Book Review: What we Knew

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What We Knew is the outcome of the first scientific study attempted in Germany to determine what ordinary Germans and Jews new about the Holocaust before and during the apocalyptic events. The authors interviewed 200 people face-to-face and surveyed about 3000 Germans and 500 Jewish survivors in the decade after 1993. For the purposes of this work, this was whittled down to 20 Germans and 20 Jews. The voices of the others remain in those parts of the book dealing with the survey results.

Many of the Jews interviewed survived only because they emigrated in the late 1930s. Others went “underground”, hiding in cities such as Berlin until its fall to the Russians, others “passed” as Germans or by being useful to the Gestapo. Episodes such as the last certainly amplify the view that people will do anything to survive another hour or another day. The book also shows that most Germans led “mundane, even quite normal lives under the Nazi dictatorship.” But one was there when 25 000 Jews were shot at Pinsk (now in Belarus) one weekend; another was a police reservist who helped guard Dachau and later helped shoot 300 Jewish women and children. Another was a minor Nazi and railways official who guided trains with French Jews east towards extermination.         

Were the Germans mindless? No. The majority of Germans polled admitted to listening to foreign broadcasts “frequently”, even though this carried the death penalty or could land one a spell in a concentration camp. About half further admitted to knowing about the Holocaust before the end of the war, saying they heard about it from friends or family on leave from the front, from Gestapo officers and Nazi officials, the BBC, from church leaders. “Large numbers of Jews and non-Jews in Nazi Germany eventually came to know quite a lot about the Holocaust during the course of World War II,” write the authors. “Since they were the primary victims of it, Jews generally tried harder to find out about it and usually did, but not always before they were deported to the places where it was being carried out. Since people with their background were the prime perpetrators of it, none-Jews did not necessarily seek out news about the mass murder. Nevertheless, after Auschwitz started to gas its first Jewish victims in mid-1942, it became ever harder for them to remain uninformed as news of it came from so many quarters. Some witnessed it happening or even participated directly in it, and, not infrequently described it to others… Not everyone came to know of it, but a great many did. If people wanted to know, very often they could find out.”       

Another interesting finding was that even now, many confess an abiding admiration for Hitler and a belief in the virtues of Nazism. “We had this image of him feeding a little deer and being seen with his Blondie, his German shepherd dog,” says “Hubert Lutz”, born in 1928, the son of a mid-level Nazi. “And you saw him breaking ground for the Autobahn, shovelling dirt and so on. He had the image of a saviour… He was idolised to the point that when I was eight years old I asked myself, ‘What happens if he dies? He does everything.`” Rolf Heberer recalls the hyper-inflation of the 1920s: “You have to understand the people. They were from another time than today. First they experienced this unemployment. Nobody had anything. Everything was expensive. And suddenly everything was different. The sun was shining for everybody. Okay, there were some who were completely against the regime and they were locked up… but, for the common masses, let`s say for 60 million Germans, that was what the people really wanted.”            

Another little-known aspect of Holocaust history is the Gestapo`s use of Jewish collaborators, so called “U-boat hunters” to ferret out fellow Jews who had gone underground (or had disappeared underwater like a U-boat). Most notorious among these was a beauty called Stella Kübler, born Goldschlag, who betrayed Jews from 1943 to March 1945, when the Soviets were just outside the city. (Click through to the Wikipedia to read more about “Blonde Poison” as her Gestapo handlers called her.

As an aside, the issue comes up in the 2006 film The Good German, where the female protagonist in the final scene admits to having survived the war by betraying 12 fellow Jews.         

One oversight the reviewer regrets is the exclusion of any material regarding Austria, invaded or absorbed by Germany (depending on one`s point of view) in early 1938. Within weeks Jews there faced a future as bleak as those in Germany itself, yet that is not reflected here. For the sake of convenience, the polls were largely restricted to Cologne and Krefeld, Dresden and Berlin. Perhaps a study can now be done to determine how much the Austrians knew – and when.

What We Knew

Terror, Mass Murder and Everyday Life in Nazi Germany – An Oral History

Eric A Johnson, Karl-Heinz Reuband

John Murray Publishers

London

2005