'We knew nothing about this'

September 8, 2006

Were ordinary Germans aware of the Holocaust? Huw Richards asks the author of a study on the question

Rarely has the saying "the devil is in the detail" been more applicable than in the phrase davon haben wir nichts gewusst , which is also the title of historian Peter Longerich's study of how much ordinary Germans knew about the Holocaust.

It is, explains Longerich, professor of modern German history at Royal Holloway, University of London, a phrase that anyone asking Germans who lived through the Nazi era becomes accustomed to hearing. It means "We knew nothing about this", and the language is subtly significant.

" Davon ", meaning "about this", implies that the speaker knows what is being talked about but that they will not openly address it in further detail. Even the verb "gewusst", implying knowledge, is carefully chosen, not excluding the possibility of rumours and partial information that did not add up to certainty about what was happening.

Longerich was born in 1955, and his lifetime encompasses the change in German attitudes from extreme reluctance to discuss anything that happened between 1933 and 1945 to the intense, often officially sponsored debate of today, brought to prominence by writer Günter Grass's revelations that he was in the SS. "In almost every town in Germany there are historians and students researching what happened under the Nazis," he says. His book, for which he hopes an English translation deal will be concluded at this month's Frankfurt Book Fair, has been intensely discussed in Germany, with his lecture/seminar tour attracting packed houses in a dozen cities.

It was Longerich's good fortune as a schoolboy in Itzehoe, north of Hamburg, to have as history master a rare Nazi-era survivor who was open about his role. "He was a Social Democrat member of the city council, but he was open about the fact that he had been a Nazi and an SS officer in the war. Later I read his PhD thesis. It was full of Nazi ideology but technically very good," Longerich says.

Those lessons helped hone Longerich's interest in history, leading to undergraduate studies at Gottingen University followed by doctoral work at Munich University on the opposition to Nazism. He has been at Royal Holloway, a leading member of its seven-strong multidisciplinary Holocaust Research Group, since 1993, worked for the Scottish War Crimes Office and as a visiting researcher with the Israeli Yad Vashem Institute, and was an expert witness in the libel action between far-rightist David Irving and US historian Deborah Lipstadt in 1998.

He views the British fixation with Nazism differently from many of his compatriots. "I don't see it as anti-German", he says. "It has far more to do with Britain's sense of itself than with Germany. In 13 years living here I have not experienced any hostility because I am German. What does concern me is that this concentration on Hitler and Nazism takes place in a context of a general lack of historical knowledge."

Longerich has done his best to combat ignorance - his history of the Holocaust is due out in English translation early next year, and a biography of SS chief Heinrich Himmler will be published in Germany later in 2007. The Holocaust book is typical of his publications. "While it is a general history, I still work like a PhD student. I go back to the files and to the original documents for everything. If you want to get at the real history, you have to do this."

Research for Davon Haben wir Nichts Gewusst! took him back to the ministry and party documents on which he based his doctoral research, supplemented by more recent discoveries such as transcripts from Joseph Goebbels' daily meetings at the Propaganda Ministry and an intense study of the Nazi media. Important elements in this were reports on public opinion from local leaders to Berlin, although Longerich warns that they must be treated warily. "There was pressure on the writers not to report too negatively," he says. Negative reports - Goebbels was furious to hear of Berlin metro travellers responding to the law requiring the remaining Jews to wear yellow stars from 1941 by giving up their seats to elderly Jews - are thus more credible. It is also hard to define anything as truly "public opinion" in Nazi Germany. "Everything was controlled by the state. Society was divided and people isolated, without safe channels of communication."

Longerich differs from historian Daniel Goldhagen, who has argued that the fate of the Jews was rooted in German culture and society and has written one of the few critical reviews of Davon Haben wir Nichts Gewusst! . "I think that what Goldhagen did was important and that he asked a lot of the right questions. I am not so convinced by the answers."

Longerich chronicles shifts in propaganda and press coverage during the Holocaust, with examples such as the party paper Völkischer Beobachter speaking in 1941 of Jews "having dug their own graves" and another party paper in 1943 talking of complaints "that we are exterminating the Jews in Europe". He says the Holocaust eventually became an open secret, not talked about but strongly present in popular consciousness.

It was reasonably clear to those who chose to think hard, such as the Jewish diarist Victor Klemperer, what was going on. Longerich argues that most people chose not to ask, fearing what they might find and that they, if the war was lost, might be held complicit - a theme in Nazi propaganda urging ever greater sacrifice as the war went on.

The phrase davon haben wir nichts gewusst was, he argues, rooted in this period: "It should not be confused with a real disregard for the persecution of the Jews. Rather it was a strategy employed by people to distance themselves from any responsibility."

Hardly heroic, but in the face of such inconceivably savage events in a society completely controlled by the perpetrators, would the mass of any other nation have behaved very differently?

Peter Longerich is author of the forthcoming book Holocaust , to be published by OUP in March 2007.

Register to continue

Why register?

  • Registration is free and only takes a moment
  • Once registered, you can read 3 articles a month
  • Sign up for our newsletter
Please Login or Register to read this article.