A Small Town Near Auschwitz: Ordinary Nazis and the Holocaust
Dan Stone considers an account exploring the role of a civil servant in the Holocaust, and the issues raised by his relationship to the author
Reviewed by: Dan Stone
Author: Mary Fulbrook
Publisher: Oxford University Press
Price (RRP): £20
Micro histories of the Holocaust focus on one place in detail, examining group interactions and showing the dilemmas, accommodations and occasional beneficence that characterise genocide. They reveal that clear distinctions between good and evil people and ‘bystanders’ do not accurately reflect reality. Fulbrook’s latest book is in this vein. She uses Udo Klausa, the Landrat (chief civilian administrator) of the town of Bedzin (Bendsburg) in occupied Poland, as her way to examine how different Nazi organisations contributed to the persecution and murder of the Jews, and how local Poles, – both Catholic and Jewish – responded to their treatment by the Germans.
But Bedzin is no ordinary town: it is only 25 miles from Auschwitz, and surrounded by the numerous sub-camps of the Auschwitz complex. Furthermore, Klausa is no randomly selected administrator. Rather, Fulbrook has known the Klausa family all her life; the Landrat’s wife, Alexandra, was a close childhood friend of her mother’s and later Fulbrook’s godmother. Fulbrook rightly says that, while we think of killers or the SS when we imagine Holocaust perpetrators, German civilian administrators were vital facilitators.
Historians have already begun to study local government in the Third Reich, but this book’s frisson comes from Fulbrook grappling with the tensions between her feelings towards the Klausa family and what her research uncovers about perpetrators, especially ‘ordinary Nazis’ like Klausa, and victims, about whom she writes sensitively.
Fulbrook says that the historian’s job is not to judge, but to provide historical explanation. Doing so here involves unpicking Klausa’s postwar self-exculpation, which hinged on his supposed realisation that he was “innocently becoming guilty”, a good civil servant trapped in an increasingly vicious system. The facts, however, suggest otherwise. Whatever unease Klausa felt, for the majority of the Third Reich’s life he enthusiastically carried out his duties. These involved, as Fulbrook says, not “only administration” – unless administration also includes paving the way for the expropriation, ghettoisation and deportation of half the town’s population. His claims not to have known about the real decision-making with respect to Jewish policy are thoroughly unconvincing. Fulbrook struggles to accept this whitewash alongside the ‘decent’ man that she knew. She refers, for example, to his “inner conflicts”, but acknowledges that his actions are what count.
Unsurprisingly, Klausa’s postwar account of events does not correspond to the evidence. No one in such a senior position, even a civilian one, could possibly not be aware of, or uninvolved with, the persecution of the Jews. Fulbrook notes more than once that if she did not know Klausa she would wonder whether such exhaustive research is really necessary to establish such a fact. Readers who do not share Fulbrook’s personal connections may find themselves becoming impatient a little sooner.
Dan Stone is professor of modern history at Royal Holloway, University of London