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Something is wrong in an engagement with Auschwitz,
if it is not, again and again, deeply disturbing
— or at least every once in a while.
German crimes against the European Jews can not, even after more than 60 years since the end of the war, be shut out of our present. Behind us is a past that will not pass away. Whether we like it or not, in education, through books and the Internet, in film and on television as well as in museums and memorials, we are confronted with the events of the national socialist era and sometimes, even today, haunted by their terror.
Each successive generation in Germany has to work out again its relationship with its own painful history and the guilt of its fathers. This raises the same question again and again: how could the Holocaust, the murder of over six million European Jews, happen, especially in as highly developed a civilization and as cultured a nation, as Germany was.
Attempting a reply, it
does not seem justifiable to see the year 1933,
with the election of Hitler as chancellor, as the decisive starting
point for an ill-fated development. The take-over of power by the Nazis
did not hit the German people, as if by fate, overnight. A number of
specific developments in German history – often summarized as
German Sonderweg – can be cited as forerunners and
of the subsequent catastrophe:
Above all, however, the 'basic broth of evil' (Sebastian Franck, Grundsuppe des Bösen) has to be named: it was a religious, cultural, and in modern times also increasingly economic anti-Semitism, which was deeply rooted in European history that spread rampantly in mid-19th century Europe as part of a pseudo-scientific biologistic thinking and which, especially in Germany, grew into racial anti-Semitism.
All of this may possibly explain why 'a fatal fraternizing between the bourgeois elites and the Nazi-mob' (Hannah Arendt) came about in 1933. The consequences are well known: a rapid dismantling of democratic institutions, which prepared the ground for the further radicalization of Nazi processes, at the end of which stood the genocide of the Jews.
In our current search for understanding the Holocaust such patterns of interpretation reaching back into historical account may be helpful, however, they become problematic if they lead to relativisation of individual and collective German guilt and responsibility for atrocities.
Historical development is always contingent, that is, open to the future, and even then there was no historically inevitable, prescribed route toward catastrophe. For this reason attempts made by certain German historians to explain the causes of the war, the destruction of Germany and the murder of the Jews exclusively by 'over-arching interpretations reaching far back into German history' (Rüdiger Safranski) are not valid.
They look for guilt not primarily in the actions of the Nazi regime and the obedience of the population, but as Hannah Arendt remarked sarcastically, in 'the events that led to the banishment of Adam and Eve from paradise.'
This leads to the further question, to which there is also no complete answer, as to how the 'rupture of civilization' (Dan Diner, Zivilisationsbruch) in the national socialist period could have happened, how the progressive humiliation, debasement, marginalization and subsequent deportation and murder of Jewish citizens could have come about without giving rise to a major backlash on the part of almost the entire remaining German population. ('Looking away and silence' Fritz Stern, Wegsehen und Schweigen). And finally, we have to ask what defense mechanisms took effect after the war, why shame, guilt and remorse for the crimes committed rarely formed part of the individual memory of our parents and grandparents.
So for us, the generation born afterwards, what remains now is ultimately just the well-known challenge: to continue to face up to historical responsibility and build a collective cultural memory which is reliable and durable and, at the same time, forms an 'orientation culture' (Hans Erler) for the generations to come.
This can only succeed,
however, if Jewish memory also comes to bear, so
that in Martin Buber's words 'truth' should not be 'a function of the
Nation.' For this reason many Jewish voices are also included in this
My reason for shaping
this book as a collection has to do with the
problematic nature of the topic. How might a person of a later
generation, after that of the perpetrators, who has not studied the
Holocaust scientifically, approach the 'abyss of history' (Paul
Valéry, Abgrund der Geschichte)? For me personally this
was only possible through a chorus of different
voices trying to enter into a dialogue with each other: explaining
historically, arguing, desperately questioning, clamoring and accusing,
struggling for truth, pleading for reconciliation and hopeful for the
In order to demonstrate the magnitude of this evil, however, the hate-filled disdain, prejudice and cynicism in the statements of the perpetrators had to be included as well – difficult though this sometimes was. This method seemed to me the most appropriate means of approaching a past of such calamity, for which, in the end, there can be no complete explanation.
The division of the book into separate thematic points of gravity and the introductory headings for a large number of the quotes are meant to help with orientation. Thus I have chosen the order of the texts so that they can speak for themselves without commentary. Like little stones in a mosaic the individual thoughts join together creating clearer continuity. Nevertheless, the fundamental problem remains that statements taken out of their original context are never completely immune to misinterpretation. But perhaps one or the other word may encourage the interested reader to dig a bit deeper, whereby I refer to the bibliography.
This collection was initially intended only for private use. That it has now been published is due to some pressure from friends, whom I want to thank for their encouragement.
I would especially like to thank my longtime friend Petr Abeles, through whom I have learnt to look at the present topic from an often completely different angle over the many years of our friendship in many, at times controversial, discussions. This book is therefore dedicated to him and to his uncle, Erwin Katz, who was separated from his three older sisters as a 10-year-old boy during the selection on the evening of May 20, 1944 in Auschwitz and that same night together with his parents was sent to the gas chambers to be gassed.