the trouble with the world today is people who have never been tested go around making judgments about people who have. That didn’t stop me believing that what he had done was disgusting and disgraceful, but it does make you think.
Q: Do you think the Holocaust was the worst crime in human history?
I once asked Professor David Cesarani, who sadly died in 2015, this question and he said that in human history he couldn’t think of another case where a leader has decided that one ethnic-religious group will be exterminated down to the last baby and that he would create, in a short period of time, the mechanistic means to be able to achieve this.
And I agree with that. The Holocaust was ‘singular’. Stalin, for instance, was undoubtedly a monster responsible for the deaths of millions, but he never tried to exterminate an entire group of people. Large numbers of Kalmyks and Chechens survived his persecution. Whereas in certain areas of Europe there are virtually no Jews. There’s no question in my mind that had the war not ended when it did we would have had a situation in Europe where there was not one Jew. Not one.
The Holocaust by Laurence Rees is published by Viking. Laurence Rees is a historian, author and documentary film-maker, whose series have included The Nazis: A Warning from History, Auschwitz: The Nazis and
‘The Final Solution’ and Horror in the East. In 2009 he launched the website WW2History.com, a multimedia resource on the Second World War.
Laurence Rees will be speaking at the 2017 Winchester History Weekend which takes place from Friday 6 to Sunday 8 October. His talk, ‘The Holocaust – Meeting Those Who Were There’ takes place on Sunday 8 October. For more details and to book tickets, visit historyweekend.com