SPIEGEL Interview with Israeli Historian Saul Friedländer 'The Holocaust Won't Disappear'

Israeli historian Saul Friedländer -- winner of the 2007 Peace Prize of the German Book Trade to be presented this week at the Frankfurt Book Fair -- spoke to SPIEGEL about the importance of victims' accounts in researching the Holocaust and the failure of efforts in Germany to draw a line under the issue.

SPIEGEL: Professor Friedländer, in contrast to other accounts of the history of the Holocaust, in your book "Nazi Germany and the Jews, the Years of Extermination," you give us ample opportunity to hear from the victims through diaries and letters. Why didn't you limit your focus to the history of the perpetrators?

Saul Friedländer: Because that's not enough. We basically still needed a book that went beyond an analysis of German politics and included the environment -- in other words, the churches, the elites, the general population in Germany and in other countries -- and incorporated the voices of the victims, of those who were murdered.

SPIEGEL: Were you interested in the educational effect here, since the horror becomes more vivid this way?

Friedländer: No, many aspects only become clear from an examination of the victims' sources, not from official documents. For instance, the fact that the Jews in Germany and Western Europe didn't know what was going on -- and in Eastern Europe they didn't want to believe what they saw. Take my parents -- after their deportation from France in 1942, a friend wrote to my grandmother, who lived in Stockholm, to say that my parents had been sent to Germany or to a Jewish reservation in Poland. He had no idea that they had been murdered.

SPIEGEL: Would it have changed anything if the victims had known what was going on?

Friedländer: It does makes a considerable difference whether the Nazis murdered millions of people who didn't know what was going to happen to them or killed people who had already assumed the worst.

SPIEGEL: Because it explains why the extermination process went so smoothly?

Friedländer: Yes.

SPIEGEL: The opposite position was held by the recently deceased Holocaust historian Raul Hilberg. "The best way to grasp the reality of the situation," he said, "is to reconstruct events from the perspective of the perpetrators."

Friedländer: I have great respect for Hilberg. He was the classic expert on the machinery of extermination. But he only worked with documents left by the perpetrators and thought that the victims had gone to their deaths like lambs to the slaughter. If you read between the lines, you can even sense the rage with which he writes about the Jews' lack of resistance. But they simply didn't know what was happening.

SPIEGEL: Are there other new things that we can learn from the victims' accounts?

Friedländer: Only these accounts can attest to the behavior of the murderers. Elsa Binder from Stanislavóv in Galicia, for example, wrote in her diary in 1941 about how "Einsatzgruppen" (paramilitary death squads operated by the SS) murdered her friend Tamara and their friend Ester, who was known as Esterka: "I hope that death was kind to her and took her quickly. And that she didn't have to suffer like … Esterka who, as we saw, was strangled." Thus we see that the Einsatzgruppen consisted of men who did more than aim rifles at seemingly anonymous crowds of people. The strangling of a young girl actually reveals the sadism of the perpetrators, about which we still know so little.

SPIEGEL: How was the diary recovered?

Friedländer: It was found in a ditch next to the road that leads to the cemetery in Stanislavóv: The circumstances surrounding Elsa's death are not known. And we can deduce something else from the victims' perspective: in addition to Jewish councils and Jewish religious communities, there were also families, circles of friends and individuals. The success of their strategies to avoid deportation is -- from a statistical point of view -- perhaps insignificant, but it is a small chapter in the overall history of the period. For instance, I'm only here today because my parents hid me in a Catholic monastery school.

SPIEGEL: In other words, your emphasis on the victims' perspective stems from your own experience?

Friedländer: Of course. That actually shouldn't be the case with historians, and the former director of the Institute of Contemporary History in Munich, Martin Broszat, even said in 1987 that Jews were incapable of writing a rational historical history of the Third Reich because they were biased -- as if a former member of the Hitler Youth or a party member like Broszat could conduct research without any biographical baggage. That upset me a great deal back then, but I've encountered this attitude time and again when the issue comes up with German colleagues.

SPIEGEL: You've been researching the Holocaust for decades. Are you expecting many more new discoveries to emerge from research?

Friedländer: There probably won't be any major changes to the big picture.

SPIEGEL: But aren't there considerable differences of opinion among historians over the question of why the Holocaust occured?

Friedländer: You are alluding to what I call the "new functionalism," in other words, the position taken by my colleagues Ulrich Herbert, Götz Aly and Christian Gerlach. They believe that, for logistical or populist reasons, the Germans tended to pursue materialistic objectives and originally did not intend to murder the Jews at all. These scholars maintain, for example, that the population in Russia was killed, including Jews, because it was necessary to feed the Wehrmacht, but they say that this was by no means the main goal.

SPIEGEL: What objections do you have to this?

Friedländer: For me the ideology of the Third Reich and Hitler is of far greater importance. In the first known piece of writing from Adolf Hitler that deals with a political issue, he warned of the danger that the Jews posed to the German people. That was back in 1919. And his political testament from the bunker in 1945 contains the message that the Germans should continue to fight against the worldwide plague of Judaism. We can thus observe a continuity of fanatical anti-Semitism.

SPIEGEL: Why didn't the Nazis kill the German Jews back in the 1930s?

Friedländer: I'm sure that Hitler did not pursue a plan to murder the Jews from the very beginning. At first, the goal was rather to isolate them from society, remove their means of economic livelihood, and force them to leave Germany.

SPIEGEL: And why did the Holocaust happen?

'Without Hitler -- No Holocaust'

Friedländer: During the war, the Wehrmacht occupied areas in which millions of Jews lived. The plan was to deport them, just as they had begun to do in Germany, from areas under German control, and to send them to a Jewish reservation. At first, this reservation was supposed to be in Lublin, then in Madagascar, then, after defeating Stalin, in northern Russia.

SPIEGEL: But that's not what happened.

Friedländer: Yes, from October 1941, we can observe a transition. Hitler ranted almost every day about the Jews. The offensive on the eastern front was bogged down, and then on Dec. 5, the Red Army launched its counteroffensive. Stalin hadn't been defeated -- he continued to fight. And a few days later, the US was at war with Hitler's allies, the Japanese. And since Hitler knew that US President Franklin D. Roosevelt was trying to convince the American public to go to war against Germany, for psychological reasons he wanted to beat him to the punch, and so he declared war on the US, although that actually wasn't the original plan. As a result, Hitler was fighting a total war on two fronts, just as he'd experienced during World War I.

SPIEGEL: And the fate of the European Jews was sealed?

Friedländer: In 1935, Hitler said that if it came to another war on two fronts, he would be prepared to take drastic measures against the Jews. That was the lesson that Hitler learned from World War I. The country could not afford another stab in the back from the supposed enemy at home, the Jews, who had allegedly betrayed Germany back in 1917/18. In contrast to the Slavs, who the Nazis saw as passive "Untermenschen," Hitler feared the Jews as an active enemy. Consequently, it was not enough to kill the Jews -- he wanted to obliterate everything that was Jewish in the world. I think the decision to do this was made in December 1941.

SPIEGEL: How do you then explain the fact that immediately following the attack on the Soviet Union in June 1941, the Einsatzgruppen killed Jewish men at first, but then also shot women and children by the hundreds of thousands. The absolute determination to annihilate the Jews was thus clearly present at an earlier date.

Friedländer: This is a case of cumulative radicalization, as my colleague Hans Mommsen has called it in other contexts. This results from the notion of a total war, like the one Hitler was fighting in Eastern Europe. It has its own dynamics and the radicalization emerges on its own.

SPIEGEL: And this led to women and children being shot?

Friedländer: On the German side, there was the widespread mythic idea that the Jews would help the Red Army. And then there were the beginnings, albeit very modest, of a partisan war on the part of the Soviets. So the Germans saw women as a potential threat, for example, as messengers. And they shot the children because they weren't prepared to feed all the orphans. But that was not yet the decision to annihilate all the Jews in Europe. The partisan war was also directed against the Slavs. In their villages the Germans killed all the inhabitants when a partisan had been discovered or there were suspicions of partisan activity.

SPIEGEL: Some of your colleagues see Hitler as a dictator surrounded by henchmen who were pushing for the Holocaust. What is your assessment of Hitler's role?

Friedländer: Without Hitler -- no Holocaust. But Hitler of course could never have committed the crime alone. It was the population, it was the elite, some 200,000 perpetrators in Germany alone -- there was a willingness to go along with it, also for very practical reasons, because individuals hoped to gain a material advantage.

SPIEGEL: In that sense, you agree with your colleague Götz Aly when he says that Hitler killed the Jews so he could distribute all their possessions to the Germans?

Friedländer: Aly is exaggerating. Hitler definitely used the property and belongings of those who were murdered to help keep people quiet, but that was not the main objective.

SPIEGEL: You recently wrote: "All murderous impulses and ideological delusions evidently lie dormant in the nature of mankind." Do you see a danger that this could happen again?

Friedländer: A few years ago, I gave a lecture at the University of Notre Dame in Indiana. And someone in the auditorium asked a question that still bothers me today: "If something so extreme as the Holocaust was possible, don't we have to revise our perception of the nature of mankind?" I couldn't answer that question. There's no doubt that an extreme political party with a violent ideology can, given the right circumstances, commit horrible acts, as we have seen to some extent in Rwanda and Cambodia. Nevertheless, I can hardly imagine that a movement comparable to Nazism could be successful again in a modern country. Today, the counteracting forces that failed back then are too strong to allow this to happen.

SPIEGEL: You've been closely following political developments in Germany over the years. How will it feel to stand on Sunday where Peace Prize winner Martin Walser stood in 1998 and complained about the "endless exhibition of our shame" in the media?

Friedländer: The Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung recently speculated that I would answer Walser, but I don't intend to do so because I honestly don't care what Martin Walser thinks.

SPIEGEL: Walser represents many people who say that it's time to move on and draw a line under the debate about the Holocaust.

Friedländer: I vaguely remember the debate over putting the matter to rest in the late 1950s, and very clearly the debate in 1985, which again focused on drawing a line under the issue. Every 20 years, there appears to be a wave of sentiment, in other words, another generation grows up and calls for the matter to be put behind us. But then just the opposite occurs. The debate in the mid-1980s led to the "Historikerstreit" (an intellectual and political controversy in West Germany over how the Holocaust should be interpreted). And nowadays when people in Germany talk about the systematic bombing of cities and the refugees and displaced people, then the Holocaust only seems to disappear, but in actual fact they are approaching it from another angle. What we're dealing with here is the Allies' response to the Holocaust, in other words, the Germans were also victims. Dresden is compared with Auschwitz and not with anything else.

SPIEGEL: The Germans can't get the Holocaust out of their system?

Friedländer: That's how it looks to me. But it's not just the Germans. Take the spectacular success of a totally unknown author like Jonathan Littell in France with his novel "Les Bienveillantes" about a fictitious SS officer who is responsible for organizing the "Final Solution." There is something about the extreme nature of the Holocaust which is now firmly anchored in the West's perception of the world -- and which is reflected in this novel. I can't explain it exactly, but one thing is certain -- the issue of the Holocaust won't disappear.

SPIEGEL: Does the current debate about German "victims" make you feel uneasy?

Friedländer: No. When I traveled to Bonn in the early 1960s to work in the archives, I kept getting these horrible panic attacks. Today I feel the same way in Germany as I do in any other country. I have a grandchild here and my daughter is married to a German and lives in Berlin.

SPIEGEL: Then you presumably have not been overly concerned as you follow the debate surrounding TV presenter , who praised the family policies of the Nazis?

Friedländer: I've read about it. Ms. Herman apparently doesn't know any better.

SPIEGEL: And Cardinal Joachim Meisner who spoke of ?

Friedländer: I've also read about that and thought that the man is narrow-minded. You probably take these things more seriously than I do because they are happening in your country. I understand that very well. But I'm more upset about US politics.

SPIEGEL: Next year a feature film will be released about the attempted assassination of Adolf Hitler by Claus Schenk Graf von Stauffenberg on July 20, 1944, with superstar Tom Cruise playing the lead role. Oscar winner Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck says that he expects this major Hollywood production to do more "to enhance Germany's image than 10 World Cup championships" could have done. Do you believe that?

Friedländer: Hardly anyone in the US has ever heard of Stauffenberg -- some of my students in Los Angeles don't even know who Lenin was. It's plausible to assume that a film with a superstar could give the impression that Stauffenberg was a "good guy." But the vast majority of Americans don't have a clue about German history, and this film is not about to change that.

SPIEGEL: Thank you for this interview, Professor Friedländer.

Interview conducted by Martin Doerry and Klaus Wiegrefe.

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