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The International School for Holocaust Studies

“The Uneasy Closeness to Ourselves”

Interview with Dr. Götz Aly, German Historian and Journalist

by Kathryn Berman and Asaf Tal

Dr. Götz AlyDr. Götz Aly

Dr. Götz Aly is a German historian and journalist researching the Holocaust and German history during the Nazi period. He is presently researching the survivors’ return home to Europe after the Holocaust, and is currently a visiting scholar at the Yad Vashem International Institute for Holocaust Research. We would like to express our gratitude to Dr. Aly for agreeing to share his ideas and thoughts with us. Also, we thank Mr. Enno Raschke for his kind assistance during the interview.

Can you tell us about yourself?

I was born in 1947 in Heidelberg, right after the war. I remember a lot about that time. For instance, all the destroyed cities in Germany, and sitting and talking with my parents and uncles at the time about the war. Of course, some of my uncles were killed during the war and we had teachers who had lost limbs during this period. At that time there was no mention of Jews. Jews never existed when I was a young boy. We didn’t know anything about the existence of Jews. We knew something about war crimes; for instance, the bombardment of Dresden, but nothing else.

It might be interesting to know something about my father. He was born in 1912, the youngest child of a Professor of Philology in Freiburg. When he was twenty, the Nazis rose to power in Germany and because of the world economic crisis at the time he was unable to study as the family had no money and he became a merchant. In 1935, Germany annexed the Saarland, which is the region on the border of France. He got a job there, for the Hitlerjugend [Hitler Youth]. Then in 1937 he had to help with the building of several homes for the Hitler Youth – focusing on the economic side of this project.

In 1937, my father was one of the eleven million Germans that joined the party. In my generation, I think that every second or third German would have a father who joined the party at that time, and he did as well. I think the membership itself is not so important. What is important is that between the age of twenty and thirty you make your friends, and relationships, which are important for the rest of your life, and you take the first steps in your career. I don’t think that my father was involved in any war crimes or things like that, because you know, Aly is a very uncommon name in Germany and I would think that historians would have found out about that by now. He was at the Russian front for eight weeks between 1942-43 in the Stalingrad winter, and returned home because he was badly injured. In the last two years of the war he began the most successful job of his life. He was responsible for the evacuation of children from the air-raided west in Germany to the Sudetenland, Czechoslovakia, and was responsible for 50,000 children at that time. He brought them to safety when the Russians came in 1945. This was the greatest job of all his life and after that he was just a merchant.

I think it is very important in order to understand how this Nazi system worked. In the 1950’s and 60’s my father’s generation was unable to speak about their past experiences because they knew that there had been a lot of crimes and they felt unable to act as role models. So my generation in Germany lived in a moral vacuum. There was no orientation.

What did this vacuum relate to in those years?

Everything was rotten. The moral orientation, the judicial orientation, and even the national and family traditions of German history – from the leader, to the stories. I think that my generation in Germany was influenced by the consequences of these twelve horrible years.

Is there still a feeling of national guilt or do you feel with the passage of time, this feeling has dissipated?

No, I don’t think that for me there is a feeling of national guilt, but rather a feeling of a special responsibility, and you know, the younger generation had a totally different feeling. When I was a child I remember the discussions about the war. For instance, I heard something in religion classes about Jews. What did you hear about that time about Jews? It was a sentence “an eye for an eye – a tooth for a tooth”. That was all we heard about it. This present generation would not believe that for instance we called certain fireworks for the New Year celebrations “Judenfurze” which means Jewish farts [fireworks]. That is how they were referred to in the fifties.

For some ten to fifteen years after the war, there was no talking about the Holocaust. If we made noise at school, the teacher would say in German, “Like a noisy Jewish rabble.” But there was no explanation about the Holocaust. Not one word.

When did you begin to learn in a more structured format about the Holocaust at school?

In 1961, when the Eichmann trial began in Israel, trials were taking place in Germany too. This issue came into schools by order of the government. Teachers were advised to teach about it and so we had to go down into the basement where movies were shown and at the critical age of fourteen, fifteen, and sixteen, we had to see these movies about the Warsaw Ghetto, and about Auschwitz. These were the first movies. It was like shock therapy. I think in my perspective today if I look back at that time, this was well done. We saw these movies, but for the teachers it was very difficult. They had been in the war for six years. Some had been in Soviet prisons, they returned from the east and had lost everything. They were not really able to talk about it. The young teachers had to do this.

Was there any discussion at home about the Holocaust?

The parents and families were unable to react. Let me explain what was happening in tens of thousands of families at that time. We came back home from school in the afternoon, and while our young sisters were sitting at the table in the evening having dinner, my mother would begin to ask these stupid questions, such as, “What happened at school today?” And I would answer, “It was quite interesting.” Mother would say, “Oh tell us about it.” And I told about it and our parents were like glass – frozen. And I would say in a raised voice, “You must have known this.”

In Germany, it took some ten or twenty years to overcome this point, this rupture between the generations and there were a lot of detours on the way. You know, for instance, the left-wing German student movement in 1968 was always avoiding this subject in Germany. At that time, students used Marxist terminology and reduced the National Socialism to Fascism and determined that it was a worldwide phenomenon still existing in Washington, Tehran, and even in the Middle East, and so it took us another ten years to go back to the roots of German history. At school we were confronted with the Nazi crimes, with the names of the perpetrators. At university we bypassed the issue of National Socialism and found other examples of fascism in very far-off places of the world.

You can see and analyze this detour in connection with the publication of Raul Hilberg’s book Destruction of European Jews. Raul Hilberg offered his book to the left-wing German publishing house Rowhldt in 1967. It was printed in the United States in 1961. The response of the German publisher was to refuse publication of the book with the argument “Oh, we have to publish so many books, so this would interrupt our schedule very much.” If you look at the books published by this publishing house, at that time, you have works by Mao Zetung, Che Guevara, etc., and you have five books about racism in the U.S., but nothing about the German past. This demonstrates that the conflict concerning the Holocaust was too much to add to this generational conflict in society. So perhaps it’s understandable that my generation had to go first to Che Guevara and then back to Germany. Then, ten to twelve years later, in 1983, a small left-wing publishing house in West Berlin decided to publish Raul Hilberg’s book. If you look at my publication list, you will see that my publications also began in the early 1980s.

What was your motivation to write and research about the history of the Holocaust?

I was interested in this issue at school. I became a journalist in a left-wing German newspaper, founded in the late 1970s, called Tageszeitung. I wanted to know something about the Nazi murder of the German disabled people – euthanasia killings. 200,000 Germans were killed in that way during WWII, and the personal motivation was that I have a disabled daughter, and I wanted to know something about it.

The archives at that time were closed and I met a German State Attorney in Hamburg whose job was to present a case against a very important Social Democrat (former Nazi) who had been involved in euthanasia crimes. The trial was too much for the Hamburg society so it never took place. It was stopped at the last minute.

I told the State Attorney that I wanted to know something about euthanasia and he answered, “I have worked on it for five years and you are the first to ask me about it. You should get all the information, in order to learn and research about it.”

So I published my research about the euthanasia program, which you can find in the library. We founded a special series about this (in German and in English).[1]

Has your work continued since that time?

I wanted to stop my research about this topic several times, and I took several breaks when I went back to the newspaper or writing books about other topics. But in the end it was impossible to stop, so it is an ongoing process, and I am happy to be here now at Yad Vashem. It’s a great place. For the first time in my life I am free to continue my work at Yad Vashem. The working environment here is wonderful. You get different ideas about working with the Holocaust here than in Germany. It is just a different situation. You can get first-hand information from survivors and your colleagues have personal connections to the past. It’s just different. Going down to the library and archives, everyday you see elderly survivors coming and asking for information on their relatives, or young people researching, which is impressive to see. Also, the material here is different. The most important documents here are the testimonies of survivors. In Germany, research focuses mainly on the perspective of perpetrators like Eichmann. Of course it is important too, to describe it as an historian, but it isn’t enough – it’s only one perspective.

Can I ask you about your book Into the Tunnel where you trace the short life of Marion Samuel? Has this been widely read in German by students and others? How was it received?

It’s not too successful in German. I think it sold 10,000-12,000 copies. My other book, Hitler’s Volksstaat, has sold 100,000 copies.

You gave her a face, and I thought it might be a very interesting as a project for high school students especially now because there is so much access to the Internet and archival material, and this could be used as an educational project.

It took me two weeks to write the book, I researched on the Internet and made telephone calls and wrote e-mails to the archives, because there is not much documentation, and I wrote the announcement in the newspaper asking for information about her family and then when I had the material all together, I wrote it.

In theory, we could do this for many children, not just one.

Yes, there are very good opportunities to do this. I am the co-editor of a publication that is a documentation of the Holocaust. It will consist of sixteen volumes in total. The colleagues who do the research and writing work have to find out the names of Jewish families living in a Polish village or in a shtetl and to put short footnotes and biographies into the documents. This is a very important work so that the Jews are no longer numbers. It gives the exterminated Jews a face and an identity, just telling their stories and personal information makes them people.

Sometimes I am able to help them at Yad Vashem by asking about certain names and by using the material here in the archives and it’s very successful. For instance, with the story of Siegfried Nagler, who came from Vienna to Palestine in 1938. Of course, he was no longer called Siegfried. To figure all that out is difficult. He became a psychologist here and researched about children on the kibbutz. He died in 1986 but I managed to contact his family and so I made connections in that way. Normally people are very happy that somebody is asking about their family. It is a good experience to do that. Another example is of a German orphan who was brought to Palestine in 1939 and we only knew the name Evalina (little Eva), and after some research I obtained more information about her and came into contact with her family.

You got her story?

Yes, it was a lot of work, but I think it’s important to do all this and to give it to the biographer – because we are talking about the fate of the survivors – it’s so interesting. The next book I am writing traces the journeys the survivors made through Europe at the end of the war, in 1945 – coming back home and first knocking on the door of their former homes. What happened in Vienna, Amsterdam, Paris, Vilna, Thessalonika, and in Polish cities. These descriptions show you also something about postwar European society.

So you are interviewing these people. Where do you find them? Here or living in Europe?

Everywhere. Using documentation, testimonies, or autobiographies. There is a lot of published and unpublished material.

How is the Holocaust taught in German schools today? Is it taught in history lessons, in religion?

There is a lot of education. For instance, I personally have never forced my children or asked them to visit memorials, like Auschwitz or Sachsenhausen. But they did it in the meantime. My youngest daughter has been here in Israel and in Yad Vashem and is very interested. But as a pedagogic problem, it is difficult to handle. And there is of course a lot of literature, and a lot of memorials commemorating the Nazi past in almost every large town and all these concentration camps around. Well, there is no lack of education I would say. And if you take the today’s press in Germany you will find that this subject is mentioned almost every day.

In education you usually have to reduce or to simplify problems. Maybe in the case of the Holocaust, we should maintain the complexity of the problems so that students can have their own views.

There is the question of Holocaust teaching as a tool in dealing with problems of racism today – what do you think about it?

That’s really difficult. In my opinion there is a very hard and deep problem. It’s difficult to make lessons from the story of the Holocaust by simply teaching that it is wrong to kill minorities and that you shouldn’t build gas chambers. You don’t need the Holocaust to know that. Of course, for Israel it’s interesting that perhaps the main thing for Israel is “don’t be a victim in that way again”. This is a result of the Holocaust. But what should I teach young boys and girls in Germany about the Holocaust and racism and genocide today? You know, we have the Uganda and Rwanda cases and Darfur just to name a few genocides. But it is a very different situation. From these cases you can learn that one can intervene earlier and prevent it. For instance, if you talk about the appeasement policy of the British Government in the thirties. You can also talk about the mechanism that there was a social welfare policy, this “feel good” dictatorship in Germany, that is discussed at length in my book “Hitler's Beneficiaries”.[2]

The problem with Holocaust education is that we are always looking for ways to distance ourselves from the perpetrators as much as possible. You can understand that that is a normal reaction, and a big part of Holocaust historiography works in that way. For instance, a lecture was recently given at Yad Vashem by Dr. Alexandra Namyslo about Upper Silesia, and here you have the “softer” approach of going into the story of the Holocaust. 100,000 Jews were murdered there and to this day nearly nothing has been written about it, because supposedly the conditions seemed to reflect what they experienced in normal life, in comparison to Warsaw and Lodz, where out-of-the-ordinary brutalities occurred. But the result in all three places was just the same. In the end, the Jews were killed. It is easier to overlook these stories because they are not as gruesome as others, and this is a different approach to writing about the Holocaust.

It might be difficult to do that in Israel but in Germany it is done. To understand the story of the Holocaust, you have to look closer at the perpetrators to try to understand them as human beings.

However, we don’t have just the problem of the German perpetrators like Eichmann and other SS men, but we also have this problem of the silent majority, not only in Germany but in every European country. I don’t think antisemitism alone is sufficient to explain it.

We are dealing with human beings with human reactions that are not strange to us. In our everyday life, we try to ignore a lot of the bad sides of human society. There is the Milgram experiment;[3] I assume that if the experiment took place today there would be a great difference in the results both in Germany and in Israel.

There are two things that are important in my opinion in Holocaust education. One is that people recognize the uniqueness of the Holocaust as a break of civilization. And on the other hand we should look at the little stories and thus feel the uneasy closeness to ourselves.

In Germany in the 60’s and 70’s, we heard about 6,000 public trials against Nazi murderers. In nearly every case there were people the age of our fathers and teachers. These people were not criminals before or continued to be after the Holocaust, but normal people coming from all classes of society, every social position, and all different possible social backgrounds.

A person does not need a special personal history in order to become a mass murderer. Every biography is a little bit open to that. That’s disturbing. You can see this, if you look for instance at trial evidence and testimonies in Daniel Goldhagen’s book.[4] Various historians tried to find a particular profile for the perpetrators, but there is no point. They are trying to find a reason, so that if you find a reason you can fight against it – to make sure it will never happen again. We shouldn’t go that way, this is the wrong way. I am a pessimist.

If you look at the biographies of the perpetrators, for example in the Auschwitz trial files, you will see where the perpetrators were born: more than 50% came as so-called Volksdeutsche [ethnic Germans] in the autumn of 1940, from Bessarabia, Transylvania, and Bukovina.

Most of these transferred families had to stay in camps during the first year because there was no place for them to settle. These were difficult years for them. Then in the end of 1941, when the system of the extermination camps was initiated, the same young men coming from these regions were the only men on the labor market in Germany at that time. They came from a simple, somewhat backward world and had not been indoctrinated with Nazi propaganda before. They were farmers, who used old-fashioned agricultural machinery, very religious. That was their way of life. There is nothing exceptional. If you look at these biographies, you cannot find the special profile of a SS murderer. Christopher Browning[5] writes in his book Ordinary Men about the ordenungspolizei [order police], who were not 18- to 20-year-olds but older men, aged 40-47. They all had a chance while working in these extermination units and camps, to say, “I’m not able to do so. I don’t want it.” Some did and there was no punishment; the units’ commanders said: “Go home, take another position in the Nazi state, we understand this.” They didn’t suffer. There were no repercussions. They got another job and payment was the same as before. There was no risk if they had said, “No, I don’t want to do that.” Sometimes, they were asked “Are you able to do that and if you don’t want to do this, tell us”.

For us this is the most difficult part. One should be aware not to minimize the Holocaust. Pedagogues have to emphasize those sides of the Holocaust that are disturbing in a way; for example, perpetrator life stories, or the possibility of getting away with crimes without paying the price.

We should not concentrate just on the well-known party members, and even Himmler, Hitler, and the people in charge, but to expand the perspective to the whole society and how they got into this, because everyone was involved in a way. For instance, there were SS men who stopped euthanasia killing in Germany[6] because it was against their Christian principles, but the same people were killing Jews. Or the German conspiracy to kill Hitler, but at the same time they were killing Jews two years before in the Soviet Union. There were people helping just the Jewish children, but still convinced that the Jewish question had to be solved.

Was German society aware of the mass murder?

Of course. I said to my parents, “You had to know all this.” “There was the BBC and there was a lot of information.” When he was old, my father told me that he had heard something from an officer that told him in late 1942 that there were mass killings of Jews in the east and that they had to dig their own graves. But my father didn’t want to think about it.

But there is the same problem on the Jewish side. They did not believe it either.

Christian Gerlach and I wrote a book about the deportations and the killing of the Hungarian Jews in 1944. However, the Hungarian Jews in 1944 knew all about it. They had a lot of information because there were Jewish refugees coming to Hungary, in 1942 and 1943, giving reports about what was happening in Poland, and what was the reaction from the Jews? “This is Hungary. This might be happening in Galicia to Polish Jews, but this can’t happen in our very cultivated Hungarian state.

It is impossible that even early in 1944, the Jewish leadership there didn’t have some information about what was happening. There were people escaping from the extermination camps just 80 km from the Hungarian border and there were letters and reports and of course the BBC. I think part of the problem of the Holocaust was that potential victims couldn’t believe the information.

The idea that something so atrocious would come from Germany and from European civilized environment was so unimaginable that they didn’t take it for real, even when they received overwhelming reports from the death camps.

In hindsight the testimonies were so overwhelming that today one might say that people should have realized before. Yes, they had previous experience from the horror propaganda of World War I, such as Germans killing Belgian babies and so on, and that was actually wrong. When Majdanek was liberated in 1944, a BBC reporter was one of the first to enter the camp with the Red Army. When he sent back his story, the central news desk in London did not believe the report and claimed that it was Soviet propaganda.

Following the publication of your book The Tunnel about the life of young Marion Samuel, an educational resource was developed here at the School. This is a model of how to work with documents. How do you feel about it? Do you think this is a good idea?

Yeah, it explains how to research through documentation. I think we should do so because in my opinion, the discussion about the prominent perpetrators is coming to an end. Most of the questions are clear today. There is no real scientific difference about all of that. You know enough about Eichmann or about Hoess or about Himmler. There is, however, much to be done from the perspective of the victim. For instance, Tamar, a fellow scholar here at Yad Vashem, is researching the diary of Willy Cohn. I think there are a lot of diaries spread all over Europe that are not in print, that should be used for educational purposes, which is most important. The diaries could be reconnected with the actions of the perpetrators. The Ringelblum archive gives us an idea of the history of the Holocaust from the perspective of the victims. I mentioned the German documentation project about the Holocaust that includes 16 volumes (Die Verfolgung und Ermordung der europaeischen Juden durch das nationalsozialistische Deutschland 1933 bis 1944). Our young historians have been working on this documentation for ten years. In the working process they have to take 25% of the documents written by the Jewish victims, survivors, and another 10-15% have to be taken from documents relating to the international reaction, reactions in other countries, and institutions, the Vatican, the Polish factions, the left-wing organizations in Poland, the underground, London government, exiled government of Poland, and so on. This gives a multi-perspective view, and I think Yad Vashem is a good place to do it. I think there has been great progress between the old exhibition at Yad Vashem and the present one. It gives you insight into this process. It’s interesting and so I think there is enough work for both of us for at least another 10-20 years.

[1] Götz Aly, Cleansing the Fatherland: Nazi Medicine and Racial Hygiene, Johns Hopkins University Press, 1994.
[2] Götz Aly, Hitler's Beneficiaries: Plunder, Racial War, and the Nazi Welfare State, Metropolitan Books, 2007.
[3] The obedience experiment performed by Yale University psychologist Stanley Milgram was a series of social psychology experiments, examining the willingness of study participants to obey an authority figure who ordered them to perform acts that conflicted with their personal conscience. Milgram created the film Obedience, portraying the experiments and the findings. Most participants chose to act against their conscience and followed the instructors' orders.
[4] Daniel J. Goldhagen, Hitler’s Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust, Vintage, 1997.
[5] American Prof. Christopher Browning, Holocaust historian.
[6] The mass killing of the disabled in Nazi Germany.
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