By Nolan Weber
It was 67 years ago this past May that most of the world received news of the nature and extent of brutality in Nazi Germany. The most infamous of these revelations was the understanding of Hitler’s ethnic and political cleansing: the Holocaust. Yet, for as instantly recognizable as the Holocaust is, its history often manifests itself in misconceptions, underplayed realities and embellishments of fact. Consequently, to both commemorate and understand this frightening reminder of what lies dormant in the most vile recesses of humanity, I sat down with Susanne Hillman, Ph.D. She operates the Holocaust Living History Workshop at UCSD, lectures on European History and specializes in the history of the Jewish-German identity.
PROSPECT: Which Jews would have been more able to evade persecution in Germany? Did class play a role?
DR. HILLMAN: First, those who left early, those who realized the gravity of the situation right away. After Hitler came to power in January 1933, about a third of Germany’s Jews left. Another third left after Kristallnacht, the great pogrom of November 1938. Until that time, it was easiest to leave because the Third Reich had an active interest in getting rid of its Jews. After 1938 it became more difficult. With respect to class, the vast majority killed were of the bourgeoisie, so no clear class distinction can be made. However, if you were an artist or writer or more politically in tune, then I suppose you would be more likely to leave.
PROSPECT: Some historians think the Jewish Holocaust was planned in advance, others think it occurred via convenience. Which side do you find yourself agreeing with more?
DR. HILLMAN: First of all, I wouldn’t use the word convenience–rather, contingency. That would be the functionalist perspective, which sees the Holocaust as a result of power struggles and the increasing radicalization of the elite. Evidence for this view comes from the fact that the Nazis tried several different approaches in regards to the Jews before actually murdering them: emigration, relocation, etc. There is much that makes this view convincing. On the other hand, I think ideology or the role of Hitler cannot be discounted. Most historians today would agree that Hitler’s role in the Holocaust was pivotal and that he harbored a genuine and eventually genocidal hatred. I think one needs to combine the two perspectives to get at a fuller picture of why things happened the way they did.
PROSPECT: What, in your opinion, is the biggest misconception people have regarding the Holocaust and why?
DR. HILLMAN: I would say – and I know that some would consider this a controversial assertion – the biggest misconception many people have is that the Holocaust “only” claimed the lives of Jews. The way I teach it in my courses is this: what we call the Holocaust claimed the lives of roughly 12 million people, including 6 million Jews, at least 3 million Soviet POWs, many Poles, Gypsies, etc. The key thing to realize is that antisemitism was merely the most important part of a comprehensive racial and racist vision. Once we approach the Nazi state as a racial state espousing a “racial project” it becomes clear why it not only targeted Jews but also ethnic Germans and others considered either unfit or subhuman.
PROSPECT: What would happen to half-Jews? Quarter or Eighth-blood Jews?
DR. HILLMAN: Well, half-Jews were considered Jews according to the Nuremberg Blood laws. So-called Mischlinge sometimes had an advantage because their non-Jewish relatives might make an attempt to intercede for them. Incidentally, Jews in mixed marriages, i.e. Jews married to Christians, also had an easier time than full Jews. They often ended up in “Jew houses” where they weren’t safe by any means, but they did have more of a chance at survival. In this context the case of Jews who had converted to Christianity is also interesting. Some church leaders clearly viewed the persecution of someone who had been baptized as inadmissible, but by Nazi law these people were still “racially” Jewish.
PROSPECT: Did any Jewish communities suffer more than others? Why?
DR. HILLMAN: Europe-wide the Jews who suffered most were those in the East; Poland, Ukraine, the Soviet Union. In Lithuania, for example, about 97 percent of all Jews were wiped out. The reason why Jews who lived in the so-called Bloodlands, i.e. the area roughly encompassing the Baltic states, Belorussia, Ukraine, and Eastern Poland suffered more than Jews elsewhere was that this area changed hands several times, i.e. it switched between the Soviets and the Nazis. Moreover, the non-Jewish inhabitants of the area previously occupied by the Soviets had suffered a lot already by the time the Nazis arrived, and they tended to vent their bitterness by colluding in the killing of Jews.
PROSPECT: What about the Jewish Holocaust has allowed it to be known universally as the Holocaust, whereas other holocausts need clarification?
DR. HILLMAN: You presumably mean, what has made the Holocaust the paradigmatic genocide, right? I can think of several reasons. Number one, it was the work of the supposedly most civilized nation in Europe. That the people of Schiller and Goethe could do such a thing simple seemed and still seems inconceivable. Number two, the very fact that the Germans proceeded in such a methodical and systematic way, with such cold rationality if you will, makes it doubly horrible. I think this combination of a high level of civilization and a single-minded devotion to doing a thorough job makes the Holocaust different from, say, the Rwandan genocide (though I’m certainly no expert on this). There’s yet another factor, which might be called the Americanization of the Holocaust. For reasons that are too complex to go into, several decades ago the Holocaust became a significant factor in American life. Hollywood has done its share to propagate the Holocaust, which certainly hasn’t been the case with Cambodia or Rwanda. Then there’s the American Holocaust Museum in Washington, D.C., and the fact that school children get exposed to the Holocaust.
PROSPECT: What can you say about Jewish resistance movements and efforts during this era?
DR. HILLMAN: Before I say anything about this, I’d like to point out that I have never understood the blame heaped on Jews for supposedly going like sheep to the slaughter. The Nazis pursued a project of extermination that simply could not have been anticipated in the 20th century. I think we need to broaden the concept of resistance and to view concerted attempts to survive also under the rubric of resistance. Some people, for instance, fled into the forest and joined the partisans. Or, a large number of inmates of the Sobibor death camp staged a breakout. These acts constitute resistance in my mind. As for a genuine movement, for various reasons there wasn’t any, unless you count the Warsaw ghetto uprising as the result of a “movement.”
As for resistance efforts there were, in the East, there were a number of partisan groups who resisted by fleeing into the forest and saving as many Jews as possible. Some scholars do not consider this resistance because they did not directly engage the Nazi Army; but I believe it to be because they were actively resisting the Nazi agenda. However, some would go so far as to classify singing Jewish hymns into the gas chambers resistance. This is more an assertion and maintenance of one’s humanity than resistance. So that is a line I would draw regarding what qualifies as “resistance.”
PROSPECT: Why do you think the Nazis were so methodical in how they tabulated deaths? Were they methodical, or is this a misconception?
DR. HILLMAN: A difficult question. Yes, absolutely, they were terrifyingly methodical. Whether this was just the result of the proverbial German efficiency, I can’t say. There’s something almost obscene in this obsession with numbers. Incidentally, now that I think of it, I had the feeling of this obscenity of numbers when teaching the Holocaust before. There’s always the danger of getting lost in numbers–33,000 murdered at Babi Yar, so-and-so many hundreds of thousand gassed at Treblinka–but we need to remember that every single one of these people was a unique human being with a life story. Partly to get away from the “curse of numbers,” I am so happy that UCSD has access to the Visual History Archive, a database of about 52,000 survivor and witness interviews launched by Steven Spielberg. It really is history come to life, and the more testimonies you watch, the more you realize that every story, every tragedy was unique and special.
PROSPECT: If the Jews of Europe had not exterminated by the Nazis, what might have happened to them?
DR. HILLMAN: Well, it’s very difficult to say. You have to remember most Jews were in Eastern Europe — Poland, the Soviet Union. Most still lived in a traditional way at the time they were exterminated. Knowing that the Soviet Union was atheist, their way of life might have disappeared anyway. In the German case, it would have been much, much better for German culture. Germany lost a whole generation of writers, scientists and artists. If there had been no Holocaust, I say it would be doubtful that Israel would not have come into existence, although there is no historical consensus on this issue.
Image Courtesy of Gregg Vaughn