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"An outstandingly crisp, coherent account of Hitler’s rise to power." —Sunday Telegraph
"Brilliant oral history." —The Daily Telegraph
Laurence Rees: Just fine. Though I have just got off a plane from London, so it is midnight to my body at the moment!
Laurence Rees: In terms of people I met, I was most shocked by the Lithuanian man who killed Jewish men and women for the Germans -- and I was shocked because he shows no remorse. In terms of documents, I think the most important find was the entry in Himmler's newly discovered desk diary that shows he discussed "the Jewish Question" with Hitler in December 1941 at the Wolf's Lair. Himmler writes that the Jews were to be "exterminated as partisans." What this document does is tie Hitler in unquestionably with the Holocaust.
Laurence Rees: This is a huge question. But I kept most in my mind whilst making the TV series and writing the book the words of the German-born philosopher Karl Jaspers, himself persecuted by the Nazis. He wrote: "That which has happened is a warning. To forget it is guilt. It was possible for this to happen and it is possible for it to happen again at any minute. Only in knowledge can it be prevented." I would like to think it couldn't happen again, but events in Rwanda, the former Yugoslavia, and many other countries offer scant grounds for comfort. As for what all this tells us about what human beings are capable of, I remember what one history professor said to me: "No genocide in history has been stopped because of a lack of willing executioners."
Laurence Rees: Of course what is happening in Germany is worrying, but not nearly so worrying to me as the potential for trouble in the former countries of the Soviet Union. Whilst I was filming in Lithuania, for example, a local came up to me and said: "You're a journalist, aren't you? Well, let me tell you you're missing the big story. What's important isn't what we did to the Jews -- it's what the Jews did to us!" Just like the Nazis, I met people in Lithuania whose corrupt logic said, "The communists did terrible things to us, and we all know that the Jews were behind communism. They must take the blame!" The tragedy is that more than 50 years after the end of the war, rampant anti-Semitism is alive and well in the minds of people like that.
Laurence Rees: I think it would have made it impossible for those apologists who wish to say Hitler knew nothing of the Holocaust to have any case at all. The problem historians had was that Hitler was always careful never to have an incriminating document about the Holocaust with his name on it. This doesn't mean he wasn't behind it all -- he was. The Himmler diary entry is the closest document yet directly linking Hitler with the order to kill the Jews.
Laurence Rees: My father fought in the war, and my uncle was killed on the Atlantic convoys -- sunk by a U-boat -- so I grew up with a fascination for the conflict. But what got me really interested in the story of the Nazis was a film I made some years ago about Goebbels. The more I met people who knew him, the more my preconceptions changed. For example, we interviewed an elderly man who had been Goebbels's own press attaché. We asked him, "If you could describe the Third Reich, as you saw it, in one word, what would it be?" He thought and then answered, "Paradise." Ever since, I've been trying to understand how it was possible for this hateful regime to have been so popular.
Laurence Rees: It was deadly serious -- and it was not an isolated statement. Several people expressed similar views to us. I would sleep easier if it had been a one-off.
Laurence Rees: The problem, I feel, is that movies like "Schindler's List" (which I thought a marvelously moving piece of work) are in danger of making the Nazis look as if they were somehow utterly alien. That's why we interviewed so many Nazis ourselves to prove they are human beings. Human beings did all this. The fact is that a majority of Germans in 1933, in voting for parties that were openly opposed to democracy, actually voluntarily voted democracy away. Equally, a majority of Germans in the mid-1930s approved of the Nazis. The Nazis were not a small group of weirdos -- they were the established government of a cultured nation at the heart of Europe. That should be the starting point in our thinking about this period, and so showing the Nazis as strange and unfathomable is not a help. Indeed it's a danger, because if they are seen as so strange, then people will feel there is no danger of history repeating itself.
Laurence Rees: Something unique happened in our century: One man authorized the mechanized extermination of an entire race. I think that is what the 20th century will be most significant for. I have still not got over my visits to Treblinka, the Nazi extermination factory. I feel that the images of Auschwitz we are all familiar with have caused a confusion in people's minds. Images exist of Auschwitz because the camp was a work camp as well as an extermination center. Somewhere like Treblinka is just a field today, because all the Nazis did there was commit murder. Ninety-nine percent of those who arrived were dead within three hours of arriving -- men, women, and children. No selection, just mass murder. I remember one of the tiny handful of survivors said to me, "I was in the camp and yet still I couldn't believe what was accomplished here." To me, and it's a desperate comment on what it is to be a human being, Treblinka is the most significant statement of the century.
Laurence Rees: No, not really. I am constantly amazed at the human capacity to justify oneself. The number of former Nazis who have said to me, for example, "Oh, I stayed in the Nazi Party because I was working for change from the inside!" Or (and seriously, this was said to me by a former Nazi when I pressed him about the Holocaust and asked why he wasn't filled with remorse): "Okay, I accept that things got out of hand toward the end." Got out of hand! Hitler's favorite actress (and she, to be fair, wasn't a war criminal) said something to me about Hitler that I think about a lot in the context of this question. "I know now all the terrible things Hitler did," she said, "but the problem is, I can't accept it -- you see, he was always terribly nice to me!"
Laurence Rees: Thank you all very much for asking such interesting questions. This is my first online chat, and I've really enjoyed it. I only wish I had been able to deal with all the fascinating questions that have come in. Thanks again!
Posted April 5, 2005
This book will defintly make you take a step back. The author is able to provide short litte autobiographies of Jews, Nazis and someone in between to see their point of view.It really puts it into persepective the brutal treatment that many were faced. Besides providing short autobiographies he provides much of his own thought to the story too. He is able to capture many details by providing many different point of views. Making you want to learn so much more in this part of history.
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