Political correctness has permeated the historian’s craft to such a degree that honest historians must reinvent the wheel. PC has infected German history in particular. The doctrine of German “collective guilt” is often held as a precondition for German good behavior. Established historians in the US, England, and especially Germany must assume their subjects’ general wickedness since at least the 1871 unification. The German Republic’s leading social theorist, Jürgen Habermas, has argued repeatedly that viewing Germans as less than responsible for all of modern European history’s major catastrophes is “pedagogically dangerous.”
Habermas seems unconcerned with what the father of modern technical history, Leopold von Ranke, gave as the historian’s true function: describing the past “as it actually occurred.” He is quite happy that Germans learn half-truths and even total fabrications, provided these make them aware of their sinfulness and therefore willing to atone. Such self-loathing will also make Germans eager to give up their tainted national identity and become members of a world community (whether or not one really exists). Certain untruths have an apparently salutary character, and all the major German political parties now accept Germany’s sole responsibility for both World Wars and the positive role of Stalin’s armies in “liberating” their country from “fascism.”
Basic to this self-flagellation is having Auschwitz serve, in a former German foreign minister’s words, as the “founding myth for the German Federal Republic.” One must believe that not only did the Third Reich murder millions of Jews, but that Germans of all classes and regions happily cooperated. The most extreme form of this accusation is found in Daniel Jonah Goldhagen’s Hitler’s Willing Executioners (1996), released in Germany as Hitlers Willige Vollstrecker. The book was a German best-seller despite its insubstantial or invented evidence, a fraud methodically dissected by Jewish critics Norman Finkelstein and Ruth Bettina Birn in A Nation on Trial: The Goldhagen Thesis and Historical Truth (1998). Still, Goldhagen conducted book tours among the descendants of those he indiscriminately trashed, bringing mass displays of smarmily repentant German sinners.
Not all books about what Germans supposedly knew about the Holocaust and what they did to assist it are as tacky as Goldhagen’s work. The more respectable formulation of his thesis goes like this: The Nazi extermination of the Jews was an “open secret.” No German administrator or military officer was supposed to know “state secrets” unless they pertained to his assigned function. While any violation of this restriction would be met with severe punishment, the secret was not as well kept as Germans would have their conquerors believe. Jews could not have been removed, we are told, without their non-Jewish neighbors knowing they would suffer a horrendous fate wherever they were taken.
The now received view preaches that there was anti-Semitism in Germany going back many centuries. It notes that in the interwar period, nationalist parties urging the exclusion of Jewish citizens received many votes. There is something else that anti-German historians now emphasize but which they may exaggerate: the occasional breakdown of the distinction between the Waffen SS Einsatzgruppen—which rounded up and murdered Jews, Poles, and Russians—and Wehrmacht soldiers who were simply fighting a war.
Just about every Anglophone historian writing on the Third Reich is now arguing that the Holocaust was mostly the work of regular German soldiers. The complaint of “Holocaust minimizers”—that the numbers of prisoners killed in death camps has been inflated—now seems acceptable. But historians such as Tim Snyder and Richard J. Evans have turned the argument around: It wasn’t necessary to transport Jews to death camps to kill them because so many soldiers were rushing to do the dirty work. They depict the Holocaust as a public-works project, fueled by sympathy for Hitler’s “Final Solution.”
This view has become so prevalent among antifascist Germans (there is no other kind now permitted) that in public demonstrations and lavish exhibitions the average Wehrmacht soldier has been turned into the major perpetrator of Nazi murders. On these occasions young people come forth to tell us that their grandfathers or great-grandfathers were most certainly mass murderers. These penitent descendants seem to hope their ancestral nation will soon disappear.
It is against this background of lunacy that Alfred de Zayas, a retired high official from the UN Commission for Human Rights, has released Völkermord als Staatsgeheimnis (Genocide as a State Secret, 2011). Zayas has authored other controversial works that go against the prevalent leftist grain. Among his earlier studies are heavily documented examinations of Eastern Europeans’ organized murders of Volksdeutsche(ethnic Germans) after the Second World War, as well as the postwar agreements that greased the skids for these crimes. Zayas’s works are all painstakingly documented, and his latest study is based on thirty-five years of interviews and a laborious sifting of sources. The author fine-combed the records and testimonies of the Nuremberg Trials in 1946-47 and interviewed surviving “war criminals” including Albert Speer and Admiral Karl Dönitz, the Nuremberg prosecutors, and former war prisoners of the Nazis.
Records from the Wehrmacht Office for the Investigation of Violations of International Law indicate an official willingness to investigate reported crimes against civilians. There is nothing to suggest that these investigators knew about Hitler’s Final Solution. When they received reports about “unwarranted” shootings of civilians in occupied areas, they prosecuted the offenders. Even the judges assigned to the Waffen SS were often in the dark about the Einsatzgruppen’s mission, and sometimes they launched inquiries into reports about mass murders taking place in the east. Even the regime’s enemies—ranging from anti-Nazi aristocrats associated with the Resistance, to persecuted Social Democrats (such as the partly Jewish family of former Chancellor Helmut Schmidt), and even former concentration-camp inmates—had no idea of the Final Solution. According to the official story, Jews were being “relocated” and would be employed in “work divisions” outside Germany. Although this forced evacuation caused some concern among friends and neighbors, what was happening did not look like the beginning of genocide.
The most obvious reason for this is that secrecy was strictly observed. The Holocaust was planned by a small circle meeting outside Berlin in January 1942. In addressing his SS subordinates in Posen in 1943, Himmler boasted about how well their secret was being kept. Other factors worked to keep the secret from getting out: The death camps, as opposed to generic concentration camps, were located in the east, not in Germany. Then from 1943 on, German civilians were subject to Allied bombing and had to protect themselves while enemy forces overran them. In this situation it was unlikely that a war-weary German would wonder about a “relocated” Jewish neighbor’s fate.
Even foreign sources, which were mostly available as radio transmissions, had little to say about the murdered Jews, and being caught using these sources could land the offender in a concentration camp. Germans who found out about the murders couldn’t do much to stop them, since divulging the secret to a government official could be deadly.
Ironically, Zayas confirms findings about the Holocaust that came out of the Nuremberg Trials. Although these trials were planned to make Germans feel ashamed of their country, the judges did not declare all Germans to be complicit in the Holocaust. It was assumed that the mass extermination of Jews was a carefully guarded secret. Very few of those put on trial were sentenced to death or to long imprisonment for planning to murder Jews. Even the prosecutors believed what Zayas tells us concerning knowledge of the Final Solution. Admittedly there were isolated instances of Wehrmacht units participating in the shooting of Jews and other civilians, particularly in Kharkov and elsewhere in the Ukraine. But those were treated as special cases and not seen as typical of Wehrmacht behavior.
It speaks volumes that Zayas—who echoes the post-War, Nuremberg Trial view of who knew what about the Holocaust—is now regarded in some circles as a German apologist. From the warped perspective of today’s German intelligentsia, their country’s post-war humiliation can never go far enough.