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Evil and the upright citizen

German historians are documenting the persecution and extermination of the Jews in 16 volumes of primary source texts - with no recourse to dramatisation or hindsight. By Eckhard Fuhr

It's worth paying a visit to the Jewish Museum in Berlin this coming Sunday to hear Jutta Lampe, Angela Winkler, Wolfgang Häntsch and other actors reading a selection of newspaper articles, private letters, administrative decrees, conference protocols, letters of protest, draught laws and official reports. The texts were all written between 1933 and 1937 and concern an event that later came to be known as the "persecution and extermination of the European Jews by Nazi Germany 1933-1945."

This is also the title printed on the first of the 16 volume edition of primary source texts which has been commissioned by the German Federal Archive, the Institute of Contemporary History in Munich-Berlin, and the Chair for Modern History at the University of Freiburg, and which will be published over the next ten years. Alongside Horst Möller, the director of the Munich institute and the Freiburg professor Ulrich Herbert, the editors include Götz Aly, whose book, "Hitlers Volksstaat," about the connections between pacifying the populace and racial politics provoked an ongoing debate. (see our feature "I am the people")

The first volume, edited by Wolf Gruner, is out now. Its 800 pages contain 320 economically and precisely commented documents in strict chronological order from the years 1933 to 1937 as well as an introduction that summarises the history of German-Jewish relations and of anti-Semitism since the 19th century. The volume dispels the myths of Holocaust historiography, in particular the teleological concept that Auschwitz is a consequence of a particularly German path. This is dealt with succinctly: "There is no doubt that as of 1938, the Nazi state also mobilised Christian anti-Judaism which had grown over centuries and nationalist ressentiment which had developed in the 19th century, and also in the annexed and occupied countries throughout Europe. Yet it is wrong to assume that a special, particularly malicious strain of anti-Semitism had become engrained in Germany which had been headed towards Auschwitz for a long time." This however makes it even more difficult to explain the collapse of civilisation.

The volume gives voice to a choir of voices from a time in which few people had even so much as thought of expelling let alone killing off the Jews. But this choir shows that in a civilised nation civil coexistence can be dismantled without the majority intervening. It is a good idea to allow this largely unspectacular evidence to be spoken in human voices. When presented with the hell of the death camps the only reaction is horror. But in a society the disfranchisement and social isolation of a minority is brought about by actions, neglect, and behaviour which even today everyone can understand. Evil enters the world through the most respectable channels.

In keeping with this insight, the editors forgo all dramatisation. Even in the selection of the texts, care was taken not to break the horizons of the participants. There is no retrospection. No one who is given a say is any wiser than they could have been in 1933-1937; no one assesses the events in the light of later experience.

Leafing through the documents many an incident seems odd at first. Take the letter from the chairman of the "Association of Budgerigar Fanciers" in Hanover dated 23 August 1933, which informs the Reich's minister of the interior that "on the 29th of June this year the association has been brought into line with the intentions of the national government." He encloses the new statute which stipulates that non-Aryans be barred from becoming members of the association. Furthermore, "as a employee of the National Socialist newspapers," he encloses an article "which also demonstrates my strict National Socialist sympathies." The chairman of the association was a certain Johannes Schräpel, bookseller and writer, who emerged shortly after WWI with a volume of esoteric poetry titled "Ewigkeitssucher" (eternity seekers) and who published widely on ornithology, as well as the folklore of Lower Saxony. He did not officially join the party until 1937.

The evasiveness of his letter of confirmation which combines the announcement that he has conformed to the new order with a sideways glance at personal interests is typical of the time. Attempts by individual businessmen for example to get rid of the Jewish competition are nothing unusual. Like the metal dealer, Fritz Schünemann who proposes to the lord mayor of Munich not to sell scrap metal to Jewish companies. However radical the Nazi party was in its demands, initially at least it frequently met with resistance from administrative bureaucracy. There is even evidence of something that might be termed defiant civil service pride against the brown revolution. In September 1935, the German state railway instructed its departments to override instructions to put up anti-Jewish signs ("Jews not wanted") on state railway property. There are examples of professors speaking up for their students. ("I have known Fräulein Dr. Kohn for 23 years and together we survived the revolution of 1918. As for her political leanings, I can confidently say that she is as anti-Marxist now as she was then,") but there are also cases of outright denunciation.

In a letter to the Nazi civil service department dated 1933, scientists at the Potsdam Observatory describe their colleague and former colleague also of Albert Einstein, Erwin Finlay Freundlich, as an 'anti-nationalist Jew offspring" and demand his removal from office. Finlay Freundlich soon emigrated to Turkey. The Jews in Germany reacted to the rapid march of marginalisation with withdrawal, self-help or emigration. The assimilated middle classes of doctors, lawyers and salesmen found it particularly difficult suddenly to see themselves as belonging to a minority obliged to defend its interests as best it could. Not all German Jews had the clear political view which the newspaper the "Jüdische Rundschau" formulated in its editorial on 31 January, 1933: "As Jews we must face the fact that a power hostile to us has taken over governance in Germany."

Illusions that all this Hitler stuff was a passing phase which Jews would be able to sit out, soon dissipated. This drove some to leave the country and others to rediscover their Jewish identity. The early years of the "Third Reich" saw a - forced - burgeoning of Jewish clubs and associations. The decision to go or to stay also depended not least on people's experiences in their immediate surroundings. "Seen from the point of view of Auschwitz," the editors write in their introduction, "a tragic insight opens up: the more openly anti-Semitic the 'Ayran' neighbours, customers, and co-workers were at the beginning of Nazi rule, the faster the victims were able to take the decision to flee and ultimately save their lives. If their Christian acquaintances and friends were friendly and helpful, the persecuted were more likely to opt to stay, thus cutting their chances of survival dramatically."

Seen from the point of view of Auschwitz, this bitter pill tells us, the yardstick of moral judgement is shattered and enemies of Jews inadvertently save Jewish lives and friends of Jews become their gravediggers. But seen from today's horizon behaviour it is possible to identify and judge decency and malice, courage and cowardice, empathy and indifference. And all of these elements were present in the early years of the persecution of the Jews in a ratio which gave no hint of future genocide.


Book details: "Die Verfolgung und Ermordung der europäischen Juden durch das nationalsozialistische Deutschland 1933-1945"
Volume 1: Deutsches Reich 1933 - 1937
Oldenbourg Verlag, München 2007
ISBN 3486584804 / 59,80 EUR

This article originally appeared in German in Die Welt on 25 Januar 2008.

Eckhard Fuhr is the chief editor of the feuilleton section of Die Welt.

Translation: lp

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