Up in smoke goes the lie that the Holocaust was a big secret

What We Knew
May 12, 2006

What We Knew is a remarkable study based on more than a decade of research, combining oral history and systematic survey techniques. The first and second sections consist of interviews with German Jewish survivors and "ordinary Germans" respectively. The third and fourth parts present evidence from written surveys conducted among larger sample groups of Jewish and non-Jewish Germans who lived through the Nazi era.

The authors state that, taken together, their interviews and surveys make up "a representative sample of Jews and non-Jews who had lived through the Third Reich", with the caveat that they represent a somewhat younger population than had been the average in Germany between 1933 and 1945. The result is a book that throws light not only on everyday life during the Third Reich, but also specifically on what people knew about the Final Solution, the mass murder of European Jewry.

This book will be useful to students and scholars of Nazi Germany and the Holocaust, and it is also likely to appeal to a wider readership of those interested in these aspects of history.

The survey and interview evidence presented in What We Knew underlines the recent trend in research on Nazi society that emphasises consensus for the Nazi regime among much of the German population. Eric Johnson and Karl-Heinz Reuband contend that the majority of Germans "supported Hitler and many aspects of Nazi ideology", although they did not necessarily endorse all aspects of the regime. This book also emphasises that most Germans did not live in constant fear or dread during the Third Reich. The majority carried on with their normal lives. In contrast to much of the earlier historical literature on the subject, the survey evidence presented in this book shows that the fear of being arrested by the Gestapo did not feature in the daily experience of most Germans. They knew that if they broadly consented to the National Socialist system they would not be punished. The Nazi terror apparatus was aimed at specific groups, such as the Jews and political opponents of the regime.

The Jewish survivors' testimonies detail the experiences of Jews who departed from Germany before Kristallnacht , those who left Germany after that momentous event, those who were deported during the war and those who went into hiding. They describe their lives in Germany both before and during the early years of the Nazi regime. They depict the escalation of anti-Semitism during the Nazi era and their disillusionment with the reactions of the majority of their German compatriots. They tell of the events of Kristallnacht and its aftermath, their attempts to leave Germany, their experiences in concentration camps, their deportations and their experiences in hiding during the war.

While one interviewee, William Benson, is adamant that "you never forgive, you never forget", other Jewish survivors make the point that not all Germans were "bad". Margarete Leib states that "you can't lump everybody together", and Henry Singer, whose sister survived because she was hidden by a German family until the end of the war, declares that "it's not fair to accuse all of them". Jewish survivors also highlight distinctions about the amount of anti-Semitism in different cities or regions. Karl Meyer, for example, contends that there was not the same anti-Semitism in Cologne or Hamburg as in other areas, but that in Munich "they were rabid anti-Semites".

Ernst Levin, who was deported from Breslau to Auschwitz in January 1943, states that the Germans "knew that the Jews were vanishing" as city after city was declared judenrein (free of Jews). Herbert Klein, who was deported from Nuremberg to Theresienstadt in June 1943, also asserts that "certain things must have been known". Both say that Germans who claim they never knew or heard anything are lying. Hannelore Mahler, who was deported from Krefeld in September 1944, recounts how the Jews of Krefeld were rounded up and marched past the church just as people were leaving after Sunday Mass. "They had to have seen us," he says.

Many of the interviews with "ordinary Germans" point to the same conclusion. They talk about their everyday lives in Nazi Germany and the extent to which they knew about or heard about mass murder. The testimonies span from those Germans who admit to knowing nothing to those who describe witnessing and even participating in mass murder. With specific regard to the death camps, some Germans reveal partial knowledge, while others say they knew nothing at all about them. Herbert Lutz says of the mass shootings and the gassings: "People just did not want to believe it." This suggests that these atrocities were talked about. Hiltrud Kuhnel confirms not only that the camps were talked about, but also that people knew that they were extermination camps. He says: "You knew that was what they were.

Hence, if someone says today that he had never known that, it is absolutely not true." Adam Grolsch provides an account of the slaughter of 25,000 Jewish men, women and children, carried out "in the most beastly way" at Pinsk in October 1942. It is a chilling eyewitness narrative of mass murder. Ruth Hildebrand affirms that people heard about the mass murder and describes how information about events in Poland and the Soviet Union filtered into Germany because "the soldiers on leave... did a lot of talking". Ernst Walters declares "they're lying" about the statement by Germans that nobody talked about it.

Walter Sanders states that, with the escalation of anti-Semitic propaganda and agitation, "when the Jews were deported, we knew that something was going to happen to them". He was a communications officer on the Russian front, and he describes the atrocities he witnessed and recounted to relatives and friends when he came home on leave during the war. He concludes: "A large part of the population did know about it... They knew that there were concentration camps. They knew that Jews were kept there. Later word got around that they were gassed. It wasn't for nothing that it was said in those years: 'Take care, otherwise you'll go up the chimney.' That was a familiar figure of speech. It circulated everywhere in Germany."

Interestingly, the authors disagree on how widespread knowledge of the Holocaust was among the German population. Reuband believes one third of the population knew about the mass murder of the Jews, while Johnson estimates that half of the German population did. Their disagreement on this is based on their different interpretations about the age group surveyed. Johnson argues that Reuband's estimate is too low because two thirds of the sample group were still teenagers when the war broke out and the older survey respondents were much more aware of the mass murder at the time than the younger ones. Regardless of the discrepancy between their estimates, Reuband and Johnson concur and conclude that it is nevertheless clear that "the mass murder of the European Jews was no secret to millions of German citizens while it was still being carried out".

Lisa Pine is senior lecturer in history, London South Bank University.

What We Knew: Terror, Mass Murder and Everyday Life in Nazi Germany

Author - Eric Johnson and Karl-Heinz Reuband
Publisher - John Murray
Pages - 434
Price - £9.99
ISBN - 0 7195 6184 1

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