I want to conclude with a few words about why I thought it appropriate to subtitle this work ‘a new history’, together with some reflections on the challenges of writing about the Holocaust. As anyone who has just read this book will appreciate, this is not a straightforward history to explain. Surprisingly perhaps, it is not made easier by the word ‘Holocaust’ – a word which originally meant ‘burnt offering’ or ‘sacrifice’ and only came to be associated in the popular consciousness with the extermination of the Jews relatively recently.
In the first place there is no universal agreement about what precisely the word now signifies. Is it confined to the murder of the Jews, or can it refer to any genocide? Was Genghis Khan’s treatment of the Persians a Holocaust, for example? But there’s an even bigger issue, which is that if the Holocaust is restricted just to the extermination of the Jews we risk not understanding the breadth of the murderous thinking of the Nazis. That is because the murder of the Jews should not be taken out of the context of the Nazis’ desire to persecute and kill large numbers of other people – for example, the disabled via the euthanasia actions, or millions of Slavs via a deliberate policy of forced starvation, and so on. Not just that, but the Holocaust as we know it was implemented around the same time as another wide-ranging murderous scheme was under discussion – the General Plan for the East. This plan, which the Nazis were only prevented from pursuing because they were defeated, would have resulted in the death of tens of millions of additional people.
None of this is to say, however, that any of these other initiatives was analogous with the desire of the Nazis to exterminate the Jews – for hatred of the Jews was always at the core of Nazi thinking. So, against this background, I have taken the word ‘Holocaust’ to mean the Nazi persecution of the Jews, culminating in the implementation of a desire to exterminate them, but I have also accepted that this crime cannot be understood unless set into a broader picture.
You might ask, legitimately enough: if I have issues with the word why have I titled this book ‘The Holocaust’? In part it is simply to acknowledge that this is what the crime is now called and trying to call it something else would not be helpful for the reader. But, more significantly, I think the word is appropriate here because it reflects the fact that the extermination of the Jews was a crime of singular horror in the history of the human race.
I know that last sentence will provoke debate. Indeed, I have taken part myself in many lively discussions about whether or not it is possible to point to some kind of ‘singularity’ about the Holocaust or whether it has to be considered as just one ghastly atrocity among many in history. Ultimately, though, I agree with the late Professor David Cesarani who, in conversation with me a few years ago, put the claim for the special nature of the Holocaust eloquently: ‘Never before in history, I think, had a leader decided that within a conceivable time frame an ethnic religious group would be physically destroyed, and that equipment would be devised and created to achieve that. That was unprecedented.’1
Another important issue to consider, when writing about the Holocaust, is the role of eyewitness testimony. I have benefited from meeting hundreds of people who experienced this history personally and – not surprisingly, you might think – I believe that their testimony is of enormous value. Indeed, there is an almost existential point to be made about the advantage of meeting people and questioning them about their experiences. It is that while you talk to these people the history still lives.
It is the presence of this testimony in the book – most of which has never been published before – that was one of the key reasons that I thought I should subtitle the work a ‘new’ history. In particular, not one word from any of the interviews conducted for my most recent project, Touched by Auschwitz – with Halina Birenbaum, Giselle Cycowicz, Max Epstein, Ida Grinspan, Hermann Höllenreiner, Tadeusz Smreczyński and Freda Wineman – has previously appeared in book form.
I was privileged to be one of the last generation that could access the history of this period in this way. In fact, I was fortunate in two ways. The first was that when I – together with my TV production team – started to meet former Nazis twenty-five years ago, they had mostly just retired from their careers so they no longer felt constrained by their employers from speaking freely, yet they were still young enough not to be beset by the vicissitudes of old age. The second was that the fall of the Berlin Wall meant that we could travel to the countries of eastern Europe and the former republics of the Soviet Union, and interview eyewitnesses who had never previously been able to speak freely about their wartime experiences. As a result, we were among the first to access this important primary material.
I have always believed, however, that it is vital to look at every source with a certain amount of scepticism. As a consequence, I believe that the safeguards we all took in researching and filming this eyewitness material were second to none. I have written elsewhere, in detail, of how we approached this difficult task2 and of the way in which, for instance, we checked wherever possible that each interviewee’s story was consistent with documents of the period. It was a long and laborious process, and if at the end of it we had any misgivings about the authenticity of a potential interviewee’s testimony then we never recorded the interview.
In the course of our researches we also discovered that even after a considerable number of years people could often still recall crucial events in their lives extremely powerfully. I think we can all recognize the truth of this. The example I point to from my own life is the death of my mother nearly forty years ago. Although I could not tell you what I had for lunch on a specific day just a couple of months ago, I can still recall in intense detail the manner in which my mother died. One event was insignificant, the other life changing.3
There were, of course, special factors that we had to consider when interviewing survivors of the Holocaust. One of the most crucial was always to remember that the survivors of camps like Auschwitz, Sobibór and Treblinka did not represent the normal experience of those who were sent there. The normal experience was to be murdered. So we cannot, of course, speak to anyone who suffered the fate of the majority.
I also thought it important to write about the Holocaust only after I had been informed by the geography of the crime – and this is another area in which I hope this book offers something different. I believe I benefited hugely from the insights to be gained by visiting the places where these events took place. I will never forget, for example, the experience many years ago when my friend Mirek Obstarczyk, one of the talented historians working at the Auschwitz museum, took me round every one of the locations across Auschwitz main camp and Birkenau where the Nazis committed mass murder using Zyklon B. I visited these sites with Mirek in the chronological order in which the Nazis used them as killing locations: from the basement of Block 11 in the main camp to the crematorium by the SS administration offices; from the site of the Little Red House and Little White House in a remote area of Auschwitz Birkenau to the remains of the massive crematoria/gas-chamber complexes that emerged at Birkenau only in 1943. Experiencing first hand this geographical progression helped me to understand the conceptual journey the Nazis took at the camp – something I hope I have conveyed in this book.
I found it just as valuable to visit hundreds of other locations associated with this history: from the site of the death camp at Sobibór, where the branches of the trees blow in the wind and the sense of isolation is total, to the vast expanse of the semi-circular roll-call area at Sachsenhausen concentration camp outside Berlin; from the ruins of Hitler’s military headquarters at what was Rastenburg in East Prussia to the killing fields of Belarus and Ukraine.
It is also possible, of course, to combine the insights to be gained from physical geography with those you receive from meeting eyewitnesses. Some of the most memorable moments of my working life have been when the two have coalesced. I remember, for example, filming a man in Belarus who had been forced to walk with other villagers down a road the Nazis believed was riddled with mines. German soldiers followed a safe distance behind them, waiting for these human mine detectors to be blown up and render the road safe. Luckily for him, he made it to the next village alive. We filmed him at the very place where this happened, and his interaction with the landscape was extraordinarily moving as he showed us how he had tried to deal with one of the most terrible dilemmas imaginable. Should he step on what he believed was a mine and be killed, or walk around it and risk one of the Germans who were following standing on it instead? If one German soldier had been killed by a mine, the surviving Germans would have murdered all the villagers at once. Die by a mine or die by a bullet – that was the choice he thought he would have to make on that remote road in Belarus. Fortunately for him, he did not see any mines in front of him on that terrifying journey.
Equally, I must add, I would not want this work to rely solely on oral testimony, which is why the book also draws on many speeches, diaries and documents of the time. My aim was to weave all this material into an examination of the decision-making process of the Holocaust, informed by the immense amount of outstanding scholarship conducted in this area since the war.
Over the last twenty-five years I have read many astonishing Holocaust memoirs and a number of insightful academic histories of the crime, but I have not come across a general work that sought to combine both the emotional power of first-hand interview testimony with an analysis of the machinations of the Nazi state in quite the way that I intended here. Hence my hope that, in this respect too, the book is something of a ‘new’ history.
During the last quarter of a century, in conversations with many of the world’s leading academic historians, I have seen the intellectual landscape shift. When I started out, opinion was largely divided between intentionalists – who pointed to Hitler’s key role in the decision-making process and who argued that he might well have intended to kill the Jews for years before the Holocaust – and functionalists – who believed that the best way of understanding what happened was to look at the complex interaction between Hitler and a multitude of outside forces. Over time, fewer and fewer serious historians took the intentionalist position and the debate shifted among the functionalists to an attempt to identify the precise moment when we can say the Holocaust was decided. I have heard many different dates suggested. Some believe that the key decision was taken in July 1941, others in October 1941, still more in December 1941 and a few even assert that it was as late as the summer of 1942. More recently the debate has moved away from the attempt to find a single point of decision and instead to identify a number of different moments when Nazi anti-Jewish policy intensified.
I was never convinced by the intentionalist argument, nor was I fully persuaded by the attempt to point to one moment of decision. From quite early in my interaction with this history I had seen how some people had decided that, because the crime of the extermination of the Jews was so horrendous, it must have been orchestrated and planned at one monumental moment. But it seemed to me that this was a mistaken leap. As I hope this book demonstrates, the journey to the Holocaust was a gradual one, full of twists and turns, until it found final expression in the Nazi killing factories.
Finally, although the contents of the book you have just read are distressing, I believe it is still important to understand how and why this crime happened. For this history tells us, perhaps more than any other, just what our species can do.