Wednesday 21 December 2022

Laurence Rees on the perpetrators of the Holocaust: “What they told us was, at the time, they felt it was the right thing to do”


An interesting insight into the Holocaust is provided here by Lawrence Rees, who became a historian of the Holocaust after he made the remarkable TV series The Nazis: A Warning from History. He was asked if those involved in the Holocaust still felt many years later when he interviewed them that they could justify it morally?

'Yes, and this is one of the reasons I’ve carried on with this subject for 25 years. You dig and dig and dig and you can’t get to the bottom of it, because often you don’t expect the responses you get. If you talk, for example, to former members of the NKVD (Stalin’s secret police), who were involved in the horrendous deportations of Kalmyks or Chechens or Crimean Tatars, in the most part what they’ll say is: “If I didn’t do it I would have been shot.” And it’s very hard to go somewhere in an interview after that. But what was extraordinary about all these former Nazis is that I don’t think we ever heard that answer in all the years we were doing this. What we tended to hear was at the time they felt it was the right thing to do.'
'Does this not make Holocaust denial even more ridiculous, when the perpetrators themselves don’t deny it?'
'It does. One of the amazing things about Oskar Groening is the reason that he gave us an interview on camera. He was really upset at his stamp-collecting club when he came across a Holocaust denier and it almost felt to him like an attempt to deny his own experience. He said: “Don’t tell me it didn’t happen – I was there.” He spoke out because he was against Holocaust denial!'

Groening's recentish testimony to Lawrence Rees and then in court is a strong argument against people who think inmates at Auschwitz were not killed in gas chambers. 

He was called by the press “The Accountant of Auschwitz”. I linked on here to his account of his time at Auschwitz and said how normal he made Auschwitz sound. Someone accused me angrily of saying Auschwitz was normal and I took down the post. The internet is a minefield.

Groening was a keen stamp collector. At his stamp club's annual meeting, 40 years after the war, he fell into conversation with someone who said that a million people could not have died in Auschwitz, which led to him going public with his story. He said his message to Holocaust deniers was:

I would like you to believe me. I saw the gas chambers. I saw the crematoria. I saw the open fires. I would like you to believe that these atrocities happened, because I was there.

Gröning was in not way directly involved in the killing but was put on trial and convicted. Wikipedia has the story here.

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