“Many of the Holocaust’s perpetrators got away with it”: why Nazi crimes went unpunished

Mary Fulbrook’s new book, Reckonings: Legacies of Nazi Persecution and the Quest for Justice, explores the aftermath of the Holocaust. She met fellow historian Richard J Evans to discuss the outcomes for both survivors and perpetrators

Mary Fulbrook and Richard J Evans. (Photo by Fran Monks)

Richard J Evans: What inspired you to write and research this new book?

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Mary Fulbrook: It interested me initially from two quite different perspectives. One was an awareness that the legacies of the Holocaust persist across generations, and I wanted to explore that in more detail. The other was an enduring sense
of injustice. It seemed to me from my previous work that many of those who were deeply involved in making the Holocaust possible, but who weren’t themselves ‘frontline’ killers, somehow got away with it. I wanted to explore in more detail and on a broader canvas what happened to people on both sides of the divide – both those who persecuted and those who were persecuted – and what the significance of that was for the next generation.

Here more of Fulbrook and Evans’ discussion on our biweekly podcast:

Mary Fulbrook and Richard J Evans. (Photo by Fran Monks)

The survivors and perpetrators of Nazi persecution are now very old; in a few years’ time, there won’t be many left alive. Yet, contrary to what might be expected, public and cultural memory of the Holocaust seems to be growing rather than diminishing. How can we explain this?

I liken memory of the Holocaust to a mushroom cloud: there was an initial explosion of violence, then a cloud that broadened and descended over far wider areas than that initial blast. I think there’s a generational dynamic at work here: in the decades immediately following the Second World War, people had to deal with the very real immediate legacies of the conflict, in an environment inflected by Cold War considerations. It took a generation both to reach the necessary distance from the Holocaust and to generate the will to confront it.

Additionally, the second generation after the Holocaust – who were not themselves directly involved in events – wanted to confront and explore what had happened in a different way from those who had lived through it. They wanted to know how the Holocaust could have come about, and the ways in which their parents’ generation had been involved.

It makes sense that the generation who grew up in the 1950s and 1960s would confront their parents – to ask about what they had suffered as victims or how they had been involved as perpetrators – but how do you explain the interest shown by the third generation?

The children of victims often didn’t confront their parents, instead respecting their decision to remain silent about a painful past. But from the mid-1970s the so-called ‘second generation’ in survivor communities suddenly became aware of the fact they were different in some way, that they were marked by this past about which they often knew very little. They felt unplaced as a result, and needed to explore these stories.

The Reichstag building on fire

If you were a perpetrator’s child who wasn’t sure what your father had done – and it usually was fathers who had done these unspeakable things – you might be torn between wanting to know and not wanting to know: wanting to continue to love and respect him while completely rejecting what he had done. So in that generation there was a much more generalised attack on the parental generation than on specific fathers. It was often too difficult to confront reality, and this led to lots of tension within families in which one person tried to discover the truth while the rest pleaded with them not to do so.

The metaphor of the mushroom cloud particularly applies when we get to the third generation. We’re talking here about a generational half-life: by this point, the Holocaust is already fading in immediate significance, providing many people with the emotional distance to explore it in a way in which the children of perpetrators did not. And there are wider implications for the present and the future, too. One thing that struck me is how many Germans of the second and third generations after the war have a heightened moral sense of responsibility. Many enter professions such as teaching or psychiatry, working in a healing or helping mode. Even if they can’t change the world, they’ll do their little bit to make it a better place.

Do you think that the continuing revelations about the involvement of various German professions in the Holocaust – the army, the big state ministries, the foreign office – has had an effect in repeatedly bringing home to younger people the involvement of their grandparents?

I think that, for instance, the first Wehrmacht Exhibition [about war crimes committed during the Second World War, which opened in Hamburg in 1995 before touring Germany and Austria] undoubtedly opened up a cross-generational conversation between grandparents and grandchildren. After all, at least 18 million German men who were soldiers during
the war had been, in principle, mobilised into positions where they might have been involved in atrocities. The exhibition raised awareness of that fact.

Museums often still portray a pretty simplistic picture of who Holocaust perpetrators were
Mary Fulbrook

The fallout of the involvement of the German foreign office and various other ministries has been more muted. This bothers me, because I think bodies such as the Ministry for Labour bear a lot of responsibility for the organisation and facilitation of slave labour; that kind of complicity verged on perpetration. This isn’t something with which the third generation of Germans is really being confronted because, though it’s filtering through the historical profession in the form of big books, and through the media in serious newspapers, museums often still portray a pretty simplistic picture of who the perpetrators were.

Aleksander Kulisiewicz, wearing a concentration camp uniform, performs at the Teatro Comunale in Bologna, Italy, 1965. (Image: Kulisiewicz family)

A huge amount of work has been done on educational resources in the past quarter of a century, though, and
as a result you can now visit sites such as concentration camps and Hitler’s former mountain retreat. That’s a big improvement from, say, the period before the 1990s.

That is true. In the years immediately after the war, the people desperate to put up memorials to commemorate lost family members or victim groups were those who were most emotionally torn up by what had happened. Indeed, until the 1990s, memorial sites and museums, by and large, had a narrative prioritising the remembrance of victims;
they pointed at just a few perpetrators rather than at the broad system of perpetration. I think that changed with, for example, the Topography of Terror Museum [opened
in 2010 on the site of former Gestapo headquarters in Berlin], which faced considerable battles to get established when the first exhibition on the site was created in 1987. There have been more and more examples since then.

Part of the problem with such sites, particularly those associated with Hitler, is that for decades after the war there was a risk that they would become shrines for former Nazis.
I can remember going to the site of the Nuremberg rallies in the late 1970s or early 1980s and seeing old men sitting there in raincoats, reading the right-wing revisionist newspaper Deutsche National-Zeitung and thinking about the good old days. That, again, is a generational thing: it’s now such a long time since the end of the war that we no longer have to worry as much about former Nazis, though we probably do need to worry about neo-Nazis and new rightwing groups.

It’s really quite difficult to find the site of Hitler’s bunker in Berlin, for instance – it’s hardly signposted. There were plans to bulldoze the site of the Nuremberg rallies, but a perpetual problem with such sites is that, if you do destroy them, you are in a sense forgetting. So you need to find some kind of compromise.

You have to create and manage sites relating to Holocaust perpetrators very sensitively. One solution, I think, would be to introduce a greater number of exhibitions that explore more broadly who was involved in making certain types of crime possible, rather than featuring just a few pictures of SS and Gestapo and a large number of survivor testimonies, as is currently the case.

We all know about the great Nuremberg trials, the military tribunals in which the surviving Nazi leaders were tried by the Allies at the end of the war. There’s growing knowledge, too, about the more specialised trials, mainly set up by the Americans, of judges, doctors and so on. And there were other trials set up by the Germans, though they are less well-known outside Germany. In spite of these various trials, you seem very dissatisfied and angry about the fact that so many perpetrators escaped justice.

I think that my anger, insofar as it comes across in my prose, is based on a perfectly justifiable indictment of the failures of the justice system in the decades after the war. What historians have not done to date, it seems to me, is show the specific failures of waves of prosecution. In my book, I examine how justice was dispensed in the successor states to the Third Reich: East Germany, West Germany and Austria.

Immediately after the war, there were lots of little German and Austrian trials – small acts of justice addressing acts that were very much on people’s radar. Over time, there was a narrowing of who was considered to be a perpetrator worth bringing to justice. In West Germany, in particular, the old criminal law definition of ‘murder’ was used, which could
be applied only to people who were personally motivated and had engaged in ‘excess brutality’. In the trial of those involved in Beł´zec [now in south-east Poland], an extermination
camp in which hundreds of thousands were herded into gas chambers, only one of the eight people put on trial was found guilty. The others were deemed to have been simply
‘following orders’ – herding people into gas chambers! – and only one could possibly be shown to some extent to be acting on his own motivation. If you found somebody who was brutally beating an individual to death, that was murder – but herding hundreds into a gas chamber was not deemed murder under criminal law in Germany in the 1960s. This does make me angry. It makes me very angry.

Herding people into gas chambers was not deemed murder in 1960s Germany. It makes me so angry
Mary Fulbrook

Huge ranges of professional groups were also wilfully excluded from even being considered for trial. The West German judiciary, members of which had passed countless death sentences in the People’s Court of the Third Reich, avoided being the subject of justice because they said they had simply been carrying out the law of the land at the time. Lots of lawyers in high places continued to be lawyers in high places, influencing the postwar legal system. People in the civil service completely evaded any serious legal scrutiny after the war. All of that is a gross injustice.

Among groups that did come under scrutiny, it was frequently the minions who were brought to court: for instance, care assistants in sanatoria where the so-called ‘euthanasia programme’ was carried out. Such people were given two- or three-year sentences, but the huge numbers of doctors who ordered that programme managed, by and large, to evade justice.

(Original Caption) 9/18/1945-Luneburg, Germany-Joseph Kramer, "no.1" Commandant of the Belsen concentration camp and Fritz Klein, "no.2," the camp doctor, sit in the dock before a British Court in Luneburg.

Finally, there’s the gross disparity between the lucrative postwar careers and fat pensions of many people who profited massively from the Third Reich – those who went on to lead long and well-heeled lives – and the survivors who struggled for years to gain recognition and compensation. For many, it was far too little, far too late.

I’m thinking not only of the Jewish victims or those who worked in ghettoes, but also of gay men, who continued to be criminalised for a quarter of a century after the war. They often didn’t talk about it because they were so ashamed – and if they did talk about it they were just shoved back into prison, because homosexual sex was still a criminal offence. When compensation was provided, decades later, it was way, way too late.

It’s so sad when you hear survivors, now advanced in years, saying that they came back to their families and were too ashamed to tell them why they had been in concentration camps. It’s an unbelievably sad story, and one that needs much more attention than it has received until now.

The injustice is massive. Of the millions involved in this system of violence, in West Germany just 106,000 people were investigated; of those, only 6,000 were brought to court, and 4,000 were sentenced. That is pathetic. Auschwitz alone employed between 6,000 and 8,000 people during its operation; only around 50 of those were brought to court. It is really pathetic on every count: those percentages, the evasion of justice, and the injustice to other groups. So I think that, if a tone of anger comes across in my book, it’s well-founded.

How can we explain why people who knew about these terrible mass killings didn’t do anything about them or feel morally outraged?

Many people in the Third Reich were complicit in the way in which the system developed, and either benefited from certain developments – the Aryanisation of Jewish property, for instance – or were indifferent to the fate of those who were suffering. But passivity was also born of knowledge of repression and terror, and fear of the consequences of acting. Lots of people did feel sympathy with victims of persecution, but had themselves also experienced it: their husband was in a concentration camp for having been a communist, for instance, or they had said something out of line in a bread shop and been denounced to the Gestapo by the lady next to them.

Debates about consent versus coercion have been far too simplistic. I think that a lot of the apparent compliance and conformity was borne of the experiences of fear and terror.
The fact that the apparatus of terror was massive led to a growing sense of helplessness and a lack of agency.

During the war, there was also a growing concern with your own – your father, your brother, your son, fighting at the front – and the overriding notion that the fatherland was fighting for its survival. So it’s a very complex picture – not one that’s morally simple in any way.

Your book brings home the almost unimaginable levels of brutality, hatred and violence of these horrific crimes. Yet you say that, in the end, it’s extremely hard for historians to explain why people participated. But shouldn’t we try?

Yes, of course we should try, and I spend more than 650 pages in this book trying to explain that fact!

We can document, we can recount, and we have a duty to communicate what happened. We have the luxury and benefit of the time and space to do the research, and to look at areas that haven’t perhaps been covered in sufficient detail. So I think it’s perfectly possible for historians to try to impose order on what we know and understand. We do have to make creative choices about which voices and words we bring from the past, and those creative choices form part of an ongoing conversation.

But it can never, in my view, be an explanation in a deeper moral sense, because that still evades understanding. Something that’s bugged me all my life is how the nation of Johann Sebastian Bach and Johann Wolfgang von Goethe – this remarkable place that could produce music and literature of such quality – could also allow a man such as Adolf Hitler to come to power. We can easily explain it in many respects but somewhere, deep down, we still face the extraordinary question of how it was possible for people to do these things.

Jews waiting on a Warsaw street for the deportation to a concentration camp.(Photo by Imagno/Getty Images) [Holocaust: Warten von Juden auf einer Warschauer Stra?e auf den Abtransport in ein deutsches Vernichtungslager. Polen. Photographie. Um 1944.]

A book such as this takes several years to produce, so you weren’t able to fully explore the very recent rise of the far-right, anti-immigration Alternative für Deutschland (AfD), which is now the second-most popular German party in the opinion polls after Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union. There are voices within the AfD saying that Germans have to stop feeling sorry for the past and move on, and that they have to feel proud of being German. There are even voices on its fringes calling to get rid of the culture of memorialisation seen everywhere in Germany. Do you think this marks a turning point in German attitudes towards the past?

That’s a complicated question. There are always waves in memorialisation, and the wave of memorialisation of victims that produced the Holocaust Memorial in Berlin and thousands of stolpersteine [literally, ‘stumbling stones’, concrete cobblestones bearing plaques carrying the names and life dates of victims that are embedded in pavements], which remind us that these people came from everywhere and lived everywhere, is now perhaps nearing an end.

All of that was very important for a particular generation. Moving ahead, though, we need to focus on gaining a broader understanding of the system that allowed the Holocaust to happen, rather than engaging so much in mourning the victims. Those who are emotionally connected to this past will, of course, inevitably continue to mourn, but in future generations people who don’t have an immediate sense of emotional connection need to develop their understanding of the Holocaust.

Returning to your point about the AfD, it’s a very interesting phenomenon, because it started as a slightly odd conservative party bothered by the Euro crisis, but has increasingly developed into a more rightwing nationalist party harbouring quite dangerous elements. Parts of the AfD express the idea that, in order to be proud of Germany,
the nation has to forget the Nazis. The way in which it has become the official opposition in Germany’s parliament is quite scary.

On the other hand, Germans can today be legitimately proud of their country since reunification in 1990. It has achieved an amazing transformation to become one of the strongest polities and economies in Europe. Angela Merkel, particularly, has done extraordinary work in the way in which Germany has developed since she became chancellor.

So it is right that Germans should be able to say that, in the past quarter of a century, they have done very significant things in the stabilisation and development of the future of Europe. So I don’t think it’s sweeping the past under the carpet to say that it should be possible to take pride in what Germany has done, particularly since reunification.

But, at the same time, we have to take a new look at what happened in the Nazi era and postwar decades, because for a long time Germany did not face up to its past, it did not bring the Nazis to justice – and by the time that it started to recognise victims and seriously pursue perpetrators, it was much too late.

Mary Fulbrook is professor of German history at UCL. Her latest book is Reckonings: Legacies of Nazi Persecution and the Quest for Justice (Oxford University Press, 2018).

Richard J Evans is former Regius professor of history at the University of Cambridge, and author of books on Nazi Germany including The Third Reich in History and Memory (Abacus, 2016).

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This article was first published in issue 3 of BBC World Histories Magazine